Alternative Grape Varieties in Australia ... in 1984

I will be upfront.  I love trawling through old bookshops.  And the things there that fascinate me most are old books on the history of Australian regions (towns and suburbs even), and Australian wine.  Read on if you are not yet reaching for the pillow.  In this case, for the princely sum of $12, I discovered the tome that is Len Evan's Complete Book of Australian Wine, first published in 1984, and reprinted in 1985.  Ok, 1984 is not that long ago, but it's not yesterday either.  Len Evans is a man that precedes my interest in wine, but has been described as a highly influential figure in Australia's wine industry, even the "Godfather of Australian wine".

So, what did such a distinguished and credible man have to say about Australian wine some 27 years ago?  Quite a lot actually: 791 pages worth.  And as I slowly dissected this book, I couldn't help but notice some highly interesting observations on some "alternative" grape varieties as they stood in Australia in 1984.  Here are some highlights of interest:

Barbera: "Despite its importance elsewhere, barbera is only a very minor commercial variety in Australia ... Unless fashions in wine consumption change, the potential usefulness of barbera in Australia will be restricted to blending."

Gamay: "Gamay has potential in Australia for making light, fresh, fruity-flavoured dry reds of a style that should readily find a place in the market - the true luncheon red, soft on the gums, easy on the stomach, and with a bouquet and taste of all things bright and beautiful."

Malbec: "The present area of malbec grown in Australia is about 500 hectares, of which two-thirds are located in South Australia ... The limited quantities of malbec wines made in Australia are of good quality, rich in colour and in tannin ... Here, it is mostly seen in blends with cabernet and/or shiraz".

Pinot Noir: "Most plantings are in South Australia (136 hectares).  In New South Wales there are 63 hectares ... The most famous pinot noir wines have been made in the Hunter Valley.  This is somewhat surprising, because the variety usually develops insufficient colour and produces thin wines when grown in such warm regions.  For this reason it has been most blended with shiraz, although amongst the few straight pinots made in the Hunter are some magnificent wines.  From its performance overseas, it would seem that pinot noir is more suited to cooler districts than the Hunter ..."

Sangiovese: "Sangiovese is a vigorous and productive grape that tends to produce neutral wines on its own.  Commercial plantings are negligible in Australia."

Pinot gris: "Pinot gris is not of commercial significance in Australia but interest is occasionally expressed in the variety ... In Europe it makes impressive deep, golden wines that possess a rich fruity flavour.  However, it has a low acid content and this could limit its usefulness here."

Sauvignon blanc: "Despite the importance of sauvignon blanc in France, it is relatively unimportant in Australia, the majority being grown in South Australia ... It has the inherent qualities to become far more popular than at present."

Australian wine clearly has substantially, and almost radically, changed in quite a short period.  Sauvignon blanc, pinot gris and pinot noir have all joined the mainstream in 2011.  Even the dullest cafe wine list has a pinot gris or sauvignon blanc listed on it.  Perhaps it is even confirmatory of that description.  Len was also clearly very prescient in relation to the rise of sauvignon blanc.  I wonder though whether it was anticipated that our neighbours in Marlborough would be the ones to take full advantage of it?

And then there's the comments about pinot noir.  My dozing head jolted as I read the words "Hunter Valley" instead of say, the expected Yarra Valley (or proximate region) reference.  Now, I have not had the benefit of tasting any Hunter Valley pinot noir based wines, nor the blends with pinot noir in them that Len refers to.  And I have heard that the description of "famous" may be accurate, as may be the description of their quality.  Nonetheless, it's fair to say that, with a couple of exceptions, the future of this grape in Australia has been in the hands of the Melbourne "dress circle" (read Yarra Valley, Macedon Ranges, Bellarine Peninsula and the Mornington Peninsula) and Tasmania for seemingly quite some time now.  And the climatic parallels between the sub tropical steaminess of the Hunter Valley and cold Burgundy, as Len alludes to, are not immediately obvious.  Pinot noir is also about as mainstream now as an unexpectedly lowered Victorian speed limit.

Sitting here in 2011, Len's comments about sangiovese were perhaps a bit tough in view of the good sangioveses now available from the King Valley, McLaren Vale, the Clare Valley and elsewhere.  If I have a criticism of sangiovese in Australia, it's that it still probably lacks a "defining" producer that unarguably produces a profound sangiovese wine.  Hopefully it will happen, as I can't wait.  Barbera too has escaped its possible fate as a blending wine, although it probably in fairness retains a much lower profile than sangiovese.

Gamay, despite Len's commendations and my own humble wishes, remains somewhat of a no-show in Australia.  There are a couple of good producers, and that's about it.  Bass Phillip is probably the best of them to my palate, and Eldridge Estate is another that I've tried that is quite good.  The potential remains seemingly unexplored, perhaps still restrained by the earlier marketing excesses and quality issues of Beaujolais Nouveau.  And finally, malbec?  My only surprise here was that there was already 500 hectares of the stuff in 1984 for a grape variety that still seems a bit "new" to me.

So, not bad reading for $12 ...
Wine Thoughts
April 26, 2011

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