From the tasting team

Ned Goodwin MW on the style evolution of Australian wine

By Ned Goodwin MW

17 Feb, 2022

Ned Goodwin MW considers Australia’s shift away from big, overtly fruit-sweet wines to those where structure and texture are front and centre.

While on a trip to Australia, British wine writer Andrew Jefford once wrote: “The two things I miss most so far are red wines with a pH much over 3.5 combined with low [natural] acidity, and red wines with ripe, chewy, textural and flavoursome tannins; Australia as a nation seems to have abjured both.” This was some time ago, and while I largely agreed with his sentiment then, times have mercifully changed.

An aversion to the sort of structure (acidity and tannins, in basic terms) that occurs naturally in terroir-driven, less invasively crafted wines was too often obfuscated by an obsession with primary fruit and the sort of richly flavoured, bumptious wines that, back then, European producers were said to be unable to make. This was the Australian opus; a wine industry built from the ‘sunshine in a bottle’ bottom up. 
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If I want to eat a lychee, I'll go to the fruit store and buy one. Wine is about texture and bringing one back for a second glass.
Yet as Australia became too expensive to compete at the lower commercial end, and southern Italy, Spain and elsewhere came to own the space, we found ourselves at a crucial pivot. A brief flirtation with the fine wine world in the late ’90s to early ’00s fell flat. We were perceived abroad as a bipolar wine nation producing either ‘critter wines’ or expensive behemoths (with little track record) with oodles of fake tannins and added acid. Of course, there were many excellent Australian wines that challenged a stereotype that was as pervasive in New York as it was in Los Angeles and Tokyo (cities where I was working at the time). Yet these wines and their cooler climatic origins were promoted poorly in favour of the tried and true (no longer resonating, however, as so true). A crossroads had been reached. 
Economic reasoning determined that the premium space was our destiny. As did the litany of fine terroirs yet to be showcased. Yet the problem was that few customers thought of Australian wine as premium, and few producers were able to wean themselves off an obsession with pH and ‘fruit purity’. A show system that rewarded effete notions of perfection over personality, charm, drinkability and provenance was just as culpable.

Wine bottles and glasses of wine in front of a vineyard on a hot summer's dayThe Australian wine industry used to be built from the 'sunshine in a bottle' bottom up.

I recall a winemaker somewhere in France once telling me: “If I want to eat a lychee, I’ll go to the fruit store and buy one. Wine is about texture and bringing one back for a second glass." 

Andrew Jefford went on to say: “No other wine-producing country seems to have such a high percentage of wine made within relatively confined stylistic parameters.” He cited the sweet-sour nature of wines tweaked with added acidity and fake tannins. The proclivity, too, to finish reds in barrel precludes extended maceration on skins and the extraction of real grape tannin – tannins that confer a moreish savouriness and textural authority. It is these tannins, after all, that create poise, age-worthiness, ease of drinking and complexity over time, all intrinsic to the sort of high quality wine that we are increasingly producing.

Suffice to say, Andrew’s words were controversial as mine are likely to be. Thankfully, though, Australia has awoken. Stumbling to its senses, the country seems to have had an epiphany: great sites are the foundation of fine wines and in order to communicate their essence, substance must override style. Real structure, gleaned from the fruit that hails from these sites, is of the essence. It is a conduit to communicating the magic of place. Yet it is as important even farther down the tiers of pricing when site-specificity is no longer price effective. I would much rather have a wine with supple tannins that tone its flavours into a savoury mould at $30, than one of overt, sweet fruit and a clang of brittle additions.
Here are some wines of riveting textural persuasion, extracted properly, that made me reach for the third, fourth and fifth glass during recent tasting sessions for the Wine Companion:

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