Australia’s position as significant global wine producer is in the balance due to issues both under, and outside of, our control.
The Australian wine industry is at an important crossroads, with a confluence of global and local factors contributing to a degree of uncertainty like at almost no other time in the sector’s history.
Obviously, the China factor is significant, and while there are some who predict things will be back to normal in as soon as six months, nothing is certain.
The loss of the market as a result of massive retaliatory tariffs imposed by the Chinese government came at a time when the Australian wine industry could almost do no wrong.
The industry had gone from strength to strength during the preceding 30 years, driven by a strong global demand for the traditional sunshine-in-a-bottle style of ripe generous red wines, and by an emerging domestic market, with wine having become a fashionable and fundamental part of our enjoyment of life.
Unfortunately, many saw it lasting forever and planted significant vineyards to fuel the China demand.
Many of these producers are carrying big inventories of wine stocks and are trying to decide what to do with them.
To a large extent, Western Australia was protected from this by diversifying its markets and not putting all its eggs into the China basket.
Margaret River has emerged as the powerhouse of the past three decades, with wine excellence driving keen demand for varieties such as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay.
But other regions, too, started to develop their own identity.
Frankland River has come of age and the Swan Valley, which was being overrun by these newer areas in the early 1990s, has re-emerged as a significant producer of high-quality wines.
There has also been a significant shift in the styles we are drinking.
Back in the day, the staple varieties were cabernet sauvignon and shiraz, while the whites were a mix of chardonnay, which was still finding its own identity, some riesling and the emergence of the classic blend of sauvignon blanc and semillon.
Gradually, newer varieties started to emerge, and certainly in the past 10 years we have seen varieties such as sangiovese, tempranillo, vermentino and fiano.
And wine styles have changed.
In the 1990s, we still liked them big and bold, in the main.
Sure, there had been a brief foray into a lighter stye in the preceding 10 years, but these were horrible, green, bitter wines.
Wines now are being made with greater finesse and less reliance on massive overripe fruit.
Chardonnays are generally leaner and fine and far better with food while shiraz has been increasingly made into a more medium-bodied wine, often from cooler regions, and as a result is often being called syrah to reflect this difference.
And, of course, there has been a greater focus on sustainability, with less reliance on industry inputs and more emphasis on organics and biodynamics to achieve better soil and vine health.
But never mind trying to fill the void of China with newer markets; the giant shadow of global warming and its impact on where and how vines are growing is the next major challenge for wine producers around the world.
There have been many great WA wines of the past 30 years, but this week I have chosen three recent releases from producers whose wines have consistently been among the finest releases of those years.
Cullen Diana Madeline 2021 ($160)
This is a triumph for this vineyard in what was a challenging year. Low yields, birds and rain events all conspired to make things tough, but a rigorous biodynamic approach in the vineyard and later in the winery has resulted in a magnificent expression of a slightly cooler climate Margaret River cabernet. High-end florals on the nose with notes of violet and red berry overlaying the deeper blackcurrant concentration. The oak is well managed and integrated with the tannins firm and chalky providing the structure to support extended ageing. A worthy commemoration of family matriarch Diana Cullen, who would have been 100 this year.
Cellar: 35 years
Xanadu Reserve chardonnay 2021 ($120)
This was a vintage with some challenges, largely as a result of rain and resulting humidity. It meant the vignerons were busy getting the fruit to the sorting table in top condition. Thankfully, that has been done and the result is an exceptional wine. After handpicking, the fruit is whole bunch pressed and then 100 per cent barrel fermented in oak, 28 per cent of which was new. The fermentation occurred naturally with wild yeasts and, true to the Goodall style, no malolactic fermentation to achieve a high degree of varietal and regional purity. In the end, a selection of the best barrels makes it to the final blend. There are spicy grapefruit aromas with a little lemon curd. The palate is super intense and linear with a bright chalky acidity pushing it through to a very long finish.
Cellar: 15 years
Houghton Jack Mann 2020 ($180)
This is the pinnacle of the Houghton range. It comes from the famous Justin vineyard in Frankland River, where some of the state’s finest wines have their genesis. This is one of the most elegant and stylish of any ‘Jack’ released, yet there is no shortage of engine room grunt. Chalky iron filing minerality emerges from the dark fruits on the nose. The palate is seamlessly integrated with slightly gravelly, but fine, tannins working their magic. It is a pup now, of course, but there is great potential for extended ageing.
Cellar: 25 years
- Ray Jordan is one of Australia’s most experienced and respected wine journalists, contributing to newspapers and magazines over more than 40 years. In 2017 he co-authored The Way it Was: The History of the early years of the Margaret River Wine Region