In a sense, it’s easy to describe what has come before, but much more difficult to prescribe a future path. I speak as a consumer first and foremost, someone who is unhealthily passionate about wine and who hopes to gain much pleasure from it for the rest of my life. I care deeply about what I drink, not only because wine is bloody expensive, but also because, to paraphrase Len Evans, life’s too short for crap wine. I might amend this sentiment to reflect my own point of view, which is that life’s too short for wine that isn’t true to its region, and that isn’t made to engage deeply with its inherent potential.
It’s a truism that our only unique asset as a wine producing nation is our land. The same varieties exist all over the world, but there’s only one Yarra Valley, or Margaret River. The experiences of nations with a far greater history of wine production than our own inevitably tell us that, in the end, regions are what come to be identified with wine styles.
A lot of the work has already been done by our industry pioneers and current leading lights, and thanks to them we have a range of regional wine styles that ought to qualify as national treasures. Yet there’s still so much energy and experimentation underway, and perhaps this suggests a shared feeling that the best is yet to come. It may be that in many existing regions, we’re only just beginning to identify not only the highest quality wines at a broad level, but also how a particular style may vary based on sub-region, and which outstanding vineyards ought to be recognised as such through unique bottlings. Drilling down like this enables us to capture the variety and drama within each region in order to tell, and sell, this story to the world. It also enables us to hone our understanding of what works best in a given region, focusing time and investment in these wines instead of on wines that can only deliver mediocre outcomes.
As for an end state, if we regard the Old World AOCs and equivalents as the natural conclusion to centuries of experimentation with vareties and terroirs, then in order to achieve the same level of quality and renown, perhaps we need to take a correspondingly long term view. It takes time to identify the strengths of each region, what works and what doesn’t, especially if we liberate ourselves from the comfortable constraints of received wisdom around varietal definition and style. By all means look to the Old World for inspiration, but not for wines to emulate in a New World context. Instead, take the lessons around blending, terroir and appropriate varieties and put them to work in a uniquely Australian context. Most of all, identify the truth in a region, nurture these authentic styles, and ruthlessly cull the rest.
There are some challenges with a “region first” approach. From a commercial perspective, I suspect many consumers rely heavily on varietal composition when purchasing. It’s an enormous shift to start thinking in terms of regions, especially after years of marketing and indeed winemaking focus on grape varieties. Regionality is also inherently more complex. There are only a handful of commonly used grapes in the local industry, and it doesn’t take long even for newcomers to grasp the range on offer. Regions, on the other hand, are both numerous and hierarchical in nature. A deep view consists not only of a broad categorisation (“Barossa Valley”) but also sub-region (“Greenock Creek”) and even vineyard or plot. Perhaps the shift to a more regional focus will take a long time, and may require a degree of market maturity. But if we agree that a view of wine primarily in terms of varietal composition masks our unique strength — our regions — then it’s an inevitable, necessary change. It’s our opportunity to understand what Australian wine is really about.