Remapping Australian Wine
Food & Wine
by Ray Isle
February 10, 2014
Australia is arguably the world’s most dynamic wine region right now, says F&W’s Ray Isle, who spent weeks hopping between the Yarra and Barossa regions and found a new Down Under vision.
…everywhere I went on my most recent trip to Australia I found young winemakers haring off in all kinds of unexpected, creative directions. Some were intent on changing classic styles for instance, focusing on lighter-bodied, spicier, cool-climate Shiraz. Some were part of the burgeoning Pinot Noir movement, particularly in regions like the Yarra Valley and the Mornington Peninsula. And some were just heading for the far boundaries of the familiar, whatever that might entail alternative varieties, biodynamic agriculture, non-interventionist winemaking, you name it.
This innovative approach to Australian wine is still quite small. Australia produces more than 125 million cases of wine a year, and only a tiny percentage exists on the edge. Yet the renegade winemakers offer an alternative to the all-too-common style of technically tweaked, cosmetically perfect, utterly nice, anonymous Australian wines that fade from memory as soon as they’re gone from the glass (of course there are plenty of very good Australian wines, too, up to and including truly world-class bottlings like Henschke’s Hill of Grace Shiraz, Penfolds Grange and Grosset’s Polish Hill Riesling). The wines these mavericks make may only be a small drop in a very large ocean, but the influence they have is only going to increase.
The Rise of Pinot Noir
The desire for a more nuanced, balanced style of Shiraz is partly a natural pendulum-swing reaction to the robust, high-alcohol versions that were popular in the 2000s, but I think the awareness that a different style could succeed definitely owes something to the rise of Australian Pinot Noir.
Or make that the unlikely rise of Australian Pinot Noir. Not that long ago, it was easy to make an argument that Australia was the most significant wine-producing country incapable of producing worthwhile Pinot Noir. Vineyards were planted in the wrong places (a huge problem, given Pinot’s gift for expressing vineyard character), and often the wines were oaked to death. Equally often they were jammy and flat, a kind of lumpen approximation of the shimmering delicacy that Pinot Noir ought to have. These days, though, there are superb Pinots coming from a variety of Australian wine regions. But the heartland of Australian Pinot Noir, now that there’s enough of it to have a heartland, is Victoria, and particularly the Yarra Valley. I asked Yarra winemaker Timo Mayer why that was the case. He replied, “Because about 10 years ago a bunch of us woke up and asked ourselves, why aren’t we making wines we want to drink?”
Mayer, a German expat who’s been living in Australia for over 20 years, is only one of several extraordinarily talented Pinot Noir makers in the Yarra. Taken together, they’re producing some of the most impressive Pinot Noirs I’ve tasted recently, not just from Australia but from anywhere in the world.
Mayer himself is a cheerfully blunt character, his German accent spiced up with Aussie colloquialisms (he refers to his vineyard as “the bloody hill” because, he says, “it’s so bloody hard to farm the thing”). His wines, though, are subtle and nuanced. Mayer’s 2012 Yarra Valley Pinot Noir, for instance, is aromatic, transparent ruby in hue, and savory-spicy. It’s incredibly good.
Unfortunately, Mayer produces only minuscule quantities of Pinot Noir. Yarra winemaker Steve Flamsteed has greater reach though he makes only small amounts of the high-end Giant Steps wines, he produces over 20,000 cases a year of Innocent Bystander. That’s tiny by Yellow Tail standards, but it does mean that the wines are findable. They’re also unmistakably Yarra: fragrant, medium- to light-bodied, but surprisingly structured. “When it comes to Pinot,” Flamsteed says, “the Yarra doesn’t naturally do ‘big.’ Instead we do perfume and elegance.”