Never before has the wine world been so diverse. Literally in every stretch of land that is able to lend itself to the cultivation of the vine, one will find either traditionalists preaching a narrow road, or rebels breaking every rule. There are newcomers in the school of hard-knocks, and old-and-seasoned-souls striving with every vintage to do better than the year before. More often than not, it’s the methodical that achieve greatness with their planned, calculated, and almost machine-like consistency. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s the irreverent, the cocky, the brash, the tattooed.
The French are notorious for their rules when it comes to their national treasure = wine. Their system called the AOC (appellation d’origine controlee), is a government-run controlling agency, that rules it’s land, wineries, vineyard workers, and winemakers with an almost communist-like iron fist. They dramatically regulate almost every aspect of the agriculture by enforcing what varietals are planted, when and how much is pruned, and the final total crops production. And it doesn’t stop at the winery. The winemaker has very little choice as to how the wine is made. Any deviation to the yeast used, temperature, barrel, length of aging, etc., is forbidden. Now honestly, this is not me standing on a French wine bashing soap box. I’ve had the privilege to taste some stunning wines from France. I’m using this as an example – or to paint a picture if you will – of where fine wine was birthed, and to lay the groundwork for a much bigger picture. Honestly, the wine world has a huge debt of gratitude to France. Chile got their star “Carmenere” from Bordeaux, so did Argentina in the “Malbec”. The US got what we like to call “The King of Grapes” the Cabernet Sauvignon, again… from Bordeaux, France.
As the wine world expanded out of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece (we refer to this the Old World of wine) into places like South Africa, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, Australia, and yes… the United States (we call these the New World), the hearts and minds of creative and passionate people were expanding as well. These metaphorical questions were ringing like bells in the distance… ”Why should my art be censored? How can someone tell me the size of brush to use, or the color of paint on my palette?”
Throughout the evolution of wine, some projects didn’t work. Some were masterpieces.
One country that has virtually seen it all (in a very short time, mind you), is Australia. Australia is the only wine producing country in the world that did not start with indigenous vines. Australia’s star is what everyone knows as Shiraz, which is genetically the same grape from the Rhone area of France, called Syrah. While major export brands were ramping up their production, industry leaders were bragging about becoming the largest exporter of wine in the world. It seemed the pride of their accomplishment, was also their downfall. Huge supermarket brands, labeled the country as a whole as a bulk wine producer. People quickly forgot that fine wine from the Aussies was even possible, existed, or worth even trying. Dwindling sales, mixed with a brutal exchange rate (that did not favor the wineries), and you have a huge mess. Bankruptcy was the story of many, and the big boys like Yellow Tail and Pensfold, were buying them up and increasing production without missing a beat. Picture (if you will) fields of massive tanks and wine production facilities (imagine James Bond), mechanical harvesters that literally whack the vines with their arms until the fruit (and whatever else (rotten fruit, bugs, snakes, etc.)) falls off, homogenized recipes that are strictly followed to maintain vintage to vintage consistency, bottom lines, profit margins … I could go on. Even wineries like Henschke, Two-Hands, Clarendon Hills, Torbreck, D’Arenberg, and Molly Dooker played a part in the negative perception (to a degree) with the wine industry in Australia. They make some great wine (and some of them are extremely expensive), but they all ramped up ripeness (more sugar means higher alcohol) and got away from terroir (all the elements that give wine a sense of place).
Now cue a rustly bunch of gen-x-ers. We hate “the man”. We love tattoos. We are non-conformists. Stereotypes being true, we are lazy, party whenever possible, and do whatever we find ourselves doing… 100% pedal to the metal. In relatively small pockets of South Australia like Clare Valley, McLaren Vale, and Barossa (Margaret River on the west coast and the island of Tasmania are sweet spots as well), you will find small groups of boisterous, passionate winemakers, who affectionately refer to themselves as part of the New Australia wine movement. This revival is all about passion for where the wine came from – the site (vineyard), and balance (the perfect integration of fruit, earth, acid, tannin, sugar, and alcohol). They’re are using techniques like whole cluster fermentation, extended skin maceration, wild yeast fermentations, etc., and getting inspiration from some of the best wine areas in the world like Beaujolais, Rhone, Burgundy, Piedmont, and Sonoma. All this wine jargon basically boils down to “the little guys” making wines of personality, acid, energy, and grace. Not the slurpy, flabby shiraz we drank in college. I’m talking about elegance meets intensity. Rowdiness. Passion. People being creative and taking risks. No rules. No restrictions.