look, a cute kangaroo …
One of my first jobs back in the early 1990s was as a wine waiter in an Australian 5 star restaurant. The extensive wine list was dominated by Australian wines, particularly up-and-coming producers in the Western Australian region. The restaurant sent me on many wine courses run by notable wineries and I became quite passionate about Australian wine in general.
The Aussie producers at the time were mostly small family affairs with many immigrants amongst the mix. These immigrants had brought wine-making knowledge from their home countries. But in the late 1990s something unforeseen happened – Australian wines took off in Great Britain and soon became the wine of choice for that market. The wines were affordable, good quality, and lacked the snob factor. If you arrived at a function with an inferior French wine that was a serious social faux pas. But nobody had a clue about Aussie wines so you were always onto a winner.
The Australian market exploded and producers couldn’t export the stuff fast enough. They couldn’t make it fast enough either. It was thus inevitable that the overall quality would take a hit but on top of this there was the added attraction of these family producers for large corporate conglomerates. These business behemoths wanted to get in on the act and they began buying up the medium size producers at a rapid rate. An industry that had only 15 years earlier been dominated by small family-run wineries had been completely turned upside down. And now it was run by bean counters.
From 2001 – 2011 I lived in Italy. When I first arrived I was an Australian wine snob. I assumed that Italian wines were inferior to what we produced at home. I lived in the Trentino region in the Italian alps which has over 400 wineries, the vast majority being small family-run affairs. In this region alone there are also half a dozen grape varieties that are unique to the area. I began to find work with them and I made several overseas trips with various wineries as a translator on their marketing tours. I also worked for several years at the famous Italian wine fair in Verona known as Vin Italy, the largest wine fair in Europe.
For many years I drank extremely well and extremely cheaply. A good everyday drinking wine could be had for under 15 euro. Then in 2011 I returned to Australia for the first time in over a decade. I was looking forward to drinking some Aussie wine again. What I discovered was a rude shock.
If I could say one thing that categorizes Australian wine now it is the homogeneous nature of the wines. They seem to be constructed to some scientific pattern as well as being a showcase for winemakers to show off to award judges. They are high in sulphate content and preservatives and often taste like a glass full of woodchips. Interestingly just a few glasses will give you a noticeable headache the following day.
But the most extraordinary change is the price. They are outrageously overpriced for their relative quality. For $50 I can get a good everyday drinking Italian wine in Australia. For something even remotely comparable you’re looking at double that price, and even then it will still have massive structural issues. The industry is a complete mess. The wines are mediocre swill. It is a far cry from the promise shown 25 years ago.
The great export boom of the late 1990s was the worst thing that could have happened to such a fledgling industry still trying to find its feet. Without the grounding of many generations of winemakers to support them, producers expanded too quickly or else they took the cash from the large chains. Added to this is the most bizarre fixation with constructing wines specifically to win awards in wine competitions. While the wines may well tick all the boxes that judges steeped in science seem to want they are not user-friendly by any means.
Now I drink only European wines. There is just no comparison. It’s sad for me to do so but I cannot stand the local battery acid masquerading as plonk. If you live overseas and you’re tempted to purchase a bottle of Australia wine, do yourself a favor and don’t.