27 Apr 2005
Albeit aimed at Slow Food’s Italian readers, Slowfood is a magazine that encompasses the world. Here we offer English-speaking readers a sample article from the latest issue, number 10.
Here we go again, the old editor has asked me to do another one of those tedious ‘wine guru predicts the future of wine’ features. Last time I did this, twenty years ago, I got it all terribly wrong. In my defence, no one could have predicted the radical changes that have subsequently overtaken Australian wine since then. Instead of pulling out the old crystal ball, let’s look back at the unexpected changes I called so badly back then.
After years of exporting chardonnay, shiraz and cabernet to the Brits, and then the Yanks, the wheels started falling off the Australian wine industry in 2005. Previous to that, Australia’s signature super ripe, high-octane alcohol, heavily oaked, fruit bomb styles had sold stacks of wine world-wide, while converting a whole new generation of non-wine drinkers at the same time. Unfortunately, as their sense of taste matured they turned their backs on Aussie gluggers en masse, shifting away from ‘beverage’ style wines towards styles they could drink more comfortably with dinner every night. Quite naturally they moved on to the more food friendly, lower alcohol, finely structured styles of Europe, North and South America, and South Africa. After the market completely collapsed, the Australian industry was forced to go back to the drawing board and rethink what kind of wine it really was best suited to produce.
Around the same time, water shortages and global warming kicked in, desertifying places like Barossa, Swann Valley, Murray, and the evocatively named, Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (formerly known as Riverina). This left the government little choice but to call a total ban on irrigation across the whole of Australia. In turn, this act forced the country’s wine producers to grow only grapes that would survive without artificial watering, regulations that were previously common only to Europe. Ironically, the hot climate friendly varieties Australia’s pioneers first planted back in the 19th century came back into their own: shiraz, mourvedre, durif, semillon, chenin, muscat and verdelho.
Vineyards in the Barossa, Mclaren Vale and surrounding regions were the first to return to their roots. Ripping out the last of badly misplaced chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, merlot and cabernet, these were systematically replaced with grapes that originated in the hotter parts of Southern France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Although old fashioned, thick skinned, naturally high acid white grapes like semillon and verdelho survived the cull, and have thrived since, the real white stars now are aromatically charged viognier, marsanne, roussanne, petit mansang, malvasia, xarello and grenache blanc. The few remaining stands of old 19th century, grenache, shiraz and mourvedre vines, as we all know, are reserved for purposeful blends that now out rank the greatest Chateauneuf du Papes. Unexpectedly, zinfandel’s rise has been the key to the Barossa’s successful re-entry into the quality end of American market. Once world famous for its now uprooted rieslings, the Clare has since gained respect internationally for its brilliant non-fortified Duoro-style reds made from thick skinned, inky dark, seriously tannic touriga naçional, genuinely Port-like ports and top flight madeiras based on razor sharp verdelho. The latter is especially important now that the last of Madeira’s verdelho vines were replaced with EU subsidised banana trees.
After realizing it was just too hot to grow pinot noir, the Yarra Valley grubbed up the last of its pinot and chardonnay and went back to growing cabernet and syrah like it used to in the 19th century. Following the Brown Brother’s pioneering plantings in the King Valley, the Yarra and most of the rest of Victoria, are now covered in Spanish varieties like tempranillo, mazuelo and graciano; Portuguese periquita and baga, and Italian stars like sangiovese, nebbiolo, montepulciano, barbera and whites like garganega and arneis.
Margaret River and Coonawarra realised any place capable of (over) ripening cabernet at levels above 13% was not really cool enough for that grape, so they turned to Austria’s blaufrankisch and Italian corvina grapes instead. Both regions are now world famous for their dried red-grape, Amarone styles. Ironically, the Italian’s, once famous for only drinking their own wine, have fallen head over heels in love with these and now lap up the lion’s share of production.
Sadly, the Hunter Valley finally gave up trying and sold all its vineyards off in the 2020s to satisfy retiring baby boomers’ insatiable desire for more golf courses. Although the government still requires a little semillon go be grown along south-facing fairways to produce Hunter Valley Riesling for historical purposes.
Of course, cool climate grapes like pinot noir, gris and blanc, gewurztraminer, riesling, albarino, gruener veltliner and sauvignon blanc left the mainland more than a decade ago. All have completely retreated to Tasmania and, of course, the newly federated Australian state of New Zealand.
Back in 2005 I predicted that all wine would eventually be organically grown, and the majority bio-dynamically so. Quite unexpectedly, the whole organic movement collapsed when GE vines were developed that not only eliminated the use of all pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, but completely eliminated the risk of phylloxera. It’s taken over a century and a half to find a GE solution, but now European vines no longer need to be grafted on to American roots. Lacking that interruptive graft, vines now sink their own roots into soil encouraging a more harmonious growth pattern. We now know that this was the main reason why the legendary pre-phylloxera wines of the early 19th century were so long lived and had such outstanding characters.
Funny enough, 2005 marked the year that Australasian wines went heavily into screwcaps. Which all of us wine writers had been blindly pushing as the great salvation for the wine industry. This misguided gamble — more than any other — locked in the nation’s international reputation for producing down market, lolli-water styles designed to impress newbie wine drinkers. Ironically it also marked the year when the cork industry finally cracked the horrible problems it had been having with TCA taint and bottle variation. So just as the rest of the wine world comfortably returned to cork or moved on to improved synthetics and new computer chip driven ‘Zorks,’ Australasia fumbled its potential to capture the quality end of the market internationally. Within two years, half of the producers in screwcaps dispensed with glass altogether and moved into aluminium cans and the other half were bought up by California’s megga-wineries to bulk out their innovative, supermarket driven ‘glass in a box’ packages.
Happily, all the turmoil of the past has offered up a silver lining. Everyone now looks back on that bizarrely interruptive period from 1970-2006 as the ‘great mistake.’ Australia simply lost its way trying to shoe horn grapes into regions that were too hot for their own good and then doctoring up the results in the winery to suit market driven styles. The crash of ‘06’ forced growers, who genuinely loved the vinous qualities of wine, into thinking about what grapes their land and climate really wanted to grow best. Now, in 2025, Australia is finally producing wines that rank up with the world’s greatest. Once again, just like it used to do in the 1890s, it is consistently winning gold medals in Parisian wine competitions.
Paul J. White is a wine writer from New Zeland
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