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Raising the Bar – Australian Wine in the Last Decade

Wines Of Now
22 December 2021. Words by YGOW.

70 Years of Australian Wine with Vintage Cellars, Part 7: the 2010s

The 2010s followed on from a very turbulent decade for Australian wine, one where huge growth was matched by an equally large downturn, and all against the backdrop of a withering drought and the Global Financial Crisis. When the 2010s rolled around, the drought broke, and things started to look up. A focus on better farming, matching climate-apt varieties to the right sites, and the exponential growth in wine-centred venues all had a major impact in the decade as the industry got healthy again, and a whole lot more diverse.

In this final instalment of a seven-part series produced in collaboration with Vintage Cellars – 70 years of supporting wine in Australia – we look at some key trends for Australian wine in the 2010s: the institutional big red trophy that found interest in cool light reds, the growth in organic wines, the proliferation of alternative varieties, the rebirth of grenache, the new emergence of a wine bar culture and natural wines… It was an exciting decade, where Australian wine was never better.

The list of Jimmy Watson trophy winners from 2011 to 2015 tells somewhat of a tale of the decade, a bit of an archaeological record for changing tastes. It not only reflects a shift of consumer tastes, but it also illustrates a shift in the show system. From the inaugural award in 1962 until 2013, all the winners were shiraz or cabernet-based wines, and sometimes a blend of the two. The winner in 2011 was a shiraz, but the wine broke the style lineage that had held sway over the years.

The Jimmy Gets Cool

That wine was the 2010 Glaetzer-Dixon Family Winemakers ‘Mon Père’ Shiraz. The translation of the cuvée name (my father) is a tribute to Nick Glaetzer’s father, Colin. The eponymous family winery has become a bastion of the Barossa, where Nick’s brother Ben makes powerful but composed styles, and there’s a bit more family history, too.

Colin Glaetzer’s identical twin brother, John, has four Jimmy Watsons to his name. He famously took out a hattrick of wins for Wolf Blass from 1974–76, with the last coming in ’99. The Watson-winning wine made by Nick Glaetzer, though, was quite unlike those made by his father, uncle and brother, and that had as much to do with intent as it did origin. Moving to Tasmania in 2005, Glaetzer was pursuing a more elegant, cool climate expression of the grape, as well as dipping deeply into riesling and pinot noir – the latter his main motivation for being on the Apple Isle.

When Glaetzer’s spicy and elegant expression of shiraz took out the Jimmy in 2011 – in the award’s 50th year – it had some gasping, but most welcomed the shift from the dominance of powerful red wines to also celebrating those more fragrant but equally compelling and layered. Much of the commentary at the time was positive, with the occasional good-natured jibe about being disowned for stealing the Jimmy from South Australia’s clutches.

Opposite: Glaetzer-Dixon 'Mon Père' Shiraz and the Jimmy Watson trophy. Above: Nick Glaetzer.

And Even Cooler…

In 2009, the foundations had perhaps been laid, with the Canberra District’s Eden Road taking out the award with a more refined wine, but the Tasmanian wine was different again, cool fruited, evocatively spicy and much more of a departure. It would be the following year that the controversy really started. From a cold and drenchingly wet vintage, Best’s took out the Jimmy with their 2011 ‘Bin 1’ Shiraz. Not only was that wine an entry-level one, but it was pale, fragrant, spicy and under midweight. Now that caused a storm of criticism, as well as plenty of cheers, as the stranglehold appeared to have been broken.

When Tom Carson took out the following year’s trophy with his 2012 Yabby Lake ‘Block 1’ Pinot Noir, the course of the Jimmy had been irreconcilably changed. For such an institutionalised award, it also reflected how much had actually changed in the marketplace.

Jimmy Watson, the man, was a groundbreaker, a pioneer who had changed the way people drank, from catering almost exclusively to older drinkers taking their fortified ‘fourpenny darks’ in his Carlton wine bar in the 1930s to building table wine, most that he bottled and matured himself, as a drink of choice for regulars into the ’60s. But the award had become somewhat less receptive to the advancement in wine culture that Watson likely would have applauded. It was the opposite of the canary in the mine, in other words. When the Jimmy changed, the world had already changed.

Much of that change had to do with the maturity of the cool climate mission, with so many regions around the country having vines of a meaningful age and growers and makers with enough of a survey to really understand their sites and their localised conditions. Pinot noir had asserted itself, especially in Victoria and Tasmania, and consumers were eagerly onboard. But there were other changes that were beginning to bite, too.

Opposite: viticulturist Melissa Brown at Gemtree vineyard in McLaren Vale. Above: Dr Irina Santiago-Brown, whose PhD research into sustainability formed the basis of the Sustainable Australia Winegrowing Program.

Organic Growth

There was a growing movement of makers returning to simpler ways of making wines, with a strong focus on vineyard health and an eye to broader environmental issues. The savage drought that had presided over the 2000s no doubt had some influence on this, with grape-growers needing to find ways to make do with a lot less water. That saw many move away from a traditional ‘bare earth’ type of monoculture, rather employing cover crops, mulching and only irrigating in a very targeted way. An uptake of organic methods also helped to increase the water-holding capacity of the soil.

In McLaren Vale, the adoption rate of organic and biodynamic farming amongst grape-growers is perhaps the greatest in the country, with over 38 per cent of vineyards now certified under either discipline, and many others in conversion or practising but not certified. It is an extraordinary achievement, and a major water deficit from the drought was part of the motivation, as it was for a wastewater reclamation project that will mark the Vale as arguably the country’s most sustainable, with over half the irrigation employed coming from recycled water.

With larger vineyard holders like Paxton (140 hectares) and Gemtree (125 hectares) fully converting to biodynamics, one of the myths about that style of farming was firmly busted. It was always said that larger holdings couldn’t be converted successfully, that it was a small grower’s game. To underline that, by the end of the decade Angove had almost completed the conversion of their 500 hectares to organics.

Today, the Vale is becoming even more sustainable, and they have influenced other regions, too. In 2009, the McLaren Vale Grape Wine & Tourism Association working with Dr Irina Santiago Brown set up the Sustainable Australia Winegrowing Program (SAW), which judged environmental, economic and social sustainability. The program saw growers sharing information to assess sustainability against their peers, which became the basis for ongoing practices. Over 70 per cent of vineyard land in the Vale was monitored under the program’s decade in practice, then it was used as part of the template for a national program that operates under the Sustainable Winegrowing Australia banner.

A Variety of Alternatives

Although this country started with a treasure trove of grape varieties, most famously those imported by James Busby in the 1830s, we ended up focusing on a relatively small selection. The dominance of noble French varieties wasn’t exactly broken in the 2010s, but those grapes were meaningfully accented with co-called alternative varieties (try telling an Italian that sangiovese is an alternative variety!) coming strongly on stream.

Busby had imported cuttings taken from French and Spanish regions, which were planted in the Sydney Botanic Gardens. These were not well tended to, and many died, though he planted 350 or so on his Hunter Valley property and many others were propagated around the country. Indeed, it was not uncommon to plant many vines in new sites to determine what worked best, as is evidenced by Best’s Concongella 1860s Nursery Block that has about 40 varieties co-planted and still productive.

But while there are still curios out there, the reality is that most Australian vineyards ended up being occupied with shiraz, grenache, cabernet sauvignon and the like. Grenache was king for a time, then it was swallowed by shiraz, riesling rose, then quickly fell, chardonnay gobbled up the market and has stayed hungry, pinot noir pushed its way in and continues to grow. So, there have been changes, ebbs and some flow, but the grapes are firmly those most noble of French ones. Until now.

While some of Italy and Spain’s key grapes have been present for several decades, many others have only really gained a foothold in the past two decades. For Italian varieties, the Chalmers family have played a key role as growers, makers and as a source of vine cuttings. Outside their own label, from their vineyards in the Murray-Darling and Heathcote, the fruit is sold to makers large and small, and the vine material is planted across the country.

Opposite: vermentino grapes at Chalmers vineyard. Above: nero d'avola vines at Ricca Terra vineyard.

Key to the Chalmers program was adapting to a changing climate, with many of the varieties suited to warm and arid conditions. That has seen many planted to the river-hugging regions in Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. Growers like Ricca Terra Farms have gone long on ‘alternatives’ with Italian, Spanish and Portuguese grapes proving to be very successful, where things like shiraz are increasingly seen to struggle.

Across the border from the Chalmers family, Ricca Terra’s Ashley Ratcliff became a tireless champion for these varieties and also the Riverland region, proving that it was capable of making high-quality wine both under his label and as a source of fruit from some of Australia’s cutting-edge makers. Ratcliff took out the Groundbreaker trophy in the inaugural 2020 Young Gun of Wine Vineyard of the Year Awards, recognising his innovative approach.

There is little doubt that those grapes – such as nero d’avola, fiano, touriga nacional, arinto… it’s a long list – will be a prominent part of the future of Australian wine, and not just because they survive the heat. Many of the varieties thrive in hot and arid conditions and still make fresh midweight wines, more in line with today’s tastes, with rich blockbusters getting much less airtime these days.

Opposite: the Chalmers family – foundational partners in the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show – through their vine nursery, are responsible for the recent proliferation of Italian grape varieties in Australia. Above: Ricca Terra Farms in the Riverland.

An Italian Connection

The new variety push wasn’t just about hot-climate cultivars, either. Indeed, in Victoria’s cool north-east some key Italian varieties were already well established, with the Pizzini and Dal Zotto families being notable growers and makers. Those two families would also lead the way with one of the decade’s fastest growing categories: prosecco.

Prosecco is still a blip compared to our dominant grape varieties, but the tonnage harvested increased fivefold between 2015–19, with the grape entering the top ten white varieties in the country. It also proved to be a relatively valuable grape, even if the wines are often very accessibly priced, with King Valley fruit achieving more than double the average price across all grapes.

Prosecco is now grown in 11 regions, but it is in the King Valley where it is most prolific and most celebrated. With over half the national plantings, growers in the King Valley have established a ‘Prosecco Road’ to promote both tourism to the region and their sparkling wine, though their use of the grape name is being challenged. In 2009, Italian officials sought to exert naming rights by changing the official name of the grape to an old synonym, glera, to protect the Prosecco DOC(G)s in Italy’s north-east.

Australian makers aren’t willing to give up on the name, though, especially given that is the historic name for the grape and they believe they have acted in good faith. One thing’s for sure, unless those wines are repackaged as glera, they won’t be sold into the EU. That may not be the biggest obstacle, with Australia’s  off-premise sales of both imported and domestic prosecco increasing by 100 per cent between 2017–19 to be the 11th largest grape sold by value. Two-thirds of those sales were for Australian wines – perhaps motivation enough for Italy to flex its muscle.

Opposite and above: vineyards of the King Valley.

Everything Old…

The 2010s also saw a rekindled interest in some grape varieties that have been neglected if not entirely forgotten. Grenache perhaps best exemplifies this, with makers relooking at what used to be Australia’s most planted grape variety when fortifieds ruled the roost in the first half of the 20th century. Grenache took an awful tumble, though, and many vines were grafted over or ripped from the ground, only in the last few years is it being planted again, with the value of the fruit from the best vines in the Barossa and McLaren Vale becoming sought after and quite valuable.

Taras Ochota won the YGOW Award in 2013 with grenache being one of his two exhibited wines. Likewise, Luke Growden (Year Wines) won the Best New Act in 2015 with a grenache, and Rob Mack of Aphelion won the Best New Act in 2017 before taking the Young Gun of Wine in 2018 – with grenaches both years.

Aphelion Wine's winemaker, Rob Mack
Opposite: Rob Mack. Above: Taras Ochota at the Young Gun of Wine Awards.

Picking earlier, backing off on the oak and employing whole-bunch and whole-berry fermentations, new expressions were teased out that emphasised red fruit, spice and florals, with tannin derived from skins and stalks rather than new oak.

McLaren Vale makers like Bekkers, S.C. Pannell, Thistledown, and Yangarra, as well as Barossan producers like Turkey Flat, for example, started to take the grape very seriously, where once it was seen as secondary to shiraz and made in much the same way.

A similar thing is happening in the Swan Valley, with old grenache vines starting to get the attention they deserve. Over in the Swan, chenin blanc is also seeing a bit of a renaissance, while old workhorse grapes like carignan and cinsault are showing signs of a revival in the Barossa.

Opposite: Cirillo Estate in the Barossa have some of the oldest grenache vines in the world. Above: grenache vines at Smart vineyard in McLaren Vale. The esteemed vineyard site which is a fruit source for the likes of S.C. Pannell and Thistledown.

Small change

There were also changes in the way many of us drank, or rather were allowed to drink in the 2010s. While Melbourne had happily bult a reputation as a European city with a strong café culture, it had also forged a culture of small bars, with many famously hidden in city lanes. While Sydney was all conspicuous beauty and sunshine, Melbourne was full of surprises, and wine and cocktail bars were proliferating. In Sydney, you needed to sit in a restaurant to get a decent glass of wine, unless the local pub had a good wine program, and few did.

That all began to change in 2008 when licensing laws in New South Wales allowed for small bars licenses to be granted, breaking the stranglehold pubs and clubs had fought so hard to maintain. The change was late in coming, but once the gates were open, a wealth of exciting venues streamed into Sydney during the following decade. That piece of legislation gave wine bars wings, forever changing Sydney wine culture for the better.

Opposite: Gerald's Bar in Melbourne's Carlton North. Above: Dear Sainte Éloise in Sydney's Potts Point.

And while it is easy to focus on Sydney and Melbourne, the 2010s saw wine bars and wine-focused venues increase in other capital cities, with Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth booming – the latter driven by a mining-led influx of cash – and the formerly sleepy cities of Launceston and Hobart – with Hobart’s fortunes significantly raised by MONA (founded 2011) and its associated festivals – becoming significant food and wine destinations.

And it wasn’t all in the cities, either. The Adelaide Hills, Beechworth and Daylesford, for example, all intensified their wine and food offering, while major regions upped the ante, with some of Australia’s finest restaurants making their names in wineries in the prominent wine regions like the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Margaret River and the Hunter Valley.

Opposite: MONA created an immense gravitational pull that raised the fortunes of Hobart in Tasmania as a food and wine destination. Above: The Summertown Aristologist in Adelaide Hills opened as a mecca for natural wine.

Natural Wine

The last decade was also one where natural wine became a big deal, and Sydney fell for it arguably more heavily than Melbourne, with many of those newly minted small venues singing its praises. It was a movement that had been brewing the decade prior, inspired by the makers who had set the framework in 1970s France. It became a significant theme of the 2010s, inspiring as many drinkers as it repelled.

Natural wine became known as a style. Which it isn’t. Skin-contact whites, pét-nats, unfiltered whites, whole-bunch reds, eccentric blends of red and white grapes may fly the flag, but the movement is about farming without chemicals, then adding nothing bar only a minimal amount of sulphur, and only at bottling, and sometimes none at all. No commercial yeasts, no enzymes, no acid adjustments. Nada. However, many early wines that were cast as natural were not even made from organic fruit, essentially falling at the first hurdle. Others, of course, followed the mantra to the letter.

Natural wine may be the term we use regularly, but many of the wines under the banner fall into the lo-fi or minimal intervention winemaking camp, while there are many makers who turn out classically styled wines that are indeed natural due to certified organic/biodynamic farming and no additives except sulphur, and some with none at all – including recognised names such as Yangarra and Cullen.

Above: viticulturist Michael Lane and winemaker Pete Fraser at Yangarra vineyard in McLaren Vale. Opposite: amphoras at Cullen in Margaret River.

Whether truly natural or not, the influence of lo-fi winemaking had a profound effect on drinkers in the 2010s, with many younger wine consumers more familiar with those wines than they are with what would be regarded as classic styles. The pendulum has swung back a little, though, with established wineries toying with skin-contact white – or orange/amber wines – and the like, while many of the early mavericks have refined their processes and the best wines now happily sit alongside those more classic.

Whatever the philosophical approach, the 2010s saw makers focus keenly on the individuality of their wines, reflecting their viticultural methods, the uniqueness of the blocks they work from and their approach in the winery. It was a time when people started to take notice, too, with notable attention given to Australia’s less-famous producers by international critics, such as Jancis Robinson MW. Australia’s reputation for making reliably decent generic wine, as well as some major and very expensive icons, was increasingly being accented by the work of creative smaller makers, and a new identity for Australian wine was being forged.

An Era of Promise and Adaption

The 2010s was arguably a decade where we embraced wine more than any other, with the wealth of wine-centred venues – from drink-in bottle stores to restaurants with lists from the eclectic to the encyclopaedic – increasing all around the country. It was a time when organic/biodynamic farming really took off, and many winemakers embraced a lo-fi approach. It was also a time when our varietal mix exploded, with adaptions to a warming climate creating a diversity of wine in the market that consumers eagerly lapped up. It was an era when exports began to climb again, closing in on matching the peak of 2007, and it was a time when small makers really found their voice and the world started to take notice.

The journey of Australian wine over the last 70 years has been an immensely rich if not always smooth one. Thunderous booms have been followed by near terminal busts, but the industry has always continued to grow and prosper. From the 1950s when table wine was a mere accessory to fortified wine production, to today, where makers both large and small are placing vineyard first, caring for their immediate and the larger environment to make better wine from the ground up. And that wine has never been more diverse, with a raft of less-known varieties meaningfully on stream and ones that have been neglected or made in a narrow stylistic band undergoing an exciting renaissance.

Australia has built a reputation for making quality wine on a large scale by harnessing technical knowledge, but its reputation for making wines of truly exciting regional and site-specific character has never been stronger, and from makers both large and decidedly micro. It’s been a journey that has shaped the wine landscape as we work our way through the 2020s. And it’s a journey that Vintage Cellars has been a part of, every step of the way.

“VC has maintained its core values from the first store opened in 1951, inspiring customers with quality, fine wine, and supporting local producers,” says Vintage Cellars Brand Manager Jack Denson. “We take the brand’s values instilled for the last 70 years and make subtle changes to maintain relevance with the market, ensuring the brand is always ahead of the curve in meeting and exceeding the customer experience when shopping for their favourite bottle.”

Jack Edwards and Sir Edward Hayward opened Vintage Cellars when fortified wines were king, with a firm belief in not just table wines but also varietal wines and those of place. That foresight was vindicated, and the vision continues, with a keen eye to today’s evolving tastes. “There’s fantastic change in the wine landscape to ‘drinking better’, with a growth in premium, local, small batch and new and emerging varietals,” says Denson. “There is also a ‘foodie’ explosion driving a change in the way customers drink– a move to more refined styles that complement the many different flavours in Australian cooking.”

Australia has built a reputation for making quality wine on a large scale by harnessing technical knowledge, but its reputation for making wines of truly exciting regional and site-specific character has never been stronger, and from makers both large and decidedly micro. It’s been a journey that has shaped the wine landscape as we work our way through the 2020s. And it’s a journey that Vintage Cellars has been a part of, every step of the way.

“VC has maintained its core values from the first store opened in 1951, inspiring customers with quality, fine wine, and supporting local producers,” says Vintage Cellars Brand Manager Jack Denson. “We take the brand’s values instilled for the last 70 years and make subtle changes to maintain relevance with the market, ensuring the brand is always ahead of the curve in meeting and exceeding the customer experience when shopping for their favourite bottle.”

Jack Edwards and Sir Edward Hayward opened Vintage Cellars when fortified wines were king, with a firm belief in not just table wines but also varietal wines and those of place. That foresight was vindicated, and the vision continues, with a keen eye to today’s evolving tastes. “There’s fantastic change in the wine landscape to ‘drinking better’, with a growth in premium, local, small batch and new and emerging varietals,” says Denson. “There is also a ‘foodie’ explosion driving a change in the way customers drink– a move to more refined styles that complement the many different flavours in Australian cooking.”

That change in our cultural landscape is neatly expressed by the new VC “concept stores” that very much reflect the times. “Some stores are now also offering customers the opportunity to experience our range in store,” says Denson, “with a ‘VC Wine Bar’ menu. Customers can enjoy a drink by the glass, matched with a cheese board and charcuterie, wine flights and more. The range and offering span brands we have always loved, to inspiration on the new and emerging, with dedicated zones for ‘education’ and ‘inspiration’. We have launched a dedicated zone in store for the ‘super-premium’ market, with rare and back vintage products, as customers are looking to trade up.”

The wine landscape has certainly changed, with the pendulum swinging to extremes. But, perhaps now more than any other time, there’s a balance where drinkers are engaged by Australian wine and hungry for more, and for ever-greater diversity. Vintage Cellars’ 70-year history spans the most influential developments in the industry, and it has grown and adapted in concert. And while there will no doubt be challenging times ahead, from time to time, the future of Australian wine is an incredibly bright and exciting one.

The Wines

2021 Chalmers Vermentino, Heathcote $28 RRP

There is an abundance of citrus here. Grapefruit and lemons are most prominent but there is also tangerine and bitter orange as well. The palate is very much crisp with these citrus fruits, but there’s also faint savoury and textural quality at play which brings further intrigue to this lighter style of easy drinking white wine.

Available from Vintage Cellars.

2020 Yangarra ‘Old Vine’ Grenache, McLaren Vale $53 RRP

The palish crimson colour belies the brooding nature of this wine. Fresh plums and raspberries, candied peel and dried dates couple with earthy and leathery notes. These continue across a plush and chewy palate, with great depth of fruit and length to the wine.

Available from Vintage Cellars.

2017 Glaetzer-Dixon ‘Mon Père’ Shiraz, Tasmania $65 RRP

This wine exhibits an earthy development to the dark and red shiraz fruits, alongside baked rhubarb, wild strawberries and tart raspberries. The palate is dense with earthy liquorice notes supporting the upfront fruit profile, supported by soft tannins and a cleansing acid line.

Available from Vintage Cellars.

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