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Wild Times on the River of Riesling

Wines Of Now
19 November 2021. Words by YGOW.

70 Years of Australian Wine with Vintage Cellars, Part 3: the 1970s

The 1970s were a time of great change, the social and cultural revolution of the 60s gathered pace, while technology took quantum leaps. It was a time when hair got longer, fashion got wilder and music got a whole lot more diverse. It was also a time of significant change for Australian wine. Bright and fruity white wine became a beverage of choice, the cask was perfected and popularised, shiraz was pulled out to plant riesling, and the now-dominant screwcap got off to a rocky start. It was a wild decade, but it helped shape the wine landscape that we now know so well.

In this third instalment of a seven-part series produced in collaboration with Vintage Cellars – 70 years of supporting wine in Australia – we look at Australian wine in the 1970s, the white wine boom, the seeds of a red wine revolution and the increasing influence of technology and progressive thinking.

The 1970s represent and unusual time in Australian wine, in that they were both a time of revolution and change and a period of some decline. That decline was both in terms of exports and a glut of red wine in the latter half of the decade when tastes dramatically swung to white table wines, with the backstop of fortified production no longer propping up red production quite so sure-footedly.

The diligent marketing work undertaken by the Australian Wine Bureau, which Len Evans had led since its inception in 1965, began to gain real traction in the 1970s. Fortified wines were beginning to gather the dust that many would associate them with lodged in the back of family liquor cabinets – perhaps only making an appearance at the Christmas table. The consumption of red wine increased but that was to be short lived, with regions like the Barossa soon heading for an existential crisis, while riesling crested a wave that was soon to dump it gasping on the sand.

Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Philip Laffer, one of our most distinguished winemakers, started his career in the late 1950s at Lindeman’s where he worked alongside Ray Kidd, who introduced refrigeration and steel tanks to help dramatically overhaul Hunter Valley semillon as a style. Laffer was interviewed about his life in wine back in 2002, with the recording retained by the State Library of South Australia as part of its oral history collection.

In the recording, Laffer lists three products that he thinks were pivotal in people drinking table wine over fortified wines and beer. The first was Leo Buring’s Rheingolde from the 1940s, followed by Colin Gramp’s Barossa Pearl (that fruity sparkling wine that led Buring to make a fizzy version of Rheingolde) in the 1950s. Those wines were entrees into the world of table wine, and though many dismiss them now, they were very important, and as Laffer says, they were also very well made.

And the third wine? Lindeman’s Ben Ean, that all-conquering phenomenon that was relentlessly advertised on television in the 1970s with a carefree Little River Band singing, “Who wants to be a millionaire? I don’t…” That wine was made by mistake in the 1950s, when a tank was not fermented to dryness, and the subsequent wine sold branded as ‘Moselle’ – a reference to the sweet wines of Germany’s Mosel Valley – to an eager reception.

Ben Ean grew in popularity in the ’60s, but it was in the ’70s that it really became the leviathan that would dominate the Australian wine market. “I think at one stage, at its peak, every third bottle of wine sold in Australia was Ben Ean Moselle,” said Laffer. “It was quite extraordinary, and the sort of phenomena that could never ever happen again.

“We tend to laugh about them nowdays and say that, well, they were sweet and they were this and that, but the fascinating thing was that all three of them were very, very high quality wines. Now, the fruit that went into them, the varieties … might have been gordo or sultana and whatever else, but the wines were remarkably well made. And that’s a legacy that I think has stuck with Australia all the way through.”

“I think at one stage, at its peak, every third bottle of wine sold in Australia was Ben Ean Moselle,” said Laffer. “It was quite extraordinary, and the sort of phenomena that could never ever happen again.

Cask Wynn

In 1971, David Wynn perfected that most iconic Australian invention, which would become synonymous with cheap-and-cheerful wine: the bag-in-the-box cask. Wynn wasn’t the first to conceive the idea, with both Angove and Penfolds debuting their versions in 1965 and ’67 respectively.

The Angove version was based on a design that was used by mechanics to store and dispense battery acid, with the corner snipped off and a peg used to reseal the bladder. The Penfolds iteration was a metal barrel-like contraption with a tap on the end, which consistently leaked. Neither device was an engineering success, though Thomas Angove’s idea of a plastic bladder in a cardboard box was an enduring one.

Wynn added a tap that ensured easy dispensing but also reliably stopped the ingress of air, effectively preserving the remaining wine. Wynn’s improved cask was a phenomenal success, and though many may associate the cask with inferior wine, those early wines were not made without an eye to quality – if not necessarily great character.

“When one talks about sort of the vin ordinaire that people in other countries around the world drink,” said Laffer, “it’s appalling wine that would never succeed in Australia. The sort of wine we put in casks in this country, other people put into bottles.”

Opposite: a bunch of riesling grapes. Above: the Angoves cask. In 1971, David Wynn perfected that most iconic Australian invention, which would become synonymous with cheap-and-cheerful wine: the bag-in-the-box cask. Wynn wasn’t the first to conceive the idea, with both Angove and Penfolds debuting their versions in 1965 and ’67 respectively.

White Wine Boom – Riesling is King

White wines boomed in the 70s, following technological developments and winemaker experimentation with different styles. The market was awash with both dry and sweet styles, some made from riesling and some labelled riesling but not made from the grape – notably semillon bottlings from the Hunter (incredibly, it took until the early 1990s for grape variety names to be legally protected) – while others still bore generic names and were made with a fruit salad of varieties, including such Riverland workhorses as sultana.

Colin Gramp had changed the landscape with Barossa Pearl, but he had also used the pressure tanks to make riesling in a cold environment, with the carbon dioxide produced by fermentation protecting the wine. Those wines were largely dry, and they had considerable wine show success. While Gramp was hardly the first to make dry riesling in this country, his were wines arguably of unmatched purity for the time.

Those crystalline and acid-laced wines found real momentum in the 1970s, with all the major players of the day including dry riesling – often labelled Rhine Riesling – in their portfolios. Another style that found favour, sometimes dry and sometimes sweet, was labelled Traminer Riesling, with gewürztraminer joining the party, making for a more exotic expression with the lychee and floral notes typical of the variety adding aromatic lift.

Pewsey Vale Vineyard.

Significant Sites

The 70s was also a time when many vineyards were coming into their own, with Gramp having planted his Steingarten site in the Eden Valley in 1962, while Yalumba’s revitalisation of the Pewsey Vale Vineyard, originally planted in the 1840s but removed after the Great Depression, was also yielding results from the young vines in the old contour-planted terraces.

Riesling became Australia’s most planted white variety in the 70s. It was a time when reds were taking a backseat, though their style was evolving into richer and softer wines, and they would soon assert themselves again. Riesling’s peak may not have been a sustained one, but it saw the grape planted in most regions, with it often taking up unsuitable territory in places like the Barossa.

Towards the end of the decade, riesling fruit was nearly twice as valuable as shiraz in the region, and Penfolds were known to only work with shiraz growers who had riesling, too, resulting in much replanting. However, when chardonnay caught on in the 80s, riesling was quickly relegated. Today, though classically steely riesling is an emblematic Australian style, it now accounts for only 6.5 per cent of white plantings, compared to over 44 per cent for chardonnay.

Riesling was beached by the mid-80s, with perhaps its most famous vineyard headed for the scrap heap. In 1986, the Florita vineyard in the Clare’s Watervale subregion was put up for sale by Philip Morris (tobacco and alcohol were never far apart back then), with the economics of making riesling no longer stacking up. That was a time when unprofitable vines were being removed in South Australia with funding from the government. Thankfully, the Barry family had other ideas, with Jim Barry – one of the pioneers of table wine in the Clare – acquiring it and building on a legacy that began in the 1960s, which was then continued by his son Peter.

Florita was originally planted for sherry production by Leo Buring in 1946, but John Vickery, then Buring chief winemaker, had the pedro ximénez removed in favour of riesling. The site became a legendary one in short time, and it was one of the most revered sites for the grape throughout the 1970s. This was at a time when the Leo Buring name had come to be seen as something of a gold standard for the grape, with Vickery – aided by refrigerated tanks, sterile filtration and modern bottling lines – helping to etch out a style of wine – in tandem with Gramp – that is recognisable today.

Above: Florita vineyard in the Clare’s Watervale subregion. Opposite: John Vickery today. Florita was originally planted for sherry production by Leo Buring in 1946, but John Vickery, then Buring chief winemaker, had the pedro ximénez removed in favour of riesling.

Turn of the Screw

The 70s also saw the introduction of an innovation that would come to dominate the Australian wine landscape: the screwcap. Yalumba capped the 1977 vintage of Pewsey Vale with Stelvin closures, but the commercial reaction was not positive, with corks being used again from 1984. The association of a screwcap with cheap wine was impossible to shake at the time, and Yalumba was pitching the bottling as a serious dry wine, a world away from the popular hero, Ben Ean Moselle.

It would take some time for the screwcap to make a comeback, with Geoffrey Grosset leading a group that included a dozen other Clare Valley makers to bottle their 2000 vintage rieslings under the closure. That was a turning point, if a contentious one, with some traditionalists appalled at the time – some still are. It was also a time when Grosset was raising the bar on riesling again, pitching it as a serious fine wine, and one that should attract more of a premium – he was resolutely picking up the baton that chardonnay had so unceremoniously knocked to the ground in the 80s.

Above: Yalumba capped the 1977 vintage of Pewsey Vale with Stelvin closures, but the commercial reaction was not positive, with corks being used again from 1984. Opposite: the 1971 Grange.

A Dapper Wolf and an Unsung Hero

Another key figure of the ’70s, Wolf Blass came to Australia on a contract with Kaiser Stuhl to help make sparkling wine with German pressure tanks. He toyed with going to Venezuela, but a post-coup environment gave him reason to pause, and Australia won out. After success at Kaiser Stuhl, Blass took on numerous consulting roles across the country, while also making some wine under his own label, beginning in 1966.

In 1969, Blass took the reins at Tolley Scott and Tolley, where he grew both that business and his own, which eventually resulted in a spat with management. In typical Blass fashion, he backed his instincts, took a hefty (for the time) bank overdraft and launched Wolf Blass Wines International in 1973.

At the same time, John Glaetzer came onboard, officially becoming chief winemaker in 1974. Glaetzer and Blass made history soon after, winning three consecutive Jimmy Watson trophies with wines from the ’73, ’74 and ’75 vintages with the ‘Black label Dry Red Claret’. It’s a feat that has not been repeated, and the impish winemaker always decked out in a colourful bowtie (apparently, he always wanted to look smart, and a regular tie was impractical in a winery) became our first celebrity winemaker.

Blass was an electric figure, as skilled a marketer as a he was a winemaker, working with intricate blends across sites and different oak regimes to craft wines that had not been part of the Australian picture up until then. While Max Schubert was making Grange as a long-term wine with ample oak use, Blass was making very approachable and silkily textured wines also layered with oak flavour. In the shadows was Glaetzer, who was arguably as influential a winemaker, if one who shunned the limelight. The pair won another Jimmy Watson in 1999.

Above: Peter Lehmann. Opposite: John Glaetzer and Wolf Blass.

The Seeds of Recovery

Even though white wine ruled the roost in the late 70s, those red styles would boom later in the 80s, when reds started to snatch back the mantle of Australia’s favourite wine. At the same time as Blass and Glaetzer, a young Peter Lehmann was honing his style of generous reds at Saltram. With red wine in dramatic oversupply in 1978, the powers that be at Saltram decided to not honour purchase contracts, leaving growers facing a harsh reality. Lehmann came to their rescue, helping to pool and process the fruit and find buyers for the wine they made. Not long after, Lehmann left Saltram and his eponymous Barossa label became a foundation stone of the Barossa in the 80s, with its legacy enduring to this day.

Max Schubert also made what is regarded as one of the greatest Grange releases in the 70s, from the 1971 vintage. And it is a wine that has grown in stature cementing its international reputation, with it famously being pitted against other greats from around the world in a 2015 taste-off for the best wines of that decade.

In that tasting, it trumped the 1975 Château d’Yquem Sauternes and 1976 Guigal ‘La Mouline’ Côte-Rotie, which was a more apt comparison. The ’71 Grange made its mark within the ’70s, too, topping its class in the 1979 Gault-Millau Wine Olympiad in Paris, relegating many a legendary Rhône bottling. Schubert certainly regarded the wine as a personal milestone. “If you had to point to a wine which fulfilled all the ambitions of Grange, it would have to be 1971,” he said in 1993.

Brian Croser in 1980 at Tiers vineyard, first planted in 1979 – the first vineyard planted in the Adelaide Hills region in the 20th century.

The 70s were also a time of expansion into new regions and a consolidation of those fledgling ones, like Margaret River, the Yarra Valley and Tasmania. Dr Andrew Pirie saw the potential of sparkling wine in the island state, founding Pipers Brook in 1974, while Brian Croser started the Adelaide Hills’ story with Petaluma in 1976. Over in Victoria, the Mornington Peninsula gained the Elgee Park vineyard in 1972 and Nat and Rosalie White’s Main Ridge Estate in 1975, which was the site of the region’s first winery, built in ’78.

It would not be long before the face of Australian wine took on an entirely new complexion, with a cool climate revolution brewing and the tough times to come for some of our oldest wine growing regions leading to unprecedented growth a short time late. The 70s was a turbulent decade, but one of discovery and exploration, the tipping point in many ways for an industry that would soon expand exponentially, with Australian wine taking a leading role on the world stage.

The wines

2021 Grosset ‘Polish Hill’ Riesling, Clear Valley $75 RRP

This wine greets with aromas of orange blossom perfume, pears and a hint of cinnamon, and then continues on the palate where juicy grapefruit combines with lime oil. What is striking about this bright and fresh riesling is the textural interest, exhibiting a chewy minerality. The dry finish is complemented with a pronounced crisp acid finish. Delicious now yet so young, and will it definitely improve over the next decade – if you have the restraint.

Available from Vintage Cellars.

2020 Jim Barry ‘The Florita’ Riesling, Clare Valley $52 RRP

The nose has the classic lemons and limes, but there’s also some fresh peach in there, too, along with an ethereal floral quality. On the palate, there is a steely mineral edge that sits under the lively citrus fruit flavours. A glimpse of residual sugar adds complexing depth and length to the finish that features a quite tart, mouth-puckering acid that makes it oh so moreish.

Available from Vintage Cellars.

2015 Leo Buring Riesling, Clare Valley $26 RRP

A light but pronounced golden hue gives evidence of the wine’s age. The honeyed and toasty bouquet confirms this, but there’s also plenty of youthful citrus aromas, with a mix of lemon and lime. The palate starts out rich with waxy and complex aged riesling – kerosene-like – characters, then the acid kicks in, and it finishes crisp with light lime and a faint dusting of icing sugar.

Available from Vintage Cellars.

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