Wines that inspire

The Australian wine industry exists because waves of European immigrants brought with them vines, technology, and a belief that a land so sunny must make good wines. With time, wine styles modeled on European originals diverged as vines and wine makers adapted to a new and very different landscape. Despite international success of our wines, it is pure folly to write off the importance of those original models or to assume that all of our wines have long since overtaken the ones they imitated.

It’s good to be confident and proud of our achievements; it’s bad to believe we know it all. There is a vast difference between cultural cringing and paying homage where it’s due – something we can do only if our frame of reference is big enough and we take time to stand back and assess not only at our own achievements, but those of our competitors as well.

Writing in the Melbourne Age on June 22, Mark Shield confused the two when he wrote “The other day, I was at a dinner where some famous French wines were being served. They were great and in their midst was an Australian wine, Mount Langi Ghiran cabernet sauvignon 1990, which was equally great but different. The label snobs were steadfastly ignoring the Langi and they were aghast when I said I preferred to drink it instead of the French wines. ‘But theses are First Growths!’ My answer was ‘so what?’

It’s not the first time I’ve been condemned to play the role of fool on the hill, and it won’t be the last. And then, I’m among the biggest cringers when it comes to things other than wine. One day we’ll all grow up.”

While Shield is right to drink what he prefers, those First Growths (the top rated reds of Bordeaux, home of cabernet sauvignon and merlot) simply cannot be dismissed so lightly. Backing Mount Langi in that line up seems to me a bit liking pitting the family sedan against a formula one racer – except with wine there are no starting and finishing lines – only opinions as to which is best.

In the case of the First Growths, there is a very long and weighty body of opinion to support their case. Most telling of all is the fact that the very best wine makers of the new world – those with very broad frames of reference – have no qualms in acknowledging just how wonderful these Bordeaux reds are. They see qualities in these wines that still elude them in their own efforts to make a great cabernet or merlot.

I think it’s no accident that after a visit to Brian Croser, tasting ever-better Petaluma Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon-merlot blends, he invariably opens a lovely old Bordeaux to drink with the meal.

Croser’s mentor and former partner, Len Evans, is much the same. Len has one of the great palates of the world. He tastes widely of all the planet has to offer. He loves Australian wine. And he’s one of its greatest and most generous promoters. The same can be said of Croser.

Yet both gentlemen seem to prefer Bordeaux to Australian cabernet. They’re not suffering from cultural cringe. They’re men who’ve drunk widely enough to have formed solid opinions and share a vision that one day we might makes reds as profoundly as good as the best Bordeaux – not only a vision, but actively pursue the making of great wines while openly admitting the inspiration provided by French classics.

Only a few months back, I was fortunate to taste wines from the Yalumba museum cellar with Evans. It was wonderful to see him putting wines quickly into perspective.

Amongst the cabernets it was a Chateau Margaux 1982 (one of Bordeaux’s First Growths) that stood far above the others. Clearly he indicated we may aspire to this quality in Australia, but we’re not there yet.

Yet when we tasted France’s best shirazes (from the Rhone Valley) Len was adamant that here our winemakers had nothing to learn. In his view our best shirazes are at least the equal of France’s best.

As with shiraz, we have little if any catching up to do with those other secondary varieties, semillon and sauvignon blanc (except when they’re blended as a sweet wine, in which case Sauternes still leaves us for dead).

But with chardonnay, pinot noir, and Champagne, despite rapid progress, the realists still dream of the French originals while honing their own products ever finer.