Defining Australia’s wine boundaries

Almost three years ago, Australia committed itself to kissing European geographical names goodbye. Some, like white Bordeaux, Beaujolais, Cava, and Frascati have already gone. They were all Johnnies-come-lately of little commercial value to our producers anyway. Others — Champagne, Moselle, and Port, for instance, although doomed, linger on.

Increased table wine consumption brought with it the widespread use of naming better quality wines according to grape variety/s. By the time we made our promise to the Europeans, we were ready to drop many European place names with nil or minimal consumer confusion or, in the case of better quality wines, had steered clear of them from scratch.

I don’t think many of us missed the word ‘Claret’ (a protected French name for the red wines of Bordeaux) when it was replaced by grape names on the country’s biggest selling red label, Jacobs Creek. And it’s easy to see popular ‘Champagne’ brands like Minchinbury, Carrington, and Great Western powering on, sans the froggy name, purely on reputation and packaging.

But what about the poor wine cask drinker? Somehow ‘Murray’ or ‘Murrumbidgee’ fails to evoke the same image as ‘Moselle’, our own misspelling of a German river, denoting a fruity, sweetish, light table wine. Or, to take another German river, how about riesling and Rhine riesling. Now there’s confusion!

There is a riesling grape variety. It originated in Germany where it makes sublime, delicate whites along the Rhine/Mosel/Saar River system. But, in Australia, we began using ‘riesling‘ promiscuously from last century. In South Australia, ‘Clare Riesling’ was a synonym for the very pedestrian crouchen grape. In New South Wales, ‘Hunter Riesling’ meant the totally unrelated semillon variety. And, in a generic sense, still used on wine casks today, ‘riesling’ denotes a light, fresh, dryish white, of no particular grape variety.

Hunter riesling’ and ‘Clare riesling’ died out with the rise of varietal labeling. But generic ‘riesling’ persists on wine casks largely because it is so difficult to find an alternative that means anything to the drinker.

Just to confuse things, the pure of heart and mind, wine makers Brian Croser and Geoff Weaver amongst others, removed the offending word ‘Rhine’ from their riesling labels before Simon Crean’s signature had dried on the EC agreement.

To the Europeans, riesling should denote just two things: the riesling grape variety and wine made from it. When Croser made the leap with his Petaluma label, it actually confused many followers, and it’s not hard to see why.

Because ‘riesling’ meant different things to different people, it had become standard practice to name wine made from the riesling grape as ‘Rhine Riesling’ to differentiate it from generic ‘riesling’. When Croser embraced the new order, I received numerous phone calls (and other retailers tell similar stories) from consumers worried that without the ‘Rhine’ Petaluma Riesling might be a mongrel.

Of course, there was nothing to worry about. It was and is the same 100 per cent riesling from Petaluma’s Hanlin Hill vineyard high up in the Clare Valley. But the incident shows that even sophisticated consumers place high value on names and can be suspicious of change.

On the other side of the coin, our phasing out of European place names paves the way for them to acknowledge Australian regions. But as the agreement highlighted, none of our wine regions, so well known by Australian wine drinkers, had any firm standing in law. True, under an industry-led label integrity programme from the early 1980s, there had been some attempt at regional definition. But at the time of our agreement with the EC, the only legally defined boundaries were Australia and, presumably, the States and Territories.

Thus, the Federal Government amended the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation Act empowering it to set boundaries. The process has been under way since 1992, guided by the AWBC’s Geographic Indications Committee (GIC), and as Zones, regions, and sub-regions are defined, they become recognised and protected under international trademarks law.

The exhaustive process involves the GIC and the wine and grape growing industries initially, with avenues for public commentary, review and appeal.

To date no regional or sub-regional areas have been registered, but a compendium South Eastern Australian zone, embracing most of NSW, SA, and Victoria, was first off the rank and underpins much of our EC export push. Subsequently 8 New South Wales and 6 Victorian zones were registered, covering all producers in those states.

Defining broad zones along geographic and climatic guidelines has been complicated enough. Getting down to regions and sub-regions, the names most likely to be useful to medium and small makers and most useful to Australian consumers, is a story on its own and will be covered here as it unfolds.

July 30th, 1995

Ian Mackley, the ‘independent presiding member’ of the ‘Geographic Indications Committee’ (created by Parliament to steer the wine-area naming process) says that legally enforceable boundaries are “… the last link in consumer protection” and essential for the enforcement of truth on wine labels.

The naming process now underway, or at least the urgency to get it done quickly, was forced on us by bi-lateral agreements negotiated with the EC and U.S.A. The agreements, vital for continued export success, included recognition of each other’s ‘geographic indications ’. The only problem was that Australia did not have any.

So, parliament empowered the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation to draw the boundaries in conjunction with grape growers and wine makers. The definitions were not to be imposed from above, but to be drawn from the ground up, based on geographic and historical data.

Australia was the first boundary to be defined (although it cannot be used as a geographic indication in the EC or USA), followed by the States and Territories. The next step is to determine Zones — larger areas that might embrace several established wine growing regions. Once Zones have been established, regions within those zones may apply for recognition; and sub-regions within regions may follow.

The enormous South Eastern Australian zone, as mentioned last week, covers the major wine-growing areas of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia and was established to give exporters a Geographic Indication for multi-district export blends.

New South Wales has been carved up into eight zones: Big Rivers, Northern Rivers, Central Ranges, Western Plains, Hunter Valley, Southern New South Wales (includes Canberra District and Young), Northern Slopes, and South Coast.

Victoria, too has been finalised with six zones: Gippsland, North West Victoria, Central Victoria, Port Phillip, North East Victoria, and Western Victoria.

Queensland and Tasmanian grape growers and wine makers were happy, for the time being, with only a State boundary, but zones and regions will almost certainly emerge in the years ahead.

South Australia is still ironing out a few problems but zones will hopefully be set in the next few months.

Western Australia recently had its interim determination published, proposing five zones: Great Northern, Esperance, South West Australia, Central Western Australia, and West Coast. But these are subject to public commentary/objection before finalisation.

As it is a public process, interim determinations are published in newspapers and the Government Gazette; interested parties then have time to comment or object on a proposed boundary. If objections are received, then the GIC reconvenes and may stand firm or alter its determination. GIC decisions may be taken to the Administrative Appeals tribunal and from there to the Federal court.

To minimise spurious applications for regional geographic indications an area must have at least 5 independent grape growers each with a minimum of 5 hectares of vines and a minimal regional output of 500 tonnes of grapes a year (around 35,000 cases).

Applications should be based on a combination of soil types, temperatures, harvest dates, use of water, State and Local Government Planning Acts, history of grape growing, and proof that the region is known to the outside world.

If consumer protection is a benefit in the long run, there are also large commercial stakes and these are the most likely source of legal fights as the GIC moves down to regional and sub-regional determinations.

Hence, the considerable public speculation about where Coonawarra’s boundaries might lie. My belief is that this is the hottest spot of all because the stakes are big and, whatever the proposed boundary, aggrieved parties seem certain to come roaring out of the wood work.

It now seems certain that Coonawarra, along with Padthaway, Koppamurra and Mount Benson will be regions within a zone to be called the Limestone Coast.

Consumers know Coonawarra for its rich velvety reds, sourced from a narrow, fifteen-kilometre strip of vineyards. However, since 1984 Coonawarra has been defined by State survey boundaries embracing an area twenty times the size of the area actually under vine. As well there are well-established vineyards just outside even these absurdly large boundaries.

I’ve heard that the locals will be applying for a comparatively tight boundary more in line with the reality of viticultural Coonawarra. Such an outcome will not only lock in high land prices but possibly injure those with established vines inside the old boundaries as well as those perched on the wrong side of the old line.

Yes, Coonawarra is an interesting one to watch, not only because it may be the most controversial, but because the real Coonawarra provides such wonderful wines to we drinkers.