Extraordinary diversity in Oz wines

Propagandists in the French wine industry portray Australia as one big, hot, homogenous country pumping out vast quantities of “industrial” wine. While our export success with bright, fresh, affordable varietals – largely at the expense of French producers – might be partly to blame for this perception, it’s as far from the truth as a perception could be.

A piece from “The Independent”, published in “The Canberra Times” a few weeks back, said Australia’s top five producers made eighty per cent of our wine. The figure’s wrong  – it’s more like 60 per cent according to statistics compiled in the “The Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Directory 2010”. But more importantly, a focus on our big makers obscures the largely small-scale production deeply ingrained across southern Australia. The story’s little known within Australia, let alone overseas.

According to the Directory, Australia now has 2,420 wine producers, and a majority of them (fifty-five per cent) crush 49 tonnes or less of grapes each year – that’s 3,700 dozen bottles or less each. Pushing the crush up to 99 tonnes (7,400 dozen bottles) ropes in 1,348 producers, or 70 per cent of the total. And if we include those crushing up to 499 tonnes (37 thousand dozen), still comparatively small stuff, we’re now talking about 2,114 vignerons, or 87 per cent of the Australian total.

And when we look at the geographic spread of our winemakers, the picture that emerges is one of amazing climatic diversity, spread from the Queensland high country to the southern tip of Tasmania and from the east coast to the west coast.

Queensland’s vineyards, at around 27 degrees north, lie 16 degrees north of those in Southern Tasmania. In France, by comparison, the spread is just six degrees – from around 43 degrees near the Mediterranean coast to 49 degrees in the Champagne district.

Even if way say, OK, the main action on our east coast really starts at the Hunter, we’re still taking in 10 degrees of latitude – and other large climate variations based on proximity to the sea (continental versus maritime) and altitude above sea level (from very little to around 1,000 metres).

The big climate variations created by geography largely account for variations in wine styles. They explain why, for example, very cool areas like high-altitude Tumbarumba or southerly Tasmania excel with pinot noir and chardonnay for sparkling wine where warm areas do not; or why cool Canberra makes medium bodied shiraz while hot Rutherglen makes fuller bodied styles.

The bigger the slice of map we look at, the bigger the variations. But even in comparatively small chunks, the differences can be significant. In South Australia, for example, the moderately elevated, mainly continental Clare Valley lies three degrees north of Coonawarra, where the nearby southern ocean exerts its influence. Clare makes comparatively brawny reds and Coonawarra more elegant styles – they’re a world apart. It’s amazing what 500 kilometres, a cool ocean and bit of altitude can do.

Even within single districts, variations in wine styles can be marked. While these can be confounded by different winemaker approaches, climate variations make discernible differences. In the Barossa, for example rieslings from the valley floor don’t approach for finesse and longevity those from the elevated Eden Valley Hills, forming the Barossa’s eastern boundary.

If we multiple these large and subtle variations across Australia’s vast landscape, throw in dozens of old and emerging grape varieties, and hundreds of individual winemaking approaches, we begin to understand the wonderful patchwork of wine styles made by our 2, 420 vignerons.

The Directory also shows the scale of this expansion over the last quarter century. In 1985 we had 506 wine producers, now we have 2,420. In NSW and the ACT, the number grew from 121 to 467; in Victoria from 109 to 724; in Queensland from 18 to 111; in South Australia from 147 to 648; in Western Australia from 102 to 372; in Tasmania from seven to 98. The Northern Territory alone declined from two producers in 1985, to one in 1987 to zero in 2008.

Despite recent tough times in the industry, the numbers continued to grow in all those states over the last three years. It’s hard to tell yet, but this may have been partly through necessity as grape growers, no longer able to sell their product to winemakers, developed their own brands. Anecdotally, many even long-established brands, are struggling in the current glutted market.

Looking at the bigger national picture, in 2008–09 South Australia remained our biggest winemaking state, producing 514.4 million litres, followed by NSW and the ACT 436.3 million litres, Victoria 183.6 million litres, Western Australia 33.8 million litres, Tasmania 2.3 million litres, and Queensland 0.8 million litres.

Despite removal of many vineyards, our biggest producing areas, the engines of our popular domestic and export wines, will remain South Australia’s Lower Murray (projected 390 thousand tonne grape production), followed by the NSW Big Rivers zone on 276 thousand tonnes.

And South Australia still hosts the really big, broad acre premium vineyards. In 2011 the Barossa expects to harvest 93 thousand tonnes; Mount Lofty Ranges 69 thousand; Fleurieu (including McLaren Vale and Langhorne Creek) 132 thousand tonnes; Limestone Coast (mainly Coonawarra, Padthaway and Wrattonbully) 126 thousand tonnes.

Illustrating the growing importance of the New South Wales highlands, the Central Ranges, excluding the ACT, is set to produce 58 thousand tonnes in 2011 – more than double the Hunter Valley’s projected output of 25 thousand tonnes.

Clearly, more than two thousand small vignerons now drive Australia’s regional winemaking. They’re energetic vignerons making styles inspired by every other winemaking nation on earth. The challenge now is to take that story to the world.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010