The following is a transcript of my interview with Phil Laffer at Roland Flat, Barossa Valley, 14 March 2006. The interview was one of two I conducted with Phil for the production of The view from our place, a booklet released in the UK to mark the 30th anniversary of Jacob’s Creek in 2006.
The interview provides Laffer’s perspective not just on Jacob’s Creek, one of Australia’s most successful international wine brands, but on the broader Australian wine industry across his long, distinguished career.
Why is Australian wine so popular?
I guess there’s lots of reasons behind that. If you think back through the more recent history of Australian wine, when we really started drinking wine in a serious way in Australia with the advent of things like still Rhinegold from Leo Buring, followed by Barossa Pearl, followed by Ben Ean Moselle.
They were all white wines. They were all sweet. But they were all very well-made wines. The variety didn’t matter much. But they were all very attractive wines and they brought Australians into drinking wine.
So, we had a quite different background to many parts of the world where many people started drinking on pretty ordinary wine. We sit back and laugh about Rhinegold, Barossa Pearl and Ben Ean Moselle, but even today they’d be considered well-made wines.
Stylistically we’d think they were completely wrong because they’re sweet and lollyish. But, unlike lots of sweet and lollyish wines coming out of other parts of the world, they were always very well-made wine. They weren’t oxidised. They were balanced wines. And they had flavour.
Then along came bag-in-box in the 1970s – and the same thing happened. While generic, and you might say bland, they were very well-made wines. They were good quality wines. I suppose that’s one of the reasons why bag in the box has never had the same low image in Australia as it has elsewhere.
So then as we started moving increasingly into varietal winemaking, that same sort of winemaking philosophy remained with us. But we were now dealing with better quality fruit. Varietals and good quality winemaking will always bring out the varietal characteristics.
That very rapidly moved Australians from sweet white wines to dry table wines.
Another interesting thing is that our early efforts at exporting in the 1970s and even the 1980s were of wines that we really didn’t want to drink in Australia.
I can remember an abortive effort to export Ben Ean Moselle into San Diego, and it was at a time when Australians had stopped drinking that style of wine and moved on.
Based on the fact that it had been a success here, it was concluded that that’s what the Americans wanted. It obviously wasn’t what the Americans wanted. It was a great flop.
And it was only when Australia began exporting the kinds of wine that we were then currently enjoying, that Australian wines took off. So, I think we’ve succeeded because we’ve been exporting good wines – the same wines that we drink in this country.
I frankly don’t think that there’s a lot of difference between people’s palates all around – including in Asia where people often say we need to develop some specific wines for Asia – things that perhaps taste like lychees and what have you. Well if that were true, why is it that Japan is now the most successful brewer in the world? Why do the Chinese drink so much beer? Why is that Scotch whisky – and for that matter, Cognac – have been so well taken in Asian countries if they don’t like European flavours?
So, they’ll drink European beer, why wouldn’t they drink European styles of wine. As an aside that’s always intrigued me. So, we were exporting the wines that we’ve enjoyed. And as I go around the world now, one of my tasks is to coalesce what people are saying about wine and bring it back so that we can steer the style of Jacob’s Creek to keep it contemporary.
One thing about Jacob’s Creek is that while it’s a very conservative brand, the wines are very contemporary – and it’s important to remain contemporary. And by contemporary, I mean what people want to drink today. Jacob’s Creek ten years ago is not the style that people expect today. We try to keep in touch.
One good example would be the move away from excessive artefacts in winemaking. Fifteen years ago, Jacob’s Creek would have had a lot more obvious oak. It would have had a lot more malolactic characters – flavours that were almost competing with the fruit flavour, rather than today where all those artefacts are there in a complementary sense.
There’s a big difference between the two approaches. And that’s been an important part of the style development of Jacob’s Creek. The point I’m making is that as you travel around the world listening to what people are saying and observing what’s happening, there aren’t enormous differences between what’s happening in North America, United Kingdom, Scandinavia, Australia and many parts of Asia. There seems to be a fairly common approach to drinking wine.
Now, that’s ignoring the fact that as everyone comes into drinking wine they go through various stages as they gain more experience. So the style that evolved in Australia – and I think ‘evolved’ is correct word. And it’s probably a combination of our soils and climates, the varieties that we had – and it’s interesting that when Australian first started exporting wine we didn’t really have chardonnay to export. Hence, we developed these styles with semillon–chardonnay as excuses to make the little chardonnay we had go a long, long way.
But soils, climates and the fact that we always had to be good winemakers to survive in the Australian environment. That takes me back to the Colin Gramp, Leo Buring, Ben Ean thing – that they were good wines because we always new how to be very careful as winemakers.
This meant that as we started to deal with better fruit we were able to bring out all of the flavours but avoid a lot of the faults that typify a lot of northern hemisphere winemaking if you’re looking at like for like. We’re talking here about commercial wines.
Europe’s best are stunningly good wines. But the middle of Europe is pretty awful. It’s a big drop down. We don’t have that big drop down for two reasons. One, we don’t have a big a range of viticultural differences. And we certainly don’t have the differences in winemaking and we don’t believe in letting the wine make itself.
For example, the people who make [Penfolds] Grange are the same people who make Rawson’s Retreat. Now in other parts of the world that just wouldn’t happen.
Take Jacob’s Creek: the person making Johann is the same person responsible for making Jacob’s Creek Shiraz Cabernet.
So, Australia has always made good wine – and if you can talk about averages – we have a higher average than anywhere else in the world because we don’t have a really bad bottom end.
So, we were able to offer to people, at prices they could afford, what was to them, remarkably attractive wine – attractive because it was good and also because of the style.
And the style comes back to our origins here of drinking soft wine based on the flavour of the grape variety. They’re pretty easy to drink. We’ve taken it from there by nowadays planting all sorts of varieties that people want, notably chardonnay and shiraz.
Shiraz is interesting because somehow or other we’ve adopted it as our own, almost to the exclusion of other red varieties, which is a bit of a pity in one sense. The good thing is that when people think of shiraz now they probably think of Australia. But unfortunately, when they think of cabernet, they don’t think of Australia. Yet we probably make equally good cabernet sauvignon as we do shiraz.
Possibly it’s because we’re one of the few countries that makes really good shiraz, whereas lots and lots of places around the world make good cabernet sauvignon. I suppose that’s why we have this ownership. We’ve always had shiraz, primarily as a fortified wine grape in the early days. When we started making table wine, we turned to what we had and shiraz was one of those things.
It’s a variety that must have warm weather, so it suits our climate. And it suits our soils, which are not terribly fertile, so we get quite good concentration of flavours as well as, invariably, quite ripe fruit.
Certainly climate and soil have helped Australia, probably in a perverse way because it forced us to become very good winemakers a hundred years ago – if you weren’t a good winemaker, you couldn’t make good wine.
I don’t personally recall it, although I was probably born during the time when Australia had awful problems with what was called sweet wine disease and a lot of the winemaking in the thirties and forties was pretty appalling. It was out of this that people learned to be particularly careful making wine in this climate – because we did have low acids in our grapes and we did have high temperatures during vintage. That led to the creation of Roseworthy as an oenology school. We needed to teach people how to make wine in our environment.
And it’s always been a fairly fragile situation, so Australian winemakers are particularly careful. This is one of the reasons why they’re so sought after around the world. And they’re particularly careful because if you’re not particularly careful in this part of the world, you make pretty ordinary wine.
The warmth means that our wines are naturally low in acid and high in pH. Whereas in Europe there’s a degree of protection in the fruit and you don’t have to be as particularly careful in the same way as you do in Australia. So heat during the growing season, combined with our particular soils means a high pH, which, if unaddressed, leads to instability in wines.
Then there are the issues of making wine in hot weather. Without refrigeration it’s very hard to control fermentation. It’s amazing what a good job people did back in the forties, fifties and early sixties when they didn’t have refrigeration. Refrigeration really came into being in Australia in the 1960s. I think the first refrigeration was probably put in here by Colin Gramp, specifically for fermentation.
That was a step before making Barossa Pearl. He brought it in originally to make better quality riesling. And the pressure tank and refrigeration plant were first used in vintage 1953. It was all about making better quality table wine.
Probably he had it in mind to move on to Barossa Pearl because it was only a couple of years later that the balance of the equipment necessary to make pearl wine was brought. The first vintage was released for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
That was the first refrigeration. Not too much later, perhaps in the early sixties, Colin Haselgrove installed refrigeration at Mildara’s Merbein winery on the Murray. Lindemans were probably next, although it wasn’t so much in terms of fermentation but so they could copy what Colin Gramp was doing in making sparkling wine.
So it all happened in the 1960s.
[Editor’s note: For details of one early adoption of refrigeration, ahead of its wider rollout three decades later, see Robert Hamilton’s account of how Sydney Hamilton and John Seeck, pioneered refrigerated fermentation in the 1930s]
When you look back at some of the wines made before then it was amazing that they were as good as they were – people probably using lots of sulphur dioxide and all kinds of things to slow down the fermentation.
But, then, Australia’s not homogenous. Making wine traditionally in Coonawarra and nowadays in Tasmania versus Sunraysia versus making wine in Langhorne Creek, we do have a range of climates.
Overall we are warm, but in that Mediterranean scene we go from areas which are very, very hot to those which are very moderate.
The Barossa, home of Jacob’s Creek, is on the edge of moderate to hot, though it’s a little bit cooler than people actually think. Quite often the Barossa’s a degree or two below Adelaide, to the south.
Overall it’s moderate because, while the floor of the valley can be hot, the slopes to either side are definitely more moderate. Coonawarra, on the other hand is very mild, verging on cool.
It’s what we would call cool – and definitely so in the context of a Mediterranean climate. And it’s probably one of the reasons why so much good red wine was made in Coonawarra when refrigeration didn’t exist. Coonawarra built its reputation for red at that time. It didn’t even have electricity in those days.
Different regions make different wine styles
In Australia as in Europe there’d been a degree of natural selection.
Why is it, for example, that Coonawarra developed a reputation for cabernet sauvignon? It’s probably because the other varieties that were planted there – and there wouldn’t have been too many red varieties because Australia didn’t have a great range (until quite recently it was cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, grenache and mataro) – and if you look at those varieties, the one that was going to succeed, probably because of the soils and climate, was cabernet sauvignon.
And it remains that way, that of all those varieties, cabernet sauvignon is the one most likely to ripen. And to think back into the early days of Coonawarra and certainly into the early sixties people picked at the earliest possible dates to guarantee that they had a vintage – because if the season broke, you had no income.
When you look back at Coonawarra reds of the forties, fifties and early sixties, a lot of wines are 9.5 to 11 degrees of alcohol and an 11.5 per cent Coonawarra wine was a very alcoholic wine. And it was because people picked as soon the fruit appeared ripe enough, to guarantee that you had an income.
The fascinating thing about this is that those wines are still very, very attractive wines. But we’ve convinced ourselves that you can’t make good Coonawarra cabernet below 13 per cent nowadays.
What’s happened in the intervening period that says what you could do thirty or forty years ago you can’t do today, and it’s an area that fascinates me at the moment as to what’s changed. And there’re lots of arguments about this. You could argue that it’s to do with the style of wine we drink.
But I had a bottle not long ago of 1957 Rouge Homme [Coonawarra] Claret. And it’s still a bloody good wine. My best guess is that it was shiraz fermented on cabernet skins – because in those days cabernet was cabernet fermented on a few shiraz skins. The laws about what you could call things were more flexible in those days.
But the wine’s not showing any greens. Nowadays we’d say that if we picked fruit at under twelve Baumé there are going to be green flavours. We saw this in some wines of the early eighties as some makers attempted to make more elegant styles.
I think what’s probably changed is viticulture. We’re growing our vines very differently to what we were forty years ago and I’m sorry that I don’t have enough photographs.
You go down to Coonawarra nowadays and you see vines like you only see on the Riverland – great big things that are probably, in a sense, over watered and possibly over fertilised.
In my mind’s eye, I’m still thinking of when I first went to Coonawarra, which was in 1965. The vines were very different looking creatures to what they are today. The crop levels really haven’t changed an awful lot. We were probably picking ten tonnes a hectare and we don’t do a great deal differently today.
But the vines themselves were far more open. My recollection is we used very little fertiliser, and what it was more than likely a bit of super for the cover crops and you watered when you had to rather than because you wanted to. Maybe that’s got a lot to do with it.
The flavour and structure of Coonawarra cabernet is distinctive and the same could be said for shiraz. There’s definitely a soil characteristic coming through. And it is soil, because you go a hundred kilometres up the track to Padthaway, where things look to be fairly similar – it’s marginally warmer – and the shiraz from Padthaway is far more akin to shiraz from places like the Barossa and McLaren Vale – and bears no resemblance whatever to the shiraz from Coonawarra.
So there’s something in the soil and water of Coonawarra that does give you this distinctive flavour, epitomised by cabernet sauvignon but you get some of that character showing through in shiraz.
To me, it’s a flavour that’s very attractive in cabernet sauvignon but not so attractive in shiraz – perhaps because we’re brought up to think of shiraz as being pepper and spice and very plummy, and Coonawarra shiraz is more pepper and spice and not so plummy, but elegant. It’s not the elegance that I’m complaining about because I like elegant shiraz. But there’s something in the flavour that seems to clash with the warmth and generosity of shiraz.
There are exceptions, like Wynns Michael Shiraz, which is the standout exception of shiraz from that part of the world.
Wine drinkers show a liking for the particular flavour and structure of Coonawarra cabernet and have done so for a prolonged period of time – perhaps as far back as the forties and certainly from the fifties, as we began drinking wine.
Barossa’s reputation for shiraz is probably more to do with the fact that it was one of the biggest areas for producing what we used to call ‘port’ – and still do, if under different names. And when people started to drink table wine, people just stopped using them for port and started using them for table wine.
Similarly in Clare there was a considerable amount of grenache. You never see it there these days. Again, it was used for sweet red and brandy production. When people moved over to drinking red, Clare suddenly produced enormous quantities of wonderful grenache. Sadly, it fell out of favour because it was called grenache. All that wonderful fruit has now vanished.
Australia’s great regional specialties
The Hunter Valley is a unique growing environment in Australia in terms of the flavours and styles of wines produced. It’s a very odd place to grow grapes. It’s extremely hot – bordering on being sub tropical. It suffers from summer rains. Its soils are very variable.
But it produces a style of shiraz, which I think is absolutely fascinating, and unlike shiraz from anywhere else in Australia.
And even more spectacular are the semillons that come out of that part of the world. Now, why is that? You can understand shiraz doing very well there because it’s very hot spot. But why does semillon do so well there?
Semillon’s an interesting variety. It does remarkably well in other warm areas. Its great strength is in the Riverina where it does extremely well. The Barossa, on the other hand, grows semillon but not in the style of either the Hunter or Riverina – the Hunter in particular. So, it’s distinctly unique.
You then get areas like the Eden Valley, which produce very, very austere, elegant wines, be they red or white. One of the reasons the Eden isn’t a great place for chardonnay – it’s a wonderful place for riesling; it’s a good place for cabernet sauvignon; not so great for shiraz, but there are some interesting shirazes coming out of there – much the same as the higher parts of Clare – good for riesling, not so good for chardonnay.
I think we buy about 60 tons of chardonnay out of Clare simply because one of our main riesling growers has a bit of chardonnay, but we certainly don’t buy it because it makes wonderfully attractive wine.
So you do get regions that sit very, very comfortably with certain varieties. Clare and Eden Valley are stand out areas. However, the wines that they make from the Clare and Eden Valleys bear little resemblance one to the other. But they both excel with the same varieties – because of the elevation that makes it that little bit cooler, especially of a night-time.
Does Jacob’s Creek as a brand draw on this regional specialisation?
Yes, absolutely. It’s interesting, because when people think about Jacob’s Creek they think about it as being that great amorphous Australian brand. Everybody knows it. It comes from 500 different vineyards or what have you. It does that not just because we’re trying to make lots and lots of wine. The areas that it comes from are, in fact of great importance.
What I often quote as a good example is that Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay – the regular chardonnay – is usually around 60 per-cent warm area, 40 per-cent cool area, by our definitions. And it’s specifically that way because the fruit flavours that we’re trying to get into any of the Jacob’s Creek Chardonnays are a mixture of peachiness and ripe melons.
You can get these combinations of flavours from some specific vineyards, notably in Padthaway. One of the reasons I think it’s the best chardonnay region in Australia is that anywhere in region you’ll get fruit with a lovely balance of peach and melon. But it doesn’t work that way everywhere.
In the Riverland – Riverina, Sunraysia and the warm inland areas – you get a lot of the peach character but not an awful lot of melon, so the chardonnays can be a little bit one-dimensional.
So, the ripe melon flavours tend to come from the cooler areas. But 60 per cent warm areas peachiness works wonderfully well, then, with 40 per cent cooler area in coming up with Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay.
When it comes to Jacob’s Creek Shiraz Cabernet, the reverse applies. There’s no way we can get more than about 40 per cent warm area fruit into that wine without changing the style. I guess there’s a common – and it’s not surprising – misconception that Jacob’s Creek all comes from the Riverland, Sunraysia and the Riverina.
Those warm areas play a very significant part in a whole lot of the blends of Jacob’s Creek, from sparkling wines through to semi-premium products. But they do it because they each contribute a particular part of the flavour profile.
In recent years that’s changed in two ways. One, we’ve had access to a lot more cool climate fruit, predominantly from areas like Fleurieu Peninsula – Langhorne Creek in particular – where it’s possible (because one has to be realistic because wines like regular Jacob’s Creek must be made in a way that we can still make money out of them) you can’t be putting an awful lot of $3000-a-ton Coonawarra cabernet into them.
But you can afford to put some in. So, one of the attractions of Langhorne Creek is that you get good-quality, cool-climate flavours at quite affordable prices – because it’s a fairly safe area, it crops well and it’s reliable.
The other thing that’s happened – and we’ll come back to this later on because I think it’s one of the key bits to Jacob’s Creek – is the change to viticulture in those warm inland areas.
If we were still growing shiraz in the Riverland as were fifteen years ago – and that’s not all that long ago – it would be difficult to see how it would fit into modern day Jacob’s Creek Shiraz Cabernet.
In that intervening period of time there’s been enormous change in growers’ attitudes to growing grapes encouraged by people – not just ourselves – converting from being just grape growers to being wine growers; by rewarding them financially by paying them more to produce better quality fruit. This doesn’t necessarily mean lower crops. It means better quality fruit. It’s more a matter of how they do it.
So we’ve been able to maintain that 60 per-cent warm climate fruit in a wine like Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay but at the same time being able to enormously increase its appeal.
Similarly, and even more spectacularly, with a wine like Jacob’s Creek Shiraz Cabernet – and you look at that wine today, the current vintage is 2004 – and there’s no way we could have produced anything resembling that ten years ago with 40 per-cent warm area, 60 per-cent cool area.
What lies behind Jacob’s Creek’s unique style?
This differentiates Jacob’s Creek from comparably priced wines from the old world. The inter-regional blend is how we get there.
The thing that differentiates Jacob’s Creek is what I think is a unique style. It might sound strange to say it, because people say, hang on, what’s so different about Jacob’s Creek and the Lindemans Bin Range, Nottage Hill, Penfolds and what have you? And I would argue that there are a couple of things, which are significantly different.
First of all, it’s a philosophy that starts with the fact that we reckon that eight to nine out of ten bottles of Jacob’s Creek are drunk with or around food. And therefore it’s very important that we make a style of wine that sits comfortably with food.
Now the majority of people having a glass of wine aren’t consciously thinking about the wine. They’re not thinking about which side of the hill … They’re probably not even thinking about the variety. The varietal bit was important in making the buying decision. Having bought that bottle of wine, they think absolutely no more about it.
If it does what they want it to and it gives them an enjoyable experience, then they do remember. So that enjoyable experience – and it might be conscious or subconscious – is very, very important.
What is it, then, that makes wines that go remarkably well with food? To me it’s all about freshness and elegance – two key things to Jacob’s Creek.
Everything about Jacob’s Creek is about freshness. I don’t like this term ‘fruit driven’. I never really quite understood what it means. What I do understand is fresh fruit flavours.
There’s a vibrancy about nearly every product in the Jacob’s Creek range. If fruit driven means you can taste the fruit then it’s fruit driven. But to me ‘fruit driven’ is an expression I don’t particularly like.
Because we’re talking about food, it’s very important that the grape flavours come through. If it’s riesling, it actually has to taste like riesling. If it’s cabernet sauvignon, you want the green leaf and you want the cassis to come through and you don’t want it be overly complexed with oak and other flavours because for the people buying these wines, I don’t think that’s really what they’re looking for.
The elegant bit’s very important because it’s very easy for Australian wines to be overwhelming in a food situation. Shiraz is a classic example – that we make these wonderful shirazes but when do you drink them? All too often they’re a little bit overwhelming with food.
So we’re very, very firm about getting this elegance in with Jacob’s Creek. I often describe Jacob’s Creek as being a bit like a hybrid between Australia and Europe. I think the Europeans, over 2000 years, probably by natural selection, worked out that the wines which people actually liked in a dining situation were probably those that were more elegant.
If you put Jacob’s Creek into a European line up, it looks very, very Australian. It bears no resemblance to Europe. You put in a line up with Australian wines and actually you can see some of those European tendencies on the palate.
We are often criticised for making wines which people say are too light. And in a line up it’s a valid point – we have a lot of internal arguments where our own people say, look Jacob’s Creek is not comparing to all these other wines – they’re overpowering it.
And I say absolutely right. But this is not the way people drink wine. They don’t line up four glasses of Australian chardonnay with whatever they’re having to eat. They have a glass of this one or that one. What we’re doing is producing something that in that dining situation works very, very well.
So we’ve always had this belief – and increasingly – in elegance. Now you might call it lightness. But to me lightness is all about emptiness and lacking. The wines aren’t lacking but they aren’t overpowering – and, in that sense, they’re not typically Australian.
We reckon there’s a link through the sparkling wines, the white wines and the red wines where these same characteristics of freshness and elegance come through.
It’s almost an oxymoron talking about elegant shiraz. But if you look at Jacob’s Creek Shiraz in the context of a lot of other Australian shiraz, it certainly comes through as being a lighter, more elegant style of shiraz.
And that elegance is more a palate function than a fruit function. You can still have lots and lots to smell and taste but at the same time you don’t have to have a big, overwhelming palate. And it’s that palate sensation which I think all too easily interferes with the dining situation.
And if we’re right about the style – and there’s evidence to suggest that it is at least one legitimate style, because Jacob’s Creek does very well. I’m not saying there aren’t many other equally good styles. But it’s a successful style.
How do you achieve that style – because it’s not a matter of putting a water hose in to dilute things back? That’s where it comes back to selecting regions – or blends of regions, blends of varieties if needs be, grape growing and, to a lesser extent winemaking.
Winemaking is important inasmuch as we do it correctly and carefully, but we’re not using winemaking an awful lot to change the style of the wine.
Are Australian wines generally, and especially those for export, evolving to a more elegant style?
Two things are happening at the moment and it’s very alarming. It’s a function of having too much fruit. What’s happening is that a lot of opportunists have come into the market who see that they can make wine very cheaply because the fruit’s very cheap, and it’s all about selling the cheapest wine possible because there’s an enormous market in the world for very cheap wines – Germany being the classic case, and also the United Kingdom where – and if we take Jacob’s Creek as an example – Jacob’s Creek historically sold in about forty per cent of the UK market. Anything below that we couldn’t compete in; in fact, Australia couldn’t compete in.
That was the province of France, Hungary, Romania, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Suddenly Australia, because it’s got surplus fruit, can make wines that can be sold at two pounds ninety-nine.
So, there’s a lot of Australian wine being sold there. The winemaking is sound but basic. We do supposedly do have this bit of protection from the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation that prevents, hopefully, bad wine leaving the country.
But what it’s done is to dilute people’s view of Australian wine. You’ll see a UK wine writer saying that Australia has dropped its standards; it isn’t what it used to be.
I’ll guarantee that the Lindemans Bin Range, Penfolds, Hardys Nottage Hill, Jacob’s Creek, Oxford Landing have never been better.
What’s happening is the other wines are down here and everybody’s doing a mental averaging. So the image has dropped. Now that’s quite terrifying because not only does it affect people’s image of the quality of Australian wine, but it’s putting price pressure on the whole Australian category.
And to be competitive a lot of people have had to bring their prices down quite dangerously – and that reinforces in peoples’ minds that they have dropped their quality, because the wines are now cheaper.
We’ve been able to resist this more than most because – it’s one of the great benefits of being part of a company like Pernod Ricard – that Pernod Ricard doesn’t live and die on the price of wine, because wine is a significant part but not the major part of the operation.
So that when things get a little tough for wine, we get a little bit of protection for our prices on the basis that it’s more important where we’re going to be in five years time than where we are today – and if you follow the market today, it’s going to be very difficult to take it back.
We’ve had these two forces working against us. At the top end – and here I mean the top end of the Australian brands – people are actually making better wines than they ever have because they’ve got to compete against a world that’s making better and better wine, but we’ve got this image issue with people coming in underneath.
Evolving top-end wine styles
I think more and more Australian wine – and I don’t think it’s because of Jacob’s Creek, even if it might be in some cases – are looking increasingly like Jacob’s Creek in terms of this elegant style. People are backing away from the excesses – excessive fruit flavours, excessive oak flavour or excessive malolactic flavour and are making wines which are easier to drink because they’re more about the flavour of the grape.
I know that some people have chosen to use Jacob’s Creek as a model. Fair enough. But I think probably if you’re an intelligent person observing what it is that people are drinking, you’d probably draw the same conclusion yourself – that people are looking for things that are better crafted and are more elegant and fresher.
People who are drinking wine because of its reputation, because they are genuinely interested in the difference between, say Coonawarra and Clare and lots and lots of reasons – they’re a very important part of the marketplace. But in terms of volumes, it’s only five to 10 per cent of the total. It’s becoming very important to Jacob’s Creek, not in volume terms, but in value terms. And the same is probably happening to everyone else.
While the 80:20 rule still applies, there’s more interest in and more importance to the top end in what it’s saying about a brand – even if people are still drinking as much at the bottom end. But, in order to protect that bottom end, you have to be doing things up here, so that those buying at the bottom end know that should they want to, they can buy Jacob’s Creek also up here. They may choose not to, but it’s very reassuring to know that Jacob’s Creek is also up there – here, here, here and here.
And again, a lot of that’s possibly subconscious, but I think the top-end makers of Australian wine are trying very hard. There are exceptions. There are people who’ve got themselves into difficult binds financially or through – Yellowtail’s a classic example – where the growth has been so extraordinary that they flip flop from here to there in style just in order to find enough fruit to keep the brand going.
Now, you can say that’s a dangerous course, and it’s not a course we would have taken or did when we were growing – not that we’ve seen growth as explosive as Yellowtail’s.
Ours has been a more gradual growth, but we’ve also restricted the sales over the years when we felt that the next step to add an extra ten per cent would’ve meant there’s going to be a style or quality change.
And we’ve always said – and it’s a company philosophy, and fortunately it’s maintained by Pernod Ricard who have exactly the same belief in quality – that you don’t sacrifice your reputation.
They call it reputation. But it all comes back to style, quality and how people see it. You don’t fiddle with things just to make a little bit more. But if you can make more without compromising style or quality, then of course you would.
And if the reverse applies, then that’s it. It was the situation we found ourselves in through most of the 1990s, when Jacob’s Creek had its highest growth rate, and for nearly all of that period through until about 2000 we were constrained with a great number of the wines within the range because we would have had to sacrifice style and quality to meet demand.
A good example at the moment is that we would love to sell a Jacob’s Creek sauvignon blanc and we’ve been under great pressure from marketing – understandably – for the last three years to do it, with the enormous interest and growth in sauvignon blanc.
We’ve succeeded in doing it with Jacob’s Creek Reserve. We’ve made some reasonably attractive sauvignon blanc. We cannot do it with regular Jacob’s Creek because the cost of the quality of fruit we need is about $1000 to $1500 a tonne. Well you can’t sell a bottle of wine at $8 if you’re paying that sort of price.
There’s lots of sauvignon blanc that’s affordable. But the quality of that fruit is not good enough for us to say we’d be happy to have Jacob’s Creek made out of that. So, the compromise that we’ve come up with is that we sell a semillon sauvignon blanc blend because you can buy excellent semillon for $500–$600 a tonne from the Riverina and Barossa and you blend that 60 per cent:40 per cent with sauvignon blanc that you’re probably paying $1000-$1500 a tonne for out of the Adelaide Hills, and you come up with an attractive wine. That’s a good example of a blended wine.
But it would be an impossibility to make a sauvignon blanc. Yes, we could make one and it could be competitive with sauvignon blancs of a similar price. But you have to think of what it would do to Jacob’s Creek. You have to really think about it because everything you do to Jacob’s Creek is incredibly important.
It’s not that huge in volume but it has a great reputation. It goes back to when Australia was locked down in quarantine in the 1880s because of phylloxera. The significant white varieties that existed in Australia were semillon, riesling, crouchen (once known as Clare riesling) and doradillo was significant, but for brandy production.
The most notable variety we didn’t have was chardonnay. So when we started drinking quality table wines in the fifties, sixties and seventies, they were made from semillon and riesling and, to a lesser extent, crouchen, because that’s what we had.
And we learned to make exceptionally good wines from both those varieties.
The other interesting thing about them is that traditionally they’re varieties that are not oak matured – not because we didn’t, but because they’re varieties that are best not oak matured.
Therefore, we learned to make wines that had great longevity – because there was no compromise in terms of the wines being early developers because they’d been forced along in barrels.
So we had this focus on making these two very classic wines. It evolved into certain areas where because it is so warm in Australia, you can’t grow riesling in warm areas if you want it to taste like riesling. It has to have cool nights. Hence, the suitability of areas like Eden Valley, Clare Valley and the slopes of the Barossa. More recently areas like the Adelaide Hills and Langhorne Creek evolved because they had cool nights.
Along came chardonnay in the 1980s. The first vines were released in 1969 so there weren’t commercial wines being made until about 1983.
Going back to riesling: We had always made wonderful rieslings. We lost ourselves a bit with the advent of chardonnay. It wasn’t so much a matter of consumers wanting it. It was more a matter of winemakers forcing it upon consumers, because here was something different. And the initial chardonnays were not terribly attractive wines.
They were overcompensated with oak because they didn’t have much flavour. Skin contact was all the go, in an attempt to get more flavour out of what was fruit off young vines. So they were phenolic and in most cases, including Jacob’s Creek, not terribly attractive wines.
We were lucky as an industry that we didn’t lose all those riesling vineyards because, logically, nearly all of those riesling vineyards should have been pulled out. But because such a high proportion was owned by proprietary winemakers they were in a sense quarantined.
Had they been owned by private growers they would have been pulled out. Most of the vineyards that were pulled out were independently owned. Growers just couldn’t get the price for their fruit.
The vineyards that were owned by the big winemakers were safe because there was always this misguided belief, I suppose, that riesling was going to come back. Because as a winemaker you knew what wonderful wine it could make. The logic said that sooner or later people will see it as we see it and start drinking riesling again.
So ourselves and Southcorp, Penfolds in particular, Lindemans, Leo Burings, Hardys, Yalumba, everybody hung on to their riesling vineyards.
In fact, for many years, a big part of the source for riesling was the Penfolds vineyards. They didn’t want it themselves. But they didn’t want to lose them. So, there’s this great legacy in Australia of great riesling vineyards.
It’s fascinating when you look at a wine like Jacob’s Creek Riesling, of which we sell close to three million litres, that the fruit comes from Clare Valley, Barossa Valley, Eden Valley, a hatful from McLaren Vale and a little from Langhorne Creek. Not a drop of Riverland material goes into it. Why? Because these areas are where the riesling vineyards are.
I’m not too sure what happens when riesling does become more popular. We’ll then find ourselves in a bit of a dilemma because these are also reasonably high cost of production areas.
We are as a company and as an industry surrounded by remarkably good riesling vineyards. And in Australia we have a history of making very, very good riesling – which is nothing more than being very, very careful from the vine all the way through to getting it into the bottle.
The picking and the transportation are really just as important as the winemaking. You could say this about all fruit. But it’s particularly so in the case of riesling.
Why is riesling niche?
Traditionally the wine’s been very confused – and it’s not just in Australia, it’s all around the world – because you get some countries making sweet, other countries making dry. The label never quite tells you what it’s going to be. You get a bottle of riesling and all it tells you is ‘I’m a bottle of riesling’.
Is it sweet, is it dry, is it in between? If in doubt, you don’t buy it. Riesling was damaged by very, very ordinary very sweet wines coming out of predominantly Germany – which were not, of course, riesling, but they happened to be in a riesling bottle. They had nothing to do with riesling, but they had that image. And we’re still fighting that.
Great riesling is dry. If you can get people to taste it, they love it. Riesling was making a come back four or five years ago, then along came sauvignon blanc. Retailers say that people coming in for sauvignon blanc are the people who were drinking riesling. Both are white and flavoursome. But sauvignon blanc is trendy. So, if you’re trendy, drop the riesling and go for sauvignon blanc. So, the sauvignon blanc craze has delayed the recovery of riesling.
I think it’s only going to be a matter of time, because as people become more sophisticated in their drinking habits, they’re going to be looking for a broader and broader repertoire of things to drink.
The classic case is the United States. Ten years ago you couldn’t give riesling away.
We did an interesting thing. We launched Jacob’s Creek Reserve Riesling – not the regular riesling – in the US and it’s been very, very successful. The argument was that if we sold a very cheap riesling it was bound to fail.
But if we sold a reasonably expensive one, there’s a chance that people buying at that level might have a reasonable understanding about riesling. And we put it under screw cap which was also a novelty at the time, and it was a talking point and it gave us a reason to talk about riesling – and that the screw cap was not just about bad corks but about the freshness of the wine and what have you.
And now, in fact, there’s a growing demand for regular Jacob’s Creek Riesling. So, there are some good signs.
Our place – Jacob’s Creek, and how it got it’s name
The history of Jacob’s Creek is quite fascinating because it’s very much caught up in the history of South Australia.
Johann Menge who was a geologist-cum-botanist, employed by the South Australian Company, as it was known then, to look around parts of South Australia. He based himself on Jacob’s Creek.
And one of the things he did was establish pilot plantings of tobacco, vines – a whole lot of things because he was as much interested in agriculture and botany as he was in geology.
And he came back and said there’s this wonderful place in the Barossa that can grow all these wonderful sorts of things.
Prior to him doing that, Jacob’s Creek had been named because when Colonel William Light, the surveyor of South Australia, went through the state, he surveyed the Barossa. One of his offsiders was William Jacob, an assistant surveyor, and he apparently convinced Light to name this little creek after himself, so there’d be some recognition for his family as time went on.
But there must have been a bit more to it because shortly thereafter he retired from surveying and bought a property on Jacob’s Creek. In fact, at the very spot that Menge had conducted these experimental plantings. Menge had lived in a cave and the remnants of that cave still exist on our property on Jacob’s Creek.
When the Gramps and Jacob began building their houses and dairy and what have you, that’s where they got the stone from. It was sedimentary stone, so it was easy to knock off slices. So, what was a cave is now a depression and is a South Australian historic site.
So Jacob lived here on Jacob’s Creek. The remains of his original house still exist. But certainly his subsequent house is still in reasonably good repair and in fact we use it as accommodation.
His primary interest was in dairy farming, and his dairy remains there. But he also planted vines and as was the case with many of those early Barossa settlers he also built his own winery.
The remnants of that winery still exist. But it’s probably a little hard to recognise because in the 1970s Colin Gramp converted the remains into a restaurant and more recently Grant Burge has converted it into a cellar door, sales and offices for Grant Burge Wines.
Anyway, that’s how the creek got its name.
At very much the same time, Johann Gramp, along with a number of other German immigrants, arrived in the Barossa – along with names like Seppelt, Henschke, Lehmann and Hoffman, all well-known wine names.
At that time the only vines that had been planted were more for sacrificial purposes for the Lutheran Church. There were only three or four rows – just enough to make wine for sacrificial purposes.
Gramp planted the first so-called commercial vineyard – a couple of acres. He’d established himself on Jacob’s Creek, probably as a farm site, because grape growing was originally only a part of his farming.
Fairly quickly growing grapes and making wine became his real purpose in life. But Gramp did not use the name Jacob’s Creek at all.
In fact, not long after he built his first winery, which remains on Jacob’s Creek, his son, Gustav Gramp – after whom the company is now named, G. Gramp & Son – moved the main part of the winery operation to Roland Flat.
Johann Gramp continued to use the original winery until he died as a very old man. By that time headquarters of Orlando – G. Gramp and Sons—was at Roland Flat. So Orlando’s association was with Roland Flat rather than Jacob’s Creek.
The Gramp family subsequently bought William Jacob’s property and planted vines. And for a long, long time their best-known vineyard was known internally as Jacob’s Creek Vineyard, along with others called Kluge, Lyndale, Miamba and what have you.
This was a time when Australian wines were built around generic names and if there were wines that were well known they tended to be named after the company. So you’d buy, for argument’s sake, Orlando Claret or, if it were something special, Orlando Barossa Cabernet or something like that.
It wasn’t until the 1970s when Orlando, along with a lot of other companies in Australia, was looking for ways to create new brand and new products because there was a growing interest in Australia.
And there was a whole range of products released by a lot of companies. The approach that Orlando took was to introduce a range of generic wines but named after their various vineyards. The fruit and the wine were not necessarily associated with them, but just taking names.
And they used their Barossa vineyard names – Kluges, Jacob’s Creek, Lyndale, Miamba – and each one had a generic wine associated with it. Some were varietal but they still were sold under generic names.
And that was the first time that Jacob’s Creek as such appeared on anybody’s label. All the other wines in that range failed, with the exception of Jacob’s Creek. It succeeded so well that in time other varieties were added to it.
The first one [to be introduced after ‘Claret’, the first under the Jacob’s Creek label] was riesling because in the late 1970s early 1980s riesling was still the major wine style in Australia so it was the logical thing to match alongside Jacob’s Creek Claret and Orlando had riesling resources.
So that’s how the name came about. It was really by chance rather than by intent. It transpires of course that it was very fortunate that Jacob’s Creek was the one that succeeded because there’s all this wonderful history around the place.
Despite Gustav Gramp’s moving a couple of kilometres away, those vineyards have remained within the Orlando family ever since being bought from William Jacob and still produce significant quantities of wine that does go into Jacob’s Creek.
One could never make the claim that Jacob’s Creek comes from Jacob’s Creek, but there’s a lot of fruit, riesling and increasingly shiraz that we grow along Jacob’s Creek.
Jacob’s Creek – a unique part of the Barossa
If you think of the Barossa Valley, it’s shaped like a funnel. We’re at the southern end and the floor of the valley here is about five hundred metres wide. You get to the northern end, up around Ebenezer, about 20 kilometres due north of here, it’s about 10 kilometres wide.
So it’s opened right out. We’re probably 25mm wetter. And we’re a degree or two cooler. So the climate is different and the southern part of the Barossa is more to do with the slopes of the Barossa than it is to do with the floor of the Barossa.
And we do make a different style. It’s interesting that over time Orlando, under any of its names, ceased to make a Barossa shiraz or a Barossa cabernet for that matter and in the 1990s with the enormous success of Australian shiraz around the world and Barossa in particular, it seemed particularly stupid for Orlando not to have a Barossa shiraz. Seeing we had shiraz vineyards here, we decided to do something that typifies our part of the Barossa.
Don’t copy what’s happening in the northern end. We should do something that talks about our part of the Barossa. And fortunately our part of the Barossa Valley sits comfortably with the style of Jacob’s Creek. It’s an area where we get more intense varietal flavour and lighter, softer wines.
So when we made the first vintages of Centenary Hill, it was from fruit that’s grown along Jacob’s Creek, not at that time because of the Jacob’s Creek connection, but because of the southern Barossa Valley connection – something typical of our area.
This has made it very easy and logical to move Centenary Hill under the Jacob’s Creek umbrella, because there is a very strong link because the vineyards are on Jacob’s Creek.
There are significant differences in the valley north to south and from the slopes down to the floor. We’ve got some riesling on the floor – if you can really call it the floor, because everything in this part is sloping country. The riesling on the Jacob’s Creek vineyard is on the slopes. And recent plantings are on the eastern slopes.
It’s certainly always cooler here than the official measuring point at Nuriootpa. Up there the valley has opened up very much and it’s very, very flat. We get much cooler nights. In wintertime it will be foggy here where it’s not foggy in the north. So there is a big enough climate change to be significant from north to south and that influences the style of wine we make here.
So, Jacob’s Creek is important for a whole range of reasons, not just for its name and history but because fruit from Jacob’s Creek plays a significant part in our Reserve and Heritage wines.
Steingarten’s a good example. Jacob’s Creek Centenary Hill is another. Jacob’s Creek Reserve Riesling. Jacob’s Creek Reserve shiraz all are influenced by fruit grown along Jacob’s Creek or in the Jacob’s Creek area. Steingarten is higher up in the hills to the east but it’s on the Jacob’s Creek catchment.
Food and produce
The Barossa is a unique area. More than any other part of Australia that I can think of, it retained its ethnic identity for an awfully long time. I as a kid lived in Tanunda for about a year at age nine or ten. And it was then very Germanic – it would’ve been 1950.
There was a version of German spoken used in the Lutheran churches. Ten years later in 1960 I came back here as an oenology student and worked a vintage at what was then TST [Tolley Scott and Tolley] in Nuriootpa and the foreman would speak frequently in the bastardised version of German to the cellar hands.
People who lived in the Barossa just didn’t move out. But in the last twenty years or so with more and more cars and what have you, that there’s been a much greater loss of people from the valley.
Having said that, probably fifty per cent of the people living here have names that are original Barossa Valley German names. So it’s remained a very interesting place.
The other reason why it probably didn’t happen – this is an aside, but I can recall studying ag science in the 1960s, one of the books we studied was about agricultural economics. The Barossa Valley at that time was identified as the poorest agricultural district in Australia. So how times change. They had the lowest average income of any farming group in Australia.
There wasn’t much money to be made of grapes. And they were all mixed farms. And that in itself, I think, probably was another reason why it stayed pretty much as it was. People didn’t have the money to get out if they wanted to. And there wasn’t much to encourage people to move in. So it stayed a very tight-knit community.
As a consequence, a lot of traditions other than winemaking remained in the Barossa: the strength of the Lutheran Church; the incredible interest in what were food types with German origins; the fact that we still eat lots and lots of metwursts, fritz and processed meat still made in the way it was 100 years ago, and still very typical Barossa.
The Barossa Valley will never be known for its salad vegetables. But is renowned for its root vegetable crops, meats, chooks, pigs – not beef to a great extent because that would have been too expensive – but processed meat because it was all about preserving food. So there’s still this great tradition in the valley of eating a lot of processed meat foods.
Cooking is an incredibly important part of the history of the Barossa. Fruit growing is still important. You still see lots of quinces grown. Where do you see quince trees these days?
There’s still a lot of traditional food stuffs, like quince paste, in the Barossa Valley, I think for the same reasons. I guess we’re all ethnics in Australia and the Barossa, I suppose, is ethnic German.
They didn’t bring the tradition of winemaking with them. Gramp was a baker. Seppelt was a tobacco grower. I don’t think any of them came out here with any grape growing skills. They had to realise they had a great place to grow grapes and make wine.
And all of those sorts of food stuffs are very compatible with wine. And there was still a very strong interest in food. It’s probably been helped by people like Maggie Beer building up that reputation but, I mean the reputation and history were there and I guess Maggie has added to that in the way that Wolf Blass has contributed to winemaking reputation.
The modern interests in food values the old traditions and builds upon them. There are still orchards here. They grow peaches and pears and plums. In the next valley over there still is a very strong dried fruit industry – at Angas Park. It’s all sort of rural foodstuffs.
Visitors can find restaurants serving locally produced food. They can find restaurants specialising in locally grown, processed meats: Schultz at Angaston, Linke at Nuriootpa and probably the best of them all now, the Lyndoch butchery.
But the reputation was more around meat then anything else because that would have been the interesting part of what people ate. The list of vegetables was probably potatoes, turnips and other boring stuff.
Jacob’s Creek and Australian culture
Jacob’s Creek probably epitomises a lot of things about Australian culture. Despite a lot of people thinking about us as a bunch of larrikins, really we are, in fact, quite balanced, particularly those of us who live in the bush because, despite motor cars and everything else, it’s still a moderately tough, in the sense of economically tough, living in the countryside and if you were a true larrikin you wouldn’t survive.
So there’s a combination in Australians, I think – a balance between responsibility but also having a good time. That ‘s epitomised in Jacob’s Creek. It’s a fairly conservative brand, but it’s also contemporary.
Jacob’s Creek people
One of my challenges in being part of the Jacob’s Creek team is to ensure that we have the right people for winemaking and viticulture. The people we look for are first and foremost passionate.
They must be passionate about wine. They must be able to discriminate between wines. And they must have good academic performance. We run a graduate program. Each year we employ two graduates. We have about 20 winemakers. Average age is about 30.
The link to viticulture is the key thing to Jacob’s Creek. Our philosophy or how we deal with growers and how we manage the intake of fruit. The classification of our fruit is done in the vineyard. We have a complex system whereby we rate fruit on a scale of, potentially, one to fifteen.
The rating on the fruit is used to determine how much the maker will be paid. And that rating is determined by a winemaker, not by a viticulturist and not by a grower liaison officer.
After the rating, the fruit is allocated to a product. And that determines how we will treat that fruit – so that like will go with like.
Once the fruit is in the winery, we taste the ferments twice a day.
And it requires an enormous degree of trust between the grower and the company.
The first vineyard that Johann [Gramp] planted was riesling. And maybe that in part explains the fascination and focus that Orlando has had in all its history of making riesling. And its link to riesling is probably stronger than any other company’s in Australia. There was this historic link. It was probably in the forties and fifties the biggest maker of true riesling in Australia.
It went a step further in 1953 when Orlando introduced refrigeration and pressure fermentation. And the riesling they made in 1953 is probably the most famous riesling this country has ever made. And the last two bottles we drank at Colin Gramp’s 80th birthday.
One of them was stunningly good and the other was what you might expect a 49-year-old riesling to be like.
So there was this link plus another one in the period in which I worked for Lindemans–Leo Buring. It was the other stronger company at the time in terms of riesling production.
We [at Lindemans–Buring] always perceived Orlando as being the real competitor in Australia because of their ability to make great riesling. And as red wine making wasn’t as important then as it is now, if people made good riesling it told you that they were good winemakers and dedicated, capable people.
Orlando made great riesling, so they were seen as the people you had to measure up against. Hopefully they felt the same way about us.
Ever better Jacob’s Creek
A lot of little steps along the way have contributed to the claim we make internally that a vintage is slightly more appealing than the previous one. There are exceptions that come about because of vintage conditions, but if you look at it overall, there has been a progressive improvement, or lift in appeal. Appeal, if you like, being a combination of quality and style.
There’s no such thing as maintaining your position. You’re either going backwards or forwards. If you’re standing still, then you’re about to go backwards.
Wine with food
If you mention wine with food, red or white, to me is not the critical thing. It’s the volume of flavour. You think about the strength of the flavour in the dish you’re going to eat and then select a wine with roughly the equivalent amount of flavour.
You could conceivably have the situation where chardonnay or merlot could be interchangeable because they both have a similar volume of flavour. That way, if you’re someone who prefers red wine, where you might normally think you should drink chardonnay, you could drink merlot and still get the same amount of enjoyment – and vice versa.
There’s nothing worse than having food that completely drowns out the wine flavour, because you don’t enjoy the wine and the meal is therefore lacking in something. And vice versa, the food’s so elegant that the wine completely drowns it. That can happen with shiraz and the wine completely drowns the food. Something’s missing from the food. And consciously or unconsciously you feel disappointed.
So to me that’s the most important thing. You then think about the most important thing. Then you think about do you want the flavours to be complimentary – because quite often the contrast is more attractive than the complimentary flavours. And by that I mean, for example, if you’re having a sweet dessert people invariably want to serve a sweet wine – and you get sugar overload and it becomes very unattractive.
If you serve something reasonably dry with dessert, the contrast is more attractive because the dryness brings out the attractive part of the sweetness and vice versa.
If you want to have a sweet wine, then the best place to have it is with something that’s extremely tart, like an apple or something with apple involved. It’s another case of the contrast being more appealing.
Another good combination is something like semillon or semillon chardonnay with oily food. If you matched, say, oily fish with chardonnay, there’s a richness and creaminess to chardonnay that increases that oily sensation. We all like eating oily things, but we don’t like a residual oiliness in our mouths.
If you matched that same oily fish with semillon or semillon blends, the green, grassiness of the semillon cuts right through that oiliness – a bit like using lemon juice, whereas chardonnay in that situation is all wrong, just adding to the richness – where semillon provides contrast. And then the food becomes more attractive and the wine itself is attractive.
I think the most important thing is balancing the degree of flavour. People are often thinking for, example, that they’ve got a nice piece of steak and they’d better have a bottle of a big shiraz. Well you’re not going to taste the steak, unless you’ve got a pepper steak, because that would be a complete mismatch. Where if they’d thought about it that would have been the place for a merlot or cabernet sauvignon.
Shiraz, well that’s the rule with Italian dishes, casseroles, anything where there’s tons of flavour. Some of the challenges come from the growth of Asian food, by itself or in a fusion sense. Some of the cuisine that’s been developed in a non-vinous environment is difficult to match with wine.
The classic one is Indian food. It’s interesting when you speak to Indians they say, ah, yes, but in India, we never drink when we’re eating. We don’t even drink tea. We drink before and we drink after. They say when you go to an Indian meal, notice how it’s very quiet because people drink and talk before, then they eat, and then they drink and talk.
But the only thing that has a hope there is probably something like grenache because of its perfume. But that’s an exception.
If food’s highly spiced – say with cumin or cardamom – but not hot, then you’re probably in the domain for riesling or grenache and grenache shiraz because the perfume in the wine matches the perfume in the food, whereas things like chardonnay and cabernet just seem to get lost – shiraz, maybe.
Thai food I find fascinating. Coriander handled properly so you can barely taste it is OK. But usually for a lot of Thai dishes, coriander flavour is an important characteristic and, again, it just destroys chardonnay. But riesling actually stands up remarkably well to these sorts of perfume.
Riesling and Asian food
Perhaps the great hope for riesling is the growth in Asian cuisine. I think one of the best wine and food matches in the world is sashimi or sushi and riesling. They’re just made for one another. When you think about it, Japanese and certain Chinese cuisine, certainly Cantonese, is all about fresh flavours – unlike a lot of other parts of Asia – India is an example, and certain parts of Europe, where the food is historically about how it had to be preserved.
Japanese and to some degree Chinese food is all about freshness, freshness, freshness. And the fact you eat a lot of that food raw is indicative of how fresh it is. And those sorts of bright, fresh flavours are just made for wine – and yet they evolved in an environment where wine didn’t exist.
Japanese food could be said to be elegant. And Chinese food goes remarkably well with a number of European style wines. That’s why I don’t think we need to be developing wine styles especially for the Asian market. Their food goes well with what we already have.
I’m not so fussed about choice of red or white wine with food. The difference is more to do with the fact that tannin works with some food but not with others.
Tannin’s fine with protein. Which means that red wine is fine if there’s plenty of protein in the food.
When you drink red wine with food rich in protein, there’s an instantaneous reaction between the tannin in the wine and the protein in your mouth. The amelioration of the protein in the food makes the food texturally more attractive; and, of course, the fining effect of the protein on the tannin softens the wine.
So, it’s a win-win all around. The way to prove this to yourself is, the next time you’re having a bottle of cabernet sauvignon, make sure you haven’t eaten any food for a couple of hours, have a sip of the wine, then start your meal, take your next sip and see the difference.
The tip there is often it’s better to taste wine with food to get an idea of how good the wine is – because wine tastings can be somewhat clinical for people who don’t do it as a profession.
The questions I get asked most
I suppose the questions most commonly asked is how come Australia, and Jacob’s Creek in particular, can make the sort of wine it does at the price – which says to me that lots of people actually do appreciate the value they’re getting out of Australia.
It gets back to climate and all those things we spoke about before. To me it’s a reassuring question because what it’s telling you is that the people drinking Jacob’s Creek actually appreciate the fact that they’re getting something that’s A, attractive and B, good value.
Questions about food and wine matching is a common one. And my stock answer is the concept of thinking about volume of flavour in the food, then selecting a wine with similar volume of flavour.
Can you judge a wine by its price?
The truth is that this is not an easy question to answer.
Price is one indication of quality. But be very careful because pricing can be used where something’s very scarce and pricing may be indicative of scarcity. This probably means that the wine’s very good – but maybe not as good as the price might suggest.
The chances are the price is wrong and not you
Some people believe that by having a really high price you’re getting a really good bottle of wine. What you have to do is to be very brutally honest in your assessment of the wine and say, yes, I am enjoying this, irrespective of the price. Or, if you paid a high price and you’re not enjoying it the chances are the price is wrong and not you.
Assessing a wine
The only way you can assess wine is in a clear, clean glass.
The colour tells you an awful lot about the wine. With white wine you would be looking for tinges of green, irrespective of the age of the wine. With the exception of a couple of varieties that inherently don’t have green, that green tinge is a very good indication of the how the fruit was picked, how the wine was made, how it’s been warehoused and cared for.
Similarly with red, in a wine of up to four to five years you would be expecting to see some purple hues and thereafter some crimson, but in both cases if you start to see browns be very careful unless the wine is very old.
The nose is going to tell you all about the flavour of the wine – the varietal characteristics. You are looking for things that are fresh. If you pick up a wine and it smells of oak, then you know that you are dealing with a carpenter, rather than a winemaker. The first thing you should smell is the fruit or a combination is all about the fruit.
In assessing a wine, the artefacts, which are important in winemaking, should be all about complementing the characters of the fruit, not competing with them – because wine is all about grapes. It’s not about the winemaker choosing to add flavours.
Tasting the wine, you’re really looking for the texture of the wine. It tells you about how sweet it is. It tells you a bit about the tannin. Importantly, is it a soft, attractive wine to drink?
The combination of all three is important but the tasting bit to some degree confirms what you have already seen in the glass – or haven’t seen; or what you’ve smelt – or haven’t smelt.
The vintage has bearing on the quality. But we are extremely lucky in Australia that our seasonal variations are nowhere near as great as in parts of Europe. But, yes, we have years that are better than others. And to be honest about it, we periodically we have a very bad year. The last we had was in 1983. It doesn’t happen very often.
There are vintage differences and we don’t try to hide them. We play up the good years, particularly in the Reserves and Heritage ranges. And, of course, right at the top end there are years where we might say for one style or variety, the year isn’t quite good enough and we might not make and bottle that wine. But generally speaking, because, again, we can blend from different regions across Australia, we tend to get more evenness between vintages than most other parts of the world.
Is the older the better?
Age cannot improve wine. Wine is at its best when it’s hanging as a bunch of grapes on the vine. Everything we do thereafter tends to detract from the quality of that fruit. The skill of the winemaker is to minimise the damage done to the fruit in getting it into a bottle.
If you put away a bottle of ordinary wine for ten years, when you open it up you have a ten-year-old bottle of ordinary wine.
If you put away a very good bottle of wine for ten years, you will end up with something which might be quite interesting. It’s not going to be better. But the reason people like to drink ten or fifteen-year-old bottles of riesling or cabernet sauvignon is because the changes that have taken place make the wine very interesting.
But you have to be very careful. It doesn’t make it better. You put it away for the differences, not to improve it.
And in any event for 99 per-cent of us the chances of having somewhere suitable to store a bottle of wine is pretty rare. And that’s not just speaking as an Australian from a very hot country.
For people living in the UK, it’s very difficult to get places where temperature is stable – because of central heating, air conditioning and what have you.
So, if you do want to put a bottle of wine away for a 21st birthday or whatever, you need to have ideal circumstances to store in or else recognise that you’re putting it away more for the ceremony than the enjoyment.
Important things on a wine label.
The first thing to look for is the brand or the name of the winemaker, because that person’s reputation is going to tell you an awful lot about the wine. So that’s the cue as to quality.
You may then have in mind a particular variety. So the label will then tell you whether it’s a single variety or a blend – bearing in mind that in many cases the blend may well be more attractive than a single variety.
You look to the vintage, bearing in mind that in a bottle of wine from Australia the vintage does not have the significance that it might in northern Europe.
The label will tell you where the fruit came from that produces the wine. And again this may be fruit from a single area or it might be a blend from a range of areas. Again, single regions are not necessarily better than blends of regions.
Why brands count for so much of Aussie wine sold
That’s one of the things that sets Australia aside – apart from the geology and climate and all those sorts of things. More than any other country Australian winemakers have traditionally made a range of wine styles – unlike in Europe where somebody might live in an area where people make riesling or an area where they make a Bordeaux style wine.
Winemakers in Australia have been far more catholic in their tastes and there would be very few winemakers whose focus is just on one or even two varieties.
Because our winemakers traditionally made a range of product, that led to the importance of brands within Australia.
The name of a company in many cases became the brand. And in the case of Jacob’s Creek the name of one of those vineyards became the brand.
The strength of those brands has developed particularly for people who are interested in drinking wine just for the enjoyment. If say, you are a drinker of Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay and you’d like to try a red wine, because you’re confident in the fact that you enjoy Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay, there’s a fair chance that you’ll enjoy one of the Jacob’s Creek reds.
The best example of this the success of Jacob’s Creek sparkling wine, because traditionally sparkling wine has been a stand-alone product. Perhaps a big part of the success of Jacob’s Creek sparkling wine was, for those people buying sparkling wine, which is usually an occasion thing rather than an everyday thing, you walk into a store and here’s this array of brands that you’re not familiar with and there’s suddenly Jacob’s Creek. The reaction is I know that, I drink that: I like their wines, so I’ll probably like their sparkling wine. They buy it and lo and behold, they do like it.
If wine brands weren’t created by Australia, certainly Australian winemakers have made greater use of the strength of brands than anyone else in the world. And it’s worked very much in their favour because if somebody is comfortable and confident and happy about one particular product under a brand that gives them the confidence to try something else under that brand name.
Corks and screwcaps
The issue of corks is a vexed topic because if you get a good cork you’ve got a good bottle of wine; if you get a bad cork you have an unfortunate bottle of wine. Sadly, by looking at the cork and by sniffing at the cork, there’s no way of telling beforehand whether you have a good cork or bad cork.
The only test you can do is a destructive test and once you’ve destroyed the cork you no longer have a seal that you can put into a bottle of wine.
Therefore, over time people have been looking for alternatives to cork — on the one hand, to overcome this problem where it’s claimed two to three per cent of all corks have a very unattractive mouldy characteristic.
The solutions have been in two directions. One, people have made look-alike synthetic corks. With very rare exceptions these have failed either because the synthetic itself imparts a character to the wine. Or, more commonly, they tend to let air into the wine and the wine oxidises. As well, many have been very difficult to remove from the bottle.
A very good alternative, albeit lacking a bit of charisma, is the screw cap specifically designed for wine. This was an invention from France in the 1960s which was tested at the time and shown to be an outstanding closure.
But because it didn’t have the tradition and ceremony of corks and capsules and corkscrews it was not terribly successful.
A silver lining behind every wine screwcap
Wine screw caps differ from ordinary screw caps even though they might look the same from the outside. If you look inside, the wadding is, in fact, bright silver — unlike a screw cap you might find on a bottle of spirits or cordial, which are usually white – being cellulose.
The silver lining is a thin piece of pure tin which creates a barrier against air. And that thin layer of tin is separated from the wine by an even thinner layer of plastic.
That plastic allows a very small amount of air to exchange over time into the wine, so that the wine matures under a screw cap almost identically to how it would in a bottle under a good cork.
Even a good cork can impart a natural woody flavour to the wine. Now this natural woody flavour of cork doesn’t matter in a red wine or a chardonnay that’s been matured in oak – because the oak flavour and the cork flavour are sufficiently similar to disappear into one common flavour.
However, that slightly woody flavour in a bottle of riesling or sauvignon blanc or any wine that has not been matured in oak can actually interfere with your enjoyment of the perfume of the fruit. And that’s the primary reason why people in Australia in the mid to late 1990s started to use screw caps on all of their rieslings.
The same argument was applied in New Zealand with sauvignon blanc. Both riesling and sauvignon blanc were not matured in oak and therefore were adversely affected by even a very good cork.
It’s interesting to note that increasingly white wine from all around the world is being bottled under screw cap. And the only apparent reason that it hasn’t moved to red wine at this stage is more to do with tradition than any other practical reason.
In any event, you will increasingly find red wines being bottled under screw caps. New Zealand is providing a good lead in this area, too, as pinot noir is now almost exclusively bottled under screw cap.
And in the case of Jacob’s Creek, a substantial quantity of St Hugo Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon is bottled and sold under screw cap. And you can expect to find all the top end Jacob’s Creek under screw cap in the not too distant future.
All of the wines in the Jacob’s Creek family are wines that while they have, without exception, the potential to mature into attractive wines, are made so that they can be drunk at the time they are purchased.
Storing wine fits into two categories. In fact, you might have bought a case of wine you intend to drink over the next few weeks or months – in which case storage conditions are not all that critical.
Certainly the wine does not need to lie on its side. It’s perfectly in order to store a wine with a cork in it upright for up to six months, unless the wine is very old.
Even for such a short time as a couple of months, don’t store wine next to a radiator or something that’s generating a lot of heat.
If you’re talking about putting wine away for a long period of time, think very, very carefully because unless you have somewhere that is very cool and stable – and by cool I mean around 14 to 18 degrees, but more importantly stable – you really should reconsider because chances are when you come to open the bottle of wine you’re going to be disappointed. And it won’t be the fault of the winemaker, but your fault for not being able to store it properly.
If you wish to experiment with ageing wine, within Jacob’s Creek any of the three rieslings, but particularly Steingarten, you’ll find fascinating results. And, if stored probably, with Steingarten up to 20 years.
Cabernet sauvignon is another very good variety to put away and mature. Certainly Jacob’s Creek Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Jacob’s Creek St Hugo are wines that will reward you with ageing.
Wines to avoid, generally, are chardonnay beyond three to four years, beyond which it tends to lose its appeal.
And something similar could be said for shiraz. Shiraz can mature into lovely old wine. But beyond eight to ten years it starts to lose the very characteristics – the pepper, spice and pluminess – that make it attractive to drink. While old shiraz doesn’t deteriorate as wine – it turns into a really nice old red – you really don’t know what your tasting because those lovely shiraz characteristics have gone.
So if you want to put a red wine away for a very long term, then stick to cabernet sauvignon.
When it comes to serving wine, temperature is very important. The concept of room temperature for red wines is fantastic if your room is between 15 and 18 degrees. If it’s warmer or colder, then forget room temperature.
It’s a dangerous expression. Red wine should be cool but not cold. So 15 to 18, maybe up to 20 degrees. Remember that red wine tends to have more alcohol than white wine and when it becomes warm tends to give off a lot of alcohol – and it’s a very unattractive flavour.
White wines should be served a little cooler, at 10 to 12 degrees. If you over-chill white wines then you tend to hide some of the flavour. One exception is sparkling wine, because in order to retain a nice bead of gas, people will have served Champagne and sparkling wine below 10 degrees.
If you are in an area where it is warm, it’s always best to serve too cold rather than too warm. If the wine is too cold it will always warm up. And if you’re desperate, you can always cup your hands around the glass to bring the wine to the right temperature.
Some Australian wine shows have begun to use those big Riedel glasses seen in restaurants. The argument is that the bigger bowl releases more of the aromas carried wine, thus allowing the drinker to better appreciate the wine’s subtleties.
But for normal drinking, the most important things about glassware is that it’s clear and scrupulously clean. It’s generally impracticable not to use detergent, despite what some people might say. It’s therefore important not to clean glasses in water that’s been used for washing dishes and pans that’ve been exposed to food – as the flavour components in this water tends to be very high. A good rinse helps to remove residual scents of detergent.
You don’t need a fishbowl
Glasses should be tulip shaped because when you sniff the wine, they tend to concentrate the aromas. And glass should have a stem as it prevents the warmth of your hand being transferred to the wine. And a wine looks more attractive in a glass that doesn’t have greasy fingerprints all over it.
There’s a tendency for people all over the world now to serve wines in enormous, balloon shaped glasses. This is quite ridiculous. You want something where the surface of the wine is large enough to allow some air to get to it – but not look like a fishbowl.
At a dinner party it’s ideal to have a separate glass for each wine. But the glasses can be of the same shape. There’s no need to have different shaped glasses for red and white wine.
In some cases it’s quite okay to use the same glass for more than one wine, especially for similar wine styles. But you wouldn’t want to add dry wine to a glass from which you’d previously drunk sweet wine. And while red wine can follow white in one glass, quite clearly it can’t be the other way around.
There are Wine Awards and wine awards. Those that are won from recognised and reputable organisations are of great value as they indicate an independent group of people felt that this particular bottle of wine compared very favourably not only against its competition but against the standards they carry around in their heads.
Wine competitions are also of great value to winemakers because its an opportunity to compare their skills and winemaking with their peers from within the same country or around the world.
As in any form of exhibition – done properly – it encourages them to improve the attractiveness and quality of their product, in this case wine.
However, one needs to be cautious with gold discs appearing upon bottles because not all of them are what they might seem to be. Make sure that the award actually relates to a specific wine show and that it records the class and the description of the class that the wine was exhibited in.
The fact that a gold disc appears on a bottle may mean nothing other than that the wine was founded in such and such a year. So, read the awards carefully and be reassured by those from reputable shows. Awards from Australian capital city wine shows – Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Adelaide, Hobart, Brisbane and Perth – are a very good indication of quality.
Who judges at wine shows?
The reason that Australia puts so much confidence in the system of wine shows it that they are run by independent organisations, the integrity is guaranteed – in other words, the judges know nothing other than the broad description of the class in which a wine is entered, independent stewards pour the wines, the judges are drawn from the winemaking fraternity – those people who are recognised as having particularly good palates.
But to be sure that it’s not entirely the home of technocrats, the winemaking judges will be balanced by other people who have skills in assessing and commenting on wine – principally from the wine media, restaurants and the retail trade, but also including those consumers who can exhibit – by putting themselves through a sophisticated testing system – whether or not they also have the skills to assess wine.
Debunking common wine myths
Wine needs to breathe
The concept of pulling the cork out hours before drinking goes back many, many decades to a time when winemakers did not have the resources that they have today. And quite frequently the process of fermentation would leave some unattractive volatile characteristics in the wine and the reason for pulling the cork out – or for that matter decanting it – was to allow these unattractive odours to dissipate.
Of course, as you’re losing the unattractive odours you are also losing some of the attractive volatiles. So, if you have a very good bottle of wine and you pull the cork and let it breathe all you’re doing is diminishing the pleasure that you could subsequently have because these lovely volatile characteristics disappear off into the ether.
Now, there are rare situations where a wine can benefit from breathing and that tends to be with certain wines that have been bottle aged. But unless you have actually tasted that wine before and discovered that it requires breathing, don’t take the risk – because nine times out of ten, the wine’s going to be more attractive if you pull the cork immediately before consumption.
In the event that you decide that a wine does need a bit of breathing, once it’s in your glass and you swirly it around you can generally aerate it enough to derive the same sort of benefit.
Screw caps are only for drink-now wines
Another myth is that the modern-day use of screw caps is fine for wines that are to be drunk immediately but for wines you want to mature the screw caps are so effective that the wine won’t mature. This is incorrect because 50 per cent of the maturation characteristic do not require the presence of oxygen. However, the 50 per cent that do receive sufficient oxygen through the thin plastic film that separates the tin seal from the wine in a screw cap sealed bottle of wine.
It’s important to rotate bottles of wine that’ve been put down for maturation
I’m not sure where this myth came from, but it’s amazing how many people believe in it. In fact, quite the reverse is true. The less the wine disturbed, the better it is going to be. Certainly, there is no way in the world that rotating it is going to improve it.
You can only cellar red wines
The thing that determines the maturation value of a wine is how it’s going to change over time. Certain white wines can mature just as attractively and for just as long as any red wine will.
Wine sealed with a cork must lie on its side
This is only true if you are contemplating not drinking the wine for within six to twelve months.
Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2006, 2019. Transcript of Phil Laffer tape 14 March 2006.