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Changing hues of red

Settling down into a delicious glass of wine last night, I couldn't help thinking how much times are a-changing with Australian red. It was a truly brilliant wine to be sure, but not red as we knew it. Because I was drinking a super-Tuscan blend grown in Bendigo, Victoria, made by a Frenchman.

15 Mar 2010

By Jeremy Oliver 

Settling down into a delicious glass of wine last night, Icouldn't help thinking how much times are a-changing with Australian red. Itwas a truly brilliant wine to be sure, but not red as we knew it. Because I wasdrinking a super-Tuscan blend grown in Bendigo, Victoria, and made by a Frenchman.

Havingjust spent three days tasting about 400 new-release wines, many of which arereds from 2008, it is becoming more and more obvious that it's simplyunrealistic for drinkers of Australian reds to stay with their tried and true.

Sure,Europe is experiencing one of its coldest winters in memory. But, as I write, the BarossaValley is not. It's summer again down here, and already growers are lookinganxiously at short-term weather reports. So far, things are sort of OK,although heat has already wiped about 20% from South Australia's river regioncrops.

A fewmore days of blast furnace-like heat from the north, and South Australia'swarmer regions will chalk up another troublesome, challenging, witheringvintage. If that happens, wine growers and makers will settle back intocompromise mode to retain as much quality as they can from their bettervineyards.

Starting with the first of the recent run of hot seasonsin 1997, the warmer South Australian regions have been confronted by hot, early, fast-ripening vintages in 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Not for a minute am I suggesting that these vintages arewipe-outs - although 2000, 2003 and 2007 come pretty close - but two thingshave certainly happened. One is that they have produced less red wine ofgenuine quality. The other is that most of the better wines do reveal some ofthe more ultra-ripe flavours of currants, prunes and raisins, even if only atthe very end of the palate. These characters are likely to become moreparamount as the wines age in the bottle.

In otherwords, unless this process of climate change or whatever you want to call itslips into reverse - as some people are honestly expecting it to at some stage- the map of Australian wine is in for a change or two.

In the25 years I have been writing about wine, I have seen the Macedon Ranges go fromcompletely marginal to totally reliable in its ability to ripen grapes.Tasmania has moved from being unable to ripen grapes three years out of five tobeing able to overcook them at least once in five years. The Yarra Valley wasonce a cool climate region; today, I'd only describe its most altitudinoussites that way. Heathcote, once considered cool, is possibly turning into theBarossa and Lord only knows what the Barossa is morphing into.

Counter-intuitiveperhaps, considering it's such an environmental battleground, but Tasmania isactually a viticultural beneficiary of global warming. Twenty-five years ago,its potential with pinot noir was patently obvious, and now it's beingrealised.

AlthoughI once upset legions of Tasmanians by suggesting that all they needed was moreexpertise in the vineyard and winery, it's actually become easier to growgrapes there. And, given that there is also more expertise in Tassie today, itspinots have improved out of sight. 

It's ahappier story in other parts, such as Western Australia's better wine regions,southern Victoria and Tasmania, where new opportunities are dawning year afteryear. If you want confirmation of this, do your level best to track down abottle of Paradise IV Dardel Shiraz 2007, a silky, savoury, complex andmouth-filling shiraz of drop-dead gorgeousness from the Moorabool Valley near Geelong.It's the future of Australian shiraz, the new leader of the pack that includesstellar examples from less-feted shiraz regions whose makers include the likesof Seppelt, Clonakilla, Clayfield, Best's, Dalwhinnie, Lethbridge, Pyrette(Bindi), Vinea Marson, Thomas, Mount Langi Ghiran and Sutton Grange.

Incidentally,the wine with which I began this rant was from Sutton Grange - the 2008 vintageof its remarkable ‘Giove' blend of sangiovese and syrah (shiraz),biodynamically grown and made by the brilliant Gilles Lapalus. It's shortly tobe released for about $50 per bottle, which makes it less than half the cost ofanything near its quality from Italy.

Winechange is occurring on more than just the climate front. Finally, Australiansare taking more seriously the opportunities presented by grape varieties fromItaly and Spain, for just a couple of decades ago our vineyards were almostexclusively populated by those from France and Germany. Patently sensible,really.

Don't beat all surprised if tempranillo comes close to knocking shiraz off its perch inthe next few decades. Recent wines by Tim Adams, Penfolds and Mr Riggs from theClare Valley, McLaren Vale and the Adelaide Hills capture the wild, briary,dark-fruited, tarry and dark chocolate qualities sought after with thisvariety.

Makerslike Arrivo, Pizzini, Joseph and Vinea Marson are proving that nebbiolo mightbe settling comfortably into regions like the Adelaide Hills, King Valley,Clarendon (McLaren Vale) and Heathcote, while Margan, Coriole and Dal Zotto areachieving convincing results with barbera in the Hunter Valley, McLaren Valeand King Valley.

Top-drawersangiovese is part of the scene at Beechworth, McLaren Vale, King Valley andHeathcote, where makers such as Castagna, Coriole, Pizzini and Vinea Marson areregularly kicking goals.

If theclimate continues to change, you will probably find it harder to buy decentexamples of the reds you used to expect from Australia. With a little luck andgood management, however, it's actually possible you might just be drinkingbetter. Just don't be surprised by what they're made from and who they're madeby!

Wine of the Month

Thomas Wines DJV (Déjà-Vu)Shiraz 2007, $35, Small WinemakersCentre, Cessnock

Medium to full in weight, this savoury Hunter shirazhas a meaty bouquet of red and black berry/plum-like fruit lifted by muskyspices, knit with cedar/vanilla oak and backed by nuances of minerals and cola.Long, smooth and generous, its round and generous palate is saturated withdark, luscious fruit and underpinned by firm but silky-smooth tannin, finishingwith a lingering hint of charcuterie meats. Delicious, but needs food!

Published: 15 Mar 2010