I was lucky enough to speak at the Australian National University’s 7th University House Wine Symposium recently and I was asked to talk about ‘alternative varieties’. It was an inspiring day – the other speakers included Andy Pitmann, Leanne Webb, Brian Croser, Dan Buckle, Brian Walsh and Libbie Tassie, with James Halliday on the dinner speech.
I was introduced to the symposium as a voice of insight and diplomacy and someone who speaks their mind. They were very kind words. I have since been reminded that, in spite of this introduction, I made some provocative remarks, and they seem to have reverberated with some attendees. I even got a “please explain” from Max Allen via Twitter. I must have struck a chord.
Paul Starr wrote a piece about my presentation in his blog Bianco – Rosso and I like his observations on expertise (fish, ponds, size) – so much so I started to reflect on some key messages of my presentation.
My umbrella point to the ANU conference around the issue of alternative varieties (for those that didn’t attend) was that the Canberra District wine region has such a lucky opportunity it cannot afford to squander and that it has some important choices to make. Success is at stake.
Canberra has established riesling and shiraz with impressive speed and conviction – it’s almost a dream come true and not just for the region’s stakeholders. It’s something to be celebrated. It has the attention of all enthusiasts, amateurs, dabblers, dilettantes, practitioners, experts and observers (and anyone else who happens to be in ear shot) and now it must to galvanise this attention.
My message for Canberra producers was to focus on their core mission first and foremost because timing is imperative to success and the moment is NOW. If they don’t focus enough or well enough, the moment will pass. It will be harder to re-create the opportunity down the track.
Many (probably most) wine regions in Australia are struggling to identify, agree and focus collectively on their signature wines, as well as make them in sufficient enough numbers to be utterly convincing to the rest of the world.
Canberra has, through the work of the Edgar Rieke/John Kirk generation and subsequently the Tim Kirk/Ken Helm/Alex McKay/Nick O’Leary/Brian Martin etc generation, elaborated a compelling terroir. They’ve identified a clear opportunity to realise signature styles that are undoubtedly great wines in a world sense. They’re interesting, distinctive and can be made consistently.
This presents a significant opportunity. Throwing the seemingly boundless “excitement” of alternative varieties into the mix may be a liability for the region at this moment in their brief and to-date successful history and so mine was a cautionary tale.
More than that though, I also made the point that the act of sourcing, growing, making and bottling a wine is something anyone can do – but success dictates that the mission for Canberra’s winemakers is to make great and distinctive wine. We actually don’t have any need for anything else. We have enough wine in the world already, in fact, we have way too much.
We have too much bulk wine in tanks, we have too much average wine, we have too much of the wrong type of wine, the wrong style, labeled, in cleanskin, we have too much OK wine, we even have too much pretty darn decent wine. But we have a shortage of GREAT wine.
And to merely exist, is not to be great.
So-called ‘alternative’ varieties are too often celebrated in what I find to be a pointless manner. Celebrated very often by small producers and way too often by some members of the media and frequently by some members of the trade for no other reason than they’re different. Tastings reveal many are certainly not celebrated on the basis of quality.
And no Max Allen I am NOT talking about you – you are leading by example here and you are, through the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show and all your various outlets, providing important critical benchmarking for varietal exploration. We thank you.
But what we see very often is that the lesser producers in a region (and I’m talking Australia here) fail to make wine of sufficient quality in that region’s most established/famous/successful/important/celebrated styles and so take refuge in obscurity as a means of staying out of a competition they cannot win. It’s a game of attracting attention by alternate means and you can’t really blame them.
I also see the same thing happen with wine writers – many a story has been written (and published) on the basis that something is different/new and therefore exciting/newsworthy. And I think it’s a waste of precious publishing space when so much of what’s really important is ignored in the name of an easy story that takes little time/effort/intellect to write. Editors often have blood-stained hands too.
Imagine if investment writers wrote about companies simply on the basis that they were new and unproven in the market and they recommended it would be fun to try them – would you be sinking your precious dollars in? Or if restaurant critics wrote up the new local restaurant because it’s, well, new? Would you not want to know if the food is any good, the service and (more importantly perhaps) the wine list?
We all like to hear what’s new, but I don’t think that’s enough when wine is at hand. Very few people have enough money to spend on wine to chance buying bad bottles simply on the basis that it’s hardly been heard of, let alone perfected.
Wine critics are supposed to know enough to put all these millions of bottles into a useful context and to share their insight, their knowledge and experience. Ideally it’s done with some wisdom, wit and generous spirit. Ditto sommeliers and wine merchants.
I don’t want to just know that a wine is new or alternative, I want to know if it’s any good. I also want to know why it’s of interest, why it should be grown in one place and not another, why it is/will be great, how it delivers a profound result etc etc.
Every year I taste so many wines being made in Australia that are failed missions off along the tangent of new, alternative and different. Many are around for a few vintages only to gather dust in drab cellar door bargain bins and be offered by online auction and discount wine specialists. What is the point? It’s a waste of glass for starters.
If critics don’t elucidate the good from the bad, if sommeliers and wine merchants don’t make informed choices on the basis of an astute palate and wines are recommended and sold simply because they’re weird/new/unheard of, we’re proliferating a burgeoning lake of bad wine and – even worse than that – average wine.
It’s a bit like those slightly corked bottles; most people can’t identify the actual problem, they spend precious money, have a bad/unsatisfactory experience and go elsewhere. That’s not going to end well for Australian wine.
Many ‘alternative variety’ wines simply shouldn’t be bottled, let alone written about, listed and foisted upon unsuspecting consumers in the name of “difference”, and this brings me to Paul Starr’s final sentence – “My knowledge is less than ‘expert’ in wine or in Italian wine, and suspect it will always be the case that there is more left to learn than I will ever know. And I think I’d rather share my learning than my expertise, whatever size this pond is.”
Bravo – the great and frustrating allure of wine is that it is so diverse, so vast, newly minted every year and then changing constantly once bottled. It excites the hell out of me that great wines are being made all over the world as I write and as you read. There’s so much to learn and so much learning to share.
But good winemakers, the ones that are successful, the ones we need, the ones that contribute to the culture of their region and the ones that are shaping the dynamic and exciting frontier that is Australian wine currently, are recognised because they make, bottle and release GREAT wine.
Sharing your learning is one thing – bottling it in liquid form and asking people to part with their money to experience it is another game all together. You’ll survive for a while making average wine in Australia (probably on the WET tax methadone program), but not for long.
Australia is at one very important cross-roads as a wine producing nation and we need everyone making the very best wine they can. One important piece of that puzzle is making educated, smart and sometimes tough decisions about what grape variety(ies) to work with.
It’s time to step up with courage and make distinctive wine, not just ANY wine. We need to be focused. And frankly, we also need collective strategy to really succeed. And we need regions as well-placed as the Canberra District to really nail it to the wall.
Great winemakers are those that don’t bottle and release anything less than their very best. They don’t put their name to anything that’s average and they certainly don’t do things on the basis of vive la difference first – quality second.
They showcase the results of detailed, thoughtful and astute experiments, the bounty of their hard work, their dedication, their clever intuition and, perhaps most importantly, their honest and self-effacing reflection. They proudly bottle concisely resolved results, not the experiment itself. Imagine the same with food. We wouldn’t waste time eating the stuff.
And as I said the other day in Canberra, just because you can, certainly doesn’t mean you should. When I celebrate something – I like to celebrate with a glass of something great, not just something weird and wet.
Canberra’s best alternatives:
Lark Hill Grüner Veltliner
Mount Majura Tempranillo
Capital Wines The Ambassadoor Tempranillo