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Wine

Australia's Wine Identity

Heaven help Australia. All that fretting over the growing and making of our wine; all those trips by all those winemakers to all parts of the world to learn various tricks; all those decades of winemaking experimentation, invention and development; all that and then the gatekeepers – holding baseball bats, you’d reckon – tell us that Australian wine doesn’t have a strong identity, and it needs to develop one. Pronto.

To illustrate the problem, I was sitting at a table in Italy’s Valpolicella wine region recently with a collection of international wine folk when someone asked where Australian wine is at. “It’s in the healthiest state imaginable,” I said, proudly. 

“The offering is astonishingly diverse now,” I continued. “Low fi, hi fi, old school, new school, classic varieties, obscure varieties, everything. Twenty years ago there was a planting boom; 10 years ago there was a lot of good wine being made; combine those two and you have lots of mature vines across all sorts of varieties and the quality has moved from good to very good, if not higher.”

Self-praise is no praise, but I thought I’d done pretty well at encapsulating Australian wine. The response, though, to my surprise, had the brightness of three-day-old sunburn.

“Australia’s problem,” someone cut in, or cut down, “is there’s no clear message. It’s like a tasting plate where everything’s good, but you can’t remember any of
it afterwards.”

Baseball, bat, time.

The view to down under

The wine world, it turns out, hasn’t been sitting around waiting for us to out-do it. No matter how good our wine is, the wine world is a brutal place, determined to protect or extend its patch – not to mention its pre-conceived world view. 

Two things are important to note here: a) the fight for international market space is not just about the wine in the bottle. It’s about the message, how it’s told, and who’s telling it. Wine is both the most symbolic drink in the world and the most emotional. Out in the big bad world, therefore, a clear wine identity matters enormously.

b) The wider wine world could burn in hell, for all we’d care, if Australian wine production was based around domestic consumption only. But that boat sailed a long time ago. Australia produces far more wine than it could ever domestically consume; what the world thinks of our wine matters, and matters a lot.

A usual suspect

The irony, of course, is that for a time Australia did, internationally at least, have a clear identity and message. Australian wine was either sunny and cheap or big and melodramatic. These messages were brilliantly clear and effective. But the majority of Australia’s wine community has spent the past decade either trying desperately to expand on these messages, or trying to tear them to shreds.

Why? Because they sell Australian wine too far short. “You can’t generalise about Australian wine for over a million reasons,” Sarah Crowe of Yarra Yering says. Virginia Willcock of Vasse Felix is of the same view. “Wine is so complex and so is Australia. We need to break it down.”

This is the thing – simple messages don’t really fit Australian wine anymore. They don’t because, to state the bleeding obvious, Australia is so large, and therefore geographically diverse. Our wine, when it’s good, reflects that. It’s not the tyranny of distance, it’s the tyranny of size. To make matters worse, perceptions of Australian wine in world markets can go to infinity and beyond.

“Each export market,” Sarah Crowe says, “would have a different response (if asked of Australia’s wine identity). Having just been in the USA, it’s frightening to read (wine writer) Joe Czerwinski’s Facebook feed when he was asked what would make people buy Australian wine.

“The comments are stuck in the 2000s for the most part. Export market perception is largely mono-dimensional South Australia or South Eastern Australia, which maybe they think is one and the same thing. It’s nowhere near a representation of what’s happening across this vast country.”

Jeff Burch of Burch Family Wines agrees, and then widens the lens. 

“It depends where in the world,” he says. “Asia – particularly China – has a very high acknowledgement of Australian wine, right up there with the top French. Much better recognition than Spain, Italy, Chile. USA though – poor recognition, not on the radar, a lot of work to do for quality Australia wine. 

“UK/Europe, very Euro-centric for the top end, they’re only interested in value wine from Australia. Hard to see a future for quality Australian wine there.”

Sue Hodder, senior winemaker of Wynns Coonawarra Estate, is more up beat, though cautiously so. 

“Perceptions of, and knowledge about, Australian wine has pleasingly shifted upwards in the last two years. Younger, better wine-educated, and more widely-travelled trade professionals have helped. In the first instance though, we’ll be happy if international consumers just know that Australian wine is a diverse offering.”

A dirty word

Diverse. This has become the most commonly used word to describe Australian wine. It’s the word we’re hoping will become our identity, because it’s the most accurate. The problem is that a lengthy explanation is usually required as a follow up; diversity can be a hard sell. It’s not snappy and all-encompassing in the way, say, of the gold-standard identities of French Champagne, Barossa Shiraz or, indeed, mere mention of Burgundy.

And wine identity is like humour; if you have to explain it, there’s a problem. 

There’s an argument that use of the words ‘Australian wine’ has us trying to achieve ‘cut through’ with the broad side of the blade. Virginia Willcock is certainly of this view. 

“The broad term ‘Australian wine’ drives me insane,’ Virginia says. 

“While we have common varieties across the country, the diversity of regions is significant and shouldn’t be thrown into a generalised country.” 

New world countries like Australia Argentina Chile, New Zealand and strive for a clear national wine identity. Old world countries more commonly lead with their regions; the country is a given.

“Our winemaking styles have changed over the past 15 years,” says Alexia Roberts winemaker at Penny’s Hill. 

“I remember when I first started out in McLaren Vale in 2004, whites were all made from Chardonnay, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. It would be difficult to find a regional McLaren Vale white made from any of these varieties nowadays.

“International markets have welcomed these changes, (but) we are still struggling with the Australian image and key message. Our message is so diverse that I do think this could be diluting the key facts. The heroes are our regions.”

 Virginia agrees. 

“My theory about ‘Australian wine’ is that the best way to break it down is by region and regional strengths to give clarity for quality and diversity,” she says. 

“Then, if someone loves a strong regional wine, they might try other varieties from that region.”

No probs, really

Of course, this is a nice problem to have. Australia’s wine identity or message basically is: we have so much to offer now, we don’t know where to start. 

“What I produce is different from what my neighbours produce,” is Sarah’s way of putting it. “The diversity is why people want to discover more and engage with new wines and discover new producers. For better or for worse, it is a complex topic and should be spoken about as such.”

There’s strength and comfort in numbers, but the time is fast approaching, if it hasn’t already past, where the notion of an Australian wine identity is shown the door and real one-on-one engagement, region by region, takes hold. After all, no one falls in love with a race; they fall in love with one clear object of their desires.

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Fingerprints on history: The McWilliam’s story
At the heart of the history of McWilliam’s Wines is a culture of innovation that’s not only ingrained in the company, but has rippled out through the wider industry. Taste aside, why is wine so special? Is it because it’s the accumulation of much more than just simple liquid in a glass? Is it just where it came from and who made it? Or is it the sum total of its many essential components? However elusive the answer to that question is, one thing is clear; when it comes to wine, history will always have a significant impact on the future. Few families that have shaped the Australian wine landscape like the McWilliam family. The pioneering spirit that built the past has translated through six generations and has shaped a wine business that has innovation, drive and legacy stitched into its DNA.
Samuel’s Fate The first steps of the McWilliam’s path were taken by Samuel McWilliam when he set foot on Australian soil from Northern Ireland in 1857. At that time, wine in Australia was well on its way, but it was all about fortified wine, and as there was no electricity or refrigeration, it was a tough and labour intensive way to survive. However tough, wine became the future for the McWilliam family when Samuel travelled up the Murray River with his wife Martha and family and settled in Corowa. He called his property ‘Sunnyside’ and his neighbours just happened to be another famous Australian pioneering wine family, the Lindemans.  “The family’s fate was sealed,” describes Samuel’s great-great-grandson, Jeff McWilliam. “Samuel took what learnings he could from his neighbours and set about making fortified wines on his vineyard.” Second Gen Pioneers Around this time, the fortified industry was under threat, with phylloxera decimating Victorian vineyards. Two of Samuel’s sons, John James (JJ) and Thomas had the foresight to move from Corowa with the intention of establishing disease-free vineyards. Just before the turn of the century, the brothers established ‘Mark View’ a vineyard and property in Junee, just north of Wagga. A few years later, Samuel passed away and his three daughters, Eliza, Rose May and Mary, returned to make wine at Sunnyside, becoming among Australia’s first female winemakers, further cementing the family’s passion for wine.
JJ and Sons Blaze the Trail In 1913, JJ and one of his four sons, Jack, took 50,000 of their vine cuttings and headed to Griffith and became the first in the region to plant and establish grapes. This move solidified the McWilliam name as true pioneers and innovators, as such, the Riverina is now an undisputed wine powerhouse, growing 15% of Australia’s total production.   When asked in a newspaper interview why he’d chosen this region, JJ said, “The Riverina offers all a man has ever dreamed of – sunshine, great soils and water.”  Here’s the thing, when JJ and Jack arrived in Griffith, it was pre-irrigation, yet the father and son team was so determined that this was the future of Australian wine, they spent months carting water to quench their nursery vineyard. 
Growth and Innovation. As the McWilliam family grew and set deeper roots in NSW, the business evolved and the innovative nature of the family flourished. JJ and Jack toiled away establishing their vineyards and building the winery, which was completed in 1917.  The winery became known as Hanwood and remains today as the family’ primary production facility and is still the beating heart of McWilliam’s. Hanwood was built next to a planned railway, so the wine could be easily transported to Sydney, but after the state failed to follow through on construction, Jack’s brother Doug decided to build another winery at Yenda, where the railway was eventually built. With a direct route to the Sydney market, further innovation was around the corner. “With the growth of production came the need to sell more wine. Jack and Doug’s brother, Keith believed the family needed to build their brand, so Keith, a bit of a self-taught marketer, decided to take on the job,” says Jeff. “He worked with wine merchants, opened our Sydney cellars, he had trucks with our name on the side, going over the top to build the brand and promote what is now packaged, branded wine.” Keith also opened wine bars in Sydney close to the city and transport hubs. “People tell me they remember the wine bar at Strathfield station,” says Jeff. “They actually got off the train, changed to another train and had a port or a sherry on the way through.” Jack’s youngest brother Glen also contributed to the family’s innovation by designing and building ‘The McWilliam’s Drainer’, wine equipment that separates the juice from the skins and is still used today in wineries all over Australia. Glen’s many achievements include bringing new table wine varieties to the region and making Australia’s first botrytis wine in 1958, a style that is now synonymous with Australia’s identity.
Investing in the industry  At the turn of the 20th century the Australian wine engine was fuelled by fortified wines, but there were small pockets of table wines being made. One was in the Hunter Valley. At Mount Pleasant, winemaker Maurice O’Shea was crafting distinctive wines that Keith McWilliam saw great potential in. As Maurice had little means of selling his wines, and needed finances to continue, Keith invested in Mount Pleasant. Maurice O’Shea went on to produce some of Australia’s greatest table wines, inspiring winemakers to this day. McWilliam’s maintains O’Shea’s legacy by making wines that carry his name and in 1990 initiated the Maurice O’Shea Award. Presented to an individual or group that has made a significant contribution to the industry, it is regarded as the most prestigious award in Australian wine. It is a rare thing that a company will actively reward and promote its competitors. But the O’Shea Award openly reflects McWilliam’s commitment to an industry they have helped shape for over 100 years.  Events + McWilliam’s Dinner Series McWilliam’s, in partnership with Selector, is hosting a series of special dinners reflecting its iconic history and the wines creating its future. Canberra in October, then Brisbane in November with more cities to follow. Visit wineselectors.com.au/events for more info.
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Hunter Semillon - Members tasting
Words by Deb Pearce on 13 Sep 2018
When James Busby and William Kelman planted the first Semillon vines in the Hunter Valley in 1832, no one could have predicted what a stroke of vinous genius that would be. Since then, the Hunter Valley has made Semillon its own, producing a style that is so distinctive Jancis Robinson has called it Australia’s gift to the world. Of course, the Hunter is not the only wine-producing region in the world to produce Semillon wines, but it is rare in its production of a Semillon single variety dry white wine that is revered.  Semillon is grown in other regions of Australia, but its true home is in the Hunter Valley. This is where it creates true wine magic. Its generously fruited, delicately aromatic, waxy textured style, coupled with its amazing ability to age in the bottle, wins the hearts and minds of wine experts globally.  However, despite this, Semillon tends to polarise the wine-drinking public and is sadly under-appreciated. There seems to be a general feeling that Semillon is hard to match with food (unless it’s freshly shucked oysters) and that young Semillon is far too acidic to enjoy more than one glass. Mature Semillon appears to be much more palatable, but at a time when wine consumers seem to like their wines young and fruity to drink now, not everyone wants to wait for a wine to be more approachable.   So, with this in mind, 12 enthusiastic Wine Selectors Members and guests together with wine experts, including senior winemaker at Tyrrell’s Wines, Andrew Spinaze and Selector’s Paul Diamond, got together at Regatta Restaurant in Rose Bay, Sydney, to test these thoughts and see what public opinion actually was of Semillon. It turned out to be a highly interesting day.
Poured and explored Twenty Semillons were on show, ranging in price and reputation, with noted producers alongside rising star winemakers: Brokenwood, Drayton’s, Tyrrell’s, Tulloch, Lindeman’s plus Peppertree, Andrew Thomas, Comyns & Co, Glenguin, Tamburlaine and Usher Tinkler. Of course, to sample Semillon’s ability to age, the line-up included a spellbinding mix of vintages with wines from the current 2018 vintage right through to 2017, 2015, 2013 and even a bracket that included 10+ year-old Semillons: namely the Mistletoe 2007 Reserve Semillon, Drayton’s Reserve Vineyard 2006 and the Gold Medal-laden Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon 2005 – a veritable legend in the Semillon world. Chef Logan Campbell prepared a four-course menu designed to highlight Semillon’s food-matching ability. The courses were: Seared Atlantic scallops, crisp chicken skin, cauliflower puree and saba followed by squid ink gnocchi, grilled bottle squid, edamame and mussels. Then came Cone Bay barramundi, steamed warrigal greens, garlic, lemon and smoked pork jus, with a tasting plate to finish of lemon and lime sorbet, nuts, Le Marquis and Saint Agur cheese. As we took our seats, the first bracket of five 2017 and 2018 Semillons was poured. A wave of excitement and seriousness came over the room as everyone swirled and sniffed with gusto, furiously scribbling notes. Around the room were differing facial expressions from raised eyebrows to wrinkled-up noses and the odd smacking of lips. The first course of seared Atlantic scallops proved young Semillon can be great with foods other than oysters! The 2017 and 2018 Semillons were at their light-weight and lip-smacking best. The citrus fruits were vibrant and the acid line ensured the wine was mouth-watering. The light weight made them a great partner for the delicate nature and gentle sweetness of the scallop, and the creamy cauliflower purée provided the perfect foil for the bright acidity. When asked for comments, Wine Selectors Member Elena Sabag remarked that she was amazed how much the young Semillons benefitted from food. The 2018 Thomas Synergy was the big hit, with and without food. 
Coming of age The second bracket saw some slightly more mature Semillons come out to play, with vintages ranging from 2015 to 2013. This is around the ageing level where Semillon can be a bit closed, or as Paul Diamond put it, “Semillon can go into stasis before moving to its next stage of evolution.” He also talked about this being the developmental stage, which he sees as the “magic of Semillon.” The squid ink gnocchi matched perfectly. The Semillons were still vibrant and very fresh. The trademark acidity giving that mouth-watering finish, and citrus was the dominant fruit. The wines had more fruit weight than the current vintage and one-year-old wines. This enabled them to complement the creaminess of the dish. As bracket three was poured, we saw a definite change of colour in the wines and knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore. The vintages ranged from 2013 to 2011 and proved to be the most popular bracket for drinkability, in particular, with Members Anthony and Jessica Ward saying that they would happily sit around with their mates and drink a bottle of mature Semillon, whereas the young Semillons they felt benefitted more from food.  Another very interesting comment from Jessica was that tasting Semillon in this context made her realise that while the young Semillons all seemed pretty similar, as the wines got older, she became more definite in what she liked and didn’t like. She didn’t expect that kind of difference. The Cone Bay barramundi proved once again the food-friendliness of Semillon. The older wines exhibited the classic citrus characters the variety is known for. They also started to show notes of lanolin, beeswax and lemongrass. The acidity was upbeat, but started to play a more background role to the core of fruit. They had more weight and could handle the stronger flavours of barramundi and pork jus. In describing Semillon and its ageing potential, Andrew Spinaze made an enlightening comment:  “The affordability of Semillon is very underrated. You can pick up a Semillon for $15 per bottle and keep it for 10 years. Wine consumers can pick a wine they like and taste it over a few years. There’s not many varieties you can do that with at that price.” On acidity, he added: “I’d like to think that winemakers these days concentrate more on natural acid wines that are more balanced and approachable that you can drink early or age. You don’t need high acid to age. You need moderate soft acid. Over-adjusted or high acid Semillon will be acidic when the wine is old and probably not in balance.” Furthermore, he felt winemakers sometimes concern themselves too much with the measure of total acidity than the overall fruit, structure and mouthfeel.
Final thoughts The final bracket was poured and here we saw the big guns of Semillon appear, in what proved to be a fitting finale. The 2006 Drayton’s Vineyard Reserve and the 2005 Tyrrell’s Vat 1 were the winners, with people running out of superlatives to describe the complex layers, flavours and balance of these beauties. But the tasting plate proved a polarising match. Both cheeses matched well, with the creamy texture of the Le Marquis in particular combining beautifully with the acidity and complex layers of the wines. However, the sorbet proved to be too zesty and tangy, swamping the wines’ delicate layers. It seems everyone took something away from this experience, with the general consensus being that the least appealing wines of the day were too acidic. The big surprise was that Semillon is more food-friendly than originally thought, especially young examples. Another revelation was that it is not necessarily very mature Semillon that was the big hit with the Wine Selectors Members. Most agreed that they liked their Semillons with fruit and freshness, but also with balance and interest.
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Top Five Wineries and Cellar Doors to visit in Coonawarra
Discover the best of Coonawarra’s wineries and cellar doors to taste and experience the region’s delights with our guide and interactive map. Australia’s ‘other red centre’, Coonawarra is 450kms from Melbourne and 370kms from Adelaide, and is located in the heart of South Australia’s Limestone Coast. The region boasts some of the most sought-after vineyard soil in Australia, and with vineyards positioned just 80kms from the Southern Ocean, the vines are assured of a long, cool ripening period producing wines of fantastic balance, richness, intensity and longevity. It’s thanks to Scottish pioneer John Riddoch, who noticed the fertility of the regions’ famed terra rossa way back in 1890, that we can enjoy some of the world’s best Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz . Today, the region is home to a mix of old winemaking families and fresh new talent, and has over 25 cellar doors to visit which all offer wonderfully friendly and delicious experiences. Here are our top five Coonawarra wineries Di Giorgio Family Wines
Don’t miss out on visiting the family owned and operated Di Giorgio Family Wines . Their winery is the second oldest in the district, and their Coonawarra vineyard boasts some gnarly old vines that are over 115 years old. Along with producing premium wines from Coonawarra and Lucindale, the DiGiorgio family sources specific varietal fruit from different areas of the Limestone Coast where they believe the terroir is best suited to the variety. At Di Giorgio’s cellar door, you’re invited to taste a selection of premium wines from their extensive portfolio, plus don’t miss out on their delicious olive oils and the fabulous range of local cheeses. The shaded outdoor seating area is the perfect place to enjoy a glass of wine with a ‘pick your own produce’ platter. 14918 Riddoch Highway, Coonawarra Open daily 10am to 5pm. Closed Good Friday, Christmas Day and Boxing Day Visit Di Giorgio Wines website Katnook Estate
Located just 6 kilometres north of Penola on the Riddoch Highway, Katnook Estate ’s historic cellar door was first built in the late 1800s by the founder of the Coonawarra wine region, John Riddoch.   Today, the beautifully renovated building features locally sourced stone and timbers and provides a wonderful environment to sample a range of Katnook’s premium wines, along with platters of local cheeses.  If you’re visiting during winter, the cosy lounge area with its open fireplace is the perfect place to warm-up and unwind.  Adjacent to the cellar door is the award-winning 'terra rossa pit', where you can get up close and personal with Coonawarra's famous soil profile and learn why it’s so important to flavour of the region’s wines. Riddoch Highway, Coonawarra Open weekdays 10am to 5pm, weekends 12pm to 5pm. Closed Good Friday and Christmas Day  Visit the Katnook Estate website Leconfield Wines
Owned by one of Australia’s original winemaking families, Leconfield Wines is situated just a stones-throw from Katnook Estate along the Riddoch Highway. Built in 1974 by Sydney Hamilton, the limestone winery building has an impressive barrel storage of 2000 barrels, predominantly sourced from France.  Once inside the winery, you’ll be welcomed to the intimate tasting room where you can sample the Leconfield and Richard Hamilton ranges while watching the winemaking team at work. 15454 Riddoch Highway, Coonawarra Open weekdays 10am to 4:30pm, weekends and public holidays 11am to 4pm. Visit Leconfield Wines website Rymill Coonawarra
Rymill Coonawarra was established in 1974 by Peter Rymill, the great grandson of John Riddoch who was the founder of Coonawarra. Embracing the pioneering spirit of his forefathers, Peter planted a diverse range of varieties and built a stunning, high-tech winery that is still home to Rymill Coonawarra today. A must-visit destination of the region, the Rymill Coonawarra’s spacious cellar door boasts internal viewing platforms to watch the workings of the winery and external balconies that overlook the beautiful tree lined grounds. Take a behind-the-scenes look at the winery while sampling their range of 100% estate grown wines, then step outside to the gorgeous grounds to enjoy a local produce platter or grazing plate. Riddoch Highway, Coonawarra Open daily 11am to 5pm. Closed Christmas Day Visit Rymill’s website Wynns Coonawarra Estate
Wynns Coonwarra Estate is one of the region’s leading producers and largest single vineyard holder with the longest established vineyard sites in Coonawarra. What is now Wynns Coonawarra Estate was founded by Scottish pioneer John Riddoch, who in 1891 planted along the famed terra rossa strip and completed the estate's now iconic three-gabled winery in 1896. Riddoch died in 1901 and Coonawarra languished for the first half of this century. The region’s revival began in 1951 when wine merchants Samuel and David Wynns purchased Riddoch's original vineyards and winery and renamed the property Wynns Coonawarra Estate. The Wynns recognised the amazing qualities of Coonawarra wines and set out to establish an independent identity in the region. They created the famous label that has made John Riddoch's winery one of Australia's most-recognised buildings. 77 Memorial Drive, Coonawarra Open daily 10am to 5pm. Closed Christmas Day. Visit Wynns Coonawarra Estate website Zema Estate
Established in 1982, Zema Estate is a boutique winery owned and operated by three generations of the Zema family. Their modern cellar door overlooks beautiful hand prune vines and offers a wonderfully friendly and authentic experience. All current release wines are available for tasting, plus a stunning selection of cellar door only and museum release wines. You can also indulge in Mrs Zema’s estate-grown and homemade olive oil and chilli paste, and other delicious gourmet produce and that are sourced locally or imported from Italy.   Partial to a good party, the Zema’s also host regular events where you can enjoy Mrs Zema’s fantastic Italian fare of pizza, pasta and arancini while being entertained by local musicians. Keep your diary open for upcoming events including the After Dark – Vintage Celebrations (April), Cellar Dwellers (July), Coonawarra Cabernet Celebrations (October). 14944 Riddoch Highway, Coonawarra Open weekdays 9am to 5pm, weekends 10am to 4pm. Closed Good Friday and Christmas Day. Visit Zema Estate’s website Coonawarra Wineries Walking Trail For those who are up to combining a bit of exercise with their wine tasting, the Coonawarra Wineries Walking Trail offers a great opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors and explore the vineyards. Coonawarra Winery Map Planning a trip to Coonawarra? Download our interactive Coonawarra winery map. To save on your browser or device,  click here  
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