The idea of fine wine

What is fine wine? And does anyone still care? And how should Australia go about promoting its fine wines to the world? We all know Australia makes many outstanding wines but we don’t seem to get much credit for them around the globe, where we seem better known for cheap, discounted, industrial wine.

These issues were under the microscope at an informal workshop convened by Michael Hill Smith and David LeMire at an Institute of Masters of Wine event in Sydney in April.

Three speakers addressed the topic before an open discussion was held: chairman of the Australian Grape and Wine Authority Brian Walsh, Yabby Lake (tastings) winemaker and wine show chairman Tom Carson, and wine writer, judge and Rootstock festival co-founder Mike Bennie.

Carson was typically forthright in his opinions on fine wine. He said Australia made far too much cheap wine, especially cask wine, and questioned whether such a dry country should be using its precious water to irrigate vines for cheap wine that is not needed anyway. “Make less, and make better wine” was his mantra. He said hot climate winemaking required expensive acid addition, and we would be better off importing cheap wine from low-cost countries. He criticized the commonly used term ‘wine industry’ and said Australia should completely separate hand-made wine from beverage wine, as a first step towards creating a fine wine reputation. “It’s not about selling boxes but price yielded per litre.” We should be promoting expressions of place which cannot be replicated anywhere else. As for wine styles, bigger is not better, nor is darker colour, more oak, etc. He pointed to Penfolds Grange (tastings) as our image leader, a wine that is about a style, where vineyard and regional identity and seasonal variations had been sacrificed in the name of consistency. “Look at beer, coffee, gin, vinyl records: it’s all going down the individualistic, expression-of-identity route. And how does it stimulate excellence to tax more the wine that costs more to produce and is seeking excellence?” On the WET tax rebate: “If you need a rebate, there’s something wrong with the tax.” At least the rebate was making it possible to make wine profitably on a small scale, so it’s doing good. “Without that we just have an industry.”

Bennie gave the younger-generation, social media-savvy viewpoint. “The idea of fine wine itself is nebulous, and shifting. What is it, anyway?” He said there were no Australian wines on the wine lists at Copenhagen’s Noma or Spain’s Mugaritz restaurants, and the first Australian wine to get into Noma’s Asian restaurant was Shobbrook (tastings) – a very small, new and unconventional winery.

The world Bennie described is fascinated by rarities, more interested in unusual blends like Topper’s Mountain Red Earth Child (tastings) than the old classic French varieties. Online is increasingly powerful. “Online is out-selling everything, and word travels like wildfire.” People tell each other of their latest discoveries by social media, with no use for wine shows or wine writers – ‘a small group of old, grey-haired men’.

In such a world, there is little place for, or understanding of, ‘fine wine’. It’s irrelevant.

So, maybe this small group of Masters of Wine fretting over whether Australia is getting its share of plaudits for its top wines is also becoming obsolete?

I’m not so sure: I see plenty of younger people enjoying the classic wines of this and other countries, just as I see them seeking to become Masters of Wine in their quest for a career in the wine trade.

Benchmark tastes in wine, like vanilla and chocolate, don’t change much over time. Drinkers who are under 30 today may prefer the vanilla ice-cream hand-churned by a young, fashionable ice-cream maker over the traditional producer, but as they mature, their preferences will continue to change and many will end up enjoying the things their parents and grandparents enjoyed. Much to their surprise.

As for winning more overseas recognition for our great wines, this is something people in boardrooms worry about while the rest of us just get on with drinking the stuff, rejoicing in the ever-greater variety on offer.

First published in Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine – Aug-Sep 2015.

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