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Getting to know Australian wine

We've heard of the great wine regions of France, of course. But ask Indian wine-drinkers anything about the Adelaide Hills or the Yarra Valley and all you will get are blank looks, writes Vir Sanghvi.

brunch Updated: May 04, 2014 11:52 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Most Indians are not terribly knowledgeable about Australian wine. We’ve heard of the great wine regions of France, of course – Bordeaux, Champagne, Burgundy, the Rhône Valley etc. – and we know that Italy makes some excellent wine. In fact, when the wine boom took off in India a decade ago, it was the Italian Super-Tuscans (i.e. expensive wines made in Tuscany using grapes that were not native to the region) that dominated the top end of the market. When it comes to New World wines, we’ve heard of Napa Valley and of the much-trumpeted virtues of California wines, especially when compared to their French counterparts. And we know that Chile makes reasonably priced table wine.

But somehow, Australian does not loom large in our consciousness. Jacob’s Creek may well be the largest-selling branded wine in India but we don’t think of it as an Australian brand. (Though the success of Jacob’s Creek skews the figures, giving the impression that Australian wines are among India’s favourite imports.) In contrast, the wines of New Zealand have a larger profile in India. Some of this has to do with the popularity of that country’s Sauvignon Blanc white wines, epitomised by Cloudy Bay which, because it is owned by Moët Hennessy, gets a huge marketing push everywhere in the world. Other New Zealand white wines, from such houses as Saint Clair and Villa Maria are thoughtfully priced and sell well at Indian restaurants.

Read: On the bubbly trail

But Australia remains a mystery. Ask most Indian wine-drinkers about the Mornington Peninsula, the Barossa Valley, Adelaide Hills or the Yarra Valley and all you will get are blank looks. While we have some idea of what, say, California wines will taste like, we don’t even have a taste profile of Australia wines in our heads. As far as we are concerned, it is just somewhere down under that makes some wine.

While Domaine Chandon, the Australian outpost of the Moët et Chandon empire, uses champagne grapes, they make a wine that has a character of its own.

I am as ignorant as most other Indian wine drinkers. The last time I went to Australia and ate at some of Sydney’s best restaurants, I enjoyed the local wines that all the sommeliers served (except at Marque, Sydney’s top restaurant, where the tasting menu came with a lot of European wines) but came back with no real understanding of the country’s wine tradition.

So this time around, when I went for the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, I made it a point to attend as many wine events as I could and to view some of the country’s top wineries. The adventure did not begin auspiciously – at least from the point of Australian wine. One of the first events I attended was a Pinot Noir challenge, a face-off between two cult New Zealand producers and two highly regarded Australian wineries, at No. 8, the excellent restaurant run by British chef John Lawson in Melbourne.

The two Australian wine producers were Bass Phillip, a significant winery in South Gippsland, Victoria, and the cult winery Bindi in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges. To my surprise, Bindi turned out to have an Indian connection. Michael Dhillon, an Elvis Presley lookalike who owns the vineyard, said that his father moved to Australia from Punjab and began to grow grapes. All of the Australian Pinot Noir was very good though I thought Bindi had the edge. (Ah, ethnic bias, perhaps!)

But the two New Zealand Pinot producers were even better. The Ata Rangi Vineyard in Martinborough is small so even many of the Australians at our dinner had not heard of it. And the Felton Road wines (from Central Otago) were outstanding. The problem is that the production is so small at each of these vineyards that prices are high (around the equivalent of `8,000 a bottle in the shops in Melbourne) and the wines rarely get out of Australia. The Felton Road winemaker told me that many years ago he had sold a single consignment to Delhi’s Aman Hotel (it is now the Lodhi). But he had never heard back so he had no idea if the wines had moved. (Note to Lodhi: if you have his wines in your cellar, now is the time to push them.)

But I discovered that I wasn’t alone in finding the great wines of the region unfamiliar. The following day, the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival organised a sort of master class where half a dozen of the pioneers of the region’s wine industry brought along some of their best wines over the years and discussed them with each other and with an invited audience of wine writers and collectors. Among those who attended was the British wine writer Tim Atkin, who complained that as much as he loved the wines, he never came across them in the UK.

Judging by the discussions at that master class, the wine culture in Australia is relatively young – younger even than wine-awareness in California. Some of the first vineyards were planted by Italian and German immigrants (there does not seem to have been a lot of French influence in the early days) who shifted from fruit farming to grapes, moved first into bulk wine that was frequently fortified and sold cheap before graduating on to the better stuff.

This transformation occurred at around the same time that Australia was growing out of its food-and-beer phase and becoming a more culturally aware society where chefs created dishes on the basis of the country’s outstanding produce. Because the wine culture is still youthful, you get wines at all price levels and producers range from industrial giants like Jacob’s Creek to tiny wineries run by two or three people.

I went off to the Mornington Peninsula, a glorious landscape, bordered by the sea and its beaches, an hour from Melbourne to visit Ocean Eight, a tiny boutique winery which employs only a handful of people. (They hire more workers when grapes have to be picked). The reception was littered with empty bottles of great Burgundy so it was not hard to see what the wine maker’s inspiration was. Both the wines I tried, a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir, were so Burgundian in structure that my guess is that if Australia ever did a Paris-style blind tasting (where Californian wines trounced French big names), then something like Ocean Eight would be up there with the top artisanal Burgundy producers. But I don’t know if I’ll ever get to try Ocean Eight again: production is so tiny that few bottles make it abroad.

Even the bigger wineries display a rare passion about their production. At the De Bortoli winery in the Yarra Valley (also near Melbourne), they worked hard to match artisanal cheese with their wines, and their sweet wine, Noble One, was so good that I bought a bottle. Other large wineries tried to give visitors a sense of their wines and what went into them. At the Barossa Valley (near Adelaide), Penfolds showed me how they blended their wines and then gave me three pressings of different grapes from recent vintages, inviting me to create my own blends. I did as they asked but the experience convinced me that winemaking is best left to professionals.

At most Australian wineries there was a real urge to share information and to communicate their passion for wine. At Penfolds, I ran into an Indian sommelier who was training there and who insisted on opening a bottle of a 45-year-old port so that visitors could sample the estate’s heritage.

Penfolds is an unusual winery in Australian terms. Despite its vast production at all price-points, it retains a reputation for quality and its legendary wine, Grange (based on French styles; it used to be called Grange Hermitage), is probably Australia’s most famous wine around the world.

The loveliest winery I visited was Domaine Chandon, the Australian outpost of the Moët et Chandon empire. The winery and the main building overlooking the vineyards are about a million times better looking than the house’s headquarters in Epernay. Chandon makes champagne-style sparkling wine (EU regulations prevent them from calling it champagne) and though they use champagne grapes (unlike the Indian Chandon which is more adventurous in its use of Chenin Blanc), they make a wine that has a character of its own.

If you do go to Australia – and I imagine you will given what a hot destination it now is for Indians – then you’ll probably end up drinking a lot of wine. The Australian middle class now seems to drink wine every day in the manner of Europeans. You’ll be lucky because you will get to taste those Australian wines that are rarely exported. But you’ll also discover that there is a surprising consistency to Australian wines. In all the time I was there I did not have a single bad bottle of wine though perhaps one or two did not seem to me to justify their prices.

No matter how little or how much you spend, my guess is that you will not be disappointed.

Vir Sanghvi was a guest of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival

From HT Brunch, May 4
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