In the late 2000s I landed the job of Australian wine buyer for a major UK importer. At the time I wasn’t keen on most Australian wine, which could be seen as a major disadvantage for the role, but I saw it in a different light.
If I really didn’t like 99% of Australian wine then the 1% that excited me would have to be pretty special, right? Before that first buying trip my boss gave me one piece of advice: only buy wines you can drink a whole bottle of yourself. This may sound more than a little irresponsible, but what he meant was find Ultimate Drinkability. The progress of the last twenty years of Australian wine can be understood when looked at through the lens of that elusive word, drinkability. It’s a combination of factors that have moved the dial to a fresher, more drinkable Australian wine scene; it starts in the vineyard, extends through the winery, includes the choice of varieties and where to plant them and ultimately comes down to the people making those decisions.
The progress of the last twenty years of Australian wine can be understood when looked at through the lens of that elusive word, drinkability.
On that first buying trip I developed my own note taking method for scoring wine, the three tick system. One tick - the wine is sound, free of faults, but I wouldn’t buy a bottle to drink. Two ticks - now we’re talking! This is a really good wine, I would buy a bottle to drink myself. Three ticks - we’ve struck gold! I would list this wine for the company and buy a pallet. The holy grail, ultimate drinkability. My first three tick wine on that trip was a Syrah from a young guy called Luke Lambert, and in the subsequent decade he’s consistently been my most three tick awarded Aussie producer. My love affair had begun! The genius of the three tick system is that it helped me remember my buying decisions and I’m not sure a score of 92 or 94 points would help me do that.
The Goldilocks Zone
The French like to say that they pick grapes when they are “fully ripe”, but I’ve always believed this to be a mis-translation. What they mean is that they pick grapes when they are correctly ripe, not under ripe, not over ripe, but spot on. Part of Taras Ochota’s skill was knowing when to pick just on the cusp of this Goldilocks Zone, when the grapes are on the way up, but have not yet peaked on their journey to full ripeness. Thanks to this his wines have a naturally fresh, crackling, acidity that gives them vitality and great drinkability. But fresh acid and restrained alcohol are not the only aspect of drinkability, having the right grapes in the right place is essential.
Right grape, right place
Australia is badly mis-planted, just three grape varieties account for two thirds of all plantings, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, that in their home country of France are not even considered warm climate varieties (even Syrah growers in Northern Rhone would consider themselves a “cool” climate compared to their Grenache growing southern cousins). Yet over 90% of all of Australia’s grape growing regions would be considered warm to hot. When you grow varieties in a climate that is too hot they lose their natural acidity, which means you have to add acid to them when they come into the winery. A generation of Australian winemakers grew up believing that grapes were a problem that had to be fixed, rather than having faith in the fruit.
The rise in popularity of climate appropriate Mediterranean grape varieties such as such as Montepulciano, Nero d’Avola, Sangiovese, Fiano and Vermentino has been key to overcoming this attitude. In the vineyard they are drought tolerant, heat resistant, use less water, and crucially hold onto their natural acidity, which means when the fruit comes into the winey they don’t need adjusting. The wines of Frederick Stevenson (Montepulciano) and Delinquente (Nero d’Avola, Vermentino) demonstrate that when winemakers work with naturally balanced grapes they can make a more naturally balanced wine, part of the key to ultimate drinkability. Happily this also makes these varieties much more environmentally friendly as well.
A generation of Australian winemakers grew up believing that grapes were a problem that had to be fixed, rather than having faith in the fruit.
The one major caveat to this theory are the cool climate regions. These are the regions where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive; we’re talking Adelaide Hills, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania. When buying Pinot Noir my three tick system is augmented by the Pinosity scale. A lot of Aussie Pinot used to be what I’d call PFDR in my notes - Pinot Flavoured Dry Red. It looked, smelled and tasted like Pinot, but you didn’t get that Pinot magic that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck and your heart beat faster. The first Aussie Pinot I found with real Pinosity was the Timo Mayer Doktor. Part of Timo’s distinctive style is the use of whole bunches in the ferment to create a more complex, savoury and seductive aromatic profile, which not only increases the Pinosity but also enhances drinkability.
Ultimately, it’s that other elusive wine word “balance” that is key
Whilst living in South Australia making my own wines I came to appreciate that high alcohol is not the enemy. We tend to associate high alcohol wines with “high” everything else, extract, flavour, colour, oak. Living in McLaren Vale I had to recalibrate my European palate, as pretty much all the reds start at 14%. I discovered naturally made wines with alcohol as high as 17% that drank as easily as a young Beaujolais, and I think that was the final piece of the drinkability jigsaw. Yes fresh acidity helps, as do techniques such as whole bunch for reds and skin contact for whites, but ultimately, it’s that other elusive wine word “balance” that is key. When a wine is free of those winemaking adjustments and additions that you can’t really taste but your palate and body can sense, when it’s journey across your mouth and down your throat is unimpeded and you can drink a whole bottle yourself, that’s ultimate 3 tick drinkability. I’d finally learned to love Australian wine.
SHOP Tim's Pursuit of Freshness limited edition Australian mixed case, which includes many of his 3-tick producers.
*Taras Ochota died suddenly, shortly after this article was written. He was a huge talent, a friend to many and will be sorely missed.