Thursday, December 15, 2011

How natural is Australian wine?

Australians' concept of natural wine - a term they don't actually tend to use - is very different from ours. Pretty well everyone uses some sulphur for example and even the more radical wines don't taste as alternative as they do in Europe. To many of course that's a decided plus but I missed some of the more off-the-wall flavours to which I've become accustomed over the last year or so. ('Faulty wines' in many Aussies' point of view.)

There are reasons for that. A producer can't currently get a permit to export a wine unless it passes a tasting panel and conforms to certain technical parameters which means that wines on the funkier frontier such as Jamsheed's Mon Petite Francine (sic), a vibrant and delicious Cabernet Franc get turned down. Ironically echoing the sort of things that go on in what Australia considers to be over-regulated France. And transport is a real problem. Australians have to ship their wines over the equator during the course of which temperatures can fluctuate wildly.

Biodynamics is being embraced - but in an odd way. The phrase 'we use some biodynamic treatments' is widely used but that seems rather to defeat the point of the exercise. Either you buy into the idea or you don't. There's much less use of herbicides and other sprays - everyone these days likes to say they're sustainable - and less acid adjustment though that depends on the region. Australia has extreme weather patterns. In 2009, the year of the dreadful fires in the Yarra Valley, temperatures in a 'cool climate' region soared to 45°C. Droughts are common and irrigation in many areas essential, particularly where young vines are involved.

Indigenous yeasts are increasingly popular, especially for chardonnay, lack of fining and filtration much more widespread than would once have been the case.

Even so many Australian wines would probably not qualify for inclusion in events like this summer's Natural Wine Fair but there are some brilliantly individual wines you wouldn't have tasted there five years ago. And wines that always were distinctive like Yarra Yering's no 1 red you are reminded, on re-tasting, are very traditionally made. 2004 is the current vintage!

The issue raises a lot of heat though. There are senior figures in the industry who get positively apoplectic when you discuss it - "you journalists are all obsessed by it", "so you want to drink faulty wines" .... etc, etc. But given the poverty of many of Australia's soils, biodynamics makes a lot of sense.

Anyway over the next few weeks I'll be reporting back on some of my most interesting visits and meetings with producers such as Domaine Lucci, Ngeringa, Paxton, Battle of Bosworth, Kooyong and Castagna, all of whose wines I'm happy to say are available in the UK. And a few natural wine bars - though again that's not how they tend to describe themselves. The N word is not a big sell Down Under . . .