*The following post takes a lightly different tone to my usual pieces, as it was originally entered into the Gourmet Traveller ‘new wine writer’ competition. Since it was written (Sept 2013), Ochota Barrels and Head wines won awards at the highly competitive ‘young guns’ wine comp, BK won an award in the Adelaide review’s ‘hot 100’ and Steve Pannell’s Adelaide Hills Syrah was featured in James Hallday’s top 100 wines for 2013 – making it somewhat prescient! I hope you enjoy it*
The ‘New World’.
It’s a funny expression when you think about the vast range of producers in Australia, ranging from the embryonic, to the ‘enfant terribles‘, to the decidedly old-fashioned. And as goes the passage of time, so changes the reputations of regions and producers. Things that were once innovative are now seen to be stale, or can be overdone to the point where they become caricatures of themselves.
And so it goes that after a period of looking a little stale; some of the most traditional wine making regions in Australia, the old guard of the new world as such, are being dragged kicking and screaming into a ‘New New world’ with exhilarating and exciting results.
But first, let’s look at how we got here. And to do so we’ll go right back to the start of the 90s, where reputations and wine styles were truly cemented. Back when the world of Australian wine had a much stronger nucleus in South Australia and was building serious momentum through the 80s, the declaration of 1990 as the ‘vintage of the century’ in the Barossa kicked off some heady days for the much loved ‘Big Red’. Drawing the misty-eyed adulation of he-who-wields-the-100-point-score, and being backed up with an above-average run of vintages from ’90-94, the race to achieve the highest score was coupled with a race to continually produce bigger, riper wines than the year before. It was a feeding frenzy. Australia and her multi-vineyard, (sometimes multi-region) jam-bombs were being given superlative reviews faster than producers could cash their cheques.
And then, the bubble burst.
After the ’98 vintage brought deafening hype, huge prices, and a load of alcoholic, out of balance wines that fell apart barely after making it into bottle; the winds started to change. The warmer climes continued to chase down this style for much of the 2000s while many of the other regions were innovating away learning how to make ‘new’ varietals, trialling international styles and generally starting to combine the best of the old and new worlds.
This innovation generated an exciting and impressive range of styles to take Australian wine into the future (our Chardonnay renaissance being a perfect case in point) whereas the wines which were once at the vanguard of the ‘new world’ all of a sudden looked like tired old dinosaurs.
But like any good boom and bust, the truly exciting innovations emerge from the ashes.
Somewhere around the end of the 2000s, the pendulum started to swing back. The heat wave at the end of the 2008 vintage managed to destroy any fruit that was left out for extended ‘hang-time’, ‘alternative varietal’ plantings that were made at the start of the 2000s started to produce some decent fruit, and a new wave of producers started to cut through.
In the Barossa Valley, alcohol levels have been pulled back whilst retaining the regional character; resulting in some incredible wines. The 2010 Rugabellus Efferus was a revelation, with freshness and natural acid underpinning a blend filled with fruit and power that could only have come from the Barossa. The wines of Alex Head (Head Wines) are getting better and better every year, and whilst not everything works all of the time, the current releases (2012) scream out their place of birth while reining in the power that all too often overwhelms wines from this region.
In McLaren Vale, Alpha Box and Dice have produced a Montepulciano (with fruit from Langhorne Creek) that has so much funk and earth that you’d swear it was from Europe if it wasn’t supported with lashings of juicy fruit. It’s a wine that demands food – an accusation that 5 years ago you wouldn’t have been able to level at any of the wines from the region. Steve ‘SC’ Pannell also continues to show how you can combine Old world sensibility with New World terroir through his range of wines that impossibly get stronger year on year seemingly irrespective of vintage.
But perhaps the most exciting developments have come from the perpetually undervalued region of the Adelaide Hills. With wines that seemingly always sat in the shadow of their riper brethren and struggling somewhat for identity, in many ways it has led the charge into the new new world with a dazzling array of varietals and styles that are just now starting to make serious waves. Head of the pack is the inimitable Ochota Barrels, who have produced more amazing wine in the last 18 months than this article has the word count to detail. Desperately small in production, the 2013 Weird Berries in the Woods Gewurztraminer is the most frighteningly intense and pure wine I’ve had from the region since… well probably their 2012 Slint Chardonnay! Just round the proverbial corner sit Brendon and Kirstyn Keys at BK wines, who are also doing things a little differently with results that are both challenging and exhilarating. A great example is their 2012 Skin & Bones Savignin Chardonnay, an absolute ripper of a wine. With a bit of skin contact and each grape perfectly supporting the other you could say that it tastes kind-of like a bunch of things but not exactly like anything in particular; and if that’s not the essence of what the new world was built on then I don’t know what is.
It’s an exciting time, and no doubt the rest of the world will eventually catch up with what’s happening – but for now let’s just enjoy it as our little secret. The New New world is here, and it’s a Brave New World.