02 November 2009

Thoughts on Australia

I got a great comment from an Australian reader on Friday's post. I'm going to excerpt some of his points and address them below, but I thought that first a quick geography lesson was in order. I feel certain that if I asked any of you to map a route from Adelaide to Darwin without going through Alice Springs you could do so as easily as you could give directions to the nearest Starbucks. But on the off chance that someone is less familiar with the land down under...

I wanted to clarify Australian population density and wine regions for the benefit of the average American. Unless you decide to study the topic yourself, or have some connection to the country, few of us understand that continent. Since there's no existing map that explains these two topics well, I built my own non-scientific, mostly factual* map from scratch. I call it "Benito's Bruised Mango Map of Australian Wine & People" (click for big glorious version). First off, the "Lower 48" (all of the US minus Alaska and Hawaii) is about the same physical size and shape as Australia, but the population is totally different:

US Lower 48 = 8 million km2
Australia = 7.6 million km2

US Population = 307 million
Australia Population = 22 million

The US population (99% in the Lower 48) is concentrated in the eastern third of the country bordered by the Mississippi River, but we have 30 million people in California and 24 million in Texas--the latter group is bigger than Australia, and that's just one state. In Australia the population is almost entirely coastal, with the vast majority in the southeast and smaller groups in the southwest. Imagine taking the population of Texas and spreading them out from North Carolina to Florida, and taking a handful to San Diego and Seattle.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let's look at Hieronymous' discussion points:

As an Aussie wine-lover I always find it fascinating to read international reviews of our wines. For a start many of the wines that make it out of the country are barely known here - there is a distinct segment of the market who produce for the export market only, some of which have trashed the brand internationally.

We had a great set of comments on this issue back in August from American retailers and distributors. I'm curious as to what all of you are drinking down there--I see reviews occasionally in magazines, but as you say, some bottles just don't make their way onto a boat or plane. What sort of American wines show up on Australian shelves and menus?

Yellow Tail is certainly available here in Oz, but is very much a budget brand that no-one of my acquaintance would dream of drinking. Likewise, there are a lot of elegant reds now being produced, but our rep has been tainted by the disproportionate proportion of 'fruit bombs' heading overseas.

Yellow Tail, Little Penguin, and others are hugely popular here, and I think the sales help keep wine shops running on a day-to-day basis. There are a lot of arguments in wine circles over these type of bottles. I don't really drink them anymore, but I did when I was freshly legal to purchase wine. I think that they're decent introductory material for novice wine drinkers. As I've said many times, a label full of confusing French or German can be scary to the neophyte; a cute animal is reassuring.

I was delighted with the wines I tried last week because I felt many of them broke the mold of the "standard Aussie wine" that shows up on American shelves. I hope they are successful and that as Americans, we don't develop a one-dimensional attitude towards an entire nation's industry.

That little rant over I'm glad to see some of the more diverse wine growing areas of the country getting some exposure. WA is certainly an up and coming area, and I would direct your readers to wines from Mornington and Yarra Valley in Victoria, and some of the Tassie wines. Orange is another region worth keeping an eye on.

I'm sad to say that I've only seen and tasted one Tasmanian wine in my life, but I loved it. Victorian wines are a bit easier to find around these parts. Western Australia wines are becoming more common, and I'll almost always grab one if I find it. But of course the vast majority of Oz juice is from the powerhouses of South Australia.

* * *

I think it's always helpful to examine your own prejudices and preconceptions. I know my own selection of wines reviewed here is skewed in several weird ways. I tend to ignore Germany unfairly due to the dominance of Riesling. Italy's vast and varied grapes fascinate me. Looking back over my notes I have a strong preference towards California red blends that I could not have recognized without analyzing the data. Not everybody has the time or inclination for such reflection, but if you've found yourself in a rut with Australian wines or any other category, step back and look for the under-appreciated wines and regions within that country.


*I started with a vector map of the continent to establish the basic design. For the wine and populations, I overlaid maps of major wine regions and population and painted over the main points to achieve the Mango Map. While it doesn't do proper service to the island of Tasmania, I think it does a decent job of showing population and wine densities in the southwest and southeast, the sources of most Aussie wine and people.

9 comments:

The Wine Commonsewer (TWC) said...

I have a friend and colleague down in Oz. He is a tax guy like me and was quite an excellent wine blogger for a time.

That said, I enjoyed your piece on Aussie wines. Yellow Tail is really quite ghastly.

And why is Oz Shiraz so different from Ca Syrah.

Sampled a Clarendon Hills Syrah from Oz the other day. Big, Bold, needs about a decade in the bottle, but definitely one of the better Oz Shiraz' I have had the opportunity to taste.

Benito said...

And why is Oz Shiraz so different from Ca Syrah.

Depends a lot on precisely where your Australian Shiraz is coming from, but a lot of it has to do with ocean currents and deserts. Australia is almost entirely surrounded by warm currents and the wine regions are surrounded by hot, dry deserts.

Most California wine is made in a snuggly zone between cold ocean currents and mountains, with the deserts on the other side.

I can keep going, but eventually I'll talk about how we could have awesome forests in Antarctica if we just plugged up the Drake Passage south of Tierra del Fuego and stopped the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. Of course, it would probably wreak havoc on South America, Southern Africa, and Australia in the process.

Cheers,
Benito

Scott Smith said...

Hey Benito,

The Borders store on Poplar carries a magazine entitled "Gourmet Traveller Wine" on a somewhat sporadic basis. It is published and distributed primarily for the Australia and New Zealand markets, and I've never seen it available anywhere else in town.

I have found it useful in understanding Australian wine from the Australian perspective. If you've not seen a copy, I highly recommend it.

Benito said...

Scott,

Thanks for the recommendation--I'll check it out!

Cheers,
Benito

Mark said...

Thanks for the more realistic updates on the Aussie wine regions. Frankly I haven't been impressed with the quality/price ratio for what I've been able to try here in the states. It does sound like they are more similar to Argentina, where the very best wines are consumed domestically and the left overs are exported.

The only problem with that occurs when exports start to fall as they are now with increased competition from Italy and Chile for market share.

Sean Mitchell said...

For what it's worth, if you are looking for Australian wines that are rated highly locally in Australia by the local wine press and wine consumers, I think probably the best place to start is the "Langtons classification" of top Oz wines which is free on their internet site. (http://www.langtons.com.au/Wine/ClassificationView.aspx). There are few wines on this list that don't at least have the capability of impressing. And there are not many good wines produced in Australia that aren't on this list. I hope more than a handful of them are available outside Oz!

Cheers

Sean Mitchell

Hieronymous said...

The thing to remember about Australian wine is the radical diversity of climate, soil and prevailing conditions that end up in the bottle. If you look at the map of Oz and drew a line through it halfway up then that's pretty well the limit of the wine-growing regions in Australia - not much decent is made north of that.

That still leaves a vast area where wine is made. The Barossa bakes in the summer; in Tasmania it's cool most year round. In WA the breeze off the Indian ocean cools the interior; in Mornington the hills are cooler than the hills and valleys of the Yarra Valley a couple of hours north of there - and so on.

Likewise soils range from the baked, sandy soils a stones throw from full-on deserts, to loamy soils rich in nutrients, and so on.

The reality of all this is that the same wine made in different regions of Australia will be different from one to the other. The Aussie shiraz, for example, is much more than the big, flavoursome drop it is reputed to be. Shop around and you'll find delicate, elegant shiraz, and shiraz lighter in style. Australian wine has been done a disservice by the exporters catering to generic markets and serving to them an homogeneous product of little distinction.

Living here it's exciting to see where Australian wine-making is going. In recent years a new generation of wine-makers exploiting new wine regions are making all manner of wines - from the traditional favourites to more interesting varieties like albarino, tempranillo, sangiovese, arneis, and adventurous blendings of others.

The fact of the matter is you're not likely to see a lot of that in your local bottle shop there - just as Californian wine is hard find here outside the occasional Zinfandel on a restaurant wine menu.

Anonymous said...

Benito,

Granted there are some big deserts in Australia, but I take it that you meant that our wine regions are surrounded by them in a rather loose fashion. Most wine regions are at least 800+ kilometres from the nearest desert

I have seen very few US wines in stores over here. Names like Stags Leap and Opus One are seen occasionally, and I have seen the Ridge wines and a couple of others, but product from the US is fairly rare.

You are by no means alone there. It has really only been in the last 10 years that wine from Europe has really started to take off, particularly the last 3-4 as our dollar has strengthened and prices have improved.

Australian generally like to think they punch above their weight on the world stage, and so the focus in the last two decades has largely been on wines from here (and New Zealand although we don't like to mention this). This is changing as people realise there is a big world of wine out there.

However people overseas would do well to source out a bit of the wine that we make here that is rarely seen overseas (pretty much most of it, if overseas wine blogs are anything to go by). There are a massive range of styles and varietals, and some really good quality.

If you want a 'heads up' there is a site called Wine Front which does some pretty good reviews, and for a non subscription site try wino sapien (has some fantastic recipes too).

If you want some tips try

Hoddles Creek
Cape Mentelle
Taltarni
Sorrenberg
Dalrymple Estate
Heemskerk
Grosset
Tar & Roses
Clover Hill
Meerea Park

This is by no means exhaustive

Cheers

Julian

Benito said...

Hieronymous & Julian,

Thanks for the great info and responses, particularly to Hieronymous for triggering this whole discussion. I admit that I've made broad generalizations about Australian geography and climate, but we as a nation are painfully ignorant about the history and layout of the sunburnt country, and I wanted to take baby steps. Our view is mostly shaped by Crocodile Dundee, The Crocodile Hunter, and perhaps if you're a bit more sophisticated, Muriel's Wedding. Some might have even purchased a Midnight Oil CD in the 90s to appear socially conscious.

"Every Australian lives directly on the edge of the Outback, gets attacked by dangerous animals on a daily basis, and drinks Fosters lager in copious quantities." These ideas are why most Aussies in the US have a perpetually tired, slightly annoyed attitude.

I will keep an eye out for the wines and sources mentioned, and will continue my one-man crusade to educate myself about your continent.

Cheers,
Benito