wine: Down Under, down under

Chardonnay, after all, is chardonnay is chardonnay. Without region and brand name it's anonymous
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The Independent Culture
In just a decade, Australia has established itself as the star turn of the New World. But that is nothing on South America and South Africa, slumbering giants who have kicked into action and transformed the mass market scene in only two years. To make matters worse for Australia, hopes for a record harvest of 108 million bottles were dashed by what one Australian producer described as "a bitch of a year". Drought combining with late season rain produced a harvest of more like 80 million bottles, and that inevitably means higher prices. Is this just a temporary hitch, or will it push open the door even further to New World competitors?

At the sub-pounds 3.50 a bottle level, the answer is emphatically yes. At an average of pounds 4.25 per bottle, Australia's wines now command the highest price per bottle of any country after New Zealand, whose volume is significantly smaller. But, since we drink nine in every 20 Australian bottles exported, Australia is committed to holding prices to affordable levels.

Premium grape varieties are a key, and new plantings will feed a supply boom from 1997. According to James Halliday, one of Australia's leading wine writers (and winemakers), "prices are way above the norm. Premium grape prices can come down 25 per cent, bigger volume wines 50 per cent without impairing the viability of the industry."

There has already been an inexorable shift from basic, mass market grapes, such as gordo, sultana and doradillo, to the major premium varieties, in particular chardonnay, semillon, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. Ten years ago, two thirds of Australian wine was mass market stuff. Today, premium grape varieties represent nearly 60 per cent of production. By early next century, this should reach 80 per cent of total wine production.

Meanwhile, a search for delicacy and intensity of flavour away from the heat of the burning sun has led to experiments in vast new tracts of cool virgin vineyard, with major producers such as Penfolds, McWilliams and Rosemount among the pioneers. The use of cool climate grapes as a vibrant blending component has become standard.

Blending wines from different regions under a brand name such as Orlando's Jacob's Creek or Hardy's Nottage Hill has long been one of the keys to Australian wine's commercial success. But producers are now cottoning on to the fact that cross-regional blending suppresses local identity. Names such as Coonawarra and Padthaway may be internationally acclaimed but, typically, the big companies have exploited the regions by "stealing" grapes for their superbrand. This is now changing. Not that producers have suddenly seen the shining pathway to appellation controlee enlightenment. Rather they have begun to acknowledge the link between region, grape variety and wine style.

According to Chris Hancock of Rosemount, "Growers have always taken the Australian farmers' view that you plant a bit of this and a bit of that. But it didn't maximise the potential. The shift to regional focus is the logical next step. Chardonnay, after all, is chardonnay is chardonnay. Without region and brand name, it's anonymous."

The back-to-our-roots approach is in part due to the growing influence of the small premium wineries. Many of them, producing anything from 5,000 to 50,000 cases of wine, are run by winemakers, producers or marketing wizards like Bob McLean at St Hallett, who've sacrificed the big company pension for hands-on winemaking and the lure of independence and "lifestyle". Small, family-run companies too, such as Henschke and Veritas, with vineyard managers and winemakers, are also making their presence felt.

As often as not, the winery uses both its own and a selection of grapes bought in from local growers. As new allegiances and identities are forged, location is becoming a major element in the identity of the wine style. According to Robert "Rocky" O'Callaghan of the Barossa Valley's cult winery, Rockford, "regionalisation will be what happens in the next ten years. Australian wine will move away from the generics to better and better quality." The writing on the wall is clear, it says: don't write us off yet, poms

Exceptional Australians

1995 Red Cliffs Riesling Traminer pounds 3.99, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. Better than anything Alsace or Germany can do at the price, this aromatic white with its hint of sweet pipe tobacco, is nicely rounded for those who like a touch of sweetness and spice

1995 Monty's Hill Chardonnay/Colombard pounds 3.99, Safeway. A fresh and fruity cool-climate blend from Victoria with crisp, clean-cut grapefruity flavours

1994 Moondah Brook Verdelho pounds 4.99-5.49, Waitrose, Fuller's, Tesco, Victoria Wine. Delightful, tropical, Western Australian dry white with a refreshing mandarin orange-like citrusy fruitiness

1994 Chateau Tahbilk Marsanne pounds 5.49, Tesco, Oddbins. An unusual wine made from the southern Rhone Marsanne variety, this frisky, young eucalyptus and cinnamon-perfumed white has refreshing tastes of limes on the palate

1994 Saltram Mamre Brook Chardonnay pounds 6.99, Waitrose. This barrel-fermented chardonnay is richly flavoured with undertones of vanilla fudge and butterscotch and good fruit richness and concentration. Or try the smoky, citrusy 1994 Saltram Pinnacle Chardonnay pounds 6.99, Oddbins.

1993 Penfolds Bin 2 Shiraz Mourvedre pounds 4.99, selected Sainsbury's, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. One of the best-value Penfolds' reds, this southern Rhone-style blend is rich in blackberry fruitiness with a well-judged sheen of oak

1992 Hardy's Bankside Shiraz pounds 5.75-5.99, Oddbins, Victoria Wine, Safeway, Wine Cellar. A subtle cinnamon and clove spiciness characterises the aromatic bouquet on this shiraz, whose rich blackcurrant fruitiness melds beautifully with the smoky American oak

1993 Rouge Homme Richardson's Red Block pounds 7.99, Oddbins. This cabernet/merlot/malbec Bordeaux-style blend, winner of the coveted 1994 Jimmy Watson Trophy, is rich in vanilla oak flavours and textured mulberry fruitiness

1993 St Hallett Barossa Shiraz pounds 7.99, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. This is a fruitier style than the Old Block Shiraz, whose core of soft, liquorice and blackcurrant fruit is enhanced by aromatic eucalyptus and dark chocolate oakiness

1991 Katnook Cabernet Sauvignon Coonawarra pounds 9.99, Victoria Wine Cellars and selected Wine Shops. An attractively textured cabernet with mocha- like oak notes and the ripe flavour of cassis with a touch of green pepper.