Can Jacob's Creek, Nottage Hill or Banrock Station be found on an Australian map, or are they simply fantasies of a marketeer's fertile imagination? Last week, as I uncorked a bottle of Hardy's Nottage Hill Chardonnay at a talk on wine-tasting, I was asked whether Nottage Hill was a real place. My immediate response was to say no, it's just a big Australian brand like Jacob's Creek and Banrock Station.
Then I remembered that I'd actually been to Jacob's Creek in the Barossa Valley, and to Banrock Station on the Murray River. It struck me then that the big companies such as Hardy's, Orlando and Penfolds have cunningly managed to endow their big brands with a sense of place.
Australia has shifted these brands of chardonnay and shiraz by the shedload. In fact, five out of the top 10 bestselling brands in the UK are Australian. And now, after a decade or more, 15 million cases are exported to the UK, and Australia has leapt into second place behind France for the first time in history. It's an extraordinary achievement considering that the wine-growing areas of Australia are still barely larger than Bordeaux and amount to just over a third of the South of France's vineyards.
What's more, as part of its imperial ambition of conquering the importing wine world, Australia has seen one of the most aggressive expansion programmes of the modern era. Striking the bullish pose of a $1bn exporter, it has been planting new vineyards at the rate of over 10,000 hectares a year, almost doubling the total area under vine from 67,000 hectares in 1993 to 123,000 in 1999. The number of wineries has leapt from 800 to 1,200, and not a month goes by without the launch of yet another multi-million-dollar winery.
New World, and especially Australian, wines originally achieved their enormous success by identifying the grape varieties - in particular, chardonnay, syrah (shiraz) and cabernet sauvignon. But now we all know what they're made of, producers are falling over themselves to tell us where they're from. Adopting the French emphasis on location has led to the wholesale annexation of creeks, hills and vales, along with sundry nooks and crannies.
As in the case of Nottage Hill, how can we differentiate a brand with a place name from a genuinely regional wine? Not that there's anything wrong with a brand. The big Australian names are more consistent and of better quality than the insipid European brands of yesteryear. But individually crafted wines from specific areas or vineyards are often of higher quality and usually offer a more authentic expression of style and character. And it's these that Australia is now trying to put on the map.
The country's producers have realised that defining its wines by region as well as by grape variety will helps us appreciate the diversity of its wine styles. It won't happen overnight. Most wine drinkers will still be keener to know what they're drinking than where it comes from. And because, unlike France, Australia is not on our doorstep, it will take time for wine drinkers here to get to know the different regions within the main producing states of South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia.
On a visit to the UK earlier this year, Michael Hill-Smith, of the newly launched Adelaide Hills winery Shaw & Smith, drew up a handy start list of regions and styles that best suit them: Hunter Valley, for instance, for its toasty, bottle-aged semillon; Margaret River and Coonawarra for elegant cabernet sauvignon; Victoria and Adelaide Hills for raspberryish pinot noir, and, in the case of shiraz, Australia's most widely planted premium red grape, a host of regions ranging from the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale to individual districts within Victoria for different styles varying from headily blackberryish to more peppery, almost northern-RhÃ¿ne-like.
Oddbins, whose pioneering Australian stance once earned it the Ozbins tag, has taken up the regional baton and brought out a new list in which it features Australian wines not by grape variety but by region. This is the way to go. Unfortunately, just as Australia is set to shift a gear, many of the highest quality regions have suffered an ill wind of frost, hail and heavy rain. There'll be no shortage of everyday wines, and no immediate danger of drastic price rises, but Barossa Valley, Clare Valley and McLaren Vale, Coonawarra and Padthaway have also been affected in vintage 2000.
Equally unwelcome is the news that Kingston Estate, a major player in the everyday wine market, has come unstuck and has had its export licence suspended for suspected fraud. I think and hope that this is a one-off, but it will serve to remind everyone that a good image, painstakingly built up, is all too easily lost. And for anyone still searching for Nottage Hill, it does exist - in the heart of McLaren Vale.