To this day, you hear it repeated over and over by people in the wine industry. Critter wines like Yellow Tail, killed the high-end Australian market. The idea that low-priced wines, (with cartoon-like labels or not) killed a previously robust market segment, has been laziness on the industry’s part. The success of lower-end wine brings new drinkers into the market, not the other way around.
Some have suggested that wine drinkers simply tired of Australia’s over-ripe, over-extracted wines, and stopped buying them. I fervently believe however, that there are two factors that worked in conjunction, to kill the Australian wine market in the United States. First, it was actually the Aussie winemakers who tired of making uber-ripe, extracted wines, (not the wine drinkers), and began to scale back on the ripeness, in order to make long-lived, “classic” wines. The second reason, and this is the stake in the heart, is the long-held Australian tradition of using high levels of tartaric acid additions. These additions increase titratable acidity (T/A) and lower the pH, in order to preserve the wine. To explain the relationship of these two factors, I should start from the beginning.
Acidification in the new world has been accepted as necessary for the past century, because the grapes in our warmer climates tend to lose so much more acidity as they ripen, compared to wines from the classic regions of Europe. By adding acid, the thought is the wine becomes more stable, and less susceptible to spoilage. Australian winemakers have used acidification, not only to stabilize the wines, but to preserve their wines for as many decades as possible.
“But then, Australian winemakers killed the goose that laid the golden eggs.”
In the late eighties through the late nineties, the rage among Australian winemakers was to push the ripeness and concentration to exaggerated proportions. With Barossa leading the charge, these wines were immense, sweetly fruited, densely concentrated, and very, very ripe. They had a overt sweetness on the palate from their high alcohol and fruit, that overshadowed the tartness from the high levels of tartaric acid being added to the vats. It was a matter of balance. These wines had enough Gras (fat) as the French say, to pull off the wine’s high acid. These were the wines that became wildly popular in the United States. These huge wines were the entire, explosive, upper-end, Australian market.
But then, Australian winemakers killed the goose golden eggs. Australian winemakers became self-critical of this style of wines, calling the excessive ripeness, a fad. They wanted to create great wine; and They knew these super-ripe monsters were not, and would never be, great wines for the ages. Starting around the 2000 vintage, the winemakers there, began scaling back the ripeness, looking for more elegant, complex flavors. What they did not scale back was how much tartaric they were adding to their fermentation tanks. As the levels of sweet fruit receded the acidity beneath it was revealed. The result were tight, tough, tart, and seemingly fruitless wines. And without ever realizing why, the American public slowly stopped buying high-end Australian wines.
“This is the story of two ships passing in the night. The American palate, and the Australian winemaker.”
Conversely, for the past twenty years in California, winemakers have sought to minimize their intervention in winemaking, and have greatly reduced the amount of tartaric acid to the fermentation vats, and some have completely eliminated acid additions altogether. The net result is California wines have gotten softer, and more lush. With this shift toward softer wines (particularly in reds), the American palate has become acclimated to wines with softer, more natural acidity. This is the story of two ships passing in the night. The American palate, and the Australian winemaker. Why has Chilean wine stopped its exponential growth? Pretty much the same story.
* * *
In Australia, especially among the older generation, how long a wine lives seems to be a source of pride. I have had more old Australian wines in the past 10 years, than old wines from California. All of them have been flown in for dinners where the winemakers were the guest speakers. At a recent dinner featuring Chester Osborn, and his father D’Arry, we tasted two wines from the sixties, and a wine from the mid-seventies. Another dinner with Chester close to ten years ago, wines from the sixties and seventies were poured also. At a sales meeting, the winemaker from Wynn’s showed a wine from the sixties, two from the seventies, and one from the eighties. Stuart Blackwell, the winery manager, and guiding light from St. Hallett winery came into my store on a ‘ride-with’ / sales call. Uniformly, the St. Hallett reds were very tart, and unpleasant to drink. At the top end of the range, the Blackwell Shiraz, there was almost enough stuffing to pull-off the wines searingly high acid, but I feared that it would close up very hard in the next year, if not sooner. I asked, knowing the answer, if they were acidifying the wines. “Yes, of course,” he replied. “Otherwise they won’t last.” These wines were his legacy.
- Winemakers told to stop whining (news.theage.com.au)
- Interview: Australian wines overflow at Chinese tables: winemaker (nzweek.com)