The word on the street, at least in the US, UK and even Australia, is that Australian wine is on the verge of being the hot new thing ... again. Yet “new” is hardly an apt term, given the seemingly inexorable rise of Aussie wine throughout the mid to late ‘90s and early ‘00s in the very same markets. Similarly, Spain is on the way up and, in my view, producing wines that are among the most exciting in the world.
However, both the “new” Australian and Spanish wines hail from very different sub-regions, expressed across dramatically different wine styles, than those that were exulted with bumbling, galumphing enthusiasm over a decade ago.
Indeed, Australia and Spain have shared a similar vinous trajectory in recent times, at least when it comes to fine wine, or wines that boast an inimitable stamp of place due to a special site and the diligence, humility and patience of their makers.
Among recent trendsetters, Spain's Bierzo or Ribeira Sacra spring to mind with the peppery energy of their reds; as does the tangy Grenache of McLaren Vale's higher sites. Others include Tasmania, the Upper Yarra, Great Southern, Adelaide Hills and Mornington Peninsula. Yet none of these regions are nascent, but very much established. This suggests that the critical acclaim of yore hinged on personal predilections for very ripe wines, rather than intrinsic quality.
Once, Australian and Spanish wines were perceived as falling into two major categories, both very different from their recent counterparts: inexpensive, fruitforward, imminently drinkable and largely innocuous; or buxom, fullbodied, high in alcohol and glossed with plentiful oak, extract and sunshine, and hailing from warm to very warm regions such as Barossa Valley, Ribera del Duero and Toro. It was in this latter category – a world of plucked, tweaked and manicured wines of few subtleties – that a limited stash of expensive wines found favour with powerful American critics.
Subsequently, less-than-scrupulous producers began to construct wines for these critics. New labels appeared on a weekly basis, many designed solely for export to the US market. Prices rose inexorably. While working as a sommelier in New York, for example, one Australian wine on my list went from a couple of hundred dollars to more than a thousand overnight following a glowing Parker review.
Alas, ambitious picking windows and exaggerated winemaking meant that a great deal of these wines lacked the structure to age. A decade later, investors felt conned as their wines turned to soup. As specious and regionally constrained as the whole saga was, the Spanish and Australian fine-wine markets collapsed.
Yet the economic picture in Spain and Australia was very different. Australian economic growth for the last 30 years, propelled by a mining boom through the '00s, saw the Australian currency rise to unprecedented heights. Labour costs spiralled to become among the highest in the world. Falling demand for the country's so-called top wines, alongside a rising dollar, saw grape prices plummet and many communities with their backs against the wall.
Conversely, in Spain, the global financial crisis of 2008 saw the real-estate and construction industries deflate. Unemployment rose to heights not seen since the demise of Franco, while labour costs fell. Wealth evaporated. Societal fabric was unravelling as fast as many of Spain's bolshy wines. Land in Priorat, for example, a fêted region among many drivers of modernity, became difficult to give away. So did its wines.
So what happened? Both countries adapted to the zeitgeist, seeking respite in the premium quality wines from cooler climate regions intentionally or, perhaps, inadvertently. Few pundits with clout had previously spoken of Ribeira Sacra, Tasmania, or any of these regions, at least not in the US. Concomitantly, younger winemakers reacted strongly against the limited, external perceptions of their country's wines. Organic and biodynamic wines began to define entire regions such as the Adelaide Hills and pockets of the higher Penedès, where a new voice came to be heard. Here, primed young guns began embracing ambient yeasts, older oak and whole-cluster ferments across many a turbid Pinot Noir, Grenache, or wacky white field blend. Names such as Terroir al Límit and Algueira in Spain; and Gentle Folk, Lucy Margaux and Jauma in Australia.
The best wines are founded on Spanish optimism and an Australian nous for sound winemaking. These wines whet the appetite for further exploration, while serving to redefine fine wine. They tell real stories of places and people rather than concoctions and fallacies.