Friday, June 3, 2011

In response, on alternatives, great wine & Canberra

[written in response to a post on Nick Stock's postferment blog and cross-posted here for convenience]

So many possible things to say. Thanks Nick for the post over on your postferment site.

I’ll start with a bit of clarification: the sentence you quote from me about preferring sharing learning rather than expertise refers to my wine writing and blogging. I have higher and different standards for wine I make or have made. If I’m not happy the wine would impress me as a drinker, in and of itself, and with a story wrapped around it, it’s not fit for release. I dumped my whole make of 2007 sagrantino, from Chalmers fruit, as it didn’t come up to spec. As for pricing, my own philosophy (with a nod to Stephen George at Ashton Hills and Drew Noon) is a price for that wine I’d be happy to pay as a punter, and no more. Speaking as myself, not for Quarry Hill here.

Preamble aside, here are my first responses:
1. Great wines are not the only wines people want (and are able to) make and drink. There are many times where what I want from sangiovese in the glass is Chianti and not Brunello, even when I can afford the latter. Sometimes ‘great wines’, in the sense of wines that challenge, fascinate, capture and command attention, simply demand too much, or are wrong for the food or mood of the table. Tuscany without Chianti would, I suggest, be unable to do Brunello. Great wines may actually lean on their ‘lesser’ bretheren for support and cash-flow.

2. Great wines take committed experimentation and time. Even in ‘new’ regions like Priorat, Hawkes Bay or Canberra, it takes a progression of vintages and wines to learn, improve and sometimes know what to give up on. The commitment (or at least interest) of producers, trade, writers and consumers along that time of learning is what is needed to produce great wines. Yes, some of that commitment and interest may be driven by novelty, but that does not preclude a simultaneous commitment to excellence. You can be trying to produce great wine and doing something new at the same time. Likely to be harder than other options, riskier as well, but possibly more fun and maybe even a better fit to site and district than doing something more mainstream.

3. Is the 40 year modern history of the Canberra District long enough an experience, across enough sites/terroir, grapes, techniques, vintages and people to support an injunction to stick to our shiraz and riesling knitting? Perhaps it is. But I’m unconvinced enough testing of those possible combinations, over enough time, has taken place. Successful shiraz in Canberra, with ‘great wine’ in its sights, is something I’d say there is 10-15 years of evidence for. Is this categorical proof that, for instance, tempranillo may not be the best red grape for the District?

4. If Canberra did stick to its knitting of riesling and shiraz, even forgetting about climate change, what happens when Australian shiraz moves further from fashion in domestic and international markets? You could have a tiny district, with a small crush, producing a heap of great wine, which can’t sell. And I would not be expecting this swing in fashion to coincide with a riesling revival. Wouldn’t it make sense, even for small producers hell-bent on making great wine, to have some diversity in their vineyards, cellars and price lists? Perhaps along the lines of a Clonakilla red rhone blend, for example? Or the Mt Majura blend of tempranillo, shiraz and graciano. Or Alex McKay’s rhone white and ‘serious’ sangiovese?

5. There are at least some producers who go into alternative varieties, techniques or blends with good heads on their shoulders, packed full of homework. Did Mt Majura rush into tempranillo without a long run-up of thinking and learning? No. As well as time spent knowing that site, Peter Read’s knowledge of tempranillo helped inform the decision to plant and where on that site. The result being a good wine, aiming to be great, since the 2003 vintage. People like the Grilli’s at Primo Estate, Mark Walpole and Louisa Rose don’t devote time, passion and energy to alternatives on shallow whims or as low stakes bets. These stories need telling to balance your critique, I suggest.

Yes, there will be lazy dabbling, producing wines of similar quality, in Australian ‘alternatives’, but is that really any more prevalent than the lazy, poor, heartless and dishonest wines being made in Australia from chardonnay, shiraz and cabernet? If you wanted to see more great and less average or poor Australian wine, perhaps the mainstream is closer to the heart of the problem?

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