What do you call it, Global Warming or Climate Change? Either way, the globe is warming and the climate is changing. How worried we should be in the wine trade?
After all, we are endlessly hearing about the stumbling blocks in Europe. Diminishing yields might be pushing up fruit quality but it is definitely pushing up prices, and that’s before whatever is going to happen on October 31st does or doesn’t happen. Wines from traditional European countries will always be a fundamental part of our portfolio, but where can we turn to for alternatives? What about Australia?
I took advantage of the Australia Redefined tasting to learn a little about our historically important new partner in Central Victoria, Tahbilk, and also to take the temperature of the room (see what I did there?) to see how worried the Aussie winemakers are. Now, if the stupid lanyards would stop flicking the name tags around, I could stop harassing brand managers and students with questions WAY out of their comfort zone!
Harvest dates in Australia are traditionally between February and April, depending on where you are and how kind the weather is. Every winemaker I spoke to in the hall told me they are harvesting earlier now, consistently days or even weeks earlier, but this is not news. In June The Drinks Business quoted Geoff Merrill, owner and winemaker of his eponymous wine label in McLaren Vale; “over the past 20 years we have seen an average shift in harvest date by approximately two weeks earlier…”
Is this important?
Well, WSET quali’ holders, let’s revise. Before you harvest, you are looking for the following: sugar ripeness, acidity and phenolic ripeness (flavours and tannins). Pick early and acidity is high, possible too high (antacid anyone?), your tannins will be as rough as old socks. Pick too late and your tannins will be silky smooth but your high sugar levels mean the alcohol will be through the roof (Plink Plink Fizz!). Compounded by having lost too much acidity, your wine is now out of balance and really not very nice. Chances of sugar, acid and phenolics ripening at the same time in a normal year? Pretty low. Chances of them ripening even vaguely in the same ball park as each other if everything is happening too fast? Zero.
This is where Alister Purbrick at Tahbilk, Bob Berton, Larry Cherubino and all the other New World producers have the advantage. No Appellation (PDO) rules! These are European regulations that define and restrict vineyard practices and winery processes. In the New World, if your vines are too vigorous and the fruit is ripening too quickly, create more competition for resources by upping plantings and yields. Allow a thicker leaf canopy to shade the fruit and – yes, this is true – use a sunscreen on the vines; I know, right? Pick when you like.
Now you are in the winery, feel free to acidify or de-acidify. Many wineries, especially in California, will water down the wines to a more accessible ABV (just 15 %!!!). In fact they can do whatever it takes to regain balance and make a consistently good wine.
This of course is all fine and good in the short term, what about long term? Australian farmers already have to buy their water on licence, even if the water runs through or the source is on their land! Harsh, but a really fair system for all and it stems wastage.
Specialist reports show which grape varieties will flourish in harsh, hot and dry conditions, so those companies with a long term plan will be ahead of the game. Bordeaux started planting experimental vineyards of Portuguese grapes years ago, but they will need a change in the appellation law to be able to use them. With no such restrictions it’s no coincidence we are seeing trends of Aussie Nero D’Avola and Fiano.
The Purbrick family at Tahbilk, now in their 5th generation, are about to have their family AGM. The topic of debate? Tahbilk in 150 years. Now that is planning. Larry Cherubino told me he planted his Fiano a decade ago. Quite a gamble when it can take that long just to get cuttings through quarantine, planted and fruiting, and all for a variety most people have never heard of. All the more reason why we need to educate wine drinkers that there is more to wine than Chablis and Savvy B.
I feel I need to point out here that Australia is a pretty big place. I believe you can fit the UK into it 32 times, so we need to be careful not to generalise. I am sure we all over-use the odious word ‘terroir’ in our day jobs, especially the sales team and me, and we must not forget that as a rule Hallgarten & Novum Wines stock some pretty good wines, that come from really specialist terroir environments.
Unlike classic regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy that were planted just because the location was convenient for trade or passing Roman legions, the New World is generally planted intelligently. Tahbilk has the triple cooling of coastal influence, being surrounded by rivers and waterways, and a lot of green stuff the family have made a point of planting (they are also completely carbon neutral and don’t need to off-set). Western Australia has the benefit of being quite wet in relation to the rest of Australia, not to mention getting the brunt of unobstructed cool winds from the Antarctic. Coonawarra was planted in 1890, not for its location to habitation or rivers, but based on scientific guidelines, a first for Australia. And as for Barossa, Clare and Eden VALLEYs, well, the clue’s in the name.
In conclusion? I teach WSET, so my instinct is to hugely over-simplify everything, but here’s what I think. Thanks to the ingenuity of humankind, the love Australians feel for their country and the climate protests happening around the word as I write this, the industry will probably be okay for a while yet. HOWEVER, it’s important that we help our customers, and our customer’s customers, really understand what else is out there, be it English, Croatian or Australian. (Contact an Educator and Trainer near you).
*You’ve GOT to try the Tahbilk Marsanne!