The Australian wine explosion (Part I)

The arrival of the range of beautifully crafted Australian wine which made its debut on the world stage with a resounding crash about 40 years ago was not an overnight phenomenon.

Report by Mark Mair

The image back then of a typical Australian male was of a tough guy wearing a stockman’s hat who came into town on a Friday night in his “Ute” (utility vehicle, known locally as a bakkie) fresh off the sheep or cattle station.

Dressed in his best sleeveless shirt he parked the “Ute”, headed for the nearest bar and proceeded to drink industrial quantities of beer.

Once finished, he would then pick a fight with the local patrons — or a crocodile that may have been in the vicinity — or both.

Drinking wine was passed off as being “naff” and wine, in the 1950s, 60s and 70s was mainly categorised in the sweet to dessert category.
So what heralded this change? One of the reasons behind the success of Australian wines is simply that they deliver.

They deliver to the consumer beyond expectation. For each bottle of Australian wine sold, the industry strives to ensure that the value of what you received is greater than what you paid.

Brand Australia is a typical example of the national team effort. The industry united behind Hazel Murphy, who in 1986 formed the Australian Wine Bureau, then ran it for the next 17 years.

Murphy’s and the Bureau’s initial intention was to promote the generic brand of “Wine Australia” with a particular focus on the UK market.

She also started at the time when consumers were beginning to realise that wine was an everyday consumption item, and not just reserved for drinking on special occasions. “Brand Australia” has proved a resounding success and has provided a strong guiding principle, making producers produce, and consumers realise that they could rely on a consistent level of quality with each product.

Every bottle of Australian wine offered for sale reaches a minimum acceptable quality level.

In 1985, Australian wine exports were worth Aus$850 000. In 2006 they were over Aus$2 billion!

Other wine-making luminaries also left an indelible footprint on the Australian wine scene. Max Schubert, for instance, is the developer and creator of Australia’s most expensive and probably best known wine on the local and international front, “Penfold’s Grange Hermitage”. Due to the current EU laws wherein place names cannot be used outside of the domicile, the wine is now known simply as Penfold’s Grange.

Employed by the company primarily as a Sherry Maker, Schubert was sent to Spain in 1949 to gain first-hand experience in the making of this specialised fortified wine.

En route he was fortunate enough to spend some time watching the harvest in Bordeaux and saw how the sweetness of the wine from the super-ripe red grapes married with the sweetness of the oak to produce table wines of unlimited ageing potential. Schubert reckoned that with the right equipment, he could produce wines of a similar quality and standard back in Australia; a big challenge, considering that early 1950s Australian drinking palates preferred beer and fortified wines.

Schubert started from scratch as he was then the only person to attempt this style of wine-making in the country. His first attempts were completed using Shiraz as a mainstay as there was simply not enough Cabernet Sauvignon planted, and finding suitable oak barrels was also near impossible. However, he persevered, using grapes from cooler regions and in picking them early managed to keep the alcohol levels down. Early attempts using Australian Oak failed miserably.

Eventually new American oak was found to be the perfect match. After 18 months in new wood, the wine was bottled, but elicited a totally negative reaction from his Company Directors and Board members, who, in terms of economic value, could not condone the expense of the experiment, and in 1957 forbade him to make further vintages. However, his fellow cellar crew shared his vision and a few more vintages were made in secret!

In 1960, a board member asked to try the original 1951 and 1952 vintages and quickly persuaded his colleagues to reverse the ban. The 1955 wine won Gold at the Sydney Wine Show of 1962, and went on to win Gold 50 times after that! Wherever it was shown, the wine won awards, an iconic Australian quality wine was well and truly on its way and Schubert’s “Penfold’s Grange Hermitage” became the cornerstone that ushered in the modern age of Australian quality wine-making.

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