I’m a bit of a collector of wine books and recently purchased a first edition signed by Dan Murphy and by the great Hunter vigneron Max Lake. It cost $20.00 from the Berkelouw bookstore on Oxford Street, Sydney, where I buy a lot of second-hand wine books. I first read this book in 1975. Back then it was seen as a bold attempt to classify Australian vineyards and wines in a hierarchical system similar to the French appellation classification. It was a very useful book. Thirty years on it acts as a timepiece and is worth reviewing to see how the wine industry has evolved.
The book is written by a wine merchant steeped in the lore of classic European wines, with the French wines seen as the model to follow. There are numerous mentions of French wines, particularly Bordeaux of which Murphy must have had a great love. He and his wine drinking Melbourne friends saw Australian wines through a prism that reflects this classical training. This was quite normal for the time as he and others struggled to understand how Australian wines would fit into this Eurocentric view.
It is astonishing that thirty years on this view has been swept into the dust bin. For example it is now France even with its great wine lore which is struggling to convince the consumer. Murphy knew that something was happening as there are many references to Penfolds Grange and the wines of Penfolds but as visionary as the book is it does not make that great leap forward. Few of us realised that giants like Max Schubert were in the process of turning the world wine industry on its head.
It was normal at the time to ask for more elegance and finesse in our wines particularly the reds and the way to achieve this was to search for new vineyard areas that would reflect a European ripening cycle which meant vineyards in cooler climatic regions. The book is quite advanced in the treatment of heat summation days, the influence of climate on the ripening of grapes and in discussing the French ideas of the influence of the site, terroir, although this term is not mentioned.
What was being made in Australia had to be improved thus; “The occasional ravings you see about the early Great Western reds and whites, the Hardy Cabernet Sauvignon blends from different areas which we saw in the fifties and sixties and the Reynella heavy Cabernets of the fifties are best forgotten. These are wines that are not made anymore and are not likely to be made. The wine world calls for something lighter and with more finesse. They deserved the praise they received in the context of the wines of those days, but we make wines today which fit in better with the great wines of the rest of the world..” And “..wine quality is closely related to a fairly cool summer temperature and a long ripening period for the grapes”, and “but when the dividends are handed out it will be found that it is easier and more profitable to make quality wines from grapes grown in naturally cool conditions than in warmer regions.” And later; “Although no wine authority has ever written off the Barossa Valley as a top quality area, I cannot remember any one of them giving it a special accolade as a constant producer of world class table wines”. Then to round out the view of the time; “Mr. Henschke has the reputation of a white wine maker,” followed with approval, “The Henschke reds are lighter and less astringent than many of the reds seen on the Australian market today.”
We had to shoehorn our wine industry into a European model. This meant a movement of vineyards to cooler areas and a lighter red wine style. New southern vineyard areas opened up and we are all immensely richer in our drinking because of this. The lighter reds made in the established hot areas of course led to the appalling wines of the seventies and early eighties.
Our technical people by the 1970’s had solved the problems of making wine in a hot climate and at least for reds it turned out a decade or so later that the customers preferred the taste. And you do have to dicky around with fluky, cool climate weather conditions. A few winemakers continued to make a richer, fuller style, thus Penfolds soldiered on but not to wild applause. The Australian consumer slowly returned to the fuller flavoured styles but our opinion makers were not sure. It took English wine writers and not those of the establishment, who are Europhiles and Francophiles and still are incidentally, but new wave writers like Oz Clark and the late Auberon Waugh to say the obvious which was these wines taste good. And from the other side of the Atlantic the Wine Spectator and the influential critic Robert Parker made strong declarations that they loved the big bold hot climate reds. Then the tide turned.
This is a great book and very stimulating to read thirty years on. The comments that follow are not a criticism but a record of how the industry has changed. Would you believe that the word chardonnay is not mentioned in the book at all? Sorry a correction, there is a reference to the blend semillon chardonnay. Make no mistake; the author knew his white burgundies and his Chablis. Now it is by a long way the most popular variety Australia wide, so popular that people can become part of the ABC movement, anything but chardonnay. Recognition indeed.
As for the grading system, how has it stood up? Not to well. But that is OK because in 1974 we had no Margaret River. Andrew Pirie was still clearing the ground and planting the first cutting at Pipers Brook in Tasmania. I looked his brother up in 1971 at his vine cutting nursery on the banks of the Tamar which was to supply the bold new venture. I also visited the local Agricultural Department in Launceston who told me the brothers were stark raving mad. The Yarra Valley was a dream, Mornington Penninsula did not exist, and the list goes on and on. The grading system proposed also tried to identify the vineyard sites and multi district blends which Murphy frowned upon made this difficult. Blending is more entrenched today than ever. The best classification now is that produced by the auction house Langtons as that is based on what people pay.
What we got after 1974 were vine pull schemes to clear away the old unproductive vines in the Barossa and Clare Valley’s. Then the marauding business hordes arrived with fancy takeovers and proceeded to root the industry. The same as is happening now although the folk today wear a different coloured coat and talk about reverse engineering and FMCG’s. Yes they will root it again and we will have to pick up the pieces and start all over again.
Thus you cry as you scan the list of nominated wines as it is a roll call of departed brands and non performers most destroyed by poor marketing; Leasingham Bin 49 and Bin 43, Kaiser Stuhl, Seaview, Craigmoor, Stonyfell, Elliots, Lindemans Hunter wines, Tollana, Basedows, Leo Buring, Glenview, Kies, Penfolds Wybong Park, Bernkastel, Normans, Ryecroft, Belbourie, Booths, Valle d’Oro, Chatterton, Rovalley, Karlsberg, Trennert, Hordern, and Glenloth. The list will be longer this time.
In 1974 the Hunter Valley was given much more prominence that today. There are many references to this region. The great company Lindemans staked its reputation on its Hunter wine portfolio. All largely gone and the famous winery is now a museum piece. Hunter wines have never been easy to sell and while McWilliams and others soldier on the property developers have them surrounded and it is only a matter of time.
One other comment asks for reflection; “on the whole, however, vintage variation is not great.” Certainly Australian vintages do not show the great variations of more marginal growing conditions. Though as we have mastered the art of making wine in a hot climate, vintage variations are highlighted much more than thirty years ago.
This is a book for the wine enthusiast and you will be able to pick up the paperback for a dollar or so. It is worth it for the comments on wine judging and tasting.