Sunday, April 04, 2010

How important is regional identity in the Australian wine industry?

Historically winemaking in Australia has not focused the winemaking styles on expressing the regional varietal character as is done in Europe and even to an extent in the US. But like the US, these trend is beginning to shift as winemakers learn to recognize the unique character of certain microclimates and soil types within their winemaking regions. This trend though is still relatively young and the focus remains squarely on varietal expression rather than regional identity.
Historically, winemaking has focused since the early 1800’s on making wines of nearly every style from dry, crisp whites to full sweet dessert styles. Several unique styles have emerged (unwooded Semillon and wood aged Muscats from regions like Rutherglen), but in general virtually every style has been made for many years, with many wineries making many varietals and styles regardless of the climatic or soil conditions.

This has been the case even more so in that wine production in Australia has been concentrated with five large producers dominating the industry and sourcing grapes from multiple regions and sometimes great distances. These companies make large volume of popular, generally accepted wines for everyday consumption and have been readily available in Australia, especially in the bag-in-the-box 3L-4.5L sizes for many years – again deemphasizing the importance of regional character in favor of varietal “correctness”. The example of how much of a lack of regional identity is the Super-Zone of wine production known as South Eastern Australia, which covers much of the states of Queensland, Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. Nearly 95% of all Australian vineyards fall in this Super Zone and can be blended together even if the vineyards are many miles apart.

Another impact on the lack of focus on regional identity is the relatively late development of wine laws, especially with regard to the establishment of delimited production zones and the requirements for creating them. Since 1963, more standardized wine production laws have been created at first regulated by the individual states and later under the Federal Government, but it was not until the mid- to late-1990s that regional definitions and Geographical Indicators began to emerge with defined Zones, Regions and Sub-regions for wine production. This development is still fairly young and because many of the boundaries were drawn based on reasons others than regional identity (delimitations range from historical and political boundaries to personal desires, rather than terroir focused).
These more recent developments of wine laws, along with advance understanding of the impact of soil, climate and varietal selection, of the differences in regions is the foundation of what may become more identifiable wines from certain regions, but Australia is still far from the strict definition of regions and the ability to recognize the unique attributes, or terroir, such as is currently the norm in places like Burgundy.

The focus has for many years been on the character of the grape variety and expressing that in it best way, making sure to distinguish the various styles from one another – again a result of the wine industry being dominated by a small number of large companies. Most of the wine producing zones – especially along the southern part of Australia are in climate zones that produce sugar ripeness and phenolic development, but usually without a lot of acid due to the warmer climate of Zones II and III. This has also contributed to the fact that varietal expression in popular mass production wines is the norm.

In conclusion the expression of regional identity in the Australian wine industry has not been the norm, but rather the focus has been on the varietal style and character. A variety for factors contribute to this: domination of the industry by large, mass-market wine producers, recent development of wine zones and regions of production which do not focus on the terroir of regions for delimitation but rather historical and political boundaries, blending of wine from many different areas, and a climate that is somewhat homogenous (warm) which creates relatively little variation from region to region. As winemaking progresses though and more and more small wineries begin to emerge (1800 out 2000 total wineries have started since 1970), this trend is changing, but it will take many years for regional identity rather than varietal, to be the norm.

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