New California and New Australia

Recently I’ve just finished reading two very interesting books that address important movements in New World wine regions: Jon Bonne’s The New California Wine  and Max Allen’s The Future Makers: Australian Wine for the 21st Century. I’d recommend both to anyone interested in learning more about the new, lighter-style wines increasingly coming from California and Australia, regions more traditionally known for massive, fruity wines.

As these two books detail, over the past decade both these regions have seen a rise in small (and some larger) producers, many of whom practice organic or biodynamic viniculture and limited intervention in the cellar, focused on producing more terroir specific wines from unusual grape varieties.

I’m constantly surprised that you don’t hear more about New Australian wine in the US wine media. Australia and California have followed a similar trajectory: both made their name with big, fruity or overly oaky wines that have since fallen out of fashion; both have huge bulk wine businesses that are being threatened by climate change; and both have centuries-old wine cultures and patches of extremely old vines. So in what ways do the New California and New Australia movements diverge, and what can we expect from both in the future?

I’m incredibly excited to see what the new producers in both places are doing with Spanish and Italian grape varietals. With climate change an almost irreversible fact at this point, many grape growers are going to need to switch to drought and heat-resistant grape varieties in order to stay in business. This probably means more Southern Italian varieties (like Nero, Aglianico, and Vermentino) and more interest in the workhorse Spanish/French variety Garnacha.

In Australia, the Chalmers were pioneers in navigating Australia’s legnenthy and time-consuming quarantine process in order to bring many of these varieties into the country, where they have begun to be widely propagated. Even slightly larger, well established players are growing alternative grape varietals: the famous Clare Valley Riesling producer Jim Barry is the only winery outside of Greece growing Assyritiko, the famous white grape of Santorini. There’s even a wine show, the Australian Alternative Varieties Show, which has become very popular in the 15 years since it’s inception.

Although I haven’t discovered a Californian equivalent to the AAVS (someone should get on that!), there are many smaller producers making wine from less-traditional grapes. For example, Broc Cellars makes wine from Valdigue and Carignan, Donkey & Goat uses some Vermentino in their white blends, and Urbano Cellars in Berkeley makes a Barbera, Sangiovese, and Tempranillo. There are certainly many more that I don’t know about. Recent research at Davis has shown great potential for many Italian and Spanish grapes in California, when grown in the right places.

I would argue that the greatest difference between new wave producers in Australia and California is access to land. One of the greatest challenges for newer winemakers in California is that land is so expensive that most can’t afford to buy a vineyard; recent vineyard prices in Napa valley averaged $ 300,000 to 350,000 per acre, while Sonoma County vineyards averaged $100,000 an acre (more info here). Meanwhile, in Australia while Mornington Peninsula vineyards can sell from $200,000 to 600,000 Australian dollars per hectare (a little over two acres), vineyards in other well established regions sell for much less: $25,000 to 75,000 per hectare in the Hunter valley, $30,000-45,000 per hectare in the Clare Valley. At current exchange rates (1 USD to 1.45 AUSD), these prices are less than at first glance.

What this means in practice is that smaller producers in Australia can afford to buy their own vineyards in addition to buying grapes. This gives them total control over what grapes are planted where, how the vineyard is managed, and when grapes are picked. For people who care about wines that reflect their terroir and seeing how this develops and changes over time, this is a HUGE benefit. I bet that a few years down the road, we’ll be seeing many more interesting, delicious, and affordable Australian wines on American shelves that rival the Old World in terms of QPR.

So many California producers, even while they may have control over how the vineyard is managed and when grapes are picked, are still at the mercy of the vineyard owners. If the vineyard owner decides to raise the prices of the grapes, or tear up old vines and plant the land with other things, or the previous owner dies and his heirs decide to sell the land, the winemaker who buys grapes is powerless to stop it. This, and the increasing prices that come with it, are some of the greatest challenges for California wine.

Once you move beyond mega-brands like Yellowtail, Constellation, and Gallo, California and Australia are producing some incredibly interesting and exciting wines with tons of potential for growth in the future.

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