Thistledown Summer Road Old Vine Grenache, Riverland, South Australia 2020 (£8.49, Waitrose) These are interesting times for Australian wine. And by “interesting” I’m thinking of the supposedly (actually apocryphally) Chinese curse, since Australian wine producers are currently reeling from a near-complete collapse of sales to China, a country that was, until this year, their most valuable export market. The cause is a trade dispute that has led to the Chinese government applying a set of swingeing tariffs on Australian wine. According to figures released last month by the industry association Wine Australia, those tariffs have led to a 77% drop in the value of Australian wine exports to China. Meanwhile, problems in the deep-sea shipping industry are creating big delays for shipments of Australian wines to its other main markets, of which the UK is once again the most important by both value and volume. Still, there’s no let-up in demand for Australian wine on the ground on these shores: sales were up by 7% in value in the past year, our appetite for sun-filled fruit-driven reds such as Thistledown’s, apparently undimmed.
Distant Noises Cabernet Sauvignon, Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia 2019 (£16.49, swig.co.uk) The Thistledown is an example of a wine made from an increasingly popular grape variety in Australia, grenache. It’s about time this sun-loving variety had its moment in the spotlight: the country’s vineyards, especially in its South Australian winemaking heartlands, have some fabulous stocks of very old (100 years old or more in some cases) grenache vines. And while old vines may not be a guarantee of quality, they are responsible for a high proportion of the world’s most interesting bottles, providing (albeit in low yields) fruit that is concentrated but naturally balanced. In the case of the 100-year old and 83-year-old vineyards in McLaren Vale that provide the fruit for Ministry of Clouds Grenache 2019 (£29.50, thegoodwineshop.co.uk), the resulting wine is gloriously silky and fragrant, like pinot noir in texture, but with a berry-juiciness all its own. It’s an example of a particular modern idiom of Australian wine in which elegance takes priority over power and of which the very pretty, sappy, refreshingly light Distant Noises cabernet is another excellent, compulsively drinkable example.
St John’s Road LSD, Barossa Valley, South Australia 2016 (£12.50, thewinesociety.com) One effect of Australian wine’s travails elsewhere in the world does seem to be an improvement in the variety of Aussie bottles we get to try in the UK. After years of reading about all kinds of fascinating developments Down Under and drawing a blank when seeking them out in British merchants, it’s been good to see Australia’s new wave – and producers such as Whistler, Scorpo, Aphelion, Deliquente, Charlotte Dalton and Place of Changing Winds – better represented in wines I’ve tasted over the past couple of months. Though the classic Aussie varieties – shiraz/syrah, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir – remain popular for producers of all kinds, there’s plenty of interesting wines being made from what the Aussies call “alternative varieties”, too. In the case of St John’s Road LSD, you have to wonder whether the blend was made to fit an idea for a salacious acronym. But this mix of Italian variety lagrein with shiraz and southern French native durif is such a delightfully vivid burst of black berries and currants that it’s hard to care too much.
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