Australian wine: finding an identity all of its own

Nina Caplan takes a look at how Australia's complicated human history has made its impact on the flavour of the modern-day wine in the glass

Words by Nina Caplan

mount langi ghiran

Amid all the quarrelling, bitter if justified, about the legacy of colonialism, spare a thought for the Australian convicts, unwanted everywhere, who were at best colonists by default. The British government followed up the outrageous fiction of ‘terra nullius’ – the notion that Australia was an empty land – by making a second group of people vanish, this time its own citizens. From an official point of view, the early wars fought on, and over, Australian soil were between two phantom armies, although the outcomes were very real indeed, and it may be that the vines that were planted in that soil a century or more later had something to do with a desire to rematerialise. Nothing announces your permanence like growing a crop for pleasure rather than sustenance. Nothing plants a flag on a landscape like it, either. There is a reason we talk about the fruits of victory.

bests wines shiraz vines
'The fruits of the victory': old Shiraz vines at Best's Great Western winery

It’s an old story rooted in much older earth, and both – the story and the earth – help make Australian wine different from its European forebears. That difference took a lot of getting used to, and there’s a way to go: the First Nations are still fighting for visibility and acknowledgement of their hereditary rights to the land, while the fact that we talk about Australian wine at all, in a continent-sized country that has over 70 wine regions in five states, could be seen as another form of erasure.

When I first started writing about the country’s wines, less than 20 years ago, there was still a determination to emulate the Old World, especially France. These days, I rarely have the strange experience of standing in a vineyard perfumed with surrounding gum trees and nourished by Antipodean light and hearing assurances that what I’m tasting is a ‘Burgundian’ Pinot Noir or a Cabernet-Merlot blend with a hint of Bordeaux. Which is good, because they never made much sense – unless l looked at towns called Shoreham or Rye 12,000 miles from England’s south coast, or mountain ranges named for Scotland’s Grampians or France’s Pyrenees, when it became clear that nobody was really talking about flavour at all.

It’s an old story rooted in much older earth, and both – the story and the earth – help make Australian wine different from its European forebears

Driving around rural Victoria – up to the Grampians, three hours north-west of Melbourne, or down to the Mornington Peninsula, a mere hour south of the city – my heart lifts at that wonderful light and the dappling of leaves’ shadows on the tarmac ahead of me, which is both reminiscent of English country lanes and as different as an oak is from a eucalyptus. It lifts further still when I arrive at a winery and taste something that owes a complicated debt to France, Germany or Italy but tastes only of here.

Mount Langi Ghiran and Best’s Great Western are just 40km apart in the Grampians and were originally planted in the late 19th century. Both make great wine today against a stunning backdrop – the Great Dividing Range rising with startling abruptness to block the horizon – but there the resemblance ends. Like a lot of Australian wineries, Mount Langi was moribund by the post-war period; a trio of Italian brothers revived it, planting Shiraz that the late, great winemaker (and later, co-owner) Trevor Mast then improved out of all recognition. Mast started work in tin sheds perfumed with garlic by the owners’ home-cured salamis; the fragrance of their past was quickly replaced by the marvellous dark chocolate and pepper of Langi, a Shiraz that Mast was probably the first to call cool-climate.

mount langi ghiran winery
Vines at Mount Langi Ghiran's Victoria winery

Just as those salamis looked both to the peasant past and the self-consciously artisanal future, so Mast’s Shirazes harked back to the forceful yet elegant Syrahs of the Northern Rhône and forward, to the present moment, when South Australian winemakers are going to considerable effort to reign in the plummy excesses of their better-known Shirazes in favour of elegance and restraint. I’m not talking about Australia’s most famous wines, Penfold’s Grange and Henschke’s Hill of Grace, but about their less famous cousins, wines that were guilty, in the past, of letting Aussie sunshine work its magic unrestrained, sending the message of southern difference in bottles that could brain you with their potency.

bests wine salami
This batch of Trevor Mast's home-cured salami is made with their 2014 Nursery Block Red

There may well have been salami in the Best brothers’ backstory, since they made their money on the Australian goldfields, not fossicking but supplying the fossickers with sustenance. Part of the vineyards they planted make up modern Best’s, which never ceased producing wine and is now famous for the hodgepodge of varieties that go into their Nursery Block, a patch that shelters some of the world’s oldest pre-phylloxera vines. Their Shiraz is excellent (Trevor Mast was initially winemaker here) but it’s a Foudre-Fermented Riesling they make in tormentingly small quantities that I keep going back for.

mike aylward
Mike Aylward, who makes Chardonnay with 'verve and tension', according to Nina Caplan

The Best brothers were immigrants, born in Richmond, Surrey, which has donated its name to towns in at least three Australian states. Drive from central Melbourne down to Ocean Eight winery and you’ll pass through Richmond, Victoria, a leafy, wealthy inner suburb, which is something it has in common with its namesake. Pull up at Mike Aylward’s gorgeous winery, down a treelined avenue, juniper-bordered pathways winding past the winery to a stone terrace with spectacular view, and you will be in Shoreham, and very close to the sea – and also as far as it’s possible to be from Shoreham-by-Sea – where they don’t yet make Chardonnay with the verve and tension of Mike’s, and probably never will. But now that I am back in England, I can open a bottle of any of these wines and taste a place I love and miss, as well as catching a flavour of the homesickness that once went into the soil along with the seedlings. It’s a way of seeing, beyond the horizon and into the past. Not the only way, of course, but perhaps the most delicious.

Nina Caplan
By Nina Caplan

Nina Caplan is the Lifestyle and Travel columnist for Club Oenologique online and wine columnist for The New Statesman and The Times’s Luxx magazine. Her award-winning book, The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, came out in 2018.