Australia’s other great wines: Life beyond Grange

The great names in Australian wine have long been chased by collectors, with the result that prices have moved beyond the comfort zone of many wine lovers. Natasha Hughes MW pinpoints some lesser-known names to look for among the country's new-wave wines

Words by Natasha Hughes MW

Photography by Facundo Bustamante

bottles of wine from birds eye

I sometimes fantasise about the wine cellar I might have had if I was a decade or so older or had become interested in wine a few years earlier than I did. The notion that I might have a cellarful of Lafite or La Tâche had I been in the right frame of mind at the right time is tantalising.

There’s no way of sugar-coating the pill, though. Prices of prestige wines from classic regions have risen dramatically over the course of the past couple of decades, pushing them beyond the reach of many, myself included. Decades of investment on the secondary market have bolstered prices for the most desirable wines. In addition, supply has become increasingly restricted of late: short and/or poor vintages in classic regions over the course of the past decade and growing numbers of wine collectors around the world have combined to reduce the amount of top-end wine to go round. While the occasional splurge is justified, those of us with less than a grand to spend on a case of wine on a routine basis have had to scale down our expectations.

Tempting as it is to mourn the wines we can’t have, braver wine collectors are broadening their horizons and looking beyond the security blanket of classic Old World regions. That’s definitely an option for collector Ian Amstad, who says ‘I’m always on the lookout for wines to diversify into for everyday drinking and for long term prospects.’

One country people like Amstad are beginning to reappraise in this context is Australia. Ken Lamb, another ardent collector, is already on to the country’s potential for making fine wines. ‘I drink lots of Australian wines,’ he says. ‘I have bottles of Vasse Felix’s Heytesbury [Chardonnay], Hunter Valley Semillons and Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from the Mornington Peninsula in my cellar, but I don’t think these wines are on most people’s radars – even the most educated consumers have only heard of a limited number of these wines.’

Judy Sarris, editor of Australian Gourmet Traveller Wine, agrees. ‘We’ve got so many wines here that are currently undervalued in a global context’, she says. ‘They’re an open secret in Australia, but they don’t get as much attention as they deserve in the international market.’

I don’t think these wines are on most people’s radars

So well-established is the notion of investing in local wines down under that Australian auction house Langton’s has been able develop a classification system for the country’s top wines based on their track record on the secondary market. The classification, first issued in 1990, is revised every few years, providing an insight into the perceived desirability of certain wines and the changing tastes of Australian collectors.

‘The classification is dominated by classic wines,’ says Tamara Grischy, head of auctions at Langton’s. ‘The rule is that you need to have ten vintages made to be considered for the classification, so that we don’t have fad spikes. We update it every four to five years, though, in accordance with the market, and that means that although it’s a reflection of the past, we can see trends and changes.’

Some of the trends Grischy has noted in the most recent classification (which came out in 2018) is a growing interest in ‘vibrant, crunchier styles of wines’, as well as more demand for wines from cooler-climate origins, citing Tasmania as a region to look out for over the next few years.

Nevertheless, the majority of the wines in Langton’s classification are the kind of big(ish) reds for which Australia is best known. That’s not to say that there aren’t a few surprises for those unfamiliar with the Aussie wine world, even in the top tier of the classification – the 22 wines deemed to be ‘exceptional’.

Alongside big hitters like Penfolds‘ Grange and Henschke’s Hill of Grace, you’ll find wines that rarely (if ever) make it onto the international radar (Wendouree’s Shiraz or Mount Mary’s Quintet, for instance). There are even a few Pinots and Chardonnays from producers like Leeuwin Estate, Bass Phillip and Giaconda sprinkled in among the Shirazes and Cabernets that dominate the group. It’s probably fair to say, though, that many of the wines that dominate Australia’s auction scene are not going to do much for collectors raised on Burgundy and Bordeaux.

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2016 Australian wine
Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2016
Giaconda Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 Australian wine
Giaconda Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2017

Luckily for them, there’s much to like about the new wave of Aussie wines, the ones Grischy was referencing with when she talks about vibrancy and crunchiness. The notion of what should be planted where has been refined, and cooler sites – once deemed marginal – are increasingly prized. Alcohol levels have dropped, levels of freshness have risen, and the use of oak has diminished – no longer can Australian wine be broadly characterised as ‘sunshine in a glass’.

‘Australian wines aren’t just fruit bombs any more,’ says Sarris. ‘We’re seeing some far more elegant wines being made, and I think they will alter what’s perceived to be collectable.’

Perhaps surprisingly, outside of Australia few collectors seem to be aware of the country’s wines – especially the new-wave styles. According to Gavin Smith, head of fine wine at Fine+Rare, the small number of British collectors who buy Australian appear reluctant to move beyond their traditional comfort zones. ‘There are a handful of producers who have a following here,’ he says. ‘The two most collectable producers are Penfolds and Torbreck. The latter is very focused on small production single-vineyard wines, which became internationally famous after Parker gave them 100 points, while Penfolds Grange has been around for a long time and has a strong following.’

But, warns Stuart McCloskey of Australian specialists The Vinorium, Grange (and other Penfolds wines) may no longer be the safe investment it once was. ‘They [Penfolds] have shot themselves in the foot. They’ve been priced out of the UK market, and at the moment the only market for these wines is in Asia – but even they’re starting to move away. We ended up refusing our allocation last year as the prices were ridiculous – the only way to sell the parcel would be to pass it on at cost.’

Even if McCloskey’s customers are steering clear of Grange, Shiraz still rules. ‘We sell 85,000 bottles of Aussie Shiraz every year,’ he says. ‘Nevertheless, the super-concentrated styles are not for us. The market for these wines is still strong in Asia, but less so here in the UK. A lot of our customers want a more polished style of Shiraz, almost a cool-climate kind of profile.’

Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2017 Australian wine
Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2017

Interest in other wines, particularly those made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, is growing, but at a relatively slow pace – and not always where you might expect. ‘The export markets for these two varieties are almost exclusively European. They don’t sell at all in Asia,’ says McCloskey, ‘which is interesting because the market for Burgundy is huge over there. They just haven’t cottoned on to how good the wines are.’

Asian wine collectors are clearly missing a trick. Not only are Tasmania and Victoria happy hunting grounds for elegant, refined Pinots and Chardonnays, the prices they fetch are eye-opening (in a good way) for those accustomed to forking out £100 or more on 1er Crus from Burgundy.

Tasmania and Victoria are happy hunting grounds for elegant, refined Pinots and Chardonnays

Casting the net even wider, if sales of Australia’s Burgundian varieties are niche relative to those of Shiraz, then the market for ‘alternative’ varieties – many of which are arguably better suited to the country’s Mediterranean climate than some of the more traditional grapes – is microscopic, at least in export markets. This may change over time, as plantings of Italian and Iberian varieties gain the concentration and complexity that comes with age – but unless these wines gain critical plaudits, they will continue to be of marginal interest to collectors.

As ever, wine critics have a key role to play in the development of this currently untapped collectors’ market. According to Smith, ‘There are one or two people who specialise in Australia and their views carry a lot of weight,’ he says, ‘but actually consensus is more important. When all the critics are singing the same tune – whether it’s about a wine or the overall quality of a vintage – then it’s hard to ignore.’ Until such time as the critical hive mind agrees that Aussie Touriga Nacional or Nebbiolo (or any one of a growing number of exotic grape varieties) has reached the appropriative qualitative threshold, collectors will continue to focus their attentions elsewhere.

And even if perceptions of exactly what constitutes an Australian fine wine are beginning to change, there’s little doubt that the country’s top producers will continue to dominate the fine wine market both domestically and overseas for many years to come. ‘Although we’re seeing more adventurous wine drinkers in the Australian market,’ says Sarris, ‘wines from the likes of Henschke and Grosset continue to be firm favourites with collectors.’

Australian wine

These strong Aussie brands look certain to remain the best bet for those looking for blue chip wine investments for the foreseeable future. According to Tim Triptree MW, international wine director at Christie’s, ‘Top collectors tend to like the generations of tradition that you find in Bordeaux and Burgundy. In order for Australians to make the case that their wines are worth investing in, they need to promote the fact that they too have a track record, a history of making fine wines. This will take time, so I think it will take at least another 10 or 15 years before Australian wines other than the current classics will be considered to be collectable.’

Grischy, whose job is to read the runes of the Australian fine wine market, agrees. ‘Although the newer styles of wines are gaining really important traction within the market, it’s too early to tell which ones are a fad and which are going to move into that classic status. You only achieve that kind of reputation when you have a consistent story that focuses on quality and longevity – and I think it takes at least 20 years for a brand to achieve that.’

For the time being it looks as if the real return on investment in Australian wines will come in the form of sheer drinking pleasure rather than financial gain.