Australia – get your labels sorted out!

WHEN BUYING wine, I always maintain that, if you read the label, you’ll have a good idea what’s in the bottle before you buy it. European labels take a little more effort, but you don’t have to know the language. New World labels are easier because they are in English. The big problem with them is they have a lot of writing on them, which does not tell you very much. If I had a euro for every time people said to me, ‘I love Australian Chardonnay’, I’d be a very rich man. The worrying thing is, they mean it. They just see the name Chardonnay and buy the bottle, not even realising there are many different Chardonnays produced down under.

Let’s take a look at the Australian continent. It’s about 3,000 miles wide, which is from Perth on the West Coast, to Brisbane in the East. You could put Europe into it and still have space to spare. So, you can imagine the variation in climate and soil; and these two factors alone can produce different style wines. There are five wine regions in Australia – Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia, each of them producing differently styled wines. Try one bottle of the same wine from each region – maybe Shiraz or Chardonnay – and see the difference in styles. Have a mini tasting with some friends with each buying a wine from a different region.

When Australians started to exportwine over 30 years ago, their Chardonnay couldn’t really compete with the whites from Burgundy. So, to give the world something new, they oaked it. Initially, the English thought it was great. To make it oakier, some producers put oak chippings into the wine. Actually, what people could taste was oak. Many grew tired of the taste and the producers had to think again. Now, some labels are making the point that the wine is ‘un oaked’.

The wines are normally varietal wines. That is, the wine has a very high percentage of the grape, after which it is named. Some may be 100 per cent of the grape but, by law, it need only have 75 per cent. The chances are that, if you buy a Chardonnay, it will not all be from the Chardonnay grape. And the wine producers are not obliged to tell you the other grapes. One thing worth remembering is that the first named grape is the predominant one. So a Chardonnay/Semillon will be a different wine to a Semillon/Chardonnay.

European countries produce different qualities of wine, but it tells you which quality on the label. Here in Portugal, and starting with the top, we have Denominação de Origem Controlada (DOC), Indicação de Proveniência Regulamentada (IPR), Vinho Regional (VR) and Vinho de Mesa. These words are very clear, although sometimes they may only be shown in the abbreviated form.

Now, go and see if you can find an Australian label indicating which is the better quality. The label might tell you about the founder of the vineyard, or maybe some historical connection with a postage stamp. Does the wine drinker really want to know? I don’t think so. We want to know from the label whether it’s better quality wine than the bottle standing beside it – and the label will not tell you! The price is not always an accurate guide as that will be decided by the shop.

By far the most popular brand of wine is Jacob’s Creek and again people will say, ‘I love Jacob’s Creek wine’. I honestly believe that they think it’s the name of the wine. Other famous names include Penfolds, Hardy, Wolf Bass, Lindemans, Bannockburn and Brown Brothers. This is only a fraction of the number of producers in Australia, and I am not suggesting that they are the best.

New World countries attach a lot of importance to winning competitions. However, gold, silver and bronze medals are only worth winning when the competition is strong. There wouldn’t be any glory in winning a gold in the Olympic 100-metre final, if the rest of the field were unfit and overweight. On the label, they tell you which medal the wine won, but it doesn’t tell you what it beat. I know there’s also the Wine Challenge in London and, having been involved with it, I even question what it actually achieves.

By now, you may be of the opinion that I don’t like Australian wines – wrong. I drink them quite often, and the wines from the Hunter Valley, New South Wales, are really good. I also avoid oaked whites because some producers tend to over oak. If I was to pick a winner, I think it would have to be a Shiraz from The Plantagenet vineyard in Western Australia. There are, naturally, great wines produced all over the country, and so there should be. They’ve got the technique, a consistent climate and good soils. Why then, after making good wine, do they almost spoil it by over oaking?

More important for them, in my view, is to get their labelling sorted out. They should try and do what the Medoc did in the 1855 classification: it needn’t be as thorough and they only have to do it once. Next month, I’ll be writing a few interesting stories by request.