Space, light, grace and elegance encapsulate the Royal Horticultural Hall in London. Although, somewhat surprisingly, given its name, the beautiful old building isn’t actually used for planting purposes anymore. Rather, it’s now a venue for hire and in recent years it’s been used, more and more, for wine tasting events.
Attending a wine tasting at the Royal Horticultural Hall is always a joy and, a couple of weeks ago, my winter gloom was well and truly lifted by a trip down to the RHH for the annual Australia Day tasting. Aussie winemakers, no matter how feted, have no airs and graces and, with so many gathered together, a really infectious bonhomie pervaded the air. Of course, it’s also feasible that the wine may have helped, in some small way, to foster my air of contentment!
Nowadays, Australian wine is much respected and, more importantly, much drunk but that’s not always been the case. As recently as the 1970’s, Aussie wine was a laughing stock. Indeed, Monty Python, in a 1972 sketch, brilliantly suggested, “This is not a wine for drinking, this is a wine for laying down and avoiding.” Warning of dire scatological consequences came later in the sketch, “Château Chunder, which is an appellation contrôlée, specially grown for those keen on regurgitation; a fine wine which really opens up the sluices at both ends.”
Inspired Python wine creation, Château Chunder, was the name given to an excellent BBC documentary, from a couple of years ago, that engagingly, and rollickingly, told the story of the dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of the Australian wine industry. The programme may still be available to watch but I’ll tell the tale anyway.
Australia had been producing wine since the 1830’s but no one drank much of it, least of all the Australians. They drank beer, very swiftly and in very large quantities. Winemaker, Bruce Tyrell, drily recalled meeting his girlfriend’s suspicious and mistrustful parents for the first time. To them, he was a “plonky” and, apparently, “If you drank wine you were either queer, eccentric or both.”
Export seemed the only solution, but in the targeted mother country, Britain, hardly anybody but the upper classes drank wine, and they were snobbish about Australian efforts, as were wine critics. In 1965 Australia exported 8m litres of wine a year, about a 50th of France’s sales. In the 1970s, exports actually declined a little.
Australia’s subsequent stratospheric success was chiefly due to technology, marketing and the Aussies natural rough- hewn charm. From beginning to end, the Aussies transformed the winemaking process with ingenious technological innovations in the winery. Most remain unseen by the consumer but the obvious exception is the once controversial but now thoroughly accepted ‘stelvin’ closure or screwcap.
Crucially, the Aussies de-snobbified wine and made it far easier for consumers to understand. Wine labels featuring the wine’s constituent grape varieties and tasting notes were pioneered by canny Aussie wine marketers and irreverent names such as Kanga-Rouge were employed to lure new drinkers into the wine fold
Snobby wine critics who habitually filed condescending reviews of Aussie wines were stopped in their tracks when Aussie wine producers hit upon the idea of blind tastings. To explain, at blind tastings, the identity of the wines is hidden until after the wines have been tasted and judged purely on merit.
The final factor in Australia’s wine success was hard graft. Aussie winemakers endlessly travelled the globe, charming all comers with their wonderful wines and their easy going demeanour. And it’s still happening. At the Australia Day tasting I was bowled over by winemaker, Elena Brooks’s, Dandelion ‘Lionheart’ of the Barossa Shiraz (£12.50) which is a generous, mouth-filling wine with flavours of sweet blackberry, raspberry, plums and sweet spice.