|We Australians open our minds and wallets to just about everything else the world has to offer - cars, sporting heroes, clothes and coffee. But when it comes to imported wine, Michael McNamara reckons we're guilty of vinous xenophobia.
She bends and squints at the line-up of bottles. Gradually the realisation that none are Australian wines dawns on her. A sneer forms in the corner of her mouth. She eyes me suspiciously across the tasting bench. I know what's coming...
"These aren't Australian wines."
"I know madam, they're a selection of wines from France, Spain and Italy. Would you like to try something?"
"No. They're no good. Australia makes the best wine in the world", she says with absolute authority.
"Have you tried any chardonnay from Burgundy before?"
"What about trying one?"
At this point she decides she's had enough and walks off toward the warm familiar embrace of a table full of Barossa reds.
This scene has been repeated in my professional life with monotonous regularity, and highlights just how fiercely parochial we are about our own wine industry, and how reluctant we can be to contemplate the possibility that other countries are capable of producing half-way decent booze. This attitude is especially puzzling when one considers just how fond we are of other imported goods like cars, televisions, computers, furniture, white goods, gourmet foods, fashion etc etc. However, it seems when it comes to wine, for many Australians the wine world begins in the Yarra Valley and ends in the Margaret River.
Now this kind of vinous xenophobia wouldn't bother me so much if many of the arguments proffered to support our apparent supremacy weren't, to put it bluntly, a load of old bollocks. Take for instance the claim that our wines are the best value in the world. Well, maybe they were about 10 or 15 years ago, but these days countries like Chile, France, Italy, and Spain are all producing clean, well-made wines in large volumes that frequently land into store below the price of our own product.
Our technological and innovative advantage has also been whittled away by these countries, and now it's much more common to find the cutting edge of winemaking in a region outside Australia. This is particularly true in the 'old world' powerhouses of France and Italy, where the realisation that the 'new world' was eating into their markets proved to be the catalyst for a winemaking renaissance. Indeed, it would be fair to say that these countries are now in the midst of a golden period, whereas our industry is still, to a certain extent, living off its past glories.
Apart from all this, isn't it just a tad arrogant to dismiss the rest of the world's wine? Haven't countries like Italy and France been growing grapes and making wine for thousands of years? It stands to reason they must have learnt at least something about the game by now. It also stands to reason that having been around so long someone somewhere is drinking the stuff and extracting a modicum of enjoyment out of the experience. It's true, a syrah (shiraz) from France's Rhone Valley won't taste like one from the Barossa Valley, but why should it, and more to the point why would you want it to?
This brings us to the most compelling reason to go out and try a wine from another country - it's because they offer you something completely different. Not better, not worse, just different. In general terms, you should expect more subtle flavours and aromas. The wines from Europe often exhibit more secondary characters (the stuff like earth, spice, leather that come less from the actual fruit and more from what happens to it in the bottle) and show less sweetness from new oak maturation. In the beginning, these kind of smells and flavours can be disconcerting when you're used to our own squeaky clean fruitful wines, but if you persevere you'll probably come to value those things as a necessary component of the wine's unique personality.
If you do reach that point you're hooked, and then you'll most probably start seeking out little groups of like-minded wine fanatics or start setting yourself meaningless goals like trying to taste every one of Italy's 600 registered grape varieties. On the positive side though you'll have opened yourself up to a vast array of new and different drinking experiences that you would've otherwise missed, and that's just sad. Particularly sad if you missed out because you decided to get all parochial Oi Oi Oi about the whole thing. Geez, it's just wine.
So the next time you see a forlorn figure manning a tasting table full of strange and unfamiliar labels go over and check it out. You might find something you like.