The First and Foremost Families of Australia
Earlier this year, Australia’s First Families of Wine (AFFW) returned to Canada for their second cross-country tour. Anybody who attended the various events presented by this “dream team” of iconic wineries was once again well rewarded. It’s apparent that this group of pedigree wineries commands a significant audience. It occurred to me to go looking for the reasons why. And, as it turns out, there are several.
First of all, the somewhat intangible. My guess is that the Aussies enjoy a somewhat special relationship with Canadians, that, in a way, is not unlike the one we have with the Kiwis or the South Africans. (And it has only just a little bit to do with rugby!) Even though the British Commonwealth may not still hold the same sway it once did, those ties still endure. Perhaps more to the point, in Australia’s case in particular, they also very much helped shaped our own early wine culture.
Back in the not too distant past, in a time when the wine was still ruled by insufferable snobbery and elitism, it was the Australians who engineered the most significant steps towards change. They as much as anybody introduced us all to the “New World” of wine, both geographically and culturally.
It was the Aussies (yes, along with the Californians) who led the charge that presented wine in ways that were more consumer friendly and much easier to understand, starting with varietal labelling.
Somewhere along the way, Australia tripped over its own success, commencing with the onslaught of the “critter labels.” That phenomenon (which still hasn’t entirely faded) spawned monolithic Yellow Tail — a brand which — whether you like it or not — has had more impact on wine culture than any other drink product in modern times.
In a way, the advent of Yellow Tail (or something akin) was almost inevitable. After all, it was the Australians who for years proclaimed themselves, rightly so, as true masters of the blend, often trucking tanks of wine across vast distances to make wines that were often as not almost indistinguishable from vintage to vintage and usually, if not always, consumer friendly.
The Yellow Tail, two-edged sword juggernaut, which arrived in 2000, merely confirmed what everyone already knew. That there was really only one red wine in the world that legions of consumers were drinking. And that was Australian Shiraz. As the numbers climbed ever upwards, the industry geared up to kept pace. Between 1995 and 2005, plantings in Australia doubled again — they’d already doubled between 1985 and 1995; grape yields rose almost 30 per cent; and overall tonnage more than tripled. (Source: The Wine Economist).
Faced with a double whammy of the economic downtown and ballooning oversupply, the Australian industry took stock, refocusing on promoting Australia’s regions and differences.
It was against this backdrop that Australia’s First Families of Wine came into being, in 2009. The group was concerned about the image of Australian wines abroad, which they felt was suffering from a cloak of homogeneity. In short, there was a very different story that wasn’t being told, one that focused on generations of winemaking and unswerving commitment to quality.
AFFW aims to celebrate the very best of Australian wines, based on regionality, history and corporate independence. Only family-owned wineries were invited to join the collective, which now represents 17 regions across the country and whose ranks represent some 48 generations of winemakers.
True, there are similar models elsewhere in the world. But the Australians have succeeded in taking the idea to the max and, truly, walking the talk.
Perhaps the most interesting prerequisite for membership pertains to existing recognition: All wineries need to have in their portfolio a landmark or “icon” wine, either as recognized by Langton’s (the Woolworths-owned, wine-specialist auction house) or agreed to as such by 75 per cent of the group.
It’s this de facto requirement that powers the AFFW to the next level. After all, it’s pretty hard to resist (and why would you?) a tasting bolstered by the likes of Henchske Hill of Grace, de Bortoli Noble One, Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Sémillon, and more, poured by the same people whose families have made them, in most cases for generations.
However, other membership requirements are: to be able to offer a vertical tasting of at least 20 years; have a history of two generations; and own vineyards more than 50 years old, or noteworthy sites that represent the best of terroir and environmental best practice.
While the Langton’s classification adds up to some serious heavy hitters, much of the group’s appeal, beyond pedigree, lies in their ability to showcase their wider production and reinforce regional characteristics. The initial group includes Brown Brothers, Campbells, Taylors (Wakefield), DeBortoli, McWilliam’s, Tahbilk, Tyrell’s, Yalumba, D’Arenberg, Jim Barry, Howard Park, and Henschke.
Most, if not all, of these wineries have been coming individually to Canada for years, and the personalities behind the labels are well known to sommeliers and enthusiasts. But their presence as a group brings added weight that underscores significant prestige, which might have been lost in the shuffle over the last couple of decades.
Collectively, they represent Australia’s “new direction” and contribution to the modern wine world in so many ways. Even a short sampling will show just why. Better still, chances are if you’re lucky enough to attend one of their tastings, you’ll be treated to some serious older vintages, which, once again will reinforce your opinion of just how well most of these wines are capable of aging, and further developing in the bottle.
As Chairman of Yalumba — which also happens to be the country’s oldest family-owned winery, established in 1849 — Robert Hill-Smith (also AFFW Chair), epitomizes the drive behind the group and the direction in which it strives to lead. Yalumba was among the earliest wineries to embrace the notion of celebrating its historic circumstances and setting. Much of the winery’s current claim to fame stems from the way it’s put Viognier on the world wine map, something that again speaks to the influence Australia has had on the modern wine world. In fact, Yalumba was a “Rhône Ranger” before most Californians, and the rest of us, had even heard of the term. It was in the 1970, a time when Australian producers were still immersed in Chardonnay, that the winery started looking into Viognier, planting a small trial in Eden Valley in 1980. Yalumba (who Jancis Robinson calls “Australia’s Viognier pioneer par excellence”) now tends some 30 hectares of Viognier; and produces six different wines. Although, arguably, it was the gutsy and highly accessible ‘Y’ series that introduced the majority of consumers to the variety that all but vanished in the 1980s.
With its strong emphasis on regional authenticity, AFFW is also the perfect vehicle to introduce overseas consumers to areas with which they might not be familiar. Australia, after all, is very much the sum of its considerable parts, each with its unique character.
Only in recent years have people outside of Australia become aware of Nagambie Lakes. That region’s most celebrated and much storied producer, Chateau Tahbilk is home to the largest single planting of Marsanne anywhere in the world. Not to mention un-grafted, pre-phylloxera Shiraz dating from 1860, which is still made in open top, oak vats. Several tastings of Museum release vintages over the last year have shown an ability for this variety to develop interestingly and age surprisingly well.
Australia has few better ambassadors than Bruce Tyrrell (Tyrrell’s Wines), who may well be (along with Bill Hardy) one of the industry’s most travelled wine personalities. Aside from helping to put the Hunter Valley on the map, he’s also become the unofficial spokesperson for all things Sémillon. Hearing Bruce talk about Vat 1 Sémillon, the first bottling of which he initiated in 1989, is a highlight of any Australia’s First Families tasting. This benchmark label continues to yield the best examples of just how aged Sémillon can evolve.
Far and away on the west coast, Howard Park Wines is AFFW’s Western Australian connection. It’s likely that nobody travels as much as Jeff Burch, CEO of Burch Family Wines. Burch notes that every time he steps out of the office, whatever the direction, it’s usually a minimum of a 1,000 km trip. With the founding of Howard Park in 1986, the Burch family were among the first to recognize the potential for Great Southern and Margaret River.
Australia’s First Families of Wine is “just what the doctor ordered” to help reverse the fortunes of our antipodean friends. While that cross-country tour certainly underscored the history behind the wine industry, it also served to remind with clarity Australia’s remarkable range of styles and regionality. Yet, in the end, well beyond the wines and generations of grape growing experience — it’s still those classic traits of Aussie good humour and utter disdain for snobbery that continue to redefine one of the New World’s oldest producers.
92 Henschke Henry’s Seven 2013, Eden Valley ($44)
Look no further for convincing evidence that the Aussies are indeed masters at blending. A more complex riff on the standard Shiraz/Viognier duo, Grenache and Mataro bring added weight and complexity, with plummy black fruit and raspberry, plus peppery notes, wrapped in juicy acidity and balanced, approachable tannins and a finish that doesn’t quit.
92 Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Sémillon 2010, Hunter Valley ($45)
Bruce Tyrrell jokes that British wine guru Jancis Robinson refers to him as “The Don Quixote of Sémillon,” with good reason. Textbook and still youthful, defined by a crisp, citrus driven acidity underpinned by a structure and palate that will in time develop waxy and nutty notes. Tuck some away for later.
93 Jim Barry The Florita Riesling 2013, Clare Valley ($48)
Precise and keenly focused, citrus lemon lime driven but with perfect fruit acid balance. A splurge, (if you can find it) but also one to tuck away.
92 Howard Park Flint Rock Chardonnay 2013, Great Southern ($27)
Lifted apple, toast and honey notes on the nose, before a bright, vibrant palate of stone fruit and mineral with texture and elegant mouthfeel supported by well integrated fruit and oak. Fruit from different clones at different altitudes in cool climate Mount Barker and Porongurup.
93 Howard Park Leston Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, Margaret River ($35)
Anise, sage and herbal hints on the nose, followed by lively intense blue fruit on the plush and plummy palate with cedar and leather notes wrapped in juicy acidity, with excellent length and finesse. Well managed oak: Matured in 40% new and 60% older French oak barriques for 18 months.
92 Howard Park Western Australia Riesling 2006 ($50)
A great example of clean and austere younger Aussie Rieslings will eventually evolve, especially when tasted beside the still neophyte but impressive stone and lime packed 2013. Citrus, apple and mineral on the nose, with a still vibrant mineral and lime palate with keen acidity, hints of nutmeg and lemon blossom with more slate undertones in the close.
92 Tahbilk Museum Release Marsanne 2008, Nagambie Lakes ($27)
The “regular” Tahbilk Marsanne has been a mainstay for decades. Find the current release for $19.99. It’s a deal (even better with Dungeness crab and lemon butter). However, this special release wine gives a hint of what happens when Marsanne gets some age on it, with layers of honey and lemon with some mineral undertones. Hold for 15 to 20 years.
91 Yalumba Eden Valley Viognier 2013 ($27.99)
Yalumba was almost singlehandedly responsible for igniting our ongoing infatuation with Viognier. With classic apricot and stone fruit and more intense, lingering and orange toned palate, the Eden Valley label is a step up from the familiar Y Series.
92 Yalumba FDR Museum Release Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz (N/A)
FDR stands for “Fine Dry Red” which is a bit of an understatement for this extraordinary, plush and well integrated drop that celebrates 165 years of winemaking. Up front very pronounced red and black fruits precede a balanced, full bodied palate of sweet fruit wrapped in elegant, silky tannins that adds up to a seamless expression of the blend (80% Cabernet/20% Shiraz). From contrasting blocks of 30-year-old Cabernet and almost 100-year-old and 50-year-old Shiraz vines. Still surprisingly youthful, with many years to go.
Top image: Founded in 1959, the Jim Barry Winery is one of the youngest in the First Families of Wine group. The family consists of Olivia, Sam, Peter, Sue and Tom Barry