The article appeared in the July'05 edition of HARI: Hotels & Restaurants India. It is being reproduced with the permission of the publisher.
Green Point's wine-maker discusses with SOURISH BHATTACHARYYA how a combination of technology and common sense is giving Australian wines a competitive edge in the international edge
Ever since Australian wines dislodged their French competition from the top of the pile in UK supermarkets five years back, they've got the world to sit up and take notice. Aussie wines have an innate simplicity about them that immediately draws new wine drinkers to them, which explains their success in the marketplace. They're easy to understand and easier to drink – you don't have to be a wine snob to appreciate them.
John Harris, the international wine-maker from Domain Chandon in Australia, made this point on a visit last month to promote Green Point wines, which, though a little less than 20 years old, are among the best that Australia has to offer to the mass market.
A trained immunologist and medical microbiologist who discovered a passion for wine after graduating from Monash University, Harris says that the wines from Down Under are successful because they are market-led. It's very different from the way the French view the business – for them, each wine must bear the imprint of the wine-maker – but Harris has a point: "You have to make wines that the market wants to drink. After all, you can't drink all the wine you produce."
Harris admits that for a long time all Australian wines tasted alike, and that their "fruity, forward style" appealed to new consumers, but wine-makers in his country have figured out that once consumers become "more confident and more knowledgeable," they look for "more complexity".
Australian wines, moreover, enjoy a clear competitive edge, for they are not bound by the appellation system that their European rivals have to respect. But Australian wine-makers aren't sitting on their laurels. They're working hard to mint new ideas and revolutionise wine production techniques.
And they're beginning at the beginning, that is, at the point of time when the grapes have to be picked. This issue wouldn't have bothered the industry in the past, but, as Harris tells us, "wine-makers are going to the vineyards now more often than ever before."
As a result of this dramatic shift in wine-maker's job profile, Harris is "on the road" from February-end to early April, which is the harvesting season and the tail-end of the Aussie summer. "I spend more time with our viticulturists than with my wife," he says. "To get the quality of your wine right, you must get the picking time right, because you get just one chance to pick the grapes. You can ruin good grapes, but you can't improve bad grapes."
The rising cost of production is another area of concern for Australian wine-makers. They have learnt to work creatively with cheaper alternatives, like using the much-maligned oak chips because of "the pressure on margins in a competitive market". Each new oak barrel, Harris says, costs A$1,000 (approximately Rs 35,000). Wine-makers, therefore, have to take a call on how much and how often they have to use them.
With investors not prepared any longer to wait forever for returns, the other big challenge for the industry is to get wines, especially reds with harsh tannins, drinkable in as short a time as possible. That explains the increasing use of micro-oxygenation, a technique that was developed in France. "By using the technique we can hasten the process of softening of the tannins," explains Harris. "When we employ this technique to produce a red wine, it becomes drinkable within six months. Softer red wines appeal more to new consumers. You have to be very careful, though, because you can oxidise the wine."
On the technical side, the popularity of mechanised picking of grapes is growing in direct proportion to the cost of labour. "Machines also enable you to pick grapes at night, when the temperature is lower and right for grape-picking," says Harris. Top-end wineries like Green Point are also investing in sophisticated pressing equipment to allow "a gentle maceration of grapes." Harris calls this the thoughtful application of technology.
But the most exciting new development on the technology front is the steady replacement of corks by screwcaps. Green Point recently received rave reviews in the British press for its sparkling wine – Chandon ZD 2000 (ZD, incidentally, stands for Zero Dosage, which means it has a very low residual sugar content) – launched last year in bottles sealed with beer bottle caps.
"A champagne spends most of its life under a beer bottle cap," says Harris, adding that unlike corks, which are responsible for at least 8% of wines turning bad, screwcaps don't affect the content in the bottle. "The movement is being led by wine-makers. They're fed up of the poor quality of corks. And a good cork free of all impurities costs A$2 (approx. Rs 70), which is a needless investment when it has been acknowledged that wines under screwcaps taste better and fresher." The final word hasn't been written on these exciting under-currents in the wonderful world of wine. So watch this space! Share your views by clicking here .
-- SOURISH BHATTACHARYYA