Australian wines have an image problem in the United States. They’re viewed as cheap.
They are good value, reliable, perfect for a burger or pizza, but few people expect to be bowled over when they open one of the millions of US$8 bottles of Yellow Tail that are sold here annually.
At the other end of the spectrum in price, quality and image is the iconic Penfolds Grange, which routinely fetches more than US$200 a bottle in the United States.
In 2004, one collector paid US$47,378 for a 1951 Penfolds Grange.
But between US$8 and US$200 there is a vast gap in Australian wines. The cooperative growers of Barossa Valley Estates in South Australia, and their winemaker Stuart Bourne, hope to fill it.
Bourne revels in the no-rules, anything goes philosophy of Australia’s wine industry. He is also passionate about wine, the environment and golf, though he concedes he is better at winemaking than golf.
“Look, we don’t have appellations. We don’t have all those rules the Europeans have. And we don’t have the pretensions that the Californians have,” the 40-year-old winemaker said in an interview.
“We’ve got the freedom to plant what we want, blend anyway we want, use oak or not. There are no rules. So what that means to me is that I have the choice of the best fruit I can get to make the best wines that I can.”
Looking similar to an adult version of Harry Potter with his eye glasses, Bourne works magic on the grapes grown by 80 third- and fourth-generations of families who arrived in South Australia from Germany.
“I’m not looking for overly extracted fruits. I’m not interested in he-man, aggressive wines that are the equivalent of the master of the universe in a bottle,” he said, explaining that his philosophy is to coax, not impose.
“I just try to get the best grapes that I can and let them work their magic. And these families – they have a passion for growing great grapes.
Bourne, the father of three boys, is as concerned with the environment as he is with wines. The growers use sheep to cut down on the weeds.
They recycle the must (the seeds, skins) to use as mulch and – in part because of the drought that has afflicted Australia since the turn of the century – the winery collects storm water and uses it for irrigation.
The cooperative entered into a 50-50 deal with Constellation Brands in 1999.
“They bring the distribution and we bring the wine. Each of us plays to our strengths. They don’t tell me how to make wine and I don’t tell them how to sell it. It works great,” said Bourne.
But Constellation does bring him ideas. A recent Nielsen survey showed the greatest growth in the US market – Australia’s second largest export market – would be those wines retailing for US$10 to US$20 a bottle. So Bourne created E-Minor.
“This takes Syrah to a whole new level,” he said. “It expresses a richness, a concentration of flavours and fruit that is typical of the Barossa Valley. It’s a serious wine,” he explained.
Why call it E-Minor? Well, Barossa Valley Estates is home to E&E Black Pepper Shiraz, an almost cult wine produced from 60-year-old vines that have a meager yield and are rated “outstanding” by Langton’s Fine Wine Auctions – Australia’s equivalent of Christie’s. E&E sells for about US$100 a bottle.