Australia’s First Families of Wine

I love reading about wine family history for several reasons: the first is the inspiration I get from understanding how families sacrificed to survive and in spite of their financial troubles, they never gave up on the pursuit of making better and better wine, regardless of the cost or the hardships; the second is the intrigue and suspense on seeing if the next generation will embrace and participate in the family business.  My first entree into reading about first families of wine was Mondovino by Jonathan Nossiter, who wrote about the European first families of wine and some of the difficulties they had passing the legacy from generation to generation.  This was followed by reading The Rewards of Patience by Andrew Caillard which retells the history of Penfolds, and then by reading the great biography of Maurice O’Shea in Wine Hunter by Campbell Mattinson.  And now I am reading heart & soul: Australian’s First Families of Wine by Graeme Lofts.  All of these books are thrilling and inspirational as they talk about wine and the business of wine.

hear & soul coverI have used the terms ‘first families of wine’ a bit loosely so far in that Penfolds can no longer be considered a family-run business as they sold out to the large corporate and are now part of TWE (Treasury Wine Estates).  In Loft’s book, heart & soul, he describes 12 Australian family-owned wineries, which have had at least 20 vintages, ownership of vineyards for more than 50 years of the highest quality, and at least two and preferably three generations of family owning the business. These 12 wineries are truly Australia’s First Families of Wine (AFFW).  This was an initiative launched in 2009 and represent a great glimpse into the best in wine and wine history that Australia has to offer.

While these stories and each family is unique, they have similarities in the most important areas to regarding making the very best wines possible.  By reading heart & soul and the other books mentioned above, I have come to believe, in general, that family-owned wineries make better wines than corporate-owned wineries.  Of course you will be able identify some great wines made in corporate-owned wineries, but I am more and more inclined to drink wine from Australia’s first families of wine if given the choice.  Loft’s book makes this abundantly clear, and here are the reasons why:

  • Australia’s first families of wine care more about making the very best wine possible than about being a commercial success; they never cut corners to get a better-valued commercial outcome – it is all about making the finest wine possible
  • Each new generation is given the opportunity to work elsewhere, learn from the best other first families of wine around the world and bring that back home
  • Each new generation starts early in learning winemaking and this cumulatively increases the knowledge and capabilities of the family-owned winemaking and wine marketing teams to do a better job than the large corporate-owned wineries are able to do
  • They have all faced crisis and hardships often across generations, yet have survived and done what was required to survive
  • They continue to experiment, exchange ideas with others, and help the wine industry as a whole, contributing and benefiting more than corporate-owned wineries

Australia’s first families of wine have achieved commercial success as a by-product of producing the best wines available, no matter what the cost.  They do not try to optimize short-term profit if it will get in the way of producing the best wine possible.  If you want to be inspired about how to run a business, any business, there are a lot of lessons to be learned from heart & soul and the other books mentioned.  If you want insights into the passion, the pursuit of quality, literally the ‘heart & soul’ of what goes into making and appreciating a good wine, then you should pick up a copy of heart & soul and get reading!


Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, available now!
© 2015.  Steve Shipley. All rights reserved.
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Is Australia a great wine producing nation or not?

Australia is justifiably proud of its wine producing industry and has gained attention and success on a global scale.  I love Australian wines.  They are built to last, and there are regions for growing grapes that rival European terrain, and the hills of Napa Valley.  Five years ago, I drank 95% Australian wine, with the other 5% being a smattering from Europe and the Americas.  I also used to drink 90% red, but now drink about 70% red and 30% white.  In a recent post on Rieslings, I mention how the Riesling grape helped me transition to more whites.

I have also noticed another change over the last decade, that being that I used to enjoy red wines when they were the biggest, most robust and alcoholic.  I now prefer – more often than not – a more refined, elegant red wine.  I am starting to appreciate red wine blends using more secondary grapes, and more red and white wines from Europe.

In general, it is probably fair to say that my wine tastes are maturing and becoming more diverse.  Part of this has been through the minor study of how grapes are grown, wine is made and wine reviews in general.  But most my education has come from drinking and comparing a wider variety of wine.  I have become much more discerning of the grape used and the impact of soil and vineyard management techniques on various grapes (most prominent influence is on Riesling and Pinot Noir, but all grapes are influenced by the soil and climate they are grown in).  The influence of soil and climate makes up a big part of what is called terroir.  But terroir also has less noticeable and scientifically proven influences through the culture of the area, its accumulated history, and the small influences collectively made over the vines and wine making techniques for thousands of years.  And this is where I am starting to question if Australia is one of the best wine producing regions or not.  While some vines are 150 years old and represent the place where the grapes are grown, Australia is more known for the tastes of the grapes themselves and the wine making techniques used.

I am reading Roger Scruton’s book entitled I Drink Therefore I am: A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine.  It is available in both electronic and printed form.  I am greatly enjoying the book, finding it not just a good and enjoyable read, but also quite educational on both wine and philosophy.  Scruton is a marvelously entertaining and articulate writer.  He is also very sure of his opinions and without a doubt, believes that French wines are without peer, followed by some wines from Napa Valley.  He is also a fan of Italian wines and supportive of Spanish and some South American wines.

But when he starts discussing Australian and New Zealand wines, he quickly downplays the impact of Australian wines and spends most of his time in the region praising New Zealand wines and wine making.  One of his major criticisms is that Australian wines do not reflect a place, they reflect the taste of the grape and the wine making techniques.  He is also critical of how quickly the wine growing and wine making industries have grown and the mass popularity of the wine having repudiated the individual variety that is necessary to make great wines.

Scruton believes that a sense of place is critical in making good wines and I think he is onto something.  You can mechanically churn out excellent wines if you use great grapes and great wine making techniques.  But think how much better wines are if the grapes come from vines that have been in the same location for thousands of years (vines never get that old, but the relationship being the soil and the vine types have existed for that long in many European locations).  The soil, the vine and the grape know how to embrace each other.  And think of the collective history and culture of the place where the grapes are grown.  Even if you have not visited those places, you have a sense of what they are about, and drinking wine from a place evokes memories and a sense of a deeper culture and appreciation of the wine.  And even if you are completely ignorant to a place, you still can taste the nuances of how the culture has defined the grapes and the wine making.

I have tasted some truly unique and excellent second growths or non-categorized wines from these European regions that have evoked great pleasure.  You do not need to buy Grand Cru wines from these regions to experience great wine.

I have tasted some excellent Australia wines and will continue to enjoy them for the rest of my wine drinking days.  They are great wines.  But the very best wines I have had come from France, Italy or Napa Valley.  Australia can be proud of its wine making industry and its wine heritage, but as a New World country that mass produces wines and has large vineyards of similar tasting grapes, you are unlikely to produce wines of the stratospheric quality that you would from a very small single vineyard parcel in Montrachet, Nuit St George, Mosel, Piedmont or Alsace.

In particular, I understand the nuances of some of the best vineyards in The Hunter Valley and can select some truly outstanding wines of unique character from that Australian wine region.  I am anxious to spend much more time in the other major regions to be able to do similar.  By being selective and narrowing my focus to a few wine makers with excellent small parcel vineyards and leveraging the cumulative history and culture of the region and the family of wine makers, I am hoping to be able to continue to buy Australian and get the very best wine it has on offer.

But is Australia in the Top 3 best wine making countries in the world – certainly not.  Is it in the Top 5?  Maybe and if not, it is getting closer.  The joy in all this is that I will continue on the journey of sampling many more Australian and foreign wines and also now have an excuse to sample both side-by-side, which is something I have not done much of before!


Steve Shipley, author Wine Sense, out early 2014. Published by InkIT Publishing
© 2014.  Steve Shipley
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The screw top controversy

For decades now, the controversy has been raging about the screw top and if it is as effective as cork for sealing a bottle of wine.  In my opinion, it is 99% as effective in 98% of the cases (the numbers are intuitive and have no statistical value).  And the risk of a corked bottle or bottles turning to vinegar because they were left upright for a prolonged period of time (and the corked dried out letting too much air into the bottle) is greatly reduced – therefore you will have far fewer bottles of wine that are damaged.  This avoids that disappointment of opening an anticipated and potentially expensive bottle of wine, only to find it is not drinkable.  Therefore, I am a big fan of the newer screw top method for sealing wine!

Almost all of the flavor and complexity of the wine (and its ability to mature and reach its maximum potential) is already inside the bottled when it is sealed, regardless of the type of seal used.  The quality of grapes and the wine-making process will mostly determine the ultimate quality the wine reaches when you drink it.  Regardless of sealing technique, there is air bottled inside to promote the microbiological development of the wine over time.

And here is where the minor difference between using a good cork and a screw top comes into play.  Once sealed with a screw top, no more air can get into the bottle.  With cork, there is some additional breathing that goes on (very little as the cork is always moist if stored properly and if not stored properly and the cork goes dry, then too much air gets into the bottle and the wine turns to vinegar).  This means that a bottle sealed with cork will mature and be drinkable slightly earlier than the same bottle with a screw top.  However, there are other factors that may influence the rate of maturation even more, including the temperature the wine is stored at.  The warmer the temperature, the quicker the maturation process.  However, most good wines can be drunk over a period of years and you need to occasionally taste a bottle to determine how they develop and when to optimally drink them.  By doing so, a very slight rate of maturation difference (which is what you have between a cork and a screw top) makes very little difference, either in determining the quality or the right time to drink the wine.

The big difference in my opinion is that screw tops are extremely consistent from cap to cap and each bottle of the same wine from the same vintage will taste the same – there will be very little difference from one bottle to the next.  For the most part, this is a very positive trait and provides for a consistent and pleasant drinking experience with no disappointment!  Whereas, cork by its very nature has faults or at least differences in the structure and composition from cork to cork.  While estimates vary study to study, significant cork faults can occur in between 3% and 15% of corks made.  And sometimes, whole batches of bad corks are produced and sold to wine makers which can ruin an entire vintage of the wines.

I once had two bottles one right after the other in a restaurant of the 2003 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay (a great wine BTW!) which I was paying $160 per bottle in the restaurant in 2007.  While both bottles were acceptable to drink, most of us at the table could determine the slight difference and the second bottle not being quite the same as the first.  Just being slightly different meant we found the second bottle to be less enjoyable than the first (because are taste buds had been set and were expecting the exact same taste).  I am assuming both bottles came from the same lot and were stored in exactly the manner, so the only difference between the two bottles was due to slight differences in the cork.

For some more complex and long aging wines, it may be possible the a specific cork variation may allow several bottles of that wine to achieve a presence that is unique and slightly better than the majority of the bottles.  This is one small advantage of cork as I see it – that because of the variation of the cork from bottle to bottle that some bottles may be better than average, however it also means that just as many may be slightly worse than average!  And if the cork is bad, the bottle may be undrinkable!  Therefore, the slight advantage that you may find a few bottles of a particular wine that are slightly better than the rest does not, in my opinion, justify the ongoing use of cork.  I believe screw tops provide significant advantages overall, including:

  • consistency from bottle to bottle and ‘no surprises’
  • no wastage due to ‘corked’ (were the cork is faulty) bottles that have turned to vinegar
  • no wastage from bottles that have been stored incorrectly (standing up) and the cork has dried out (even though it was a good cork) and the wine has turned to vinegar
  • ease of use and convenience opening bottles

Most Australian and US wine makers have or are switching over all of their bottling to using screw tops and I believe this is the right thing to do.  The wine will not suffer and more of it will be drinkable over the years.

I have a variety of corkscrews and love taking the cork our of a bottle of wine, especially a saturated cork that has been in the bottle for 20 or more years.  Getting the cork out successfully is like the thrill of landing a 15 – 20 pound fish on a 6 pound test line!  Removing the cork from a bottle is like foreplay before sex – an enjoyable part of the anticipation and build up to drinking the wine.  Therefore, I have and will always have bottles in my cellar for the next several decades that have corks for sealing.  But I do applaud and agree with the wine makers to switch over to screw tops as the right thing to do – for the wine, the wine maker and the consumer.