I recently spent two weeks in Australia exploring not one but THREE wine regions — weee! The main draw was the Wine Media Conference, which was held for the first time outside of North America. How was it? It was amaze-balls! It was two weeks of wine, food, travel, hanging out with old friends, meeting new friends, and learning so much about the history, geography, wine-growers, viticulture – so much. So I’ve been driving myself a little nuts, trying to figure out which stories to tell!
Finally, I decided to do a Q&A-style post which also doubles as a bit of a travelogue. I figure people are curious about what such a conference entails and why it is so valuable. So here goes. Maybe you want to pour a glass of delicious Australian Shiraz or Semillon while you read. (Let me know what you think – feedback is always appreciated!)
What is the Wine Media Conference Anyway? The Wine Media Conference is three days of wine magic for wine writers of all types – editorial journalists as well as citizen bloggers – as well as wine marketers. There are amazing talks from some of the most respected writers in the world (Bruce Schoenfeld, Max Allen), tastings from some of Australia’s most renowned wineries and wine companies, educational sessions about the impact of social media, how wine competitions are judged, how climate change is affecting wine and more.
It’s all geared toward learning about every aspect of wine writing – from tasting to story-telling to increasing your influence and impact as a wine writer – with plenty of opportunity for networking and exchanging insights with fellow writers, like Conrad Grah, one half of the Wine Wankers.
Why Did They Decide to Hold it in Hunter Valley? Conferences of all types are courted by regional tourism boards who want conference attendees to come visit. I will tell you this: Wine Australia, the big country-wide advocacy group, is investing big in the U.S. market. This past fall, Wine Australia staged huge tasting events all over the U.S., as retail promotions on Australian wine. So when Hunter Valley brought an attractive opportunity to the Wine Media Conference crew, they jumped on it! And so did I and more than 100 other people.
So Where is Hunter Valley? Hunter Valley is in the state of New South Wales, and a two-hour drive north of Sydney. It’s where Australian wine began back in the early 1800s. You might remember from your world history classes that Australia was sort of a penal colony back in the day, and until the 1820s, Sydney was pretty much an open prison, stuffed with convicts that had been shipped over from Britain and various British protectorates.
Like California, there was a land rush, using convict laborers and soon enough, people starting farming vitus vinifera grapevines that had been brought over on ships. And yep, Shiraz was one of the varietals! (Shiraz is the same as Syrah … many a story exists about why.) Okay, we’re jumping off the history boat now….
Should I go there? Yes! You should! If you live in the U.S., sure, it’s a long flight (I flew Chicago-L.A.: 4 hours, then L.A. to Sydney: 14 hours – one glass of wine and an Ambien, and it was off to Snoozeville for, like, six or seven hours), but I am telling you – the people are the nicest, most welcoming of anywhere I’ve been in the world. Plus, they speak English, so no language barrier! Plus, it is beautiful. And: they have wine. Lots and lots of amazing wine.
Hunter Valley also is one of the most family-friendly wine regions I’ve ever visited. You know how Napa Valley is kind of built for grown-ups? Quite posh and sophisticated? Yes, well, Hunter Valley can be posh and sophisticated, but there are also lots of places built for families and kids, including cute little tourist villages stuffed with shops and restaurants and parks and playgrounds for kids.
So what’s up with the wines? The wines are glorious! Here are the top three cool things I learned:
Screwcaps rule – even on sparkling! Australia was the first country to really adopt screw caps for wine after they got, well, screwed, out of decent corks. Yep, it’s true. Remember how popular cork shoes were in, like, the 70s? That was the start of a global fight for decent cork. And you know who got first dibs on quality cork – it was the fancy French wine industry. Then the rest of Europe, then the U.S., and so on. Australia was not even getting sloppy seconds. They were experiencing huge issues with shitty cork, so they kind of said, “Screw it! We’re not even using stupid cork anymore.”
Today, 98-99 percent of all Australian wines are bottled under screw cap – even Penfolds Grange, which fetches about $800 per bottle. (And an interesting sidenote: because Americans haven’t embraced screw caps like the Aussies have, many high-end wines like Penfolds Grange use corks for wines that are slated for export to the U.S.)
Semillon is Australia’s gift to the white wine world. I knew Semillon as a key white Bordeaux grape – most often blended with Sauvignon Blanc. I did not know it as its own glorious self! Semillon grows really well in the hot, dry climate and the Australians have perfected it to where it can stand alone brilliantly in all its citrusy, crisp, bright, acidic glory.
And you know what else is cool? Aged Semillon. Something happens in the bottle at about the five-year mark. The wine starts developing toasty, yeasty, buttery notes – it’s a really cool wine phenomenon. I have a whole new appreciation for Semillion, both young and old. Find some!
There Are No Rules! So you know how most wine regions tend to plant a limited selection of grapes that are that region’s “signature”? Like, Napa Valley is a lot of Cabernet and Chardonnay? And the Sta Rita Hills has a lot of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay? And the Rhône Valley has a lot of Syrah, and Bordeaux has its five red grapes (Cab, Cab Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec) and two whites (Semillon and Sauv Blanc)? Yeah, well, in Hunter Valley, it’s a free-for-all!
Shiraz, Pinot Noir, Semillon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling – they grow it all in the Hunter Valley. The variety is astounding! And it all grows well in the hot, dry climate (thought they could desperately use rain right now.) And guess what else? They blend grapes together that make you go, “Wait a minute … wha????”
My favorite example: Shiraz-Pinot Noir. I know! I tasted one on our first night at Brokenwood Winery, when we had the Legends of Hunter Valley pouring their best wines. I learned the Shiraz-Pinot Noir duo was a huge trend in the 1950s and ’60s but it sort of died away in the late 1960s. Silkman Wines brought it back to life and now others, like Tyrell’s, Peppertree and other wineries sin the Hunter Valley are doing it too. The wines are ripping, as they say in Australia – silky, bursting with red and black fruit, with a really fun brightness and very balanced tannins.
Aright, this post has gotten long enough. I’ll be back with another story about my adventure to another wonderful Australian wine region, Mudgee (how much fun is that word? And then you’ll get to learn about Yarra Valley, too, because it was a big trip!