Samui Wining & Dining
Australian or Californian?
The debate about which area makes the best wine goes on.


Australian or Californian?I’ve lost count of the number of times someone has asked me what is my favourite wine. My standard reply is always, ‘Australian, especially Shiraz’. But more recently, although the same automatic response trips off my tongue, I find myself wanting to say, ‘Californian, especially Red Zinfandel’.


It could be a case of ‘the grass is always greener’, but I believe if I’d had the opportunity to taste more Californian wines, they could well be my favourites by now. The truth is that Aussie wines are far more affordable and accessible in Thailand (and elsewhere), and I’ve developed a fondness for them. In my humble opinion, of all the wine countries of the New World, Australia took the grape most readily and has developed her wines most consistently and to best effect. Today, she produces wines comparable to the best in the world.


If Australia and California played wine ‘test matches’, each would win their home games because the judges of each have palates tuned to their national products. Some exceptions apart, Australia’s wines, whether red or white, tend to a fruity softness, which may be direct, but is also delicate and rather rapidly drinkable. In comparison, California has tended to mask the grape flavours with higher levels of alcohol, and oak in white wines and tannin in reds. Whilst Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc still reign supreme in both countries amongst the white wines. Lately, Australia has been showing a preference towards Riesling.


Australian ‘Rhine’ Riesling is, in reality, very different from the (very light) German variety. The Aussies have made it their own, and one of the world’s great originals, worthy of lengthy ageing and potentially a very fine wine. Also, they long ago developed the Semillon, a second-line grape elsewhere, into a noble variety on its own.


For red wines, Shiraz, also called Hermitage from its home on the Rhone, holds pride of place. Early examples of Australian Hermitage were usually too heavy, often with soft unappetizing flavours, and so much tannin it could taste like iron. However, in careful and creative hands it can be barrel-aged and judiciously blended to make a superb red wine. Even better than the makers possibly realize, Penfold’s Grange Hermitage is one of the southern hemisphere’s world-beating wine triumphs.


Excellent and original as Shiraz can be, in the marketplace it seemed for a while as though it might be swamped by the universal appeal of Cabernet Sauvignon. Cabernet pure, or blended with Shiraz, Merlot, or sometimes Malbec, hogs most of the limelight in Australia today. Although Shiraz from old vines still commands admiration, affection and high prices, new cooler vineyards have been opened up that suit the lighter red wines, like Merlot, in the more southerly regions. And the (notoriously hard to please) Pinot Noir grape has found a natural home in the regions around Melbourne and northern Tasmania, and both places are producing utterly satisfying, firm, fragrant and fruity examples.


Somewhat disappointingly, Zinfandel is noticeably conspicuous by its absence down under. And probably represents the biggest difference between Australians and Americans in wine preferences. Today, Americans are just plain crazy about both Red and White Zinfandel. Amazingly, making it the third most crushed grape varietal in the States, right behind Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. And when it comes to growing and bottling Zinfandel, California is king. Could it be the Aussie winemakers have simply conceded to the Americans’ superiority on this grape? Or is it more of a geographical, climatic or terroir issue? Either way, I hope we will see more New World countries growing this once forgotten (and disregarded by Europe) red wine gem. I actually loathe the White Zinfandels – but don’t get me started on that!


One of the biggest similarities between the Australian and Californian wine industries is that they have both ‘come of age’ within the last 25 years. Before then, life was quiet in the vineyards. A handful of traditional wineries was making excellent wines in Hunter Valley and Napa Valley respectively (other wine growing areas in both places were just on the verge of taking off, most noteworthy, South Australia and Sonoma County). Aussies and Californians did not know their luck, they could buy a beautifully crafted Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon for the same price as a steak, but few people did. The revolution in people’s drinking habits didn’t take place until the mid 1980s, when, quite suddenly (helped by the media), wine became enthusiastically fashionable. Happily for the industry, wine drinking has remained in favour through to the present day. And doesn’t look like fading away any time soon.


Consumption has rocketed worldwide, and possibly, nowhere more so than in the UK. And to the enormous benefit of Australia, 40% of its wine is exported to thirsty Britain. To Australia, the export market is vital because, unlike California, it doesn’t have a large population to consume its preferred local wines. This exposure to Australian wines goes a long way to explaining why the middle-aged Brits, like me, love it so much. Just as with favourite foods, people tend to prefer the styles they are familiar with – it’s human nature. I’m sure that if Californian wines were as prevalent in Britain, there would be just as much (if not more) acclaim for them. Of course, Californian wines are available (at a price), but not necessarily the best examples. High spending American wine drinkers know a good one when they taste it. Many of the best bottles never make it to the export market!


I had the privilege of visiting the Central Coast of California some time ago, and a return trip, solely for wine tasting, is on my ‘to do before I die’ list. And I know what’s (hopefully) in store for me at the congenial and classy wooden-built tasting rooms. With the likes of gorgeous oaked Chardonnays and lush Cabs, Pinot Noirs, Red Zinfandels, and lesser know Tannat red wine masterpieces invitingly swilling around inside opened bottles.


But until then, for sentimental and loyalty reasons, I still proclaim my favourite wine is Australian.

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