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Confessions of a wine snob.

 Confessions of a wine snob.When it came to Australian wine, shamefully, I was once a terrible wine snob. But in my defence, I am going back to the early1980s, when I was young, impressionable, spotty, pretentious and straight out of hotel school. I started working at a well-past-its-best, but iconic, hotel overlooking the picture postcard Avon Gorge in Bristol. And my colleagues, who were mainly French and Italian, and much older than me, schooled me in the wines we sold in the opulent restaurant, at surprisingly high prices. Predictably, the wines were typical of the day - French Bordeaux’s and Burgundies, vintage dry Champagnes, horribly sweet Piesporters and Mosels (including the grinning ‘Blue Nun’) from Germany, Chianti in the basket covered bottle, and Mateus Rose in the ‘lamp stand’ bottle.

What excited my colleagues were the classic old world wines, and new world countries, such as Australia were dismissed as a matter of course. Mind you, these were the same, rapidly approaching middle-age, Mediterranean men, who would dress in brightly coloured and suggestively tight trousers, puffy open neck shirts with big collars, and medallions to decorate their sweaty cologne drenched hairy chests, to spend a Friday night chatting up overweight, pale, Pernod drinking English girls, dancing around their handbags in a Bristol city centre disco. Nevertheless, they instantly turned up their noses at any wine that was not considered a traditional European classic, rejecting newcomers as obvious copies and unsophisticated. Tannic fruity Shiraz and oaky Chardonnay? No thanks. But yes please to Amontillado sherry, Mosel Riesling and Loire red wines. At the time, I liked to think of myself as an up-and coming food and beverage manager, and I bought into the whole classic French cuisine accompanied by old European wines being far superior.

I left after a couple of years and became involved in the far more trendy side of the 80s restaurant business. And inevitably, my horizons broadened. But still, Australian wines had not quite caught on in England. French wine still had a firm grip on the market.

I remember fresh crisp Muscadet becoming very popular in the, then-thriving, restaurant lunchtime trade. These were the days of the yuppies on generous business expense accounts, two-hour lunches, and drinking alcohol before returning to work did not seem to be an issue. At this time, Australia, as a country, was considered uncultured. TV programs and films often depicted it that way. And many wine critics claimed Australian red wines were lacking. They didn’t reflect terroir, they were over-manipulated and the white wines were too oaky.

In 1990, I visited Australia for the first time, and was amazed. Pleasantly surprised by both the quality of the food and wine, and how bloody nice everyone was. (I was later to visit New Zealand and had an equally eye-opening experience.) Instantly in love with North Queensland, I landed a job in a small, but prestigious, restaurant in magical Airlee Beach. It was called ‘Charlies Round the Bend’, and I believe may still be there in some form, it’s opposite the marina, for those who know the town. I was exposed to the wonderful world of Aussie wine, going to tastings, and mixing with some of the refreshingly down-to-earth people in the business.

Ever since, I’ve had a soft spot for Australian wines. At first it was the white wines: Hunter Semillons, Rieslings from Pewsey Vale. Then, it was the lighter reds such Mornington Peninsula Pinots. But soon, I found myself falling for the classic red wines of South Australia. Sturdy wines that impressed me immensely, like the Rockford Sparkling Black Shiraz and Yalumba Tricentenary Grenache. It was marvellous to discover how well some Australian wines aged, such as a Wolf Blass Black Label, which tasted like a Rioja Grand Reserva crossed with a Medoc. I was well aware of the Penfolds name, but never fortunate enough to taste Grange. However, I soon discovered that nowhere makes Shiraz as fine as South Australia, and this grape has become a firm favourite of mine.

Of course, Australian wines have changed over the past 25 years. The Chardonnays especially are much fresher and less oaky. And big brands, such as Jacobs Creek, have risen to fame. But the biggest change is in me. I’ve learned to appreciate wine based on what is in the glass, and not what is on the label. In my 20s I thought I was discerning, but in fact, my judgments were based on other people’s opinions. It was much like how a teenager approaches music - knowing the music you don’t like says as much about you as the music you do like. When you’re young, it’s important to have strong opinions, especially about things you don’t really understand. Today, I still appreciate European wines, especially Spanish and Italian Tuscan reds, but I drink more Australian red wine than any other.

Which is why I followed with great interest the hoo-ha in Australia last year, about the trend for fashionable restaurant wine lists to ignore local wines in favour of imports and obscurities. Odd. Surely, no other wine-producing country would be so diffident about its riches. If you go to a restaurant in the Languedoc, they don’t sell Bordeaux. And go to one in western Sicily and they don’t have wines from the other side of the island!

Knowing the wine trade, a possible explanation is that the new generation of sommeliers is seeking to make their mark by breaking with tradition. It’s a way of rebelling, but it will not last long. Australian classics will soon be rediscovered. Besides, Australia is now firmly established on the wine world map, blessed with unique styles from the Barossa and Hunter Valleys and Victoria. Australia has Cabernet Sauvignons (and Cab blends) to rival the Medoc. And Chardonnays and Pinots that compare favourably with the best of Burgundy. It’s great that Aussies are so un-chauvinistic about foreign wines. But the truth is if I opened a restaurant in Australia, I wouldn’t stock a single foreign wine. Why would you need to?


Peter James


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