Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Wines of Australia, 1883

This is a personal account of the wines of 19-century Australia,  excerpted from "Town Life in Australia" R. E. N. (Richard) Twopeny, 1883. It is interesting for the comparison to European wines of the time.
I have not seen burgundy half a dozen times since I have been here. The old colonist finds claret thin and sour; but the younger generation are beginning to take to it, although there is no wine harder to obtain here than claret. Nine-tenths of what one buys is adulterated. His knowledge of crûs being naturally limited, the colonist likes to see on his wine a fine label, one which makes the quality of the wine easily comprehensible to him. Thus the most successful claret sold here is divided according to degrees of nastiness into five ranks, and you ask for So-and-So's No. 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, irrespective of vintage or year. 'Bon ordinaire' is of course unobtainable, but you can get 'Chateau Margaux,' duty paid, at from 40s. to 50s. a dozen. I was once asked to buy some wine bearing that label for 2s. 6d. a bottle. The names of one or two well-known wines having reached your host's ears, he likes to show you by the name on the label that he is giving them to you; and, unfortunately, Margaux and Lafitte labels cost no more than any other.

A good deal of sherry and port--even more brandied than for the English market--is drunk. A wealthy man will never give you colonial wine, not because it is necessarily worse than the imported stuff on his table, but because it is colonial. Amongst the middle classes it is beginning to find favour. A great deal of extravagant praise has been lavished in the press on these wines since the Bordeaux Exhibition, and I fear that many who taste them for the first time will be disappointed. They are too heady, and for the most part wanting in bouquet, whilst their distinctive character repels the palate, which is accustomed to European growths. But for all that, I cannot understand how men with only moderate means living out here can pay large prices for very inferior imported wines, when a good sound, palatable wine is obtainable at from 15s. to 25s. a dozen. At the latter price a Sauvignon approaching to claret, grown close to Melbourne, is obtainable, which is really excellent; and the white hermitage from the same district, as well as from the Hunter River district in New South Wales, at 15s. a dozen, is also as good as one can wish, short of a grand vin, although in none of these wines do you entirely lose the goût du terroir, a peculiar earthy taste resulting from the strength of the soil. The cheapest wholesome wine I have ever drunk off the Continent is a thin vin ordinaire, smelling like piquette, which is sold at a certain rather low-looking shop in Melbourne. It is quite palatable, and when heavily watered I can vouch for its wholesomeness.

The lightest of these wines contain about 18 degrees of spirit, whereas, as you know, an 'ordinaire' has only about 8, and a burgundy not more than 11 or 12. But the native wines which are generally preferred by the colonists themselves are the South Australian. In spite of a duty of 10s. a dozen, large quantities of Adelaide wine are drunk in Melbourne. Its chief characteristics are sweetness and heaviness. It may seem to you incredible, but I have drunk a wine made from the Verdeilho grape, and, grown near Adelaide by a Mr. C. Bonney, which contained no less than 36 degrees of natural spirit, without a drop added: 32 and 33 degrees are quite common, and the average percentage in South Australian wine is about 28.

In most cases the wines are named after the grape from which they are made, though sometimes the less sensible course of calling the wine 'claret,' 'sherry,' or 'port,' is adopted. I say less sensible, because all colonial wines have a peculiar flavour, which makes it difficult to mistake them for the wines they profess to imitate. The Carbinet-Sauvignon grape, which I believe is the principal one used in the Bordeaux district, produces here a wine something like what you get on the Rhone. The Riesling, a Rhineland grape, resembles a brandied hock; it makes one of the best wines, and is often very palatable. The red and white Hermitage grapes do best of all. The Muscatel makes a delicious sweet wine in Adelaide, but it is very heady. I have no doubt that in the course of time, and when more scientific methods are pursued, South Australia will produce excellent ports and sherries, as well as Constantias, Malagas, and madeira, but I fear it will not be within the present generation. Claret, I understand from experts, will never be produced, but hermitages and wines of that type will be made in the course of ten or twenty years which will be able to compete in the European markets; long before this they should become useful for blending with French and Spanish wines.

As a rule the wine is already sound and wholesome; and if one comes to think of it, taste is a purely arbitrary matter. One forms one's taste according to a certain standard to which one is accustomed. To a man accustomed to colonial wines, clarets and hocks seem thin and sour. One great difficulty which militates against the reputation of Australian wine, is that of the untrustworthiness of all but a few brands. Of course all vintages from the same grapes differ, but there is a margin of difference beyond which a wine may not go, and with many an Australian vigneron this margin is frequently passed, owing to carelessness or inexperience in manufacture. Another drawback is the difficulty of procuring all but the most immature wine. Nearly the whole of each vintage is drunk within twelve months after it is made.

That Australian wines will ever compete with the famous French crûs I should very much doubt, but that they will in the course of the next twenty years gradually supersede with advantage a great deal of the manufactured stuff now drunk in England is more than probable. At present the prices are too high for Australian wines to find any large market at home. Although it is of course an exceptional case, there is an Adelaide madeira which fetches as much as 63s. per dozen within two miles of the vineyard. Nothing now obtainable in Australia under 15s. a dozen would be worth sending home, and by the time freight and duty is added to that, the London price would be considerable.

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