The Busby Tour for international sommeliers and press is now in its seventh year and I thought I’d seen most things in that time.
But this year’s tour was full of surprises, I can honestly say that there’s been more change in the past 12 months than the past six years. Here’s what we learnt during two weeks travelling through 14 wine regions in Victoria and South Australia.
- V15 was a ripper. The wines we tasted from the 2015 vintage, across all regions, mark it out as one of the great vintages of recent years. What a fantastic vintage to be showing when the eyes of the world’s trade are – at last – turning back to Australia.
- Whole bunch got serious. Winemakers using whole bunch have come out of the closet and are now proud to be bunchy. This is a technique, and a conversation, that’s been building from the edges for the past few years, but I was struck on this trip not only by how many producers are now using this technique, but also how many are mastering the skills. It seems the trend is away from partial use of bunches in ferments (usually at the bottom to get some carbo going as well) towards people doing 100 percent whole bunch and 100 percent whole berry and then blending the two. Ironically 100 percent whole bunch can produce less ‘bunchy’ flavours than partial. Steve Webber explained the wine science behind this but, to be honest, I lost track.
- Oak drops a dress size. The trend away from overt new oak in reds is gathering momentum. It was truly unusual to come across a grossly over-oaked wine on the trip, which couldn’t have been said only a couple of years ago.
- Farewell Missionary Man. 2016 seems to be the year that winemakers across Australia gave up using the Missionary Position as their default style (just lie back and think of Parker) and are now running around their sheds butt naked waving a well-thumbed copy of the Kama Sutra. Suddenly everything – and anything – goes. Whites on skins, zero sulphur reds, pét-nat, amphora, eggs, orgies of ‘alternative’ varieties, even residual sugar in Riesling (risqué!). The Australian winemaking community is joining in the experimental party that’s happening around the rest of the winemaking world. Sure, it’s not all successful, but most of it is damn drinkable, but it’s making life a whole lot more interesting. And this kind of stuff is like cat nip for overseas somms.
- Cooler, higher, fresher. In almost every major region we visited, the trend is to search out the cooler spots in an attempt to push the boundaries of quality and finesse. For the Yarra Valley, it’s the Upper Yarra, for the Barossa it’s Eden, for McLaren Vale it’s Blewitt Springs, and for anyone with cash in the bank it’s Tasmania. These trends have been building for years, but it was noticeable how this year the cool climate dots are all joining up.
- Phylloxera on the radar.> It’s been interesting over the past seven years of the Busby trips to see how the awareness and biosecurity for phylloxera has steadily increased but it’s still not perfect. There are still too many wineries who don’t ask us where we’ve been (we tell them) or who don’t have foot-baths to hand (this should be mandatory). It’s getting a lot better, but many in the group were still amazed at how casual attitudes are in some places.
- Proudly Australian. Something I noticed this year was the almost complete absence of winemakers referring to Europe – and especially France – as a reference point for wine style. It wouldn’t have been uncommon a few years ago for winemakers to talk about a Burgundian style of this or that wine, but now it’s much more common to hear people talking about a Mornington style of Pinot or Yarra style of Chardonnay. And not being afraid to use the word terroir without having to wrap it in inverted commas and irony.
- Your parents can be cool. It’s easy for the new and the novel to grab the headlines on trips like this, and sure, the group loved hanging out with the cool kids in the Yarra and Basket Range. But when the scores were in (and I do ask the group to score their visits) the likes of Henschke, Seppeltsfield, Yarra Yering, Tahbilk, Yalumba and d’Arenberg were fighting it out amongst the hipsters for a place in the top 10. They say a rising tide lifts all ships, and one of the really exciting things for me is that now that Australia is back on the radar in the mature export markets of the UK and US (and the new wave of hipster wines are certainly helping this) then the stone cold classics that have never gone away are there to surprise and delight a new generation of buyers.
After the tasting notes are lost and the vintages forgotten, it’s the memories and personal relationships that remain. The Busby Alumni community now stands at 114 individuals from 15 overseas markets and this year’s trip added 11 new ambassadors from Canada, the US, Ireland, UK, Denmark and China.
I’ll leave the last word to Sophie Uddin, who until recently was in charge of the beverage program for Bill Granger’s global restaurant group: “This trip is incredible, it has completely flipped my perception of Australian wine and winemaking. The winemakers in every region are paying homage to their sense of place and terroir. I had no idea of the diversity of wines within each region and the creativity of the winemakers. Mind officially blown.”
The full 2016 Tour Report will be posted on the website next month – www.jamesbusbytravel.com