Ghost Vineyards and The New Future Of Australian Wine

We know a great deal about the English and Irish heritage in Australia, a tale of exile, prison colonies, harsh dusty landscapes, sheep and cattle ranching and mining the outback. The traditional Australian wine story is intertwined with this picture from that Irish and English perspective, wealthy administrators, concerned medical types from Victorian London and of course plenty of rancher and farmers made good from our own shores.

There is however another Australia, people who emigrated purposefully not as part of the colonial clique, the Penfolds of this world, but adventurous farmers and idealists from Italy and Germany.

Many of these, other, emigrants built small regional communities, not infrequently under-pinned by some strong religious belief.

In the case of the Barossa this meant many German families like the Seppelts and Schrapel families of Seppelts and Bethany Winery respectively and latterly Johann Gramp. The German emigration took off in around 1836 and was driven by Lutheran pilgrims from across Germany.

In 1837 Johann Gramp, aged 18 jumped ashore on Kangaroo Island, a large island off the South Australian coast where the British had intended to build a major city from which to run Australia. It would have been very defensible and a safe zone considering it as not still fully understood what they would find in the interior of Australia.

After a couple of years Johann Gramp left the island and headed to the mainland of what we would now call south Australia. He followed German settlers upland to a new area that the colonial surveyor had just mapped out called after a famous British victory in Spain, Barossa. There in the Barossa Valley Johann Gramp eventually settled near a small river, a tributary named after a small family of a strong willed sister and her two brothers, they were the Jacobs.

In 1847, in land overlooking what was known locally called Jacob’s Creek, Gramps planted the now globally famous Barossa Vineyard.

Brand Australia

When Australian wines broke through into the imagination and wine shops of the world in the late 1970s and early 1980s they did so with brilliant ripe wines, full of clean fruit, creamy Chardonnay and punchy, spicy Shiraz. Best of all these wines were available at a fraction of the price many European wines were selling at in Ireland and in Britain.

In France and Italy or Spain, wines had always been cheaply available particularly for the more modest local produce without export ambitions.

Australian wine caused a revolution too in quality. French wine, then accounting for almost two thirds of all wine sold here and in Britain had another problem. Many of the wines were inconsistent from year to year and from each producer. You ordered a medium priced Bordeaux with the word Chateau on it and hoped for the best. Of course the top wines did not have this problem but these were even more expensive and more importantly much more difficult to obtain in 1979, the year Pope John Paul landed in Ireland than today.

Australian wine offered consistency, predictability and frankly cheap prices.

The final piece of the jigsaw was the manner of the packaging and delivery of these Australian wines to the wine market.

This was done by brands, very clear, obvious and well thought out brands like Wolf Blass, Penfolds and above all Jacobs Creek.

Brands had been tried in wine already so the Australians knew consumers would understand it, Black Tower and Blue Nun had sent to that, but if you could put highly attractive wine behind these brands you would sweep all before you.

Which is what happened.

The period from then until today is Australia’s high water mark, or rather the period until the so called critter or creature wines arrived may come to be seen as Australia’s high water mark.

During the good times, wine became to be seen as the golden passport to export and business triumph in Australia.

Ghost Vineyards

Depressingly something almost exactly like our recent housing and building madness overtook Australia.

New Vineyards became the 48-luxury-house-development at the edge of every bend in the road that we have endured. There were siren voices of warning in Australia too, asking where all this new wine was going to go. No one listened.

“They started planting anywhere they could get a shovel in the ground. It was madness. You need a certain type of soil, the right location, the slope, the climate, a whole range of things. And think about it, we hadn’t been sitting still before this, the good sites were already planted.” Says David Powell of Torbreck Winery.

In the always exciting setting of Croke Park, the annual Australian Wine Fair took place last week and drew huge crowds and a sizable contingent of Australia’s most famous wine makers and wine companies.

Leading the VIP pack however was Phil Laffer, Chief Winemaker for Jacobs Creek and indeed the entire Orlando Wyndham Group as it is now known. Laffer, Australian Winemaker of the year in 2002 has held a variety of positions within the Orlando Wyndham winery group, but heading Jacobs Creek during last couple of decades has been perhaps his most important role.

Laffer is 70 this year and shows little evidence of slowing down, but was accompanied by his anointed successor Bernard Hickin, a rising star in Australia’s packed sky of innovative and influential winemakers. Hickin has also been with the winery group for most of his professional career having joined in 1976.

One thing that struck me was despite all the corporate changes that go on in the Australian wine business, the underlying bedrock of the staff and the soils tends thankfully to remain reasonably constant.

What made Australia attractive to large companies, was that it offered limitless opportunities to buy grapes, cross regionally if you wanted and that was the kind of bulk that was needed to build a brand that could fill shelves on every wine shop and supermarket on the planet, weekly.

All you have to do is be meticulous in your planning, sample endlessly in the run up to harvest and pull wine in from across the entire vast country.

However, if you wanted year on year growth, even the resources of Australia in 1980 were not enough, you needed, so it seemed endless new vineyards to buy your wine or grapes from. It was this potent combination of the availability of big corporate money, and huge and ever growing markets meant that many Australians saw vineyards as new goldmines.

The Australian government backed this enthusiasm and the boom began.

No one cried halt and asked what if the day came when there was not double digit growth in the demand for wine year on year, which has been the case until 2007. Or what would happen to all these new marginal often desert based vineyards if there were multi year droughts.

All this came to pass. They overbuilt, its not a sin, nor unforgivable, we did ourselves here with houses.

In Australia today thousands of vineyard owners are leaving or abandoning their farms, unable to sell their grapes at any reasonable price, producing Ghost Vineyards.

For the high quality wineries, while they are not immune to the downturn, it has also brought a noticeable increase in quality. The best brands have retreated to their core regional sources, with better grapes available to buy at lower prices and the quality has steadily over the last four or so years.

It is somewhat ironic that anyone should be worried about the Australian wine industry when in fact the big well known brands are going through a taste renaissance.

Jacobs Creek however had already taken this different path, over a decade ago.

Its external purchaser, was Pernod Ricard, the massive French multinational, which actually understood clearly the differences between wine and beer or spirits. They adopted a different strategy to many other Australian brands and Phil Laffer has been at its heart.

They knew that as the leading brand in wine in the UK and Ireland for example, the real value was to use this trusted brand to bring their wine consumers on a journey, upmarket and happily up in price with them.

They began as a mass market brand then opened up the door to a reserve range, then new varieties and so on, pulling their loyal clientele with them. It was a revolutionary idea in the wine business.

Crucial to this strategy as having Laffer, incrementally increasing the quality of the wines across the range.

“You have to be very disciplined when working for a huge brand of wines like Jacobs Creek, you have to make slow subtle changes because the consumers want the familiar taste each time, that’s what brands can do, give you the confidence of consistency. But if you are disciplined you can push ahead slowly and bring them with you” says Laffer.

“Then when you introduce a Reserve Wine at a slightly higher price or introduce a sparkling wine with the Jacobs Creek label, people will trust you and explore it, thankfully they did in numbers.

The Jacobs Creek move upmarket has been a triumph in sales terms and also in pointing the way forward for Australia’s mass wine market.

New Regionalism

“Our next development is regional” says Laffer “ We have chosen the three most important regions for each type of wine and are hoping to showcase the varietal character from each of these regions, The Barossa for our Shiraz of course, Coonawarra for our cabernet Sauvignon and Adelaide Hills for our Chardonnay.”

In a somewhat similar position to ourselves right now, if you are cash rich, or still have the financial clout to extract a loan, now is the time to be snapping up property bargains. Amassing land banks over a decade of record prices was insanity, picking up gems now will likely be seen in decades to come as highly foresighted.

Picking up vineyards and great fruit, from well sited vineyards while the rest of the industry is pulling their hair out, offering better wines, at less than basement prices is a huge thumbs up for the future of Australian wine.

Australia is almost ready to offer wine lovers terroir driven wines, though they insist on calling it regionalism, at prices that are going to make France and Spain wilt once again.

The Jacobs Creek Wine Map

Jacobs Creek Sparkling Rose NV (88) around €14.99 On sale in Superquinn at €12 until June 12th

Jacob’s Creek Brut Cuvee Chardonnay Pinot Noir (88) around €13.99

Jacob’s Creek, Blanc De Blancs, Brut Cuvee, NV (89) around €14.99

Jacobs Creek Classic Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (86) around €9.99

Jacobs Creek Classic Chardonnay 2007 (87) around €9.99

Jacobs Creek Shiraz Cabernet 2006 (88) around €9.99

Jacobs Creek Reserve Shiraz 2006 (89) around €12

Jacobs Creek Reserve Chardonnay (89) around €12

Coming Shortly – This Summer

Jacobs Creek Classic Pinot Grigio 2009 (87) around €10

Jacobs Creek Classic Sauvignon Blanc 2009 (88) around €10

-These two white wines are both varietal correct, the Pinot Grigio is piquant and crisp, though somewhat lean. The Sauvignon Blanc is determinedly not a New Zealand tropical fruit offering, it is more lime and mineraly orientated, a little more Loire in fact, but might be a touch flat for some Sauvignon Blanc devotees. Both share a very chic, low alcohol level, of around 11%, which is a welcome trend away from unbalanced showy blockbuster styles.

Coming This Autumn

Jacobs Creek Reserve Barossa Shiraz  2007 (89) around €12.95

Jacobs Creek Reserve Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon (90) 2008 around €12.95

Jacobs Creek Reserve Adelaide Hills Chardonnay (89) 2009 around €12.95

These are a highly accomplished, expressive set of wines, and for the price they represent outstanding value. We will review them fully when they arrive in the autumn but the Cabernet Sauvignon in a blind tasting feels like a balanced, savoury €30 boutique Barossa offering.

Wines are available at O’Briens Wines Shops nationwide and online at, O’Donovans Off Licences, throughout Cork City and County; Superquinn Supermarkets nationwide; The Vintry Cases 102 Rathgar  Road, Dublin 6; Tesco Supermarkets nationwide and most good off licences and wine shops.