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Million-dollar project floats The Australian Ark

Published:  11 April, 2024

Australia’s viticultural and winemaking history has been writ large in a new three-volume book launched this week to the UK, named The Australia Ark, telling the stories of Australian wine from 1788 to the present day.

In terms of sheer endeavour the publication has been quite remarkable, with author Andrew Caillard MW describing it as an AU$1m project, running to some half a million words and 800 illustrations, having taken him 18 years to complete.

Running through just some of the themes covered in The Australian Ark at a presentation and tasting at Liberty Wines’ HQ in south London, Caillard described a still evolving industry. He said that the Robert Parker era of big wines “is well and truly over” and that “it is time for Australia to reset its story”.

He added: “The stories behind the wines are what really make fine wines… we should promote those stories, promote the successes and dynamism of our winemakers, which [in turn] encourages creativity.”

Over a tasting of Australian modern classics Caillard ran through just some of those stories which he has told, ranging from the foundations of the industry in the late 18th and early 19th century to the modern day.

These included the likely arrival of Chenin from South Africa’s Cape in 1821, the saving of the now iconic ‘Smart Vineyard’ Grenache vines in McLaren Vale by bathtub-fermenting Italian immigrants, the foundations for Hunter’s 200-year-old history of equally venerable Semillon vines, and the reason why Australia has the largest acreage of pre-Phylloxera vines in the world.

Of the here and now, Caillard professed the view that “the value we see in Australian wine now is just phenomenal”, with Liberty’s chair and co-host David Gleave MW adding, “I don’t think there is any country in the world that is more dynamic in winemaking terms than Australia”.

Asked by Harpers to elaborate more on pricing and value at the high end, and if there was still a ceiling for Australian wines, Caillard expressed the view that many of the world’s icon wines are very over-priced, adding “that’s not the Australian way of doing things”.

“Australians are very collaborative and warm and embracing, so closing out your audience by hiking up the prices I don’t think is necessarily the way to go.”

Caillard did allow, though, that if top Australian wines were underpriced, that would also turn off some potential buyers, saying: “We need to find a balance between expectations and value.”

However, Angus Hughson, founder of Winepilot and writer at Vinous, who was also present at the event, said he’d argue for more producers to have a super-cuvee of very limited wine, aiming for AU$1,000.

“We are too shy… and I think that is really holding the Australian category back,” he said.

Whether The Australian Ark helps raise wine lovers’ expectations and thus also spurs more winemakers on to produce a “five barrel, AU$1,000/£500 wine”, as Hughson argued for, remains to be seen. But the stories within are a welcome reminder of just how complex and historically rich this country’s winemaking industry is and has been.

The Australia Ark is about to land in the UK and will be available via Académie du Vin Library.