There’s no shortage of skill or expertise in Australia’s wine industry – perhaps now more than ever. From winemakers to sommeliers and top-notch floor staff, the Australian diner is blessed with both a selection of brilliant drops and second-to-none service in the dining room.
It’s an exciting time to be making or selling wine in Australia, and here we chat to three leading ladies in wine, who share their insights on the biggest trends they’re witnessing in the sector at the moment.
1. Cheers to the women!
The tide is turning and not only are more women entering the wine industry, whether it be as winemakers or sommeliers, they’re also having their successes rewarded and celebrated.
Alice Massaria, who reins from Vicenza, Italy, and worked as a sommelier at leading Sydney establishments including Uccello, Mr Wong and Saint Peter before establishing her own
consultancy business, Wine Concept, said women have always been working away in the world of wine, but now they’re developing the confidence to step up and be recognised.
“It’s always been a male dominant industry, but women have always been there, just kind of hiding or being put in second place. But yes, for sure there are many more women in the industry now, from hospitality to wineries, to judging and writing,” she said.
Massaria, who recently compiled the wine list at the recently opened Bistecca in Sydney, added that the general public’s growing awareness of gender imbalances and the need for change has prompted more women to back themselves in the workforce.
“People have started to talk openly about these issues, and that’s empowered more women to feel confident to pave their own way, work hard and be part of this incredible industry,” she said.
Gabrielle Webster, head sommelier at Icebergs, can’t recall a time when women have taken such a leading role in hospitality. While recruitment is a challenge (the skills shortage isn’t contained to back of house), there are more and more women pursuing a career in wine.
“For the first time, women are leading the charge. There are more women in head sommelier roles than ever before. Me, Shantae Wong at Quay, Pip Anderson at Mona, Caitlyn Rees at Fred’s, Brittney Villafane at Chiswick, Bridgette Raffal at Sixpenny, Marie Canto at the Dolphin … With such incredible women finally getting the jobs they deserve, of course others will follow their lead,” she said.
2. Sophisticated drinkers
What’s gotten sommeliers most exciting in recent times, however, has been the stimulation provided by increasingly knowledgeable and sophisticated diners. They’re keen to learn more about what they’re drinking, where it came from, how it was produced and by who, and they’re absolutely willing to venture out and try something unfamiliar to them, giving somms the chance to really strut their stuff.
“I have to say, our clientele at Bistecca has been awesome – incredibly curious, friendly and open to discovering new wines,” Massaria said. “People are ready to be taken on a different journey each [time they come], and nowadays I can see that customers are a bit more adventurous and are happy to discover new things and be guided to unknown regions and varieties.”
Massaria added that new and old world wine styles are moving closer to each other, and that while Sydney CBD drinkers still show interest, there’s definitely a step back from big, oaky, rich and overripe wines. Instead, consumers are leaning towards lighter and more refined styles.
Webster agrees that Australians are becoming more and more wine-savvy.
“I remember a time when trying to sell orange wine was super hard. Now people ask for it, and our guests want Jura wine, for example. It’s amazing! I’m finding it easier to sell the breadth of the wine list than ever before. In the past I would list thing purely for hospo people, but now regular guests are drinking those lines. It’s really awesome,” she said.
Chardonnay is back, Webster confirms. And while big reds “are still a thing”, she’s seeing more of an interest in varietals such as Chenin Blanc and Gamay, proving that diners are looking beyond the traditionally popular varietals when perusing the list.
3. Green and clean (but what does it mean?)
It’s unanimous. The trend making the biggest mark in Australia’s wine industry is the growing interest in sustainable/natural/organic/biodynamic wines. It’s quite the minefield, and most diners aren’t across the nuances of each production style, Webster said.
“It’s the question of my career. I truly believe in organic and biodynamic farming; I’ve been an advocate from the start. [But] at Icebergs I don’t even bring it up. It should be the norm. I find if you bring up the fact the wine has been farmed organically – my guests will liken it to some stupid experience they have had in the past. Simply put, some of the best vineyards in the world are farmed organically. It should just be how we drink. We shouldn’t need to point it out.”
Regardless, diners are keen to know more about the difference between the various production styles. Massaria argues that interest in these wines has become so strong it now borders on mainstream.
“My wine list is made up mostly of organic, biodynamic, low intervention and natural wines, not because it’s cool at the moment but because after working in wineries, I realised it’s the right approach to making wine.
“It’s great to see so many winemakers following the low-intervention approach, where vineyards are the most important part of the whole winemaking process. Healthy vines, no chemicals, numerous hours spent in the vineyards and hard work will deliver the best fruits. When healthy fruits get to the winery, then the job is almost done,” she said.
Irina Santiago-Brown operates McLaren Vale’s Inkwell Wines with her husband Dudley,
producing modern, alternative wines from sustainably produced grape growing practices. Armed with a Masters of Viticulture from the University of Adelaide and a PhD in sustainability in viticulture, Santiago-Brown says that while there is growing interest in sustainable products and practices, the average diner is still very ignorant of what the term actually encompasses.
“Most people will say they want a sustainable wine but they can’t really elaborate on what sustainable practices they value. And consumers everywhere try to purchase products paying as little as possible. Is this sustainable for the producer? Can the producer engage in sustainable practices if they are not being paid enough for their grapes, for instance?
“When we’re talking about sustainability, we are talking about sustainability of who? The world? The producer? The winemaking processor? Are we only talking about the environment? Sustainability is much more than that. Do we care about the people that work in the vineyards?” she said.
But we need to start somewhere, Santiago-Brown concedes, and the public’s curiosity about sustainably produced wines is a promising sign. A key problem, however, is that diners are confused about the difference between the various production methods – some of which can be certified by an independent body while others are more open to interpretation.
“In my view, organics and biodynamics are much more related to the way we farm; the way we grow our grapes. There is a standard and there are products that are or are not allowed to be used. Organic grapes don’t use synthetic products, and biodynamic grapes have the additional requirement of the biodynamic preparations on the crop and soil,” Santiago-Brown said.
Natural winemaking, however, has more to do with the process, and relates to another term popping up more and more on wine lists – low-intervention. Ideally, she said, natural wines should be made from organic and biodynamic grapes.
“Natural winemaking should be about making wines without adding any sort of yeast (only wild fermented) or any sort of products to correct and/or make the wine more stable, such as addition of acid, when the pH is too high. I’m saying ‘it should be’ because there is no official standard for natural winemaking in Australia or the world. We all have an opinion, but there isn’t a consensus. So organic or biodynamic wines are not necessarily natural and natural wines are not necessarily organic or biodynamic.”
A key challenge for winemakers, sommeliers and service staff is being able to succinctly explain the intricacies of these production methods in the midst of service. And the best way to do this, Santiago-Brown said, is to ensure you have a good understanding yourself.
“Restaurants can help consumers to understand these differences and the meaning, lack of meaning and contradictions of these concepts by constantly being educated about them and trying to know more about the producers they chose to offer to their consumers.”