I only came across the Monty Python Aussie wine sketch when I was compiling a wine-themed Spotify playlist when I started writing for these sites. Like a lot of mid-to-late-twentieth-century comedy, the joke is instantly recognizable but the execution seems a touch too spiteful and ignorant to be thought of as affectionate jibing. Only the very close cultural ties between the UK and Australia (and shared sense of humour) prevent it from sounding downright racist. And what prevents it being really funny – at least nowadays – is that the received wisdom upon which the sketch was based is not the received wisdom that informs our image of Australian wine today; you’d have to be a middle-aged person with a longstanding interest in wine to really remember a time when Aussie wine was a joke, even if it’s not your favourite tipple.
Lengthy preamble over, I came across this BBC documentary on iPlayer recently and thought I ought to flag it up as worth a watch. It could easily have passed me by, and no doubt many others with an interest in wine, wine history and wine marketing.
The hour-long piece is a nicely executed affair with historical footage of twentieth century Australia that really reminds you how young the nation – let alone its wine industry – really is. It moves from the wily frontier winemakers who dared plant the grapes in a very grain-oriented culture to the days of persuasion – the trials of finding markets abroad and at home – finally onto the boom and (not quite) bust of recent decades. New World wine in general has trod this path and the basics of the story are familiar to anyone who’s sat down in front of a lengthy Wikipedia page or taken the beginners’ WSET classes – or even had a wine-tasting afternoon at Majestic or any other given store.
But there’s a convincing argument that Australia’s role is singular, and that the marketing aspect makes an intriguing and oddly heartwarming modern narrative. The nation’s three-step journey – from wine joke, to Old-World alternative upstart, to a thoroughly modern equal to the terroir-obsessed “ancient” vineyards of France – has happened so fast you could have missed it if you were looking the other way (at beer, or er… chess, for example). When the documentary touches on the big business dilution of the Australian wine dream it gets really interesting. Because I – in my youthful (ahem) ignorance – sort of assumed Australia’s approach to wine began with big business. But seeing it recorded here the obvious now becomes clear – that big business jumped on the bandwagon (and almost crushed it) following years, nay decades, of hard work by dedicated families of true wine enthusiasts.
There are plenty of talking heads along the way too – stuffy self-consciously backward French winemakers, forgettable but pleasant enough old male wine buyers recounting their suspicion of the antipodean invasion, and wine “celebs” like Oz Clarke, Jancis Robinson, Robert Parker Jr, Jilly Goolden and co. It’s interesting to note how edgy and influential these familiar faces were, when the temptation – mine, I admit – is to see them as stuffy effigies of the elitism that keeps ordinary people from enjoying and learning about wine. The latter in particular enthuses about her own contribution to the democratization of wine enjoyment, insisting that nobody in the world talked about wine in a way that normal people could understand before her. Which isn’t my own recalled version of events from childhood, I must confess, but I always admired her enthusiasm.
I had no idea what she was on about, but I never really drank wine until I left home. Neither of my parents drank it then, for whatever reason, so when I came to wine I came most often to cheap Australian wine. My first loves were big ball-busting Australian Shiraz, and the “sunshine in a bottle” Chardonnay forever tainted (as mentioned herein) by Bridget Jones and an un-named “footballer’s wife”. Despite the glut of cheap crap posing is both – whose inferiority soon becomes obvious even to the amateur drinker – both still hold a very special place in my heart.
Chateau Chunder is up on iPlayer for a good few weeks yet. Watch it. It’s an eye-opener.