We’ve had more than our fair share of Australians that, despite all the not so always friendly rivalry between the two countries, we have taken to our hearts in the UK. From Dame Edna to Kylie via Paul Hogan and Olivia Newton-John there is often more that connects than divides us. Other than when cricket bats or rugby balls are in our respective hands. But it also goes the other way and in the world of wine there is one Brit that can justifiably claim to be an Honorary Australian. Wine critic Matthew Jukes, who for the last 15 years has helped highlight, showcase and promote what Australian wine can do in his annual 100 Best Australian Wines report.
There are now a whole stream of dedicated country reports and tasting analysis of major wine countries and regions by the world’s leading wine critics. But Matthew Jukes has always looked to take his 100 Best Australian Wines report to the next level by taking the wines out to consumers up and down the country with a host of tastings, masterclasses and events that now stretch into the US and China.
If you did a quick straw poll of leading importers, wine buyers, sommeliers and restaurateurs and asked them who they thought had done the most in recent years to put premium Australian wines on the map, you would expect them to come up with a list of famous winemakers, producers and iconic wines.
But making the wine and selling it into the trade is only half the story. For a wine to really fly, and have a life beyond what is in the bottle, particularly a premium wine, you need to rely on respected commentators with a strong band of followers.
How wineries influence their market is a hard task, even more so for a country like Australia which is still the other side of the planet, no matter how much social media, and the internet has helped make the world a much smaller place.
Thankfully for the premium Australian wine sector it has been fortunate enough to have someone who has single handedly made it his mission to put the best of what Australia can offer down the throats of as many potential wine drinkers as is humanely possible for one person to do. Even for someone with the dynamism, drive and seemingly never ending Duracell bunny qualities of wine writer, critic and founder of 100 Best Australian Wines, Matthew Jukes.
Yes, arguably Australia’s greatest wine ambassador does not come from the Hunter Valley, or Adelaide Hills, but resides, surrounded by 100s of bottles of wine samples, just of St John’s Hill in Battersea, London.
Jukes’ annual 100 Best Australian Wines report is now into it fifteenth year. Over the previous 14 it has become the benchmark for the best that Australia can offer, not just for the good folk of the UK, but in more countries around the world where Jukes is able to personally promote them. During that time Jukes has been able to include no less than 242 different Australian wineries.
But why Australia? Of all the countries in the world, why the fascination with Australian wines? Well, for Jukes it’s not just about what’s in the glass.
“They are just such great people and are so generous with their time and knowledge. They make you feel special when you visit. They also have a great ability to explain their wines in such great detail. They talk about the flavours and the styles in a way that helps you get into it. It’s not just talking about the terroir like in parts of the Old World and just leaving it that,” explains Jukes.
In fact, he finds so much of the Old World cut off to inquisitive minds like his own. “It’s like it’s all a secret,” he says. “If you ask some producers why they have made a wine in a certain way, they will just say it is what they do. But how does that help me understand them?”
Jukes spends an inordinate amount of his year analysing, writing, travelling, tasting and talking about Australian wine. In fact, he tastes around 3,500 Australian wines a year just to get to his 100 Best.
But, to some degree, that is only the starting point. For there would be no point in going to the trouble of doing all that if you did not then put in even more work to go out and promote and showcase the wines you have personally selected, says Jukes.
Last year’s 100 Best Australian Wine Roadshow was the biggest and most successful yet. Between October 2017 and April 2018 Jukes managed to pour and talk about Australian wine to some 2,400 wine drinkers across 10 cities in the UK. Each of these consumers paid to attend his events, hosted by leading independent wine merchants across the country. Providing a good commercial opportunity for the merchants at the same time, because Jukes allows them to use the ticket price to pay for great venues and also promote the tasting to their customer base.
Around the world
But Jukes is not just content with bringing the Australian wine story to the UK, he has also worked hard to take his 100 Best to other countries, hosting major tastings and events in Australia , New York and China, too.
Jukes first went to China in November 2016 with a major launch tasting. He says he was blown away by the passion and the excitement that the Chinese showed for the wines.
“I held the event in the Canton Tower in Guangzhou and had some 250 guests and five film crews turned up. We were able to show them 30 wines and some of the Australian winemakers came over in person to take part. It was a very serious tasting. There is such an interest there from the press and lifestyle media as well,” he says.
What the Chinese particularly like, he adds, is that they have “someone who is able to narrow the enormous choice down for them”. Particularly now that Australia is such an enormous wine category in China thanks to its Free Trade Agreement.
Jukes, not surprisingly, sees enormous potential to grow the 100 Best Australian brand in China and is looking to return there later this year for further major tastings in Guangzhou and Beijing.
“The real fine wine market is still very much dominated by Hong Kong, whereas mainland China is the high street for every day wines, which is what the main thrust of 100 Best is all about. We have wines that go from every day prices right through to the super premium,” he says.
“I am able to provide for them a snapshot of what is epic in Australia and why it should be important to them.”
He is now looking to do the same in key cities such as New York. Markets that may not have had the chance to see such quality wine from Australia before.
Again it is also a big learning opportunity for himself to spend time with key influential figures in the New York restaurant scene.
For all the public appearances, Jukes’ day job is tasting and writing. It’s why he spends a lot of time not just writing his 100 Best report, but looking to introduce new ways to make it as practical and useful for readers to use and, most importantly, connect with the producers and their wines.
The guides have come a long way from the one page of A4 with 50 wines on one side and 50 on the back. They are all now produced as dedicated brochures both in print and digitally so that people can access and download them online.
Jukes has invested the time and functionality to also now include hyperlinks to winery websites and where the individual wines listed can be bought. The report can be opened in Adobe, so readers can also use the guides to make their own notes and personalise their entries online.
“I am interested in introducing people to great wines, but I also want to them to know where they can buy them as well,” he says.
The 100 Best report now also includes a full analysis and overview of the findings as well as tasting notes and comments on each of the producers that make the list.
“How the report is delivered is part of how it has developed. Now when I go around the country it is clear how much more aware and knowledgeable people are about the wines and the producers,” claims Jukes. “I don’t think we give the average wine drinker enough credit for their palates and what they know. Some of my Daily Mail readers are off the scale involved in what they know about wine. Wherever I go people are just so keen to ask questions and find out more.
Strong sommelier community
It’s not just with the wine buying public that Jukes hopes he can make a difference with his 100 Best. He’s also built up a strong, engaged and growing community of leading sommeliers right around the country.
Every year Jukes also holds special sommelier lunches where he brings together a group of top sommeliers to taste the wines, compare notes and discuss them over lunch. He hosts these events in London and Edinburgh.
“I personally invite who I see are the heroes of the sommelier scene and give them the chance to do a deep dive into Australian wine,” he says. “We also get to see how the wines perform against different dishes. There are no sales people there, no reps. Just me, the wines and the sommeliers.”
It’s also a great opportunity for Jukes to find out first hand how Australian wine is doing against other countries in their respective restaurants around the country. “It’s a really collaborative and friendly event,” he adds. “We all leave like best mates.”
Jukes hopes these lunches play a part in slowly changing how leading restaurants consider premium Australian wine. “It’s also a way of showing some great wines to people who have given me great service over the year,” he says. “These people are the heroes of the restaurant industry.”
It is also a great way to be able to show the amazing quality there is in Australian wine to the premium restaurant scene. “There are so many sub £20 Australian wines that taste like a £50 plus wine from somewhere else,” stresses Jukes.
He says he particularly enjoys going to Edinburgh for although the fine dining scene is relatively small compared to other cities the “sommelier community” and “knowledge of wine is incredible”. “They can talk in depth and clearly love of all styles of wine.”
How Australia has changed
Tasting so many Australian wines ever year for so long means Jukes is as well placed as anyone to assess how the styles of wines have changed over the years or what he sees as an “ever evolving and finessing of both style and quality”.
“Estates and vineyards which had already discovered their metier continue to bring more complexity and finesse to their wines. Others who are starting out on a new project attack it with gusto and accuracy. You never know what is coming next and this excitement sets it apart from many famous estates found in the Old World.”
He adds: “For ‘vintage style’ wines with complex flavours Australia is a destination simply because of the value for money. Australia already makes a series of iconic styles of wine. Fifteen years ago I would have had to list them for you, today you can list them because they area all genuinely famous and rewarding.”
“Adelaide Hills Chardonnay is kicking so many goals it is mind-blowing. Who would have thought that Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir would have gone from being a boutique, tourist treat to a globally serious destination for Pinot freaks? Cabernet’s renaissance, not just from Connawarra and Margaret River, but from Clare, Barossa, McLaren Vale is sensational.
“Hunter Semillon, Rutherglen Muscat, Clare Valley Riesling and many others besides are already iconic. Not to mention the insane variety of Shiraz grown in the whole country. I haven’t even mentioned the smaller, rarer varieties which Australia is seemingly making with ease and challenging Europe at its own time-honoured skills and often at much lower prices. It is all amazing.”
Where next for Australia?
Jukes says the country clearly has the wines, the challenge is to get more people to know about them. “The only thing that Australia needs to do is pour its wines for people who are interested. It is not rocket science. As a country it used to do this very well. I am 32 years in the wine business so I learned this from the hero Aussie winemakers who some of us remember well. They are my inspiration for taking the wine to the people.”
And if he had to pick out one style of wine for a desert island? “Adelaide Hills Chardonnay – I truly think that the best wines don’t just stack up to Burgundy, but often blow the wines away.”
But this is the week that marks the start of Jukes’ fifteenth year of his very own Australian merry-go-round with the unveiling of his latest 100 Best Australian Wines and an exclusive, invite only, tasting at Australia House on May 30. There is a press tasting 4pm-6pm followed by a wider trade tasting from 6pm to 8pm. But please note invitation only.
Or you can, from May 30, download a copy of the report at his website.