Warning: positive changes ahead

by Cassandra Charlick

I should have known as, after all, I was warned by countless people before my arrival. However, none of the words from others could have prepared me for the three days that awaited me once the plane hit the tarmac at the Mildura airport.

I’d had the dates highlighted in my diary with excitement since receiving the email earlier in the year with the news that I had been awarded the 2023 Fellowship. What I wasn’t expecting was the equal level of excitement that was displayed at any mention of my upcoming trip to the Alternative Varieties Wine Show. “It’s the best wine show in Australia”, “You’ll LOVE it in Mildura”, “You’ll have the best time, it’s the show with the best people”. Best. Best. Best. If there’s a best-in-show prize for a show, the AAVAS certainly seemed to have the blue ribbon nailed.

Expectations were high, yet by the time I arrived back on that tarmac after three days in Mildura, my expectations had been beyond exceeded.

The AAVWS is one of Australia’s most exciting wine shows, providing an insight into the future of Australian wine and the varieties we have and will see make their way into mainstream Australian wine culture. It’s more than a wine show. It’s an incubus for change-making and learning, where curiosity thrives, and egos are not just left at the door; they simply aren’t invited.

With almost 800 entries, a multitude of delicious wines and some classes with almost all wines taking home a medal; this is without a doubt Australia’s most exciting and varied wine show. Chief Judge Leanne Altmann put it beautifully. “We can only go on the hallmarks of quality as there is so much diversity. Different regions and varieties from all around Australia tasted blind. I see my role as a style coach rather than initially judging from a technical standpoint. It’s usually the other way around at wine shows.”

“Learning” is the word I heard come out of every single person’s mouth during my time here. Every judge, every winemaker, every viticulturist, every writer, and all those other important roles that play a part in the industry. We are all here to learn. We are all discovering and experimenting. “I love coming here as I always learn something”, shares Max Allen, and that’s after he’s written a book on the subject. (It’s a great book by the way, you should buy it)

The thing about learning, is that it unifies and equalises. When you are all in the same boat, there’s no point in pretending to know something you don’t know. The ego cannot exist alongside a mindset that is primed to learn.

Panel discussions, poolside chats, dinnertime conversations, neighbourhood strolls, winery visits and coffee breaks. At every opportunity to converse; judges, committee members, winemakers, viticulturalists and the Mildura community were talking and tasting. No one and no topic was out of bounds; who knows what might spring from ideas sparked, questions raised and solutions suggested over the course of the show.  

This year, the Provenance class was adrenalin-inducing; 45 gold medals were awarded across all classes, and the Fiano class was so large it had to be split across two panels. Every year, the show is different, as “alternative” varieties outgrow the show to become “mainstream” varieties; it reflects the changes occurring in the Australian wine landscape and where the future is heading. This is where we first see varieties that lend themselves to our lifestyle. Our climate. Our eating and drinking habits. The AAVWS is responsible for documenting and driving the natural evolution of the Australian wine identity, and I can’t wait to see where it goes.

And, of course, it would be remiss to ignore the importance of place. The AAVWS is not the Mildura Wine Show, yet it is held in Mildura, on the banks of the Murray River, in a town with a deeply etched agricultural history. The streets stretch out in a grid-like fashion along the river, dotted with Jacarandas in bloom and peppered with historical landmarks. How ironic that the nation’s most exciting wine show is held on the red sandy loams of what was formerly a temperance town.

As the 2023 fellow, I was lucky to spend time exploring Mildura and learning more about the region, its history, and its evolution to the present day. I began each morning with a run along the banks of the Murray River, and as the sun warmed the dew-carpeted grassy banks, it was evident that this is a way that many locals also start their day. Dotted with riverboats, the river is the heart of the city, and over the course of a day tour with Alison from Discover Mildura, I learnt that there is plenty to explore around the city and the region surrounding it. 

Growing up on a dried vine fruit property, Alison had a wealth of both first-hand knowledge and researched information to share with me as we zig-zagged over the river and the NSW state border that the Murray snakes along. We visited fruit producers, the Murray Darling Basin aquifers where Murray River Salt is harvested, the Australian Inland Botanic Gardens (the first community-created and operated semi-arid botanic garden in the southern hemisphere), historic architectural sites, street art, Mildura wineries and a handful of the fantastic eateries that represent the city’s multicultural nature. Mildura truly has the food-centric traveller looked after, and it would be easy to spend days fuelling up on local produce. The Great Australian Vanilla Slice Triumph is held in August just ten minutes from Mildura in the town of Merbein and is a highlight on the calendar of sweet-toothed locals. There’s a rich artistic community here, too, and in 2024, Mildura and nearby Wentworth will welcome two large-scale multi-sensory immersive light installations by artist, Bruce Munro.

Any wine show is a reflection of the place and its people; in fact, it could argued that just as a wine’s identity is formed from its terroir, so are wine shows. The regional community of Mildura and the wine industry individuals who are a part of the AAVWS are unlike any other, pulled together from around the country by a common interest and purpose.

I’ve been humbled by the generosity of spirit, the sharing of knowledge and connections of this show and community. It has fundamentally changed the way I and others understand “Australian wine”, that vast term that is used to label viticultural and winemaking efforts over a continent that is 7.688 million km² with no indigenous grape varieties. These people and their work are creating the future of Australian wine. It’s a pivotal point in our journey growing grapes and producing wine from the land. Not imposing on country, but working with it. We have an exciting future ahead, and I am counting the days until I’m back on that tarmac in Mildura.

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Changing the World

“The massive impact the AAVWS has had on wine production and consumption in Australia over the last 15 years is now flowing overseas as alternative varieties breathe new life into the UK market and add colour and excitement to the Australian offering.”