Best New Wines from Australia

While many American wine lovers understandably believe that all this sprawling wine-growing region produces are critter wines in big bottles, there are signs that upper-tier Aussie wines have begun to gain a foothold in the U.S. market.  That has happened before, of course, but back in the late 1990s and early-to-mid-2000s Australia's vinous reputation was based on high-octane, super-fruity Xtreme wines that often tasted like nothing so much as gussied-up versions of their sweet, high-alcohol wine cousins.  The market turned its back on those wines with a vengeance, and, sad to say, many Yankee wine geeks threw the whole Australian wine industry under the proverbial bus with the unwanted critters and ooze monsters.

Fortunately, a handful of American importers, mainly those who represent Australia's most iconic wineries, stuck it out, usually with fewer offerings as inventories had to be kept tight during the market turmoil.  In addition, some intrepid new importers saw an opening that was created by the massive drop-off in boutique winery sales (keep in mind that most small-production Aussie wine available here during the 1998-2006 period was of the gloppy sort) and moved to represent producers of more elegant--dare I say "European"-influenced--wines.

Those wines appear to be gaining traction among open-minded American wholesalers, sommeliers and retailers, who in many cases are just now having their eyes opened to the vast range of wine styles that Australia produces.  The fact is that many of the country's best vineyards sit near an ocean or atop a mountain, and those vineyards, by and large, range from cool to very cool.  Wines produced in such conditions have more in common with wines from continental Europe than those from the sun-baked plains of South Australia or the Barossa Valley.  It also happens that many of the country's most talented and experienced winemakers ply their craft in those cooler regions.

This isn't to say that the best producers in familiar regions like the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale are just cranking out big ol' shirazes and butterscotchy chardonnays.  The vast majority of red wines from South Australia that I tasted over the last few months manage their often high alcohol levels with aplomb. (These are, generally speaking, warm regions and ripeness, even superripeness, is a given.)

I have also noticed much less overt oak influence, especially of the American sort, in recent years, which is all to the better.  Of course, traditional wineries whose wines didn't stray from the classical style during those dark days of excessive oak and alcohol are beneficiaries of the resurgence in interest in Australian wine.  They stuck to their guns, and they're having the last laugh now: there aren't many Australian wines in the U.S. that fit the Xtreme stereotype anymore. Here's a great example of the observation that markets move in cyclical fashion.

Current vintages. Two thousand eleven is one of those vintages that producers across the vast southern stretch of Australia (i.e., the sweet spot of Barossa, Victoria, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills and so forth) would like to forget as quickly as possible.  It was cool and wet across the southern regions, with rainfall amounting to roughly four times the annual average.  Flooding of flatter vineyards was rampant and so, predictably, was rot and mildew--and, as the weather warmed up, botrytis kicked in, especially in the Barossa, where it's pretty much always hot.  The cool weather meant that the red grapes on which South Australia's wine industry depends struggled to ripen and many simply never did.  Needless to say, sorting was paramount and in many cases came down to a grape-by-grape selection process.  As I've often noted, a situation like this favors the deep-pocketed and well-staffed producers more than ever, as they are better equipped to have as many hands on deck as possible and can also absorb the added expenses and losses that result from severe selection and limited production.

The upside of 2011 is that the best wines are perfumed and notably elegant in style, with soft tannins and higher-than-normal acidity levels making them fresh and easy to drink now.  And drinking them now is, for the most part, what I'd be doing.  White grapes fared better, generally, in 2011 than the reds.  But the cool, wet weather put a damper on fruit maturity, so the best chardonnays will be fresh and tangy but lacking in concentration and mid-palate depth and complexity.  High-altitude vineyards planted to cool-climate varieties, especially riesling, seem to have fared best.

Western Australia and the Margaret River in particular enjoyed far better circumstances in '11 than their colleagues to the east.  The growing season was dry and temperatures stayed slightly above normal through harvest, which resulted in a large crop of high-quality wines with strong grape sugars as well as healthy acidity levels.  The absence of heat spikes kept tannin levels moderate so the red wines tend to be classically structured, showing a suave interplay of fruitiness, acidity and structure and the requisite balance to age.  Unfortunately, as many people still fail to grasp just how much real estate separates the vineyards of Western Australia from those of South Australia and Victoria (it's over 2,000 miles from Perth to the Yarra Valley), it's inevitable that these wines will be ignored by too many consumers who think that all Australian wine regions suffered from bad luck in 2011.

Happily, Nature dealt all of Australia a favorable hand in 2012.  The vineyards' water supplies were topped up a bit, after years of drought, by the deluge of 2011, for starters.  The growing season started off cool, setting the stage for a short crop, and the weather remained moderate, with welcome and timely rains, through the harvest.  Fruit quality was quite high across the board but yields were low, albeit for very different reasons than in 2011. 

Producers in the Barossa and McLaren Vale are thrilled with their results, if not their production levels, and a number of them consider 2012 to be one of the better vintages of the last decade, producing wines with lively acidity, assertive fruit and well-integrated tannins than will provide the structure for aging.  They're also mostly wines that show well now, as they don't generally possess the forbidding tannins or sheer mass of fruit one finds in bottles from hotter years in these parts.

Victoria was particularly successful in 2012, especially in the blue-chip Yarra Valley, where the pinots and syrahs look awfully attractive, with vibrant fruit and floral character and lively personalities.  Unfortunately, the best wines are bound to be in short supply, especially given pent-up demand in the local market and Asia, which are both voracious consumers of Australia's most prestigious bottlings.

Growers in the west also came out well, with a larger than normal crop of healthy fruit due to a long, warm season.  I've only had a chance to look at a few 2012 red wines from the area but I suspect that they will mostly provide good immediate to mid-term appeal thanks to lower than normal acidity levels and relatively soft tannins.

Market reality check.  The hard truth is that many of Australia's very best wines have developed cult followings at home and, increasingly, abroad.  While I'm sure that many readers will raise their eyebrows at the prices asked for many of the small-production wines reviewed here (I know that I did more than once), the fact is that those wineries in many cases are leaving money on the table when they commence work with American importers.  It would be far easier, not to mention more profitable, simply to sell the wines at home, where customers are quite literally lining up at the properties on release days to pick up their allocations and beg for another bottle or two.  And many top producers whose wines were available here in recent years have done just that.  In fact, more than a few cult-ish Aussie wines are cheaper here than they are in the secondary market at home.  We're fortunate to have many of Australia's very best and rarest wines available to us now, but expecting them to be cheap is no more fair than a Melbournite assuming the same for wines from Sine Qua Non, Saxum or any other locked-up mailing list producer from California.