New Releases from Australia

Discussing recent vintages in Australia, even in general terms, could take multiple pages of this issue, such is the range of geography and climate—in short, terroir—of this continent. Attempting a Cliff’s Notes summary of Australia as a single wine-producing area would be akin to lumping southern California and Georgia into a single zone. But here goes anyway: Following the mixed 2003 harvest, which witnessed hot weather across most of the country’s regions, Australia has enjoyed two consecutive very good to outstanding vintages, with an abundance of wines from both years showing vivid fruit character and admirable balance.

The 2004 harvest was the largest to date; most reports suggest that the favored regions are the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, the two main hunting grounds for most shiraz lovers. Healthy winter and early spring conditions (featuring especially good rainfall) and a benign late spring and summer across the continent laid the groundwork for an excellent vintage. The growing season was as long as any in memory, and the harvest was dry and prolonged nearly everywhere. Yields were very high, particularly for shiraz, which was 43% above the level attained in 2003.

Then in 2005 production set yet another record, surpassing that of 2004 by 6%. Still, quality was high, and once again the Barossa area appears to have been especially successful, by all accounts bringing in grapes equal to, if not surpassing, those of 2004 in quality, and usually riper. According to veteran winemaker John Duval, Barossa 2005 combines the ripeness of 2003 and the balance of 2004. But by all accounts, 2005 was a strong vintage in virtually every important wine-producing area of Australia.

Drought conditions across Australia in 2003, particularly in the southeastern portion of the country, resulted in a smaller-than-normal crop, and many wines reflect the hot, dry conditions. Aside from wines produced in higher-altitude regions or those close to the ocean, most 2003s, white and red, will be best drunk on the young side while you wait for the more elegant 2004s and 2005s to mature.

Please keep in mind that the vast majority of wines I tasted for this year's coverage of Australia are brought in by a relatively small number of quality-conscious importers who generally work with the crème de la crème of Australian wineries. While a handful of cult producers and a few other top names are not imported to the U.S., and while some other top wines were not available to me this year, either because new vintages had not yet arrived in this country or because a couple of importers were unwilling to show their wines, I believe that this year's report represents a fairly comprehensive view of the high end of an enormous industry that is increasingly dominated by lower-end "beverage wines."

My tastings were exhilarating for a number of reasons, not least of which was seeing so many lovely, elegant pinot noirs. Thanks to wiser clonal selection (mostly Dijon versions, as has been the trend in Oregon) and vineyard selection (cooler vineyards, often at higher altitudes, which allow for longer growing seasons and thus better acid retention and brightness of fruit), I tasted more fresh, fruit-driven pinots with real varietal character than ever before. Clare Valley shiraz, typically made in a cooler and more elegant style than most of the better-known examples from Barossa and McLaren Vale, also showed very well in my recent tastings, especially examples from the hotter 2003 vintage, a year in which many wines from warmer regions reflected the vintage conditions a bit too strongly for my taste. Both 2004 and 2005 have produced excellent dry rieslings from Western Australia as well as from the Clare and Eden Valleys. Lovers of dry, focused versions of this variety owe it to themselves to check out what Australia can achieve, especially as more and more German and Alsace versions have headed down the more-bigger-richer path.

Hard-bitten Old World drinkers are really missing out by ignoring what’s going on in Australia today. Anybody who prizes exuberant, fleshy but focused red wines or bright, mineral-laced whites ought to shelve their preconceptions and at least nibble at the lower-priced versions of their favorite varieties. You'll enjoy the extent to which today’s Australian wine scene has left behind the excesses (shiraz) and shortcomings (chardonnay and pinot noir) that have plagued so many of these wines in recent years.

That's the rah-rah. Strongly mitigating the excitement over impressive harvests and more vibrant, characterful wines is a palpable sense of fear on the part of upper-tier producers and their importers over where Australian wine is heading. On one hand, the wines of small, quality-minded producers who seek to emphasize a real sense of place are available to wine lovers around the globe as never before. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of wine exported from Australia is mass-produced and intended to be nothing more than inoffensive and alcoholic. Some of the numbers reflecting the state of Australian wine production—and especially exports—are truly scary. To wit: The 2005 Deloitte Wine Industry Benchmarking Survey reported last month that the average price of wine exported from Australia in January of 2006 was down 33% since 2002. In January of this year the average price of wine leaving Australia was $3.78 Australian per liter (which means about $2.10 U.S. per bottle); in 2005, imports to the U.S. of Australian wine that would retail for $20+ fell by 41%, according to the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation. Further, according to U.S. importer Michele Anderson (The Wine Angel), there are over a billion liters of finished wine sitting in tanks across Australia (for those keeping score, that’s more than 110 million cases).

The fear gripping importers of higher-end, limited-production wines is that such a glut of dirt-cheap shiraz and chardonnay will engender a broad market perception that all Australian wine should be inexpensive, thus creating a major obstacle to persuading wine lovers that there is life after critter wines (the not-affectionate term for industrial-grade wines bearing cutesy animal-themed labels that have sprung up thanks to the availability of low-priced bulk wine). As importer John Larchet (The Australian Premium Wine Collection) told me, “I’m afraid that we’ll be back where we were 11 years ago, when I started, trying to convince people that there is such a thing as world-class wine with true regional character being made in Australia.”

The recent creation of super-appellations, or, more accurately, “Geographic Indications," which sprawl across disparate growing regions but gather all of them under broad, simply named umbrellas, poses an additional threat to the marketing value of more specific site designations. Importer Larchet points out that an American equivalent to “South Eastern Australia” would include Washington, Oregon and California and extend across all of Arizona and New Mexico. And the new “Adelaide” appellation, which capitalizes on the fame of the Adelaide Hills region, can include wines from the Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, Eden Valley, McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek, Kangaroo Island, Fleurieu and, yes, Adelaide Plains and Adelaide Hills. Such developments are disconcerting, to put it mildly, to producers and importers who work tirelessly to emphasize the varied character of Australian wine.

The wines below were sampled in May and June.