New Releases from Australia

The unfortunate irony of the Australian wine industry’s current malaise in the U.S. market is that American wine lovers have never been more spoiled for choice in the category than they are right now. American retailers and sommeliers are waking up to the fact that Australia has far more to offer than a choice of shiraz in a cheap, candied model or an expensive monster-truck version. And yet none of the producers or importers I tasted with and talked to over the last few months have any illusion that we’ll soon see a return to the salad days of the early 2000s, when it seemed the U.S. was awash in South Australian red wine, much of which was shiraz.

Everybody in the Australian wine industry has a theory about where things went off track. Most believe that the greatest harm was done by allowing the perception to grow that Australia was a one-trick, one-variety pony (are you listening, Argentina?). I’m sure that if you played a word association game with a typical American wine lover and offered “Australia,” you’d get “shiraz” in return, and that’s no recipe for emphasizing the diversity of this wide-ranging land mass. When it comes to wine styles Australia literally does it all, from bone-dry sparking wines to fortified dessert wines and uniquely Australian oddballs like sparkling shiraz and barrel-aged sweet wines, but only a handful of American winos seems to be clued into that fact so far. How long it will take for Australian producers to get their message across is anybody’s guess, but since most of the industry’s moves are directed by monolithic, corporate-minded and bureaucratic entities that lumber along at a sloth’s pace, few of the Australians I talk to are optimistic that change is nigh.

On top of the commercial struggles Australia has been dealing with have been difficult recent vintages in the major viticultural regions Victoria and South Australia. Two thousand eight was a blazingly hot year across most of the continent and, as a result, much of the fruit was overripe, some of it to the point of being unusable. Afternoon temperatures in some Barossa vineyards rarely dropped below 100 degrees for the first three weeks of March and went as high as 115 degrees, causing the vines to shut down and scorching the fruit. Many producers told me that they had to simply throw away vast amounts of fruit at the crusher and were also forced to declassify or bulk out juice and/or finished wine when they realized that it was simply too ripe. The heat shows in many of the wines, which often have soaringly high alcohol levels and roasted or spirity character. This is a vintage that proved that there really can be too much of a good thing. The west coast, on the other hand, experienced a more moderate growing season with no wild temperature swings but lower-than-normal yields of high-quality fruit.

Two thousand seven brought the gamut of Mother Nature’s woes to South Australia and Victoria—frost, drought, rain and heat—and the crop level was one of the lowest in three decades. In many areas production was down by almost 40%, which one producer told me sardonically “is probably a good thing because most people can’t sell their wine anyway.” On the upside, grape clusters and the grapes themselves tended to be small, so there is good concentration to the wines and the best of them will age well.

Looking ahead, 2009 should turn out to be a very good to excellent vintage, with a shorter than average crop, for South Australia. Victoria is a different story. Crop levels were already destined to be off by almost 20% thanks to excessive heat and sunburned grapes; then the Yarra Valley experienced horrific bushfires in early to mid-February (some burned into March) that destroyed vineyards, wineries and communities across the region. Overall, some 25% of the region was affected by these fires, including some of the best vineyards. Numerous producers opted not to make wine from those sites. This is especially true of the top producers, who are careful to protect their reputations and can afford to eat a portion of their crop.