New Releases from Australia, Part 1

The diversity of climate and geography in Australia’s wine regions, and its producers’ mastery of a vast range of varieties, are unmatched in the New World, but you’d hardly know it from talking to most wine drinkers in the U.S., even those who pride themselves on their cosmopolitan tastes. Say “Australian wine” to an American wine lover and odds are that the Pavlovian response will be “big, rich reds,” followed by “oaky chardonnays.” And Australia does do those styles, the first one often incredibly well. But there is so much more going on in Australia—even more than in the U.S., I’d say.

The dry rieslings of Australia’s cooler regions (yes, they have them—and quite a few) are among the world’s finest examples of what seems to be a disappearing breed. Dry riesling thrives in Australia’s local market, due in part to the country’s obsession with seafood drawn from the waters that abut virtually all the major population centers. These wines also make sense in a country that is home to a staggering number of Asian restaurants and markets. Sauvignon blanc is increasing in popularity, and the finest examples from the Adelaide Hills, especially, can compete with the best from New Zealand. A case can be made that the chardonnays and pinot noirs produced on the Mornington Peninsula, just south of Melbourne, are as elegant as any in the New World. And western Australia and Coonawarra continue quietly to send out some of the best-balanced and most complex cabernet sauvignons to be had outside Bordeaux.

Of course there are the rich, full-flavored shirazes from South Australia, that for better or worse have created the nation’s vinous reputation. There has been much recent success with grenache, with some astounding wines made from vines more than a century old, planted alongside equally ancient shiraz vines. Viognier is coming into vogue and the best examples, usually from cooler spots, more closely resemble riesling than the full-throttle viogniers produced in, for example, California’s Central Coast. Tempranillo has slowly begun to establish itself as a viable grape, and there are increasing plantings of Italian varieties in warmer regions, often with encouraging results. Then there are the numerous regions and wine types that continue to fly under the American radar, such as the Hunter Valley, which produces singular dry semillon and elegant, understated shiraz. Heathcote, working with what is probably the oldest soil on Earth, produces potent, deeply flavored but not usually heavy shiraz that can stand up to the best of Barossa or McLaren Vale. And the fortified muscats and tokays of Rutherglen must be counted among the greatest and most complex sweet wines of the world. There are also the tawny ports of South Australia and Victoria, the rieslings of Tasmania and western Australia, the cabernets of Victoria, and on and on.

My annual immersion in Australian wine always reminds me how varied it is as a category. But again, when I mentioned to people in the trade that I’d be spending some time visiting producers in Australia, the most common response was “Man, how much shiraz can you taste?” And these are often people with a lifetime of tasting experience, with years spent in Italy, France, Spain and California. I’m talking about folks who are buying for our country’s most elite restaurant wine programs and retailers. If they aren’t willing or able to receive the message, how is the average (even above-average!) American wine-lover going to be exposed to Australian wine outside the shiraz box? A few small importers and some larger houses have made inroads on U.S. soil but the message that Australia is filled with small producers on the scale of a family-owned Burgundy or Piedmont domain is only slowly getting through here.

At the same time, the growing number of private-label Australian wines produced by or for U.S. importers is causing growing discomfort among many of these small producers. How, they wonder, can their wines possibly get the necessary promotional support if their U.S. agents are bulking up their portfolios with more profitable and usually lower-priced private labels made from the same varieties? I heard this concern from countless small producers in late June while in South Australia and Victoria, even from growers who have been established in the American market for over a decade.

Current vintages. Generalizing about vintages is always tricky, particularly for a country as vast as Australia. But, in a nutshell, it’s hard to go too far wrong with 2005s from virtually any region. Conditions overall were cooler than those of 2004 and 2003, and there was also some beneficial rain. The results were wines that are expressive and balanced, with less power than those made in the previous two years. The overall yield in 2005 was healthy, too. The growing season of 2006 was characterized by warm days and cool nights, ending with an earlier-than-normal harvest. As the fruit was for the most part picked with healthy natural acidity and proper sugar levels, the wines share similarities to the 2005s and thus will appeal to fans of freshness and balance. Yields were healthy across the country except in the west, where things got off to a cool start with a difficult flowering but where quality was also above average.

The biscuit wheels went flying off the gravy train in 2007, though. Widespread spring frost cut crop levels dramatically across the country (overall production was among the lowest in more than 30 years, and a full third less than in 2006), and widespread drought created conditions for brushfires, especially in Victoria. Things were better in Western Australia, which didn’t suffer from either frost or drought, and my early look at these white wines suggests that they are quite promising. In most of the country temperatures weren’t too high, and what fruit was harvested was of good to high quality. My simple advice is to grab the best 2006s and what you can find of remaining 2005s, and be choosy with the 2007s, which should be an easy task as the U.S. dollar continues to moulder.

The second installment of my Australia coverage will be published in the next issue.