New Releases from Australia

by Jeremy Oliver

There was a time, not so very long ago, when Australians despaired at the very prospect of being able to sell any wine to the United States. Our two principal wines were cabernet sauvignon and riesling. The Napa Valley was already well entrenched as a supplier of cabernet sauvignon to American palates, while outside our shores the traditionally bone-dry expression of Australian riesling was only viewed with passing curiosity by the occasional Brit. Australian chardonnay was a clumsy, unsophisticated thing still finding its way, and besides, didn't the U.S. have enough of its own? As for shiraz: how could we expect the Americans to take seriously something we ourselves treated like a second-class citizen?

Fifteen years on, and haven't things changed? Today Australia exports half of its wine, a quarter of which is sold to the U.S. And the Australian wine that has most captured the imaginations of American wine drinkers is shiraz. Led by Penfolds Grange at one end of the market and Rosemount Diamond Label Shiraz at the other, shiraz is at the sharp end of what Australia winemakers now anticipate will be a long and fruitful relationship with American buyers. You could not have predicted it.

Australian wine has much to thank the American market for, not the least of which has been the discovery of its own unique resource in shiraz. For while Australia has the oldest and largest shiraz plantings in the world, the grape was largely shunned by its own producers and market until the late 1980s. It hardly ever received new oak - almost the exclusive birthright of cabernet sauvignon - and it was empirically regarded as an inferior wine. As recently as the early 1980s the leading Australian wine commentators were even predicting the demise of the Barossa Valley itself. McLaren Vale would have been next to go. The South Australian government was offering growers money to rip up grandfatherly vineyards then considered to be economically unsound, but which today would be treated like the icons they actually were. It was difficult to find anybody selling a genuine 100% Barossa-grown shiraz; Barossa shiraz grapes were even used in muffins.

American makers and wine critics were at the forefront of the international reawakening of interest in the Rhone Valley varieties, of which shiraz is paramount. Some Australian makers, infected by this enthusiasm or by a drive to renew their commitment to the traditional, if almost outdated, warm-climate styles of Australian shiraz, began to refocus on producing high-quality shirazes for the top end of the market. Makers like Rockford, Henschke, Mount Langi Ghiran and Dalwhinnie moved up to the cutting edge. Other traditional shiraz makers like Penfolds, Wynns, Lindemans and Tyrrell began to return their attention toward this variety.

Then, in the mid-1990s, the American wine media discovered Australian shiraz, big time. Wines like Penfolds Grange, Henschke Hill of Grace, Mount Langi Ghiran Shiraz and Jasper Hill Emily's Paddock suddenly became international icons, paving the way for a brand-new generation of shirazes. Suddenly it was not only possible for Australian makers to sell their wines, especially their shiraz, into the U.S., but they could do so at a handsome premium to the prices they could expect on the domestic Australian market.

Ten years ago nobody had ever heard of Clarendon Hills Astralis, Greenock Creek, Torbreck, Wild Duck Creek, Three Rivers, Fox Creek, Henry Drive, Noon's, Magpie Estate, or a raft of other "cult" shiraz producers whose shirazes have since become wine currency. Most of them simply did not exist.

In fact, many of the Australian shirazes that attract the highest prices in the U.S. still hardly exist within Australia. Many have been customized to suit what their makers considered to be the prerequisites for success in the U.S. market. Typically sourced from low-cropped, ancient dryland vineyards, many of these wines studiously follow a proven recipe of substantial levels of alcohol and oak, and heavy extraction, with their fruit flavors ultraripe. Many such wines are brand-new creations of investors and speculators, are entirely lacking in provenance, and are made from contract-grown fruit by contract winemakers. Their very existence is a source of great mystery and bewilderment to many wine-drinking Australians, who are happy to let others purchase them instead.

Despite Australia 150-year tradition of making shiraz, it's only in the last decade that its makers have adopted the formula of picking very late, energetically extracting during vinification, and maturing their wines for 18 months or more in a high percentage of new oak barrels. These wines lie outside any historical model. Those who have rated them highly and have recommended long cellaring periods for them have only their own judgment on which to base their views.

Previously, traditional Australian shiraz was indeed harvested late and usually came from warm regions like the Barossa, McLaren Vale, Rutherglen and central Victoria. It would be fermented quite warm and aged in large old casks for around 12 months, which meant that it had virtually none of what we now refer to as oak influence. The wines were often very astringent in their youth, and would often take a decade or two to mellow. Very few makers follow this approach today. It wasn't until Max Schubert started using small barrels to nurture Grange in the early 1950s that this sort of cooperage was even considered in Australia, and even then it took more than 20 years to catch on.

Today, the first signs are emerging that the wheels might indeed fall off the ultraripe shiraz wagon. Until about two years ago, most but not all opinion from the U.S. and U.K. was that Australia should continue to make its shiraz from extremely ripe fruit simply because it could. Personally, I've never considered mere capability to be enough of a rationale for this style. By way of analogy, I think it wise that those of my friends who can actually play the bagpipes choose not to when in the company of others.

It wasn't so long ago that these wines would typically be described in such positive terms as ultraconcentrated, explosive, statuesque. Today it is not unusual for the same wines to be referred to as caricatures, one-dimensional, exaggerated or contrived. Many are so monolithic that they lack approachability and essential vinosity. They are more impressive as feats of engineering than as drinkable expressions of a winemaker art. Their sheer impact and lack of subtlety deprives them of the ability to accompany any but the most robust of dishes; I personally find it difficult on many occasions to finish even a single glass. Sadly, though, many consumers now believe that this style is all Australia is capable of making.

Those consumers who paid high prices expecting these wines to develop and last in bottle for a long time will surely be disappointed. Deprived of a vibrant, genuine expression of fruit and acidity by the lateness of their harvest, much of the sweetness and vitality they present in their youth is due only to their alcoholic strength and to the sweetness of their often excessive oak component. With fruit profiles thoroughly into the dehydrated spectrum of prune and raisin, these wines often almost demand the short-term revitalization that overoaking can provide. Reasonable expectations would suggest, and my recent tasting experience tends to confirm, that only a small percentage of Australian red wines with alcoholic strength well over 14.5% will actually go on to provide genuine bottle development over a decade and more. It patently clear that some of us enjoy drinking these wines in their youth. But it my guess that most of these ultraripe shiraz bottlings have been cellared with unrealistic expectations.

There is no need, however, to color all Australian shiraz with the same tarry brush. On the contrary: Australian shiraz is actually about to enter its most exciting period. The spectrum of wines produced has expanded dramatically and is about to get wider still. Instead of attempting to craft copycat versions of the present cult wines, more makers are now focusing on making the best possible shiraz from the fruit and terroirs at their disposal. Already today there are newly emerging high-quality alternatives for those who enjoy the taste of Australian shiraz but who are not wild for the outsized, heavyhanded examples they may have experienced in recent years.

On one hand, there are many makers of excellent, more "natural" wines from regions like the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, the usual homes of the superripe styles. On the other hand, largely but not exclusively from the cooler regions of Victoria and Western Australia, an entire new breed of shirazes is evolving whose emotional roots are entrenched more firmly in the Rhone Valley itself than in the warmer regions of Australia.

Recent years have seen the release from two traditional makers of a couple of spectacular new Barossa shirazes that have been exclusively matured in small French cooperage: Peter Lehmann Eight Songs Shiraz and Penfolds' RWT. Each is good enough to provoke the question of why more Barossa shiraz is not aged in French oak instead of the almost statutory American alternative. I would also strongly argue that much of the inherent dependence on American oak by Australian shiraz makers is a miserly and cost-effective hangover from the days when the only oak shiraz would receive was from casks previously used by cabernet sauvignon.

While it is undeniable that the smoky sweetness, dark chocolate flavors and tightness of the very best American cooperage is ideally suited to low-yielding shiraz from McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley, many makers have surprised themselves by the quality of their results when French oak was used instead. Now that their wines are able to fetch enough money to justify this additional expense, many makers are gradually shifting to mostly or all French oak.

The emergence of first-grade shiraz from regions like Mount Barker and Margaret River, Beechworth, the Pyrenees, the Adelaide Hills, Geelong and the Yarra Valley is considerably more exciting than the first wave of so-called Grange pretenders was a decade ago. That said, there is no question that there will always be a place for the best and most balanced examples of the warmer region benchmarks whose inherent qualities are not replicated anywhere else on earth.

The exploration into cooler regions for shiraz has also coincided with a most un-Australian trend towards a less clinical and more adventurous winemaking approach, one that is already yielding very promising results. Many winemakers are now taking risks with their levels of sulphur, their pHs, their approach to filtration, and the time they allow their wines to remain on the lees after fermentation, producing unashamedly rustic, reductive and savory smoked meat-like character in their shiraz. Sure, this approach occasionally goes too far, as the strong presence of brettanomyces in some wines illustrates. But these are early steps along a learning curve.

It is hardly surprising that it has been the smaller wineries that have pushed the envelope with innovation of this kind, although BRL Hardy has been quick to follow with its Starvedog Lane shiraz from the Adelaide Hills. Similarly, Southcorp is awaiting the first commercial crops from substantial contracted vineyard developments in Great Western, in cool-climate southwestern Victoria.

Their huge and widespread vineyard resources and their economies of scale have historically enabled Australia larger wine businesses to maintain exceptional consistency from season to season, but even that ability is being challenged by recent phenomena. Shareholders demand growth, and expanding export supply lines constantly need to be filled, so the output of established quality brands is constantly being stretched - occasionally to the limit. Furthermore, the ever-present need to invent new icon wines at the head of price folios appears be diverting much of the best core material from less expensive brands, putting to risk the very quality basis on which their success was built. Neither large, small nor medium-sized wineries are immune to this concern.

Recent vintages in Australia. While compiling my tasting notes for this issue of the International Wine Cellar I've become painfully aware that there is not as much top-end Australian wine in bottle today as there was two years ago. The main reason for this is the very factor most people think doesn't affect Australia: vintage variation. Honesty dictates that I admit Australia has just endured four of the most difficult and contrary seasons in its history.

While the beneficial warmth of the 1998 season wrongly encouraged too many makers to leave fruit out on the vine for no better reason than that they could, the four vintages that have followed have each presented substantial challenges of their own. 1999 was generally very hot, but turned cold and wet right at harvest time. In most of the quality regions the better-managed lower-cropped vineyards performed better, and there is a frankly surprising amount of good red wine from the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Coonawarra, albeit in a generally finer style than usual. There is also a very large amount of very ordinary red wine from South Australia and Victoria in this vintage, but Western Australia Margaret River fared very much better.

Worse was to follow in 2000, which began with a poor fruit set in spring, continued with a summer of record-breaking and enduring heat, and ended with late summer rain that caused substantial fruit-splitting and disease problems in those vineyards still to be harvested. The Margaret River vintage, however, was straight from the textbook, and its cabernet sauvignon is exemplary. Similarly, the Hunter Valley quite possibly experienced its best growing season in a century, and its shiraz reflects the high quality of this vintage.

But the overwhelming majority of 2000 red wines from the warmer regions were obviously made from fruit that was not physiologically ripe. The intense heat accelerated sugar accumulation to the extent that fruit was harvested with overripe influences while retaining greenish, underripe character. My marks clearly reflect this phenomenon, and very few reds from 2000 will actually develop much in the bottle. By the same token, outside the cooler regions white wines tended to be broad and flabby, lacking their usual definition and complexity.

Another searingly hot vintage, 2001, was more successfully handled by growers than its predecessor. Many white wines released to date show an improvement in structure and flavor intensity, with a comparative lack of fruit stress. Cooler southeastern regions completed their ripening under less extreme heat than was experienced by the Barossa and McLaren Vale, but late summer rain in the genuine cool-climate regions also posed something of a hazard for growers attempting to ripen crops larger than common sense might have dictated. Highlights of 2001 include Clare Valley and Eden Valley riesling, chardonnay from southern Victoria, Great Southern riesling, and semillon/sauvignon blends from Margaret River.

Straight from the hottest summer ever, Australian growers experienced the coolest on record in 2002. While the standard of wine from the bulk inland areas of Sunraysia, Griffith and the Riverlands might well represent an all-time high, the output from the quality regions was as minuscule as its quality was variable. Not surprisingly, Australian growers are praying for an unspectacularly normal 2003.

I tasted the following wines during late winter and spring of this year, in nearly all instances in the tasting room at my offices in Melbourne.