New Releases from Australia

Two months of tasting through hundreds of Australian wines and across a range of importer portfolios left me by turns exhilarated and exhausted but seldom, if ever, disappointed. With today's market less willing to shell out big bucks for bottles, American wine drinkers have naturally become more discerning. No doubt this new reticence helps to explain why the overall level of Australian wines brought into the U.S. market is higher today than ever before.

The fact is, the wines are less extreme than formerly. Few of the wines I sampled were over-the-top oozemonsters—the kinds of wines that make Eurocentric wine hobbyists wrinkle their noses. Of course, such wines are still out there, and fetishists for whom too much is just about right are continually on the prowl for these big boys. On the other hand, on many restaurant wine lists one can still find 1998 and 1999 examples of limited-production, 16+% alcohol, syrupy Barossa and McLaren Vale wines at their original prices. Clearly, there are fewer takers today for $60 Australian wines of freakish proportions.

Unfortunately, however, these are the bottles that many American collectors view as stereotypical Australian wine: massive, structureless, featureless Frankenwines whose every aromatic, taste and textural component appears as something in a funhouse mirror. This view is unfair. A wine can be ripe, with vibrant, exuberant and even flamboyant fruit, without showing dull, cooked or suspiciously overconcentrated qualities, regardless of where it’s made. Australia's winemakers and wineries are highly attuned to consumer likes and dislikes, and they are infinitely adaptable and creative. I believe the proof is in the bottles that have come my way in recent weeks.

I realize that the textures and flavors of most Australian wines are not to everyone's taste. Wine drinkers who consider Burgundy or the Piedmont to be paradigms for red wine often show visceral distaste for the lower-acid, high-alcohol, more (American-) oak-driven wines that one can easily find from Australia. But styles are changing all over the wine world, as anyone who has tasted his or her way through most current-day Barolo or left-bank Bordeaux can attest. Many of the cabernet-based Australian wines I tried, for example, are lower in alcohol than most 2003 Bordeaux, not to mention California cult wines, which exist in an alcoholic haze of their own.

Fortunately, the vast majority of Australian wines I sampled represent what the country produces so well, and so consistently: intensely flavored, fruit-driven, accessible wines at very reasonable prices. These are the kinds of wine I wish I could find on more restaurant lists. They are far superior for drinking now and over the first three to five years of their lives than most of the 2002 grand cru red Burgundies, 2001 Châteauneuf du Papes or 2000 classified-growth Bordeaux that predominate at the most prestigious restaurants. And they can satisfy at a fraction of the price of their suave Old World cousins. Australia's less warm growing areas continue to produce as wide a range of truly dry, mineral-tinged rieslings as any country. And the country's coolest sites have proven their capacity to issue dry, focused, intensely flavored (and not oaky!) chardonnays, while Australia' classic, old-school semillons are some of the most characterful, idiosyncratic and individual wines made anywhere. As for the fortified wines that carried the Australian industry into and through much of the 20th century, they are among the best examples of the category on earth.

A word on current vintages. Australian producers are generally thrilled with the level of the 2004 crop, which was almost 40% higher than the low-yielding 2003 harvest. Even better news for wine lovers is the potentially excellent quality of the fruit grown in the southeastern quadrant of the county, home to the majority of producers discussed below. The only potential dark cloud for wine quality here was the extreme heat waves that hit most major growing regions late in the season. In Western Australia, 2004 appears to be an outright success, as the growing season here was long and temperate, holding out great promise for the cooler-climate varieties that are the focus here.

The growing season of 2003 was marked by drought conditions in all regions, which resulted in diminished crop levels but also yielded grapes that were free of rot and often riper than normal. Not surprisingly, red varieties often did better than their white siblings, which often produced loose-knit, diffuse wines.

Two final notes: First, I must mention my highly positive experience with numerous wines that were bottled under Stelvin screwcap. While I had what I suppose is the typical incidence of corked wines, roughly 6%, not a single screwcapped bottle of the scores I tried showed any significant problem with reductive aromas, the bogeyman that anti-screwcap fearmongers often conjure up. Some of the most serious producers of cellarworthy red wines have gone completely over to Stelvin, most notably Brokenwood and Kay Brothers.

Second, due to the sheer volume of good bottles I tasted, more of my notes on Australian wines will be published in the next issue.