New Releases from Australia, Part 1

At the risk of giving a creepy Groundhog Day vibe, I must say, yet again, that wine lovers whose view of Australia is based on limited personal experience and the uninformed opinions of others—and who think that this vast continent’s wines are all outsized, grotesquely alcoholic reds—are really missing out. Australia has more than 60 distinct wine regions and it continues to amaze me how many Americans seem to think that they are all suburbs of the Barossa Valley. Once again I implore readers whose preferences run to fruit-driven southern French, southern Italian and garnacha-based Spanish wines, as well as to zinfandels and the more opulent renditions of New World reds, to do some exploring. The same goes for fans of bone-dry riesling (check out western Australia), mineral-driven chardonnay (try any of the cooler regions and especially Mornington Peninsula) and even restrained, elegant pinot noir (made all over Victoria). Sauvignon blanc is also on a steep upward curve in Australia and pricing is usually much gentler than for similar quality from New Zealand.

The U.S. market enjoys unprecedented access to the very best wines Australia produces, by the way: many of the wines represented by the handful of American specialist importers are barely available on their home turf, except at top restaurants, via closed mailing lists or at auction. We are literally spoiled for choice, and it is depressing to watch supposedly adventurous winos refuse even to try the best Australian wines as they follow the herd to the usual watering holes—and pay steep tariffs to lap from those pools.

The vintages on offer. In contrast to 2005, 2006 featured one of the latest harvests on record in many regions. The spring was cool across the continent, with instances of frost occurring in the coolest regions, particularly the Adelaide Hills, and the summer was warm, with sporadic heat spikes. Western Australia was particularly cold during the onset of the growing season, causing a much slower buildup of sugar in the grapes than normal. The season progressed so slowly here that the harvest was up to a month later than usual. Most of Victoria also witnessed a very early harvest, up to three weeks earlier than normal. In the Barossa the growing season also began and progressed in promising fashion. A rainy winter set the stage for vigorous but well-paced vine activity and beneficial rains in February helped maintain the pace of ripening. A cold snap and relatively heavy rainfall at the end of March made for a cool conclusion to the season. This resulted in what some producers describe as a “normal” harvest with average to slightly below average yields. Others aver that vines that were not picked by early April (meaning those watched over by producers who look for maximum sugar levels and ultra-rich character) never fully ripened and often fell victim to assorted late-vintage diseases. Luckily for the McLaren Vale, which Michael Twelftree of Two Hands points out usually ripens up to three weeks ahead of the Barossa, their vines were picked during warm March weather, and the 2006 vintage looks to be outstanding.

Across Australia, 2005 has been hailed as one of the most uniformly excellent on record, drawing comparisons to 2002 and 2004 for its uniformly ripe but balanced and elegant wines, usually made from yields slightly lower than normal. In southeastern Australia, the McLaren Vale had a damp winter, setting the stage for rapid flowering and abundant canopy growth. The growing season was a bit cooler than normal, with an absence of heat spikes and a smooth ride into a pain-free harvest that occurred up to two weeks earlier than normal. The Adelaide Plains and Adelaide Foothills enjoyed similar conditions, overall, and the resulting wines are living up to their promise. The Barossa Valley took in a healthy crop of mostly high-acid, low- pH grapes under perfect harvest conditions following a smooth, relatively cool growing season, not unlike that of McLaren Vale. Coonawarra also enjoyed a warm, dry season and harvested under similar conditions, and most of Victoria profited from a summer of warm days and cool nights, with slightly above-average warmth, leading to a picture-perfect harvest. Vintages ’05 and ’06 provide further reason to investigate this vast category of wine that defies stereotyping.

I tasted the following wines in New York in May and June and will publish notes on many more Australian wines in the next issue of the IWC.