The Best New Wines from Australia

My tastings of new releases from Australia in recent weeks were by turns fascinating, exhausting and depressing. The best news of all is the sheer number of outstanding values emerging today from Australia. As a rule, Australian wine prices are stable at the moment thanks to a string of abundant harvests, and I ran across literally dozens of satisfying and characterful wines in the $20 range. However, I also tasted too many wines that were soulless and dull: generic or overoaked chardonnays; undernourished pinot noirs and merlots; herbaceous cabernets; and shirazes made from late-picked, superripe fruit and sweetened by gobs of American oak. These latter wines, impressive as some of them are on first sip, can quickly become tiring to drink. It was at the upper reaches of the pricing scale where I was most disappointed: while there is still a handful of pricey superstars coming out of Australia, I tasted many, many $50+ bottles that showed no more personality or regional character than wines selling for half the price. In fact, in aiming to be thicker, riper, darker, sweeter, many of these brews seem, to this taster at least, to have become wine in only the vaguest sense.

There's no question that Australian wine today is polarizing serious wine drinkers, both within Australia and in major export markets such as the U.S. It is clear that many Australian wines are being crafted to attract the attention of a few influential wine critics, for whom, it sometimes seems, virtually no wine can be too big or too ripe. The balance and aromatic complexity of these wines, their ability to communicate unique terroir character, their usefulness at the dinner table, and their ability to gain in nuance with bottle aging are characteristics that some critics and many drinkers seem willing to overlook in their shock and awe at the sheer size and palate impact of these wines.

For their part, many retailers have adopted a "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it comes to Australian wine. If their customers don't ask for their opinions on some of the more extreme examples in the market today, the merchants won't tell them that they personally find these wines hard to swallow. In recent weeks, numerous retail merchants admitted to me that they don't care for these over-the-top wines, but as long as these bottles are being sought by their customers they're hardly going to badmouth the merchandise. (It should go without saying that this is hardly a strategy limited to Australian wine: 99 out of 100 wine retailers would be out of business next month if they sold only the wines that they enjoyed drinking.) These retailers also note that shiraz, particularly from Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, is by far the Australian wine category that consumers willing to spend more than ten bucks on a bottle are most likely to request.

Please allow me to vent, and then I'll move on to the good news. As Australian wine writer Jeremy Oliver opined in these pages two years ago, many of Australia's outsized shiraz bottlings, including a number of the wines most hotly pursued in export markets, are "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's art." I suspect I am more willing than Oliver to give high marks to the better examples of the ultraripe style of Australian shiraz (and grenache and Rhone blends). I find some of them to be quite impressive. And yet in my recent tastings, these wines tended to run together into a single giant wave. Many of these wines appear to be made according to the identical formula.

A lot of these wines strike me as manipulated concoctions rather than as expressions of any particular region or specific site. Wines made from dehydrated grapes are rarely accurate reflections of their soil. Can such bottles be beneficial to the long-term image of Australian wine? Too many wines are sweetened by oak so that they'll impress in the short term. Fruit harvested very late with often dangerously high pH levels is routinely acidified. Water is often added to prevent alcohol levels from reaching even more freakish levels and to facilitate fermentations (as is often done in California, especially in extremely ripe years like 1997). Tannins may be added to wines to give them at least a temporary impression of structure and shape. And new oak (or oak chips or oak extract) is slapped on regardless of the strength of the underlying materials. Many wines that impress on first sip quickly turn dry or herbaceous in the glass. The texture and ripeness one thought were there at the outset disappear like a mirage. Winemakers can employ heavy extraction; they can add tannins or oak or acids. But getting fresh fruit character from what Australian winemaker Brian Croser has called "dead grapes" is about as plausible as putting toothpaste back in the tube.

My own experience is that many of these superripe shirazes are best consumed within a couple of years after their release, for their fat and sweetness. Too many wines that were made from overripe, unbalanced grapes in the first place quickly tire with bottle aging and show obvious signs of oxidation within just a few years. Young wines that are dominated by the aromas of maple syrup and walnut skin are not magically going to become fresher with time in bottle, just as wines crushed by the scents of bourbon and tar are not suddenly going to become less oaky. I continue to find too many Australian red wines-and whites-overwhelmed by oak, and particularly cruder American oak. It's the extreme sweetness of these wines, not just their tired aromas and flavors, that puts me off. Also, many of the wines show a distinctly saline character, which may come from any number of sources. It may simply be a function of the raw materials, of desiccated fruit that has lost its essential balance. Some winemakers say that moving a wine from tank to new barrels to finish the alcoholic fermentation can give a wine a salty character. Jeremy Oliver has noted that Australia's long-term drought has brought about water stress in many of the country's wine-producing areas and that water applied to the vines in the process of irrigation is becoming increasingly saline. I should point out that sometimes a subtle saline quality is an indication of strong extract and can simply become an element of a wine's complexity. But in too many examples of shiraz and shiraz-based blends, this character gains the upper hand over a wine's fruit. When juxtaposed with perceptible residual sugar, this saltiness can be particularly jarring.

Every wine drinker and every wine writer has his or her personal point of diminishing returns: the point at which ripening fruit loses more than it gains by hanging on the vines. (The same statement can be made about drinkers' tolerance of various winemaking techniques-of extraction during and following fermentation, use of new oak, use of the lees, and so on.) For some tasters, too much is never enough. But I have a hard time believing that long-time wine lovers who began with European wine and then discovered the New World are getting much pleasure out of the extreme style of Australian wine. I have seen these wines defended on various web sites; indeed, critics who have pointed out the shortcomings of these wines have often been accused of having their own agendas, rather than simply expressing their opinions. I get the impression that the shrillness of some of these attacks is due to the fact that many consumers have a lot of money tied up in these wines and simply can't accept the possibility that they are going to be disappointed with many of these bottles. I can't stress enough that if you enjoy Australian reds made from ultraripe fruit, drink them in their youth for the qualities you enjoy: their sheer size and sweetness, their opulent textures, their flamboyant ripeness. If you bury these wines in your cellar, you're going to have a lot of dull, alcoholic wines with oxidized aromas, dry tannins, spiky acidity, and only a memory of fruit.

Rant over. All of the above is not to say that I did not find a host of terrific wines from Australia, including a goodly number of very rich reds from Rhone varieties. Although a relatively small percentage of the Australian wines I tasted in recent weeks was white, I turned up numerous highly successful wines from riesling, chardonnay, semillon, even sauvignon blanc and viognier. And the best wines were by no means limited to the highly touted 2002 vintage. Australia's wine-producing areas cover a vast range of geography and climate. Sure, there are baking-hot, parched growing areas, but there are also legitimately cool spots capable of producing vibrant wines from, for example, pinot noir, riesling and sauvignon blanc, as well as aromatically complex and balanced examples of shiraz, cabernet and chardonnay. Generalizing about climate, soil types or harvest conditions in Australia is about as useful as comparing grape-growing zones in California and New York.

A brief word on recent vintages. Vintage 2002 featured an extended growing season without extreme heat, which was at least in theory favorable to all vineyard areas and grape varieties that benefit from longer hang time. For many growing regions in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, 2002 appears to be the best vintage since 1998. Appellations like the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale have produced shirazes, for example, with more intensity of fruit and aromatic character than usual; these same regions suffered mightily under the extreme heat of vintage 2000, which produced numerous overripe/underripe wines as well as those with technical flaws, such as pronounced oxidative character or high levels of volatile acidity. Cabernet sauvignons from much of Australia, in theory at least, should be less green in 2002 than in years when sugars soar before grape skins are truly ripe. Best of all, the better 2002s appear to have the balance and structure to age well. Still, I am not yet convinced that the vintage will live up to its considerable early hype. To be fair, many of Australia's top producers have not yet shipped their most serious 2002 reds to America.

The early word on vintage 2003 is of another very good vintage, though with alcohol levels consistently higher than the 2002s. Some of the white wines I tasted seemed downright sweet. In general, I've been happiest with the rieslings and least impressed by the chardonnays. There are some very good 2001s on the market now. This, too, was a very warm year across much of Australia. One of the high points in 2001 is Western Australia: many producers in the Margaret River region are especially fond of their cabernet-based wines.

My coverage of Australian wine on the following pages is extensive but by no means comprehensive. I have tried to focus on the wines and producers of most interest to the readers of this publication. You will not find tasting notes on most mass-produced wines from Australia's industrial-size producers, as the overwhelming majority of these wines are of little interest to serious winos, even those looking for cheap bottles of passable quality. At the other extreme, several high-end bottlings, some of which are extremely scarce, are missing from my coverage. In some instances, their importers did not make these wines available to me, while in other cases importers were sold out of the last vintage and awaiting the new one. I have tried to taste as many wines as possible from several energetic importers and agents who are constantly ferreting out new and interesting producers from Australia, including The Grateful Palate (Oxnard, CA), The Australian Premium Wine Collection (Sausalito, CA), Old Bridge Cellars (Napa, CA), Old Vines Australia (Aptos, CA), Southern Starz (Stamford, CT), and Epicurean Imports (Seattle, WA).

If you get pleasure from superripe, sweet, thick reds, you will almost certainly rate these wines more highly than I have. On the other hand, if you find this style undrinkable, you should be able to tell from my notes which wines to avoid and which to pursue. As always, use my tasting notes more than my scores to increase your odds of buying wines you'll enjoy drinking. This advice may be more relevant for this review of Australian wine than for any past article in the IWC. I have included notes on literally scores of very good to excellent wines in the 87-to-89-point range. These wines include every conceivable style. There are intensely flavored, flawlessly vinified but slightly underripe cabernets that some tasters allergic to any greenness in their red wines may consider to be too herbaceous. There are also undeniably rich and sweet shirazes that will doubtless receive higher scores in some other wine publications but that I simply cannot bring myself to rate as outstanding. Wine lovers who routinely consume their wines at the dinner table will probably have more luck with a slightly herbal but intense and juicy red wine I've scored 88 points than with a porty, low-acid shiraz meriting the same score. Again, it's the prose more than the numbers that should tell you what to expect from these wines.

A couple of final notes: keep in mind that for every very good but not exceptional $50 bottle that rated a score in the high 80s in my recent tastings, there's another one that's available for just $20. As relatively few of these $50 bottles are going to become more interesting with time in the cellar, I can't think of any compelling reason to pay the price premium for expensive items with limited track records. Finally, I have generally not re-reviewed wines that Jeremy Oliver tasted last year for his coverage in the IWC, but there are some exceptions.