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Australian Wines with a Sense of Place

The best wines from down under are finally gaining favor with American palates. Find out why, and what you’ve been missing.

If you ask typical wine buyers in the U.S. to name an Australian wine, chances are they’ll glance toward the discount aisle and rattle off a generic Shiraz with a risqué name or a ubiquitous Chardonnay whose label is festooned with yellow kangaroos. Ask that same consumer to name a premium Australian wine, though, and you may receive a blank stare. Many Americans still think of Australia as a gritty desert continent with wines that best represent the harsh Outback, but, truth be told, it has an incredibly rich and sophisticated wine heritage more than two centuries old, and boasts more than 60 growing regions that produce a highly diversified array of wine styles. As a whole, the Australian wine industry makes enough Shiraz, Chardonnay, Cabernet, Semillon, Riesling and more esoteric varietals and assorted blends to put it among the world’s top producers and exporters. So why, you may wonder, aren’t premium Australian wines better known here?

Fact is, there are exceptional Australian wines that have earned the same recognition among American connoisseurs that comparable French, Italian and domestic wines enjoy. Those breakthroughs were largely due to marketing support from the Australian Wine and Brandy Corp. (www.wineaustralia.com), the government’s statutory authority that provides strategic support to the Australian wine sector, although such fame didn’t come as quickly or as easily as planned.

Wine Australia, which was formed in 1981, kicked off an initiative in the 1990s with the aim of exporting the Australian image abroad, while making Australian wine the global wine of choice by 2025. With tax advantages, research and extensive marketing support, low-priced Australian Cabernets, Shirazes and Rieslings hit U.S. shelves in a flood that saturated the market, leaving consumers drowning in the notion that Australian wines were suitable for washing down shrimp on the barbie and little else.

So Wine Australia stepped in again to help refine Australian wine’s reputation. “For the survival of the [Australian wine] category, we started focusing on Australia’s regionality, and the diversity that exists within those regions,” says James Gosper, director (North America), Wine Australia. That meant stressing the importance of wines that express soils, elevation, climate and proximity to ocean. “Our effort now, and going forward, is to illuminate the wines that speak of a sense of place.”

Semillon, the grape that forms the basis of the world famous Château d’Yquem dessert wine, has been harvested in Australia’s Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, for more than 150 years, and intrigues her as well. “It’s an extraordinary white wine produced at a low alcohol level (11 percent) with high acidity that will initially rip enamel off your teeth,” she says, “but when it ages 10 or 12 years, it develops creamy, buttery, toasty notes that are spectacular.”Many Semillon cuvées are impressive, she says, but the most noteworthy is Tyrrell’s Vat 1, which is “a classic and totally unsung in theU.S.”

The most famous Australian wines, if not the most notable, she says, continue to be the Shirazes from the Barossa Valley, and to slightly lesser extent, those produced in McLaren Vale, both in South Australia. “They have a tendency to be very big, and the critical favorites are big, brash, brawny fruit bomb monsters, but in general, I’m most attracted to the ones that develop the mellow, earthier, darker tones that come with aging.” She cites Penfolds Grange and Penfolds Bin 61A Shiraz-Cabernet blend as two great examples that become more harmonious over time.

“Australia’s best wines, of which there are many, will improve when the age,” says Granik. “If you buy them to drink now, you’ll get lots of enjoyment, but if you cellar them, they’ll continue to develop, with increased complexity and harmony, change in character the way that older wines do while retaining fresh fruitiness in ways that Old World wines do not.”

Down Under’s A-List
A partial list of aspirational ultra-premium collectable wines recommended by Wine Australia’s Landmark Australia Tutorial, an invitation-only five-day program that celebrates Australian wines. (For more information, visit www.landmark-wineaustralia.com.) Prices and availability will vary, but sites like www.winesearchers.com and www.snooth.com can be very useful tool for locating bottles and retailers—both nationally and abroad.
  • Balnaves ‘The Tally’ Cabernet Sauvignon (Coonawarra)
  • Bay of Fires Arras Vintage Sparkling (Tasmania)
  • Best’s Thomson Family Great Western Shiraz (Victoria)
  • Brokenwood Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz (New South Wales)
  • Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon (Margaret River)
  • Clonakilla Shiraz/Viognier (New South Wales)
  • Cullen Chardonnay (Margaret River)
  • De Bortoli Family Reserve Pinot Noir (Yarra Valley)
  • De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon (New South Wales)
  • Domaine A Cabernet Sauvignon (Tasmania)
  • Eileen Hardy Chardonnay (South Australia)
  • Grosset Polish Hill Riesling (Clare Valley)
  • Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz (Eden Valley)
  • Jacob’s Creek Steingarten Riesling (Barossa)
  • Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay (Margaret River)
  • Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon (Margaret River)
  • Mount Langi Ghiran Langi Shiraz (Victoria)
  • McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon (Hunter Valley)
  • Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon (South Australia)
  • Penfolds Grange Bin 95 Shiraz (South Australia)
  • Petaluma Piccadilly Valley Chardonnay (South Australia)
  • Rockford Basket Press Shiraz (Barossa)
  • Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Semillon (Hunter Valley)
  • Tyrrell’s Vat 47 Chardonnay (Hunter Valley)

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