Best New Releases from Australia

There have never been as many exciting Australian wines in the marketplace as there are today. Australian wine remains hot, as quality-conscious wineries continue to pop up like mushrooms in a root cellar (more than 100 new Australian wineries opened their doors in 2000) and as indefatigable American importers ferret out new and noteworthy sources. My most extensive tastings to date of current releases from Australia turned up dozens of outstanding wines, with shiraz accounting for a majority of the most impressive bottles. While prices for many of the best wines are stiff today, driven higher in some cases by active pursuit of limited bottlings in the auction market here and in Australia, there are also excellent values to be found. On the downside: as in many other wine-producing regions around the world, an increasing percentage of the better fruit is being reserved for more expensive bottlings. Australia cheap wines, which since the early '80s have provided bargain seekers with excellent quality/price rapport, are mostly dilute and uninteresting today, if not downright green and tart. Though Australia still beats the hell out of California in the under-$20 range, genuinely satisfying bottles for single-digit prices are now rare indeed.

Recent vintages. By most accounts, 1998 was the finest vintage since at least 1990 for most important growing areas around Adelaide and Melbourne. (In Western Australia, '98 was good rather than great.) The fruit was healthy, and after the harvest began with a burst of heat, temperatures moderated, allowing slow ripening of the fruit and relaxed picking. The '98 reds are rich in color, fruit flavors and alcohol, and have the tannic support for long aging by Australian standards. Shiraz is especially rich and large-scaled from this thoroughly ripe year, but harvest conditions were also ideal for cabernet sauvignon. In recent weeks, I tasted numerous '98 cabernets with uncommon flavor intensity and ripe balancing acidity.

Nineteen ninety-nine was a more variable year, with a very dry, warm growing season featuring heat stress in some areas, and harvest-time rains in others (the Barossa Valley, for example) somewhat compromising the structure of the reds. Still, many of the red wines I've tasted from this vintage possess good density, sound acidity and the backbone for mid-term aging. The Margaret River appears to have done very well, especially for its red wines. The most recent vintage now hitting the marketplace, 2000, is difficult to characterize. While a few producers in Coonawarra are calling 2000 outstanding, in Barossa the vintage is more likely to be described as challenging. Western Australia was generally successful, with the vintage perhaps favoring the white wines. In fact, across the Australian continent, 2000 is being heralded as an excellent year for white wines. And early word is that 2001 was another very warm year that is likely to produce more blockbuster red wines.

So there's no reason to expect that Australia will be running short of full-flavored red wine anytime soon. But it must be noted that these wines are not for everyone, and some may be almost too much for palates weaned on European wines. Bigger is not necessarily better: a wine without shape or restraint, or with sweetness not supported by lively acidity, quickly becomes tiring to drink. Many of today's shiraz bottlings with 14+% alcohol are remarkably rich wines with the balance and backbone to be considered great by any international standards. But many superripe Australian wines, including some that are changing hands at seriously high prices, strike this taster's palate as grotesque parodies of wine. Yes, they're deeper in color, thicker in texture, higher in alcohol and port-like in their ripeness, but to what end?