New Releases from Australia

by Jeremy Oliver

In the typically quiet world of wine, all hell has broken loose. In the 12 months since the last Australian feature in the International Wine Cellar an unheard-of Australian wine has become the single largest imported brand into the U.S. from any country. Propelled by the Yellow Tail phenomenon, Australia appears set to topple Italy as the largest national wine exporter to the U.S. Last calendar year Australia's North American wine sales increased by a remarkable 64%, reaching a value around US $480 million. Today the U.S. takes roughly one-third of Australia's exported wine by value.

Southcorp has made headlines for reasons good and bad. A tumultuous trading year resulting in a net loss has seen a change in the hot seat and a plummeting of the company's share price. Hardly a day goes by without some form of media speculation concerning the fate of this company, which many people seem to forget is still the home of four of Australia's most valuable wine brands in Penfolds, Lindemans, Rosemount and Wynns. The release of the much-hyped 1998 Grange resulted in the usual hysteria, as certain customers known to retailers at only one time of year clamor to get their hands on the supposed liquid gold. A great Grange, to be sure, but unlike any other before it.

A stable and profitable domestic industry is crucial to Australian wine, since recent currency fluctuations simply confirm that it can't place all its eggs in the export basket. Right now the domestic Australian scene is an overcrowded jungle, with a plethora of brands fighting for a declining number of opportunities at the retail and wholesale levels. Dozens of wineries simply can't get distribution of any kind, and even if they did, there's no guarantee anyone would stock their wine. The dramatic recent expansion of the country's two major retailers and their increasing buying power are to some extent polarizing wine retail in Australia, but are also creating opportunities for small independent operators to exploit their comparative flexibility and possibly superior levels of service.

The 2002 South Australian whites. While it was cool enough and late enough to make life difficult for many of the state's leading red vineyards, the Indian summer experienced at the end of the 2002 season enabled many of South Australia's white vineyards to produce crops of rare quality. Coming immediately after the hottest summer ever recorded in this state, 2002 began with one of the coolest springs in a century. Then followed one of the warmest autumns in 20 years.

Grapes ripened naturally, with perfect composition and flavor, especially riesling in the Clare Valley, sauvignon blanc in the Adelaide Hills and riesling in the Eden Valley. Two thousand two was really a classic cool-climate vintage, so the wines express a profoundly different set of flavors than usual. As a group the Clare rieslings are exceptionally fragrant and floral, with hints of wet slate and cool-climate traminer-like musk on occasion. There's a greater focus on pear and apple fruit, along with the expected range of lemon-lime citrus qualities. They're rounder, juicier and altogether more sumptuous, but there's still a tautness and knife-edge sharpness about their racy acidity.

The 2002 Eden Valley rieslings are not far behind, but at this stage 2001 in this region may still go down as the more classical of the two seasons. There's not much more you can say about the 2002 Adelaide Hills sauvignon blancs other than to suggest that they have much in common with the top examples from Marlborough in New Zealand and share some of their raciness and mineral freshness.

Unlikely to be repeated at this level of quality for some time, the 2002 Clare rieslings are the aristocrats of the vintage. The rapidly ascending international profiles of makers like Grosset, Pike's, Petaluma, Tim Adams, Leo Buring, Mount Horrocks, Knappstein, Mitchell, Tim Adams and Jim Barry are certainly being regarded with some disbelief by people unfamiliar with the modern "dry spätlese" expression of Australian riesling, but I make no apology for the very high scores given to several of these wines. The best of the 2002 releases marry the dryness and length witnessed in great Wachau riesling with the spicy aromatics and mouth feel associated with Alsace. They drink superbly in their youth, yet will look their best with a decade of age or more.

Drought, bushfires and wine quality. Australia, as the present is surely reminding us, is the world's driest continent. Now in the grip of a three-year drought, which in reality extends beyond that in some regions, the country is faced with a dramatic reassessment of its priorities with respect to how its scarce water supplies should best be deployed in the future. Fortunately the wine industry is well placed to demonstrate that not only does it use water more efficiently than most agricultural and horticultural industries, but through direct domestic and overseas sales and indirectly through promotional and tourism-related benefits it produces a significantly greater net economic benefit than most competing end-uses of this scarce resource.

That said, the fact that BRL Hardy admitted guilt to four charges of polluting the environment with wine effluent before South Australia's Environment Court shows that there is much to be done before the wine industry can be satisfied with its profile as a sensible environmental citizen, which might yet jeopardize its ability to get its way in the looming political battle over water usage and rights.

The drought's effect on wine quality has been an insidious one. Whereas water stress and salinity-related issues created by years of irrigation [much of the water being applied to the vines in the process of irrigation is becoming increasingly saline] were clearly visible across large areas of the Australian viticultural landscape prior to the 2003 vintage, it's now possible to detect the beginnings of stress influences in wines dating back to 1999, depending where they're from. Water stress undoubtedly contributed to the widely uneven ripeness witnessed across the 2000 vintage, and while vineyard managers were generally better equipped to deal with drought and heat in 2001, the effects of water stress and salinity stress are widely visible in the vintage's wines.

There's clearly less herbaceous underripe influence or excessively porty, dehydrated and pruney character about the 2001 reds than in their immediate predecessors. What I'm beginning to identify as the "2001 character" is that while many reds begin impressively, many fall short on the finish, leaving just oak and tannin. Their concentration of forward fruit is very impressive, but winemakers have deftly deployed oak and other artifice to mask their deficiencies in length of fresh, vibrant flavor. Another problem I am noticing more frequently in my tastings is the appearance of what I assume to be a chloride-related saline taste in reds and to a lesser extent in whites. The region where I've noticed this unpleasant character most frequently is McLaren Vale, and I've little doubt the causes are related to water supply and soil salinity.

Thanks largely to the ongoing drought, Australia's reds from 2002 and 2003 will continue to be a mixed bag. There will be highlights, but for genuine, typically Australian fruit sweetness and intensity we are certainly still waiting for another year like 1998.

Are Australian winemakers suddenly going too "hands-off" in their approach? A harsh critic might suggest that to a certain degree, Australian winemakers are now endeavoring to make the very sorts of wine it's been their habit over the past three decades to criticize the French for making. If you're going to get wild and feral, you might as well do it properly, I guess. So, keen to attract the right reviews from the relatively youthful and inexperienced segment of the Australian wine media, many makers are deliberately shunning the basic principles that fostered the technical reliability and soundness for which Australian wine has traditionally been known.

By keeping pHs high and acid levels low, by keeping wines on their gross lees for longer periods than usual, by using extremely low levels of sulfur dioxide or none at all, and by shunning even the coarsest of filtration prior to bottling, winemakers are creating the perfect environment for microbial difficulties, of which brettanomyces is the most obvious.

But not obvious to all. In my experience around 70% of winemakers and a substantially higher percentage of the trade and public are unable to identify the effects of this spoilage yeast for what they are. And I'm not talking subliminal levels here - far from it. At a recent event I attended in New Zealand, only a tiny percentage of the audience at a significant pinot noir tasting - which comprised a hefty proportion of winemakers and other trade, not to mention a well-known M.W. - could appreciate that one of the wines served to them was little other than an exercise in the extreme effects of brettanomyces. The audience quietened rather quickly when the wine's maker bravely told the unhappy truth. In my opinion an Australian audience would hardly have differed in its views, since "brett" is indeed a very recent introduction to our wine vocabulary.

Because these wines have yet to be opened as old bottles, and because until recent times our makers have experienced very few difficult seasons, the dangers associated with such deliberately poor conservation of wine have yet to become so obvious that everyone agrees they exist. Until then, brettanomyces will continue to play a significant and indeed negative role in certain Australian pinot noirs and blends of shiraz, grenache and mourvèdre. It's most evident where makers are seeking the rapid (or instantaneous) appearance of rustic farmyard, feral and funky influences in their red wines, especially earthy, savory and meaty qualities at the finish. When, in my tasting notes, I use some of these expressions - especially "horse hair" - don't be surprised if brettanomyces is a major reason.

Australian pinot noir. While many people have the idea that Australia is far too hot and dry even to contemplate producing high-quality pinot noir, it's possible they're not aware that the country does have a substantial ski resort industry. Not that I'd suggest planting pinot above the snowline, but there are suitable sites with climates directly akin to Burgundy's.

Several hundred Australian vignerons are trying to grow serious pinot noir. The truth is that most won't even come close. In my annual guide to Australian wine I allocate my top ranking to just 2 pinot noirs (out of 18 top rankings in total), with 12 given second rank and 17 third. Only the occasional wine from a maker outside that group really has any merit at all. I'm saying this just to make clear that I don't expect Australia ever to raise the concerted challenge to Burgundy posed by regions like Oregon or Central Otago in New Zealand.

But I do believe that the best makers of pinot noir in Australia deserve to be taken very seriously, as seriously as any other players in what the Europeans consider to be wine's New World. Our leading group, comprising makers like Bass Phillip, Bannockburn, Mount Mary, Giaconda and Freycinet, is small and excellent. Other wineries like Kooyong and Epis are doing the right things to join this club. Because these vineyards come from various regions - where other makers are also attempting to make serious pinot - there's no single Australian geographical focus for this variety, which naturally makes it hard to understand and pin down.

In Australia, pinot noir makers rate me as the hardest of all the critics to please. Bear this in mind as you consider the some of the high scores I've submitted here!

A footnote. Readers of this issue seeking a direct comparison between my impressions of certain high-profile Australian wines (for the most part, shiraz bottlings with very high alcohol, made from ultraripe fruit and revealing exceptionally high levels of tannins, either natural or added) and those of the U.S. wine critics who made them famous are in some cases going to be disappointed. Why? Because some of these wines are not included in this report. Why? Because either alone or after dialogue with their U.S. importers, their makers decided not to submit samples to me. Why? They recognize, based on my track record of rating such wines, that I would be unlikely to rate them in such extremely positive fashion. Lukewarm or even negative reviews would hardly support their profile in the U.S. market, or indeed their mostly high prices.

I entirely support the right of wineries not to submit their wines to critics, just as they may choose not to enter their wines in competitions or shows. I also support their right to show their wines on a selective basis to critics more likely to extol their virtues, perceived or otherwise. The flip side, however, is that I have the right to explain why I haven't reviewed them here.