New Releases from Australia, Part 2

A recent two-week trip to Victoria made palpable to me what I’ve been saying in these pages for the past couple of years: Australia is one of the world’s most diverse wine-growing countries. Late July of 2007 brought welcome rain across Australia’s southeast, where the vast majority of important vineyards are located. As if to emphasize how varied climate conditions can be in Australia, winery workers were snowboarding through their vineyards in colder, high-altitude sites.

For sheer range of varieties and wine styles, it is hard to match Australia. (This “country” is indeed a continent, after all.) Here’s just a taste of what the continent offers: Bone-dry, mineral-driven sparking wines based on chardonnay. Tooth-rattling rieslings. White and red Burgundy look-alikes. Cabernet-based wines that are more like traditional Bordeaux than most of today’s clarets. Grenache and syrah bottlings with the elegance and complexity of Rhône wines.

And yet Australia remains an undiscovered gem for too many American wine-lovers. There is life beyond high-octane, sweet, hot-climate shiraz, but you’d hardly know it by perusing the shelves of most wine shops or the pages of some wine journals stateside. In a wine world where “hedonistic” has become Orwellian newspeak for “thick, heavy and sweet, with limited complexity,” I suppose that this should come as no great surprise. Still, it amazes me that wine enthusiasts who pride themselves on knowing who owns individual rows in Burgundy vineyards, what clones were planted and where they came from, and other minutiae, can so easily refer to “Australian wine,” usually with a dismissive sneer, as if there were but a single type.

Often such statements are based on very limited real-world experience. The taster has perhaps sampled a highly touted but noxiously alcoholic and barely drinkable bottle or three of sweet shiraz. This is hardly Australia’s best calling card for attracting true wine lovers, most of whom do not insist that their wines be outsized and syrupy. Yes, the superripe, hot-climate style of wine has its fans, but these wines are aberrations, and it would be a shame if consumers used such marginal examples as a measuring stick for Australian red wine.

In the second part of this year’s coverage of Australia I have tried to include as many different regions and styles as possible. Having had the chance to scan the wine lists at some of Melbourne’s best restaurants, as well as the shelves of serious wine shops and local auction listings, I was reminded that we in the States enjoy an embarrassment of Australia’s wine riches—if only consumers here would take advantage of this windfall. Many wines that are heavily oversubscribed in their home market are widely available in the U.S., often at considerably lower prices than in Australia. (Conversely, many of the wines that garner the highest ratings in some American publications are rejected by most Australian consumers as extreme in the extreme.) I hope that my enthusiasm for the diversity offered by Australia will stimulate even the oft-burned shiraz point-chaser to give this continent’s wines another try. There is a time and place for monster reds, but I wouldn’t want to drink them every night.