New Releases from Australia, Part One

There's no sugar-coating the fact that Australian wines have been struggling in the U.S. market.  That point was driven home to me last year and again this spring and summer when the number of new Aussie releases available here seemed like a trickle compared to the tidal wave of the early 2000s.  All of the importers I spoke to over the last few months told me that they have been making their buying decisions very carefully for fear of re-creating the inventory logjam that they are only now escaping. 

What's ironic is that while the American fine wine-buying market was busy rejecting Australian wines out of hand as too big, too ripe and just too much, the best American importers were quietly bringing in Australian wines that were anything but that.  Those wines, mostly from small producers who grow their own grapes, usually have serious worldwide followings, not to mention a rabid coterie of local fans who'll grab any bottles that aren't spoken for.  The smaller producers make far less wine than they can sell but, fortunately, they tend to take a longer view of the wine market rather than grabbing for the fastest dollar, pound or yen.

Yankee winos who have had their palates assaulted too many times by outsized, over-the-top, excessively alcoholic Aussie wines have decided to avoid the category outright,and they're usually pretty vocal about it.  But they often don't know what they're shunning until it's sitting in a glass in front of them.  If I had a dime for every time I've poured a bracing Clare Valley riesling, Yarra pinot noir, Margaret River cabernet or Adelaide Hills sauvignon blanc for somebody who responded with "you mean that's from Australia?," I'd be able to afford a few cases of Mollydooker.

The 2008 and 2009 vintages presented Australia's growers with myriad climatic and circumstantial problems, including some humongous fires, which kept production down pretty much countrywide.  More than a few producers and importers I spoke to this year said, ruefully, that if you have to have a low-demand market it's good not to have much supply, and vice-versa.  Two thousand ten, on the other hand, looks quite solid across the continent, with an emphasis on clarity and energy for both red and white wines from most regions.

Producers and importers have held prices steady or even rolled them back for all but the bluest of the blue chip Australian wines, and tariffs for many outstanding wines have really come down in the last couple of years.  Fortunately, many of the top Australian producers and their American importers have stuck with the U.S. market and are looking beyond the current malaise rather than turning back toward an adoring domestic market.  It gives a sobering perspective to look at prices commanded for many wines in Sydney or Melbourne and then compare them to retail tariffs here in the U.S.  As all of the American importers I talk with regularly tell me, the good guys are fully committed to the huge American market, and they realize that while this is a tough environment right now, quality will out.

I will publish more tasting notes on new releases from Australia in the next issue of the IWC.