The Best New Wines from Australia

The crop of new releases from Australia could make a manic-depressive out of even the most rational taster. For every sublimely rich, flamboyant shiraz (and there are some extraordinary wines featured in these reviews), there's a thin, bitter cabernet/merlot blend that could as easily have been made in a chemistry lab as from grapes in a winery. On one hand, there are striking bargains in the under-$15 range; on the other, there are high-priced wines whose heavy extraction, clumsy use of American oak or other excesses make them nearly impossible to swallow. There have never been as many excellent Australian bottles available in export markets, yet over the past two months I tasted multiple blind flights of wine that could be rejected as inferior in two minutes flat. My notes for these wines tended to be brief: excessively sour, overextracted, dilute, unclean, fruit-deficient, sickly-sweet, no finish.

No doubt the same statements could be made about the wines of many other important viticultural areas. But Australia is something of a special case. Australian wine continues to sell well in the U.S. market, and not just to the more discriminating types who read this journal. There is a widespread, and mostly accurate, perception that Australia's best inexpensive varietal bottlings are more satisfying wines than their counterparts from California; similarly, many of the better, relatively expensive Australian wines are more affordable and easier to find at the retail level than their West Coast equivalents. The problem, though, is that there are more importers eager to launch new labels here than there are competent producers Down Under. And many of Australia's old standbys are coasting on reputations established years ago.

The worst excesses I found in my extensive recent tastings were vegetal flavors in the reds (sometimes appearing alongside overripe notes), overextraction, and excessive acidification that robs too many wines of their ability to give pleasure. Australia's more commercial-minded larger producers who actively ship their wines all over the world year-round seem especially prone to acidifying their wines, often rendering them hard and tart. I am also not generally a fan of new American oak barrels when they dominate the wine. To be fair, many talented winemakers from around the world continue to use properly seasoned American barrels with excellent results, but I find that many Australian wines made with more than a small percentage of new American barrels feature so much bourbon and tar and coffee grounds as to overwhelm their more subtle varietal and site characteristics.

A word on current vintages. Most sources agree that 1998 is a superb vintage, with healthy sugars supported by sound natural acidity and mostly ripe tannins. Some are already calling it the best of the '90s. Descriptions of the wines vary among Australian insiders: some describe the '98 reds as balanced, structured wines with long aging potential, while others say they will also offer early drinkability (these two characteristics are hardly mutually exclusive). Certainly in my tastings many red wines from '98 were showing well early.

Some sources describe the '99 whites as vibrant and expressive early, and the reds as softer than the '98s. But one source who makes wine in the Barossa Valley told me that red grapes such as shiraz and cabernet needed extended hang time to ripen thoroughly, and that many '99s feature rather hard tannins. Nineteen ninety-nine was a cool year in the Margaret River area of Western Australia; a number of white wines I tasted showed only marginal ripeness and lacked their usual density of texture.