Tasting through 137 Australian reds in about five days is a good way to get a very clear picture of what's happening in Australian winemaking. What this intensive tasting of both affordable and benchmark bottlings revealed—other than the enormous rise in red wines sealed with screw caps, plastic corks, Vino-Loks, Zorks and other novel closures—is that, contrary to popular belief, ripeness is not all when it comes to Australian reds. The best wines from my tasting offer rich, delicious fruit flavors, ranging from bright cherry to ripe blackberry and plum (for the Shirazes and Grenaches) or from red currant to cassis (for the Cabernets). Yet at the same time they maintain a balance of acidity and tannins that keeps them from simply resembling alcoholic fruit juice (the worst wines I tasted were like Welch's with a kick, but no matter). The entire group of wines I tried spanned a remarkable range of grape varieties, including some unexpected ones like Tempranillo and Sangiovese, but the ones that made the cut are predominantly Shiraz-based, with a few standout Cabernet Sauvignons thrown in.
As often as not, though, my favorite wines were blends: Shiraz with Cabernet, or with Grenache and Mourvèdre, or with—the latest trend—a touch of the white variety Viognier, usually no more than 5 or 6 percent, which adds a spicy lift to the aroma and, for obscure reasons that have to do with wine chemistry, actually intensifies the purple-red color.
Australian wine's rise to popularity in the U.S. has been astonishing. About 1.6 million cases were imported back in 1995, a number that has rocketed to over 23 million cases in 2005. The wines I've recommended, broken into two categories (terrific values and top-flight, superstar bottlings), show exactly why Americans have come to love Australian wine so much.
AUSTRALIA'S BEST REDS OVER $20
1999 Jacob's Creek Centenary Hill Shiraz ($33) Pure Barossa in its basic blackberry richness, this selection from Jacob's Creek's best vineyards has benefited from an additional couple of years of age, taking on complex mint and raspberry liqueur notes.
2002 Frankland Estate Olmo's Reward ($34) One of the premier wineries of western Australia, Frankland Estate makes superb Riesling, as well as this unusual, evocative Cabernet Francdominated red blend. The aroma is a wild mix of vanilla and herbal notes hovering over the cherry-liqueur flavor.
2003 Grant Burge Nebuchadnezzar Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon ($34) Fifth-generation Barossa winemaker Grant Burge founded his own company in 1988 and has since shot to success, carried by his exotic, Old Testamentnamed wines. This new blend of Shiraz and Cabernet is elegant and forceful, full of chocolate and pepper notes.
2002 Penfolds St. Henri Shiraz ($40) Penfolds Grange gets all the press—it's probably the most famous Australian wine—with the result that St. Henri is often overlooked. That's a mistake: This svelte, elegant, licoricey red, made without any new-oak influence at all, is a polished, ageworthy expression of Shiraz.
2001 Leasingham Classic Clare Shiraz ($45) Founded in 1893 by a consortium of businessmen, Leasingham helped define Shiraz from the Clare Valley. Today its young, talented winemaker Kerri Thompson fashions superlative wines like this minty, spicy Shiraz.
2004 Kalleske Greenock Shiraz ($55) Oak scents that suggest nothing so much as just-brewed cappuccino, along with ample but finely delineated boysenberry fruit, are the hallmarks of this stunning Shiraz, made by winemaker Troy Kalleske from organic grapes grown on his family's Barossa Valley farm.
2004 Kaesler "The Bogan" Shiraz ($60) This is exemplary Shiraz, from a vineyard first planted by Silesian immigrants in the Barossa Valley in 1893, with a scent of violets and candied berries, silky-smooth tannins and deep, earthy blackberry fruit. The reason? Some of those 1893 vines actually still contribute grapes to this bottling.
2003 Clarendon Hills Sandown Cabernet Sauvignon ($65) Since winemaker Roman Bratasiuk established Clarendon Hills in 1989, the property has become one of the most sought-after names in single-vineyard, old-vine Australian reds. This dark, cassis-driven Cabernet comes from vines planted in 1920.
2002 Gralyn Cabernet Sauvignon ($75) From a boutique producer in the cool Willyabrup subregion of the Margaret River, this is formidable Cabernet, with an aroma of cedar and mint, refined black currant flavor and firm, finely knit tannins.
2001 Wolf Blass Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz ($70) This is the 29th vintage of Black Label, one of the first significant Cabernet-Shiraz blends in Australia and still one of the finest. A hot, dry year, 2001 gave superb concentration—shown here in powerful, smoky black and red fruit flavors, ending on a sustained spicy note.
2001 Hardys Eileen Hardy Shiraz ($90) Named after the matriarch of the Hardy family, this selection of the best lots from Hardys' vineyards is gorgeous Shiraz, with haunting aromas of kirsch, clove and black pepper.
2004 Two Hands Aerope Grenache ($105) The medium ruby color of this wine is deceptive: The flavors of this old-vine Barossa Grenache are so pure and intense—wild raspberries and strawberries, wood smoke, vanilla—that they linger for minutes.
2002 Henschke Keyneton Estate Euphonium ($45) Known for its famous (and famously expensive) Hill of Grace Shiraz, Henschke also makes this seductive, cedary blend of Shiraz, Cabernet and Merlot.
2002 Katnook Estate Prodigy Shiraz ($50) This flagship Shiraz bottling from Coonawarra standout Katnook Estate, produced only in top years, recalls cocoa and red currants, with a hint of black pepper.
AUSTRALIA'S BEST REDS FOR $20 AND UNDER
2005 Banrock Station South Eastern Australia Shiraz ($5) Scents of ripe berries and tangy red raspberry flavors define this simple but delicious Shiraz, which ends on a fresh, peppery note. The winery donates a portion of all its proceeds to environmental projects around the world.
2005 Pillar Box Red ($10) Australian superstar winemaker Chris Ringland and grape growers Mark and Kim Longbottom fashion this meaty, juicy blend of Shiraz, Cabernet and Merlot from vineyards in the cool, limestone-rich Padthaway region, between Adelaide and Melbourne.
2003 Hill of Content Grenache Shiraz ($14) Exporter John Larchet custom-blends his Hill of Content wines from vineyards in the Clare Valley, McLaren Vale and Adelaide Hills. This substantial blend of 74 percent Grenache and 26 percent Shiraz is soft and lush, suggesting cherry-raspberry compote.
2004 Rutherglen Estates "The Reunion" ($15) Blends of Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvèdre—GSMs, as they're often called—mostly use spicy, rustic Mourvèdre as a grace note to the other varieties. This blend from Rutherglen of 40 percent Mourvèdre, 35 percent Shiraz and 25 percent Grenache reverses that, resulting in an earthy, peppery red.
2005 Layer Cake Shiraz ($15) The inaugural release of this new Shiraz from Jayson Woodbridge, proprietor and winemaker of cult California Cabernet producer Hundred Acre, is made with grapes from four vineyards strung along a winding five-mile section of the Barossa hills. The violet-and-blueberry scent leads into sweet black-cherry flavors.
2004 Ringbolt Cabernet Sauvignon ($15) The Margaret River region of western Australia has made a name for itself as a source of superb Cabernet Sauvignon, thanks in part to its cool, maritime climate. This aromatic, plummy bottling, named after one of the many shipwrecks lying off the region's rocky coast, is a great introduction.
2004 Trevor Jones Boots Shiraz ($15) Black raspberry flavors and a cool hint of pure spearmint on the nose define this moderately priced red from maverick (and extravagantly mustachioed) winemaker Trevor Jones; old-vine vineyards from throughout the southern Barossa region supply the grapes.
2005 Black Chook Shiraz-Viognier ($17) Fermenting Syrah with a small amount of Viognier has been done for centuries in France's Rhône valley. Here, winemaker Ben Riggs uses the combination of Shiraz and Viognier to sublime effect, creating a vivid, blackberry compoteflavored wine that has an elusive hint of white peach in its scent.
2004 d'Arenberg "The Custodian" Grenache ($19) Chester Osborn was one of the originators of the trend toward oddly-named Australian wines—for instance, the Broken Fishplate (Sauvignon Blanc), the Money Spider (Roussanne) and the Laughing Magpie (Shiraz Viognier). This sultry, coffee-and-spicescented Grenache—some of it sourced from 120-year-old vines—is less oddly named, but it's one of his most compelling bottlings.
2004 Tintara McLaren Vale Shiraz ($19) All coffee and smoke at first, this generous Shiraz from the McLaren Vale—a region with a Mediterranean climate ideal for warmth-loving grape varieties—opens into sweet, lush boysenberry flavors.
2004 Penley Estate Condor Shiraz Cabernet ($20) Longtime Coonawarra winemaker Kym Tolley is equally at home with Shiraz and Cabernet; his top bottlings of both are among the best in the region. His basic Condor blends the two for a smoky red with green peppercorn notes.
2004 Langmeil Three Gardens Shiraz Grenache Mourvèdre ($17) Dry-grown 70-year-old Grenache vines provide the meaty, ripe-cherry flavors at the heart of this southern Rhôneinspired blend.
2002 Mak Clare Valley Shiraz ($18) The Mak line of varietal wines comes from Australia's top growing regions—such as the Clare Valley, which produced this cocoa-scented red, full of smoky mulberry flavor.