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.