Australia offers an extraordinary diversity of wine, producing some of the world's biggest, fullest, most powerful dry reds as well as remarkably fresh, lively whites. It's also home to incredible values, such as Yellow Tail, a $7 wine that sold more than four million cases last year in the United States alone. Indeed, Australia seems to be doing something for everyone, in every price range. But what wines does Australia do bestand worst?
VALUE WINES Beyond Yellow Tail
There is no question that Australia's most dramatic assault on the world market has been with its value wines. These are generally not from specific appellations but blends made by huge enterprises like Penfolds, Rosemount or Casella Estatethe group behind Yellow Tail. Most of these wines sell for less than $10 a bottle and offer uncomplicated fruit flavors in clean, unwooded or minimally oaked styles. Almost all of them (95 percent) are best drunk within one to three years of the vintage, especially the whiteswhich tend to have a particularly short window of drinkability. (For example, this year, no whites from vintages before 2002 should be consumed, and no reds older than the 2000 vintage.)
Other value wines with more of a regional profile include those from producers like d'Arenberg in McLaren Vale, whose The Broken Fishplate Sauvignon Blanc, The Dry Dam Riesling and The Hermit Crab Marsanne Viognier are all gorgeous buys at around $15 a bottle. Notable too, at $10 to $15 a bottle, are the Shiraz Cabernet from Bleasdale Vineyards and its Langhorne Crossing Cabernet Shiraz, as well as the Nugan Family Estate 2002 Shiraz, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignonall less than $13 a bottle. Famed Yalumba winery in the Barossa Valley has introduced a new Y series (Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Riesling and Shiraz) that are first-rate buys at less than $10 a bottle; its Yalumba Bush Vine Grenache, fashioned with grapes from old head-pruned vines, is also a deal at a few dollars more. And last but not least is Thorn-Clarke, a winery that has produced some of the most strikingly well-priced offerings I have tasted in recent years. Its Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon (marketed under the Milton Park label) are merely competent, but its Shotfire Ridge Shiraz and Shotfire Ridge Barossa Valley Cuvee (each around $19) are amazing for the price.
The wines with the most flavor, concentration, exuberance and intensity of any in the $12 to $15 price category, however, must be those of Marquis Philips, a label created by two of South Australia's finest winemakers, Sarah and Sparky Marquis, in alliance with their American importer (and F&W contributing editor) Dan Philips. Every wine (Cabernet, Merlot, Shiraz, Sarah's Blend) in the portfolio offers tremendous flavor intensity, easily equal to that of a wine costing two to three times as much.
Blockbuster Shiraz and Grenache
There is nothing in the world like the extraordinary Shiraz and Grenache wines from South Australia. While the most sought-after are undeniably expensive (they're made in tiny quantities from ancient vines), they are huge, rich and concentrated, and represent some of planet Earth's most compelling wines.
Be warned: These wines are not for everyone. Those who prefer more delicate, European-style aromas and flavors may find these reds too intense and flamboyant. Nevertheless, they have no competition in the world for what they are. Many can age graciously for 20 to 25 years, becoming more civilized at maturity than they are in their massive, considerable youth.
Geography is critical here. Nearly all the top wines emerge from a small wedge of land in South Australia sandwiched between McLaren Vale in the south and the famed Barossa and Clare valleys, both north of the city of Adelaide. Current vintages include 2001 and 2002, both significantly more flavorful than the good but uninspiring 2000s and the understated 1999s. The wines that follow range in price from a modest $30 to a whopping $150-plus a bottle.
The following are a few of my favorite Barossa wineries, listed not in order of preference but alphabetically. I admire Amon-Ra's full-throttle wines (made in both the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale), which generally elicit one wow after another. Burge Family Winemakers produces the sensational Draycott Premium Shiraz and a marvelous Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvèdre blend called Olive Hill. One of the oldest winemaking families in the Barossa is the Dutschke family, whose Single Barrel Shiraz, Oscar Semmler Shiraz and St. Jakobi Shiraz are all old-vine cuvées that are not for the shy. Working in both the Barossa and Eden valleys, Henschke winery produces some of Australia's most renowned reds; their Mount Edelstone Shiraz and Hill of Grace Shiraz (both from the Eden Valley) are legendary wines that deserve the accolades that they receive. Charles Melton produces stunningly well-proportioned, elegant reds at his Barossa estate, while the wines made by David Powell at TorbreckJuveniles, The Factor, Descendant and RunRigare about as palate-pleasing as Australian Shiraz can be. A Barossa winery not to be missed is Veritas, whose wines are produced by the highly skilled Rolf Binder, a consultant to a number of top South Australian wineries. His Heysen Shiraz and Hanisch Vineyard Shiraz are consistently brilliant wines. And finally, Yalumba, the winery I cited for values, also produces very concentrated and expensive Shirazes, including The Octavius Shiraz and The Reserve Shiraz Cabernetboth of which will age gracefully for 10 to 15 years.
Just north of the Barossa, in South Australia's Clare Valley, Jim Barry turns out a magnificent Shiraz called The Armagh. This classic, opaque purple-colored Shiraz has a smoky nose of camphor, blackberry liqueur and new saddle leather. But note: Its massive, full-bodied flavors can be an insult to those with European tastes. Also of note: The Kilikanoon winery turns out spectacular cuvées like its Oracle Shiraz and Covenant Shiraz.
One of Australia'snot to mention the world'sgreatest wineries is Clarendon Hills, which produces five first-rate old-vine Grenache cuvées and six cuvées of old-vine Shiraz (which they call Syrah in deference to this varietal's French ancestry) that are all splendidly rich, complex, breathtaking wines of great intensity yet extraordinary balance, texture and purity. Winemaker and winery owner Roman Bratasiuk is an oversize, take-no-prisoners Aussie (not unlike his wines) and one of the planet's most talented winemakers. A Bratasiuk neighbor, Coriole, also turns out brilliant old-vine Shiraz; their Lloyd Reserve is a winner as well as a whopper. The same could be said for the Elderton Command Shiraz, which is heavy on oak, but impeccably made, concentrated and intense. Three more wines of note are the Reserve Shiraz from Lengs & Cooter and the Reserve and Ellen Street Shirazes from the Maxwell winery. (Maxwell's Reserve is much more expensive than its Ellen Street though both are profoundly flavored.)
Another tiny McLaren Vale operation is the superstar winery Noon. Their Eclipse (a proprietary blend of old-vine Grenache and Shiraz) and Reserve Shiraz are nearly perfect efforts. A neighbor, Oliver's Taranga, also produces two magnificent McLaren Shirazesa regular bottling and a more expensive offering, Reserve HJ Shiraz.
Last but not least, Sarah and Sparky Marquis, who fashioned the great Marquis Philips value wines cited earlier, also made an unbelievable McLaren Vale Shiraz at Shirvington debuting with the 2001 vintage. The 2002 that followed was virtually perfect.
Geography is undoubtedly important when it comes to Australia's best wines, especially its old-vine Shiraz and Grenache, and few great efforts emerge from other areas (particularly areas that Australian wine writers have laudednotably Western Australia, Margaret River and the Hunter Valley). Two exceptions are Wild Duck Creek, which makes the brilliant Springflat Shiraz, and Whistling Eagle's Eagle's Blood Shiraz, both made in Heathcote.
Some Australian wineries have excelled with Cabernet Sauvignon (and occasionally with Merlot and Chardonnay), but this is often dangerous territory for lovers of Australian wine. That said, I have found some successes, including d'Arenberg's The Coppermine Road McLaren Vale Cabernet Sauvignonone of the most serious efforts from the southas well as Cape d'Estaing's from the enchanted Kangaroo Island off the coast of Adelaide. Others of note include Clarendon Hills' single-vineyard Cabernets, all of which possess superb intensity as well as balance. In the Barossa Valley, producers Craneford, Elderton, Greenock Creek, Haan and Turkey Flat all make fine Cabernet Sauvingons. Henry's Drive Cabernet, made in Padthaway, Henschke's Cyril Henschke Cabernet from Eden Valley and Clare Valley's Kilikanoon Cabernet (Blocks Road bottling) are all notable. Leeuwin Estate makes one of Australia's great Bordeaux-styled Cabernets in the Margaret River area, while Moss Wood and Vasse Felix are Western Australian wineries that both excel with Cabernet Sauvignon. Penfolds' Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707 is often topflight. A Cabernet of particular note is produced by the Parker winery (no relation to me) in Coonawarra. It's a fabulous cuvée called Terra Rossa First Growth with a personality not unlike Pauillac's Château Lynch-Bages.
Generally speaking, when Australian winemakers try to make delicate, European-styled wines of finesse and lightness, the wines often come across as pale imitations of the originals. One exception is Australian Riesling, delicious, dry wines meant to be consumed in their first two years of life. The finest Rieslings tend to emerge from three regions: the Clare Valley and, increasingly, Adelaide Hills and Margaret River in the far west of Australia. My favorites include Grosset, Petaluma, Leeuwin Estate (whose Margaret River Rieslings are sensational), Tim Adams, Frankland Estate (also in Western Australia), Henschke, Pikes and Reilly's.
It may seem hard to believeunless you sit down and taste thembut some of the world's greatest sweet wines are made in the Rutherglen region of Victoria, Australia. While some are extraordinarily expensive, others still sell for a song. But the nectarlike, ageless ports and fortified Muscats and Tokays of Rutherglen are truly some of the world's greatest wines, and deserve attention.
Some of my favorites include Bill Chambers' nonvintage blends of Muscadelle (Tokay) and Muscat, marketed under the Chambers Rosewood label, that sell for $15 to $20 (half-bottle) and are nearly as good as their ancient solera system Rare Muscadelle (Tokay) and Rare Muscats that date from over a century ago and sell for close to $300 a half-bottle. They're all quite special and should be on the buying list of anyone looking for a distinctive after-dinner drink.
Other names to look for include R. L. Buller, which makes inexpensive nonvintage Tawny and Muscat as well as top-of-the-line Calliope Rare Muscat and Calliope Rare Tokay (which cost around $80 a half-bottle); Campbells nonvintage Rutherglen Muscat and Tokay as well as their more expensive bottlings of Rare Muscat Merchant Prince and Rare Tokay Isabella. Look too for Dutschke's nonvintage Tawny and Tokay, and Yalumba's Antique Tawny, Museum Muscat ($17 per half-bottle) and the more expensive but compelling 50 Year Old Tawny. And finally, look for Stanton & Killeen's nonvintage Muscat and Tokay; both are brilliant efforts and sell for less than $20 a half-bottle.
Bottom Line: Australia Now
The primary wine strengths of Australia are diametrically opposed. The great value wines that Australia has been able to create, thanks to its perfection of industrial farming, will continue to impress wine drinkers on a budget with their exuberance and uncomplicated fruit flavors. At the other extreme, the massive old-vine offerings from South Australia, particularly from the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Clare Valley, are the types of wine that no one does better than Australia. They will continue to define the image of greatness in Australia.
As far as Australia's other wine regions are concerned, there already are, and will continue to be, breakthrough efforts with varietals such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, but they generally tend to be pale imitations of the stuff from Europe. Perhaps the biggest surprise and best development from Australia right now is the quality of its dry whites, including Riesling as well as some of the more esoteric grapes such as Verdelho. And while Australia is not likely to supplant Germany or Portugal with these efforts, the results to date have been encouraging.
The name of one of these importers on a bottle usually guarantees a wine of quality and integrity.
The Australian Premium Wine Collection
Solana Beach, CA
Click Wine Group
The Grateful Palate
Old Bridge Cellars
Old Vines Australia
Cottesloe, Western Australia
KEN ONISH AND JOHN GORMAN
Huntington Beach, CA
F&W contributing editor Robert M. Parker, Jr., who publishes the bimonthly Wine Advocate, is the world's most influential wine critic.