Everything you need to know about the world's hottest wine country: the history, the geography, the bottles and the breakthroughs.


I was in Seattle not long ago and had consistently better Italian wine there than I did a few weeks earlier in Italy itself. I can't say for sure if New York gets better Australian wine than, say, Sydney (twenty-some hours in coach, I confess, has kept me from finding out), but I do know that Americans have been getting some pretty great Australian bottles lately. And that's not just a personal observation. According to the Australian Wine Bureau, exports to the United States are setting new records. this year alone, sales of Australian wines to the United States increased by a staggering 50 percent. (About six million cases changed hands this year; five years ago that figure was closer to one.)

We're not just getting more well-priced "value wines" from big names like Lindemans and Penfolds but 100-point-worthy Shirazes from star producers like Torbreck, some of which may only turn out a few hundred bottles a year. Both types of wine have been garnering critical acclaim, as well as serious space on high-profile restaurant wine lists, as more and more accord Australian wines their very own category (while five years ago they might have been relegated, with the wines of Chile, South Africa and Argentina, to that unglamorous column "Other"). All in all, it's pretty clear that the wine drinkers of America are keen for the wines of Australia. But how much do Americans know about the land Down Under? How many of us, for example, even know where that nickname comes from? Here are answers to questions that range from the names of the important wine regions and the greatest white grapes to the most outstanding Shiraz producers.

. Lettie Teague

Australia at a Glance

A Vast, Dry Island
Australia is about the same size as the United States, but its vineyards. like most of its people. are clustered around its cooler southeastern and southwestern fringes.

History in Brief
Winemaking officially began in Australia in 1788 when English settlers planted the first vines near Sydney. Over the next hundred years, the industry rode the roller coaster of fortune, sending vast quantities of "port" to England one decade, enduring deep depression the next. It wasn't until the late 1960s that the wine industry really began to grow; it is now enjoying its most prosperous years ever.

Vines and Grapes
There are close to 400,000 acres of vines in Australia. During the 2000 vintage, these vines squeezed out 1.1 million tons of wine grapes. more than double the vineyard area and annual crush of a decade ago. The two most popular grapes are Chardonnay and Shiraz; Sémillon and Cabernet Sauvignon come next, and workhorse varieties such as Grenache and Riesling are enjoying a resurgence of interest.

Regional Stars
There are about 50 registered wine regions across Australia, and every style of wine imaginable is produced in them. from Champagne-style fizz in the coolest regions to rich, fortified Muscat wines in the hot inland districts. Traditionally, many Australian wines were made with blends of grapes from more than one region, but as the industry grows and matures, winemakers are focusing more on particular regional strengths. In Coonawarra, it's Cabernet Sauvignon; in Barossa, Shiraz is the star; and in the Hunter Valley, Sémillon is the classic grape of choice.

Winery Report
Australia is home to more than 1,200 wineries, almost 10 times the number that existed in the early 1970s. The industry is dramatically polarized: 20 companies produce more than 90 percent of the nation's wine, leaving a thousand or so small, family-run wineries in the premium districts fighting for a share of what's left of the market. However, despite this polarization, the Australian wine industry is surprisingly unified. a crucial factor behind its booming export figures.

Learning the Lingo
Australian wine labels are usually easy to understand: Most include the winery name, the grape or blend of grapes, the vintage and perhaps a regional designation ("South Eastern Australia" or "McLaren Vale"). Occasionally, however, you may come across words and phrases that require an explanation. Here are some of the most popular ones:

Fruit-driven This is used to describe the overtly fruity, rich, almost sweet flavors found in many Australian wines.

Bin number This was originally a reference to the cellar location of a wine stored before release. Bin 389, for example, or Vat 47. Now bins are mostly used as brand names.

Old vine This phrase is often found on Shiraz labels, indicating that the grapes were sourced from old, low-yielding (and theoretically high-quality) vines. It is not, however, controlled by Australia's Label Integrity Program and thus can pretty much mean anything.

. Max Allen

All-Star Shiraz
Shiraz has been successfully grown in Australia for close to two centuries, and not surprisingly, distinct and diverse regional styles have evolved over time. Here, region by region, is a list of some top Shiraz producers.

Barossa Valley The undisputed king of Aussie Shiraz is Penfolds Grange. Developed in the 1950s by legendary winemaker Max Schubert, it is still the model for traditional "big" Shiraz: immense and earthy, produced from very ripe grapes grown on very old vines. While Grange is a multiregion blend, it includes Barossa grapes. Its only true competition for the royal title is Henschke's Hill of Grace, located in the Eden Valley, to the east of the Barossa. The best of the other traditional Barossa-based Shiraz producers include the large companies Peter Lehmann (maker of Stonewell Shiraz) and St. Hallett (Old Block Shiraz), and the small companies Rockford and Charles Melton. The Barossa is also home to a group of idiosyncratic, powerful, tiny-production Shiraz wineries that gained cult status (and consequently raised their prices) after being reviewed favorably by influential wine critic Robert M. Parker, Jr., in the late 1990s. This group includes Torbreck, Greenock Creek and Three Rivers.

McLaren Vale While Barossa Shiraz typically possesses big, earthy flavors, McLaren Vale Shiraz tends to be more plush and chocolatey. Once again, the key to McLaren Vale flavor is old vines and new (often American) oak barrels. The best examples of this lush, brambly style include Rosemount's Balmoral, Fox Creek's Reserve, D'Arenberg's The Dead Arm and Tatachilla's Foundation. McLaren Vale also claims several small-production, ultrarich cult Shirazes, notably Clarendon Hills' Astralis and Noon's Reserve. Also worth looking for are Hardys' Eileen Hardy and Wirra Wirra RSW.

Clare Valley The best Clare Valley Shiraz combines rich, blackberry-flavored fruit with a firm structure and a noticeable eucalyptuslike perfume. The leading wines are from the larger producers Jim Barry (Armagh) and Leasingham (Classic Clare). both truly opulent blockbusters. and the much smaller Tim Adams (Aberfeldy) and Wendouree, a wonderfully historic, low-yielding, century-old winery that makes what is possibly the most densely structured Shiraz in Australia.

Coonawarra Much farther south and cooler than the other three main South Australian Shiraz regions, Coonawarra tends to make medium-bodied, spicier wines. The best producers are the very large Wynns (with its ultrapremium, atypically full-bodied Michael Shiraz), the small Bowen Estate and the new cult label Majella. To the north of Coonawarra, Orlando's Lawson is the top label.

New South Wales This state includes the Hunter Valley region (established in the 1820s) and the cool Canberra District (established in the 1970s). Hunter Valley Shiraz is quite different from anything else made in Australia: It's medium-bodied and savory, with distinctive smells of dry soil and leather. The best traditional producers are the old family wine companies such as Tyrrell's and McWilliams, while fruitier, more modern Hunter Shiraz is exemplified by Brokenwood's Graveyard Shiraz. In Canberra, Clonakilla makes an intense, focused Shiraz.

. M.A.

Best of the Big Producers
Some of Australia's best wines come from its biggest wine companies. The explanation is simple: The big names have access to the best fruit and attract the best winemakers.

Tyrrell's This winery debuted its first vintage in 1864, and despite its size, the company is still family owned. Based in the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, the company produces a wide range of wines from most of Australia's main grape varieties. Although Tyrrell's created Australia's first Chardonnay in 1971. the iconic Vat 47. its most famous wine is its Vat 1 Sémillon. The current vintage, 1995, was released after six years' aging in bottle. It's a unique wine, marked by aromas of honey and buttered toast, bone dry, with a distinctive mineral edge ($50).

Wolf Blass Now part of the vast Beringer Blass Wine Estates group, this Barossa Valley­based wine company is named after a garrulous German-born winemaker famous for his bad taste in everything except wine. The best Wolf Blass wines are Rieslings. Winemaker Wendy Stuckey, the "Queen of Riesling," has a delicate touch with this variety. The 2000 Wolf Blass Gold Label is a blend of grapes from Australia's two famous Riesling valleys, Clare and Eden. On the nose are aromas of lime blossom, river stone and a hint of musk. On the palate, there's supple acidity and a lengthy finish ($14).

Penfolds The shining star of Southcorp, Australia's biggest wine company, Penfolds is based in South Australia and is renowned for reds that epitomize the big, burly, Australian style. While its famous Grange Shiraz gets all the press and carries the big price tag, its St. Henri Shiraz is beloved by those in the know. The 1997 possesses a tight-knit elegance, fine tannins and generous plum and anise flavors ($45).

Rosemount Estate Established in 1969, this winery has quickly become one of Australia's most successful. Its range of wines is uniformly good (and also well marketed). Based in the Hunter Valley, Rosemount sources the fruit for premium wines, such as the 1998 GSM (Grenache, Shiraz, Mourvèdre), from South Australia. This blend debuted in 1994 and the 1998 is the best wine yet. It's rich, with subtly handled oak and a savory finish ($23).

. Gregory Duncan Powell

Super Stickies
Australians who know about wine have been beating a path to the tiny town of Rutherglen in northeastern Victoria in southern Australia for the past several years. Here, eight winemakers, carrying on a century-old tradition, produce two sensational dessert wines: a sweet but exceedingly rich Muscat and a smoother, less fleshy Tokay.

These so-called stickies (their Aussie nickname) have finally achieved what the normally modest Rutherglen winemaker Colin Campbell refers to as "international icon status." In recognition of this, Rutherglen winegrowers instituted a classification system, and the wines they produce are identified by an oval logo featuring a stylized R. Muscats and Tokays thus designated are infused with tiny amounts of Rutherglen's most precious resource: the rich old stock of wines from barrels, some of which may have sat in Rutherglen producers' family cellars for over 100 years.

During my most recent visit to Rutherglen, winemaker Bill Chambers poured me a glass of Muscat from one of these old barrels. Although it was the color of dark chocolate, with the viscosity of overused motor oil, the taste was astonishingly complex. And the aroma? As Australian wine expert James Halliday says, "The bouquet of these acquires complexities which have no parallel in table wines." And, he adds, "If ever it is possible to sense texture without touching it, it is with these wines." These stickies are so potent that when the older wines are blended into newer vintages, their extraordinary characteristics still flourish. Three names to look for: Chambers Rosewood, Campbells and Stanton & Killeen. All produce a limited amount of wine, and none come cheap (from $15 to $250 a bottle). But as many Australians already know, these stickies are the perfect ending to a great meal.

. David Hay

Australian Whites
Over two dozen white grape varieties are grown in Australia. But apart from that ubiquitous grape Chardonnay, the two that dominate the country's best vineyards are Sémillon and Riesling.

Sémillon is the second most widely planted variety of white grape in Australia, after Chardonnay. One of the two important white grape varieties grown in Bordeaux, France, Sémillon is currently produced in nearly every wine region in Australia. While it is used to make everything from wooded white wines to botrytized, Sauternes-style wines, dry, unwooded Sémillons are the popular favorites when it comes to matching the hot Australian climate and its seafood-based cuisine.

Classic Sémillon is picked early, while the grapes' acidity is still high, and is fermented and matured without oak. As a young wine, Sémillon can often be spare, even nondescript, but with five or so years' bottle age, the best examples bloom into complex, finely structured wines. The most famous regions for Sémillon include Margaret River, whose wines tend to have a spicy, herbaceous edge, the Barossa Valley, whose wines have more midpalate weight, and the Hunter Valley, whose wines seem to age the best of all. The 2000 Brokenwood Sémillon ($15) is a delicious rendering of the young-style Sémillon, smelling of freshly picked lemons. It's sprightly and tangy, with plenty of length. Other Sémillon producers worth a search include Peter Lehmann and Rothbury Estate.

Riesling As with Sémillon, there's a patch of Riesling pretty much everywhere there's a grapevine in Australia. Once supremely popular, Riesling was Australia's most widely planted white grape until it fell out of fashion in the late 1970s. By the 1980s, the government was even paying growers to dig out their Riesling vines. Today, Riesling is making a comeback; it currently comes fourth, after Chardonnay, Sémillon and Colombard, in total production. The regions that produce the best Rieslings by far are the Clare Valley, Eden Valley, Tasmania, Central Victoria and Mount Barker in Western Australia, all of which yield wines that express distinctive regional character. Some of the producers to look for in these regions include Pipers Brook, Michelton and Plantagenet.

Although Australian Rieslings can be a fairly delicate drink when young, they have incredible longevity; great aged Riesling is one of Australia's best-kept wine secrets. One particularly promising wine is the 1997 Leo Buring Leonay ($15). Its opulent floral nose recalls an entire florist's shop, with a dominant note of lime. There's a hint of bottle-age bouquet starting to emerge, leading to a long, fine, mineral finish. It's delicious now and should have a long and impressive life.

. G.D.P.