I bet the first word that comes to mind when you think of Australian wines is big: big fruit, big alcohol and big critters on the label. I bet the next word is small, as in less than $10 prices.
For decades this was a popular and successful formula made possible by cheap land, plenty of water and cutting-edge wine technologies. The land and water factors are obvious advantages but the technology aspect was as important. You see the vast majority of Australian juice didn’t come from quality terroirs, but rather from fertile farm regions akin to California’s Central Valley. The Down Under yields were tremendous and growing costs were low. The fruit, however, was quite pedestrian. The Aussies recognized this and brought winemaking technologies to bear that made for tasty wine.
The Hunter Valley region of New South Wales has a unique maritime climate and soils for grape growing that create some of the most incredible Semillon wines you can imagine.
So what happened? Contrary to popular opinion it was not the world’s changing taste in wines from plentiful wines to those with more refinement. As a matter of fact, the largest and fastest growing category in wine sales today is that of rich, high-alcohol wines, such as the beloved large-production wines with edgy names — think Apothic and the like. What killed the Aussies were droughts and wildfires that depleted water sources and the rising costs of producing wine. Also, the Australian government had subsidized the wine industry to help it gain a foothold in the world, which led to the cheap pricing that created a market perception that Aussie wines had to be cheap.
Wow, that was depressing just to write. Indeed the fall was hard and heavy because many producers went belly up and others had to sell their wine below cost just to stay alive — some still do.
So what are they going to do about it?
Job 1 is resetting the actual and perceived quality and price of their wines and wineries are identifying specific regions and the grape varieties that excel there.
There is a lot more wine to explore from the Land Down Under. I bet it will surprise you to learn that top Australian wines such as Penfolds Grange and Henshke Hill of Grace sell for about twice what first-growth Bordeaux fetches these days.
At much more approachable price points — think quite a bit less than top California offerings — there are many exciting wines to be discovered. As we would find with almost any exceptional wines, they come from dedicated people who identified the right terroirs with the right grapes and top winemaking.
Cool climate regions such as Victoria and Tasmania bring Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, as both still and sparkling wines, which stand with anything you will find in the $30 to $50 range. Western Australia has wineries with coast-hugging vineyards that create Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays that are world class. Try either from Leeuwin Estate, especially their Art Series bottlings.
For some things out of the box, the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales has a unique maritime climate and soils for grape growing that create some of the most incredible Semillon wines you can imagine. I will tell you they take at least seven to eight years to develop, but most producers don’t release them until then. South Australia is most known for being home to the hot Barossa Valley, known for its Shiraz. It’s also the site of the Clare and Eden valleys, both quite cool with well-draining mineral soils that make for powerful and delicious Rieslings.
The best way to find these gems is to visit a dedicated wine shop and get some ideas from your trusted local wine purveyor.
Lou Phillips is a Level 3 Advanced Sommelier and his consulting business wineprowest.com assists in the selling, buying and managing wine collections. He may be reached at (775) 544-3435 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit TheTahoeWeekly.com for more wine columns.