Australia has an abundance of boutique winemakers and artisans capable of crafting fabulous wines.
Devoted wine drinkers know Australian wines grew popular in the 1990s and into the new century. Throughout the 1990s and until 2007, Australian wines rapidly expanded in sales in the United States and England as both "critter wines" - so called because of the illustrations of animals prominently featured on labels - and higher end-Aussie wines became trendy and good values. Consumer preferences for fruit-forward, earlier drinking wines also played to the strengths of wines from the Land Down Under.
By 2008, Yellow Tail was exporting almost 8 million cases annually to the United States. Other large industrial wineries, such as Jacob’s Creek and Rosemount, experienced significant growth, too.
However, beginning in 2007, Australian wine exports began to decline and went into a steep slump. As low price imports from South America, South Africa and other parts of the world created a global wine glut and the U.S. dollar declined in value, American consumers turned to alternative wines.
Some wine analysts believe palate fatigue was also a factor as consumers, tired of big fruit bombs, perceived all Aussie wines to be simply generic copies of each other. As any product becomes homogenized and loses its uniqueness, it’s a commodity and low price becomes a dominant factor. Customers rapidly shift to lower-priced alternatives, and the wine market has always been fickle. Consequently, one might argue the success of the Australian wine industry from 1990 to 2007 created the foundation of its recent sales decline.
I’ve always believed any wine that attracts and introduces consumers to the pleasures and joys of wine is a good thing. Kudos to the commercial wines of Australia if they attracted Yanks to vino. Nevertheless, it isn’t surprising that once attracted to wine, consumers became more adventurous and gravitated to captivating wines from Italy, Spain, France, and Portugal. That’s evolution at its finest.
However, to view Australian wine only from the perspective of mass-marketed wines presents too limited a picture. One misses that Australia has an abundance of boutique winemakers and artisans capable of crafting fabulous wines in contrast to high volume products. High quality, distinct Australian wines exist and merit attention.
In recent years, predictions for Australia’s success shifted to artisan wines, although their sales have also taken a hit. In the future, we’ll see better marketing of Australia’s quality wines.
As evidence of that, I recently attended a wine tasting featuring wines from Old Bridge Cellars. This importer emphasizes regional terroirs and what one wine writer described as "finesse-driven winemaking," a term that most aptly captures the essence of wines I love. Old Bridge’s mission is "the promotion of Australia's 'real wines,' championing those winemakers who give everything in their pursuit of truly distinctive, regionally defined styles that sit comfortably with the world's best."
If the tasting I attended was representative of that purpose, they are succeeding admirably. Here’s what I enjoyed and recommend you try, too.
Let’s start with a tasty white. Brokenwood 2010 Semillon ($20) from the Hunter Valley is a tantalizingly smooth, well-made white that should appeal to sauvignon blanc drinkers. It beautifully accentuates apple and citrus fruit, while combining excellent acidity in a superbly integrated wine.
John Duval oversaw the production of Penfolds Grange (currently selling for more than $400 a bottle) until he left Penfolds in 2003 to start his own winery. 2009 John Duval SGM Plexus ($37) is a delightfully well-balanced offering - a term used in the most devout religious sense here - made from shiraz (48 percent), grenache (21 percent) and mourvedre. Everything about this wine is heavenly, from its delectable red and black fruit flavors mingled with spices to the impact of subtle oak flavors.
D’Arenberg 2009 "Footbolt" ($18) is an affordable, yet impressive wine with surprisingly smooth mouthfeel and a delicious blend of fruit and spice flavors. Named after a race horse that earned the D’Arenberg family large sums of money partly used to fund their wine business, this wine is a genuine winner as well. D’Arenberg 2008 "The Dead Arm" Shiraz ($65) is an incredibly well-made wine for more serious occasions.
Before you write off Australian wine, give these a try. You’ll be glad you did, Mate. Enjoy.
Mark P. Vincent is a Shrewsbury, Mass. resident who has a passion for wine. Contact him at email@example.com.