Rethinking Australia

Barossa Valley
pic by Wine Australia

The ups and downs of the Australian wine industry over the past 15 years have been well documented; its meteoric rise around 2000 fueled by the introduction of Yellow Tail to the US market, and its subsequent fall based on over-saturation, including the glut of inexpensive, fruit-forward, oaky red wines based on the flagship YT Shiraz.

Personally I have no shame admitting my love for those Aussie wines; I had just started to drink a lot of wine around that time and they were sweet, smooth and delicious. The fact that they had no personality or unique qualities was lost on me. As I’ve grown to love wine, diving headfirst into the geekery that comes with that, I’ve lost touch with Australia, because those easygoing wines that were once so appealing are now just as unappealing.

That said, that was only one perspective on a wider wine industry, and, I’ve recently come across a few interesting bottles that have challenged my perceptions of what Aussie wine is and can be. The stereotypes, at least from my perspective, are that these wines all feature huge fruit and high alcohol (from a naturally warm climate), as well as gobs of oak (from winemakers). All but the very best are made for immediate consumption, not the cellar. Shiraz is king.

Well, today I’m the contrarian, at least to an extent. The two bottles of Aussie wine that have recently stopped me in my tracks have been big and fruity, but they’ve also offered waves of complex, secondary flavor. In addition, they’ve been older – 8-10 years old. Lastly, they’ve both featured Grenache, a grape that is regularly used in the Aussie version of the “GSM” blend – for Grenache, Syrah/Shiraz, Mourvedre – three grapes regularly used in the Southern Rhone, but only the 5th most grown grape in Australia, at less than 5% the acreage of Shiraz.

john-duval-plexusFirst was John Duval Plexus 2004, a wine that had been secured on PLCB markdown some 6 years ago and patiently cellared since. An aforementioned GSM, it’s actually about 50% Shiraz and close to 30% Grenache. Upon popping and pouring, this wine’s aromas lept out of both the bottle and glass with urgency. Sage and lavender, with touches of earth and game creeping in as well. On the palate, Grenache’s red berries were also at the forefront, mingling with balanced vanilla.

Recently I also tried Duval’s Plexus 2010, a luxury selection in PA right now for $29.99 (PLCB stores carry some stock all the way back to 2007). A monster at this stage, it’s a bit ornery, but winemaking technique is evident. There’s oak, sure, and big berry flavor. Teases of tobacco, earth, smoke and a peppery finish make me think this one will only get better with a few years on its side.

Another awesome Aussie I recently sipped is the Clarendon Hills Grenache Hickinbotham Vineyard 2006, a 100% Grenache that’s currently on Chairman’s Selection for $34.99. It’s a big, warm-climate wine, no doubt, but age has mellowed the fruit and allowed a more savory side to emerge. The nose is delightful, with huge herbal notes (a Grenache signature), as well as intriguing touches of leather and earth. It’s juicy and earthy, red fruits mixing with vanilla, all in relative balance.

Though big reds still lead the day, alternative styles can also be found down under. Staying with Rhone grape varieties, d’Arenberg Hermit Crab Marsanne Viognier 2011 ($13.99) is a nice alternative to mainstream whites. It’s sweet lemon peel nose belies crisp, fresh quaff that’d go well, aptly, with seafood.

Innocent Bystander Pinot Noir 2011 is easily the least Aussie Australian wine I’ve ever tasted, and, though, as we’ve covered, these qualities aren’t always in my wheelhouse, I found the lack of Oi disappointing. It seems the producer was going for a more Burgundian style, a lighter, more acidic wine, but it merely came across as lacking personality.

Though it’s impossible to reach conclusions based on one experience with one wine, Australia should never apologize for who it is. The two earlier bottles show that their wine can be big and rich and bold and still exhibit terroir and a sense of place, whereas the lighter wine, in this case, seemed more generic.

Has my experience with these wines convinced me to start buying Aussie wines heavily as I did 10-12 years ago? Probably not; my palate still prefers cool-climate grapes. It has, however, asserted that there’s high-quality juice flowing counterclockwise, and that wine drinkers who have dismissed down under – especially fans of big California wines – should give Australia another look.