Although Australia has recently become a leading exporter of wine to the United States, most of this gain is accounted for by the phenomenal sales of so-called "fun wines," such as Yellow Tail and Alice White, which are aimed at an uncritical audience of casual wine consumers. What is most surprising about these wines, given their unambitious market niche, is that they happen to taste pretty good, especially at asking prices of $5 or $6. That said, there's a lot more fun to be had by spending a bit more.
In fact, Australia's vintners have done a masterful job of crafting wines in a style that Americans love at a price they can afford. Better Australian wines in the under-$15 category are intensely fruity, full-flavored, accessible and ready to drink tonight.
The following are my favorite red wines from recent tastings in the under-$15 category, followed by a few extraordinary wines that cost a bit more. Since no store is likely to have all the wines, it's best to call ahead if you have a particular wine in mind. Prices are approximate; distributors names in parentheses.
RECOMMENDED UNDER $15
Rosemount 2004 Shiraz South Eastern Australia "Diamond Label" ($12; NDC): The 2004 Rosemount Shiraz marks a welcome return to the more concentrated style of the 2000 and earlier vintages. This style, which made Rosemount's reputation in the United States, distinguishes it from the fun wine challengers, which offer similarly effusive fruit but not the same weight on the palate. The high level of youthful fruit makes this an ideal aperitif red, but there is sufficient intensity to complement poultry, salmon and light meats.
Hope Estate 2002 Merlot "Hunter Valley" ($10; Winebow): This smooth merlot opens with a fresh, lightly cedary bouquet and is followed on the palate by husky cherry and cassis fruit. Aging in oak provides additional complexity. Full-flavored for a $10 wine.
Black Swan 2004 Shiraz-Cabernet South Eastern Australia ($8; NDC): This blend of 70 percent shiraz and 30 percent cabernet sauvignon is what the British refer to as a "luncheon claret" -- a light- to medium-weight Bordeaux-style wine that will complement a wide variety of dishes. The shiraz provides smooth red berry fruit, while the cabernet sauvignon provides backbone and complexity. An outstanding value.
Stonehaven Winemaker's Selection 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon Southeastern Australia ($10): Showing the restrained, elegant style of wines made from grapes grown in cooler regions of Australia, this wine offers gentle cassis and red berry fruit and a silky finish. Excellent match with pasta salads, grilled poultry or salmon.
Lindemans 2004 Bin 55 Shiraz-Cabernet ($7; NDC): Hard to beat at this price, this wine offers a pleasant combination of soft, berry-like fruit and complexity. Excellent as an aperitif or paired with light meat and poultry.
Penfolds Koonunga Hill 2003 Cabernet-Merlot ($10; NDC): If not the category killer it was a few years ago, Koonunga Hill Cabernet-Merlot offers solid value and above average complexity. The 2003 has an appealing cedar and cassis nose, followed on the palate by peppery, blackberry fruit and fine tannins.
Jacob's Creek 1998 "Centenary Hill" Shiraz ($35; NDC): Made from prime vineyards in Australia's Barossa Valley, this is an impressive wine by any measure. Indeed, it recalls the style of Penfolds Grange shiraz, which costs more than $200, and is also made primarily from grapes grown in Barossa. Big and powerful, brimming with spicy black cherry and plum fruit, and gracefully polished by 25 months of oak maturation followed by four years' bottle maturation under ideal conditions in the winery cellars, this wine offers a rare opportunity to taste a classic full-bodied Barossa shiraz from an outstanding vintage at a relatively modest cost. Save this gem for your best fall and winter recipes of prime red meat or veal.
3 Rings 2004 Shiraz Barossa Valley ($20; Winebow): A collaboration between star winemaker Chris Ringland, whose Three Rivers Shiraz sells for $300 a bottle, and his American importer, Dan Philips of the Grateful Palate, the 3 Rings shiraz brings Ringland's delectably over the top style to a broader audience. A big bouquet of vanilla, plum and floral notes is followed on the palate by dense blueberry fruit, with hints of white chocolate and mocha on the long finish. A big wine like this needs to be paired with full-flavored dishes, such as cassoulet or roasts of lamb or beef. Alternatively, try it with desserts of dark chocolate, which will harmonize with its chocolate-mocha notes.
Marquis Philips 2004 Sarah's Blend ($18; Winebow): This stylish blend of roughly 60 percent shiraz, 20 percent cabernet sauvignon and 20 percent Merlot uses three grapes to good effect. The shiraz provides a core of lush, red berry fruit, the cabernet adds tones of cedar and herbs on the bouquet and the merlot gently rounds out the edges. Match with lamb, poached salmon in dill or herbed chicken.
AND A TERRIFIC WHITE WINE
Barossa Valley Estate 2004 Chardonnay Spires ($10; Australia; Wine Partners): Strikingly similar to a $25 Pouilly-Fuisse, this displays a fine bouquet of fresh pear and vanilla, followed on the palate by appetizing flavors of yellow apple and peach, framed by excellent acidity on the finish. Affordable and thoroughly delightful.