T HE STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES of Australian wine were demonstrated at a recent tasting by Les Amis du Vin in Washington, as was some inadvertent Aussie lore as well. According to the speaker, an importer of Australian wines named Robert Whale, very few of his countrymen have ever seen a koala bear. Fewer still are acquainted with wines without considerable alcohol and assertive woodiness picked up from months spent in barrel.
Wine is made to last in Australia and, paradoxically, drunk quickly. Until recently there wasn't much left over for export. That has changed because in Australia what Whale calls "a deplorable sobriety" has taken hold, based in part upon breath tests by police that are forcing people to think carefully about what they drink before they drive -- also the case in the United States.
Australians drink four times as much wine per capita as Americans, a habit that goes back to the introduction of vinifera vines in Australia in the late 18th century. "Australia still makes the best Australian wine in the world," Whale said, an amusing truism that once applied to California as well, where big, brawny cabernets, chardonnays and zinfandels could easily be picked out in comparative tastings of various countries' wines. Advanced technique and preference for lighter wines changed things on our West Coast, but some Australian wineries are still turning out blockbusters when a slightly more elegant style would attract more favorable attention. Australian wine, however, can be as good as any, and a great bargain despite the distance it travels. Of the dozen that Whale presented, three stood out as rare taste and quality for the money.
The first was an '83 marsanne made by Michelton, in Victoria. Marsanne is one of the grapes used in the Rho ne Valley for the rich, long-lived, powerful white Hermitage, the other grape being roussanne. This unblended Aussie version had an intense bouquet, good body and a long complicated finish. It was balanced to last, with good acid, and priced at about $6 -- a deal when one is accustomed to paying more for lesser quality chardonnays from all over the world.
Another good Australian wine was the '82 shiraz-cabernet blend by Krondorf, from the Barossa Valley. Blending syrah (or shiraz) with cabernet is an Australian peculiarity, with fine results. The Krondorf was 60 percent shiraz, 40 percent cab. It personified what is drolly called in the trade a "sweaty saddle" nose, which should require no explanation. (If you've always wondered what that meant, go buy a bottle of Krondorf and find out.) The smell dissipated after some time in the glass; the wine was full-bodied and cheap at $5 a bottle.
The third wine that struck me and other tasters as unusual was the '82 Peter Lehmann semillion "Sauternes," also from Barossa grapes. It was not a sauternes, of course, but a dessert wine made of grapes infected with botrytis -- "the noble rot" -- and a great accompaniment for melon. It had deep gold color, a honeyed nose and a real mouthful of fruit. Dessert wines being relatively expensive, $7 for this one represented another bargain from Down Under.