Australia seems to have fallen off the map — of the wine world, at least.
“Australian wines are still a tough sell,” says Ben Giliberti, a former Post wine columnist who is director of wine education at Calvert Woodley wine store in Northwest. The store usually sells several dozen cases of the wine Giliberti features in a weekly Food section advertisement, except when he wrote up a shiraz-viognier blend produced in Australia by a joint venture of French winemaker Michel Chapoutier and the Terlato wine family from the United States. “I think the only person who came in to buy it was Michael Franz,” he says, naming yet another former Post wine columnist.
Aussie shiraz — the name Australia uses for the syrah grape — used to be a market darling, with its deep color, bold minty berry flavors and jammy sweet-tasting finish (a flavor of ripeness rather than sugar). Today, however, Australia is hard to find in fine wine stores. Overproduction led to a grape glut, giving large companies increased power over growers and smaller wineries. Here in the United States, the omnipresence of the Yellow Tail brand created the market perception of Australia as awash in cheap, nondescript wine.
And on the high end, consumers might have decided the wines just were not very good. The wines that dazzled critics and wine hounds in the 1990s and early 2000s had more than the spicy fruit of shiraz going for them. They also packed a powerful punch, with alcohol levels often topping 15 or 16 percent. Such wines might make a strong first impression, but they don’t last.
Ronnie Sanders has watched the boom and bust as founder of Vine Street Imports, based in Mount Laurel, N.J. His largely Australian portfolio has survived in the under-$15 range, but “over $20 fell apart” about six years ago, he says. Retailers shrank their Australian selections, “and in restaurants you could hardly find them at all.” He blames the backlash on winemakers who changed their styles in order to win high point scores from U.S. wine magazines.
“A lot of people, in order to chase the high scores, pushed their harvest dates further back to get over-ripe wines,” he says. “Those wines didn’t have legs. They fell apart, and consumers felt gypped.”
Younger winemakers are helping to change that impression, Sanders says. Many of the new generation worked in European vineyards before returning home to produce wines more restrained in alcohol, sometimes innovative in their blends, and often delicious. Sanders has launched a campaign called Defend Australia to promote these newer wines in his portfolio.
Two wineries in the McLaren Vale, south of Adelaide, illustrate the new Australian style. Justin Lane fashions elegant wines based on his experience in France, Italy and Moldova for his label called Alpha Box & Dice. His whimsically named Mistress is a blend of touriga nacional, tinta negra molle and cabernet sauvignon. It tastes like a forbidden, exotic romp away from the tried-and-true classic blends. At Dandelion Vineyards, Bulgarian-born Elena Brooks makes a wine called Lion’s Tooth by fermenting shiraz over pressed Riesling skins to give the final wine an enticing aromatic lift.
The question of which alcohol level is best is subjective, to be sure. A super-ripe wine can be balanced with alcohol over 15 percent, but that is difficult to achieve. More often, the high alcohol gives a burning sensation on the palate that masks the wine’s pleasure-giving fruit. And, of course, there is no guarantee a lower-alcohol wine is a good one. For my taste, the cutoff for Australian reds is 14.5 percent alcohol: still fairly substantial, but allowing ripe flavors to remain in balance.
Greg La Follette, a Sonoma County vintner who has worked harvest in Australia’s Hunter and Yarra valleys for the past 20 years, also sees a move away from what he calls “big, blowzy reds.”
“It is a legitimate and honest approach, but there is indeed a pendulum swing away from the popularity of that style,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Vintage variation might have something to do with the change. The 2011, 2012 and now 2013 harvests have seen more rain than usual, making the super-ripe style of wine harder to achieve. Maybe Mother Nature is trying to convince more winemakers that the cool, minty delights of Australian shiraz need not be burned away with the heat of alcohol.