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Mark Squires' E-Zine on Wine

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Articles, March, 1999

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The Wine Down Under
Report on the Australian Wine Scene

NB: Many of the tasting notes from this trip are or will be soon in the March tasting notes section
Prices quoted here are in Australian dollars (AUD) unless otherwise noted.
As of March, 1999, the discount was ranging about 35% off of US dollar.

I began buying Australian wines of all types, from Grange to Koonunga Hill, in the early 1980s.  They have become more and more popular here, building on early successes,  and it is apparent that a new wave of upscale wines are hitting American and European shores.  I had a chance to find out more--it seems to me Americans know little about Australian wines--and spent several weeks in Australia recently,  devoting a goodly portion of it to wine tasting, dining and touring in various regions, including the Hunter Valley, McLaren Vale, Clare Valley and Barossa Valley.  I visited a lot of wineries, winemakers and wine professionals, not to mention a lot of restaurants with long lists.  This does not make me an instant expert on an entire country, of course.   That caveat aside, however, let me share some first-time impressions.

Quality for the price

When Australian wines broke into the American consciousness--I'd say the mid-80's--they quickly developed a niche that someone called "quality plonk."  That is, they were mostly cheap, and mostly great deals for the price. I even remember 1982 Grange at $29.99, although it quickly escalated.   And Henschke "Hill of Grace" Shiraz was at around $15, only a few dollars more than Penfold's Bin 389 Cab/Shiraz.  Those were the only pricey wines. The rest were simply inexpensive and delicious.  The Aussies, in other words, seemed ready, willing and able to take control of the low end of the premium wine scene.

In some respects, nothing has changed.   Australian wines remain remarkable bargains at the low and mid-premium end, especially in Australia.   At the cellar door, I constantly got amazing deals and offers on wines. The prices seemed ridiculous.  Cases in point:  A fantastic lineup of chardonnays from Rothbury, running as low as $12 Australian for wonderful wine. (That's about $8 or so US.)  Then, there was amazing Shiraz from Fox Creek and Brokenwood around $30 AUD.  I could go on and on, and when all the tasting notes are out (the first wave goes up at the same time as this article, but lots more will be added in the next few weeks), you'll see for yourself.

In short,  although it seemed to me that there were more "top end" wines in the US,  Australia clobbers the USA in terms of value for the money at the low to mid-premium end.   Personally, I think in an under $20 US range, they win easily.  The lower the price gets, the easier they win.

There are reasons for this, of course.    Despite increased prominence,   Australian wines have a relatively low profile because they constitute a very small percentage of the wine produced in the world--around 2% last I heard.  So, they needed a niche and a foot in the door internationally.  Domestically, my impression is that the Australian wine drinkers have gotten used to a reasonably priced wine market and probably have more resistance to spending significant sums on wine than Americans do.  Salaries are perhaps a bit lower, taxes a bit higher, too.   The winemakers focus  on what the marketplace demands: accessible, good quality, fruit driven wines for early consumption at a reasonable price.

        Whatever the reasons, however, there is hardly a wine market in the world that so consistently offers so many  lovely wines for such reasonable prices.  It seemed that more than  $15 to $20 AUD for a chardonnay, and $20 to $35 AUD for shiraz was uncommon and reserved for the top tiers,  in which many Australians had little interest, if not scorn.  In the USA, meanwhile, jaded connoisseurs are beginning to wonder if all the familiar, well known wines start at $30 US and go up from there.  It sometimes seems like the goal of every California winemaker is to have a $50 US cabernet, and the goal of every  winemaker in Bordeaux and Burgundy is to have a wine that breaks the three digit mark.  Maybe that's not fair, but it seems that way.  The Aussies are extremely fortunate.  Call Australia a paradise for people who actually are more interested in drinking wines than labels.

        Things are going to change, unfortunately.  The seeds have been sown.   Australian winemakers have caught the trophy wine fever.  Apart from the "trophies" that have been there awhile, like "Hill of Grace," around $250 AUD,  they have $80 AUD Shiraz from people like Grant Burge and $115 AUD pinot noirs from Bass Philips and $80 AUD pinots from Yarra Yerring, and others.   These wines are unknown, mostly, outside of the Australian marketplace. That will change, too, but not for a good reason. Boutique winemakers are now sending wine to the USA. One thing they are finding is that the  USA market supports higher prices. Wines from places like Fox Creek, Brokenwood, Veritas, and Greenock Creek seemed often to have a USA list price more than double some of the cellar door prices in Australia. (NB: Sometimes the cellar door price is a discount, even for Australians; retailers may mark up scarce wines. Sometimes there isn't much difference.) 

        This will inevitably signal a rise in the number of Australian trophy wines and their prices.  Will Australian winemakers keep selling a $30 AUD shiraz for $30 AUD in Adelaide if they can sell it in the USA for more than double the price? Australians, too, seem to be catching a bit of trophy wine fever.  People are crawling the wine roads looking for tightly allocated wines.   "Boutiques" are in.  That means supply/demand price hikes in the future.

        So, I am anticipating that Australian wine prices for the more sought after bottles will rise both in the USA and there, and much more sharply here.  Frankly,  many of their fine wines, especially from the boutiques,  are underpriced in Australia--at least from my viewpoint at cellar door and at current exchange rates. (Perhaps to an Australian they don't feel as inexpensive.)  Some of those same wines, though, seem overpriced here as distributors start marking them up and supply/demand fever sets in.   Maybe we'll have a happy medium--but don't count on it. There are a lot of young wineries in Australia, and I have a feeling the general direction of things is going to be changing--not that Australia won't continue to churn out lots of good value wine.  The marketplace will demand it for the foreseeable future.  But the small super premium selection is going to grow rapidly,  both by way of simply increasing the price and because I think some winemakers are looking to do things differently.   Which brings us to issues of style.

Style

Here's a stereotype Aussie red: marked American oak, fruit driven, round and soft, low tannin,  approachable young, easy drinking, not a whole lot of structure.  As with the pricing, there is some truth to this stereotype, but things are changing here, too.

First, I sensed a backlash among a lot of wineries at the overuse of American Oak.   The Lloyds at Coriole indicated to me that they were using less and less, and switching to French.  Even the folks at Elderton--major offenders--told me that their top wines would spend less time in new oak, and some French would be blended in with the American.  This is all a good thing.

    Second,  if you are making varietals that can age in the first place, and you intend to stake out a claim to be a top tier wine producer, eventually you have to make things that can be laid down, wines that will hold, improve and develop for some time.  That a  wine is generally accessible and drinks well young does not per se mean it will not age. However,  clearly,  the Australian reds are generally not intended as cellar wines, even a lot of the ones with cachet.  Accessibility and easy drinking young is a typical characteristic.   It is clear that no one bothers to try to cellar most of them, and the winemakers are generally not looking for long or even medium-haul wines.  Yes, there are exceptions to everything, but the market here seems to me not to care much about cellaring, either at the consuming end or the producing end.  One statistic I heard was that virtually all Australian wines are drunk within a day of purchase or less. 

        This has some reasons behind it that have less to do with taste preference, I think, than reality.  For every wine lover,  how to store a wine safely is a nagging and often insuperable problem.  In the USA, most people who become fanatical about wine eventually have to solve this problem, because the reality is that the top wines, French, American and others, need considerable cellaring.   In Australia,  even beyond what would seem to be normal in my experience,  not too many people seem to have cellars with appropriate temperature control.  I did not see or hear of a single off-site storage facility for wine consumers while I was there. And much of the country can get very hot.  The key wine producing areas around Adelaide can break 100 degrees F. in the summer.  Air conditioning is not quite as ubiquitous as in the USA.  So what does one do without a cellar? Drink fast, make accessible wines.  It is a reality that I think dictates a style.

    Also, what storage there is seems often abominable.  If storage and distribution issues are  often a scandal in the USA, in Australia they seemed more like a nightmare. I saw minor stores putting out wines in bins in 92 degree heat. No air conditioning even in the store. I  saw major stores just opening the doors in weather that pushed past 80 degrees. Even some of the conditions at the wineries were simply too warm.  And as for restaurants.....well, how can a place with a long list and things like 1990 Dom Perignon have all the windows and doors open, the wines racked in the back, in the hottest place possible, and no air conditioning whatsoever as the temperature climbs every day past 90?   Again, drink fast.   These are not wines you will want to cellar with confidence, even if you have the courage to buy them. 

        It seems to me that the sterotypical image of the Aussie wine is not too far wrong, granting that there is a top tier of exceptions.  Yes, I know you can name this exception and that one, and so can I, and  I also heard about some things that are supposed to be laid down routinely (like, so they say, Hunter Valley semillon).  Still, I think it is clear that accessibility is a prized characteristic in this marketplace, and cellaring is a afterthought.  Accessibility, of course, is not such a bad thing; I sometimes thought while I was there that the Aussie practice of making delicious, easily accessible wines for reasonable prices made a lot more sense than the current obsessions in California and France with trophy wines.  I don't know that they have as many monumental wines, and I am sure they don't have as many cellar candidates, but how many people can afford those wines anyway?

        As with the pricing issue, though, the times, they are a-changin'.  The new wineries show more interest in structure and seem to want to accomplish great things.  I was told of  great plans for wines from old vines, things that could age for 20 years, and so on.  The age of The Artiste is on its way, and artistes want to make statements as well as wine.    I would have to think that people who want to make wines in this fashion will have to demand more attention to temperature control.   If,  in the current market, most people can afford to ignore storage issues because the wines are drunk immediately,  one would think that producing more and more cellar candidates would get more and more people to pay attention to storage and distribution issues. 

Problem areas and pluses

I had lots of great shiraz, discovered some unusually good gewurztraminer and riesling,  wonderful late harvest wines,  and fantastic fortified wines that left me stunned (I bow to Seppelt and Rockford, among others) and nice chardonnays.  The fortified wines were the most amazing, but for regular drinking, the best hot tip is that  Grenache is the grape of the future for Australia.  It just seems to work. So many wineries are already doing great Grenache, and the grape is still gaining momentum and favor.  It's going to be a big winner.

        On the downside, there were a large variety of odd pinot noirs.  My quest for pinots that were special and had typicity, too, led me in many directions.  It would always start with a "tip" from an insider on special wines.  I would try the wine. The next person would say, "Oh, that's no good.  Try this ..."  And the next person would disagree even more vehemently and point me to another wine that would be equally controversial.  At one winery in the Clare Valley, the owner told me the winemaker's view was "Pinot Noir...why bother?"  So, let me add that it is not just my churlish demeanor that had me disliking a lot of Aussie pinots.

        More surprisingly, I was not too fond of the cabs either.  Many seemed a bit green. Others lacked the intensity, varietal typicity and focus cabernets should have.  The reports here are more mixed; it is not the problematical situation we find with pinot, but it is not a strong point either.

Benchmarks

The Aussies don't know much about the outside wine world (and vice versa).   I have found this in other wine regions, too. I remember that when I started touring Bordeaux it was downright hard to find anyone selling a reasonable selection of Burgundy. And vice versa.  One good thing about the American wine scene is its diversity and acceptance of a wide variety of wines.  It is always useful to have a benchmark against which you can measure yourself and from which you can learn.  The Aussies don't, I think.  I wonder if the pinots would be better if people had a better handle on what Burgundy tastes like?  Like Americans, Australian winemakers often take pride in saying that they are not required to imitate the French or anyone else, and are entitled to produce something unique to their land. With this, I fully agree; but sharing information and knowledge is helpful to everyone.  Nobody has a monopoly on good ideas.  The Aussies seem more cloistered than most.

Again, this has reasons not immediately obvious. It is not that the Australians do not want to try other wines. It is that the imports are darned expensive.  I had an Australian express amazement at my comment that the French make great inexpensive wine.  They may be inexpensive in France. And in the USA.  But to him, in Australia, they get marked up pretty high.  When one's own wine industry is churning out barrels of great quality wine for low prices, I suppose the understandable tendency is to stay at home. Cheap French wines were hard to find; good ones even more scarce.  American wines were non-existent. I cannot recall off hand seeing a single American wine in a restaurant or a store in Australia.  Their industry, for better or worse, seems to exist in a vacuum.

Conclusions

        What I saw in many respects reaffirmed my opinions and preconceptions rather than changed them.   But that is not the whole story,   because there were signs of impending change.   I  saw a top tier of Aussie wines that was nonetheless often providing a lot of value for the money.  I saw the beginnings of the trophy wine mentality that has seeped into the rest of the wine world. I suppose this is inevitable, but regrettable. I suspect the Aussie boutiques are going to be the next hot trend if they allow enough production to be exported. That's the good news. The bad news? You may not be able to afford them or find them.   And I saw the beginnings of some stylistic changes.  Less American oak, perhaps.  More structured wines at the top end, maybe.

        More importantly, I saw a wine industry that is  vibrant,  feeling self-confident and poised to move forward.  The consistency was excellent.  Australia is probably too small in population to ever be a major wine producing country in terms of volume,  but it can satisfy the needs both of trophy hunters and every day drinkers.   There was, in short,  plenty to admire on the Aussie wine road. No one can come away without having discovered some memorable wines, and I found plenty to admire, as this month's tasting notes will make clear.  I still have not discovered what wines go best with crocodile, however.  :) 

        Special thanks to the many Australians who pointed me in the right direction from Sydney to Melbourne to Adelaide and environs.   Errors in conclusions, of course, are strictly mine.


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