Given the dip in Australian wine sales reported here last week by Dan Sogg, I had a blog all ready to put up after the holiday, asking if you were drinking less Australian wine. My colleague James Suckling beat me to the punch with his blog. The comments have been thoughtful.
There is a growing perception that Australian wines just aren't as interesting as Americans thought they were. "We are no longer the flavor of the month," sighed Gavin Speight ruefully during a conversation in my office Friday. Although his Old Bridge Cellars imports such blue-chip Australian wines as Leeuwin Estate, d'Arenberg and Jasper Hill, he sees an uphill climb ahead.
On wine bulletin boards, the griping has gotten pretty loud about overblown, high-priced wines. At first, collectors couldn't wait to buy certain new, hard-to-find wines that were being talked up, and prices shot up. Now collectors have decided they didn't like those wines quite so much. And thus the perception that all Aussie wines are alike and they're too big and clumsy.
Australia has done a lousy job of getting out the message about its wine diversity. Selling its wines easily, Australia let the perception harden into permanence in many American wine drinkers' minds that it was all about big Shiraz and nothing more. Now, faced with a crisis, the Aussies are starting to talk up their enormous range of wine styles and regions.
Another problem is that too many low-end Aussie wines these days are awful. It used be a no-brainer to pluck an Aussie wine off the bargain shelf. You could reasonably expect it to be better than the price. Not any more. Chile, Argentina and Spain are making inroads into that low-end market because consumers know that cheap and cheerful Australian wines are not as reliable as they were. Australia's best bargain wines are still great values, but today I taste far too many insipid or badly made, "me-too" wines with cute names or marsupials on their labels.
As tough as things have been for those trying to sell Australian wines, there is an upside for American consumers. There always is when sales of a previously hot commodity slow down. There's still a heck of a lot of good wine coming from Australia. If it's still sitting on the shelf because others are bored with the category, sharp-eyed consumers can find bargains on the wines they like.
For my money, the sweet spot for Aussie wines is around $20 to $25, where a wealth of options go way beyond the stereotypical "brawny high-end Shirazes." Although those big reds can be spectacular—and when I find ones that also show balance and harmony I give them high scores, too—it blows my mind how many less-celebrated wines can deliver an outstanding experience. In my annual tasting report on Aussie reds, coming in the October 15 issue of Wine Spectator, I reviewed 158 wines priced between $15 to $25 and rated 102 of them between 88 and 91 points ("very good" to "outstanding" on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale).
One remarkable jewel, Gemtree Shiraz McLaren Vale Uncut 2006 (outstanding, $24), is a fleshy wine that shows some restraint. The graceful 3 Rings Shiraz Barossa Valley 2006 (91, $20) and the silky Yalumba Shiraz-Viognier Barossa 2006 (91, $18) are two other examples of just how good Aussie wines in this price range can be.
But the success of these wines poses a problem for higher-priced Aussie wines. We consumers can be forgiven for wondering why we should pay $75, $100 or more for something that might rate "only" a few points higher. Those few extra points come from extra depth, complexity, detail and transparency.
Is it worth it? Yes, but you have to be selective and find wines that meet your idea of excellence. For me, even when prices stretch toward triple digits, Australia can deliver the high quality, distinctiveness and character that would cost even more from France, Italy or California. Despite the Aussie dollar's meteoric rise, the euro has jumped even more, making blue chip Bordeaux, Rhône, Piedmont and Super Tuscan wine prices prohibitive. And correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't it seem like the median price for a top-flight California Cabernet is $125 to $150?
Average price in my upcoming report for an Aussie red scoring 92 to 95 points? $78. Less than 40 percent of those are Barossa Shiraz.
If Aussie wines comparable in quality to the best from Europe and California are floundering in the marketplace, that's an opportunity for those who know them and love them. My advice: with retailers cutting prices to move the wines, keep an eye open for bargains and snap up the ones that have the style and character you like. And then feel smug when you open them up over the next few years.
David W Voss — Elkhorn, Wi — September 2, 2008 3:43pm ET
Jonathan Rezabek — Chandler, AZ — September 2, 2008 5:13pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — September 2, 2008 5:48pm ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento,CA — September 3, 2008 12:42am ET
Timothy L Oneal — Kansas City, Missouri — September 3, 2008 12:55pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — September 3, 2008 1:21pm ET
Timothy L Oneal — Kansas City, Missouri — September 4, 2008 7:38pm ET
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