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Aussie Turnaround Looks to Be Real

Knowledgeable crowd at WineAustralia trade tasting encouraged by wide range of wines
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 22, 2014 11:28am ET

Australian wine is gaining the attention of American wine drinkers again, significantly that of the gatekeepers: wine merchants, sommeliers and writers.

The reasons for Australia's slide in these parts from 2008 to 2012 probably involve some combination of their own overreach and a wine-drinking public's fascination with some other Next Big Thing. Whatever, every Aussie winemaker I've met trying to sell their wares in the U.S. this past year has spoken of doors opening that had been shut to them.

Last year around this time, I detected the stirrings of an upsurge at a trade tasting in San Francisco ("An Australian Turnaround?"), where more than 300 media and trade members squeezed into a room chosen to accommodate about 150. This year the same event, organized by WineAustralia, filled a much larger venue, doubling down on its message emphasizing the diversity possible from the Land Down Under.

Twenty-three importers poured more than 300 wines from 30 regions, some of them familiar, others unexpected. Australia has been touting the notion that its wines deliver more than the big, brawny styles that captivated wine insiders for a while and the cheap and cheerful inexpensive brands that once dominated supermarket shelves.

Focusing my sampling on wines that are relatively new on the scene, I was taken by several styles you might not expect from Australia unless you have been paying close attention. There were lean, minerally 2012 Chardonnays from BK Wines in Piccadilly Valley, a cool hilly region near Adelaide, that had depth and length to spare. A soft, expressive 2012 Roussanne from Yangarra Estate wove a butterscotch note into a minerally finish.

Among reds, Luke Lambert Syrah Crudo 2010, a lighter style from Yarra Valley in Victoria, seemed to have lost the meaty character I found last spring that kept me from loving it, in favor of pure plum and a tinge of mineral. Imprimata Grenache 2012 hit a beguiling middle ground between fruit intensity and light texture. I found a couple of modestly priced Italian-style wines from Dal Zotto in high-elevation King Valley, also in Victoria, in particular a 2012 Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon blend that bounced with vivid flavors.

A portion of the wines being poured represented a new initiative by WineAustralia to help small producers who want to sell their wines in the U.S. The Market Access Program helps them connect with potential importers and deal with the dizzying logistics of selling in our 50 disparate states. Among them were several familiar producers who were casualties of the economic downturn, unscrupulous importers and distorted perceptions on both sides of the Pacific.

Philip Shaw, the winemaker who produced the Rosemount bottlings that captivated Americans in the 1990s, has been making crisp, zingy wines under his own name in Orange, in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. These wines were available briefly in the past decade, went away, and now he's seeking a U.S. importer for impressively vibrant Sauvignon Blancs, razzle-dazzle Chardonnays and crisp Shiraz styles.

Voyager Estate, one of the mainstays of Margaret River, is back with a signature Chardonnay and a Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot blend I found intriguingly complex. For something with a little more richness and depth, I was taken with several wines from Brothers in Arms in Langhorne Creek (South Australia). One of the casualties of the Grateful Palate bankruptcy, it's back, offering a complex 2010 Shiraz called 6th Generation that has intriguing Abba-Zaba bar overtones to the dark fruit, and a delightful moderately priced 2010 Cab Shiraz called Scaredy Cat.

Was everything this good? Hardly. I tasted my share of shrug-worthy wines, and some that seemed pricy for what they were, but the encouraging thing was that the range of wines fit into Australia's traditional mode of consistently overdelivering on quality for price. The buzz of approval was palpable at the walkaround tasting.

In an educational seminar led by Mark Davidson, a lively discussion erupted over whether the increasing number of Australian wines labeled Syrah were a good idea. Many of those who use the term, instead of the Australian locution of Shiraz, hope to indicate that their wines are more classically structured than what the world may perceive as overblown Shiraz. There was no consensus, but the level of discourse was highly knowledgable. A couple of years ago it would have been difficult to find a room full of American retailers and sommeliers knowledgeable enough.

I've always believed that Australia simply made too many good wines to be out of fashion for long. Now it seems like the upswing is on its way. As someone who appreciates these wines, in all their styles, I am hoping they don't blow it again.

Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  January 28, 2014 12:20pm ET
I can't back this up, but from everything I've read, I'm fairly certain that the 2007 and 2008 vintages (two rocky vintages in a row) were also a big reason for the disappearing act we witnessed with regard to Australia's market presence. Top bottlings not produced ("declassified" fruit), ruined crops, mediocre scores/reviews... I believe we're seeing a turnaround in no small part because 2009 and 2010 were simply better years.

Harvey, your term "unscrupulous importers" is loaded with innuendo. Can you elaborate (or have you, in the past), with or without names? Have any court decisions made it clear that some practices justify the characterization? What do we consumers need to know?

Especially looking forward to the 2012 vintage... eager to taste the Yangarras in particular.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  January 28, 2014 12:45pm ET
I would like to think that a couple of not-quite great vintages were responsible for Australia's downturn, but most U.S. consumers just aren't that knowledgeable about Australia. Most in the trade blame the recession, the rising value of the Aussie dollar, misguided marketing and a general turn against Syrah.
Ronnie Sanders
Philly —  January 29, 2014 9:55am ET
I totally agree with Harvey's assessment about American consumers being fairly ignorant when it comes to vintage variation in Australia. And while 07 and 08 were drought years in South Australia, they were great years in WA, Tasmania and Victoria. 2011 was considered to be mostly a failure due to how much rain was received in South Eastern Australia, I love the wines, particularly from Mclaren Vale for their lack of overt alcohol. I also think that saying that two difficult vintages was responsible for the down turn in Americans interest in Aussie wines really simplicities the real issues, which are way to long and involved for this forum.

I do urge people and in fact challenge them to try Australian wines that are being made right now, forgetting vintage, by incredibly passionate young people that know what the best wines in the world taste like, because they've tasted wines from the great wine regions, and in many cases worked and some of these wineries, be it in Napa, Walla Walla, Burgundy, Montalcino, Piedmont etc,. Many wines coming out of Australia look more like their counterparts from Europe than the US or Australia. its in my opinion, and I've been going to Australia for 20 years and importing them for 16, that this is the most exciting period in Australian wines, and even most old school Aussie winemakers agree, and we are Americans are sleeping thru it. Some in the press, are on to it and believe it or not, the Somm community has gotten hip to it, so the re-building of the category looks nothing like it did in the late 90s and early 2000s. I for one am extremely optimistic about Australia's future.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  January 31, 2014 3:14am ET
I wonder how many people would read the above comments and take the "fairly ignorant" comments to be insulting. Hard to remain civil where we're being treated with condescension.

Anyone who's read even one review of a 2007 wine or looked at the WS vintage charts knows it was a year which required extremely careful buying, and 2008 didn't prove to be much easier. I'm still unconvinced that many people tired of the classic Barossa style (in any greater numbers than any other style); I believe those vintages simply didn't deliver on the promise of previous ones.

I suppose I'm off my rocker to think that more than just ONE factor was at play. From where I sit, perhaps rising prices signalled the phase-out of Australia's "introductory rate" period (routinely touted as a country for bargains) and successful producers had raised prices to cash in on their reputation for overdelivering (and why not)? Another factor, the US economic downturn coincided with those vintages, too, which caused a LOT of people to drastically reduce what they spent on wine, including but not limited to Australian. Less-than-ideal vintages, at newly escalated prices, being marketed to a country deep in recession. Not a formula for success, regardless of the style of the wine.

It's nice to hear of new styles emerging from new places, but let's temper our market trends analysis with a little wider financial perspective. After all, there's a market somewhere for every style, and the market here in the US is back on its feet now, improving everyone's chances for success.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  January 31, 2014 11:37am ET
Don, I think you may be on to something with the "introductory rate" analogy. That ties in with the general sense that familiarity hurt Australia in the U.S. when American consumers turned to other sources of well-priced good-quality wine. As I put it, "The Next Big Thing."

On the other hand, while Ronnie could have chosen his words better, I find it hard to buy the idea that vintage variation played a big role in the American market's turn away from Australia. Even if consumers were aware that 2007 and 2008 were somewhat less attractive than other vintages, the swings in quality from one vintage to the next are not as great from most of Australia as they are from other parts of the world. At any given time four or five vintages are in play from Australia because they don't all release their wines at the same age. Besides, this upturn here in Australia's fortunes is taking place just as the worst vintage in years is rolling in: 2011. Still a lot of good wine there, but it does raise the question of how much vintage matters for Australia in the overall scheme of things.
David Quinn
Los Angeles, CA, USA —  February 2, 2014 10:44pm ET
The price:quality:novelty ratios got skewed in 2007 and 2008. Wines from South America, South Africa, Washington State and Cotes du Rhone caught my nose and palate and I got picky on Australian selections.

Australian wine is more than Barossa Shiraz. Wine from other regions can really reward but be prepared for some disappointments. Better currency exchange rates will help.

Harvey, I started life in Orange so thanks for you review - to misquote Judy Garland, yes, " I am a long way from home".
For those trying to find Orange in the Blue Mountains (50 miles west of Sydney), keep driving west about 150 kilometers (90 miles) for Phil Shaw's cellar door.

Oenophiles can take in the varieties this cool climate has to offer and loop back through Mudgee and the Hunter valley to Sydney over several days.
Sean P Clifford
Vail, Colorado —  February 3, 2014 4:33am ET
I just visited Australia and some great cellar doors. The Australians blame the downturn on the strength of the Aussie dollar.

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