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.