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Australia's White Wines
Riesling now vies with Chardonnay in the quality sweepstakes
Take a sip of Tatachilla Chardonnay Adelaide Hills 2000, with its glorious, mouthfilling apple, pear and spice flavors, finishing with a wave of honey. It's all so harmonious and elegant. You might expect a Chardonnay like this, which rates 92 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale, to cost $40 or $50. This Australian beauty goes for $25.
There are, of course, plenty of boutique Australian wineries issuing minuscule quantities of sensational wines at $50 a bottle and up. This story isn't about them. It's about the producers, big and small, that make value a priority without sacrificing quality -- wineries such as Rosemount, which arguably started the ball rolling in the 1980s with a big-flavor Shiraz in a bottle with a diamond-shaped label.
It's about wineries like Majella, whose supple and seductive Cabernet blend Coonawarra 1999 (91 points, $27) oozes with juicy, focused currant, raspberry and pepper flavors. Or Yalumba, with its light, polished Bush Vine Grenache 2001 (88, $15), which charms with nimble strawberry, raspberry and cream flavors.
Since January 2002, Wine Spectator has reviewed more than 1,000 Australian wines and 2,600 California wines. The California wines that rated 90 to 94 points cost, on average, $57.83, a whopping $18.97 more than similarly rated Australian wines. At 88 and 89 points, you would spend $12.79 less for an Aussie wine. In each group, the gap has widened about $5 since 2000.
For the most popular types -- Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon -- American consumers can find three to six times as many 90- to 94-point California wines as they can 90- to 94-point Australian wines. But if it has an Australian label, an outstanding Chardonnay costs an average of $7.75 less, an outstanding Cabernet $33 less, on average. As for Syrah (called Shiraz in Australia), the tables are turned, with three times as many Australian as California wines earning outstanding ratings. Even so, the California versions average $2.44 more a bottle.
How do the Australians do it? Last fall, I trekked Australia from coast to coast to find out, visiting more than two dozen wineries that have consistently delivered outstanding wines at moderate prices. I walked through vineyards, tasted wines from barrels and tanks, even sipped a few older bottles with winemakers.
The reasons for Australia's value edge are manifold. To bring things into perspective, it is important to remember that Australia is a big country, about as big as the United States. Its widely scattered wine regions cover a range of climates, from cool at the coast to blazing hot inland. The key districts dot an expanse known as South Eastern Australia, which covers three states and is nearly five times the size of California; its top winegrowing areas are concentrated mostly in South Australia, with others peppering Victoria and New South Wales. Another pocket of good vineyards lies in the far southwestern corner of the country, where the Indian Ocean meets the Southern Ocean.
Australia's values are not the product of happenstance, but part of a long-term strategy. In 1993, the Australian wine industry agreed on a plan to more than double its wine production and worldwide sales by the year 2010. The country is already well-ahead of that goal. In fact, all the new planting has created a modest grape-surplus, which means that winemakers seeking high quality can be pickier about the grapes they use, relegating the substandard stuff to lower-priced, lesser-quality wines. In time, the surplus will probably vanish -- meanwhile, it's helping prevent price escalation on many gems.
Australian wine wasn't even on the radar for most American wine drinkers when Rosemount Diamond Label Shiraz arrived on the scene in the mid-1980s. Those who knew of Australia at all thought of it as a source of cheap, pleasant wines, notably $5 or $6 Chardonnays you could slosh down easily. Diamond Label Shiraz was a hefty red with layers of flavor and impressive length, even though it was designed to be drinkable while young. The first vintage was 1984. It cost $8 and scored 83 points on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale. (Just two years later, the 1986 scored 92 points, and quality remained high through the 1990s.)
One hot commodity in the mid-'80s wine world was California Merlot. Rosemount's American marketing head, John Gay (now chairman of Southcorp The Americas), wanted the winery to get in on the action. In Australia, the winemaking crew balked.
"Australian Merlot was not anything we wanted to present to the world," recalls Chris Hancock, the original winemaker at Rosemount, now vice president of Southcorp. "We knew nothing about Merlot, except that ours tended to be thin and green. But we knew Shiraz and we had lots of it. In those days, the grape was not in huge demand. When we suggested Shiraz, John was skeptical. Americans didn't know Shiraz. But we knew that it would more effectively cover a wider quality band than Merlot, if we could convince enough people that it was a very good drink."
Rosemount had achieved some critical praise for early vintages of its Roxburgh Chardonnay, made from Upper Hunter Valley grapes. It had rich flavor, soft texture and plenty of fruit character, topped off with a tang of sweet oak. The price was moderate, too, a result of cheap vineyard land and low production costs. The wine was a success on the international market, especially in the United Kingdom and the United States. "That gave us confidence that we could get out there and mix it up with anyone," says Hancock.
The first vintage of Rosemount Shiraz was patterned consciously after the Chardonnay. It used grapes from McLaren Vale, recognized as one of the prime regions for Shiraz, in a wine that had the same soft, appealing drinkability as the Chardonnay. "We were unashamedly populist," says Hancock. "No one else was making this sort of wine. Wine writers put us down for not wanting to be a Latour or Jaboulet look-alike, but the wine rolled out the door."
Throughout the 1990s, Wine Spectator consistently gave scores of very good to outstanding to Diamond Label Shiraz, while its price rose steadily. As the volume grew, grapes from lesser regions found their way into the wine. Maintaining its previous quality became more difficult. The current vintage, 2001 (84, $12), is disappointingly light, but Rosemount today has a raft of other solid-value wines that satisfy.
It didn't take long for Australia's biggest wine companies to rush in, using their size and muscle to hone their value edge. Leasingham, for example, BRL Hardy's wine operation in Clare Valley, gets first crack at the company's best grapes in the region, excelling at Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon for around $20. Devil's Lair, under the Southcorp umbrella with Rosemount, turns out consistently outstanding Chardonnay at $23 from its vineyards in the same Western Australia neighborhood as Leeuwin, Australia's Chardonnay leader.
To supply its Greg Norman Estates, Beringer Blass allots some of its better vineyards in Victoria's Yarra Valley for the label's $15 Chardonnay, and in Coonawarra for its $17 Cabernet blend, both of which rate in the very good range.
The Lion-Nathan conglomerate, which owns Tatachilla, also has St. Hallett, which makes two strikingly polished and profound wines from Barossa Shiraz. One is the $40 Old Block, which habitually rates 90-plus points. The other, Blackwell, scored a stunning 93 points ($25) for its debut vintage, 1998.
It doesn't require a big wine company to deliver this kind of bang for the buck. In McLaren Vale, family-owned d'Arenberg makes more than 30 different wines, all of them distinctive and free of winemaking manipulations. Most are in the $15 to $35 range, with its Red Ochre and White Ochre bottlings less than $10. Majella, also family-owned, was originally a highly regarded Coonawarra grapegrower; in 1998 it started bottling its own Shiraz and Cabernet, which show remarkable intensity of pure fruit character for $30 or less. In the same region, Penley packs juicy, lively character into Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz for around $25 a bottle.
Then there are wineries like Paringa, which employs cutting-edge grape farming in order to do better. The results are stunning values such as Paringa's 2001 Shiraz (90, $10), smooth and plump with black cherry, blackberry and exotic spice flavors.
Familiar names from California are getting into the act too. Kendall-Jackson, Jess Jackson's California wine conglomerate, bought the former Normans winery in Clarendon Hills, overlooking McLaren Vale, renamed it Yangarra Park, and started with some lovely quaffers at $10. Next up for YP: a range of $25, region-specific varietals, which showed great promise when tasted prior to bottling. At the other end of the volume scale are the few thousand cases of wine made by the family of Daryl Groom, from their vineyards in Australia; Groom assists in the winemaking and sells the wines at fair prices in the United States under his Groom label.
Big operation or small, the factors behind Australia's moderately priced wines are the same; in several respects, it simply costs less to make these wines than it would in California or the more familiar regions of Europe. It starts with the land.
Vic Patrick spreads a sheaf of computer printouts across a wide conference table. Outside the window, the rolling hills of the Annie's Lane home vineyard in Clare Valley are turning green as the vines leaf out in the springtime sun. Patrick runs the Australian vineyards for Beringer Blass, which owns Annie's Lane, Wolf Blass, Greg Norman and more than a dozen other wineries in Australia.
"Our last purchase in Clare Valley, a vineyard next to one we already had, identical to the original soils, was A$2,000 an acre [about US$1,200]," Patrick reads from one printout. "Land in Eden Valley is also A$2,000 an acre."
Australia is in a dry cycle, and water is at a premium. Piped-in water costs A$500 to A$2,000 an acre per year, Patrick says. Even so, the numbers come out in Australia's favor.
He continues reading off the list. "Barossa has no significant undeveloped land. Coonawarra is A$15,000 an acre for bare land. Langhorne Creek is A$6,000 to A$8,000 an acre, because it has water. Wrattonbully is A$2,000 an acre and water is A$2,000 an acre per year." What about established, developed vineyard land? "A$24,000 to A$36,000 an acre," says Patrick, a fraction of the cost in U.S. dollars for acreage in prime California regions. Vineyard land in Napa Valley goes for $100,000 an acre and up. It's even more expensive in the prime regions of Europe.
Wineries that purchase grapes find that the economics work in their favor, too. "Last year we paid A$2,000 to A$3,000 a tonne for McLaren Vale Shiraz," says Michael Fragos, winemaker at Tatachilla. Fragos is talking about metric tons, which are 10.2 percent bigger than U.S. tons; the translation is about $1,000 to $1,500 in U.S. equivalents, considerably less than the average price of more than $2,200 a ton for Syrah in Napa or Sonoma last year.
Australian growers spend considerably less than their U.S. counterparts do on labor. Australia doesn't have a ready source of farm workers, so the vineyards are mechanized, even in the best regions.
"We have an arid climate and infertile soils, which means not much vine vigor," Patrick notes. "So we don't have to do a lot of foliage manipulation. If we do too much, the grapes get sunburn. We have relatively few vine pests, so we're down to a pretty low chemical load."
If mechanization has hampered quality in the past -- and opinions differ on just how much -- the attitude is changing. In an effort to improve wine quality, big vineyard owners, including Southcorp and BRL Hardy, are aggressively reshaping vineyards that had been mechanically pruned. Philip Shaw, Southcorp's chief winemaker, drove me around some of the company's vineyards in Barossa, Eden Valley, Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale.
At a vineyard in Eden Valley, vines follow the contours of the rolling hills like the grooves on a warped LP. Shaw stops to talk with workers clipping away the tangled jungle that comes from years of machine pruning, cutting the vine all the way back to the point where it branches off at the first trellis wire. The vines look pretty forlorn, like knobby shillelaghs sticking out of the ground.
Over the hill, vines that were cut back a year earlier have spread into the familiar cordons and branches. "We lose a vintage or two, and sometimes it takes six years to get the vine back into balance, but the results are worth it," Shaw says. On machine-pruned vines, Shaw explains, it's not unusual for some bunches to be hard and green while others are getting overripe. That does not make for the best possible wine.
Earlier, Shaw showed off Walton Vineyard in Barossa, 325 acres planted in 1994 on rolling hills near Seppeltsfield. "This vineyard is designed to be efficient to manage," Shaw says, as we kick up a light dust cloud between the rows. "We can do a lot by machine, but we do prune by hand. We don't have to work too hard to keep the crop down to 3 to 3-and-a-half tons per acre." Already, he says, the grapes are going into St. Henri Shiraz, one of Penfolds' superpremium wines.
Some growers are using global positioning satellite devices to fine-tune their vineyards in ways they never thought possible. In Margaret River, a vineyard manager shows me a color-coded map, one result of a GPS survey of grape yields. A large red blotch covers about one-third of the vineyard.
"That's a high-yield area," he explains. "We don't know exactly why, whether it was exposure, or soil, or something else. But it was about double the yield we got in other parts of the vineyard. We know that high yields make our Cabernets and Merlots taste weedy." Changing the vine management in mid-row balanced the yields throughout the vineyard and dramatically improved the flavor of the wines.
Vineyard wizardry is only one part of the picture, of course. It works in American consumers' favor that since mid-1998 Australia's dollar has been worth less than 65 cents in U.S. currency. That makes Australian wines bargains in the U.S., even if they cost considerably more here than they do in Australia.
Pricing is a delicate balancing act. Most wineries leave it to their American importers to find the right level. A high price evaporates Australia's competitive advantage. Too low a price can send the wrong message, too -- that the wine can't be that good. Brian Walsh, chief winemaker for Yalumba, says his company has little patience for that attitude.
"Robert Hill Smith (Yalumba's owner) gets testy with importers and distributors who complain when a price isn't high enough," Walsh says. "He doesn't want our wines to be elevated to collector status. We want the people who have always bought our wines to be rewarded for their support."
Add it all up, and things just work in Australia's favor. "Some countries seem to have a natural competitive advantage for certain products," says Hancock, the Southcorp vice president. "Australia has a natural competitive advantage for wine. We have old soils, a huge selection of different soil types and climatic ranges for planting grapes. Land is very inexpensive because the country is so big and civilization for the most part is not encroaching on the vineyard land. We don't have to import labor. The climate is not marginal, so we can grow almost anything we want effectively. We have a high level of technical capacity. We make 4 percent of the world's wine but produce 25 percent of the technical and research papers."
A final factor, suggests Chris Hatcher, chief winemaker for Beringer Blass, might be Australia's prevailing bigger-than-its-britches attitude. "Australians want to be bigger in the real world than our population of around 20 million would suggest," he says. "We do it in sports, especially cricket, rugby and Olympic swimming, and we try to do it in wine."
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