Although we in the U.S. today are still buying more Australian wine than any other imports except Italian, the light has dimmed. It's not uncommon to hear a retailer or sommelier say, "Australia is over" as they move on to Argentina, Chile and South Africa. Especially hard hit are wines that sell for more than $25 or $35. But Oz is not alone in that; the same can be said for most of the wine world.
The Aussie wine folk I talk to often blame Yellow Tail, which came out of nowhere in this past decade to become the largest-selling wine brand in America. Most of its wines sell for about $7, although it does have some reserve-level wines that cost a bit more. Yellow Tail’s imitators and the huge problem of overproduction have flooded the U.S. market with too much bad Australian wine under $10. That has also tarnished the reputation of the good ones.
As it happens, Yellow Tail’s latest releases came up in my blind tastings last week. That same night, I had dinner with exporter-importer John Larchet near the end of his current U.S. visit. He has been dealing in Australian wine since 1995, which makes him one of the graybeards.
To establish Larchet's’s credentials, his Australian Premium Wine Collection includes some of Oz’s better wineries, geographically distributed across the continent. Among them are Grosset, Mt. Horrocks, Clonakilla, Craiglee and Elderton. He has also created some of his own labels, including The Wishing Tree and his wonderful old-vine Grenache, Tir na N’og. Tellingly, he has recently expanded his portfolio to include wines from Argentina, New Zealand and Spain under the rubric of World Wine Headquarters.
Although Larchet’s portfolio has its share of high-end wines, he said he’s focusing most of his efforts on the $10 to $25 range. “That’s the sweet spot,” he said.
A lightbulb went on for Larchet as he visited retail shops recently and noticed that typically they segregated Australian wines into their own section. “The problem is we’re talking about Australian Chardonnay instead of Chardonnay from Australia,” he said.
That may seem like mere semantics, but I get his point. If you want Chardonnay for dinner, you probably don’t go wandering into the Australian section first. And that’s too bad. I taste more good Chardonnays from Australia today than ever before, as more vintners focus on specific regional character, aim for racy structure and use oak more judiciously (again, not unique to Australia, but it’s there). The perception of the wines among most wine drinkers has not caught up with that truth.
But if you’re looking for a Chardonnay and the Australian wines are offered along with all the other ones, you might give one a shot, especially if the retailer can recommend it. Larchet knows he isn’t going to get wine shops to rearrange their stock just to make it easier to sell his wines. But he strongly believes that the only way to tear down the prejudices against Australia is to think of the wines as varietals first, distinguished by their vineyard sources in Australia.
On another note, Larchet thinks that dumping on Yellow Tail is no answer, and I agree. Having just tasted through the current lineup, I noticed a significant uptick in quality and style. Tasting blind, I once could distinguish a Yellow Tail sample by its sugary sweetness. Not any more. The wines are now nearly dry, close enough that they don’t stand out from their peers. They also seem to have more transparency and detail to their flavors. In the past, the $7 price tag seemed too high for the quality, usually scoring in the low 80s. Now it seems about right as the wines do three to six points better.
Value: That’s the operative word in wine today. It doesn’t mean cheap; it means worth the price. And for my money, lots of Australian wines in that $10 to $25 range Larchet identified are worth it. His challenge is to get wine drinkers who may have been burned by lousy, cheap wines or over-the-top luxury bottlings to give them a look. As consumers, our opportunity is in the hundreds of wines worth discovering that defy conventional wisdom.