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In vino veritas, part VII: Australian wines

Now that we’re well into autumn here in North America — or the Northern Hemisphere, for that matter — it’s time to turn our oenophilic gaze on our southern neighbors where things are just heating up, literally.

Chief among the southern producers is Australia — a country and a continent, as well as the world’s seventh-largest wine producer and, remarkably, now the fourth-largest wine exporter. The Aussie wine story is also fairly peculiar, as its ecosystem had no native grape stocks prior to the British infusion beginning en masse in the early 19th century. Even then, the continent’s climate is widely erratic, capable of going from drought to flood and back all within a single decade — not the best for cementing cultivars and motivating financiers (starting a vineyard capable of export quantities typically requires millions of dollars invested upfront).

So it was that for the longest time, the semi-arid valleys and grasslands (Australia is also the flattest continent, by the way) of Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia (four of the nation’s now prominent wine-producing states) were reserved for shepherds, farmers and miners. That’s not to say that winemaking was absent, but still, it was an oddity.

Things started to change in the late 1950s. Primarily, science had bolstered the root stocks to better suit the unstable Aussie weather conditions and resist a certain sinister pest, and worldwide population increases necessitated a greater supply. The industry reached a fever pitch in the mid-1990s as corporations swooped in with their economies of scale and marketing savvy to more formally debut Australian wines to the world market. The country hasn’t looked back since, and indeed, the grapevine business remains one of the country’s largest growth sectors. (For a well-known example, research the story behind Yellow Tail.)

As for the wines themselves, they may not hold the longstanding barreling traditions and prestige of vineyards in France and Italy, but that would be a naïve pretense to belittle their rich and complex flavors. Borrowing chiefly from the most popular Old World varietals — Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon — these wines are quintessentially New World.

Brightly acidic with pungent sugars, the reds are rarely heavy, and the whites never fail to dance on the palate. Given this archetypal taste profile, the nation’s stable of wines is perfect for plugging the gaps on your menu where a flighty, fruity elixir is required.

My hunch is to start with the more established and bountiful producing regions including the Margaret River south of Perth, Hunter Valley and Mudgee four hours inland from Sydney and the Yarra River Valley outside of Melbourne. But none compare to the rolling hills surrounding Adelaide in South Australia (Barossa Valley, Coonawarra, Eden Plains, McLaren Vale and the Riverland), home to the Southern Hemisphere’s largest wineries and most of the country’s viticultural heritage.

Wines are a matter of “taste and you shall receive.” Given its bourgeois and still largely experimental character, Australian labels are completely winemaker-dependent (aren’t they all?). Use a buyer’s guide or an expert wine merchant to select a few renowned bottles for initial sampling. Aussies vintners also generally keep an impressive cohort at any major tasting convention, so attendance at one of these events will most likely earn you a powwow to learn more firsthand.

What’s best is the price. Never outrageously marked up, the nation’s bottles are generally very reasonable for the average patron and are ready-to-drink at a young age. Vintage is less of a concern, as Australian wines typically remain consistent year to year. With that in mind, Australian wines are fun, and I’d highly recommend you stock one or two on the menu!

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