Australia on the Move
After a period of market turmoil, quality is rising amid a tide of new wines
Harvey Steiman
Issue: August 31, 2013

As Australia continues to produce compelling wines, a wider range of styles and regions is coming into play. Since my last report ("Australia's New Horizons," July 31, 2012), I have reviewed more than 630 wines in Wine Spectator's Napa office, the most in four years. Of that selection, 264 wines rated an outstanding 90 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale, the most ever in a single year. (A free alphabetical list of scores and prices for all wines tasted is available.)

The star of this report is the 2008 vintage of Penfolds Shiraz South Australia Grange ($850, 100 points), which earns the highest rating ever for an Australian table wine. Yet while this iconic wine doubtless stands as the country's most visible, a few statistics reflect Australia's growing diversity. About half of the outstanding wines list alcohol levels of 14 percent or less, which may surprise those who see the country as a producer of nothing but overblown Shiraz. Some 30 percent of bottlings come from cooler regions, such as Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Pyrenees, Adelaide Hills and Hilltops. These wines have not replaced stalwarts from Barossa, Clare or McLaren Vale, the sites most familiar to Americans, but they have added welcome depth to the mix.

During the global economic turndown, Australia's success eroded here. In 2006, the country was challenging Italy for most exports to the United States, but it currently stands a solid third behind Italy and France. Now, however, those figures seem to be gaining slowly against economic headwinds that include the strongest Australian dollar in recent history. Signs of change appeared in June, when the U.S. dollar gained 9 percent against the Australian currency, which had previously reached a high of $1.06—roughly double where it stood in the mid-1990s when wines from Down Under made their first big splash in the United States. For some producers and distributors, that development erased profit margins in U.S. sales, and several highly regarded wineries skipped or delayed shipping vintages to North America. Some U.S. importers dropped Aussie brands and diversified to producers from other countries.

Now importers who trimmed their portfolios are finally adding new labels. "We have 13 new producers," says Ronnie Sanders of Vine Street Imports, a longtime supporter of Australian wine. "This new generation of wines and winemakers in Australia is exciting, and the sommeliers here are starting to figure it out, too. It's always tricky getting past the gatekeepers to the consumer, and that seems to be changing for the better."

Versions in the marketplace center on the 2011 and 2012 vintages for white wines, and 2009 through 2011 for reds. The star vintages across the board are 2010 and 2012, years in which rainfall and weather conditions generally came close to perfect in most key growing regions. The outlier is 2011, which was plagued by unusually cool temperatures during the growing season and rains at harvest. The lighter style of the 2011s may please some, but making intense red wines proved a significant challenge.

Wolf Blass Chardonnay Adelaide Hills White Label Specially Aged Release 2010 (92, $32) encapsulates in a single sip the overarching trend in Australian wine today. Silky in texture, graceful, expressive but not weighty, it tastes like biting into an heirloom apple, gaining complexity more from maturing on lees in older barrels than from oak. The first word that comes to mind is "deft."

Although the White Label tier has been in Wolf Blass' portfolio since 2000, it is only now making its first appearance in U.S. stores. Very much in Wolf Blass' customary drink-me-now style, it exudes modern flair. The palate of the label's founder was honed in his native Germany. Now 78 and retired, Blass continues to insist that his wines be fruit-forward but polished in texture. He doesn't want them to hit you over the head, preferring to have them reflect the pure flavors of the grapes.

This Chardonnay, one of 27 earning outstanding ratings in this report, shows how, with lees aging and other traditional Burgundian processes, it is possible arrive at a more complete flavor profile for the varietal, and a more convincing wine overall. Chardonnay producers across Australia are seeking cooler sites to achieve the balance they believe better expresses what the grape can deliver, fermenting and aging the wine to draw out additional flavors without letting any single element overwhelm. While the approach is not universally successful, it can make magic when it works.

Other top examples of Chardonnay show styles ranging from lively and expressive to rich and expansive. Flametree Chardonnay Margaret River S.R.S. 2011 (93, $80), juicy with green guava and papaya flavors, glides into a balanced finish, while the sleek, polished Giant Steps Chardonnay Yarra Valley Arthurs Creek Vineyard 2011 (93, $42) hints at tangerine peel and hazelnut accents. Shaw & Smith Chardonnay Adelaide Hills M3 2010 (92, $40), consistently among the best versions from Australia, shows depth and finesse, with a sense of reticence to its delicately smoky pear, Winesap apple and lime flavors.

At the riper end of the spectrum, Streicker Chardonnay Margaret River Ironstone Block Old Vine 2009 (92, $36) piles up layers of spicy pineapple and pear, hinting at floral honey notes as the finish lingers. It's built in the same mold as Leeuwin Estate's revered Art Series bottlings; the 2010 vintage (95, $89) tops the Chardonnay list, displaying a knack for balancing rich expressiveness with supple texture, pouring out pear, green guava, fig and spice notes in a generous stream.

The same sort of diversity shown in the country's Chardonnay is also evident in its Cabernet Sauvignon. Always a local staple, Australian Cabernet has traditionally shown a tendency toward vegetal flavors, putting off many potential fans in America. But this report found more Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet blends worth seeking out than ever before.

At the quality end, Penfolds Cabernet Sauvignon South Australia Bin 707 2010 (97, $350), a towering Cabernet, celebrates its depth and power without obvious weight. Its vivid aromatics play against a spicy streak and generous currant and boysenberry flavors, flowing seamlessly into a long and vivid finish. Two Hands Cabernet Sauvignon Barossa Valley Aphrodite 2010 (93, $199), a riper and more opulent version, focuses its red berry, black cherry, roasted herb and chocolate flavors on a supple texture. And Jim Barry Cabernet Sauvignon Clare Valley The Benbournie 2004 (93, $99), which is polished, fleshy, focused and elegant, still feels youthful and expressive.

The list extends beyond these top-tier examples. Clarendon Hills, absent from the U.S. market for two years, offers vibrant, green olive-scented cherry and blackberry flavors on a beautifully integrated frame in its Cabernet Sauvignon Clarendon Brookman 2008 (93, $50), one of three single-vineyard Cabernets from the winery to earn outstanding scores. Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Coonawarra Black Label 2010 (91, $35) exhibits finesse, playing its fruit against hints of mineral and herb. Looking to the $15 to $25 range, head-turners include Wolf Blass Cabernet Sauvignon Coonawarra Gold Label 2010 (91, $25), with juicy blackberry, black currant and ripe plum flavors shaded with lingering hints of coffee, sage and subtle spices; and Zonte's Footstep Cabernet Langhorne Creek Avalon Tree 2010 (91, $15), which is ripe and expressive, dense in texture, filled with black currant, mint and licorice notes.

This widespread success does not mean that Syrah (or Shiraz, as most Australian wineries call it) and other Rhône varieties such as Grenache and Mourvèdre have lost any of their signature quality. Alone or in blends, these varieties remain responsible for more than half the Australian wines reviewed in the past year. They also account for all but two of the wines rating 95 points or higher.

At the top of the Shiraz mountain are wines from Australia's most celebrated wineries, including the 100-point Grange. A small step below are a pair of wines from Two Hands: Shiraz Barossa Valley Zippy's Block Single Vineyard Marananga 2010 (98, $125) feels complete, putting its elements in relief against refined tannins and impeccable balance; and Shiraz Barossa Valley-McLaren Vale Ares 2010 (97, $199) smoothly mixes fruit and spice in an aristocratic, graceful style that presents gripping depth and easy expression.

Also worth noting are Mollydooker Shiraz McLaren Vale Velvet Glove 2011 (96, $185), dense with smoky blackberry, wild blueberry, tomato leaf and exotic spice complexity; and Kaesler Shiraz Barossa Valley Old Bastard 2010 (95, $230), which is powerful but not weighty. Along with its Syrah Hickinbotham 2008 (95, $75), Clarendon Hills made two Grenache wines at the classic level: its Romas 2008 (96, $75) radiates depth and excitement, while the Kangarilla 2008 (95, $50) is noble and seductive.

Adding yet more variety to the ranks of Shiraz are the crisp, vibrant styles of Jamsheed and Pyren in Victoria, Ochota Barrels in South Australia, the medium-range efforts of Heathcote II and Penfolds, and the rich, opulent wines of Hobbs and Sons of Eden.

One intriguing development, as viewed from this side of the Pacific, centers on Rhône Valley master Michel Chapoutier. Avoiding the well-established Barossa, Clare and McLaren Vale regions, he has opted to make compelling wines from somewhat cooler spots in the state of Victoria, releasing versions under the Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier brand (with the U.S. importer Terlato as investor) and with his own, estate-driven Tournon label. In the past decade he also started joint ventures with Ron and Elva Laughton, owners of Jasper Hill in Heathcote (Cluster M45), and Rick Kinzbrunner of Giaconda in Beechworth (Ergo Sum).

These wines reflect the structural preferences of a French vigneron, but with an Australian flavor spectrum. They all celebrate the characteristics of their individual sites. Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier Shiraz Pyrenees Malakoff 2010 (92, $48), the most widely available, is a Crozes-Hermitage-like mouthful of mineral, with distinctive black olive and rocky overtones to the vivid core of plum and blackberry fruit. The Shiraz-Viognier, on the other hand, has brilliant fruit, while the L-Block shows more opulence. Cluster M45, the wine with Jasper Hill, is richer still, coming from the deep soils of a warmer region. Tournon Shiraz Heathcote Lady's Lane Vineyard 2009 (95, $59) brims with blueberry and currant flavors, displaying a lovely transparency on the finish.

Chapoutier's reputation among wine aficionados makes him virtually impervious to the impact of exchange rates. Two veteran Australian winemakers, each with more than 40 vintages under his belt, suggest that the cash squeeze may actually be good for top-end wines such as theirs. Both Iain Riggs, of Hunter Valley's Brokenwood, and former Penfolds winemaker John Duval, whose eponymous winery produces wines from Rhône varieties in Barossa Valley, think that the money pressure has weeded out pretenders and some of the manufactured wines that continue to sully Australia's name.

"Basically, it has taken the focus off the low end," says Duval. In other words, the perception that Australia is nothing but cheap juice has lost ground in wine drinkers' minds.

"The low-end wines have to come up in price or take a loss," says Riggs. Indeed, some producers and importers have swallowed the shrinking profit margin rather than raise U.S. prices, especially among wines under $12, so as not to lose market share. Others have been forced to increase their bottle prices, eroding the appearance of value. High-end brands such as Brokenwood and Duval, conversely, can still look good in a category where a price change of $5 makes less difference.

Several wineries stand out for performing impressively across the board, including such familiar names as Bindi in Macedon Ranges, Victoria for its distinctive cool-climate Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, and Shaw & Smith in Adelaide Hills for its Chardonnay, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and a new Pinot Noir. All eight of the Wolf Blass wines reviewed, including some new single-vineyard bottlings, earned outstanding ratings. Tahbilk offers a raft of wines from both white and red Rhône grapes.

Clarendon Hills, with wines that demand attention from both Rhône and Bordeaux enthusiasts, is notable among several labels making a strong comeback after a period of absence from recent reports. Wynns, for its signature Cabernet Sauvignon, and Torbreck, for rich Grenache and Shiraz, are also worth seeking out.

Riggs and Duval note that the latest generation of wine drinkers in the United States seems to approach these disparate styles without prejudice. "When you describe to them the style of wines Australia was exporting to the U.S.A. 10 years ago, they look blankly at you," says Duval. "They only care about what's happening now."

A new vanguard of Aussie winemakers is making strides as well. "The young guns are giving it a go at a more elegant expression, using whole-cluster fermentations and other techniques, emphasizing individual vineyard sites, all to make their wines more distinctive," Duval adds.

To be sure, not all the wines in this report are so exciting. Popular as they are in Australia, only a few Pinot Noirs have the moxie to stand out. Varieties such as Dolcetto, Tempranillo, Verdelho and Muscat-based table wines show only spotty results. Another rising trend, off-dry Riesling, might offer a change of pace from the existing Aussie style of bone-dry and tight, but the category failed to impress as a whole.

Still, the overall message is clear: With more classic and oustanding bottlings available than ever before, it may finally be time for Americans to rethink their preconceptions about Australian wine.

Editor at large Harvey Steiman is Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wines of Australia.