I have yet to meet an Australian of a less-than-cheerful disposition. Maybe it's because the Australians I tend to meet happen to work in wine. Sunshine and all that free 15-per-cent-alcohol shiraz can put a smile on one's face. But behind the bright disposition, producers have faced challenges of late. Exports have taken a beating and, for many, profitability has been elusive.
It's a complicated rut, a confluence of such factors as unfavourable currency-exchange rates, economic slumps in key foreign markets and growing competition from the likes of South Africa and Argentina for bargain-wine dollars. The biggest monkey on Australia's back, though, may be shiraz itself, the country's signature grape. Or perhaps I should say kangaroo on its back – as in Yellow Tail, the huge brand with the cute marsupial logo.
Yellow Tail's unparalleled success, with its mass-appeal sweetness, hooked many new consumers to Australia, particularly in the United States, where the country's market penetration had been meagre compared with that in Canada a dozen years ago. Unfortunately, the Tail began to wag the dog, to play with a metaphor. The world increasingly came to equate Australia with easy-drinking, industrially produced $12 shirazes, consummate "critter" wines. Even in value-oriented Australia, it's hard for most quality-focused producers to turn a profit at that price. A long, kangaroo-shaped shadow settled over the nation.
It was grossly unfair. Australia had never been a monolith of saccharine shiraz (hold your guffaws, Burgundy diehards). So, the industry began to massage the PR message to stress not just its premium-wine pedigree but also the presence – against stereotype – of many high-elevation, cooler-climate regions that tend to deliver lighter alcohol, zippier acidity and more delicate, complex flavour profiles that compare favourably with the finest European wines.
Shiraz itself has been putting a spring in its step, with wineries in hot zones picking earlier to preserve freshness in contrast to the prevailing super-ripe, sugary style. Some producers are choosing cooler sites and harvesting earlier to obtain crisper, more peppery flavours along the lines of iconic Northern Rhône syrah, and they're using a higher proportion of used– versus new-oak barrels, thereby pulling back on the cloying vanilla notes.
Most conspicuously, retailers – abetted by incentives from Australia's formidable wine-marketing machine – are increasingly spotlighting under-sung grapes – such as buttery chardonnay, tangy sémillon, bracing riesling, firm cabernet sauvignon and gloriously supple grenache – in addition to such upstart varieties as pinot noir, dolcetto and pinot grigio. Today's feature at Ontario Vintages stores offers good evidence. It's a fine selection that should put a smile on consumers as well as Australian producers.
Katnook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (Australia)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $29.95
There's all the bling of rich, New World cabernet in this red but plenty of finesse, too. It's full-bodied and intense, with sweet cassis, vanilla and dark chocolate, then it turns enticingly savoury, exhibiting nuances of black-olive tapenade and mint, neatly chiselled around the edges with fresh acidity. This is a fine steak wine that's not to be confused with the still-excellent and more widely available Katnook Founder's Block at about $20. $35.49 in Newfoundland.
Schild Estate Old Bush Vine GMS 2011 (Australia)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $19.95
It's a blend of 55-per-cent grenache, the soft red variety, with firm mourvèdre, at 25 per cent, and shiraz. Smartly assembled, this full-bodied red tips its hat to the Rhône with juicy cherry, game and black pepper, but it betrays its sunny Barossa Valley charm with a hint of sweetness. Pair it with roast leg of lamb if you can. $18.60 in Quebec. The 2010 Schild Shiraz in B.C., at $29.98, is terrific, too.
Mountadam Estate Chardonnay 2009 (Australia)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $24.95
Here's an impressive chardonnay that defies the heavy, thick profile for which Australia is chiefly known. It's rich, to be sure, with butterscotch and creamy vanilla up front, but it's balanced by juicy acidity and lively lemon-tea flavours. Rich fish dishes will pair well with it. Available in Ontario.
McWilliam's Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Semillon 2006 (Australia)
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $19.95
The white sémillon grape falls outside the mainstream in terms of flavour profile, with a sherry-like tang (an acquired taste) and lean, bracing presence. There's kiwi here, mixed with underripe pineapple and whiffs of earth and stone. It's not for everyone, but charming for those who appreciate sémillon. Cellar for up to 10 years for added tang and honey character, or pour now with light seafood dishes. Available in Ontario.
Devil's Corner Pinot Noir 2010 (Australia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $23.95
Perhaps you detect a subtle reference to the Tasmanian devil of cartoon fame. That's not the case with this devil, a sailor's reference to a perilous corner of the Tasman River on the cool, southern island off Australia's mainland. Tasmania can produce pinot noir that many Burgundian producers should envy. This is a fine example, light-medium bodied, with attractive sour cherry and soft raspberry in the middle, surrounded by slightly dusty tannins and cracked peppercorn around the edges. The perfect match: seared duck breast. Available in Ontario.
Chapel Hill Bush Vine Grenache 2011 (Australia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $26.95
Here we go: an Aussie red that defies the sweet-fruit-bomb stereotype. Yes, there's considerable alcohol in this red, but that's the nature of grenache, a heat-loving variety that delivers a wallop even in its traditional homes of southern France and Spain. From McLaren Vale, this offering is full-bodied and firmly structured, with soft cherry jam answered by lively black pepper, herbs and lavender. Braised lamb shanks would do it proud. Available in Ontario.
Robert Oatley Signature Series Riesling 2012 (Australia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $17.95
Riesling seems destined, at least in foreign markets, to be Australia's variety worthy of greater recognition. Bracingly bone-dry, this lean yet punchy white offers expressive lime zest, Pez-like tanginess and subtle floral notes dancing atop the citrus. It's a great match for lemonor lime-marinated shellfish on the grill. Available in Ontario.
Azahara Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir (Australia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $17.95
A remarkable value, Azahara, from Deakin Estate, takes its name from the Spanish word for orange blossom, a nod to nearby fruit trees. Yes, you may detect the orange, but the predominant flavour here invites a more direct comparison to apple, with a hint of citrus pulling up the rear. Like many a decent Champagne, this bubbly offers overtones of toasty bread and flowers. Lovely. $17.97 in Newfoundland.
Heartland Stickleback Red 2010 (Australia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $13.95
What a marvellous bargain and engagingly offbeat red blend. It's made mainly from cabernet sauvignon and shiraz, two leading Aussie signatures that require no introduction. Then there are dolcetto and lagrein, lesserknown northern Italian grapes that, despite their tight acid spine, somehow manage to not only make peace with but enhance the cab and shiraz. A suitable red for osso buco. $16.99 in B.C., $14.25 in Manitoba.
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The Flavour Principle, a new cookbook and drinks compendi um by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol, is in bookstores everywhere . It's published by Harper Collins.