Thunder Down Under

A new breed of superb, artisanally produced reds—mostly Cabernet and Shiraz—is redefining Australian wine

While you've been busy bending your mind around the latest internet IPO your favorite wine store has been stocking its shelves with a new kind of sensory fulfillment: mouthwatering, trophy-quality reds from small Australian estates such as Clarendon Hills, Greenock Creek, Elderton, and Vasse Felix. These silky, potently flavorful Cabernets and Shirazes (and a smattering of Grenaches, Pinot Noirs, and Merlots) will rewire your wine brain and make you a crystal-ball genius for getting out in front on this thing.

In the age of global connoisseurship, bushwhacking wine scouts are bringing back hidden gems uncovered everywhere from Ribera del Duero to Alto Adige, but never anything on this scale. It's as though someone broke open a kangaroo-shaped piñata and dozens of new wines came tumbling out. And the momentum is still growing: Last year a new winery opened in Australia every 84 hours.

"Americans just didn't know that Australia had all these Kistlers and Bryant Familys over there," states William Sherer, a master sommelier at Moose's in San Francisco. "We were having a hard time getting some of the California cult Cabernets—and all of a sudden, here were wines of equal or better quality coming in droves."

If the sheer number of newly available, world-class wines catches us by surprise, it is pretty dizzying for Australian collectors as well. As in California, the number of independent wineries that are making topnotch, wine-lovers' wines has mushroomed in a single generation.

"It's pretty hard to keep up," acknowledges Michael Hill-Smith, an owner of Shaw and Smith Winery and Adelaide's Universal Wine Bar and a frequent wine-show judge. "I'm meant to know," he says, "but even I keep coming across labels and saying, 'Where did they come from?'"

This is a breathtaking turnaround in a country that, as recently as 1987, was so awash in unwanted juice that the government paid Barossa Valley farmers, in the Shiraz heartland, to uproot their grape vines ($3,230 an acre for your whole vineyard; $1,940 an acre for any part thereof). Today, Barossa's stock of old-vine Shiraz is celebrated as a vinous treasure trove, and the rush is on around the country to put more vines in.

Australia's winemaking has gotten sophisticated in a hurry too. It wasn't too long ago, for example, that Australian wine labels were essentially impressionistic. A wine with Shiraz in it was liable to be called Burgundy; a wine with some Cabernet might be a Claret. If the winemaker wanted, it could also be the other way around. A friend who visited Australia in the early 1980s swears that at one winery he was offered a Riesling to taste and later a Semillon. Asked his opinion he said the wines tasted very similar. "Well, sure," agreed his host. "We pull the Riesling from the top of the vat and the Semillon from the bottom."

But these days Australia's regulations are tougher than those in the United States. A varietally labeled wine has to contain 85 percent of the named grape (versus 75 percent in America), and each of the grapes in a blend has to be specified. Moreover, beginning in the mid-nineties Australia finally began to come to grips with the map of the wine country, throwing legal boundaries for the first time around traditional placenames like Coonawarra and Hunter Valley. As in the United States, the borders sometimes expanded to incorporate litigious parties on the fringes, but these Geographical Indications, as they're called, are a step in the right direction. ("Do you call them G.I.s?" I asked one winemaker. "I think we do," he said. "They're so new, it's not even in common parlance."

Back in the 1980s a quality-fixated small producer had to, in a sense, draw up his own map of the wine country. "Twenty years ago there was a real scattergun approach," remembers Charlie Melton, who founded Barossa Valley's Charles Melton Wines in 1984. "People just planted a little of everything everywhere, ya know—in case one didn't work, another might. Now we understand differently—people aren't trying to grow what doesn't work in their vineyard."

The volumes demanded by the giant combines like Southcorp (Penfolds, Lindemans) that then dominated the Australian wine scene (as they do now) meant that most familiar Australian wines were composed from vineyards all over the landscape. "A lot of the best fruit wasn't being seen on its own," explains Melton, "because so many of the big companies were blending everything. People were losing sight of what a true Barossa wine was like."

That is where the growing numbers of passionate, personal-scale vintners come in. In a country roughly the size of the United States, they have fanned out to discover climate pockets, or stands of vineyard, where particular grapes grow most flavorfully. Then they do everything within their skill to let the grapes express themselves. In Charlie Melton's case, this meant low-yielding, nonirrigated vineyards and easy-does-it, low-tech winemaking. What Melton says goes for a lot of his colleagues as well: "We use basic winemaking techniques with a hell of a lot of attention to detail, not toys and tricks."

One surprising result of the boutique winemakers' success is that the big companies are rediscovering their own vineyards. Says Australian wine expert Jeremy Oliver: "They're dropping crop-loads on vineyards that were set up to make bulk or cheap wines in the 1980s, and discovering that these mature vines can give them something they didn't know they had."

All this high-quality farming has begun to sort out the growing regions of Australia. Warm northern Barossa and McLaren Vale, known for rich, chunky reds, are a hotbed of full-throttle Shiraz. The more moderate Coonawarra, Margaret River, and Yarra Valley are places to look for top Bordeaux-Style blends, while cooler vineyards in the Yarra Valley, Adelaide Hills, Tasmania, and Gippsland are emerging as top Pinot Noir and Chardonnay areas.

And seemingly every region now has its gurus and cult labels. Mount Mary in the Yarra Valley, which writer Hugh Johnson called "the Lafite of the Southern Hemisphere," has such a following that would-be customers may have to cool their heels for four years on the waiting list to buy some. Bass Phillip, in cool-climate Gippsland, put its first Pinot Noirs on the market in 1990 and has become most insiders' response to the question "Can Australia produce a great Pinot?" The next sentence is usually: "Not that I can get any."

All this activity has American importers racing across the Outback like Rally Raid drivers. "Some superstar wineries are not widely known at all," says importer Dan Philips of The Grateful Palate, "because they sell by mail order, or out the cellar door. There are great Barossa properties journalists in Sydney haven't heard of, even though they have been making wine for ten or fifteen years."

Just prying a few cases away from a cult winery is a would-be importer's toughest task. "The best thing I can hear is, 'No, I'm not interested,'" states Philips. "Two or three of my hottest producers took me four tries to get."

Back stateside, the sophisticates who are sampling these Australian cult wines are often the same drinkers who gravitate toward high-end California Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. "California Cabernet collectors are in tune with the Shirazes and Cabernets we're getting from Australia now," says Moose's Sherer, whose list recently offered 25 Australian reds, ranging up to $105 for a 1991 bottle of the Bordeaux-Style blend, Katnook Odyssey.

"There is a California connection because of the [Australian wines'] basic structure, the concentration, and riper fruit," notes Sherer. "Though there's quite a bit of diversity, and some elegant wines from Australia, too, people who are looking for classic European styles rarely try them."

Says David Rosoff, general manager of Michael's in L.A., "I'm one of those who fear the growing internationalization of wine, the trend toward cleaning everything up until it's all homogenized. These wines have what I like: an indigenous expression—something unique about them."

Are small-producer Australian wines the next great collectibles? The best have persuasive prerequisites: They are high-quality and made in limited quantities, and many have the full-flavored, super-ripe qualities that ring up high scores in the wine press. They aren't exactly inexpensive, but they look like bargains compared with name-brand Bordeaux and Burgundy.

As for appreciation value, so far the auction markets, at least in this country, have generally offered only Penfolds' $200 a bottle flagship Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace. (The highest price ever: a bottle of 1951 Grange that sold in Adelaide last May for $19,260.) But that is about to change.

Christie's New York is planning America's first-ever Australian-focused wine session at an auction tentatively scheduled for the first half of February 2000. "We are testing the waters," admits Edward Brooks, the head of Christie's Wine Department, North America. "The discerning collectors are certainly aware that Grange is world- class, and granted it's a more finite group, but there's some awareness at this point of the smaller, high-quality artisanal wineries as well. We'd like to take advantage of that emerging interest."

Is the elevator waiting on the ground floor? I cannot predict the resale value 10 years from now of your Yarra Yering Dry Red No. 1 or d'Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz, but I can tell you this: If you decide to drink the wine yourself, you may show up at the next Australian auction with your game face on.

Australia's Hot Spots

In the past five years Australia has drawn legal boundaries, which are called Geographical Indications (G.I.s), around its traditional growing areas. Below are the major placenames to look for in small-producer, high-quality wines.

South Australia

1 Barossa valley
Australia's most famous wine region—and headquarters for many of the wine industry giants—Barossa is also a hotbed of small-scale, high-end wineries. They take advantage of the valley's varied pockets, elevations, and microclimates, its low-fertility soils, and its heritage of old vines, many of them "bush-pruned" the old-fashioned way and unirrigated. The warm climate produces full-throttle Shiraz and other Rhône-Style wines.
Names to look for Burge Family, Greenock Creek, Charles Melton, Veritas, Elderton, Gnadenfrei, St. Hallet, and Rockford.

2 Coonawarra
The name to conjure with in Australian Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra includes some of the country's most expensive and coveted vineyard land. Its most famous feature is the "terra rossa" (red soil) that crops up along a ridge of clay and loam derived from subsoil limestone. Coonawarra's maritime-influenced climate is relatively cool, frequently with cloud cover during ripening season, and its wines are noted for nuance as much as power.
Names to look for Penley Estate, Katnook Estate, Highbank, and Hollick.

3 McLaren Vale
A fashionable vineyard area just south of Adelaide, McLaren Vale rolls almost to the ocean in the east and laps the foothills of the Mount Lofty Ranges and Adelaide Hills in the west, with varying climates, soils, and altitudes in between. The region produces a correspondingly mixed bag of grapes, including full-flavored Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Grenache.
Names to look for Clarendon Hills, Noon, d'Arenberg, Richard Hamilton, Fox Creek, and Coriole.

4 Clare Valley
Clare Valley has a reputation for high-quality, full-flavored, small-scale winemaking. Its relatively high overall temperatures conceal two crucial facts that contribute greatly to the wines' quality: the cooling effect of afternoon breezes and the cool nights that prevent the grapes from losing acidity. Riesling is the most widely planted grape, but Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz are widely made here as well.
Names to look for Pikes, Jim Barry, Grosset.

5 Adelaide Hills
Adelaide Hills is all about altitude. With much of the G.I. above the 400-meter line in the Mount Lofty Ranges, the climate is generally cool, which is why Pinot Noir and Chardonnay do quite well here. The northern reach of the Adelaide Hills is warm enough to ripen Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.
Names to look for Henschke, Lenswood, Chain of Ponds, and Shaw and Smith.

6 Eden Valley An extensive, relatively cool area that's sparsely populated with wineries, Eden Valley's higher-elevation vineyards are most famous for Chardonnays and Rieslings, but the area also produces some extraordinary reds.
Names to look for Henschke (Mount Edelstone and Hill of Grace Shiraz bottlings) and Mountadam.


7 Yarra Valley
An area with a 150-year-old reputation for fine, cooler-climate wines, the Yarra Valley G.I. encloses both hillside vineyards and flats. Its current fame rests partly on Burgundy-style wines (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), but the area also produces some of Australia's priciest and most coveted Cabernet Sauvignon­based wines, which have a reputation for elegance.
Names to look for Mount Mary, Yarra Yering, and Yeringberg.

Western Australia

8 Margaret River
Margaret River is blessed with even, ocean-influenced temperatures, well-drained soils, and an overall climate that draws comparisons to Bordeaux. Not surprisingly, it's most famous for the Bordeaux-Style wines Semillon and Cabernet Sauvignon, though Chardonnay is gaining.
Names to look for Cullen, Vasse Felix, Devil's Lair, and Sandalford.

9 Great Southern
This area sprawls over 15,000 square kilometers (almost 6,000 square miles) and includes, as you might imagine, wildly various topography and some remote vinous outposts. Your best bet here is to rely on the producer's name.
Names to look for Frankland Estate and Plantagenet.

Source: Various sources, including materials prepared by James Halliday for the Australian Wine Export Council.

25 Australian Stars

The luxury-priced red wines below characteristically combine an exuberant New World fruit ripeness with moderate to low acidity, which gives them a luscious, instantly appreciable appeal. What these wines aren't is simple or rustic; if there's a fault, in fact, it's in the opposite direction—some much-praised wines may actually strike drinkers as being overpolished, sacrificing vibrancy for a smoothed-out, tannic softness.

Here are 25 wines to look for, in order of preference within each category.

Super-Rich Blockbusters

Leeuwin Estate 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon, "Art Series," Margaret River ($45)
Inky, densely packed, and super-soft, with notes of olive, earth, and chocolate complementing its black-plum fruit.
Joseph 1997 Cabernet Merlot, "Moda Amarone," McLaren Vale/Coonawarra ($30)
Still young and tightly wound, this is a major sleeper. Richly extracted but elegantly balanced, it's made like Italy's Amarone, from partially dried grapes. It has depths of flavor that will likely take five to 10 years to emerge.

Noon 1997 "Eclipse," South Australia ($40)
You've never tasted anything like it: 16.3 percent alcohol—it's almost a Port—carried off effortlessly. Deeply layered, plush-textured, full of nuances—and without a burn on the palate, despite the alcohol.
Jasper Hill 1997 Shiraz "Georgia's Paddock," Heathcote ($45)
Turn over your car keys: This juicy, massive, nearly black wine just keeps unfolding in the glass. Another stunning balancing act.
Greenock Creek 1996 Shiraz, Seven Acres Vineyard, Barossa Valley ($53)
Velvety, spicy, super-concentrated wine that could suffuse a room with the mingled fragrance of blueberry/blackberry, toasted oak, and licorice.
Charles Melton 1997 "Nine Popes," Barossa Valley ($40)
Not since Roger Rabbit's girlfriend has so much fleshiness been packed into so delicate a silk sheath. A Grenache/Shiraz blend.
D'Arenberg 1997 Shiraz,"The Dead Arm," McLaren Vale ($50)
Throw another ox on the barbie; this is a saturated, tooth-purpling, chest-thumping red.
Clarendon Hills 1997 Old Vines Grenache, Blewitt Springs Vineyard ($36)
Doesn't deliver the knockout flavor punch the 1996 did, but it's still hugely dense and unctuous, and more gracefully balanced.


Henschke 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon,"Cyril Henschke," Eden Valley ($80)
A "wow" wine: complex, refined, velvety, and just beginning to come around. It wafts aromas of crushed plum, smoked meat, and vanilla.
Mountadam 1995 Cabernet Merlot, "The Red," Eden Valley ($57)
A subtly satisfying wine that harmoniously delivers layers of various flavors: spicy berry, olive, black pepper, smoke, and roast coffee. Limited production; sold in cases of six.
Grosset 1996 "Gaia," Clare Valley ($28)
Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc mingle in this sleek beauty, a compulsively sippable wine with complex aromas of bright berry, earth, and oak and a sweet, fruit finish.
Vasse Felix 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon, "Heytesbury," Western Australia ($40)
A big, generous mouthful, but not at all out of scale, with intriguing layers of coffee, leather, tobacco, and black currant fruit.
Yeringberg 1997, Yarra Valley ($45)
Mellow, supple, and accessible—with a super-ripe, sur maturité character. Seductive and very graceful for all its richness.
Highbank 1997, Coonawarra ($37)
A blend of Cabernet and Merlot, with a rich, pillowy texture and a ripe-fruit sweetness.

Burge Family 1996 Shiraz, Draycott Reserve, Barossa Valley ($60)
Sensational. A complex wine absolutely packed with juicy flavor, but so refined and ultra-silky it glides down your throat. One of the world's great expressions of Syrah.
Jim Barry 1996 Shiraz, "The Armagh," Clare Valley ($100)
Layers and layers of flavor—including ripe plum, wild berry, chocolate, and cedar—emerge from this broodingly dark wine. It's knit seamlessly and has an elaborate finish.
Henschke 1996 Shiraz, Mount Edelstone, Eden Valley ($60) From 75-year-old vines, this wine is so elegant it takes a sip or two to appreciate its power. Spicy, ripe, and dense, with notes of cedar and pepper.
Pikes 1997 Shiraz, Clare Valley ($19)
A spicy, clove, and mint character weaves through its juicy berry flavor. Very polished—and a compelling bargain.

Cherise 1995 Sangiovese, McLaren Vale ($40)
The sweet/sour, cherry-fruit quality lurking in the great Tuscan reds blossoms forth here, pure and fragrant. A riveting wine, although over-oaked.

Medium Rich

Mount Mary 1996 "Quintet," Yarra Valley ($110)
One of Australia's most sought-after cult wines, with a Bordeaux cru classé feel. It's absolute liquid silk right now, but will reward at least a decade of cellaring.
Yarra Yering 1996"Dry Red No. 1," Yarra Valley ($49)
Deeply colored, with a sneaky richness, this minty, plum- and black-cherry-nuanced wine is another one for the cellar, although it's hard to lay off of it now.

Veritas 1995 Shiraz Mourvedre, "Pressings," Barossa Valley ($30)
Give this young wine some time to open in the glass, and it blossoms with spicy white pepper, macerated cherry, and a touch of leather. European weight combined with juicy, Australian fruit ripeness.
Dalwhinnie 1995 Shiraz, Victoria ($40)
Somehow, despite its hefty 14 percent alcohol, this wine comes across with a modulated, European balance and feel. Super-smooth, a sexy wine with a flavor like chocolate-covered plums and a touch of earthiness.
Hewitson 1996 Shiraz, "L'Oizeau," Fleurieu Peninsula ($22)
The nuanced and balanced richness dawns on you as you sip. High notes of ripe plum mingle with chocolate and hints of shaved oak and leather. A bargain too.

Bannockburn 1996 Pinot Noir, Geelong ($35)
A silky, Burgundian-style wine that knits together kirsch-like cherry fruit, shaved oak, and that Old World, leather and barnyard aroma that great Burgundies have.