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Snooth: Is Australia Back?

Time to take another look at the wines of Australia

October 15, 2013
By Gregory Dal Piaz

You have to love Australia’s red wines. If for nothing else than the sheer simplicity of twisting off a baker’s dozen of screw-caps as opposed to setting out to fight with so many corks. OK that’s not a tremendous motivation to get you to try these wines but it was a sweet sight for my sore eyes, or hand as the case may be. Some of these wines were also tasted at a formal tasting, just to make clear that samples that fetch multiple 100s of dollars are not making it to Snooth central.

I went to this tasting, which is a rare outing for me indeed, because I am interested in Australian wines, as I should be. A little lost at times as I work my through them, but on several levels they are fascinating wines. The most obvious level is of course their rapid rise and then fall from grace that marked their foray into the US market circa 2000-2007. It’s tough to pinpoint what drove their demand, but the fall may be a bit easier to frame into a discussion.

Simply put their market was undermined. Undermined by the inexpensive Aussie Shiraz that the wines became identified with, and undermined by some remarkable if relatively inexpensive Shiraz that made many people reconsider spending more for a wine that had little more to offer. Inexpensive Shiraz was able to match expensive Shiraz on many levels including the explosive fruit, richness and power that made these wines appealing. In fact it is those same traits that proved it’s downfall. Sure the great examples of Shiraz pack in so much more. They have depth and complexity, and refinement of tannins, but these more esoteric considerations appeal to a relatively small part of the consumer base. For the most part rich, and chewy and packed with fruit was, and remains enough for a Shiraz to be consider successful.

And so the screw turned, no pun intended. $20 Shiraz were receiving critical acclaim that rivaled wines costing multiples more. Those more expensive examples began to stall in the marketplace, and that stall not so gradually moved down the pricing scale until all that was successful were value priced Shiraz. In less than a decade Australian Shiraz went from a media darling to a wine sold primarily on price, low price. The wines also did change over time and this change contributed to their demise. In response to wines that received mega scores from the noted critics of the day, producers tended to ratchet up their wines. Bigger wines got bigger scores so a fuse was lit. If ever a market segment revealed the disconnect between wines that win tasting competitions and wines that drink well it was Australian Shiraz.

And so here we sit, five years plus since the bottom fell out of the Australian wine market here in the USA, with Australia still struggling to get some of it back. To begin with by reintroducing Shiraz to the US market. A Shiraz that is slightly less effusive and powerful than those of half a dozen years ago, due both to climatic conditions and recognition on the part of producers that ultimately they needed to make wines for consumers and not critics. And back they are to a certain extent, though I am surprised by the prices asked for some of these wines. In that regard there seems to be a bit of nostalgia at work here. The wine world has changed since these wines were last ‘hot’ and I think producers need to take that into account. Many of these wines were tasted at a tasting designed to feature the creme de la creme, I recognize that but ultimately this represents a tiny slice of the sales of Australian wines and it would probably be better to focus on wines that live a little down market first.

And if I may be so bold, might I also suggest less attention on Shiraz and all the baggage it carries with it and more focus on things like often devastatingly good dry Riesling, delicious Grenache, and some impressive Cabernets that are instantly recognizable as such. It’s time to recognize Australia as a diverse wine producing country that can’t be pigeon holed. It’s not all ginormous, alcoholic, and dense. Australian wines can also be perfumed, even delicate, and nuanced, a direction more and more consumers seem to be headed in.

If it is power you want and enjoy, there are few wines that can equal a good Australian Shiraz, and I respect that. They are not my thing, but they are appealing to many people and just to reinforce the notion of diversity within Australia there are Shiraz, grand and small, that ring my bell as well. So if you’re not a fan of Australian Shiraz, maybe give a few more a try, but don’t cross Australia off your list just because the media have conflated Australia with Shiraz. There really is so much more to Australia than Shiraz, but if due to nothing more than availability, it’s a great place to start.

2011 Innocent Bystander Pinot Noir 13.5% $20

Fresh and fruity on the nose with nice red cherry scents ovr hints of green herbs and some floral edged soil tones. In the mouth this is focused and bright with strawberry and red cherry fruit nicely accented with a hint of wood spice and some fresh green herbal tones. The acidity and tannins are well managed leaving this rather smooth and supple in the mouth, with the balance to drive the moderately long, fruity finish. 88pts

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