The International Wine Cellar
by Josh Raynolds
Producers across the southern band of Australia would probably just like to forget the 2011 vintage, a year that presented a biblical array of plagues on the vineyards. Cold and wet weather was the rule for the entire year and into harvest, which resulted in the double whammy of immature fruit and disease pressure. The most conscientious producers ultimately made wines in minuscule quantities, and from certain vineyards they didn’t make any at all.
I did find a number of high-quality ’11s, especially whites and particularly rieslings, from the Clare Valley, along with many successes from Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills and greater Victoria. Fans of racy, pure chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and riesling will find plenty to like from 2011, but quantities are way down. All of the best wines from 2011 were the result of draconian selection in the vineyards, on sorting tables and in the cellars. Reports from a number of producers indicate that production of wine was off by anywhere from 50% to 100%, which is truly painful to contemplate, but releasing lousy wine with a hard-won name and reputation behind it can be even more damaging.
The bright spots in this year’s tastings (which included 25% more wines than I tried last year, an encouraging sign for exports to the U.S.), aside from the whites mentioned above, were wines from the bookends of the Australian landmass. The Hunter Valley, on the far eastern side of Australia, enjoyed a spectacular vintage, as did the Great Southern region and especially the Margaret River on the western side of the country, where many superb reds will be coming up.
In a nutshell, the 2011 vintage is one to choose from very carefully if you’re exploring anything from the greater south coast of Australia. I’d focus exclusively on the very best producers because if they were willing to put their name on it, it wasn’t a decision they made lightly.
American importers had put on the brakes hard in the past few years, but I’ve seen a few recent glimmers of hope for a return to health for Australian wines in the U.S. market. A surprising number of wines from Australia’s cult wineries are available here now, albeit at predictably high prices. According to their American agents, these wines are finding an audience among ambitious sommeliers and retailers who have made their reputations by getting behind small, high-quality producers from mostly ignored regions of Europe, so their venture into Australia is a logical next step. I spoke with a few of those producers, who explained that while they had waiting lists at home, where they can easily charge more money for their scarce wines, the American market holds out too much potential for them to ignore, even if their colleagues think they’re crazy. On the other hand, some of the most rabidly followed Australian producers have given up entirely on the U.S. market or significantly cut back allocations and time spent here in favor of pursuing the red-hot Asian market, which appears to have a serious yen for high-end Aussie wines, especially shiraz.