Australian vintners hold firm in the face of adversity, delivering excellent wines in a range of styles
By: MaryAnn Worobiec from the Wine Spectator August 31st Issue
For more than five months in late 2019 and early 2020, Australia was hit by a series of challenges that amounted to a national crisis. During those summer months, bushfires blazed across the country, burning millions of acres and killing 34 people. Then, just as Australia was ready to move on from that enormous damage, the coronavirus pandemic arrived, shutting down restaurants, hotels and tasting rooms. All of this comes after a period of extreme drought that has taken a toll on the wine industry. Thankfully, most of Australia’s wine country was spared by the bushfires, with only three of its 65 wine regions suffering from burned vineyards: Adelaide Hills, Kangaroo Island and Tumbarumba. But the fires were so extensive that even some regions bypassed by the flames were impacted by smoke drifting over from adjacent areas. Because this occurred just as harvest was starting, some grapes were unusable.
Despite the year’s challenges, there are plenty of wines to celebrate. Australia remains a strong source of terrific reds and whites at a range of different price points, showing an increasing diversity of regional
expressions. Since my previous report on the country (“Making Waves,” Aug. 31, 2019), I have reviewed approximately 500 Australian wines in blind tastings at our Napa office, nearly 40% of them earning outstanding scores of 90 points or higher on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale. The top bottlings demonstrate the expanding diversity that has become the new hallmark of Aussie wine. There are plenty of distinctive Shirazes to seek out, but also elegant Cabernets, refined Chardonnays and terroir-driven Pinot Noirs, along with memorable Grenaches, Sémillons, Rieslings and tawnies.
It’s unfortunate that some wine drinkers still think of “Australian wine” as a single category, when that term encompasses not only 65 distinct winegrowing regions spread across a large continent but also thousands of producers working with dozens of grapes. It’s safe to say there is an Aussie wine for every type of wine lover. I’m constantly impressed with how much regionality is shining through as winemakers continue to dial back on ripeness and oak influences. At the same time, there are still plenty of ripe, bold expressions and inspired multi-region blends.
Topping the leaderboard are two iconic examples of Australian Shiraz, the Penfolds South Australia Grange 2015 (97 points, $850) and Henschke Hill of Grace Eden Valley 2015 (96, $825), complex wines deserving of their reputations. On the riper, richer end of the Shiraz spectrum is the Mollydooker Shiraz McLaren Vale Velvet Glove 2018 (95, $195), while a pair of 94-point Pinot Noirs from Giant Steps—the Yarra Valley 2018 (94, $30) and Yarra Valley Wombat Creek Vineyard 2018 (94, $42)—are delicate,
cool-climate expressions of the grape. Cabernet Sauvignon lovers should make themselves familiar with Aussie versions, which can strike a
balance between elegance, muscular tannins and savory herb flavors; many have relatively reasonable prices for the king of red wine. Consider some of the standouts this year, such as Penley’s Coonawarra Helios 2018 (94, $60) and Coonawarra Tolmer 2018 (93, $25), Hickinbotham’s McLaren Vale Trueman 2017 (92, $75), Leeuwin’s Margaret River Art Series 2015 (92, $60) and Vasse Felix’s Margaret River Filius 2017 (92, $28).
On the white side, Chardonnays from Leeuwin, Giant Steps, Yeringberg, Penfolds, Cullen and Vasse Felix are made in a variety of styles, but all share a level of freshness that might surprise those unfamiliar with modern Aussie versions. Sémillon also produces terrific whites, such as the Brokenwood Hunter Valley ILR Reserve Vineyard Selection 2013 (93, $48), Tyrell’s Hunter Valley Vat 1 2013 (92, $60) and Torbreck Barossa Valley Woodcutter’s 2018 (90, $20). Youthful examples of Sémillon are light, lively and juicy, while versions with some bottle age take on more complex flavors. There are plenty of other bright spots ahead for Aussie winemakers.
At Cullen, in the remote region of Margaret River in Western Australia, Vanya Cullen says that the area, which was far from the recent
fires, has been blessed with good weather. She’s looking forward to the movement to make Wilyabrup a subregion of Margaret River. “Wilyabrup has long been recognized as different in Margaret River,” says Cullen. “It’s like Bordeaux and their subregions. We all know the most important part is to have quality fruit and know where it comes from and have that connection. Connection is the most important reason we drink wine.”
In the Barossa, winemakers are celebrating the recent opening of the Barossa Cellar, a wine vault to house thousands of bottles of Barossa wines donated by local vintners. Years in the making, this regional wine museum and education center will hold regular events such as wine tastings and master classes, as well as store ageworthy bottles until they are ready to drink. “The Cellar has an amazing collection of historic Barossa wines and provides a much-needed venue for community and industry use,” says Tim Duval of John Duval Cellars. Duval is hopeful that future tourism will help the wine industry. “When the situation with COVID-19 clears up, what we really need is for our U.S. friends to visit our region, enjoy our wines and dine in our restaurants again,” he says. “Of course, in the meantime, buying a bottle of something Barossan will help too.” Wherever the path ahead leads, Aussie winemakers are keen to keep sales in the U.S. strong. Twelftree believes that many of the great wines of the world are going to become more scarce and expensive. “The world’s consumers will always look for high quality at a fair price,” he says. “This is Australia’s wheelhouse.”
Senior editor MaryAnn Worobiec is Wine Spectator’s lead taster on the wines of Australia.
MARYANN WOROBIEC’S RECOMMENDED WINES FROM AUSTRALIA
LEEUWIN ESTATE Art Series Chardonnay 2016
Score: 96 | WS Review: Refined and elegant, this is supple, yet intense and precise. The secret weapon is the sleek acidity, which gives the flavors definition.
JOHN DUVAL Plexus Red 2018
Score: 94 | WS Review: Striking, with dark notes of huckleberry, wild blackberry, blueberry and espresso that are fragrant, pure and generous. Shiraz blend.
GIANT STEPS Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2018
Score: 94 | WS Review: Elegant and distinctive, offering notes of fresh raspberry, sage and white pepper that are precise, supple and juicy, with polished tannins.
PENLEY ESTATE Helios Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
Score: 94 | WS Review: Fragrant, powerful and bold, offering a dense mix of star anise, black licorice and dark chocolate flavors, with a core of cassis and plum.
YERINGBERG Chardonnay 2017
Score: 94 | WS Review: Bright and expressive, with a laser beam of focus to the nectarine, melon and apricot flavors that are succulent, fragrant and juicy.
BROKENWOOD ILR Reserve Vineyard Selection Sémillon 2013
Score: 93 | WS Review: Perfectly balanced, memorable and very refreshing, with a succulent mix of savory beeswax, lanolin, burned toast and tobacco flavors.
JASPER HILL Georgia’s Paddock Shiraz 2017
Score: 93 | WS Review: Distinctive, showing off a savory, peppery side, with touches of smoke and teriyaki to the plump blackberry and cherry flavors at the core.
d’ARENBERG The Hermit Crab Viognier-Marsanne 2018
Score: 90 | WS Review: Effusive, juicy and ripe, with peach, apricot and melon flavors that are generous and plump. Shows terrific harmony and persistence.
FRISK Prickly Riesling 2019
Score: 89 | WS Review: Crisp and intense, with mouthwatering candied green apple and peach flavors that are lively, showing touches of apple blossom.