Don’t Call it a Comeback: Australia’s Hidden Gems Have Been Here For Years 1

Don’t call it a come back. Australia has been producing world class wine for decades, thank you. We might not know that because if you live in the American market you only know one kind of Australian wine style—ridiculously big fruit bombs driven by scores. The kind of wines that knock you on your butt.

To list all of Australia’s hidden gems would actually take hours. We don’t see many of them in the states partially because consumers were exposed to (and fell out of love with) a one trick pony, and partially because importers and distributors don’t want to work to bring them in or sell them. Wines from Spain and Chile sell hand over fist with little effort, so why work to sell Australia?

Over the past five years Australian producers have reduced alcohol levels, reduced oak and introduced new varietals to the marketplace that show off the wide range of terroir. From Vermentino in King Valley to Riesling in Claire Valley to Sangiovese in Mudgee, wine lovers have many new reasons to discover Aussie wines.

I had a chance to travel across Australia in 2011 visiting just about every region and was blown away by the quality as well as ageability of wines being produced. Australian winemakers heard us loud and clear when consumers pushed back against furry critter labeled high alcohol wines.

There’s an intentional movement to get back to the soil. German settlers emigrated to the southern parts of Australia in the mid 1800’s and started planting vines. Many of those vines are still around today, and because Australia was able to avoid Phylloxera damage over the years they boast some of the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah vines in the world. There’s rich history in many of the wine regions. Here’s a few suggestions I found to be good story tellers of the land:

2007 Tom Foolery Monkey Business Cabernet Franc, Barossa Valley ($50) – What? the Barossa makes something other than port disguised as Shiraz? Yeah, it’s hot in the Barossa, but a recent string of cooler vintages and an awareness of overripe Shiraz has opened up the doors for other grape varietals. Tom Foolery is a smaller producer led by some cool up and coming winemakers. The vineyard source for this Cabernet Franc comes from the Hage Family on the border of Vine Vale where sandy loam soils layered over red clay and shale at just over 1,000 feet in elevation give the Cab Franc enough cool temperatures to keep it from getting too high in sugar.

2008 Castagna Genesis Syrah – After going through all these wines, it wasn’t until the this still wine that I found the girl I wanted to take home to Momma.  The Castagna Syrah might be my favorite wine of the tour across Australia for many reasons.  We’re in Australia, and they’re calling this ‘Syrah’.  Cofermented with 2% Viognier, this gem has Cote Rotie written all over it.  Beautiful “shit my pants” good, spice box, chocolate covered raspberry goodness.  Some wines are like a wool sweater on your tongue, this one is like cashmere.  Goes beyond just being a glass of wine and becomes an experience.

2008 Penley Estate Phoenix Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra ($25) – It’s like the Cabernet gods came down and left a strip of Terra Rossa soil in the middle of southern Australia to make sure good Cabernet Sauvignon was featured in at least one region (although Margaret River Cabs might have more of a semblance to Bordeaux). In the Coonawarra region there’s a relatively small area with the famous red soil, so there aren’t many producers. Penley Estate is one of my favorite producers along with Rymill and Punter’s Corner to name a few. Hopefully Zema Estate will make it over here some day. Coonawarra has a unique combination of soil and climate that allows a distinct fingerprint on the wines.

2008 Thomas Wines Semillon, Hunter Valley ($65) – You won’t find this in the states (sadly). In fact, you probably won’t find many Hunter Valley Semillon’s coming across the Pacific. I wish some importers would grow a set and bring these beautiful wines into the states. If you can’t find Thomas wines, check out Brokenwood or Tyrrell’s for consistently well priced offerings $10-$20.

Semillon is an interesting grape because it can be fresh, crisp and aromatic at a young age, but as it gets older it develops beautiful golden tones and exotic notes in the glass. This is a white wine that’s worth cellaring. Although Semillon might get most of the spotlight, the Chardonnay’s aka “Chardie’s” were equally as impressive and made in a restrained style.

2005 McWilliams Maurice O’Shea Shiraz, Hunter Valley – When I was in the Hunter I swear there wasn’t a single Shiraz over 14% alcohol. “Am I in Australia?” I asked. Maurice O’Shea is a pioneer in Hunter Valley who founded Mount Pleasant in 1921 (among many other accomplishments). It could be said he is to Hunter Valley what André Tchelistcheff is to Napa. When Scott McWilliam opened this wine for me I thought someone had just opened a cigar box. Exquisite, precise floral expression of Shiraz—this was authentic Australia in a glass.

2010 D’Arenberg The Custodian Grenache ($17) – This is a staple at Chéz Bakas (as is The Hermit Crab). Although Shiraz dominates much of Barossa and McLaren Vale it’s actually Grenache that best reflects the terroir of McLaren. D’Arenberg offers a few Grenache wines in The Custodian, Derelict Vineyard, Ironstone Pressings and The Stump Jump. Black fruits dominate the palate with underlying smoke and asphalt notes woven together into a seamless structured wine.

2006 Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley ($22) – You’d hope legendary wine writer James Halliday’s own winery would produce exceptional wine, and you’d be right. Coldstream Hills captures the essence of what Yarra Valley is all about. For the uninitiated, Yarra is the ying to the yang of Barrossa Valley. Lighter delicate styles of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and bubbles dominate the area. Coldstream Hills’ low yielding vines are approaching thirty years of age which is to say the wines keep getting better and have more complexity. Select fruit is hand picked in whole clusters at harvest and processed using a variety of gentle techniques to ensure the highest quality.

I had a chance to sit down with Chef/Winemaker Steve Flamsteed at Giants Steps in the Yarra to look at some local wine+food pairings:


2005 Langmeil Shiraz Freedom 1843, Barossa Valley ($75) – The oldest Syrah/Shiraz vines on planet earth are here. Just say that out loud to yourself. THE oldest Syrah vines….in the world. And Langmeil treats the vineyard like a church. The grape clusters look puny compared to the beanstalk-like fatty vines, which more resemble twisted tree trunks than vines. The winemaking team gets out of the way and lets the historic vines do their thing of producing exceptional fruit with gobs of complexity pulled up from the deep root system. The resulting Shiraz is seamless, elegant, powerful yet layered with intrigue and stories of this place. At $75 a bottle the price seems modest considering the source and limited amount produced.

The winery also has another vineyard with Shiraz vines that are almost as old as Freedom Vineyard. They just spent a ton of money to move those vines, roots and all to another location.

1999 Arras E.J. Carr Late Disgorged, Tasmania (?) – If you know anything about me, you know I love me some bubbles. Australia might not be known for sparkling wines but that’s no fault of the producers in King Valley who are making Prosecco or the Traditional Methode producers in Tasmania. Adding Arras this to the list is cheating because none of us are likely to find it and the wine sat in the bottle for ten years before it was released. Arras makes a wide range of outstanding sparkling wines as do producers like Frogmore Creek. The moral of the story is to discover the overall region of “Tazzy” for sparkling wines.

2008 Best’s Great Western Bin 0 Shiraz, Victoria ($75) – From some of the oldest vines in Australia, Best’s has been producing an interesting range of wines including Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, Riesling and of course, Shiraz. The vineyards are located along the Concangella creek in Victoria where flat loam soils cover deep clay. While I’d like to suggest their Thomson Family Shiraz, the $170 price tag is a bit high for any Shiraz unless it has the word, “Grange” on the label. Best’s continually wins awards for their wines.

2006 Henschke Julius Riesling, Eden Valley ($35) – Henshchke might be best known for their stunning Hill of Grace vineyard Shiraz, but Prue and Steve Henschke are legendary custodians of the land who produce other beautiful wines. Steve is a fourth generation land owner from the original German settlers who came and planted Hill of Grace in the mid 1800’s. And his wonderful wife, Prue is one of the world’s foremost viticulturists specializing in, well everything. If you want to know anything about best farming practices, Prue is your source. Suffice to say the Henschke vineyards are nurtured with the utmost care, and soon the next generation of Henschke’s will be getting involved in the winery. Vibrant lemon and pear dominate with complimentary notes of thyme and orange blossom. Drink now, or be rewarded by putting some age on it.

2008 Robert Oatley Rosé of Sangiovese, Mudgee ($14) – Ever hear of Lindeman’s? Of course you have, it’s on every wine shop shelf second from the bottom. The Oatley family established Lindeman’s then built it up into a massive brand then sold it off for a chunk of change. After the sale, the Oatley’s set their sights on historic Mudgee. There, they purchased Poet’s Corner and renamed it Robert Oatley Vineyards with visions of creating solid wines at reasonable prices from an emerging wine region. The Robert Oatley Rosé comes from a warmer climate featuring restrained residual sugars. Notes of fresh Colorado strawberries, blood orange and dried flowers with an off-dry texture. For about $14 it’s a great value.

 2009 Penfold’s Yattarna Chardonnay ($115) – This is Mrs. B’s favorite Chardonnay. You might know it as the “White Grange” but it’s really just a world class Chardonnay sourced from some of the coldest and highest elevations in Australia. When a luxury level Chardonnay hits the market we like to hold it up against the White Burgundy measuring stick to see if it’s burgundian enough. Peter Gago, winemaker at Penfold’s may not have been going for that—instead, he set out to make a precisely structured wine that’ll make any acid hound happy. Vineyards in Tasmania’s coolest regions are the basis for this beauty.

2010 Kilikanoon Watervale Riesling Mort’s Reserve, Clare Valley ($35) – Clare valley’s elevation (like King Valley) provide the kind of cool temperatures during the growing season that’s ideal for Riesling. German Riesling fans will find a familiar home with Mort’s Reserve, including the silly petrol thing that lives in most wines but most expresses itself in Riesling. Kilikanoon offers good, clean fun in the glass with impeccable structure, modest residual sugar and vibrant acidity that gives this gem a long life ahead of it.

2010 Brown Brothers Vermentino ($25) – Here’s a cool thing this winery does that no other winery in the world does (that I know of):  They have a building called the Kindergarten winery.  This is a full sized facility larger than many wineries that’s dedicated solely to experimentation.  Winemakers come from around the world to fill test tanks with experimental lots, fermentation techniques or new grape varieties.  The Brown Brothers Vermentino became a product in the lineup after first being a test batch in the Kindergarten winery.  Overall, Vermentino is enjoying a new resurgence of popularity, and Australia is getting serious about the grape. Brown Brothers, like Yalumba, are members of Australia’s First Family of Wine.

2009 Yalumba Y Series Viognier, Barossa Valley ($11) – Yalumba is steeped in tradition and is a member of Australis’s First Family’s of Wine. They produce a wide range of offerings cut from the fabric of Barossa Valley’s patchwork of terroir. To ensure quality, Yalumba built one of the only on-site cooperages (barrel making facility) of any winery in the world. At about $10 a bottle, this is a satisfying white wine that’s widely available across the U.S. Not all great wines coming from the Barossa are red!

The U.S. market is ready for Australia 2.0. And the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and Australian dollar have kept prices under control, yet allow winemakers to get a fair market rate for their products. I’d encourage readers to tap into some older Aussie wines in your cellar or demand new offerings from your local wine shop.

When the “comeback” happens, keep in mind Australia has been producing stellar wines for years.

There are some great wine bloggers down under who can speak to more of the wines. I’d encourage you to discover a few of them:


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