Sunday, 10 June 2012

Australia - not just sunshine in a glass

Remember Monty Python and Perth Pink? “A pleasant, sugary wine that really opens the sluices at both ends.” How we used to laugh at Australian wines, thinking them fit only as the butt of jokes – certainly not something  to take along to a polite dinner party.

However, that period in Australia’s wine history was something of an aberration. In the early 20th century, its wines were highly respected, especially its dry reds. Penfold’s Grange was already going strong by the 1950s and continues the tradition of fine Australian wine to the present day.

Of course back in the old days it was called Grange Hermitage, in homage to the great wines of Hermitage in France’s northern Rhône Valley. However flattering the intent, this kind of borrowing of wine regions or grape variety names are a no-no with the EU and so Australia has had to give up this and other epithets like Hunter Valley Riesling (not, in fact, Riesling but Semillon), White Burgundy (Semillon again, but riper), Claret (early picked Shiraz) and Red Burgundy (the ripest Shiraz with some Grenache thrown in).

When Brand Australia was born back in the 1980s, the need to set aside its beloved “Clarets” and “Burgundies” in order to export its wines legally to Europe was turned into a marketing opportunity – varietal labelling. Aussie Chardonnay and Shiraz tout court were born and a boom in Australian wine exports followed as consumers took like ducks to water to these easy to say, easy to enjoy wines.

However, cheap and cheerful, sunshine in a glass wines are just a sliver of the production and styles in a gargantuan wine producer such as Australia. In addition, other countries can copy simple, fruity, flavourful wines and the race to the bottom in terms of pricing and quality has now gone as far as it can. Australia has spent the last few years trying to re-establish itself as the home of quality, as well as quantity.

The good news for Australia is that the calibre of its wines in the £10-£30 price range has probably never been better. There are stunning Shirazes and Chardonnays, nuanced dry Rieslings and lip-smacking and ageworthy Semillons aplenty to discover for those customers looking to trade up and see what Australia is really made of.

Additionally, Pinot Noir, which, frankly was a let down until the last decade or so, has improved dramatically.

Here are some of the cream of the crop to seek out. Most of them are white, many from cooler climates and all are from somewhere much more specific than the catch-all South East Australia designation that abounds at lower price levels.

McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Semillon 2005, Hunter Valley, New South Wales – usually £11.99, but down to £9.99 currently at Wine Rack
This has to be one of the best white wine bargains around. Semillon and the magic of the Hunter Valley have combined to make a bright, crisp wine which is just beginning to develop fascinating toasty, savoury, lime marmalade flavours. At seven years old, it has a long future ahead of it.

Pewsey Vale The Contours Riesling 2006, Eden Valley, South Australia - £13.70 from
Here I go again, banging on about dry Riesling. For those still reading, this has a lovely earthy nose combining blossom and stonefruit, leading onto a dry and delicate palate of lemon and lime fruit.

Ocean Eight Verve Chardonnay 2010, Morngington Peninsula, Victoria - £25.99 from The Secret Cellar (Oxted)
Forget overblown, over-oaked and overly-alcoholic Chardonnays past. There is oak here, but it’s subtle, giving a gunflint smokiness and texture to the wine, alongside the juicy fruit, kept fresh in this chilly site south of Melbourne. A very smart bottle – not cheap, but then neither is good white Burgundy.

Tahbilk Marsanne 2009, Nagambie Lakes, Victoria - £9.99 for the 2008 from Waitrose or £10.95 from
Tahbilk Marsanne is an Aussie wine classic. Marsanne is a grape more readily associated with the Southern Rhône in France, but Tahbilk's relatively cool-climate version is a southern hemisphere success with talc, pineapple and peach aromas, leading onto a dry palate with lively acidity and lasting texture. It is, and always has been, anything but a fruitbomb.

Stonier Pinot Noir 2010, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria - £12.95 for the 2009 from Waitrose, or £12.50 from
As well as top notch Chardonnay, the Mornington Peninsula is also cool enough to make just ripe enough Pinot Noir for it to retain its juicy, cherry and mulberry fruit. There is also an earthiness here and velvety texture – lots of wine for your money.

Greenstone Shiraz 2009, Heathcote, Victoria - £17.90 from
At last! Shiraz, the grape that is synonymous with Aussie wine. Heathcote as a region may not be so familiar, up in the hills north of Melbourne, this cool-ish area has ironstone-rich soils which apparently give a bloody flavour to the wines. There is no shortage of glossy new oak in this wine, but also plenty of room for the bay leaf tinged, dense black fruit. The finish is a satisfying combination of bitter chocolate and black pepper.

D'Arenberg Dead Arm Shiraz 2006, McLaren Vale, South Australia – not easy to find but The Wine Society has the 2008 for £25 and the 2007 for £27
Chester Osborn, the winemaker at d'Arenberg, is famous for headache-inducingly loud shirts and a hairdo that is a peroxide version of Rebekkah Brookes'. However questionable his personal style, his skills as a winemaker are never in doubt. This is an intense essence of Shiraz in the bright, Black Forest Gateau, McLaren Vale style. What is it like? Aromas of smoke, leaves, peppercorns and polish and flavours that are medicinal, like an Italian after-dinner amaro, alongside berries, twigs, chocolate and roast meat. It's almost a meal in itself and is, without doubt, a modern Australian classic.

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