John Larchet, an importer of Australian wines, and Bob Harkey, a wine retailer, both expressed the same troubling idea about Australian wines–albeit in very different ways.
Larchet (whose company, The Australian Premium Wine Collection, represents small Australian producers) described a gathering ‘storm cloud’ associated with the vast volume of Australian wines being sold here. For Larchet, the situation is reminiscent of the mid-90s, when Australia was known solely for delivering good value at $5 a bottle. The hurdle he faced then, when he was starting his company, was trying to sell Australian wine at $20 a bottle.
Now, though there are more high-end Australian wines than ever reaching our shores, the market is again swamped with mass market wine such as Yellowtail. Two-thirds of the Australian wine that comes to the US is labeled under the broadest geographic designation allowed, Southeastern Australia. In terms of regional specificity, that’s similar to saying that an American wine is made from grapes grown, say, ‘somewhere west of the Mississippi.’ Larchet is afraid that the sheer volume and ‘sameness’ of these wines is a deterrent to consumers exploring other Australian wines.
Bob Harkey of Harkey’s Fine Wines in Millis, MA told me he’s reduced the number of Australian wines he carries in his store. He regards Yellowtail and similar high-volume ‘critter wines’ from Southeastern Australia as ‘starter wines.’ They perform a function that Riunite performed for an earlier generation, namely, giving novice consumers a simple, un-intimidating introduction to wine, from which they can then ‘graduate’ to more serious, regionally-reflective products. Harkey sells plenty of Yellowtail, and he’s noticed something interesting about the wine buying tendencies of those who purchase it. Some just stay put, buying Yellowtail again and again. Others do graduate to more serious wines, but when they do so, they seek wines from other countries–not Australia. Hence his reduction of offerings from Down Under.
There’s reason to believe that Harkey is seeing Larchet’s fears realized. There is a real danger that consumers will associate Australia with frivolous, homogenized plonk and fail to gain an appreciation of the country’s higher-end wines, which in fact vary widely from region to region and offer impressive excellence on the top tier.
Regional Differences Matter
It’s evident to me after spending 10 days in Australia recently that there are vast regional differences–mostly climatic–that account for very different styles of wines. (I had to buy a jacket on the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria to survive, but needed to jettison it in South Australia.) I covered the Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley and Adelaide Hills last month in Part 1. In this part, I’ll focus on differences between McLaren Vale, Barossa, Eden and Clare Valleys, all located within the state of South Australia.
The McLaren Vale, a rough triangle situated just south of Adelaide, is bordered on the east by the Adelaide Hills and by the Gulf of St. Vincent to the west. It has about 12,500 acres under vine. According to Charles Whish, winemaker for Rosemount Estate, the area is known for bush vine Grenache, old vine Shiraz, and wines with softer, rounder tannins than the norm–regardless of the grape variety. Compared to Barossa and Clare, the other great places for Shiraz in South Australia, McLaren Vale is warmer overall. Harvest here is a week earlier, despite its more southern location and proximity to the sea, because temperatures drop less during the night than in Barossa or Clare. Shiraz in McLaren Vale gives chocolate and mocha flavors at the expense of peppery overtones. The wines can have high alcohol because of their ripeness, but the best ones carry it well.
Rosemount, one of the region’s leading wineries, produces an excellent assortment of Shiraz and Shiraz blends from McLaren Vale fruit that show the silky tannins characteristic of the area. The 2003 Rosemount, ‘GSM,’ a blend of Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvèdre, has attractive earthy nuances from the Mourvèdre to complement the Grenache-inspired spiciness. The Shiraz adds oomph, and works well with the other two varieties.
Rosemount’s 2003 ‘Show Reserve’ Shiraz has a surprising spicy component to the meaty, plum fruit flavors. Whish believes it is a character of the 2003 vintage, because McLaren Vale Shiraz is not known for its pepperiness.
Rosemount opts to use the European name, Syrah, instead of the traditional Australian one, Shiraz, for their consistently stunning top-of-the-line ‘Balmoral’ Syrah. They bottled the 2002 Balmoral ($40) under both cork and screw cap. I actually preferred the one under cork (and tasted blind there was a clear difference) because it had slightly more gamy-earthy flavors while purer fruit flavors shined in the one closed with a screw cap. Both, remarkably velvety and layered, had surprising elegance for such power.
The Barossa, an area about 35 miles north of Adelaide–only an hour by car–is composed of two parallel valleys, the Barossa Valley and the Eden Valley. Wines labeled Barossa can come from either valley individually or a combination of the two. Barossa Valley or Eden Valley on the label indicates a more delineated growing area.
The Barossa Valley, about 18 miles long by 6 miles wide, has about 15,000 acres of vines planted, 2/3rds of which are red. Settled by Germans and English in the 19th century, it was an area known for Shiraz that was used for making fortified wines. Today, it is known for powerful Shiraz in table wine mode, with mouth filling ripe flavors often accompanied by high alcohol levels. Ironically, this Shiraz-dominated area is also home to the world’s oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines, Block 42 of Penfolds’ Kalimna vineyard, which is a source for Penfolds’ consistently stunning ‘Bin 707’ Cabernet Sauvignon.
Similar to the other Australian wine regions, with the exception of Coonawarra, vineyards in the Barossa Valley are spread out and interspersed with farmland and grazing lands. Unlike Napa, Coonawarra, Bordeaux, the Cote d’Or or other great wine producing areas, there is no area with a high concentration–a carpet–of vines. It’s as though there’s no consensus as to the best soil, location and exposure.
Eden Valley, actually a continuation of the Adelaide Hills, sits to the east and, at 1,800 feet elevation, overlooks the Barossa Valley. Only about a third the size of Barossa–6,000 acres under vine–it’s home to some of Australia’s greatest names, Henschke, Pewsey Vale, Yalumba and Hutton Vale vineyard, the latter a source of superb Shiraz for Wolf Blass’ Platinum Label. Varying elevations and steep, meandering slopes account for enormous variation in climate and exposure. Riesling reigns, comprising more than 50% of white grapes planted, whereas Shiraz dominates the red varieties.
Eden Valley, along with Clare Valley (see below), produces some of Australia’s–and the world’s–best Riesling: racy and dry, perfect for food. Wolf Blass makes stellar Riesling, in part, no doubt, due to the founder’s German heritage. They just released their 2001 Eden Valley ‘White Label’ Riesling–a wine with the glorious combination of fresh limey flavors coupled with mature smoky, flinty elements–that shows how beautifully Riesling can develop with age ($40).
The Wolf Blass ‘Gold Label’ Riesling, always a good buy ($15), usually is a 50/50 blend of wine from Clare and Eden Valleys. Extreme heat in 2006 made Riesling from Clare-already a normally warm area–too ripe, so they opted to use Eden Valley fruit exclusively that year. The 2006, bright, delicate and fresh, is, like most Australian Riesling, dry. Curiously, they opted to label it Barossa for the US market (in Australia it’s labeled Eden Valley) even though they could have used that designation for the US, because the marketing department felt that Barossa has greater visibility. From my point of view, this was a missed opportunity to highlight the regional diversity of Australian wines and to capitalize on the uniqueness of Eden Valley Riesling.
It’s odd that both Riesling and Shiraz, grapes that are rarely grown in the same area anywhere in the world because they need different climates and soils, do so well in Eden Valley. Chris Hatcher, Foster’s Chief Winemaker, believes it is because even within this relatively small area, there is great climatic and topographical diversity that allows each variety to thrive.
Clare Valley is on the edge of viticultural civilization. Another 35 miles north of Barossa, there are about 10,000 acres under vine in this 18 by 7 mile valley. Once you go north of Clare, you are in the ‘outback’ very quickly.
Despite its northern location–it’s warmer than the Barossa Valley–Clare Valley wines have freshness because a wide diurnal temperature variation preserves acidity in the grapes. Its elevation (which is roughly comparable to Eden Valley) and its proximity to the Gulf of St. Vincent help to lower nighttime temperatures.
Like Eden Valley, the variation within this small area–there are seven recognized subzones–allows different grape varieties to thrive. In addition to spectacular Riesling and Shiraz, Clare also turns out stunning Cabernet Sauvignon. Wakefield’s 2001 St. Andrew’s Cabernet Sauvignon took top honors at the prestigious London International Wine and Spirits competition last year when, out of about 5,000 wines, it won two major awards, the world’s best Cabernet and the Best Estate Wine. Wakefield’s regular Clare Valley Cabernet is the largest selling premium red wine in Australia, according to Mitchell Taylor, President of the company. He says they built the company on Cabernet. He remembers that the neighbors thought they were crazy when they planted Cabernet. ‘You can’t make good fortified wine out of Cabernet,’ they said. He can only imagine what they would have said if they knew that Wakefield was going to make a still wine from it.
Soil variation accounts for different styles of Riesling in Clare. On the east and north is the Polish Hill area, where shale slate subsoil produces a distinctively angular, steely style of Riesling. Further south, near Watervale, the Rieslings are slightly more generous, but still dry.
Although there is great discussion regarding the relative merits of Clare Riesling and Eden Valley Riesling, Chris Hatcher sums it up well when noting that, ‘the best Riesling is the result of a blend. Eden Valley produces wines with a delicate floral quality whereas Clare’s are more limey, punchy, and in your face. They tend to balance each other.’
Clare Valley Riesling producers to try include Annie’s Lane, Grosset (which makes both a Polish Hill and a Watervale bottling that make a fun side-by-side comparison), Knappstein, Jim Barry and Wakefield.
June 5, 2007