A couple of decades ago, Americans were enthralled with Australian wines. We fell for their lush textures, vibrant fruit, relaxed prices and cute brand names. At the opening of art exhibits across the country, Australian labels like Mad Fish, Little Penguin and most especially Yellow Tail were rivaled only by California’s Charles Shaw (“Two Buck Chuck”).
Then the popularity of Australian wines in the U.S. began to slip. Today, they still can be found in U.S. markets, but they don’t generate the buzz they used to. Only 8 percent of all wines imported to the U.S. are Australian, according to the Australian wine-trade group Wine Australia.
Why the fall in grace for Australian wines? Various explanations are advanced. A common complaint by consumers is that too many taste alike. For another, the Australian wine industry has been in turmoil in recent years, with huge corporations losing millions of dollars, shedding resources and even dumping rather than trying to sell hundreds of thousands of cases of wine.
Australian winemakers, in short, have been distracted as they try to get their house in order. They haven’t been abroad much to sell the Australian wine story, which is longer and more historic, varied, dynamic and colorful than the shiploads of cheap critter wines arriving at American ports suggest.
Without marketing acumen, and up against an image of dullness if not blandness, exports of Australian wines to the U.S. have been slipping for the past several years, down 6 percent last year alone.
“We have no one to blame but ourselves,” Larry Cherubino is saying over lunch in Sacramento. Cherubino has the full crop of hair and the agile build that suggests Aussie surfer, but he’s more Aussie winemaker. He was in town playing catch-up, telling the story that the Australian wine community hasn’t told well in recent years.
And that story is more about diversity than similarity. The theme of several chapters in that tale runs to hand-crafted wines styled to celebrate site as well as express grape or intelligent blending. It’s a story as old as the Australian wine trade, but it’s been overshadowed during the past few decades by the popularity of inexpensive everyday varietal wines.
“We have a lot of work to do, a lot of convincing to do,” Cherubino says. Australia’s wine woes began in the 1980s, he recalls. The British started to take a liking to wines from Down Under, in large part for their appealing price. In short order, Australian vintners found that they didn’t have the product to meet demand. This led to a surge in the planting of grapevines, aided by government officials keen to encourage exports.
A long-range plan was adopted to develop a solid infrastructure of vineyards and wineries. It was to be fully built out by 2025. “The goal was met in 2002,” Cherubino says, “20 years ahead of schedule.”
The expansion program, however, was centered on bolstering production. The trade gave little heed, he suggests, to the selling of all the wine that was being made.
What’s more, the abundance of cheap Australian wine drew consumer attention from the country’s more refined and expensive wines, which were undergoing parallel improvements, though they weren’t registering with nearly as many consumers. “If we hadn’t changed (our winemaking) as much as we had, that 6 percent (slide in sales last year) would have been bigger,” Cherubino says.
Now the Australian wine trade is attempting to regain its momentum, in large part by showing consumers, particularly American consumers, who form the largest wine market in the world, that Australia is the source of wines with characteristics that experienced and adventurous wine drinkers seek – regionality, originality, distinctiveness.
“Today, it’s all about originality by region. What are those wines about? What do they mean? The Australian wine industry never has been as diverse as it is today,” Cherubino says.
Cherubino was reared in the Swan Valley region outside Perth in Western Australia, where wine has been made for nearly two centuries.
He has held winemaking positions at several wineries in Australia, South Africa, Italy, Washington state and California. A decade ago he founded his own eponymous winery, where he makes wines under the brands Ad Hoc, The Yard, Pedestal and Laissez Faire as well as Cherubino.
He wasn’t in Sacramento to promote his own wines, however, but to represent two Australian brands for which he also is winemaker, Robert Oatley and Wild Oats.
His studious winemaking philosophy, as well as his training in horticulture, has him emphasizing vineyard more than cellar.
He lives and works in remote and isolated Western Australia, and is particularly keen on the region’s Margaret River, Frankland River and Pemberton appellations, principally for what he calls the purity of the area’s soils and water, which when coupled with an agreeable climate give him the sort of transparent wines he seeks.
Robert Oatley, based in Mudgee, northwest of Sydney, far from Western Australia, now makes half of its production with grapes of Western Australia, in particular cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay.
In tasting through several Robert Oatley wines, Cherubino’s signature is evident. Themes that emerged involved their clarity, vigor, tension and proportion. They were varietaly clear, lanky in build and lively on the palate, with pacified tannins, sharp acidity and unobtrusive wood. None could be described as sappy or syrupy, common descriptors elicited by Australian wine, at least in the past. “I don’t mess around with our wines much,” Cherubino says. “Oak isn’t sitting on top of the wine.”
Robert Oatley wines aren’t as cheap as the Australian releases largely responsible for establishing an outlet here for the country’s wines over the past three decades, but they aren’t excessively priced, either, considering how polished they are upon release and how structured they are to age. By and large, they sell in the $15-to-$20 range.
“Our goal no longer is to be the biggest wine producer in the world,” says Cherubino of Australia’s winemaking aspirations. “Quality has always been important, but now it’s also all about provenance – where the wines are from. They are to tell a regional story. Come back and give us another try.”
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.
A fresh look at Australian wines
To determine for yourself the merits of Australia’s new emphasis on wines of regional identity, look for bottles that have a narrower appellation than the common New South Wales and South Australia, vast wine-grape territories where wines are apt to be blended with grapes from numerous sub-appellations.
For Robert Oatley, seek these in particular:
▪ Robert Oatley 2013 Margaret River Chardonnay ($17): Sauvignon blanc and semillon used to be the grape varieties to define Margaret River, but chardonnay is rising fast in esteem. This take shows why. It is light- to medium-bodied, with a touch of sweetness to perk up its peachy and citric fruitiness, and a thread of herbalness to add welcome complexity. It saw no malolactic fermentation so its native crispness would be retained, and only 20 percent of the wine saw oak, and for just a short time to keep the influence of wood well in the background.
▪ Robert Oatley 2013 Great Southern Riesling ($17): Great Southern, a large agricultural region along the southern reaches of Western Australia, reputedly is the coolest place in the country to grow wine grapes. And it must be, to judge by the bite, focus and assertiveness of this keenly balanced riesling, whose suggestions of lime are punctuated with notes of the petrol for which the varietal is noted.
Robert Oatley 2012 Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon ($20): The late Dr. Harold Olmo, a grape scientist at UC Davis, many decades ago saw something in Margaret River that no one else seemed to notice – a setting perfect for cabernet sauvignon. Others took his advice, and today cabernet sauvignon is the varietal most closely identified with the region. This dark, sleek, medium-bodied and herbal-accented rendition shows why. The oak is so well integrated and the tannins so well massaged that they don’t at all distract from the wine’s lilting blackberry and cherry flavors.
Robert Oatley 2012 Margaret River Finisterre Cabernet Sauvignon ($40): With Margaret River at the far western reaches of Australia, sailing enthusiast Robert Oatley choose “Finisterre” for this series of wines. The word derives from the Latin “finis terrae,” for “end of the earth.” This a classic, straight-forward interpretation of cabernet sauvignon with the bright color of a cranberry bog, the scent and flavor of Bing cherries and teasing threads of eucalyptus and olives. It’s medium-bodied, zesty with acidity, and the oak serves its role of supporting structure and fruit without making itself obtrusive.
Robert Oatley 2011 Margaret River The Pennant Cabernet Sauvignon ($80): As a competitive sailor, Oatley considers this the top prize among his wines. The wine is the big-brother version of the Finisterre. The family resemblance is there, but in greater measure – more heft, concentration, earthiness and oak. Again, however, Cherubino keeps it all in proportion, making for a wine that while opulent also is easy to drink and to pair with food.