Dunne on Wine

Australian vintners are going upmarket to recapture the affection of American consumers

Winemaker Michael Dhillon of Bindi Wines in Australia’s Macedon Ranges (Victoria) prepares to pour a taste of his sparkling wine at the opening of Australia Decanted in July at Squaw Valley.
Winemaker Michael Dhillon of Bindi Wines in Australia’s Macedon Ranges (Victoria) prepares to pour a taste of his sparkling wine at the opening of Australia Decanted in July at Squaw Valley.

Invited to join 13 pivotal Australian winemakers and 100 gatekeepers on the American wine scene for five days of seminars and tastings on what’s up Down Under, my first thought was, “Australian wine - now there’s something not generating much buzz nowadays.”

I signed on anyway, in part because the setting for the session was so offbeat for any sort of wine conclave – not New York City, not San Francisco, not Los Angeles, but Lake Tahoe, specifically the Resort at Squaw Creek.

Ingenious. Aside from the scenery, Squaw Valley doesn’t offer much to divert the attention of participants from panel presentations about why Australian riesling is so underappreciated, why Australia is even less recognized for pinot noir and why Australian chardonnay today is far removed from the ripe, oaky, buttery interpretations that knocked Americans over the head a couple of decades ago.

In short, officials of sponsoring Wine Australia, the global marketing wing of the Australian wine trade, wanted a captive audience, the largest contingent of which looked to be sommeliers and wine-shop personnel from New York. As the gathering evolved, however, the makeup and subjects of the panels, the focus and discipline of the panelists, and the 390 wines available to taste over the five days virtually guaranteed that no one would wander into the wilderness.

And to be fair to Lake Tahoe’s standing as a recreational mecca, the organizers did arrange for participants to spend half a day paddle-boarding, kayaking and hiking in the basin.

At any rate, the conclave, officially dubbed “Australia Decanted,” kicked off a multiyear $50-million campaign by Australian vintners to recapture the attention and affection of wine consumers who have drifted elsewhere.

You remember Australia’s first major incursion into the United States, about two decades ago, when cheap and cheery wines under such playful brand names as Yellow Tail and Little Penguin seized the American palate with wines simple, sweet and soft. There wasn’t anything pretentious or exalted about them, and Americans loved their accessibility for both pocketbook and palate.

But that fondness is wearing thin. As recently as a decade ago, annual Australian wine sales in the Unites States hit $1 billion. Over the past year, however, they fell to $420 million.

That dip was borne almost solely by wines priced between $4 and $8. Australian winemakers relished their early success with cheap varietal wines, but a new reality is setting in. Inexpensive wines are more readily available, for one, with releases from such countries as Chile and Argentina, to say nothing of continued bargains out of Europe, coveting shelf space previously held by the Australians.

And while the American thirst for wines simple, sweet and soft endures, the conventional thinking is that Americans have grown tired of the sameness represented by so many Australian wines; they haven’t represented a place, a history or a culture so much as a style that could be replicated most anywhere.

“A lot of mediocre wine (from Australia) flooded the market. Australian wine was perceived for its value. That took quality Australian wine completely off the table,” said Debbie Zachareas, a partner in the shop Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant in San Francisco, one of the 100 gatekeepers at the Lake Tahoe summit.

What’s more, Americans are showing an inclination to buy up in their wine purchases, but more for pricey wines from Europe and California than from Australia.

The intent of Australia Decanted was to show the American market that the Australian wine industry is more diverse in regions, climates, pedigree, wine styles and price niches than is commonly perceived in the United States.

Toward that goal, participating vintners were candid in acknowledging their past shortcomings. “In the early days we were making pinot noir for shiraz drinkers, then the light went on,” said Michael Hill Smith of the brands Shaw + Smith Wines in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills and Tolpuddle Vineyard in Tasmania.

As a consequence, Australian grape growers and winemakers are gravitating to a less blustery take on pinot noir by moving to higher and cooler vineyard sites, paying more attention to the composition of their soils, adopting new canopy-management protocols, and expanding the number of clones they exploit in their quest for a more lyrical expression of pinot noir, speakers concurred.

At another session, Australian vintners acknowledged that early on they erred in trying to emulate European wine styles rather than develop their own distinctive interpretations of such classic grape varieties as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. “The idea of replicating French wines is ridiculous. The climates are so far removed,” said Steve Pannell of S.C. Pannell Wines in South Australia’s McLaren Vale.

An overarching thread to develop during the presentations was that the Australian wine trade hasn’t effectively persuaded Americans to buy into the continent’s long wine history, extensive variety and proud quality. “We haven’t told the story well enough of our diversity. We’ve sometimes assumed that everyone understands the intricacies of Australia, and they don’t. We have to tell our stories better,” says Louisa Rose, chief winemaker at the winery Yalumba in Barossa Valley and director of the Australian Wine Research Institute.

Toward that goal, Australians are vigorously addressing the American market, following up Australia Decanted with “Aussie Wine Week” this week, though no events are to be in the Sacramento area.

As illuminating as Australia Decanted’s slide shows and talks were, the breadth and character of Australian wine emerged most tellingly through a series of blind and open tastings. The most exhilarating surprise to me was the authority and range of Australian grenache, which I will address in a future column.

And no talk or taste of Australian wine is complete without shiraz, the grape and the wine most closely identified with the country, accounting for 30 percent of the nation’s vines. For personality, layering, balance and length, the examples of shiraz poured at Australia Decanted were a far cry from the heavy and sappy renditions that first drew the attention of Americans.

The diversity of the shirazes at the conclave spoke to an entirely new outback for Americans to start exploring. On one hand, the Jim Barry 2014 Clare Valley The McRae Wood Shiraz ($60) was inky, complex and long, an unusually compelling take on the country’s traditional way with the variety. On the other hand, the exceptionally fragrant, fresh, buoyant and even elegant Shaw + Smith 2015 Adelaide Hills Shiraz ($39) showed a more youthful and spunkier side of the variety. In between was the entertainingly floral, lively and peppery Clonakilla 2015 Canberra O’Riada Shiraz ($36).

Not many of the brands represented or the wines poured at Australia Decanted will be found in the Sacramento market, at least not yet. Hereabouts, inexpensive entry-level brands like Yellow Tail and 19 Crimes largely represent Australia, I found during a survey of several local wine shops after I returned from Squaw Valley. There’s no consumer demand for Australian wines, explained one merchant as he scanned his collection, void of anything from Australia. “Australian wine had its day in the sun, and then shriveled,” said another.

On the other hand, forthright examples of the new wave of Australian wine can be found here and there. Carpe Vino in Auburn, for one, stocks several statement Australian wines, including the lean, prickly and intense Tolpuddle 2016 Tasmania Chardonnay ($62). Corti Brothers in Sacramento also carries several consistently reliable Australian wines, including the Grosset Wines 2015 Clare Valley Polish Hill Riesling ($54) and the Tyrrell’s 2011 Hunter Valley HVD Semillon ($47). The Arden Way branch of Total Wine offers a wide range of Australian wine, including such highly regarded releases as the John Duval Wines 2015 Barossa Entity Shiraz ($42) and the Two Hands 2015 Barossa Valley Moppa Hills Secret Block Wildlife Road Shiraz ($127). Raley’s also stocks several Aussie wines, including the Shaw + Smith 2016 Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc ($32) and the Vasse Felix 2015 Margaret River Filius Cabernet Sauvignon ($32).

Not eager to resume exploring Australian wine at more than $20 the bottle? In that case, consider such releases as the Henry’s Drive 2014 Padthaway Shiraz ($18 at the West Sacramento branch of Nugget Markets), the Tahbilk 2014 Nagambie Lakes Shiraz ($16 also at Nugget), or the Jim Barry 2017 Clare Valley The Lodge Hill Riesling ($17 at the Arden Way branch of Total Wine). One of the better buys in premium Australian wine can be found at Costco, which has been stocking the refreshing and razory Penley Estate 2016 Coonawarra Phoenix Cabernet Sauvignon ($15), so laced with suggestions of eucalyptus that it’s surprising a koala isn’t on the label.

Despite the overall plunge in Australian wine exports to the U.S., not all the news is grim for the country’s vintners. Sales of Aussie sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, semillon and shiraz in the U.S. all were up last year, particularly for wines at higher price points, and Australian wine exports world-wide soared 20 percent, with China taking up much of the market abandoned by Americans.

And Paul Grieco, manager of the New York City wine bar Terroir, seemed to sum up the attitude of guests at Australia Decanted. “Australia’s excited me,” said Grieco of the wines he tasted and the stories he heard. “We finally are starting to hear stories that Australia is no less compelling as a wine area than Italy, France, California, wherever…Ten years from now the conversation about Australian wine will be vitally different.”

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 dmichaeldunne@gmail.com.