Dunne on Wine

Dunne on Wine: Winemakers from Down Under want back on top

This spring, a merry band of men called Australia’s First Families of Wine launched their first tour of the United States and Canada with a seminar and tasting at San Francisco’s Press Club.

Collectively, the dozen or so on tour represented 48 generations of family winemaking tradition and 16 Australian winemaking regions. The group is confident it can revive Australia’s tepid wine sales in the United States by reminding Americans that Aussie wines are much more diverse than the inexpensive chardonnay and shiraz that gave the country a foothold here two decades ago.

“We were the best values in the U.S. market before South American wines started to come in. Then we weren’t,” says M. Bruce Tyrrell of Tyrrell’s Wines in New South Wales, whose family’s winemaking dates to 1858.

Australian wine has much to offer in terms of quality and diversity. So how should Americans go about discovering – or rediscovering – it?

“Drink as widely as possible,” urges Chester Osborne, fourth-generation winemaker for his family’s d’Arenberg in South Australia, which maintains a relatively high profile for its wines in the U.S., in part for its imaginative names – The Broken Fishplate, The Stump Jumper, The Dead Arm and the like.

“Australia has a long history of winemaking, with a lot of character in its winemakers and in its wines,” he says. “There’s lots of diversity in Australian wine.”

If that wasn’t clear before, it became evident during the seminar, which involved comparative tastings of older wines and their younger counterparts, ably showing the ability of Australian wines to age with authority and grace.

Tyrrell, for one, showed off two versions of his signature wine, the 2005 and 2010 vintages of Tyrrell’s Wines New South Wales Hunter Valley Vat 1 Semillon. The 2005 was still kicking, its aroma fragrant, its acidity revitalizing, its limey flavor shot through with seams of goat cheese and honey. The 2010 was richer, its fruit sweeter, but it also was dry, with the same acidic spine that would make either vintage an ideal companion with raw oysters.

Alister Purbrick, winemaker for his family’s Tahbilk Winery in Victoria, which dates to 1860, brought along two “1927 Vines” marsannes from Nagabie Lakes in Victoria: the vivacious and extremely long 2000; and the equally well-stuffed, complex and refreshing 2006. While 2006 may seem old for a white wine, it is Tahbilk’s current release for the “1927 Vines,” a marsanne celebrated for its slow evolution and endurance.

Peter Barry of Jim Barry Wines in South Australia was pouring another white varietal capable of evolving long and well, the 1999 and 2014 releases of the winery’s “Lodge Hill” dry rieslings from Clare Valley. The 1999 was surprisingly aromatic and luscious; the 2014 more steely and razory, its suggestions of peaches and apples a bit more pronounced.

Despite the impact of the white wines, Australia is more closely identified with red wines, from stand-alone shiraz to imaginative blends, many involving cabernet sauvignon. The Yalumba 2012 South Australia “The Signature,” for example, is a floral- and berry-scented blend of cabernet sauvignon and shiraz from the Barossa and Eden valleys. The cabernet contributed notes of eucalyptus and cherries, with the shiraz exhibiting blueberries, structure and spice.

For straight-forward shiraz, the swaggering Henschke 2012 South Australia Eden Valley Mount Edelstone Shiraz was all complexity and concentrated fruit, while the substantial d’Arenberg 2010 McLaren Vale “The Blind Tiger” Shiraz combined a floral come-on with earthiness and spiced bacon on the palate.

For cabernet sauvignon, the Wakefield 2012 South Australia Clare Valley “St. Andrews” Cabernet Sauvignon delivered breadth, richness and lingering suggestions of eucalyptus, while the Wakefield 2009 South Australia Clare Valley “The Visionary” Cabernet Sauvignon spoke eloquently of cabernet’s classic cherry flavors.

Be forewarned that many of these wines are made in relatively small batches, with prices generally steeper than what Americans are accustomed to paying for Australian wines. The d’Arenberg 2010 “Blind Tiger” Shiraz, for one, sells here for around $80, the Henschke 2012 Mount Edestone Shiraz for around $115.

Many of the men in Australia’s First Families of Wine are about ready to pass on responsibility for the tours to the next generation, which includes daughters going into the business, further diversifying the Australian wine trade.

Editor’s note: This story was changed July 22 to correct the name of Chester Osborne.

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.