If your last memory of Australian wine was an overripe Shiraz, erase it! The new breed of Aussie wine is leaner, more structured, and food-friendlier than before, and heading to New York thanks to a wave of young, dynamic winemakers and importers.
Gordon Little and his fiancee Lauren Peacock of Little Peacock Imports are courageous importers of small-batch Australian wines, working together to deliver the country’s wine renaissance to New York. Calling them courageous may sound melodramatic, but given our slow-to-fade hangover from the first Australian wine experiment, staking their livelihood on championing these wines really is a form of bravery.
In 2004, Australia overtook France as the second largest supplier of wine to the U.S. market. But like many trends not based on quality and integrity, oversaturation led to busted demand (like cupcakes). One sad outcome of all this was the death of boutique importers bringing handpicked, unique wines from talented winemakers to the U.S., because suddenly “Aussie wine” meant something dirty.
Now the country has come together through the government-supported Wine Australia to promote wine regions individually. Although every region holds gifted vintners worthy of our attention, wines piquing the interest of writers, importers, and consumers right now are coming from cool-climate regions (which tend to produce grapes that lead to wines of greater finesse, delicacy, balance, and acidity, and often lower alcohol).
At a recent wine conference, Mr. Little’s advice for tasting Australia’s most promising wines was to look for smaller producers from these cooler-climate zones. He also recommended regions to look out for, including ones with ample Pinot Noir.
Margaret River: On the furthest shores of southwest Australia lies this maritime region known for profound Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, as well as surfing off some particularly gorgeous beaches. Fine wines are the foundation of the region’s reputation, and these gems are finally receiving the international acclaim they deserve. Bordeaux blends, especially whites, are also praised. Pioneers and premium producers include Leeuwin, Moss Wood, Vasse Felix, and Stella Bella.
Yarra Valley: Known for its stunning beauty, the vineyards in this cool-climate region in Victoria may date back to 1838, but it’s also the stage for many young winemakers spearheading the new wave of Aussie wines. Their philosophy: lower alcohol, reduced use of oak, hand-harvesting, and food-friendliness. These winemakers refer to themselves as the “South Pack.” The region’s principal grapes are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz close behind. Looking for Côte Rôtie-style wines? Some exceptional bottlings of Syrah blended with a small percentage of Viognier are produced in Yarra. Try wines from Luke Lambert, Jamsheed, Ben Haines, Innocent Bystander, and Punt Road.
Mornington Peninsula: Terroir, terroir, terroir. This could be written of most places, but is especially significant in this crescent-shaped region where soil, aspect, altitude and wind change by the meter. Pinot Noir dominates red wine production, Chardonnay for white, with exceptionally made (and often priced) single-vineyard bottlings showing off the potential of this playground of the nearby affluent Melbourne locals. Moorooduc Estate and Dexter Wines are both available in New York and produce delicious, competitively priced wines.
Adelaide Hills: Twenty-five minutes east of Adelaide, altitude is the key to this region’s cool climate; in that short time, temperature can drop by as much as 30 degrees. Vineyards are tucked into dips and peaks of valleys, and in between cherry and apple orchards — driving through this landscape could satisfy a rollercoaster enthusiast. Planted predominantly with white grapes, many claim the Hills as the home of Aussie Sauvignon Blanc, and increasingly, sparkling wines from Pinot and Chard. Reds are driven by Pinot, with a growing appreciation for spicy Shiraz and Italian varieties such as Nebbiolo and Barbera. Look for Shaw and Smith, Henschke, and d’Arenberg, with more producers coming soon.
Eden Valley: Sitting within but high above the Barossa Valley is this cool, windswept region that produces a high percentage of Shiraz but is prized for its Riesling. Eden Riesling develops unlike any other place in the world besides the Clare Valley (also in Australia), into bright, stony, lime-juice-y concentrated wines that are not only a great value but have the capacity to age up to ten years (if not longer). In fact, shop for older vintages, as the high acid in young wines can brighten teeth like Crest Whitening Strips. Pewsey Vale, the oldest winery dating to 1847, sets the benchmark for the region, and is relatively easy to find in NYC stores.
Finally, if you want to dig deeper into the subject, I suggest James Halliday’s Wine Atlas of Australia.