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Today marks Australia’s commemoration of Royal Navy officer Arthur Phillip’s arrival on her soil with a shipful of convicts, colonizing what is now Sydney, in 1788. He has been called the Australian equivalent of George Washington. And while Australia Day may not have quite the notoriety of a Saint Patrick’s Day, the influx of expats to New York City ensures plenty of places to toast the occasion — the Aussies know how to punish their livers celebrate just as hard as the Irish. And not to knock Guinness, but a greater variety of alcohol flows from Antipodean shores, especially wine. Really, really good wine.
The Voice sat down with Gordon Little of Little Peacock Imports to discuss his Aussie-only portfolio and the state of consumer interest in the category and to find out where he’ll drink a salute to his country while 10,353 miles from home.
Little hails from Melbourne but moved to NYC and founded an importing business with his now-wife, Lauren Peacock (who is a lawyer by day), three and a half years ago. Since our last interview in May 2013, they’ve added fifteen brands to the initial five and currently support more than sixty different wines, expanding beyond New York borders to California and several other states.
The couple did not get into the wine business to make a financial killing — certainly not in choosing to rep Aussie labels at a time when retailers had downsized Australia’s shelf space and sommeliers had slashed everything but a brand-name shiraz or two from lists.
To say Australia’s wine industry has struggled here is an understatement. Producers instigated a boom-and-bust cycle after making a value play on fruity industrial wine, and neither their reputation nor their exports have recovered in America. When we last spoke to Little, he hoped to bring about a renaissance by sourcing mostly from small operations making characterful wines in the $15–$40 price range.
“The core of what we are doing is finding interesting, fun wines that we like to drink and that over-deliver on value,” Little says. He faced a mountain of objections when he started: The wines are too expensive; we already have a chardonnay; climate change is going to render the country untenable anyway; aren’t bush fires burning the vineyards down? Some of these can lay claim to veracity. Australia has high labor costs, translating into occasionally crippling bottle prices. And climate change threatens heat spikes, drought, and degree changes that may alter the vinous landscape forever. All the more reason to buy what could be future rarities now.
Little says gatekeepers are finally listening, however, primarily by letting the wines do the persuasive talking. He also credits a handful of fellow importers for helping ramp up and sustain the dialogue. Each has carved its own niche — Old Bridge focuses on big, traditional wineries, Vine Street the quirky and cutting-edge; Hudson Wine Brokers brings in one winery per region in a classic style — to, as Little puts it, help “turn Americans into evangelists for Aussie wine.”
And what should they be preaching? According to Little, Australian chardonnay offers hands-down the best value in the American market right now. Compared to anything out of California or France, he says, “shoppers can get a single vineyard Aussie chard for under $30, which is merely village level from Burgundy.” A favorite producer, which he imports, is Stella Bella from Margaret River, one of the country’s finest regions for the grape (along with the cooler climes of the Mornington Peninsula at the tip of Victoria). The 2011, which retails for $25, is hand-picked, fermented in partial new French oak, and only hits a moderate 13 percent alcohol.
Little also suggests that sauvignon blanc drinkers looking for something new consider riesling from Down Under. The Clare and Eden valleys in South Australia produce mostly bone-dry, mouth-watering, lime-zest-scented wines that can age for years, a profile that also suits riesling lovers eschewing the off-dry and sweeter styles found in other countries. Little brings in a $25 version from Best’s Great Western, a historic, family-owned winery founded by pioneers of the Grampians region in Victoria 150 years ago.
Pinot noir continues to be incredibly popular with American drinkers, and Australia produces elegant examples from Yarra Valley and Tasmania. The 2012 Moorooduc Estate for $36, another Little Peacock selection, comes from a great vintage in the Mornington Peninsula, and is especially lithe and pretty, with dark-cherry and rose petal notes.
Finally, a new generation of growers and winemakers has embraced sustainable farming with the goal of reflecting site in their fruit and wines. They tend to pick grapes a little earlier than many predecessors in order to retain fresh acidity and moderate alcohol levels; they want to make less overtly ripe expressions, in contrast to the style that became synonymous with Australian shiraz. Ben Haines, for example, produces a shiraz/marsanne blend (think a riff on Côte-Rôtie) called B Minor, $25 for the 2013. He doesn’t own the vineyards but sources fruit solely from organic practicing farmers in the Yarra Valley. Little loves this wine “because it has great texture in the mouth and is light and lifted.”
As for where he’ll be drinking on Australia Day, Little plans to dip into several of his favorite haunts that offer Australian fare and wines by the glass. See the list of recommendations below.
Where to Wine and Dine Australian-Style in NYC:
Tuesday, January 26
Join Burke & Wills (226 West 79th Street, 646-823-9251) on the Upper West Side for a five-course tasting menu at $60 with optional Australian wine pairings for an additional $35. The menu, which includes kangaroo loin paired with Moorooduc Estate pinot and whole roasted barramundi matched to Stella Bella chardonnay, is available à la carte. Call or email firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations.
The Australian NYC (20 West 38th Street, 212-869-8601) will feature live music and drink specials. Other Aussie-centric venues at which to grab a glass include Flinders Lane, Public, and Bluestone Lane in the West Village.
Wednesday, January 27 Gordon Little of Little Peacock Imports will pour seven wines from his portfolio, taking oenophiles on a two-hour deep dive through Australia’s wine regions at Astor Center. From 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Buy tickets online for $69.
Sunday, January 31
The Australian Community will host a “right Aussie pisser,” says Little, on Stone Street (52 Stone Street, 212-785-5658) in the FiDi, starting at 2 p.m.
Where to Buy Australian Wine:
Frankly Wines, 66 West Broadway, 212-346-9544
Winfield Flynn Wine & Spirits, 558 Third Avenue, 212-679-4455
Ambassador Wine & Spirits, 1020 Second Avenue, 212-421-5078
Lauren Mowery is a drinks and travel writer, and Master of Wine candidate, based in NYC.