Exploring Truths. Dispelling Misconceptions
By Laura Maniec
I visited Australia in 2013 as a guest of Wine Australia. I accepted the generous offer to visit, but it wasn’t because of my love affair with Australian wines. In fact, ignorantly, my impression was that the wines were too high in alcohol, too fruity and very powerful. In some ways, I knew I wasn’t correct in my assumptions, but cheap-and cheerful and extremely rich wines were all that seemed to be available to taste in the US.
Despite my misconceptions, I wanted to visit Australia to form personal connections within the country. To understand the wines by tasting them with the winemakers, standing in the vineyards, and exploring Australian wine for myself. After just one day in Oz, I realized how wrong I was about the wines and how many diverse styles, varieties, regions, geologies, and microclimates there are. I also realized how much I truly loved the wines.
You have to remember that Australia is a large country with a land mass equivalent to the United States. So, it isn’t all warm and hot climates. Many cooler climate wine regions exist. I found that the wineries we visited were evolving their style, picking earlier, doing less extraction, and using less oak. As one winemaker said, they thought that the US market wanted wine that was big and rich, so that is what they exported. Over the years our palates have changed and many more styles of Australian wine are coming here. My four favorite Australian varieties are Pinot Noir, Grenache, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Australian Pinot Noir
My trip began in Victoria and I was impressed by the Pinot Noir from Yarra Valley, Geelong and Mornington Peninsula. Pinot Noir is very fickle and hard to grow but these cooler climates provide the ideal environment with the Southern Ocean’s influence cooling the regions. Sweet and sour cranberries, wild strawberries, cocoa and sandalwood seemed to be the style of Pinot Noir that I enjoyed the most. Look for Mac Forbes and Yarra Yering, both from Yarra Valley, if you like the same style. Similarly, in Tasmania, Pinot Noir covers just shy of 800 hectares and produces delicious examples of red Pinot Noir, as well as exceptional sparkling wines.
In South Australia, particularly in regions like the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Langhorne Creek, I fell in love with the old vine Grenache. Grenache is my favorite grape. It is the most widely planted grape in the world and thrives in warm regions as it is an early budding and late ripening variety. Some of the oldest Grenache vines in the world are in South Australia and date back to the 1800s. My favorite expressions were when the vines were planted on sand. Think Rayas style, or “Grenache for Pinot Noir drinkers”. Sun-kissed raspberries, white pepper, elegant expressions with silky tannins and fresh acidity. Ess & See Grenache, Ochota Barrels and Yangarra were amongst my favorites.
Another favorite variety of mine was Chardonnay, specifically from Adelaide Hills, South Australia. I tasted so many different expressions of Chardonnay, all of which were elegant, judiciously oaked, fresh and zippy. Adelaide Hills felt worlds away in terms of climate and landscape to the rest of South Australia and the wines showed this cooler microclimate. Citrus-zested apples and pears with custard and cream and a tart finish were my favorite styles. BK Wines’ “One Ball” is a classic example of the type of Chardonnay that I enjoyed here. Chardonnay also grows well in Margaret River, Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula.
Australian Cabernet Sauvignon
In Western Australia, Margaret River stole the show with Cabernet Sauvignon. It was planted there in the 1970s and does well because of the gravelly soils and maritime climate. I liked the minty, deep blackberry, cassis, cedar and smoky expressions, in particular the styles at Vasse Felix and Moss Wood. Cabernet also does well in Coonawarra, the Barossa Valley and the Clare Valley. There are currently about 21,000 hectares planted to Cabernet Sauvignon in Australia.
The Change Has Come
I was excited to see that over the last 5 years a lot has changed in the Australian wine industry. More premium, small production wineries from Australia are now being imported to the US and you no longer have to travel across the world to find them. As Australian wine imports to the US continue to grow, there is greater diversity and representation from across Australia’s 65 wine regions, and many more styles and varieties are now available for consumers to discover. I’m looking forward to continuing to explore new gems from Australia because the wines deserve a place at the table and I’m sure you’ll see a lot more in fine wine restaurants and retail stores.
Laura Maniec MS is the Chief Executive Officer of Corkbuzz Restaurant and Wine Bar