The Rise (and Fall) and Rise Of Australian Wine In The USA
By Kyle Meyer
Blinded By The Bin 707 Light
The year was 1993. I was a punk kid, just promoted to wine buyer at the ripe old age of 23 and the store I worked for hosted a blind tasting of 25 of the best Napa Valley Cabernets from the spectacular 1990 vintage.
All the ‘heavies’ were represented: Caymus, Dunn, Mondavi Reserve, Forman, Stag’s Leap and some newfangled winery called Dalla Valle. Literally the best of the best.
For kicks, we thought we’d toss in the latest vintage of an Aussie wine that we’d sold for years, the 1990 Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon, as a ‘ringer’. We dug the wine, thought it definitely over-delivered for the price and, most of all, we were curious.
Over 100 people attended the tasting and voted for their favorites, blind, with the results released afterwards.
The winner, by a landslide, was the Penfolds.
And it wasn’t even close. I think Caymus Special Selection finished second, after word got out what wine it was and a few people changed their votes to be ‘right’.
That day was an eye-opener for me, and opened a huge door for us in to the world of Australian wines. Those wines from the ‘90s were great. I’m sure the 1990 or 1991 Wynn’s John Riddoch Cabernet would have finished second that day, and Penfolds Bin 389 and Koonunga Hill, as well as Rosemount’s famous Black Diamond label were staples on our sales floor for years.
The 1990s: The (First) Golden Age of Australian Wine in the US
The 1990s brought us more gems, new-to-the-States wines like d’Arenberg, Charles Melton, Brokenwood and a host of others that blew us away on a consistent basis over the decade. Amazing stuff, deeply flavored but not ponderous, and all of them speaking of a place and an absolute joy to drink.
But then, for a number of reasons, premium Australian wine sales went off the rails in the late-2000s after a decade of exponential growth. Everyone wondered what happened, and blame was passed around.
‘The wines have gotten too big.’
‘The wines are too expensive.’
‘Sommeliers want Pinot Noir and Chinon.’
I heard them all.
It was, in fact, a perfect storm of a story – one that warrants telling another day. What was indisputable was, Australian wine had lost its way after encountering a bit of adversity. The many beyond-favorable reviews that once met their wines suddenly dried up. Plus, for a number of reasons, those 96-point wines from 1991 started turning into the more difficult 1992s. That hurt, having the critics that had built them up tear them down and, simultaneously, turn their focus to other regions of the wine world. After certain segments of the wine press stopped giving Australian wine the same amount of recognition, more than a few wineries went from loved one moment to forgotten the next, with some wineries openly blamed for Oz’s new, unexpected ills.
But one thing’s for sure, not a lot of wine producers looked inward to find out what the problem was or how they could remedy it. This wasn’t all the pundits’ fault.
Over the last decade I’ve tasted hundreds of Aussie wines from the country’s finest producers, and I’m still a bit worried. In many instances, the focus is unclear. I taste wines constantly ‘in pursuit of balance’ that seem to be missing just that. And at both ends of the price spectrum.
‘Lean’ Barossa Shiraz? No, thanks. Why make lemonade from oranges? ‘Leafy’ Cabernet from the Vales? Green may mean ‘go’, if you’re in Alto Adige, but not in the McLaren Vale. Port-like Shiraz from the Margaret River? How did that happen…?
Australian Wines: Time to Shine Once Again
C’mon Australia, it’s easier than you think. You’re blessed with what has to be the most remarkable, original plant material in the world. While the rest of the ‘old world’ fell victim to the ravages of phylloxera, you went about your business, cultivating thousands of acres of brilliant old vines. If I’m not mistaken, the world’s oldest Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache, Sémillon and heck knows what else is deeply rooted in your soils, all seemingly from original cuttings brought over by the man himself, James Busby, in the 1830s.
You are, in fact, more ‘old world’ than the Old World.
The rest of the wine world jealously pines for what’s already planted on your fine continent. Use it. Craft wines from these vines and their progeny that speak of your wonderful regions. These vines effortlessly showcase your regionality, be it lush Shiraz or Grenache from the Barossa, citrusy Sémillon from the Hunter, stoic Marsanne from the Goulburn Valley. It’s a luxury to have, and a better set of paints you will not find to color your regional masterpieces.
And that’s another thing. It’s time for all of your individual regions to shine. To the vast majority of American wine drinkers, Australia is perceived as one big, giant winegrowing region, not one of the most diverse winegrowing spots in the entire world. Most Americans have no clue about the differences between Margaret River, Coonawarra, the Barossa Valley or the Yarra. To those of us who have studied these areas, we know they are as diverse a range as Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône Valley and the Languedoc in France. Tell America about these wonderfully diverse regions. Give each of these distinctive, quality areas a chance to shine on the American stage.
Most of all, tell these regional stories with classically-styled wines. ‘Balance’ means something different in every part of Australia, and believe me, I know it’s still being sought-out in newer, exciting spots for ‘alternative grapes’ in places like the Adelaide Hills. But I tell you what, those halcyon days of the 1990s were in fact my personal ‘Golden Age’ for the stylistic representations of Australian wines from a multitude of areas. Many of these wines weren’t too oaky, too ripe, too tannic, too lean, too this or that. As it was on that fateful day in 1993 at the Cabernet Shootout, that 1990 Penfolds Bin 707, produced from old-vine Cabernet in the Coonawarra and the Barossa Valley, aged in perfectly-seasoned American oak barrels, was just right.
Look to the past and you may discover your future. ‘Less is more’ may most certainly apply in a situation where you already have it all…
Kyle Meyer is the managing partner at The Wine Exchange in California