A tour of Australia's Olympic wine industry
by David Marglin
So you're home watching the Olympics with those precious
little narratives, learning more than you thought there was to know about
Australia and the
athletes who came to Sydney to compete, and you're thinking to yourself:
this would be a whole lot more enjoyable if I had some nice Australian wine
in my mouth.
Indeed it would. Australians are fearless winemakers who have come a long way
in the past decade. Like the American West Coast, Australia's wine regions
enjoy consistent climate
year in and year out, so the fruit is consistently
ripe. This leaves winemakers free to experiment, both in their vineyards and in
their wineries. The jewel in the Australian wine crown, of course, is the
shiraz (syrah) grape, but Australians blend their precious shiraz with just
about every red variety they grow, including cabernet sauvignon, grenache,
mourvèdre, and merlot. They even make some very exciting
But what's really interesting about Australian wine -- and what makes it a good
fit for the Olympic season -- is the attitude of the people who make it.
Compared to American vintners, who enjoy a similar climate, they seem less
concerned about their numeric ratings
and sales numbers. Australian winemakers
are keenly competitive, but what they seem to care about most, in true Olympic
fashion, is winning medals in
wine competitions -- especially those held in
Australia, where hundreds of wines are tasted "head to head." Winemakers
compete against each other in producing wines they like, and they fully expect
the palates of drinkers in their two big overseas markets -- Britain and
America -- to come to them. The result is a focus on making powerful,
fruit-forward wines that are easy to drink, if often idiosyncratic.
A persistent knock against Australia in the '70s and '80s was that its vintners
did not export the good stuff, but kept it for themselves. Now Australia
recognizes the importance of building brand recognition, perhaps thanks to
another curiosity of the Australian wine business: the majority of the industry
is controlled by major corporations like Mildara Blass and Southcorp.
(Southcorp, the country's largest wine producer, owns Penfolds, Lindemans, and
Seppelt, among others.) The growth ambition of the Australian wine corporations
is no secret; Mildara Blass (owned by Foster's Brewing) just purchased
California's Beringer Wine Estates for $1.5 billion. Meanwhile, the
Australian indies, which lack similar marketing clout, have to work that much
harder to get their product in stores and restaurants -- and the best way to do
that is to make big, noticeable wines.
In addition to its shiraz, Australia is gaining recognition for its cabernets
and pinot noirs, as well as its Rhône-style blends. As far as whites go,
chardonnay and sauvignon blanc are the leaders, but the most exciting varietals
are riesling and sémillon. Once I used to scoff at these varietals,
because the examples available around here were simply not very good. Now,
however, they often achieve excellence.
As you're reveling in the Olympics, take advantage of this opportunity to try
some awesome Aussie wines, many of which will astound you as much as the Games.
And bear in mind, as you get into the Olympic spirit, that the next Games are
in Utah, not exactly a major wine-producing state. So empty your glasses while
ye may. No worries about these wines, which should make even the
track-and-field events a bit more riveting.
1999 Buckeley's Sémillon-Chardonnay South Australia ($9.99).
According to the label, Buckeley's means "no chance" in Australian, but there
is a good chance you'll like this wine. It's not overly creamy, as many
sémillons are; the 37 percent chardonnay gives it good crispness and
and it has wonderful zinginess. Great with fish sticks, fried clams,
or ginger shrimp.
1998 Tatachilla Chenin Blanc/Sémillon/Sauvignon Blanc South
Australia ($9.99). A chenin blanc blend is a slightly astonishing concept,
but this one works. It sneaks up on you with dry softness, then it smacks you
with a tropical-fruit finish. Thoughtful wine -- good with Indian food or
1998 Leasingham Riesling Bin 7 Clare Valley ($10.99). Lotsa citrus, as
the maker (too?) boldly proclaims on the back label. Yes, it packs that
familiar riesling dash of green apples as well. Fine with a lemony fish, like
bluefish, or a mustardy chicken dish.
1999 Grosset Polish Hill Riesling Clare Valley ($29.99). A splurge. This
is an appealing wine -- fresh, crisp, and lively. It has lots of apple and some
funky pear flavors, and it's wonderful with brie or shellfish, even a ceviche.
A gold-medal wine all the way, by the Aussie master. (Note: although my bottle
had a cork, Grosset is experimenting with screw caps -- those bold Aussies!)
1999 Deakin Estate Shiraz Victoria ($10.99). I have seen this on
excellent, eclectic wine lists all over town (at Jasper White's Summer Shack,
for example), and I loved it every time I gave it a spin. It tastes of big plum
-- hot, pungent, maybe just a mite stewy, but rewarding nonetheless. Great with
stew, spicy foods, even an intense bluefish or roughy. Great value.
NV Alfred Deakin Estate Sparkling Shiraz ($11.99). A grape-soda
extravaganza, fresh and refreshing. Not as deep as the Peter Rumball (see
below), but a cool quencher nonetheless. Goes with meats, flounder with
hazelnuts, even (gasp!) certain cheeses. Cocoa and coffee notes (sorta mocha, I
guess) make this a quaffer.
NV Peter Rumball Sparkling Shiraz ($24.99). There are only a couple of
sparkling shirazes available locally, and this is by far the best I have found.
It's sharp and refreshing, deep red in color, with subtle flavors and
relatively low alcohol (12.5 percent). All the shiraz elements and delicate
bubbles, too. It is made by the
méthode champenoise, and it pairs well
with anything spicy, but I love it on its own. A definite crowd pleaser -- easy
to drink, fun to look at.
David Marglin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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