It was not that long ago (about 15 years in fact) that Australian wines dominated the shelves of American wine shops. So what happened? Well, a couple things...
First, critter labels. This is the category of wines known for the animals on the labels rather than the actual producer. Many of these labels became popular in the early 2000s, mimicking and following the big driver brands coming out of Australia at the time. Unfortunately, many of these wines were not only low in price but tended to be low in quality as well. Easy drinking and popular (some would say trendy) but their abundance started to shift with the Australian's focus on other markets - but more on that in a minute.
The other things that changed in the early 2000s, was that Americans had been enamoured with Shiraz in the late 90s for a period of time, but then Sideways the movie came out, and not only put a slow knife in the back of Merlot, but it also had a ripple effect on other grapes, as well. Pinot Noir has dominated shelves for years (and I am not arguing about this too much as I love Pinot Noir), but it has resulted in a lot of Americans thinking that Pinot Noir should taste more like Cab Sauv rather than elegant Pinot Noir. A lot of this has to do with the fact that many large commercial producers tend to add grapes (like all that leftover Syrah and Merlot out there) to their Pinot Noir in order to build up the color, tannins and body (all things good quality Pinot Noir tends to not have too much of), in order to satisfy a middle ground of styles and consumer interest. Blah
The other big thing that happened was that the Australians took their eye off the American market for a minute. China became a massive market for the Australians and life was good for a number of years. Then a couple of things happened: climate change induced fires, and some dumb-ass Aussie politician blaming Covid on the Chinese.
Massive wildfires over a number of years, caused by an increase in temps and a lack of water, has severely damaged the output of Australian vineyards the past decade. They still make wine, and plenty of it, but the fight for increasingly precious water resources has put an immense amount of pressure on the high volume producers in marginal areas of production. Oh, and then there was that politician, whose comments basically cut the Chinese pipe-line off overnight. Countless containers of Australian wine were exported to China for years, and there were expensive campaigns to promote Australian wine across China - much of paid for by the Australian Wine Bureau. But, essentially that ended as a comment-turned-insult has led to a change in attitude among the Chinese drinking public.
Today, we are seeing a slow shift back in attention back to Australian wine, and why not? They have great vineyards, many of which are very old and produce extraordinary wine. The value of the wine is relatively stable and on par with our own wine costs, if not better. And the wines taste like what Americans like to drink.
Personally, I think a whole generation of young wine professionals has missed out on the opportunity to really explore what Australia has to offer and take advantage of offering their clients and guests some fantastic wines. Unfortunately this is due to the fact that the Australians shifted their focus away from the US market for a long time, and so they have themselves to blame, in part. But, we as a drinking community and as a professional wine community really owe it to ourselves to revisit Australian wines and (re)discover the beauty and depth that is achievable in the country. They do have some of the oldest vines on the planet, diverse climatic regions, easy to understand labels, and all the grapes we like to drink - and then some (hello Semillon!)
Here is my short list of what you can do this weekend to become better acquainted with Australian wines...
1 - Watch this video
2 - Listen to this Podcast
3 - Go to your local wine shop and have them order in some Vasse Felix Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from the Margaret River Region in Western Australia. There are several levels to choose from. You can get the Filius range for about $20-25, or step to the Premier range for about $35-40, per bottle. Either way these wines are fantastic. Well made and from a region that is literally at the end of the Earth. The Margaret River is located at the cross-roads of the Indian and Southern Oceans, have ancient soils and historical vines. Their chief winemaker is Virginia Willcock who has been at the winery for 29 years, and really knows the terroir, the vines, and how to make the best of these elements translate to extraordinary wine. Take advantage of this and enjoy something different, yet familiar.
ABOUT THE Author
Brian Mitchell runs The New England Wine Academy, and is responsible for the content of this blog. With over 25 years of drinks industry experience, Brian has learned a few things, but everyday he is learning more. This blog helps to bring that knowledge to you.