Ask the casual American wine consumer to tell you something about Australian wine and you'll probably get one of two responses: “Shiraz” or “Yellow Tail.”
Australia has had unrivaled success in creating both awareness of its signature grape varietal and being a world-leader in exporting branded wines. It is the world's fourth-largest wine exporting country after Italy, France and Spain, and the seventh-largest wine producer overall. Australia is viewed as a world leader in technical proficiency in both the vineyard and the winery, which has led to a standardized base of quality and a reputation for a consistent style: Clean and fruity wines with soft tannins and mild acidity.
All of Australia's success as a wine producer has come in a relatively short period of time.
Vines were first brought to what was then a British penal colony in 1788. Cuttings from Europe promptly died in Australia's warm climate, but after years of experimenting, Australian wines were being shipped back to England and even France where they enjoyed some critical acclaim.
Sweet, fortified wines were the style of wine in demand in England at the time. Aussies call these wines “stickies.” The trend toward dry table wines began to shift in the 1970s when it became apparent that Shiraz — the Australian term for Syrah — and the other so-called “international grapes” such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon excelled in Australia's warm soils.
One Australian Shiraz in particular took the world by storm. Penfolds' Grange, what was then known as Grange Hermitage, was first released in 1952. Grange was the creation of Penfolds' winemaker Max Schubert who produced a powerful and serious red wine from 100 percent Shiraz during an era when stickies were all the rage.
The original 1951 Grange was an experiment by Schubert, who had just returned from a tour of Europe and sought to produce a wine in the style of the great Bordeaux Chateau. Schubert used Shiraz from a vineyard named Magill Estate near Adelaide. Only 100 cases were produced and single bottles of the 1951 sell at auction for as much as $50,000. Today, Grange remains Australia's most iconic and collectible wine.
While Grange was basking in all its glory, stickies continued to decline in popularity. With innovations in irrigation, packaging and other areas — Australians developed bag-in-the-box technology — the country began to dominate the marketplace for inexpensive and branded varietal wines.
By the 1990s, Australian varietal wines in the “value” price tier had established a reputation for being fruity and uncomplicated and were much appreciated for their easy drinkability. This no doubt led to the enormous success of the so-called “critter wines” such as Yellow Tail, when it seemed that all an Australian wine company had to do was produce an inoffensive wine as cheaply as possible and slap a label with a cute furry animal on it.
This mass-market mentality has served the Australian wine industry well until recently. Exports of value-priced Australian wines have slowed and been exacerbated in recent years by drought and wildfires. All those arid tracts of land rely on irrigation and water rights, becoming a hot-button issue during the current drought.
Moreover, the value category is flooded today with good quality wines from South America and even the Old World. The future of Australian wine would seem to lie somewhere between value-priced critter wines and iconic collectibles.
A few Australian wines to sample in Omaha:
2011 Yalumba 'Y Series' Vermentino, South Australia
Vermentino is a white grape variety common to the Mediterranean where its fresh and zippy character works perfectly with seafood and fresh vegetables. The wine is produced without oak to show off Vermentino's herbal and citrus qualities. Available at Corkscrew Wine & Cheese $12.50/bottle
2011 Langmeil Winery 'Hangin' Snakes' Shiraz — Viognier, Barossa Valley, Australia
Blending Shiraz (a red grape) with Viognier (a white grape) might seem a bit strange but the practice is quite common in France's northern Rhōne Valley. Viognier lends an aromatic floral note to this otherwise ripe and peppery red. Available at Corkscrew Wine & Cheese $21/bottle
2011 Ben Glaetzer Amon-Ra Unfiltered Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia
Amon-Ra receives consistently rave reviews and is known for its inky opacity and intensely concentrated fruit. From low-yielding very old vines in the heart of Australia's Shiraz country. Available at Omaha Wine Co. $100/bottle