John JuergensWonders from Down Under

I suppose most people know by now that Australia, like America, originally was settled predominately by immigrants from Great Britain, that is, after they successfully displaced whatever indigenous peoples they found in the way of their progress. Of course, there was a tiny difference; most of those who settled Australia were convicts. Some say that Australia today has somewhat of a national sense of irreverence and routiness because of its infamous forefathers.

If Australians can be said to have a certain robust attitude toward life, they seem to have found a way to infuse it into their wines. Some of the biggest, boldest wines come from Australia and they can rival the best Europe and the U.S. have to offer.

Australian wine makers have done wonders with the Shiraz grape, which, by the way, is the same grape called Syrah in the rest of the world. The grape seems to thrive in the Australian soil and climate, and it produces one of the most robust and flavorful red wines in the world. These wines routinely are also referred to as being "muscular." The signature characteristic of wines made from the Shiraz grape is a kind of black pepper spiciness, which usually is embroidered with layers of black currants, plum, black cherry, cedar, and vanilla-scented oak.

The hallmark wine that I believe really brought Australian wines to the attention of Americans is Rosemount Shiraz, which I consider to be a "reference wine" for Australian Shiraz. It is consistently well-balanced and rich with ripe, intense fruit flavors, but its power and grace are equally proportioned. And, best of all, you can still buy it for under $11 in many areas.

Australia is not a one-grape wonder by any means. It also does well with most of the other familiar grape varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Riesling. Australian wine makers are fond of combining other red grapes varieties with Shiraz and other less well-known grapes in just about every possible combination to achieve a wide range of styles. For example, you can find blends of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and so on.

As for white wines, they produce big, buttery Chardonnays that have lots of oak. If you prefer the European style, they like to blend it with Semillion to make a leaner, less rich wine. They also do a good job with Riesling and blend it with Traminer grapes to give the wine a nice spicy snap. For example, Rosemount makes a Traminer-Riesling blend that is one of the best cocktail wines available, and it sells for only about $7 a bottle. I highly recommend it.

There are lots of other Australian producers who make great wines that are widely available. Look for wines from Lindemans, Evans, Hardy, Clarendon Hills, Seaview, Hill of Content, and Penfolds, to name just a few.

Penfolds has a staggering array of wines available in the U.S. that range from under $10 to over $400, and they are all good. For example, one of my favorite wines is their eight-dollar "Bin 2" Shiraz-Mourvedre blend. Mourvedre is a blending grape transplanted from France that adds additional aromatic spiciness to the wine that resembles cedar.

At the other end of the spectrum is the legendary "Grange," which is one of the greatest wines in the world. It rivals the great wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy in price and mystique.

Almost all Australian wineries use the "Bin" labeling system on at least a portion of their wines; for example, Bin 2, Bin 389, Bin 707. I think this a quaint throwback to older times when the term "bin" referred to what we might call a "lot." Therefore, Bin 2 would refer to a specific blend or lot of Shiraz and Mourvedre, and Bin 389 is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. As the Bin number goes up, so does the price, and, presumably, the quality.

You might also run into another designation called Show Reserve, which is equivalent to what wine makers in the U.S. call Reserve. Although the designation is supposed to indicate a better quality, the term is grossly abused by American wine makers. However, in Australia the term usually does mean better wine.

The other country below the equator that is starting to come on strong is New Zealand. They, too, are making terrific wines that are finally making it to our shores in quantity. They are making most of the major red and white varieties, but what is interesting about New Zealand white wines is that they tend to have distinct aromas and flavors of gooseberries.

I can't begin to describe what a gooseberry tastes like, so you will have to try to find some fresh berries or try a spoonful of gooseberry jelly. Better yet, get a bottle of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. But I can tell you the wines are wonderful. Look for producers such as Cloudy Bay, Nobilo, and, my favorite, Villa Maria.

I went to a large tasting of New Zealand wines recently and was amazed at the intensity and freshness of the wines. My notes for the Villa Maria 1998 Pinot Noir consisted of a single word: "WOW!"

So, if you get bored with what you currently are drinking, take a look at what is coming out from down under. You are sure to find something interesting. After all, would you expect less from a country that produced the platypus?

July 28, 2000

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