What's wrong with Australian wine?
The respected British wine writer and Master of Wine Tim Atkin, who's editor of the UK's Harper's wine-and-spirits magazine and wine writer for The Observer, is the latest to join the fray, with his recent Observer article titled "Down Under and out: Boring, bland and overpriced ... Tim Atkin couldn't give a XXXX for Australian wine."
The headline pretty much says it all, but to sum up the rest, Atkin declared, "Australia has begun to let us down ... These days, I approach them with a mixture of boredom and distaste. All too often, the whites are bland and unexciting, while the reds, if anything, are worse: confected, sweet and over-oaked."
Competition from Spain, Italy, France, Portugal, South Africa, Chile and the United States is challenging Australia's market share in the UK, Atkin concluded, blaming multi-national corporations, "obsessed with short-term gain," for taking over many Australian brands and "milking" them for profit.
"Australia has the winemaking talent, the vineyards and the know-how to return to the front of the pack," he said. "But it needs to concentrate on what it does best - making wines that we actively want to drink."
Are these charges fair? I reflected on this while enjoying a few good Australian reds over the weekend, recalling my thoroughly enjoyable trip Down Under at just about this time last year.
In my opinion (and, apparently, in that of quite a few Australian participants in our Wine Lovers' Discussion Group, who have reacted to Atkin's remarks in this online forum), Atkin has a point but sharpens it too fine.
There's no disputing that some mega-corporations have entered the wine industry with the idea of maximizing their profits on inexpensive wines, and their products show it. But this does not apply to all Australian producers, and it is by no means limited to Australia. The same charges could, and should, be leveled against some of the wines made in the United States, South America, throughout Europe and around the world.
More telling, perhaps, is the reality that Australian wines DO tend to have a distinctive national character. There are exceptions, of course. It would be foolish to assert that any major country produces all its wines alike. But there does seem to be a unique Australian wine style, surely based on the palate preferences of many Australians (and their friends around the world). Offer me a glass of red so dark that it is opaque, a wine that breathes perfumed aromatics with hints of menthol and mint and fragrant pepper and sweet, herbal oak, a wine that's robust and oaky on the palate and warm in the finish, and I'll promptly guess that it's Australian. And I'll probably be right.
Some people love this style. Some hate it. But a distinctive style does not a bad wine make. Not even if the American critics rave about it so highly that it becomes expensive and hard to get, another modern reality about top-rank Australian wines that prompts some wine lovers to turn to other alternatives in frustration.
Let's not write off Australia. There's still plenty of fine wine from the land Down Under that's both world-class and affordable, neither mass-market plonk nor sought-after "cult" items. It's well worth the effort to seek them out.
To read Mr. Atkin's article in full, see http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4281624,00.html. To read or participate in our online discussion about this topic, click to http://www.wineloverspage.com/cgi-bin/sb/index.cgi?fn=1&tid=22173. Or write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I regret that the growing circulation of the "Wine Advisor" makes it difficult for me to reply individually to every note. But I'll respond to as many as I can and do my best to address specific questions. Please be assured that all your input helps me do a better job of writing about wine.
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Fitting right in with this week's topic, the back label claims for this wine "a distinctly Australian character," and I would agree. It is a very dark ruby color, almost opaque in the glass, as you would expect of an Australian red; and its aromas leap from the glass with an all-Australian blast of minty black fruit, plums, licorice and spice. Flavors follow the nose, plums and currants and minty, spicy oak. Full and ripe, it shows drying astringent tannins in the finish, suggesting some aging potential. (It's a blend of 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Shiraz, 13% Merlot and 9% Cabernet Franc.) U.S. importer: Old Bridge Cellars, San Francisco. (Oct. 28, 2001)
FOOD MATCH: Although I find some Australian reds almost too forward and aromatic to mesh well with food, the mixed varieties in this one made it a decent match with a flavorful risotto studded with peas, carrots, radicchio and a bit of chicken-apple sausage.
WEB LINKS: The importer has a fact sheet on the 1999 vintage of this wine at http://www.oldbridgecellars.com/Mak/.
MORE NEW OZ WINE NOTES: For my report on the three Australian reds featured this month in our online Wine Tasting 101 Forum, see http://www.wineloverspage.com/cgi-bin/sb/index.cgi?fn=7&tid=22326
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Vol. 3, No. 41, Monday, Oct. 29, 2001