Australia’s Second Act

“This doesn’t taste like an Australian wine,” I say to Nick Spencer, winemaker at Eden Road in Australia’s Canberra district. I mean it as a compliment. I’m drinking Spencer’s 2010 “The Long Road” Shiraz and the wine’s aromatic complexity, and earthy, savory flavors more closely resemble a Syrah (same grape) from France’s Rhône Valley.

Spencer sighs-slash-bristles. “I wish tasting ‘Australian’ wasn’t something to avoid.” But he is used to backhanded compliments like mine. Stereotypes develop for a reason, and in this case, Americans associate Australia with jammy, high-alcohol, fruit bombs because, for years, that’s what was produced. On the lower end of the price-point spectrum, critter labels dominated (alas, Yellowtail still reigns supreme) and the high end was largely a sea of high-scoring and expensive Shiraz bottlings that were all flash and very little substance or finesse.

I’m happy to report that a new era has dawned for Australia. The number of delicious Aussie wines I’ve tasted in the last six months has made me a believer. But the renaissance was not without growing pains. In recent years, shrinking sales collided with an exchange rate squeeze and a massive drought, leaving Aussie winemakers starting from scratch. The upside is that most of the soulless plonk has disappeared and the wines that are left—and those just now coming to our shores—are incredibly exciting.

For those who still swear Australian wines aren’t for them, I have two words: cool climate. Shiraz grows all over Australia, not just in the hot and sunny Barossa Valley, the region that made the supercharged style famous. Dozens of producers in cooler, high-altitude sub-regions are crafting elegant, balanced, terroir-driven Shiraz.

Look for wines from Coonawarra, Eden Valley, Margaret River and Clare Valley. At a recent tasting, I was blown away by a number of exquisite Rieslings and Pinot Noirs from the island of Tasmania.

I’m convinced any Rhône wine lover would adore some of my Australian discoveries. But, at Spencer’s urging, I’m trying to stop comparing all the Australian wines I like to those of other regions. While they differ from what we have come to think of as Australian in style, this new breed is very much Australian. “Our high-altitude vineyards get excellent flavor intensity at lower alcohol levels,” Spencer tells me. “Our wines are simply a reflection of where and how the fruit is grown; we couldn’t make them like Barossa Shiraz even if we tried.”

Oh, and one more reason to start drinking Australian wines again: The wines of the 2012 vintage, which are just rolling out now, is already being heralded as the vintage of the century.

New York-based Kristen Bieler has been writing about wine, spirits and food for more than 15 years. A senior editor at Beverage Media, she’s also edited the Food & Wine Magazine Wine Guide for the past seven years.

You might like the following stories:

Christopher Barnes hunts for an elusive winemaker in Australia's McLaren Vale (read here)

Watch a video interview with Sarah Marquis of Mollydooker Winery (watch here)

Watch a video interview with Chester Osborn of D'Arenberg Winery (watch here)

Watch a video interview with John Bosworth of Battle of Bosworth Wines (watch here)