The Australian wine industry has been in trouble for some time now. Since 2005, exports to the United States have steadily dropped, and on store-shelves where Shiraz used to sit, now Malbec is stocked in its place. There are many reasons why Australian wine fell out of favor in the U.S. market, but chief among them are the connected issues of exchange rate and “critter” wines.
At the beginning of the last decade, it seemed that nothing could stop the rise of Australian Wine. Wines like Yellowtail Chardonnay were ubiquitous, and brands like Wolfblass, Penfolds, and Lindemans dominated many down-market wine lists. The excitement behind these wines wasn’t necessarily that that Australian wines were better than those from the rest of the world, but what Australia could offer was wines that were lower priced than wines of a similar quality from elsewhere in the world. Everyone loves a bargain, and the Australian wine industry capitalized on that fact. By irrigating huge tracts of near-desert land, wineries brought thousands of acres under vine, producing mind-boggling amounts of fruit in vineyards sometimes measured by the mile rather than the acre.
Harvesting by machine, and using ultra-modern wine-making techniques, wineries churned out affordable wines with cute animals on the labels and the world bought them up readily. With the majority of the consumer’s interest – and Australia’s wine marketing dollars – focusing on low-priced, bargain wines, when the Australian/US Dollar exchange rate began to shift, these bargain wines began to climb in price on U.S. shelves. Moreover, while these wines were technically “correct” wines, and were consistent to a fault, (Australia has some of the best wine-making programs in the world) they lacked in one important detail: they had very little character.
This is important because once Australian wines lost their place as the ultimate bargain wines, consumers didn’t follow them to their higher price-points. As a result, the share of Australian wine dropped dramatically, plunging double digits year after year. As Australian wine lost market share, retailers cut shelf-space for it as well, and higher quality Aussie wines were squeezed out of the market along with their budget focused cousins. Today, the Australian wine market in the U.S. is only a fraction of its former size, and while globally Australian wine is rebounding due to the emergence of a Chinese middle class, in the West, the situation is still grim.
What goes unmentioned in the rise and fall of Australian wine is that during this tumultuous past twenty years, there were many producers in Australia that didn’t capitalize on the critter wine trend, and have continued to produce the same high-quality wines that they always have, using artisanal techniques to craft wines of distinctive character. With the world’s attention focused on their down-market analogues, despite their quality and acclaim, they never became house-hold names like Yellowtail or Little Penguin, and fallout persists today. Do me a favor and just think “Australian Wine” to yourself. What is the first thing that comes to mind? For most people (myself, guiltily included), it’s Yellowtail, and the word “Shiraz” also now carries downmarket connotations.
There is a reason I’m belaboring the point of what a terrible position the Australian export market is to the U.S., and what poor standing their wines posses in the minds of American consumers, and the reason is because it makes it far too easy to forget and overlook the fantastic wines that Australia continues to produce. Just because Australian wine isn’t fashionable at the moment doesn’t mean that fantastic Australian wine isn’t still being made, even thought it may be a little harder for you to find on the store shelf.
I was reminded of this fact over the last two days, when I was fortunate enough to taste a selection of wines from Negotiant USA brands. Negotiant USA is a supplier that brings Australian wines to the U.S. market, but with very strict restrictions on what brands they will represent. For a winery to be represented by Negotiants USA, the winery must be family owned and multi-generational. The result of this policy is that wines from this company are almost guaranteed to have a connection to history and quality that is at odds with most consumer’s perception of Australian wine. The flagship winery of Negotiants USA is Yalumba Winery, the oldest family owned winery in Australia, and it is their wines that you are most likely to find on the shelves of a local wine shop, but the partnership also includes standouts such as Jim Barry, Ringbolt, Langmeil and, most famously, Henschke.
During this tasting, I was impressed by the overall quality of the wines on display, as well as their character and complexity. Australian wine, especially Shiraz, can often be dominated by jammy fruit and black pepper, with other flavors beat into submission by overripe fruit. These wines, however, all showed a level of balance and restraint that serves them well. I felt very fortunate to be reminded of the phenomenal wines that Australia has to offer.
What follows are my notes from two days of tasting.
Day 1: The core line-up
Yalumba Eden Valley Viognier 2012
Very light pale straw color. Hugely aromatic. Peach blossom, apricot, lychee and sweet nectar on the nose with strong floral undercurrents and a touch of palm oil. Big, rich mouthfeel with a bit of lanolin character. Finishes dry with good persistence and refreshing bitterness. Maintains a delicateness that many Viogniers lack.
Yalumba Eden Valley Bush Vine Grenache 2010
Dark garnet in color, but still translucent. Hugely floral, with lilac, rose-petal and sage wrapped around a core of cranberry and tart cherry. On the second sniff, herbal notes appear as well of anise and bay. Silky in the mouth, with flavors of cranberry sauce, tart raspberry, and a lingering finish of mild oak and soft leather. The complexity of this wine was a very pleasant surprise.
Yalumba The Strapper Grenache Shiraz Mataro 2010
Dark garnet and almost opaque with some ruby highlights. Nose of pepper, spice, roasted meat and black fruit. Dark cherry, black raspberry and cranberry all carried by vivacious acidity. A little hot, but still balanced.
Langmeil Hangin’ Snakes Shiraz Viognier 2011
Very dark garnet in color. Huge nose of roasted meats, herbs, and just a touch of fruit. Rich fruit on the palate, with raspberry, blackberry and cassis supported by fine tannins and an opulent mouth-feel. The nose on this one really sets it apart, showing a lot of complexity for its price point.
Yalumba Eden Valley Shiraz Viognier 2008
Opaque burgundy in color with ruby highlights. Eucalyptus and menthol followed by dark, rich fruit on the nose. Big, jammy dark fruit on the palate, with loads of blackberry and blueberry compote balanced by fine-grained tannins. Good persistence. This is classic Australian Shiraz done well.
Jim Barry The Lodge Hill Shiraz 2012
Dark ruby. Eucalyptus, bay leaf and reduced cranberry notes on the nose. Surprisingly dry, with dark fruit eclipsed by assertive tannins. This seemed a bit young, and needs a year or two to grow into its tannin.
Jim Barry Cover Drive Cabernet 2010
Wet dog, eucalyptus, raw meat and cumin on the nose. Cassis and leather on the palate with assertive but well-integrated tannins. Notable acidity for Australian Cabernet.
Ring Bolt Cabernet 2011
The darkest of the first day’s line-up, a deep, dark ruby. Loads of eucalyptus on the nose, with undertones of cassis and black raspberry. Rich, big fruit on the palate but not flabby at all, with good acidity carrying silky tannins to a long, persistent finish.
Yalumba Museum Reserve Antique Tawny NV
Dark caramel in color with garnet highlights. Hedonistic nose, with layer upon layer of butterscotch, caramel, toffee and burnt butter. Coffee cake, caramel and spiced vanilla on the palate, with a beautiful, silky mouthfeel.
Day 2: The Icon Series
Most of the wines we tasted on the second day only have 2-3 6-pack cases allocated to Alaska, so tasting them was a real treat. According to the Negotiants USA representative at the tasting, we were the first people in North America to try the 50-Year tawny.
Yalumba The Virgilius Viognier 2010
Light straw color. Nose of apricot, lychee and stone fruit with some toasty barrel notes. Apricot, cling peaches, lychee, lemon-meringue belied by vibrant acidity and a touch of effervescence in the mouth. Not as oily as many viogniers, but still has a touch of lanolin. Finishes long, with good persistence.
Yalumba The Menzies Cabernet Sauvignon 2008
Purple in the glass, with light purple highlights. Rich dark fruit on the nose, with an undercurrent of eucalyptus and menthol. Gorgeous palate, with loads of blackberry, creme de cassis, currant, black raspberry and jam, with very fine-grained tannins. Finishes with dark fruit, graphite and baking chocolate. This is an absolutely gorgeous wine, and while it retails for around $45, it drinks like it costs twice as much.
Henschke Henry’s Seven 2010
Very dark ruby in color. Understated nose, with raspberry and cranberry. The palate is much richer than the nose would lead you to believe, with dark fruits and good acid balance.
Jim Barry McRae Wood Shiraz 2009
Light purple but opaque in the glass. Lots of sweet jam and vanilla on the nose. Opulent, huge fruit on the palate. Gobs of blackberry jam, marionberry and a touch of earth, supported by fine tannin. A bit of white peppercorn on the finish.
Yalumba Octavius Shiraz 2006
The nose was a little reticent, with some savory herb character, but this wine really comes alive on the palate. Aggressive tannins, graphite and black currant, with an elegance that is hard to describe. A complete wine now, but will reward years more in the cellar. The finish goes on for minutes. Exceptional.
Jim Barry Armaugh Shiraz 2007
Rich black fruit on the nose, with a hint of sassafras and graham. Lots of fruit compote character, with layers of dark fruit that evolve into baking chocolate, roasted coffee, vanilla bean and well-integrated tannins that provide a perfect counterpoint to the fruit and ties the wine together. This is a show-stopper of a wine.
Henschke Keyneton Estate Euphonium 2009
Dark ruby in the glass. Red and black fruit on the nose with some nutmeg spice. Deeper fruits come through on the palate than the nose would have you expect. Good acid, making it a little leaner than the other offerings today, but promises to be a better match with food, and still stands well on its own.
Yalumba “The Reserve” Cabernet Sauvignon / Shiraz 2004
A touch of sweetness on the nose, with red and black fruit, marionberry jam and noticeable vanilla character. Absolutely seamless in the mouth, with elements of blackberry, currant and leather all in perfect balance with enough acidity to keep it light on the palate. The finish is long, with the whole package wrapped up with beautiful, silky tannins.
Yalumba “The Signature” Cabernet Sauvignon / Shiraz 2008
Creme de cassis and blackberry on the nose with a hint of cranberry as well. Grainy tannins, with great fruit character and a touch of stone, but lacking the overall elegance and refinement of the reserve. Some more time in the bottle may smooth out this one’s rough edges.
Yalumba Museum Reserve 21 Year Antique Tawny
Burnt caramel in color. The nose on this one leaps out of the glass out you – so aromatic that you can smell it from a foot away. Big aromas of vanilla extract, caramel, toffee, and black walnut. Sweet flavors of dried apricots, prune, rich caramel, carmelized sugar, pecan and walnut. Exceptionally mouth-coating and silky. Perhaps not as nuanced as Tawny Port from Portugal, but makes up for it in sheer voluptuous, hedonistic pleasure.
Yalumba Museum Reserve 50 Year Antique Tawny
Light coffee in color. Silky toffee, dark caramel, dark molasses and vanilla extract dominate the aromas and flavors in this one. In a lot of ways it is very similar to the 21 year, but it possesses a concentration and elegance that is orders of magnitude beyond its younger bottling. Intense yet delicate, this is one of the finest Tawnies that I’ve tasted.