The Wine Palate
January 13, 2007
Australia has become one of the great success stories of the modern wine industry but its wine history is certainly not a new thing. The first vineyard was planted in 1788 in New South Wales, which is located in southeast Australia. Interestingly enough, this is still the site of the majority of Australia’s vineyards, even though there is now wine made in every state. Australia’s biggest accomplishment over the last 30 years has, however, been its growth in export wines and specifically in "Brand Australia" wines. In the ’80s, Australians consumed 99 percent of their domestic wine production. Today, Australia exports over 40 percent of their wine production, 70 percent of which is exported to the U.S. and the UK. This is really quite an accomplishment considering the enormous growth of Australian wine production. Australia now boasts 6 percent of the world’s wine output at over 12 million hectoliters annually, which is double what it was only 10 years ago. There are over 1,800 wineries in Australia increasing at a rate of one winery every 84 hours.
Australia’s enormous growth is often criticized by those that are opposed to the globalization of the wine industry through clean, but bland, production of mass-produced wine. I am certainly tempted to be one of those critics, but when you really look at the numbers, it is hard to accuse them of any greater evil than the more traditional countries like France that produces more bland Beaujolais and generic Bordeaux than Australia’s entire wine production combined. Australia does indeed produce many wines of regional character that express terroir just as clearly as those produced in France, Italy, or Spain.
It is, however, the "brand" wines that we think of most often when referencing Australian wine. You know the ones I am talking about, Yellow Tail Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. Little Penguin Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. Banrock Station Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet, and Chardonnay. What was the vintage of the last bottle of Yellow Tail you drank? It doesn’t really seem to matter. It always tastes the same and costs the same low price year after year. These wines are without a doubt totally boring, lackluster, and show no regional character. I find it incredibly unfortunate that we relate all Australian wines to these big brands considering the great variety of wines at many quality levels that Australia now produces. It makes a $30 bottle of Australian wine seem expensive when you might not think twice about a $30 Bordeaux.
Look out for wines from Western Australia. While this region produces only three percent of the countries total wine output, its reputation for quality is outstanding and its dedication to reducing yields and developing regional identity is huge. Keep your eyes out for Leeuwin Estate wines from Margaret River. Cape Mentelle has also produced some of the best Cabs I have had the pleasure of running across, and the Houghton Wines Shiraz made me change my whole view on Western Australian wines.
Zev Rovine is the sommelier and resident cheese monger at the Spotted Frog Bookstore Cafe and Wine Bar where he teaches weekly wine classes. His wine education comes from the American Sommelier Association in N.Y.C. and he tries his very best not to spill the Pinot on the bestseller section. If you have any wine queries or comments he is easily contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .