Australian Wine

Australia is the worlds seventh biggest wine-producing country, ranking just below Argentina. It is also the fourth major wine exporting country, sending about two-thirds of its production outside the country. Production has decreased markedly, however, since the rapid decline in the demand for Australian wine, particularly its premium wines, in the U.S. and Britain, which started in 2008.

Australian wine developed a serious image problem due to heavy reliance on cheaply priced "brands" led by the ubiquitous Yellow Tail, which sports a stylized wallaby on its label. The huge success of that wine, which accounts for almost half of Australias sales in the U.S. market, led to many other low-priced "critter" names and labels by competing Aussie producers.

Many of Australias wines were also overhyped with inflated scores in the early years of this century by then leading critic Robert Parker. The esteemed dean of Australian wine writing, James Halliday, famously responded in 2005 to Parkers effusive Aussie reviews and high ratings by pointing out that they varied wildly from the results of tastings by Australias critics and wine show judges. He also referred to the "monstrous red wines so beloved of Robert Parker."

When consumers rushed to buy these highly rated wines, they often found they were high alcohol fruit bombs that were virtually impossible to pair with meals and not likely to age very well. Wine connoisseurs in the U.S. and the U.K. precipitously stopped buying Aussie wines, causing the value of Oz imports here to drop by 23 percent in 2008 alone. As bottles of Australian wine proceeded to disappear from retailers shelves, cheap bulk wine sales took up the slack. By 2012, Australia was shipping 49 percent of its total wine exports in bulk, compared with only 13 percent 10 years earlier.

Severe weather conditions in the last several years have also hampered production. Meanwhile, the high value of the Australian dollar especially against the falling Euro has led to decreasing prices and increasing sales for fine European wines Down Under, further weakening demand for Aussie wine even on its home turf.

Despite these setbacks, Australia has a lot going for it as a producer of fine wines. The country is home to what may be the worlds greatest wine scientific research organization -- the Australian Wine Research Institute, or AWRI, which is funded by the Australian wine industry. The country has lots of talented winemakers, many of whom work not only in Australia but also travel to consult and assist with harvest in other wine-producing regions in Australias off-season. They have some great old vine plantings, especially of Syrah (known in Australia as Shiraz) and Grenache. They also have a culture of innovation, and are responsible for important recent developments in the wine world, such as the careful control of the amount of light and shade received by grapes due to the shielding effect of the grape leaves, a practice known as canopy management.

The national government wine agency, Wine Australia, has formulated a strategy to rebrand and improve the global position of Australian wines by putting a renewed emphasis on quality, diversity and value. Toward this end, they have launched a series of education and engagement programs aimed at convincing opinion leaders and consumers in key markets there is "more to discover about Australian wine." The hope is that once the European and U.S. currencies regain strength against the Australian dollar, Australian wines will have generated new interest to attract sales especially at the artisanal and premium wine levels.

A direct manifestation of this new campaign was the appearance in San Francisco last month of the first major tasting here of Australian wines for the media and trade since 2007. The program included seminars and appearances by a number of small production winemakers who have developed a strong reputation for quality within Australia.

The event, held at San Franciscos Farallon Restaurant, was packed with curious attendees wondering just what is going on with wine in an important region that had essentially fallen off our radar here in the last five years.

I was fortunate to get counsel from one of the U.S.s top experts on Australian wine, J.J. Buckleys Chuck Hayward, on what to focus on amongst the 200 wines being poured during the limited three-hour period for tasting. In all, I managed to sample a total of 88 wines from 46 different producers.

The events organizers really did put the countrys best foot forward, featuring a diverse and interesting collection of wines that have a relatively long tradition Down Under, but that are rarely seen here, liked aged Semillons and dry Rieslings. Andrew Thomas and Brokenwood are two top producers of Semillion, and I was particularly impressed by an aromatic, lemon oil scented 2005 Brokenwood Reserve bottling.