by Jean K. Reilly
For several years now, the American thirst for fermented grape juice from down under has been unquenchable.
Statistics just released by the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation show that in the year that ended in July, we imported the equivalent of an astonishing 881 million bottles of Australian wine. Just what is it about Australian wine that Americans find so irresistible? Is it the exuberant fruit? The spiciness that suggests romantically exotic locales? Or perhaps a secret admiration of Crocodile Dundee?
An overwhelming proportion of the growth in imports has come from South Australia (as well as the less-prestigious appellation of South Eastern Australia, an area about the size of Texas and Alaska combined, and with about as much homogeneity of terroir.) "South Australia is the style, the flavor of the moment," says Ben Hammerschlag, owner of Epicurean Wines, an importer of upscale Australian wines. "They are the most approachable and fruit-driven." Within South Australia, it is the Barossa that produces the most unique style of Shiraz, dense with pronounced tar flavors, ripe black fruit and chewy tannins. Nearby Clare Valley makes a more restrained version while those from McLaren Vale to the South are known for their earthiness.
The cooler Hunter Valley, on the East Coast, produces a more elegant expression with more notes of game and meat. Western Australia has some of the coolest growing regions in Australia, resulting in wines with higher acidity and more gripping tannins but often receives more attention for varieties other than Shiraz.
Not everyone is convinced that this emphasis on Shiraz is a good thing for Australia. Says Simon Hackett of Simon Hackett Wines, "Australia is being Shirazed out. The worst thing about Shiraz is that you can make a bad Shiraz and still sell it. With Grenache, you'd better have a good one or no one is going to buy it. And Cabernet Sauvignon has to be particularly good or you won't sell it." Indeed, while Shiraz has stolen the limelight for many years now, it is Cabernet that was the star until the early 90s. So much so that Jancis Robinson, MW, in her authoritative 1986 work Vines, Grapes and Wines, admonished the Australians for snubbing Shiraz to focus on Cabernet. And, while prices of Shiraz have climbed, prices of reds made from Cabernet and Grenache have remained quite steady. Since these wines often come from older vines, quality can be spectacular.
Life after Shiraz
GSMs are the talk of the moment in Australian wine. These are not wines made from genetically modified Shiraz, but blends of Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvèdre, the traditional grapes found in the villages of the Southern Rhone, including Châteauneuf-du-Pape. These blends are creating a substantial following. Hammerschlag states, "The Southern Rhone blends are doing well. They have a better quality/value relationship. You can get wine made from 70 year-old Grenache vines for reasonable prices."
A GSM, with its softer tannin and lush mouthfeel, is easier to pair with fish as well as many spicy foods. Of course, a good food pairing is all in the taste buds of the drinker; in South Australia, Shiraz is commonly paired with Indian food. (Then again, it is not always advisable to follow in the footsteps of Australians; these are the people who surf naked and wrestle crocodiles, after all.)
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