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Those who ignore the new popularity of Australian wine as simply another passing fancy may miss out on the most exciting new trend since the hula hoop, the pet rock, lambrusco and white zinfandel.

Australian wine fits all the criteria for appealing to American wine lovers, and it has already proven so successful in some areas that many major retailers say they have to have an Aussie presence or they’ll be behind the curve. Indeed, Australian wine companies project huge export increases to the United States in 1998, not unlike the major gains Australian wine made in England a decade ago.

There are several reasons why Australian wine is fast becoming one of the best upscale buys on the retail shelf. (Chile continues to be the best value in popular- to medium-priced varietal wines.) To begin with, Australia is noted for its winemaking skill. This is a country that began making wine seriously in the 1830s, 50 years before U.S. did. Later on, its wine industry did not suffer through the ravages of Prohibition, and the country developed one of the finest wine science schools in the world, Roseworthy, now connected to the University of Adelaide.

398du2 Yalumba Vineyards in the Barossa Valley.

The most compelling reason, however, is fruit. Australia has a naturally mild climate not unlike California’s, with areas that are warm enough to ripen the fruit most years. However, the best regions also have cool nights to retain balancing acids. Combine that with brilliance at handling this fruit, and the result is wine that vies for best in a wide variety of categories.

For decades, the small quantity of Aussie wine that made its way to our shores was of excellent quality, but was underpromoted or made from grapes not yet a household name here (like semillon and shiraz).

Moreover, almost all of this wine had the broad appellation of Southeastern Australia, a vast, multi-layered region that has within it subregions that go from hot to cold and which produce an array of wines of different styles and types. But this confusing aspect to Australian wine is changing. In fact, now we are seeing some of the country’s most dramatic wines that originate in small, not-well-known regions. And some of these wines are of such world-class character that they are commanding attention from dedicated wine lovers.

Penfolds, the leading brand of wine from Australia and the flagship of the Southcorp Wines fleet, has long made one of the world’s greatest “non-limited appellation” wines, the famed Grange. Even though its “home” vineyard is in Barossa Valley, the blend for this wine often includes lots from places like McLaren Vale.

Penfolds also makes a wide range of limited-area wines as well as the Grange, and in recent years has increased the volume of such wines with special regional designations. Thus, we have seen a chardonnay from Padthaway, a Barossa Valley shiraz blend akin to Cote du Rhone and Coonawarra cabernets.

If these names sound odd, it’s partly because they are relatively new to Americans. Some of them are native to Australia. However derived or dreamed up, these names now have meaning beyond their mere regional identity. Most of the major wine regions in Australia have separate and distinct characteristics and make radically different wines.

Here are a few of those areas, along with an explanation of some of the best types of wine produced there.

Coonawarra: This is a small wine-growing region now becoming known for chunky red wines made from shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. Coonawarra is a fascinating strip of land running due north from the small town of Mt. Gambier at the southern tip of the continent south of Adelaide.

The land here is flat and uninteresting, dotted with commercial timberland. The vine-growing area has a swath of bright red-brown soil down to a depth of 18 inches or so, then white limestone, which has excellent drainage, and thus results in wines with highly concentrated flavors.

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Pewsey Vale in the Barossa Valley. Domaine Chandon in the Yarra Valley.

Top names include Lindemans, Wynn’s, Penley, Redman, Rymill and Petaluma.

Yarra Valley: The grape growing region in the southern area, Yarra makes splendid, delicate chardonnays and appealing pinot noirs, and sparkling wine that is sublime and charming. It also has spots that are home to good shiraz.

East of Melbourne at the southern tip of the continent, this is home to sheep and cattle as much as wine. It is here that Domaine Chandon Australia is based, making excellent sparkling wine along with stylish pinot noir (sold under the brand name Green Point). Other great pinot producers include Coldstream Hills (now owned by Southcorp) and Yarra Yering. The Yarra also holds great promise with cool-climate shiraz such as those of De Bortoli.

McLaren Vale: Located just south of Adelaide, McLaren Vale once featured a vineyard-dotted landscape. Sadly, many of the best vineyards were uprooted to build private homes. However, drive back into the more remote hills and you will find wild, forested lands with deep notches in the brown earth, many microclimates and hillside vineyard plots.

The 50-odd wineries here make a stunning array of great wines, focusing mainly on stylishly fruit-driven chardonnays and some of the most exciting Rhone-reminiscent wines anywhere. The largest winery in the area is BRL Hardy, a powerhouse with a smaller line of wines that competes favorably with the best.

Smaller producers like D’Arenberg, Seaview, Wirra Wirra and Chapel Hill are among the best producers in the area with a wide range of wines. Fast becoming recognized for greatness are the red Rhone blends based on shiraz and grenache.

The Largest Australian Wine Companies & Their Brands

SOUTHCORP: Penfolds, Lindemans, Wynn’s, Coldstream Hills, Seaview, Queen Adelaide.

ROSEMOUNT: Rosemount.

MILDARA-BLASS: Wolf Blass, Black Opal, Black Silk, Black Marlin, Jamieson’s Run, Rothbury.

ORLANDO-WYNDHAM: Jacob’s Creek, Lawsons, Carrington (sparkling), Wyndham Estate.

BRL HARDY: Hardy’s, Eileen Hardy, Chateau Reynella, Nottage Hill.

YALUMBA: Yalumba, Oxford Landing.

Barossa Valley: Often considered the greatest region for wine in all of Australia, this area an hour north of Adelaide is similar in some ways to Napa Valley — not much bigger across and similar in its warm climate suited to ripening cabernet and shiraz.

Some of the finest and best-known properties are located here, among them the Nuriootpa facility of Penfolds; the headquarters of Orlando-Wyndham, one of the nation’s largest wineries (owned by France’s Pernod Ricard Group); Wolf Blass, part of the huge Mildara Blass group; Yalumba; Seppelt; Peter Lehman and dozens more.

Barossa’s red wines are big, chewy and brawny, but show a bit more grace than the next famed region.

Hunter Valley: Actually, there are two adjacent valleys with these names, one a bit north of the other, both located northwest of Sydney. The Upper Hunter River area is slightly warmer, almost hot, but rich soils in both regions permit the growth of some spectacular shiraz, often made in a rustic style, and a stylish and very age-worthy semillon that competes with chardonnay as the nation’s best white wine.

The leading brands here are Rosemount (owned by tea merchant Robert Oatley), Wyndham (now part of Orlando) and Rothbury (now owned by Mildara Blass).

Rosemount winemaker Philip Shaw is one of the most respected in the game, winner of dozens of medals for his wines over the years at Australia’s many wine shows. Orlando’s purchase of Wyndham nearly a decade ago has made it a more powerful and widely available brand.

Western Australia: Quite a distance south of Perth is the Margaret River area, where some of the finest and most elegant red wines in the country are produced. Top names here include Leeuwin, Cullens and the Veuve Clicquot-owned Cape Mentelle. These properties have established something of a cult following for their older chardonnays as well as graceful reds.

Clare Valley: About 100 miles north of Adelaide, this relatively remote region is populated by individualists like Tim Adams, Tim Knappstein and Tony Brady, whose Wendouree makes arguably the darkest, densest red wines in the country. Riesling grows well here, alongside attractive sauvignon blanc, grenache, chardonnay and even malbec and shiraz.

Eden Valley: Contained within the greater Barossa just north of Adelaide, this cool region grows brilliant riesling and lovely sauvignon blanc, and even some remarkable cool-climate shiraz.

Central Victoria: A number of small, remote areas here include the large, successful Brown Brothers, pioneers in Whitelands and King Valley, and the attractive Michelton, with its modern winemaking methods. Michelton is now owned by Brian Croser of Petaluma fame. The region is also home to old, revered Chateau Tahbilk in all its historic glory.

Northeast Victoria: Australians love their old fortified wines, such as port and sherry, and especially the famed Rutherglen Muscat from this region, which is not very well known outside of Australia.

Did You Know That…

  • A once-popular white wine in Australia was called Hunter riesling. It was made mainly of semillon and it aged beautifully. The name Hunter riesling no longer is used on wines, but semillon remains one of the best white wines from Australia, especially from the Hunter Valley.
  • Australia’s population is just a fraction of that of the United States, totaling 18 million. However, at five gallons per year, per capita wine consumption is about twice that of the U.S. For that reason, a majority of the nation’s annual wine production of 60 million cases are sold at home. Still, Australia shipped 8.4 million 9-liter cases of wine to the United Kingdom through the 12 months ending September 1997, a little less than half of its total exports of 18 million cases. The U.S. imported 2.78 million 9-liter cases for the 12 months ending September 1997. This represented a volume increase of 38% over the previous 12 months; and represented a 48.7% increase in dollar value.
  • Of total imports of Australian wine to the U.S., more than 1 million 9-liter cases comes from Southcorp. The Mildara-Blass group sent 380,000 cases to the U.S. in ’96. Rosemount, with 280,000 cases, ranked third, but projections for all of 1997 are that the company’s exports to the U.S. could be considerably more. And company insiders estimate that Rosemount could be exporting 700,000 cases to the U.S. in 1998. Orlando-Wyndham exported more than 250,000 cases here in 1996; BRL Hardy, with a stronger U.K. presence, was at 125,000 cases; and the importer Negociants USA, with a variety of brands including Yalumba and Oxford Landing, imported about 100,000 cases.
  • The Australian Wine Bureau estimates that the U.S. will market some 4.5 million 9-liter cases of Australian wine annually by the year 2001, about twice the current total.
  • Penfolds, the largest Australian winery, has its main winery facility at a town in the Barossa Valley called Nuriootpa. On a recent trip there, I asked many people what this meant. I received various answers. Finally, I went to a library and got a book on the Aborigine language. The word nuruya means vine.

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