A Few Thoughts From Australia
Copyright 2001 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed Nov 27, 2000. For more information go to www.wineloverspage.com.
Like most American wine lovers, I've pretty much based my opinions about Australian and New Zealand wine on what I've tasted, thus limiting my universe to the relatively few wines - mostly from larger producers - that make it across the Pacific and onto our retail shelves.
Moreover, much of the attention of wine lovers in the U.S. and Canada, not to mention Britain, focuses on a relatively small niche of high-end items that wine scribes like Robert M. Parker Jr. and Wine Spectator "discover" and publicize. Because these sources - not to mention some of the major U.S. importers of Australian wines - tend to prefer big, blockbuster-style wines full of alcohol, monolithic fruit and dominating oak, it's no surprise that wine consumers in the Northern Hemisphere believe that ALL Australian wines are like that.
But if you're lucky enough to get your feet on the ground in Australia on business and pleasure and make it your business to visit a few wineries, it won't take you long to discover that this conventional wisdom is WRONG. Australia's wines are just about as diverse and interesting as those made in the U.S., or maybe even more so; and while you can certainly find brawny, blockbuster reds and fat, buttery whites, you'll also discover the happy indulgence of crisp, limey Rieslings, floral Verdelhos, surprisingly stylish Pinot Noirs, and even some more robust reds that aren't just huge but elegant.
Over the past three weeks, in addition to judging the Sydney International Wine Competition (Top 1OO), I've visited about 40 wineries and tasted a few hundred wines from Down Under. Soon after returning to home base, I'll publish reports and photos on all these visits, and let you know where to find them online.
For the rest of today's brief report, though, I'd like to simply suggest a few Australian wine regions that are relatively easy to visit on day trips from the major cities. If you can't visit, you can still watch for wines with these regional names in your local wine stores!
Sydney offers just one choice: The Hunter Valley, about a two-hour drive north of the city, houses a large number of wineries, many of them specializing in crisp Rieslings and full, textured white wines made from Semillon.
Melbourne is surrounded by interesting wine regions, although some of them are longish drives from the city. The Macedon Ranges to the northwest are closest, within about an hour's drive; another hour or more away in that direction are the Pyrenees and Great Western regions, where you'll find a full range of wines including excellent reds. Northeast of the city is the Yarra Valley, one of the country's prime regions; and further out, a bit too far for a comfortable day trip, is Rutherglen, known in particular for dessert wines.
Adelaide, a somewhat smaller city than Sydney or Melbourne but still a vibrant urban center of 1 million in its own right, may be my favorite Australian city. It's also probably the best base for a wine lover on tour, having a number of the country's top wine regions within range for easy day trips. Barossa Valley, an hour or two northeast of Adelaide, probably produces more of the noteworthy big Shiraz reds than any other Australian region (Barossa also includes the Eden Valley district); an hour farther out, Clare Valley makes both elegant reds and fine Rieslings. Within an hour south of Adelaide is the scenic McLaren Vale, another region perhaps best known for quality reds but also producing some spectacular whites.
Two wine regions not mentioned above are Coonawarra, with its startling red soil, and Padthaway, both of which are about midway between Melbourne and Adelaide but a little too far - about five hours from either - to make a practical day trip. And in the country's far west, not far from smaller Perth, you'll find the Western Australia wine regions including Margaret River. Add Tasmania, an offshore island in the southeast that's gaining attention for its cool-climate reds, and you've got wine roads within reach of just about every Australian city around the country's temperate southern coast.