I know grocery shelves are still stocked with the ubiquitous Yellowtail, one of the value-priced critter wines from Australia, but the shelf space devoted to this brand and other Aussie wines is shrinking.
It has been eight years since I last devoted a column to Australian wines, even though Australia is the sixth-largest wine producer in the world. I have been asking myself why wines from this country have fallen off my radar.
There have been no invitations to Australian trade tastings. Wine reps have not called with must-taste Australian selections. Wine events I have attended have had no Australian presence, nor have Australian wines dominated lists like Wine Spectator magazine’s yearly top 100 wines of the world.
In recent months, as I came into contact with those who sell wines to retailers, I have asked, “What has happened to Australian wines?” Some have answered, “Yellowtail” — meaning that the success of value-priced Australian wines has weakened the lure of pricier Australian wines.
Others answered “Chile” and “Argentina.” Both countries are producing value-priced wines that carry the name of the producer or property rather than a yellow marsupial. Could it be that critter labels have lost some of their appeal to an increasingly sophisticated American wine-drinking public?
Another answer is that Australia has happened to Australian wines. Long before the economy took a nosedive, Australia was drowning in excess wine due to an overcalculation of sustainable demand. When the economy did take a nosedive, many Australian wine entities failed.
And, let’s face it, Australia is on the other side of the world. Small producers of quality Australian wines must charge more to cover shipping.
But I have another theory. Recently, I signed up for a wine dinner at a beach eatery because the dinner featured four Australian wines, three from First Drop Wines and a fourth from Shinas Estate. Here was an opportunity in a wonderful setting and excellent food to taste non-critter, small production, boutique wines from two different producers.
Regrettably, I was not blown away by any of these wines (but this may have had to do more with the fact I was almost literally being blown away by tropical storm Lee).
The first wine, The White One, from First Drop Wines, was a blend of arneis, an aromatic white varietal grown predominately in Italy, and chardonnay. Though not unpleasant, I would describe it as being rather generic fluff.
The second wine was un-oaked viognier. As a varietal, I don’t especially care for viognier because of its often overt floral nose. If I want to drink a bottle of perfume, I prefer Chanel No. 5. This wine possessed more structure than the white fluff. Its redeeming characteristic was it was not overtly floral.
My big problem was with the reds of the evening: First Drop Wines, Mother’s Milk Shiraz and First Drop Wines, The Red One from a blend of shiraz and cabernet. Though not particularly high alcohol by volume, from 13 to 14.4 percent, these wines seemed volatile and hot on the palate. Yes, there was fruit and boldness, but balance and finesse were lacking.
The bio on First Drop’s website says its winemaker owners have a lifelong commitment to making “kick arse booze,” but therein may lie part of the problem. The big, Australian kick-arse reds may be just too kick-arse for American palates, which seem to gravitate to cabernet and Bordeaux blends from the northern and southern hemispheres of the Americas.