Australia’s hot: That’s why jammy Shirazes and sappy Chardonnays are the country’s hallmark. On the low end, Yellowtail, which constitutes 40 percent of all the Australian wine sold in the United States, comes primarily from the steamy Riverland area; on the high end are blockbuster, supersize Shirazes from sweltering places like the McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley. But over the last few years the hot concept in the wine world has been cool climate.
Many of Australia’s great cool climates—such as the Yarra Valley and Margaret River—are priced out of the range in which Aussie wine has found its sweet spot: $15 and below. Margaret River is justly famous for its expensive Bordeaux-like wines, but its neighbor to the east, the Great Southern region, is producing some of the most exciting wines in Oz. Thanks to the pristine area’s direct access to the Southern Ocean—next stop, Antarctica—the vineyards here are kept well chilled by sea breezes as they bask in bright sun. Look out especially for Rieslings from the Frankland River appellation, which are minerally, lime-tinged, and mouth-watering. Frankland Estate, Alkoomi, and Ferngrove are the top local producers, but Howard Park makes exceptional Riesling here too. In the Mount Barker region, wineries like Plantagenet do an amazing job with Riesling and peppery, savory Shiraz.
Another Aussie cool climate worth getting to know is Orange. It’s in New South Wales, about 150 miles west of Sydney. What makes Orange cool is not the ocean (as you find in California or western Australia), but the altitude, which in this case dictates the boundaries of the region: Anything lower than 600 meters (1,968 feet) doesn’t count. These days, the propulsive force behind the region is Philip Shaw, who as the former winemaker at Rosemount is one of Australia’s most important wine figures. Shaw discovered Orange in 1987 and planted a vineyard there a couple of years later. Not too long ago he took over Rosemount’s large vineyard, and Cumulus Wines was born, with Shaw as CEO and winemaker.
“It took several years to convert the vineyards to do what we wanted—set a lower crop, mainly,” says Shaw of the transition from high-volume corporate winemaking to something more quality-oriented, “but it’s largely been accomplished now.” He’s conscious of making Aussie wines that will surprise people with their balance, their elegance, and their more modest dimensions, really more European than Australian. “We’re going for acidity and slightly lower expression of ripeness than most other Aussie wines,” he says over a tasting of his wares in San Francisco.
Cumulus wines come in two labels, Rolling and Climbing. The Rolling range is priced at $10 and includes wines from lower-altitude vineyards, while the Climbing wines come from higher up and cost $14. I was particularly enamored of the Climbing Chardonnay, which, with its fine mineral texture and juicy acidity, is unlike anything you can find in that price range in Australia or California. Similarly, the Rolling Shiraz is savory and complex—a sophisticated wine that is amazingly pleasurable to drink for that price. Other standouts in the series include the Merlot and the Cabernet. Shaw also markets wine from his own vineyard, which is a step up in altitude (it goes to almost 3,000 feet) and price, but offers great quality as well. Particularly captivating is the Philip Shaw Shiraz/Viognier—a smoky, gamy Syrah with fantastic density and flavor, which at $30 is still less than similar wines from France. The Philip Shaw Sauvignon Blanc ($20) is likewise a sophisticated little wine, with layers of texture and a sharp, juicy tang. It’s not over-the-top fruity like some New Zealand SBs, but rather restrained and poised.
Shaw believes that cool-climate wines will be a growing category for Australia. “Right now it’s a drop in the bucket of total volume,” he says, “but the domination of the wine market by the giant corporations is starting to weaken a bit, and I see an interest in a return to real winemaking—taking risks, making something that you really like to drink.”