What’s Killing Australian Wine?

Paul Blow

Everyone’s a CSI agent these days, carving up the corpse of the Australian wine industry in an effort to understand what killed it. The New York Times performed its autopsy a few days ago, the Financial Times has also examined the body, and even Slate has made a few probing incisions. The reports of the Aussie wine industry’s death may be exaggerated, but there’s no question that it’s very ill. Australia’s wine exports, once the shining beacon of a dominant, cutting-edge, massive industry, have dropped, and growers are close to bankruptcy.

The reason that sticks out to me is the most simple: taste. Many people no longer like the typical taste profile of Australian red wine: jammy, flabby, high in alcohol, often ruined by eucalyptus flavors. I too was once wowed by those huge Shirazes from Barossa and the ultraripe Cabs from Conawarra, which came dressed in artful labels, bearing towering Parker scores. They were the things to drink 10 years ago, especially the really expensive, cultish ones. By all accounts, they were made for Parker and the American palate: that is, big and heavy. Meanwhile, less expensive Aussie wines like Banrock Station were getting cheaper and cheaper, as the country’s winemakers learned to manipulate the wines in the laboratory with things like tannin and acid additions, alcohol removal, barrel substitutes, colorings, and flavor enhancers. The wines were concocted in a lab, and they tasted that way.

More off-putting than the wines themselves was the increasing feeling I got from them that the Aussies were relying on marketing and economies of scale to dominate the market. That impression was driven home for me when visiting a winery called Watershed. Our suited tour guide boasted how the brand-new winery was actually a “managed investment opportunity” in which 1,100 professionals across the country (mostly dentists, doctors, and lawyers) invested in the project to take advantage of government tax breaks for planting vineyards. Its building was shining new, but its vineyards were planted on questionable soils and its wines were as soulless as its concept.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are lots of delicious wines in Australia as well as great winemakers who care deeply about their wines and work relentlessly to make them world class. The Aussie wine industry is not dead yet, but if it’s going to survive and flourish again, it’s going to be because of wineries like these, a few of my favorites.

Phillip Shaw. From the cool climate of Orange, Shaw is making delicious, earthy Shiraz, clean Chardonnay, and complex Sauvignon Blanc.

Leeuwin Estate. Leeuwin is one of the greats of the Margaret River, and its 2005 Art Series Shiraz is dark, intense, and focused on only 13 percent alcohol, lower than several Australian Pinots I tried at a recent tasting. The winery produces great, balanced, table-worthy wines.

Cullen Wines. Also from Western Australia’s Margaret River region, Cullen makes biodynamic wines with as much soul as any from the Old World, such as its great Cabernet Sauvignon–Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc–Semillon.

Yering Station. If you think Australia is too hot to make anything but monstrous Shiraz, you need to try the Pinot Noir from wineries like this one and its Yarra Valley neighbors such as Coldstream Hills.

Howard Park. Great Cabs and Chards from some of the cooler nooks of southwestern Australia.

Pewsey Vale Vineyard. One of Australia’s greatest white wine producers; its Riesling is as lean and mineral as anything you’d find on the banks of the Rhine.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.