From Australia come many blancs but few great whites

VINTAGE POINT

January 17, 1993|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

Australian wine burst onto the American wine market in the early 1980s like the liquid equivalent of "Crocodile Dundee."

In fact, they and the Old Croc-ster had a lot in common. Both were full of burly, rustic charm. And neither demanded to be taken too seriously. At a time when California was descending into its dreary "food wine" phase, the new Australian wines coming into the country had guts and character. They were just the thing to wash down roast reptile.

And the prices -- weren't they nice, mate?

But after that first wave of Australian wines came a second -- and the quality was more like the sequel to "Crocodile Dundee" than the original. (Anybody heard from Paul Hogan lately?)

In many cases, prices went up and flavor went down. Great $3 buys jumped to $6 or $7. Marginal "me-too" wineries joined the rush to export to the United States. Better wineries acquired pretentions, bought new oak casks and started producing "reserve" bottlings that rivaled the most grotesque overpriced wines of California.

After a series of disappointments, my focus shifted to more promising regions, such as Spain and the south of France.

But Australian wines are apparently here to stay. They might no longer be the hot new thing, but they have found a market niche. And there are enough good ones to warrant some overdue attention.

There are three basic types of wine from Down Under: Aussie blanc, Aussie rouge and "stickies," -- that is, sweet fortified wine. This week, let us take a look at the blanc slate.

Dry white wine is really not Australia's strong suit. Where it is manifestly clear that the Creator carved out the Rhine Valley with white wine in mind, He obviously was thinking of something else when He fashioned the Australian continent.

Most of it is just too hot. Serious winegrowing is confined to two small corners of Australia, southeast and southwest. And even in those regions, most of the top vineyard land is in the upper end of the heat range for red wines. (Let us exclude for now the wines of the island of Tasmania.)

A few great white wines

In spite of its climate, Australia does produce many good, and even a few great, white wines. For that the credit must go to mankind, for nature had to be bullied into cooperating.

By far the most successful white wine variety is semillon, which achieves levels in Australia that it can't match anywhere else without the aid of sauvignon blanc.

The most frequently exported Australian white wine, however, happens to be chardonnay, a varietal that is almost as adaptable and ubiquitous as the Norway rat.

That, of course, is a libel of an excellent grape variety, but, hey, grapes can't sue. It's just a fact that the world is awash in chardonnay, and Australia offers few sites that are truly suited for this varietal.

But chardonnay assimilates very easily. In Australia, it has taken on a character far different from that of the vine's native Burgundy. California chardonnay is often accused of being too alcoholic and too obviously fruity, and in many cases it's guilty as charged. But most Australian chardonnays make their California counterparts seem subtle by comparison.

You will sometimes find California chardonnay you could almost mistake for Burgundy. Seldom is that the case with Australia. Virtually all Australian chardonnays offer a fruit salad of tropical flavors. Within that style, some are harmonious, some aren't.

To help tame chardonnay's tendencies toward excess many Australian winemakers blend it with semillon. The two varietals in tandem often produce very pleasant, commercial wines, but they are seldom memorable.

Semillon on its own is something else. The Hunter Valley near Sydney produces dry semillons with glorious, honeyed flavor, immense body and exceptional aging potential. Too few of these wines find their way to the United States. (The Peter Lehmann winery produces a Sauternes-style dessert semillon that is one of the world's best sweet wine values.)

Sauvignon blanc, semillon's more traditional blending partner, is widely grown in Australia, but seldom does it produce anything close to the quality it achieves in France or California. Dry riesling and gewurztraminer are usually even less successful.

Little-known marsanne

One of Australia's finest white wine vaieties is one of its least-known. Marsanne, one of the grapes that goes into the great white wines of Hermitage in the Rhone Valley, reaches dizzying heights in the Goulburn Valley in the state of Victoria. Mitchelton is the name to look for here.

Perhaps the most successful of all white wine grapes in Australia lies beyond the scope of this article. It is the white muscat grape, which forms the backbone of Australia's magnificent fortified sweet wines. Of course, by the time consumers see these wines lTC the color is golden brown.

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