Australian red wines are charming, direct and sometimes superb


January 31, 1993|By MICHAEL DRESSER

There's something about Australian red wines that's very, well, Australian.

There's a charming, no-nonsense informality about them. They might be a bit loud and argumentative, but they're a friendly lot. And while they can be coarse, there's often a lot of depth #F beneath that burly, swaggering exterior.

Sure, that's a generalization, about the wine as well as the people. There are, no doubt, dour, reserved, even meager Australian people as well as red wines. I just haven't met many of either.

One of the most appealing things about Australian red wines is that they aren't made to be cooped up in a cellar and talked about. Australians, with few exceptions, make wines in order to drink them -- which they do, enthusiastically, without a lot of fuss.

And Australia is red wine country. It does produce some excellent whites, but they have nowhere near the consistency of the country's cabernet sauvignons, shirazes and other red wines.

But to truly understand what Australian red wine is about, you have to taste Penfold's Grange Hermitage at least once.

That's easier said than done. The wine is difficult to find and horrendously expensive. Any recent vintage will probably run you $65-$100.

But should you ever have the privilege of tasting it, you will understand what I mean. Grange Hermitage is a wine of biblical proportions. And just as all great modern Western literature can be traced in some way back to the Bible, so can any great Australian red be traced in some way to the influence of this spiritual godfather.

It's not that Grange is the world's greatest red wine, but it is perhaps the most unforgettable, with its mammoth concentration, canyon-like depth and compelling bouquet of blackberry, herbs, tar, leather and flowers.

The British wine writer Oz Clarke was reminded of the greatest wines of Bordeaux, the Rhone and Burgundy when he described one Grange, the 1977, as "Mouton-Rothschild and Hermitage La Chapelle and Romanee-Conti, all in one."

Yes, it is, but at the same time it's quintessentially Australian. Taste it once and you will detect its influence in virtually every Australian red wine you ever drink -- even the lousy ones.

Fittingly, Grange Hermitage is the product of a blend of Australia's two greatest red wine grapes: shiraz and cabernet sauvignon. And while the shiraz, better known as the syrah of the Rhone, makes up the bulk of the Grange blend, Bordeaux, home of cabernet, provided its inspiration.

Grapes from many vineyards

Grange also sets the pattern for Australian red wine in that Penfold's is decidedly unfussy about vineyard sources. Instead of harping on the "terroir" from any particular vineyard, the Penfold's people cheerfully blend in the best grapes from widely scattered sites.

Most other Australian wineries follow suit. There are some great-single vineyard wines, but still the most common geographical designation you will see is "Southeastern Australia," which means the grapes can come from any of three states that make up more than 90 percent of the vineyard land in the country.

Although Australia's greatest red wine is mostly shiraz, cabernet gets more respect from the nation's vintners. For the most part, shiraz fills the less exalted role zinfandel fills in California. Like zinfandel, only occasionally is it allowed to be great.

That's a shame, because shiraz-syrah is no less fine a grape, and it is actually better suited to most Australian regions than cabernet. With yields controlled, better selection and more judicious use of oak, shiraz might yield many wines comparable to Grange.

But, like Rodney Dangerfield, shiraz manages to be amusing. Most versions are chunky, soft, easy-to-drink wines with admirable concentration and appealing flavors of chocolate, coffee and herbs. Especially with shiraz from the Hunter Valley, there is often a distinctly leathery smell that Australians describe as "sweaty saddle." It's actually rather pleasant, if held in check.

Overall, Australian shiraz offers superb value, with many of the wines selling for less than $10.

Variations in cabernets

Australian cabernets can vary considerably based on where they are produced -- from plump, soft wines that closely resemble Hunter Valley shiraz to Penfold's majestic Bin 707 to the elegant, cedary wines from the mineral-rich red earth of Coonawarra.

In almost all cases, however, there's a soft feel that distinguishes the wines from the more tannic cabernets of California or cabernet-dominated wines of Bordeaux.

Merlot, cabernet's most frequent partner worldwide, plays a limited, though growing, role in Australian viticulture. Instead, Australian winemakers frequently blend shiraz and cabernet -- a highly successful practice the French have learned from them rather than vice versa.

These cabernet-shiraz blends account for some of the best and the worst Australian wines. When they are good, they often represent superior value to more expensive single varietal wines.

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