THOSE of us of a certain age will always remember our first Australian wine. They burst onto a fairly turgid scene in the 1980s and turned everything on its head. They were brash, fruity, powerful and, let’s face it, astonishingly cheap compared to the snooty French competition. OK, they were also brutally one-dimensional but they seemed to fit with an era of shoulder pads, bright colours and big hairdos.
Maybe like me you have also tended to be a little wary of them since then. The memories of “Chateau Chunder from Down Under” are perhaps just a little too sharp, even now. You don’t always want to drink a wine that knocks you flat on the first meeting. Something with more subtlety is required and the truth is, a lot of Australian wine is still cheap, brassy and about as subtle as Dame Edna.
But not all of it. Earlier this month, Bordeaux Index, that vinous haven in the Square Mile, held its first ever New World tasting in an attempt to show that, despite its name, its tentacles now stretch far beyond the Gironde.
The result was an eye and tastebud opener. Australia is in fact a vast cauldron of fine winemaking, where tradition and innovation jostle alongside each other. On the one hand, the venerable Penfolds is still rated every year as one of the finest houses on the planet. On the other, new winemakers are creating wines and even whole regions; they have a vast country to exploit. There is also tremendous value to be had for almost every depth of pocket.
Let’s start with Penfolds: yes there is Grange, that famous shiraz, which was created in 1951 to compete with the finest wines France had to offer, using the best fruit and the best techniques. Grange is an enormous wine with an enormous following – a bottle of its lauded 2008 will set you back a minimum of £330 a bottle.
Look further, though, and you will find that Penfolds produce other great wines for a fraction of the price. Aaron Turner, BI’s specialist in New World wines, kindly pulled a cork on the St Henri Shiraz 2009 for me the other night. It’s a fine, elegant wine that would impress any guest. It’s good value, too, at £50 a bottle.
Even better value, although not quite in the same league is Penfolds’ reliable staple, Kalimna Bin 28. I admit I used to buy this at Oddbins many years ago, and had not tasted it for almost a quarter of a century. I’m pleased to say it’s a vast and dark wine that almost sucks in light and stains the glass. It will keep and improve for many years and is outstanding value at around £15 a bottle.
Away from the established names, the Australian scene boasts so many exciting wine makers it’s impossible to generalise about them – after all, the country is larger than the whole of western Europe. Rather than resort to lists I will just mention two others offered by BI that deserve a mention. One is The Paringa chardonnay 2009, a real gem in its genre, an unmistakeable Ozzie chardonnay but with a wonderful, complex bouquet and a fine finish. The other was the John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, the flagship of the Wynns portfolio of wines. I would serve this to anyone who accused Australian wine of being unsophisticated since it’s a high quality production that could hold its own with a super Tuscan – but at under £45 a bottle, again it comes in at a fraction of the cost.
I realise that even with BI’s help I have no more than scratched the surface of one of the largest and most complex wine-making nations on earth. It would pay for all of us to explore what it has to offer.