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Why Australia’s Latest Wines Are Making Waves

If you think the country offers nothing but Shiraz and big brands, think again

Jeni Port By June 4, 2021June 7th, 2021
Kate McIntyre in the vineyard
Australian wine director and Master of Wine Kate McIntyre in the vineyard. Photo courtesy of Katherine Jamison.

For almost 10 years, Australian wine director and Master of Wine Kate McIntyre visited the U.S. to represent her family’s winery on Mornington Peninsula in the state of Victoria.

And in nine of those years, she sold a few dozen cases of her cool climate Moorooduc Estate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, mostly — it must be said — to a small-ish bunch of sommeliers. It was, at times, a battle. Leftover stereotypes from the days of “critter” wine labels that featured cute animals, and high-octane Shiraz had hardened many American palates against Australian wines.

“I had people telling me, ‘I don’t need to taste your wine because I know what Australian wine tastes like’,” says McIntyre.

Then, last year, sensing a change in mood, McIntyre and her importers took a chance on one of her family’s up-and-coming wines, a skin-contact Pinot Gris that has a dedicated following in Australia. “It’s the closest thing we make to an orange wine,” she says. And it is now the closest thing she has to a certified hit in America, or as she puts it, “It’s gone wild in a very small way.” Attitudes about Australian wines are changing in the U.S., particularly as Australia exports more of its small batch and artisanal wines, which have rarely been seen outside Australia before. And with Wine Australia making a big pitch for the American drinker, more of these wines are on their way.

Australia’s sustainable shift

“The natural category is in definite demand,” says Gordon Little of New York’s Little Peacock Imports. He includes Australian skin-contact white and orange wines high on his “hierarchy of demand” list. The list is headed by Pétillant Naturels, of which Australia has a growing number. “There is traction for new, lighter styles all over the country,” he adds.

Inside Australia, just as in the U.S., there is growing demand for brighter, fresher wines from cool climates that are more moderate in alcohol from low intervention and natural winemaking, and organic and biodynamic growing methods. A new generation of Aussie winemakers are heeding the call, and old attitudes — as well as winemaking styles — are changing.

The trend can be seen in the so-called alternative grape varieties increasingly being planted in Australia to counter the effects of a warmer, drier future. Corrina Wright at Oliver’s Taranga Vineyards, in the McLaren Vale wine region, sells a lot of Shiraz, but she’s also noticing more interest in her Mencia, Vermentino, and Fiano.

Troy Kalleske at Kalleske Wines in the Barossa Valley notes that after Shiraz, his Grenache and Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre blend have found a new U.S. audience. The fact that Kalleske Wines is also certified organic and biodynamic helps. “I’ve found overwhelming interest and questions and endorsement for organics, biodynamics, as well as natural winemaking, that is, wild yeast, not adding tannins, no fining,” says Kalleske. “And I’ve found the interest is genuine. They like it because of the environmental benefits.”

A new focus on the U.S.

The mood is changing in Australia, too. Winemakers have learned their lessons from days past, when they were often criticized for being arrogant, an attitude that often went hand in hand with high scores from the powerful pen of Robert Parker Jr. 

There is also a younger generation of Aussie winemakers on the rise. Seeing that the new wave of Australian wine fits contemporary U.S. taste, Wine Australia — Australia’s preeminent wine body — has mounted a big push to conquer the U.S. market. That means more new wave Australian wines are about to arrive.

Brown Brothers, one of Australia’s oldest family wineries, for example, is sending over their Tamar Ridge Devil’s Corner. Mostly specializing in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the label hails from Tasmania, Australia’s southernmost wine region, which is regularly battered by freezing winds from Antarctica. “We are certainly seeing more elegant wines getting traction,” says marketer Emma Brown.

Wine Australia’s Marketing Manager for the Americas, Deirdre Cook, says that American wine writers have been a critical force in changing opinions toward Australian wines. 

“A real turning point for this (lighter) wine style was Eric Asimov’s The Big Reverb of Australia’s Lo-Fi Wine Movement in April, 2019,” she says. “It acted as a sort of siren call for other wine writers.”

Independent retailers took notice and became excited by new Aussie producers, such as Jauma, Ochota Barrels, Sami-Odi, Unico Zelo, Koerner, and Mac Forbes.

While the shelves of the big American wine chains are still full of the usual big Aussie suspects — [yellow tail], 19 Crimes, Lindemans, Jacob’s Creek and so on —  the situation looks very different on the shelves of independent retailers and wine lists. 

“Right now, Australia could almost be considered as reentering the U.S. as a category,” says Australian wine marketer Dr. Darren Oemcke. 

With a renewed spring in its collective step, and a number of new names keen to make their mark, expect to see a lot more Aussie wines and winemakers making their way across the Pacific. 

Five new wave Aussie wines to try:

Tamar Ridge Devil's Corner

Tamar Ridge Devil’s Corner Tasmania Pinot Noir 2019 ($17)

From one of Australia’s coldest, most maritime regions, this Pinot Noir has structure and fruit-forward berry flavours, offering an entry-level treat. Pure and fragrant, it boasts typical northern Tasmanian elegance. Delicious with poached wild salmon.

Unico Zelo Wine

Unico Zelo ‘Fresh A.F.’ South Australia Nero d’Avola 2020 ($20)

Based in the Adelaide Hills, Unico Zelo takes Nero d’Avola from the warm Riverland region and blends it with a smidge of Muscat/Zibibbo. The result is a juicy youngster, full of flavor.

Oliver's Taranga Fiano

Oliver’s Taranga McLaren Vale Fiano 2019 ($25)

An early convert to Fiano, a white grape variety that hails originally from Southern Italy/Sicily, winemaker Corrina Wright fashions a warm and textural example, nicely highlighting the grape’s spiced apple, citrus, and slightly nutty personality.

Moorooduc Estate Pinot Gris on Skins

Moorooduc Estate Mornington Peninsula Pinot Gris on Skins 2019 ($32)

On the eye, it offers bright shades of confection pink. What follows is a complex taste involving mandarin, red berries, and spice with a generous mouthfeel, and finishing with a clean, bright acidity.

Koerner Wine Mammolo

Koerner Wine Clare Valley Mammolo 2019 ($35)

Progressive Clare Valley-based brothers Damon and Jono Koerner bring new life to a little-known red grape originally sourced from the Chianti region. One of the so-called “alternative” grapes in Australia, Mammolo strikes a particularly aromatic and floral pose, posting violets, cherry, red berries and spice throughout. It’s a drink early kind of wine, just right for the warmer weather.