Sunday, March 11, 2012

Evolution Down Under

Australian wine has clear associations for American drinkers. From a $6 bottle of Yellow Tail to Penfolds reserves that can go for hundreds of dollars a bottle, the wines are high in alcohol and robust bordering on overwhelming. The rise of Yellow Tail as a popular brand is one of the great marketing stories of the last generation, and it's only the most conspicuous example of a wine industry that's very astutely positioned its products for the American market. But as Lettie Teague noted in a Wall Street Journal piece on Friday, Australian shiraz has become significantly less popular in the U.S. in recent years because of the same traits that had once made it so popular. Sommeliers dislike it because it tends to overpower food, and the natural wine crowd looks askance at the way many Aussie wines are made.     

But wines from Australia and its neighbor New Zealand are a good deal more complex then their stereotypes suggest. (For New Zealand, that means lots of Sauvignon Blanc at a range of prices.) The region's haute cuisine leans heavily on Asian influences that go well with lighter wines such as Riesling, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Noir then with big reds or heavily oaked Chardonnays, and Australian consumers seem to have become more sophisticated, reducing their consumption of simple three and five-liter box wines in favor of bottles. A tasting of three wines last week at Shawn's Wine and Spirits, a very respectable store on 7th Ave. in Park Slope, suggested the complexity of wine from the antipodes.

A representative of the Fine Wine Agency in New York, which focuses on bioodynamic wines from the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and Spain, poured a Shiraz from South Australia and two New Zealand Pinot Noirs. The $14 Kingston Estate 2009 Shiraz was much more restrained than its stereotype and quite pleasant, if at 14.5% still high in alcohol. There was surprisingly little fruit, and the wine had a nice evenness on the palate.

The two pinots, the Soho Wine Co. 2010 White Label and the Cockfighter's Ghost 2007 Reserve, were light enough to remind me of reds from the Jura, though the rep suggested Alsace as a point of reference, since its climate is similar to that of the New Zealand region where the grapes for both wines are grown. Soho Wine Co., he said, aims to combine a sophistication of packaging with natural winemaking, while the Cockfighter's Ghost has something of a cult following at home. I liked the light earthiness of both wines, though I suspect at around $25 they'll be a tough sell in the U.S. But they'd be perfect on the wine list of restaurants with Asian-inspired food like the Slanted Door in San Francisco, a critical step in breaking down the cliches about reds from Down Under.

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