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Australia's Barossa Valley is a no-nonsense winemaking area, interested more in crafting wines than in catering to tourists. Established in 1842 by English, German Lutheran, and Polish settlers, Barossa conjures few of the picture-postcard images of wine regions in Northern California or Europe. Horseflies are a constant annoyance, factory-like storage tanks dominate the landscape, and visitor centers are only recent additions.
Out of this remote countryside comes some of the finest, highest-priced vino in the world, bottled by many of the same vintners that have made $10 Aussie wines so popular. The names include Yalumba, Penfolds, Jacob's Creek, and Wolf Blass, now owned by U.S.-based Beringer Blass Wine Estates. Penfolds' magnificent $200 Grange Shiraz, for example, with its mocha and black currant accents balanced against a spicy oak finish, holds up against the best offerings of New World makers.
Part of Australia's success can be attributed to the vintners' unorthodox approach to making wine. Their wines achieve a consistency others don't because they'll blend different types of grapes from different vineyards and regions far more than other vintners. The Australians are also quick to adopt the latest techniques and technology. At Wolf Blass, for instance, engineers have developed a computerized crane system that lifts giant fermenters high overhead to drain grape residue, shaving hours off the process of manually draining the wine. The runoff from crushed grapes isn't thrown out, but recycled and sold to wineries for making dessert wines.
Australia takes great pride, of course, in its shiraz, known as syrah most everywhere else. In warmer growing regions, such as Barossa Valley, shiraz grapes tend to have a meaty structure, and the wine has a relatively high alcohol content of 16% to 19%, vs. an average 13% for other varieties. In nearby McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, and other cooler areas, the higher altitudes produce a lighter shiraz with hints of red fruit and spice.
The Octavius Old Vine Shiraz from Barossa's family-owned Yalumba winery is among my favorites. It's one of the only commercially available wines to be aged in octaves, 90-liter barrels that are one-eighth the normal size. These octaves are made from Missouri American oak that is seasoned at Yalumba for eight years before use. By contrast, most barrels are seasoned only for 18 months to two years. With the small octaves, The Octavius' smooth blackberry, chocolate, and licorice accents are not overpowered by oak flavoring.
Two bottles of the hard-to-find 1997 vintage recently set me back $180 at The Jug Shop, a San Francisco store specializing in Australian wines, but guests at a dinner party were bowled over by the powerful flavors and intoxicating complexity. The 1999 and 2000 vintages are easier to get online at places like The Jug Shop (winecommune.com) or at wine-searcher.com. Those vintages could stand two or three years of cellaring before uncorking.
Another Australian award winner is Wolf Blass's Platinum Label Shiraz. The $90 bottle might surprise wine buffs because it has a screw cap. (It's done to prevent "cork taint," a musty odor that affects about 10% of corked wines). The wine delivers a palate of chocolate, pepper, and plum, with a creamy acidic finish -- great for a hearty meat dish or with a chocolate truffle dessert.
All told, it's hard to go wrong choosing these premium wines to accompany a great meal or for an evening by the fire.
By Cliff Edwards