If ever a single brand wreaked havoc on the reputation of a country’s entire output of wine, it was Australia’s original “critter label,” Yellow Tail. The effect was deliberate. The wine was designed with a profile that American drinkers (especially those shelling out less than $10 a bottle) presumably liked—ripe and soft (hold the acid and tannins, please). And since little Australian wine had made its way to our market before the cheerful wallaby landed in the early 2000s, Yellow Tail became the known quantity and the reputation stuck. Aussie wines, in our minds, were super-ripe, alcoholic fruit bombs.
While there might have been years when producers Down Under leaned toward ripe, fruit-forward styles, the rep was always too simple. And today, it’s beyond a disservice to profile Australian wines this way. The continent, of course, is an enormous place and in recent years, winemakers have been dialing in on the strengths of their unique parts of it. Paul Bridgeman, head winemaker at Levantine Hill in the Yarra Valley, explains: “Australia’s wine regions offer growing conditions, soils and topography that are as diverse as those anywhere else in the world. This spectrum lets wine lovers drill down into the details and disappear down the rabbit hole of regionality, taking them beyond the broad perception of Australia as a whole … and smashing any long-held preconceptions that Australian wines are merely one-dimensional cheap and cheerful plonk from the ‘land of sunshine.’”
In Bridgeman’s view, Australia’s best-kept secrets—and the vanguard of the next wave of appreciation for its strengths—are its cooler-climate regions, including the Yarra Valley. His model there leans more to European elegance and restraint than on what he calls “overt conspicuousness, heavy in extract and alcohol and monolithically brutish and bombastic. We prefer to pull our wines back, not push them forward,” he says.
And from cool weather to warmer, across the diverse country, talented winemakers are delivering wines with authentic character of place, combining nuance with power, structure with personality. Here are some recent gems that deserve space in your cellar.