The inside story of Australian wine is a heartbreaking tale of boom and bust. Veterans still shake their heads over “The Great Vine Pull of 1987.” After five years of uncontrolled surpluses, the government actually paid growers to remove Shiraz vines and leave their land barren. The result was the loss of thousands of acres of the best old-vine Shiraz.
The industry recovered and another boom ensued, only to come crashing down in the recession of 2007-2008. Then a strong surge in the value of the Aussie dollar made entry-level wines such as Yellow Tail no longer seem like appealing bargains. To make matters worse, consumers moved toward a preference for a cleaner, more natural style of wine, which further weakened the appeal of Barossa’s high-alcohol, overripe, and heavily oaked reds.
Australia’s best winemakers are finally coming up for air, with a caveat—their most successful wines now originate in cooler climates, regions that turn out grapes with higher acidity and more grace than the killer Shiraz with which we’re all familiar. One such area is the Adelaide Hills, sandwiched between the city and the Barossa Valley. Another is Tasmania, the southernmost island Down Under. Remember, in the Southern Hemisphere, the weather becomes cooler as you head south.
Petaluma in the Adelaide Hills.
As the Adelaide Hills region has expanded in recent years, well-known wineries have established footholds in designated vineyard sites. Petaluma, founded in 1976 by Brian Croser, is making sparkling wine, Chardonnay, and Shiraz. Penfolds produces Thomas Hyland Riesling in the Adelaide Hills, and even finds the area cool enough to bottle a Reserve Pinot Noir—a rare grape variety in Australia. Although a number of smaller wineries—notably Geoff Weaver and Nepenthe—briefly gained a foothold in the American market, then saw their distribution dry up after 2008, the current demand for a fresher style of wine is opening up opportunities once again.
Penfold Wines produces both a Riesling and a Pinot Noir, a rarity in Australia.
One of the most intriguing operations in the Adelaide Hills is Shaw + Smith, which was founded more than 20 years ago by two cousins, Michael Hill Smith and Martin Shaw. The estate is unique in boasting two Masters of Wine. Smith was the first Australian to pass the intense battery of exams. He is joined by David LeMire, who handles sales and marketing for both Shaw + Smith, as well as a second operation, Tolpuddle Vineyard in Tasmania.
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Shaw + Smith in the Adelaide Hills is home to two masters of wine.
In this era of climate change, most wines on the market contain an alcohol level between 14.5 and 16 percent, but the Shaw + Smith offerings (with the exception of Shiraz) come in at a modest 12.5 percent—commonplace decades ago, but almost never seen now. The 2015 Sauvignon Blanc ($22) features what LeMire describes as “a touch of herbaceousness rather than a mouthful of grass.” The 2013 Pinot Noir ($35) has a core of ripe, succulent red fruits framed by earth notes and supple tannins, while the rich and meaty 2013 Shiraz ($32) displays a range of succulent black fruits.
The Shaw + Smith Tolpuddle winery has seen a renewal of vineyard activity over the past few decades. Tolpuddle’s 2014 Pinot Noir ($50) is ripe and edgy, with the fruit underlined by dried herbs, spice, and menthol. The 2013 Chardonnay ($48) is even better, with an explosion of citrus, melon, and green apple flavors, assertive and powerful but still balanced. Both are well worth seeking out.