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Australia made its reputation with American wine drinkers on a raft of good-value wines, especially Chardonnay that cost less than $10. Every year, however, a larger number of small-production, hand-crafted, highly individual wines are reaching our shores from across the Pacific. Many of these wines cost $20 to $30 and more. Many of them are gems waiting to be discovered.
The Australia wine industry has worked hard to satisfy a market of Aussies who like to drink wine and prefer to spend as little as possible on it. The past decade has seen an explosion of interest within Australia in wines that Americans like, too: Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. These two types, plus Australia's red wine specialty, Shiraz, make up the bulk of Down Under exports to the United States. Riesling is big in Australia itself, where it has long been the quaffing white wine of choice, but few brands bother to export the stuff in this direction.
Australia , like America, labels its best wines with varietal names. The rules are similar, in that varietal wines are made entirely or mostly from the single grape variety named on the front label. Often more than one variety is named, by order of amount: Shiraz-Cabernet has more Shiraz in it, and Cabernet-Shiraz has more Cabernet.
As anywhere else, the narrower and more prestigious the geographical appellation, the higher the price of the wine. As a result, most value-oriented wines carry broad appellations such as "South Eastern Australia," which encompasses a region nearly 600 miles wide, or simply " Australia."
Australian vineyards tend to produce grapes with prominent fruit flavors that bring a certain charm even to lesser wines. Aussie winemakers are also brilliant at blending wines from various regions and giving them judicious cellar treatments to achieve a consistent style. The best Chardonnays can hold their own against the best from Burgundy and California.
Other than Chardonnay, Sémillon is the white variety Aussies prize most, for the herbal, tobacco and lanolin flavors that sneak in around the fruit. At lower prices, however, we recommend their Sémillon blended either with Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay. The few Rieslings that make it across the Pacific are worth trying, too.
Among the reds, top honors go to Shiraz, which is the Australian term for Syrah, the prime grape variety of the Northern Rhone. Down Under versions tend to emphasize rich, mouth-filling fruit flavors in chewy, often sumptuous textures and structures. Penfolds Grange is the most famous and the list of other worthy Shirazes seems to double every year.
The best red wine values are often Cabernet-Shiraz blends, which tend to cost less than either varietal sold separately. Aussie Shirazes in the under $10 range tend to spill over with delicious fruit. The Cabernets edge toward supple drinkability as well. The blends, though less distinctive, are usually sturdy wines that should be drunk young.
Finally, don't miss the dessert wines. Australia makes some of the best in the world, including tawny Ports that match up very well with Portuguese bottlings at several times their prices. And the fortified Muscats may not be fashionable, but they are delicious.
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