Australian whites are going downhill

The Underside
Of Aussie Chardonnay

At Low Prices, Does It Still
Deserve Its Popularity?
Wine vs. 'Wine Product'
January 7, 2005; Page W6

Final figures aren't yet in, and the race was close to the end, but 2004 may be the year when Australia dethroned Italy as the king of wine imports in the U.S. In honor of this, we conducted a tasting of the wine that has been the engine of the Australian machine: inexpensive Chardonnay.

We wrote about Australian wine in one of our first columns, in 1998, and predicted it would be the next big thing. Indeed, the rise has been spectacular. Back then, Americans drank more Chilean wine than Australian and almost five times as much Italian wine. But Australia seems to understand the American market -- and the American palate -- better than even America does itself. It produced boatloads of pleasant, drinkable and inexpensive wine and packaged it with clever and easy-to-understand labels. The result is on display in virtually every wine store in America -- and all over the world, in fact.

OUR FAVORITES

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In a tasting of 50 Australian Chardonnays under $20, these were our favorites0.

We have been enjoying Australia's inexpensive Chardonnays for years. Long before we were wine writers, we used to eat regularly at a little Indian restaurant in our neighborhood where we always had a bottle of Jacob's Creek Chardonnay, which was just $11. When we first wrote about these wines in this column, we praised them for pleasant tastes and good value. Their style tended to be fairly consistent: round, oaky tastes, a little buttery, maybe a hint of sweetness, with a pinch of nutmeg and some mouthfeel.

Raising the Caution Flag

As the years have gone on, though, we have raised caution flags because more and more inexpensive Australian wines -- not just Chardonnay but its signature red, Shiraz -- tasted alike to us. Too many were boring, and in general, alcoholic sugar bombs. So we figured it was time to take a new run at inexpensive Chardonnays to see how they are doing. As always, we were not looking for "the best" Australian Chardonnay under $20. Rather, we wondered what we'd find if we tasted a large sample, what lessons we could learn about the current state of this particular art.

We bought the first 50 we saw. We preferred the 2003 or even the recently released 2004 wines, because these are often better when young, but we picked up 2002s if that was the only vintage we saw. We bought the well-known names, but also the less-familiar.

One thing was clear right away: There is a real race for the bottom of the price point. Of the 50 wines, 36 cost less than $10 and the most expensive was $15.99. Last year, we conducted a tasting of expensive Australian Chardonnay, from $20 up. That tasting was a success -- these are often excellent wines -- but, as we said at the time, it's clear that the cheap stuff is leaving little room for the better, more expensive wines.

It was also clear that the trend toward animal labels hasn't cooled: A third of the wines were named for animals or had pictures of them on the label. We also couldn't help but notice that 31 of the 50 claimed 13.5% alcohol. While government regulations allow wiggle room on stated alcohol content, the conformity seemed a little weird to us.

We tasted the wines blind over several nights and we're here to report this: It's time for the Australian wine industry to wake up and smell the bad wine. We bring a huge amount of good will toward these wines, which in many cases are old friends. But they have gone downhill, and fast. In flight after flight, we found them simply bad -- sweet and heavy, with all sorts of artificial flavors of oak and hit-you-in-the-head alcoholic tastes. Most of them had no balancing acids -- which means they won't pair well with food -- and no real tastes of fruit. (Because of the immense popularity of Yellow Tail, which has quickly become the top imported label in America, we included two bottles each of the 2002 Reserve and the 2003 regular bottling in separate flights. They were OK. We didn't find the Reserve obviously better than the regular despite its higher price.)

Good-Taste Continuum

Think about it for a minute in another context: On a kind of good-taste continuum, there's fresh orange juice; there's orange juice from concentrate; and there's orange-juice flavored soda, or jelly beans, created somehow in a lab to simulate the taste of orange juice. Well, too many of these didn't taste like they were produced from grape juice, but made in a jelly-bean factory with artificial flavorings. They tasted like a "wine product." They were ham-fisted and very tiring on our palates.

Of the 50 wines, only seven rated Good or better, which is an extraordinarily poor outcome. Not only that, but there were really only two, which we declared our best of tasting and our best value, that we'd eagerly buy again. The best of tasting, sadly, was also the most expensive wine of the tasting, at $15.99, and a wine we hadn't seen before: Scarpantoni Estate. The winery made 3,000 cases of this and the importer, the Grateful Palate in Oxnard, Calif., said it imported 660 cases and distributed them to 16 states. The best value -- still one of the more-expensive wines at about $10 -- was Wirra Wirra Vineyards "Scrubby Rise." About a third of its 10,000-case production was exported to the U.S. and distributed nationwide, according to its importer, Wilson Daniels of St. Helena, Calif.

Now, here's an interesting twist: Both of these wines are "unwooded" -- that is, they were neither fermented nor aged in oak. It has become fashionable in wine circles to criticize "oaky" wines, especially Chardonnays, as if oak were somehow the enemy of good wine. That's silly. Oak is used in the production of most of the world's great wines, adding all sorts of depth and nuance to the juice. The problem, however, is that at some point winemakers everywhere realized that Americans simply liked the taste of oak -- toasty vanilla, with some nutmeg and cream. They began to use oak as a crutch to hide a lack of fruit. Too many of these Australian wines seem to have taken this to a whole new level. They tasted as though oak flavoring had been added to the mix, like vanilla extract, to which winemakers then poured in sweeteners and alcohol. We love wines with plenty of real oak -- assuming they are bursting with real fruit and have plenty of acids. Lacking the fruit and the acids, what's left? Not something we'd like to drink.

Drink-Now Wines

In that universe, it's no surprise that the Scarpantoni and Wirra Wirra stood out. Both tasted like real fruit. They were delightful, drink-now wines -- interestingly, they were both among the very few wines in the tasting with screwcaps -- that we would certainly serve to friends. As it happened, both were from the McLaren Vale region, while the vast majority of the wines sported labels with the far less specific "South Eastern Australia" designation.

Our advice? If you see an unwooded Australian Chardonnay on the shelves, give it a try. Just because a wine is unoaked is no guarantee that it's better, but the room for error in such a wine is smaller -- the winemaker can't hide faults underneath oak -- so you do have a good chance of tasting something interesting. Keep in mind that it's likely to be a lighter, less serious wine than a traditional good Chardonnay and probably better with lighter meals, such as seafood. Don't forget that Australia still makes a great deal of outstanding wines that are less familiar, such as Grenache, Riesling and Semillon, and those are worth a search.

More broadly, keep looking all over the globe for bargains. Next time you go to the store to pick up an Australian Chardonnay, maybe you should try a Sauvignon Blanc from Chile instead.

? You can reach us at wine@wsj.com1 and read much more about wine in our new book, "Wine for Every Day and Every Occasion: Red, White, and Bubbly to Celebrate the Joy of Living.


The Dow Jones Inexpensive Australian Chardonnay Index

In a tasting of 50 Australian Chardonnays under $20, these were our favorites. Most of the wines we tasted should be served well-chilled. These are generally best drunk young.

VINEYARD/VINTAGE: Scarpantoni Estate Wines `Unwooded' 2003 (McLaren Vale)
PRICE: $15.99
RATING: Very Good
TASTERS' COMMENTS: Best of tasting. Delightful. It tastes like just-picked grapes, and it's so light on its feet it seems to be -dancing.

VINEYARD/VINTAGE: Wirra Wirra Vineyards `Scrubby Rise' (R.G. & R.T. Trott) 2003 (McLaren Vale)
PRICE: $10.00*
RATING: Good/Very Good
TASTERS' COMMENTS: Best value. Very drinkable and much drier than most, with some lemony acidity and good fruit.

VINEYARD/VINTAGE: Little Penguin Wines 2003 (South Eastern Australia)
PRICE: $6.99
RATING: Good/Very Good
TASTERS' COMMENTS: Light, nicely round tastes, with a little bit of tangy acidity. Informal and easy, good with fried shrimp.

VINEYARD/VINTAGE: Mad Fish (Howard Park Wines) 2003 (Western -Australia)
PRICE: $13.99*
RATING: Good/Very Good
TASTERS' COMMENTS: Crisp, with fetching hints of pineapple and grapefruit and a nice little bite on the finish.

VINEYARD/VINTAGE: Padthaway Estate 2002 (Limestone Coast)
PRICE: $12.99
RATING: Good/Very Good
TASTERS' COMMENTS: Nice summer quaffer, quite easy and nicely fruity.

VINEYARD/VINTAGE: Jacob's Creek `Reserve' (Orlando Wines) 2002 (South Australia)
PRICE: $11.99*
RATING: Good
TASTERS' COMMENTS: Not nearly enough fruit, but what's there is pleasant, with some nice spiciness. We didn't like the 2004 regular bottling.

VINEYARD/VINTAGE: Peace Family Vineyard (Andrew Peace Wines) 2003 (South Eastern Australia)
PRICE: $6.49*
RATING: Good
TASTERS' COMMENTS: Pleasant, with good acids and nice fruit.

NOTE: Wines are rated on a scale that ranges: Yech, OK, Good, Very Good, Delicious, and Delicious! These are the prices we paid at wine stores in New York and New Jersey. *We paid $8.95 for the Wirra Wirra, $12.99 for the Mad Fish, $10.99 for the Jacob's Creek, and $7.59 for the Peace Family, but these prices appear to be more representative. Prices vary widely.