Australia's finest put to the test

Those representing Australian wine in the UK have been feeling particularly sensitive in the last two or three years. As soon as it became clear that Australia would overtake France to become the most important exporter of wine to Britain, the popular image of Australian wine producers changed from that of plucky, astute marketeers and efficient technicians to sinister, brand-dominated technocrats without an ounce of senstivity for the true, artisanal nature of wine.

Paul Henry, the new man in charge of the Australian Wine Bureau in London, accordingly hatched a plan to organise a massive showing of Australia's finest wines to 50 of the great and the good of wine in Britain, which finally took place last week. Never before, even in Australia, has there been such an opportunity to judge more than 100 of Australia's best wines blind, grouped in appropriate flights, backwards in age. There were sommeliers and wine merchants aplenty but too few wine writers, I thought, taking advantage of this unique occasion. 

Funnily enough, this was not the first time such a reputation- saving exercise has been staged in London for Australian wine. To counter similar mutterings in the early 1990s, 'Australia's Mr Wine' Len Evans treated a much smaller number of us to a dozen or so gems from his and others' cellars, fully mature treasures such as the famous 1959 vintage of Lindemans Bin 1590 'Burgundy', a prosaic name for an improbably, if heart- stopping, blend of Hunter Valley Shiraz with a little Pinot. They left none of us in any doubt that Australia was capable of making seriously fine wine, but then these were wines made in a very different era, when Australian table wine was still a rarity would be represented abroad only by a dusty London outpost opposite a sex shop in Soho stocked with the likes of Ben Ean and Emu.

None of the 113 wines shown last week was made before 1989 and most of them made within the last six years, so they were very different animals at a very different stage of evolution. This meant that most of the red wines were a long way from their peak, and therefore often pretty tough going for those who prefer to drink rather than suck their wines.  

The wines had been assembled by Andrew Caillard, the English Master of Wine who runs Langton's, the dominant force in wine auctions in Australia. The wines were mostly those with a long-established reputation but some new 'cult' wines and emerging stars had also been incorporated. All but one wine producer willingly donated the four bottles needed for the tasting.

In a way, this was a remarkably brave exercise on the part of the Australians. Nothing is more guaranteed to highlight the shortcomings of any wine, no matter how highly regarded, than to serve it blind, without the cocoon of its label and status, alongside dozens of its peers.

Accordingly I found that my personal favourites among the 42 Shirazes were not the supposed icons Penfolds Grange 1991 and Henschke Hill of Grace 1999 but wines with a much lowlier reputation (and others seemed to agree with my enthusiasm for Coriole Lloyd Shiraz).

You could well argue that Australia's wine reputation rests on Shiraz, particularly powerful antipodean answers to France's Syrah grape (best known perhaps in Hermitage). But to my palate too many of them, particularly but not exclusively the younger examples, are just so uncompromisingly tart and tannic that they sometimes seemed more of an endurance test than a pleasure to drink.

While winemakers practically everywhere else in the world have in the last few years fallen over themselves to make wines with softer, gentler tannins, making the wines easier to approach when young, it is almost as though the Australians have decided to test whether the modern wine drinker is man enough to withstand wines that shear the enamel off his teeth and the lining off his cheeks. Many Australian winemakers routinely add tannin as well as acid.

That said, I did enjoy about a quarter of the Shirazes very much however, and as in all flights was deliberately looking for wines that could only be gloriously, rip roaringly Australian rather than copies of European wine archetypes. What was fascinating was the variation in regional styles, from rich, chocolatey Barossa Shiraz such as Glaetzer's succulent 1998 and Wendouree's broad, perfumed 1989 Shiraz Mataro blend from Clare Valley to cooler-climate Shiraz such as the relatively gentle Yarra Yering No 2 2001 from Yarra Valley and Craiglee's taut, rewarding 1997 from Sunbury in Victoria.

Although Shiraz is now the dominant red grape in Australia, there were also delicious Cabernet Sauvignons which could only be Australian such as Lake's Folly 1998 from the Hunter Valley, Domaine A's subtle Tasmanian 2000, Cape Mentelle's 1996 from Margaret River (Cullens Cabernet Merlot has always been more Bordeaux-like, and at least as fine) and the most successful Coonawarra examples. Too many of these had the green, herbaceous streak that plagues lesser Coonawarra Cabernets but Petaluma 2000, Katnook 2001, Parker Terra Rossa First Growth 1999 and Hollick Ravenswood 1998 all fully justified the reputation of Coonawarra Cabernet, Australia's first-vaunted combination of place and grape.

The Pinot Noirs and Merlots were very much works in progress, with some of the Pinots almost unrecognisable as such to my palate – but then Australia's discovery of her cooler vineyard sites is relatively recent. Mount Mary and Bass Phillip, both Victorians, have shown that it can be done.

Disappointments among the Chardonnays were more worrying for this has long spearheaded Australia's unparalleled export drive. Vintages varied from 1998 to 2001 but a disconcerting number of the younger wines seemed to have nothing left to give, and it would be hard to argue that the most exciting wine by far, Giaconda 1999, was quintessentially Australian. But that, I suppose, is the fault of Chardonnay rather than Australia.

We tasted a dozen Chardonnays, four Rieslings and two Semillons but the success rate among the last two groups was very much higher than in the Chardonnays. Grosset Polish Hill 2002 vindicated its fame, as did the 1996 vintage of Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon from the Hunter Valley. Along with the stickiest of oak-aged Muscats and Tokays from north east Victoria, Hunter Valley Semillon is one of Australia's great gifts to the world of wine.

I gave each wine up to five stars and ended up giving about 30 out of 113 either four or five, an enthusiastic rating. I would not say that either the big companies or the odd cult wine slipped in among the established classics performed notably well (although Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet 1996 with its heavy charge of American oak certainly stood out and was the most widely popular wine in any flight). What the tasting proved was that Australia is much more than big brands. There are devoted operators in less famous locations well capable of making truly fascinating wines.

See purple pages for tasting notes and scores of all these wines and more Australian Shirazes.