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Vintages from down under.

Barely a dozen years ago, Australia's wines were thought of as either rough-edged reds or as cheap, sweet and fortified. Then, in the early 1980s, a new and greatly improved generation of Australian winesburstupontheamericanscenewithsuch force they made us take another taste. We tried them, liked them and have been consuming the wines from "Down Under" ever since.

Australia had no native grapes when European settlers arrived in 1788. But within a few years, the newcomers brought vines and began planting the country's first vineyards. Today, Australia is making its mark with a wide range of well-made, well-known varietal wines - Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling white wines, and Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Merlot reds. Many of its finest wines are those made from the two grapes that Australia began planting early last century: Shiraz, the red Syrah of France's Rhone Valley (sometimes labeled Hermitage), and Semillon, a white grape from France's Bordeaux region.

Australian commercial winemaking began in Hunter Valley, a verdant, rolling region some 120 miles north of Sydney in the state of New South Wales. The state produces 20% of Australia's highest quality wines, while Hunter Valley produces 5%. Tyrrell's, a family-owned winery, exports Long Flats, its inexpensive, everyday wines, as well as its expensive Vat series, especially Vat 47 Chardonnay and Vat 9 Shiraz. Also worth seeking out are McWilliam's Mount Pleasant Semillon and Pinot Noir, the Rothbury Estate Syrah and Chardonnay, Rosemount Chardonnay and Wyndham Estate Semillon.

Thirty-five miles northeast of Adelaide, in South Australia, lies the Barossa wine region. Only slightly younger than Hunter Valley, Barossa has been known for its wine-making since the 1840s. Since most of its early settlers were German, the region's villages have a 19th century German appearance, and much of its original plantings were the famous German Riesling grapes.

In sharp contrast to its small, self-contained and pristine villages are the sprawling, giant wineries that moved to Barossa earlier this century and expanded with Australia's 20-year-old wine boom. There are wines from such giants as Penfolds, Australia's largest winery and producers of the country's famous red wine, Grange Hermitage, as well as other fine wines including Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon; and Orlando Winery, which exports wines under its Jacob's Creek label and its highest quality wines under the St. Hugo label. Still, in this land of giants,two of Barossa's smaller, family-owned wineries hold their own. Henschke makes a range of Shiraz, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, while Peter Lehmann has a Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and a sweet Semillon Sauternes. There are vineyards in other parts of the country as well, including the states of Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania, an island off the southern coast

Since Australia is located in the Southern Hemisphere, the farther north you go, the closer you are to the equator. Grapes need warmth to mature, but too much heat burns out the flavor and quality. In turn,this creates a rougher, more alcoholic wine. As Australia works to refine its winemaking, it is planting more vineyards in its cooler, southern regions.

While Australian wines have gone up in price from the bargain days of the early 1980s, so have their quality. And, if value can be considered as price in relation to quality, Australian wines are still one of the best bargains in town.
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Title Annotation:Australian wines
Author:Fried, Eunice
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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