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Australian tasting: are Aussie wines still worth buying?

After enjoying the best part of a decade as the darling of British wine writers, Australian wine has come in for a bit of stick in recent months. Tim Atkin, writing in the Observer, criticised Aussies for being overly defensive and then went on to blast the deteriorating quality of many of their wines. My view? I'd split the Aussie wine scene into three genres (or levels). At the bottom end, Aussie branded plonk is mostly bland, dull and lifeless. There's little worth drinking under a fiver. Many of the more reliable brands (e.g. Lindemans Bin 65, Rosemount diamond label varietals) have now crept up in price and are quite frankly not up to the competition in the 6-8 bracket. Correspondingly, mid-priced wines that used to offer great value in this price range are now selling for a lot more: the middle ground is increasingly dominated by rather 'manufactured' wines dressed up to look the part but failing to offer any real value. But get above the 10 barrier, and everything changes. Australia still makes a lot of interesting, characterful wine; we've just got to get used to paying a bit more for it than we have in the past. This is what I set out to illustrate in this tasting of 12 Australian wines that I put on for a group of friends. The wines were selected to illustrate some of the diversity to be found in Aussie wine, both in terms of wine style and regional identity. Of course, it's impossible to give a comprehensive overview from just 12 bottles, but at least this showed that there's much more to Australia than the brands that everyone is so familiar with in the UK. Probably my favourite of the night was the Stonier Pinot Noir. It's happy to be what it is: light-coloured, varietally true and oozing subtlety; not like some older-style Oz Pinots, dark coloured wines and with jammy, extracted fruit. And my only real disappointment was the Nepenthe Pinot Gris, which was just weird.

Brokenwood Chardonnay 1999 McLaren Vale/Cowra/Padthaway, Australia
A multi-region blend from leading Hunter Valley producer Brokenwood. It's a rich textured, ripe, nutty Chardonnay. Delicious, exotic stuff with real character, very much in a new world style. Quite oaky, but it works. Very good+ (9.99 Oddbins)

Tyrells Hunter Valley Semillon Vat 31 1996, Hunter Valley
Although it's the current release, this traditional Hunter Valley Semillon from the Stevens Vineyard probably needs another five years or so to show its best. It's a rather understated crisp white wine showing some herby, toasty elements, a touch of smoke and is beginning to fill out a bit on the palate. Unoaked, and with high acidity. Very good+ (9.99 Oddbins)

Nepenthe Pinot Gris 2000, Adelaide Hills
I was disappointed by this wine from well regarded producer Nepenthe. Slightly pink-tinged, it has a big, aromatic, oily nose, with a rather odd chemical edge to it. The thick-textured palate has good acidity and a touch of spice, but it's spoiled by the quirky nose. OK (8.99 Oddbins)

Tim Adams Riesling 2000, Clare Valley
I'm a big fan of Tim Adams' whites. An intense, characterful dry white. The nose is lovely and citrussy, and leads to a juicy, savoury palate showing fresh lime fruit and tingly acidity. Powerful. Very good/excellent (7.99 Tesco)

Stonier Pinot Noir 1998, Mornington Peninsula
Quite a pale cherry red colour, I was wowed by the lovely, open cherry and herby nose. A bit of undergrowth and animal 'stink' add some complexity, and the palate shows medicinal ripe fruit. Good varietal character here. Very good/excellent (12 Handford)

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley
The nose is a little muted, but the palate shows lovely spicy cherry fruit, along with some silky tannins. A relatively structured, savoury Pinot Noir that stays true to its varietal origins. Very good+ (11 Oddbins)

St Hallett Old Block Shiraz 1992, Barossa
I was a tiny bit disappointed in this wine. It was nice enough, but didn't quite live up to its reputation. The sweet, spicy nose is a tiny bit muted. The palate is rich and spicy, with the oak a little dominant. There's still a bit of tannic structure suggesting the wine may yet develop some more. Very good+

Wirra Wirra RSW Shiraz 1998, McLaren Vale
A lovely thick red wine with bags of classy, ripe fruit. An inky red/purple, the nose is dominated by liquouricey ripe berry fruit together with some new oak. The palate is dense and rich, with spicy notes. Very youthful, and quite delicious now. Very good/excellent (14.99 Oddbins)

Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 1997, Western Australia
Blending fruit from the Margaret River and Mount Barker regions, Vasse Felix have fashioned a lovely Cabernet, showing blackcurrant fruit with a leafy, minerally core and a touch of spice. Great balance here. Very good/excellent (14 Handford)

Hewitson Old Garden Mourvedre 1999, Barossa Valley
The claim to fame of this wine is that it is made from some of Australia's oldest vines. As you'd expect, it shows a good concentration of sweet fruit with a spicy, cinnamon edge and a herbal quality. A rich, sweetly fruited style, it's a nice wine but didn't quite show the sort of individuality I was looking for. Very good+ (13 Handford)

Petaluma Cabernet Merlot 1995, Coonawarra
A mini vertical of one of my favourite Coonawarra reds. The 1995 shows an open, spicy nose that leads to a palate showing ripe cassis, chalky tannins and a lovely minerality. Drinking very well. Very good/excellent

Petaluma Cabernet Merlot 1996, Coonawarra
Lovely rich nose of blackcurrant and minerals. Palate is firm, with tightly wound tannins, some spicy character and good acidity. Very good/excellent

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