Australia's Fresh New Wave
Smashable and delicious. Here comes the next generation of natural wines from Down Under.
A View of Australia from Jersey City
By Beth Comatos
When the everyday drinker thinks of Australian wine, perhaps it’s the ripe and rich, high alcohol shiraz that first comes to mind. Or maybe it’s the grocery store staple, the infamous [yellow tail] they picture. Regardless, I think it’s safe to say most everyday drinkers don’t think of natural wine.
Irony has it that my first tastes of natty wine were all products of Australia. Coincidence? At the time, I thought not. Back then, I learned of a place in South Australia where this magic earth juice was grown and bottled: Adelaide Hills. Producers from there, like Jauma and Lucy Margaux, swept me off my conventional wine-drinking feet, as I (wrongly) assumed this juice was part of some outlandish, aussie-specific beverage trend. But after moving from Wisconsin to New York, a less naive me learned the world of natural wine extends far beyond Australia. Nonetheless, whenever I revisit the thirst-quenching natural wines of the Land Down Under, I am perpetually perplexed, overjoyed, and reminded of the very reasons I fell in love with wine in the first place.
On a recent grey Monday afternoon, I went down the rabbit hole of Aussie natural wines at Frankie in Jersey City. Frankie is a spunky Australian-inspired eatery and bar complete with a cool-without-trying art deco Scandinavian surfer vibe. And if that isn’t enough, its killer wine list is stacked with natural wines from all over the world. Its light pink walls are covered with eclectic art. Archways and cutouts are a theme throughout the open dining room, which features cozy nooks and holy high ceilings that dangle neon fluorescent acrylic triangles and play games with light. Greenery fills the space organically, as do cookbooks and knick-knacks, like a Day of the Dead skeleton and disco balls. There is a surfboard hanging from the entryway wall, and a tasteful amount of wicker interspersed throughout. Each and every one of these meticulous details will make you ponder two things: one, how is it humanly possible to combine all of these incredibly random things to form one single, cohesive, even joyous, ambiance, and two, do I really have to leave this natural wine lover’s paradise and return to the dreary reality of another rainy Monday?
Luckily, I didn’t have to leave just yet. Sydney-native Rowen McDermot, co-owner of Frankie, had picked four next-level Australian natural wines for us to taste and chat about over the course of the next four hours. My heart was rendered full and my afternoon deemed complete when I met the namesake of Frankie, a teensy and feisty light brown chihuahua who walks around like she owns the place. (I mean, she technically does. Rowen’s her dad.) Frankie and her eccentric natural wine sanctuary stole my heart.
Joshua Cooper ”Captains Creek Vineyard” Chardonnay 2018 - $45
A stunning cool climate chardonnay from Western Victoria, this wine offers elegant notes of citrus and saline coupled with dried herbs and a light dusting of pine needles. I’d hate to use the term, but mouthfeel is the name of the game here. This one’s rich, lush, and layered, yet pristinely balanced with a refined freshness, leaving you with a finish that lingers for what seems like forever.
Yarra Yarra Bobar Syrah 2018
The nose is quite literally a jaw dropper. Bright and fragrant cranberry and wild strawberry integrate nicely with notes of violet bouquet, black pepper, and a hint of brett. Rowen described it as animal fur and from the moment he did, I couldn’t stop picturing a 1990s bedroom complete with animal fur rug, purple velvet wallpaper, and a circular bed that rotates–a scene so hip, intriguing, and a little strange, but you’re damn glad you tried it. Interesting to note that this 10.5% chillable red is labelled “syrah” as opposed to the classic Australian “shiraz,” indicating its maker’s desire to disconnect from the aforementioned big, bold shiraz trend. This slightly wild and intensely drinkable gem is a juice after my own heart.
Year Wines Mataro 2017 - $49
After proudly coming to the conclusion that mataro is indeed the same grape as mourvedre, which is also known as monastrell (thanks, WSET Diploma!), we moved on to McLaren Vale to sip a dark-fruited, smooth-textured, and full-bodied red. Blackberries and black cherries meet black pepper and vanilla here; queue rubbing your face into a lush, velvet pillow. While not a typical Juice Box Beth pick, this mataro would be the perfect stepping stone into natural wine for those who like bigger, bolder styles of oaky reds. Pair with meat pie, and if you dare, make it from scratch! Rowen does.
Ochota Barrels “Fugazi” Grenache, 2018 - $62
A beautiful grenache from the late winemaker Taras Ochota, “Fugazi” has an air of familiarity to it that, unlike the two previous wines, makes it approachable. “You can sit with us,” it says. Once seated, buckle up; it’s a conversation starter. Very much alive with wild raspberries and rose petals, crushed herbs and cocoa dust, the midpalate brings just a dash of rustic tannins and the juiciest acidity that will have everyone coming back, sip after sip, until the entire bottle becomes a memory. How can something so elegant also be so… drinkable? It feels wrong to describe it. And to call it natty. The best and only thing we can do with this wine is share it. And that we did.
Defend Australia (With 3 More Bottles Picks Below)
By Jason Wilson
Most wine drinkers in the United States are stuck with a stale, two-decades-old idea that all Australian wines are cheap and easy critter plonk like Yellow Tail (which at its height was selling more than 4 million cases per year in the US) or else they’re high-scoring, high-alcohol, fruit-bomb reds made from shiraz or cabernet sauvignon. That warmed-over era of dumb names and massive Australian reds is, for me, summed up by a once-popular wine label: Tait The Ball Buster.
But over the past couple years, a different kind of Australia wine seems to be catching on — lagging somewhat behind Paris, Tokyo, or Copenhagen. For a while now, a new wave of natural wines from Australia has been turning up on lists all over Manhattan and Brooklyn at bars like Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels or June, and shops like Chambers Street. It’s a trend that’s fanning out to places like Jersey City and beyond.
In the spring of 2019, New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov published several articles based on his three-week trip to Australia, including one that looked at the evolution of “fresh, light-on-its-feet” Australian wines. Asimov declared, “The American vision of Australian wine has been locked in a rigid stereotype for years.” Asimov followed up the next week with an article on the “thriving wine counterculture” of natural winemakers — particularly in Adelaide Hills.
This “new Australia” wave illustrates very well how wine trends and fashions happen in the U.S. It’s basically the same way one might go bankrupt: Gradually, and then suddenly.
It’s not as if anyone hadn’t been trying to kick start an Australian wine renaissance in the U.S. Back in March 2013, a big, flashy — and mostly forgotten — wine event called Defend Australia happened in the unlikely city of Philadelphia in the unlikely venue of the National Museum of American Jewish History. Dozens of wine professionals and journalists from all over the northeast — myself included — crowded into a ballroom to taste through sixteen flights of than 60 Australian wines, led by a panel of such wine luminaries as Paul Grieco and Talia Baiocchi.
The whole thing was sponsored by Vine Street Imports, based in Philly’s South Jersey suburbs, which has always boasted a robust selection of Australia wines. So on the one hand, Defend Australia could have been seen as a really weird portfolio tasting.
Yet Defend Australia was pitched more like a brash revolutionary movement, a call to arms. “A Democratic Wine Revolution,” declared the tasting booklet. “Oz has become all too easy of a target to pick on,” read the manifesto-like text. “Plainly put, what has been pawned off and consumed over the last ten years in Australian wine is not really wine…We will shed Australia’s old reputation for a new one consisting of better winemaking, truer expressions of terroir, and more interesting wines which we know you will want to drink.”
The wines at Defend Australia were remarkable. It was the first time many of us had tasted labels like Ochota Barrels, Commune of Buttons, Deliquente, or Jauma. It was the first we’d tasted Australian grenache or shiraz with this type of freshness, balance, and lower alcohol. It was the first time some of us realized Australia grew savignin, dolcetto, or sangiovese.
But 2013 was during the dark era for Australian wine imports in the U.S. Perhaps it’s hard to remember now just how far Australian wines crashed, and how fast. By the end of the 2000s the backlash against these wines came swift and furious.
It’s hard to believe now, but in 2004 Australia had briefly overtaken France as the second-largest supplier of wine to the U.S. By 2009, sales of Australian wines at the high end had dropped by around 50 percent, and all wines over $15 dropped by about a fifth. And it got worse. Australian imports were hammered by a brutally unfavorable exchange rate. Worse still, a new generation of critics and sommeliers lambasted the ubiquitous big wines.
Australia became a poster child for everything wrong in the world of wine. As Jancis Robinson observed in 2009: “Something very strange has happened to Australian wine. While more and more truly fine Australian wine is being produced, Australian wine’s fortunes and reputation have plummeted. Fashions in wine, just as in everything else, come and go, but the sheer speed with which Australia has moved from being revered to being reviled is quite remarkable.”
The Defend Australia event in Philadelphia certainly didn’t reverse that trend in 2013. I remember writing a piece for a Philadelphia newspaper a few days later, mentioning both the Jauma “Wood Vineyard” 2011 and the Ochota Barrels “Fugazi” 2012 among others. There was deafening silence. It would be several more years before I ever saw Jauma or Ochota Barrels on a wine list (and I believe that wine list was in Copenhagen, not New York).
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, the flames of revolution do not ignite. Or at least radical change doesn’t happen on anyone’s timeline. In retrospect, Defend Australia feels a little bit like in Mean Girls when Gretchen is trying to “make ‘fetch’ happen.” America wasn’t ready for a new wave of Australian wines in 2013. Wine people were still deep in Jura or Friuli or sherry or amphora wine from Georgia, or whatever else was happening back then.
So what’s changed in seven years? There’s been no cultural revolution. Basically, the booming demand for natural wine has driven young wine professionals and drinkers to seek out new regions, and this has led them to rediscover the Southern Hemisphere.
“I’ve seen the thirst for natural wine in the States growing at an exciting and rapid rate,” says Tess Bryant, whose Tess Bryant Selections imports Aussie natural wines from producers like Jauma, Borachio, and The Other Right. “Our favorite winemakers from France, Italy and Spain can only produce so much, and this has left us searching in new corners of the world (Chile, Slovenia, Australia, etc.) for more bottles to satiate this thirst.”
Fortunately, Australia now boasts a vibrant, critical mass of natural winemakers that’s grown over the past decade. And they’ve been inspired by, as Bryant says, “the flavors of the Loire or Jura, not the Barossa.”
Not that Bryant hasn’t encountered some old stereotypes. “A few wine buyers I have encountered have certainly been scarred by both the critter era and big red era of Aussie wine,” she says. “There are certainly a few people who take pause when I tell them I work with a nearly exclusively Australian wines. There are plenty who told me it would never work as a business.”
But, in the end, it might be the intense pressure for American wine buyers to source quality natural wine from a relatively small worldwide supply that may be driving the new wave of Australian wine as much as anything else. Natural wine is, after all, the new International Style (replacing the old International Style).
“There have been a handful of people who shake their head and say they don’t work with Australian or Southern Hemisphere wines, but every single one of those people has changed their mind once they tasted the wines and heard the stories of the winemakers and the vineyards,” Bryant says. “I don’t sell these wines to people who historically buy Australian wines. I sell to people who want something interesting and delicious, and the country of origin happens to be Australia.”
The Aussies did it to themselves when they flooded the US market with pornographic expressions of Parkerization. Big, overly-oaked fruit bombs with the finesse of a sledgehammer. The wines were the beer equivalent of Double IPAs featuring alcohol "on the wine" not "of the wine."
Admittedly, I had a Parker palate 20 years ago and bought heaps of Aussie Shiraz and Grenache from McLaren Vale. My palate evolved elsewhere, mainly Old World to the Rhone and the higher elevations of Italy, and I stopped drinking Aussie wine. Like I had a falling out with a good friend that I judged to be a little crass for my company.
Recently, I remembered my tours of Barossa and thought-back fondly of the many good Rieslings from Eden Valley I drank. So I bought a bottle of dry Riesling 2019 from a good producer last week and opened it last night and it was great. Eden Valley has an elevation of 1500-ft and the cooler clime showed pure citrus flavors and finesse and paired exceedingly well with scallops.
So, damn it, I may just circle back to my old Aussie friends and be open to them having learned how to be a little more subtle in social situations and restart a few relationships. Now if I can only find their numbers.