At Christmas most people fall back on the old favourites. It’s the time of the year when port and sherry fly off the shelves and households who don’t normally splash out on wine will spring for a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. But this year I’d urge you to look beyond the Old World. Take Australia, for example; it is my favourite country after France when it comes to wine. Both countries offer an extraordinary array of styles.
Think of the wondrous diversity of France and you’ll find it mirrored in Australia: there are fortified wines from the Barossa Valley, elegant pinot noirs from Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, sparkling wine from Tasmania, cool climate rieslings from the Clare Valley and Margaret River chardonnays to rival the best of Burgundy. Australia’s ability to create many different wines has long been noted. Mark Twain wrote this in 1897 about the Great Western Winery: ‘The Stawell region (in Victoria) is not productive of gold only: it has great vineyards and produces exceptionally fine wines… It yields a choice champagne and a fine claret, and its hock took a prize in France two or three years ago.’
Australia has been making high quality wines and winning awards in Europe since the 1850s, that’s about as long as Rioja in Spain and much longer than most of the Languedoc. The wines today are better than ever, still distinctly and generously Australian, but often lower in alcohol, lighter in body and less oaky than in the past. So here are a few choice Australian wines to put away this Christmas, I’ve put in a couple of bargains and some slightly more expensive ones. About the only thing the Australians can’t do is fino sherry, or at least none that are exported, so best get a bottle of Tio Pepe in as a mid-morning pick-me-up.
Finest GSM 2015 (Tesco, £8)
Made by one of South Australia’s both distinctive producers, D’Arenberg, this is a classic Aussie GSM (grenache shiraz mourvedre) with lots of dark fruit and spicy American oak but with a vein of freshness that stops it all being too much. If you like a big ripe wines, then you’ll love this.
Finest Great Southern Riesling 2017 (Tesco, £8.50)
Confusingly the Great Southern region is in Western Australia. This is what Mark Twain would have called Hock. With time in bottle it’ll take on some richness but it’s great now for its citric saline tang and sheer youthful exuberance.
Frankland Estate Australian Chardonnay 2016 (Berry Bros & Rudd, £12.50)
Another one from Western Australia, this is seriously seriously classy stuff. The nose just whispers ‘expensive oak’ and then the palate is razor sharp with a some toasty notes on the finish, very different to the blowsy Australian chardonnays of old.
Clos Clare Cemetery Block Shiraz 2014 (Strictly Wine, £18.75)
The Clare Valley is better known for riesling than syrah. You think this wine is going to be a bit of a bruiser from the spicy and smoky aromas but on the palate it’s more about cool climate grace with floral notes, crunchy fruit and light tannins.
Jansz Rose NV (Oddbins, £17)
With its chilly weather, Tasmania is perfect for fizz. This rosé is made from chardonnay and pinot noir just like champagne and you’d be hard pressed to tell this from the French original until you look at the price. It’s very very fine with orange and strawberry fruit and a biscuity finish.
Bleasdale The Wise One Tawny NV (Wine Society, £11.95)
Made from shiraz and verdelho, a white grape from Madeira, this is Australia’s answer to port and it’s a total knock-out. There’s vanilla, chocolate, rum-like flavours, marmalade and then walnuts, lots and lots of walnuts! The finish goes on for a good 15 minutes and the price is bananas for a wine of this quality.
Read more about the early days of Australian wine in Henry Jeffreys’ Empire of Booze: British History through the Bottom of a Class, which won best debut drink book at the Fortnum & Mason awards this year