Australian wines entered the public imagination because of their remarkable value. Sunny days yielded fun, sweet wines with low prices, and often with cute names—hence the Yellow Tail phenomenon that’s left most American buyers associating Aussie reds only with the colorful bottles on the discount rack at the local wine shop.
Rarely does the average consumer stop to consider that Australia might make some pretty serious high-end wines, too, ones handcrafted with love and intent on exemplifying a particular terroir (that's wine-geek for the total package of a vineyard’s characteristics).
In truth, Australia does both high and low well these days, though both sets suit a particular taste—they’re frequently big and jammy, with high alcohol content and metaphorical broad shoulders. I recently tasted 20 Aussie reds with a wine snob who lives for the French stuff—the kind of guy who frequently calls superficially charming wines speciousthinking that he’d diss these strapping bottles for lacking subtlety. Instead, quite a few won him over. When it comes to Down Under reds, resistance is futile.
Penfolds is probably the most renowned name in Australian wine, and the maker of the country’s most collectible label: Penfolds Grange, a towering red that ages for decades and retails for $300 and up per bottle in recent vintages. But Penfolds alxo excels at affordable hits. We tasted four of its Koonunga Hill wines, all priced at just $12, and each one impressed us as a great value: Koonunga Hill Shiraz Southeast Australia 2005, Koonunga Hill Cabernet Merlot South Australia 2005, Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet South Australia 2005, and Koonunga HillCabernet Sauvignon Southeast Australia 2004. If you like elegance, ripe fruit flavors, and full-bodied wines that are not overbearing, these are for you.
Then there’s Two Hands, a boutique operation that crafts some stunning, smaller-scale bottlings. It’s run by Michael Twelftree and Richard Mintz, two men obsessed with Aussie Shiraz and the places where it grows best. I had dinner with Twelftree in November (we sipped wine made from the great Burgundy grand cru vineyard Richebourg to boot) and I can tell you, he is a true believer who thinks about terroir all day, probably starting with when he brushes his teeth in the morning. I’d order his wines anytime, anywhere.
The standouts were the Two Hands Ares Barossa Valley Shiraz 2004 ($150), a huge, perfectly symmetrical wine with a whopping 15.9% alcohol content that has the bounteous fruit to back up that hulking structure. It’s a wonderfully made, inspiring wine, but it’ll really show what it can do in a decade, and beyond. I’d cellar it along with Two Hands Lily’s Garden McLaren Vale Shiraz 2005 ($60). This one is a tad more subtle, but there’s a brilliant intensity to the red plum and blackberry fruit, not to mention its raisin-y nose. I’d call it big but balanced—a combination of qualities that will keep me coming back to Australian reds this winter.
Ted Loos, executive editor of Art+Auction magazine, is the former features editor of Wine Spectator and has written on wine for Bon Appétit, Town & Country, and many other publications. He's the author of Town & Country Wine Companion: A Tasting Guide and Journal (Hearst Books; $12.95), published in fall 2007. "In the Cellar" appears on ARTINFO every other Wednesday.