The Australian wines that are making it big overseas

Australia's fine wine scene is one of the world's most exciting, dynamic, and diverse, with 65 regions growing more than 100 different varietals for nearly 3000 wineries. A wave of young, avant-garde winemakers with hipster beards and daring ideas are experimenting with reds and whites all over the country and making killer wines.

So why don't Americans know this?

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Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, people in the US were clamouring for only two things from Australia's vineyards – cheerful budget wine with critters on their labels, and luxury shirazes, which mostly came from the Barossa Valley near Adelaide. Although high-quality vino from other grapes was being made at small boutique wineries in many regions (also in the Barossa), the American perception of Aussie wine didn't include them. As a result, they were hard to find and buy in the US.

Those shirazes owed much to historic brand Penfolds, which established Australia's wine reputation with its famous shiraz blend Grange and a handful of other collectible cuvées. It long defined Australian wine as multi-region, multi-varietal blends.

Then, starting in 2008, came a taste rebellion against fruit-bomb reds and the financial crisis. At the same time, the value of the Australian dollar surged to a 25-year high against the US dollar, and drought and bushfires decimated vineyards and wineries in Victoria.

A turn in the market

Interest in Australian fine wine crashed, and American importers and retailers cut their Aussie selections by 50 per cent. Most of those big shirazes disappeared from restaurant lists. Penfolds was caught up in turbulent mergers, and even sales of Yellowtail, after years of growth, flattened out, as inexpensive wines from such places as Argentina flooded into the market.

Now, at last, Americans are again starting to recognise how good Aussie wines can be, at least after they taste them. Take Michael Engelmann, wine director at New York's the Modern. A stint at Sydney's Rockpool Bar & Grill, he says, introduced him to "the great things happening Down Under." When he started at the Modern in 2014, he boosted the number of Aussie wines from five to 100.

And a recent Wine Australia Export Report revealed sales of wines of more than $25 (A$30) were up 17 per cent in the U.S. for the year ended June 2017.

The young guns

Even in the oldest, most-established wine regions, new winemakers are stirring up revolutions.

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Typical is a buzzed-about band of renegades clustered in the Adelaide Hills known as the Basket Range Collective. "We're people who look like punks," admitted James Erskine of Jauma winery, a former sommelier and musician, over lunch in San Francisco. "We want to challenge [Australia's] wine paradigms." To him, that means experimenting with trends now in vogue in the U.S. and U.K. – natural winemaking, pét-nats, and skin-fermented whites.

The other part of the revolution is that now you can actually find these wines in America and the U.K., as well as Japan, thanks to passionate indie importers, mostly Aussie expats. Five years ago, when he founded Little Peacock Imports in New York, Gordon Little offered nine wines. Today he sells more than 100.

"There the wines Aussies used to keep for themselves," he says. "At the beginning, Americans were surprised they weren't just shiraz and chardonnay. We have fianos, pét-nats, people want what's new."

The latest to join this club is Nine Liter imports, whose first shipment, arriving any day now, includes pinots from Ten Minutes by Tractor and a bargain petit verdot from cult winemaker Bill Downie, two producers I admired on a trip to Australia four years ago. At long last, I'll be able to snap them up.

Check out the gallery above to see what Aussie wines are about to hit the big time in America.

Bloomberg