Drink: Good wine needs no bush: Australia's wines need no longer masquerade as French, they are quite robust enough to sell on their own merits, argues Anthony Rose

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Window shopping for wine in the busy main streets of Sydney, Melbourne or Adelaide offers some shocks to the unwary European. There is a wide selection of champagne and burgundy, port and sherry, all incredibly cheap. It is an illusion, of course. They are cheap, but the likes of Angas Brut Champagne, Seppelt's Sparkling Burgundy, Buller & Son's Vintage Port and McWilliams' Amontillado Sherry are as European as kangaroo pie.

European wine names, such as champagne and chablis, have been employed by the commercially minded Australians since the last century; but as evidence of a maturing industry that no longer needs such crutches, Australia is consigning them to the bin. Under the EU/Australia Wine Agreement, which comes into effect this month, the EU has agreed to give recognition to Australian winemaking practices, in exchange for it ceasing to abuse Europe's precious wine heritage.

The introduction of a sort of appellation controlee scheme does not mean that Australians will suddenly have to adopt old French traditions, such as the belief that great wines come from the soil; nor will they give up their commercial tradition of trucking crushed grape juice hundreds of miles across state borders to make up their balanced blends. Under the Wine Agreement, the EU will recognise Australian blends of up to five grape varieties. It will allow its superlative sweet wines into Europe. And it will at long last recognise specific wine regions such as Coonawarra and Hunter Valley.

As Australia's wine industry matures, consumers are being offered a wider range of regional styles and quality wine. The quality and character of wines made from the shiraz grape, for instance, depend partly on the climate, which varies considerably. With this emphasis on regional styles, consumers will be better able to appreciate the gamey, leathery qualities of shiraz from the warm Hunter Valley, the spicy richness of Barossa Valley shiraz and the more elegant, minty, peppery styles from cooler climate Victoria.

For all the talk of chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon fatigue, no end to the boom is in sight. On the contrary, the two grapes are in heavy demand as Australian growers scramble to achieve their Adollars 1.1bn planting and winery investment target by the year 2000. And classic varieties, such as pinot noir, merlot, semillon and riesling, also seem to be waxing rather than waning. Perhaps the great challenge for chardonnay is to remain reasonably priced without becoming boring.

One answer, according to James Halliday, the wine writer, lies in the development of unwooded chardonnays. 'They are relatively cheap to make and - as long as they are fresh, fermented dry and bottled early with a little added complexity from yeast contact - can be delicious.'

Given that chardonnay is not going to disappear, a riesling revival (or a semillon sensation) may be wishful thinking. But Australian riesling, for the most part unoaked, with its clean, refreshing lemon and lime flavours, stands a better chance than its German counterpart of giving affordable riesling a good name. And semillon, the grape of the finest graves in Bordeaux, remains one of Australia's great white hopes.

With the help of mechanical farming of its vast vineyards, the Australian wine industry hopes economies of scale can help it to achieve another ambitious target for 2000: export sales of Adollars 1bn. But a few clouds are gathering on this horizon: labour and transport costs are high, and Australia is already pushing to the limit its ability to produce wine at a profit. Demand has elevated grape prices by 20 per cent this year, and a strong Australian dollar has put added pressure on wine prices.

'1994 is going to be a year in which Australia will have to fight hard to keep its share of the marketplace,' says John Ratcliffe of Oddbins, Britain's leading importer of Australian wines. The inevitable price rises later this year will make it easier for the competition to challenge Australia's rags-to-riches domination of the New World market, particularly in the vulnerable pounds 2.99- pounds 3.99 bracket.

WINES OF THE WEEK

1993 Moondah Brook Chenin Blanc, pounds 4.95- pounds 5.25, Victoria Wine; Sainsbury; Gateway; Thresher; Safeway; William Low (some may still have 1992). More refreshingly fruity than the excellent, smoky 1992, a full-bodied white with passion fruit and grapefruit character.

1993 Goundrey Langton Chardonnay, Mount Barker, pounds 4.99, Asda. Following the successful 1992, this is another delightfully elegant chardonnay with richly textured fruit, from cool-climate Mount Barker, Western Australia.

1993 Mitchelton Goulburn Valley Riesling, Victoria, pounds 4.99, Oddbins. Superlative Victorian riesling with citrus flavours and tangy fruitiness.

1993 Quelltaler Clare Valley Riesling, pounds 4.95, Australian Wine Centre; Reid Wines (1992), Hallatrow, Bristol (0761 452645). Perfumed, citrus, refreshingly fruity, classy riesling at under pounds 5.

1992 Pike's Polish Hill River Clare Valley Chardonnay, pounds 7.49, Oddbins. This attractively balanced chardonnay has a nutty, spicy nose and refreshingly crisp, citrus-like fruitiness reminiscent of northern burgundy.

1993 Shaw and Smith Sauvignon Blanc, pounds 7.49, Oddbins; Winecellars, London SW18. Living up to its reputation as Australia's outstanding sauvignon blanc, this has an intense gooseberryish fruitiness and intriguing smoky-bacon undertone.

1993 Evans & Tate Margaret River Semillon, pounds 9.39- pounds 9.95, Winecellars, London SW18; Harvey Nichols, London SW1. Clean-cut, stylish semillon with a delicately toasty character and refreshingly zesty, almost bitter twist.

1992 Coldstream Hills Reserve Chardonnay, Yarra Valley, Victoria, pounds 11.99, Oddbins. Worth the expense for this stylish chardonnay from James Halliday, with a buttery richness and elegant balance.

1990 Heritage Barossa Valley Shiraz, Steve Hoff, pounds 6.99, Australian Wine Centre, London WC2 (071-925 0751). Medium-weight, slightly minty smooth, ripe shiraz, unusually elegant for the warm Barossa.

1990 The Menzies Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon, pounds 6.95, Sainsbury's Vintage Selection; pounds 6.99, Oddbins. Rich deep ruby, aromas of cedar and green pepper underscored by classically elegant Coonawarra mulberry fruitiness.

1991 Chapel Hill Shiraz, McLaren Vale, pounds 7.99, Australian Wine Centre. Made by Pam Dunsford, a rare woman winemaker in a macho world, this is a deep-hued red with spicy aromatic oak and vanilla and plum-fruit richness.

1990 Tarrawarra Pinot Noir, pounds 9.99, Tesco (selected stores). Elegant red from the cool Yarra Valley. Beats many a red burgundy at this price.

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