"Considering how long it's taken Europe, the Australian wine regional map has come rapidly into sharp focus in just two decades."
Pontificating on the remarkable progress of Australian wine, I was taken aback when one student asked me if this progress was mainly down to good PR. After attending the Australia Day wine tasting, the answer was an emphatic no. True, Australia's PR has been an asset, but the tasting underlined that Australia's success in becoming the UK's favourite wine country, with sales of nearly 19 million cases last year, is based on substance rather than form.
Chardonnay is the grape that most symbolises this progress. Ubiquitous tropical fruit flavours once described as "bottled sunshine" have given way to truly great chardonnays capable of rivalling all but the greatest white burgundies. Thanks to locations in cooler climate areas, a focus on the vineyard and less overt oak, we now see wines like the peachy 2010 Heggies Vineyard Eden Valley Chardonnay, around £22.99, Berry Bros (0800 280 2440), Majestic, the opulent 2009 Kooyong Faultline Chardonnay, £35, Great Western Wines (01225 322810), and the complex 2010 Ocean Eight Verve Chardonnay, £26, Harvey Nichols.
In its dry rieslings from the Clare and Eden Valleys, Australia also makes world-class dry whites – witness the succulence of the 2010 Skillogalee Trevarrick Riesling, £21.50, Great Western Wine, slurp.co.uk, and the lemon juiciness of the 2011 Clos Clare Watervale Riesling, £23.50, swig.co.uk. No other country produces ageworthy semillon as characterful as Australia, whether from Barossa, with the lemon and lime toastiness of the 2010 Bethany Semillon, £11.99, down from £14.99, Ocado, until Tuesday, or Margaret River, whose 2009 Vasse Felix Semillon, £12.99, Marks & Spencer, displays a lemon-drizzle-cake-like tang. Others argue that the Hunter Valley is best at this style and in wines of the class of the 2005 McWilliams Mount Single Vineyard Lovedale Semillon, £17.95, Peter Green, Edinburgh (0131 229 5925), they may be right.
And trials with new grapes are starting to bear exciting fruit. The most enticing wine of this kind I tasted was the 2010 Fox Gordon Adelaide Hills Princess Fiano, £15, Theatre of Wine (020 8858 6363). From a southern Italian variety that retains character in a warm climate, the Adelaide Hills version is slightly smoky, its juicy apricot-like fruit richness immensely alluring. I aim to return to Oz soon with a look at its reds.