Wine: Restrained. Elegant. And Australian

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Australian wine is squaring up to French at every level. Last autumn it was given a boost from a most unexpected quarter - the American super-critic and self-styled "undeniable Francophile", Robert Parker. "Australia has as much diversity in wine quality and styles as anywhere in the world, ranging from full-throttle, flamboyant, exuberant dry reds, to elegant, finesse-styled efforts with undeniable minerality," he declared. Parker's top 10 included some controversial, monster reds such as Clarendon Hills, Torbreck and Two Hands, all of which received marks even higher than most top 1996 Bordeaux crus classés.

For his pains Aussie critics had a go at him. He was compared to a big game hunter in search of trophy wines, rather than the more elegant styles such as Clare Valley riesling preferred by his accuser James Halliday and his co-judges in Australian wine shows. Yet although they're on different sides of the power-versus-finesse debate, Halliday ended his diatribe against power-mad Parker with a plea to Australia to promote its more sophisticated wines and turn its back on Yellow Tail.

Australia has more than 100 grape varieties (33 of which are thought important enough to be mentioned individually in the annual harvest report). Its varied grape mix is not based on shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay alone. One in five whites is chardonnay, but sauvignon, viognier and pinot gris are staking a claim to be "the new chardonnay", with riesling and semillon also becoming more popular. Two in five reds are made from shiraz or cabernet, with merlot, pinot noir and grenache also major players.

Yellow Tail, the slightly sweet, bestselling brand has been important in helping mop up the last couple of years' glut and bringing new consumers to wine. It hasn't helped Australia be taken seriously as a quality wine producer.

Over the coming year, shiraz is likely to remain the dominant force in Australian wine. 1998, 2000 and 2002 were all good to excellent vintages, while 1999 is also a fine year for Barossa shiraz (in particular Veritas Hanisch Vineyard, St Hallett Old Block and Peter Lehmann Stonewell). Prospects look good for the 2004s and highly promising for the new 2005 whites coming on stream. Cabernet from Margaret River and Coonawarra should stage a comeback. As well as chardonnay generally, also in the frame are Adelaide Hills sauvignon blanc, Clare, Eden Valley and Tasmanian riesling, and Hunter Semillon -mainly from McWilliam's and Tyrrell's.

The number of Australia's wineries has recently topped 2,000, and high-quality wines from small vineyards are finding their way into our glasses via the internet, wine merchants and restaurant buyers. Examples from the fine "en primeur" tasting of the Barossa's "young guns"are available from The Cellar Door (01256 770397) and Bordeaux Index (020-7253 2110). Among the best from a recent tasting (prices by the case and in bond, ie. ex VAT) were Clancy Fuller's opulent 2002 Three Hogsheads (£155), Jason Schwarz's old vine 2004 Nitschke Block Shiraz (£155), the peppery Côte Rôtie-like 2004 Spinifex Shiraz Viognier (£185) and Kym Teusner's spicy 2004 Avatar (£125).

Other mouthwatering stars from the Wine Australia tasting before Christmas included the racy, long-lived 2004 Grosset Polish Hill Riesling (around £16) and lemongrassy 2004 Brokenwood Semillon (around £8.99, Liberty Wines, 020-7720 5350 for stockists).

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