A few charmers from Down Under For all its perceived infancy on the international wine scene, Australia has been responsible for an extraordinary number of developments, both in terms of technological innovation and creative marketing, many of which have revolutionized the wine business around the world over the past three decades. Despite the fact that grape vines were planted as long ago as 1800, Australia's wines didn't start hitting the international market in any significant way until the 1950s, and, even then, most of the wines on offer were powerful, often fortified, behemoths fashioned from thick-skinned, southern-European grape varieties.

In the late 1960s, Australians began to discover food and drink, and a cultural revolution began. Led by industry giants-to-be Penfolds, Yalumba and Hardy's, Australian producers pioneered the bag in the box, the extensive use of stainless steel vessels and the concept of winery hygiene. In addition, because of an acute labor shortage, they developed mechanical pruning and harvesting machines and trellising techniques that would permit large yields of ripe, healthy fruit to be grown in the relatively hostile interior country of the Murray-Darling basin.

From this area, a vast percentage of Australia's ubiquitous bargain-basement wines, such as Yellowtail, emerges. Although close to 90 percent of the Australian wine market in the United States is dominated by only a handful of producers (Penfolds, Rosemount, Lindemans, Hardy and Blass), there are hundreds of smaller, artisan producers quietly swimming against the mainstream, consistently releasing small quantities of quality wine to a discerning and thirsty public. Theirs is a tough battle, as shelf space is limited, and the big boys have little regard for quality or independence.

In New Zealand, the story is much the same, with over 60 percent of the U.S. export market being dominated by a single company, Bancroft (the result of a merger between Montana and Corbans). An anonymous and rather bland brand, Bancroft has done little to further the cause of excellence, although its wines are consistently decent. Fortunately, as in Australia, New Zealand has a burgeoning independent wine industry, one which, by virtue of the diligence of a small handful of independent importers, is starting to make its presence felt in this country.

Recently, our tasting panel addressed the subject of independent Australian and New Zealand wines. The following wines are not yet available in the broad Indiana market, but should be in major wine stores by mid April. Prices may vary from store to store, so the suggested retails should not be taken as gospel.

New Zealand Jackson Estate Sauvignon Blanc 2002

Marlborough ($13-$15) Owner John Stichbury lives in the house his great-grandfather built in the 1860s, and still farms the same land. The celebrated Cloudy Bay winery is just across the road from Jackson Estate, and the style of wine that each produces is quite similar. Winemaker Martin Shaw has his own winery in Australia's Adelaide Hills, and consults in Italy, France, Chile and Spain. Those familiar with Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc will not be disappointed by the 2002, which is the product of a particularly long, warm growing season. Made in a definitively crisp style, this beautifully balanced wine combines aromas of black currants, mint and bell pepper with rich, tropical stone fruit and floral characters. Typically zippy on the palate, with a very long and refreshing finish, this is an absolute classic of its kind. This was one of the first high-quality wines to be bottled under a screwcap, a technique that ensures freshness and brightness, and all but eliminates the possibility of contamination. Also recommended: Unwooded Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Botrytis Riesling

Nga Waka Chardonnay 2000

Martinborough ($17-$20) Established in 1988, and producing a mere 5,000 cases of wine per year, Nga Waka epitomizes New Zealand's boutique winery scene. In spite of a cool maritime climate, Martinborough, at the south end of the North Island, receives abundant sunshine, which allows the fruit to achieve complete ripeness and yet maintain high natural acidity. It is this unique contrast that makes the best New Zealand whites so exciting. Nga Waka"s (the G is silent) Chardonnay boasts abundant ripe pear and tropical fruit aromas and flavors set against a frame of mouthwatering acidity and finely handled new French oak. The resulting wine has more in common with fine Burgundy than it does with much else from the New World, although, of course, its relatively high alcohol does little to disguise its origins. An absolute beauty, with plenty of room for improvement with a couple of years in the cellar. Also recommended: 2002 Sauvignon Blanc

Quartz Reef Pinot Noir 2001

Bendigo, Central Otago ($23-$26) Normally I wouldn't include a wine of this price on this page, but Quartz Reef is of sufficient interest that it deserves a mention. Established in 1996 by Austrian-born and trained winemaker Rudi Bauer, Quartz Reef is one of the pioneering wineries in the Central Otago region in the foothills of New Zealand's southern Alps. Being the most southerly of the world's winemaking regions, the only red wine grape that will achieve consistent ripeness here is Pinot Noir. After something of a shaky start, this grape is now well-established, and is producing some delicious wines in the hands of the region's increasing number of talented winemakers. This wine displays fragrant aromas of ripe raspberries and a touch of mint, underpinned by lovely earth and truffle notes. The palate is ripe and fleshy, but is supported by a very firm backbone of natural acidity and considerable extract. This is a winery and a region on the rise. Also recommended: 2002 Pinot Gris

Australia T'Gallant "Tribute" Pinot Gris 2000

Mornington Peninsula, Victoria ($13-$16) Mornington Peninsula is home to a small number of boutique wineries, of which T"Gallant is the epitome. Being a very cool region on the ocean directly across from Tasmania, Mornington attracts diehard cool-climate viticulturists as well as day trippers and tourists from nearby Melbourne. This winery specializes in Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, both of which favor the chilly maritime climate, and benefit from the long growing season and the attendant concentration of aromas and flavors. Despite its whopping 14 percent alcohol, this Pinot Gris maintains an elegant balance between supremely ripe, spicy fruit and mouth-watering acidity. There"s a surprising amount of flavor here, and the wine will improve nicely for three to five years, if you can hold onto it that long. Also recommended: Pinot Gris "Imogen"; Pinot Noir

Balnaves "The Blend" 1998

Coonawarra, South Australia ($14-$17) This is yet another small, family-owned estate that makes very little wine, but receives consistently great press. Located in the heart of South Australia's celebrated Coonawarra district, Balnaves" vineyards occupy a prime location on the famous terra rossa strip, a unique patch of earth consisting of degraded limestone soil on top of a solid limestone base. The combination of soil and very cool climate leads to wines of lovely, even ripeness and excellent natural acidity. This wine, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, sports an engaging nose of blackcurrant, mint and eucalyptus, and a rich, racy palate of dark fruits and creamy, vanilla-scented oak. Ready to drink now, this moderately rich, well-structured red will hold up nicely for another three to five years. Also recommended: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz

Breakneck Creek Shiraz 2000

South Australia ($9-$11) Shiraz, known elsewhere as Syrah, has become recognized as Australia"s benchmark red grape. Produced by Tatachilla winery (see below), this excellent bottling bears little in common with other Shiraz in the same price range. For a start, it's dry (most others are a little on the sweet side), and secondly, it's made in a fairly non-interventionist fashion, which means that wild yeast is allowed in, giving the wine an occasionally gamy, leathery quality seldom found in bargain-basement offerings. With focused aromas of ripe raspberry and plum, and a soft, fleshy texture, this is a great one to stock up on for those impending cookouts.

Tatachilla Cabernet Sauvignon 1999

, has rapidly emerged over the past decade or so as one of McLaren Vale's most consistent and interesting producers. Recently chastised by a major critic for being "commercial" in quality, these wines are in fact made in a largely non-interventionist manner, using large oak fermenting vessels, wild yeasts and a minimum of handling. If the sediment is anything to go by, this wine has certainly never seen a filter in its life, a testament to the risks that winemaker Justin McAtee will take to strive for a natural, high-quality wine. Ripe, fleshy and packed with blackberry and olive flavors, this supple and balanced Cabernet is just starting to show some interesting notes of cedar and earth. For the price, this is a very tough Cabernet to beat. Also recommended: McLaren Vale Shiraz, McLaren Vale Grenache-Shiraz,

Adelaide Hills Chardonnnay Hear each Friday morning at 9 on WXNT-AM, 1430.

Photos by Jim Walker


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