Do Aussie Wines Age Well?

Debunking the myth that wines from Oz must be enjoyed young.



First, let’s stipulate that the vast majority of most wines are meant to be consumed in their youth, and that’s certainly true of Australia’s most popular bottlings.

Don’t expect that Yellow Tail Shiraz to miraculously evolve while it’s forgotten atop your refrigerator, or the Alice White Chardonnay to improve during the six months it’s been hiding beyond the mayonnaise and wilted celery. It’s not these everyday wines I’m talking about, but Australia’s higher-end pours, generally red.

Following the great 1996 and 1998 vintages, consumer interest in these wines surged, driven in part by some American critics, who heaped praise on Australia’s herculean, blockbuster reds, laden with alcohol and extract.

For many of those wines with big point scores, prolonged maturity estimates and inflated price tags, time has not been kind. Several of my wine-loving friends, seduced by words like unctuous, massive or explosive (all used to favorably describe dry reds), have since offloaded their purchases, disillusioned by the hollow, alcoholic shells some of their wines became.

These experiences—and the preponderance of inexpensive varietal wines in the U.S. market—have led to the widespread conclusion that Australian wines don’t age well.

Not so fast.

In March 2013, the Henschke family dug deep into its cellar to celebrate the 50th release of its Hill of Grace Shiraz. As one of just three international critics to attend, I was treated to a complete vertical tasting of the famous wine, which comes from one small parcel of vines originally planted around 1860 in Barossa’s Eden Valley.

“It may be the only time we get to do this,” said Stephen Henschke, whose voice cracked with emotion as he hailed the contributions of his ancestors, but especially so as he talked about passing the estate on to future generations.

We “worked” our way from oldest to youngest, starting with the first vintage released, the 1958. Every decade we stopped to discuss the wines we’d just tasted.

The ’62—a highly regarded Barossa vintage—was a standout, meeting or exceeding every expectation of those in attendance. The length of the wine’s finish and suppleness of its texture set it apart, even at 50-plus years of age.

“It’s what I have in mind when making Hill of Grace,” said Stephen. “What we see in the ’50s and ’60s are really raw, natural wines—they really reflect the vintage.”

Overall, the wines of the ’70s were not as strong, reflecting that decade’s trend toward lighter, less alcoholic wines.

Stephen explained that the wines of the ’50s and ’60s would have been picked riper than those in the ’70s, perhaps a legacy left over from the days of making fortified wines.

More recent vintages remain youthful, many seemingly with decades ahead of them, like the ’81, ’82 and ’86, and virtually anything from the ’90s or younger.

If Hill of Grace is one icon of Australian winedom, its counterpart is Penfolds Grange. While Hill of Grace is a single-vineyard wine, Grange is a multiregional blend, but always anchored by Barossa Shiraz.

Almost a year ago, Penfolds brought a complete vertical of Grange to New York City as part of its Rewards of Patience program, which periodically reassesses nearly every Penfolds wine.

Once again, we tasted the wines from oldest to youngest, from the 1952 up through the unrelased 2010. With few exceptions, the wines shone brilliantly, even after traveling halfway around the world for the event (they did have a chance to settle a bit ahead of time).

Taking part in that tasting, I left with no doubts as to Grange’s ageability up to 50 years or more. Again, the ’62 was a standout.
It’s one thing to identify a couple of extra­ordinary wines that make a point. But are Grange and Hill of Grace the exceptions that prove the rule?

Hardly.

These days, with hygienic winemaking and modern closures, almost any high-quality Australian red wine will last 5–8 years. The number of them that actually improve with 10–20 years of age is much smaller, but it’s in no way limited to just a few trophy wines from the Barossa.

I’m fortunate to have been able to try a number of other Australian reds 10-plus years after the vintage, including classics like Wynns 1991 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon, Cullen’s 1995 Diana Madeline and Barossa Valley Estate’s 1998 E&E Black Pepper Shiraz.

Here are some general guidelines when picking wines for extended cellaring:  

  • Look for producers and wines with track records. One easy way is by consulting Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine.
  • Stick to classic region-variety combinations, like Barossa Shiraz, Coonawarra Cabernet and Margaret River Cabernet.
  • Avoid extremes, whether of vintage (too cool or too hot) or alcohol levels (be leery of wines that top 15% abv).

Following these suggestions should minimize your risk. Or check my list of cellar favorites below.

Top Drops

If you can keep any of these wines in your cellar for 10 years or more, you’ll drink happy.

Barossa Shiraz

Glaetzer Amon-Ra
Henschke Hill of Grace
Henschke Mount Edelstone Vineyard
Penfolds Grange
Penfolds RWT
Peter Lehmann Stonewell
Standish The Relic
Standish The Standish
Torbreck RunRig

Coonawarra Cabernet

Parker Terra Rossa First Growth
Wynns John Riddoch

McLaren Vale Shiraz

Clarendon Hills Astralis
D’Arenberg The Dead Arm

Margaret River Cabernet

Cullen Diana Madeline
Moss Wood
Vasse Felix

Other Regions/Varietals/Blends

Brokenwood Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz (Hunter Valley)
Giaconda Shiraz (Victoria)
Glaetzer Anaperenna Shiraz-Cabernet (Barossa)
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz (Clare Valley)
Mount Langi Ghiran Langi Shiraz (Victoria)
Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet-Shiraz (South Australia)
Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet (South Australia)
Penfolds St. Henri Shiraz (South Australia)
Wakefield St. Andrews Cabernet (Clare Valley)
Yalumba The Reserve Cabernet-Shiraz (varies)
Yarra Yering Dry Red No. 1 Cabernet (Yarra Valley)

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