Down Under is down. After hyperactive growth in the 1990s and early part of the millennium, Australian wine exports suddenly wilted, like a rugby player 78 minutes into the game. Sorry, did I say rugby? I meant soccer.
It's been hard to tell in Canada, Australia's third-largest export market. We imported 55 million litres of koala juice in the 12 months that ended in March, behind the United Kingdom (261 million litres) and United States (193 million litres). Canada's blood type is shiraz.
But unlike here, where imports grew 8 per cent, other countries have lost the loving feeling. The U.K. was down 4 per cent, while Americans shipped in 16-per-cent less Australian wine than the year earlier. Worldwide, Australian exports fell 3 per cent.
More troubling for the country's producers has been the global decline in dollar value in recent years. People are spending less per bottle.
It's a stark slowdown for a country that came out of nowhere in the 1980s to become the fourth-largest wine-exporting nation, after France, Italy and Spain. Many factors are at play, most notably the strength of the Aussie dollar and brutal competition from other value-oriented producers, such as Argentina, South Africa and sunny southern Italy.
But you can sustain blistering success only for so long. Unless, that is, you reinvent yourself. That's what Australia's been trying. In an effort to wean the world up from bargain shiraz, the country's signature red, producers have been playing up the regional angle. They want the world to know Oz is not one big hothouse for pumping out ripe but merely gluggable, industrial wines. It's a continent of varied microclimates, just like Europe, where, for example, cool regions such as Yarra Valley and Margaret River can yield premium, crisp Burgundian pinot noirs and herbaceous and elegant Bordeaux-like cabernet sauvignons, respectively. It's also a living oenological museum, with 140-year-old vines, among the oldest in the world. Having escaped the ravages of disease thanks to the dry climate, those vines now bear fewer but more concentrated grape bunches, yielding wines of intensity and complexity that many French winemakers would - if you ask when they're slightly tanked and speaking off the record - would kill for.
And to battle the perception that Australian wine is controlled by a handful of giants (three companies make an estimated 75 per cent of Australian wine exports by volume), many family-owned wineries are playing up their homey heritage. Two years ago, a group of 12 branded themselves Australia's First Families of Wine, a collective with, as their marketing line goes, "more than 1,200 years of winemaking experience." They include d'Arenberg, De Bortoli, Henschke, Jim Barry, McWilliam's, Tyrrell's and Yalumba. Some of their offerings are represented on the right as part of a four-week "Rediscover Down Under" promotion at Ontario LCBO stores.
Henschke Johann's Garden 2007 (Australia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $54.95
From the hot Barossa Valley, this full, succulent blend of grenache, mourvèdre and shiraz starts with sweet berry candy, then turns deliciously savoury, with notes of cedar, spice and herbs, lifted by good acidity on the finish. It would pair well with seared duck breast.
Plunkett Fowles Stone Dwellers Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (Australia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95
From another relatively cool region for Australia, the Strathbogie Ranges, this red delivers impressively ripe fruit flavour, hiding the almost-flammable 15-per-cent alcohol well. Velvety, full and remarkably balanced for all that ethanol, it tastes of dark berries, with fine, dry tannins and good acidity. Very impressive, it would suit steak or lamb chops. New to the Ontario general-list shelves.
Wyndham Estate George Wyndham Shiraz 2007 (Australia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95
Smooth in the middle but with a pleasant bit of roughness around the edges, this full-bodied red shows ripe, pure fruit flavours of blackberry and plum, spice and chewy, mouth-coating tannins. The acidity is admirably crisp, too, thanks to the relatively cool climate of South Australia's Langhorne Creek region. It would be splendid with medium-rare steak.
Wakefield Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (Australia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.95
Full-bodied and nicely layered, showing classic cabernet flavours of cassis and black olive, supported by vanilla, chocolate and an essence of sweetened black coffee. (I feel like I'm in a Parisian bakery here.) The finish is long and juicy. Pair it with roast beef or leg of lamb.
Jim Barry The Cover Drive Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 (Australia)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $23.95
Named for a cricket batting shot (depicted on the label), this full-bodied red doesn't quite knock it out of the park (can you do that in cricket?), but it's good, starting out with a slightly confected, gummy-candy note, then developing attractive blueberry, spice and minty flavours. Try it with lamb chops or whatever type of hot dogs they serve at cricket matches.
Morse Code Shiraz 2008 (Australia)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $12.95
Big wine for the money, this full-bodied, succulent red from Henry's Drive Vignerons shows smooth texture and an astringent tug from lightly dusty tannins. The finish is dry and lively. Handle with care: it tips the scales at 14.7-per-cent alcohol, though you'd hardly notice thanks to the quaffable, dense, fruity core. It's a big bargain and very enjoyable on its own. Cool, minimalist label. New to the Ontario general-list shelves.
De Bortoli DB Reserve Pinot Noir 2008 (Australia)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $15.95
This is a cheerful, medium-bodied red, with a slightly confected taste akin to the gamay grape of Beaujolais. But it has a pinot's soul - more than can be said of many Aussie pinots in its price range. Juicy and brimming with berry flavour, it should be paired with lighter meats, such as pork, or grilled salmon.
Kangarilla Road Charlie's Blend Shiraz Cabernet 2008 (Australia)
SCORE: 87 PRICE: $12.95
A jammy, vaguely sweet crowd-pleaser, with cherry and raisin sharing equal billing. Decent acidity pulls it back from getting syrupy. It's like an affordable, easily quaffable California zinfandel - from Australia. Beautiful label, with a modernist impression of red, curly strands of hair. Serve it with ribs or burgers.
Burns Shiraz 2008 (Australia)
SCORE: 83 PRICE: $22.95
James Halliday, the veteran and distinguished Australian wine critic, liked this wine a whole lot more than I did. I'd generally defer to Halliday, but the bottle I tasted veered sharply into vegetal-ville, with a distinct note of cabbage. There's decent fruit here, as well as satisfying earth and spice flavours and a slightly dusty texture. But what's up with the coleslaw?