For many drinkers, shiraz is synonymous with Australian wine, a sort of potable analogue to kangaroos, the Sydney Opera House and Elle Macpherson.
But in the eyes of some Australian winemakers, the country's signature, fruity red represents something else: the kangaroo on consumers' backs. Those winemakers would like us to know there's more to Down Under than down-the-hatch, gulpable shirazes.
They've got a huge point. Australia is a big place and, while it produces just 6 per cent or so of the world's wine, turns out an array of styles. And not just other reds, like Bordeaux-styled cabernet sauvignons from the cool and remote West Coast or lean, elegant pinot noirs from Tasmania, but also crisp whites.
I emphasize the word crisp here because, chances are, if you're familiar with Aussie whites, you will mainly associate the country with rich, buttery and almost-sweet chardonnays. For a long time, that style had been a favourite whipping post of Aussie-wine detractors. "Too much oak, not enough finesse" went the refrain.
Refreshingly, the pendulum has started to swing away from that prevailing style, as even Chris Hatcher, chief winemaker for Wolf Blass, perhaps the brand most closely associated with the oaky style, told me on a recent visit to Toronto. The reality today veers toward leaner, crisper, more balanced chardonnays.
Two good examples were released this week through Vintages stores in Ontario as part of a spotlight on Aussie whites. Hollick Bond Road Chardonnay 2007 ($21.95, product No. 941922) is true to the sunny south Australian climate, packed with rich tropical-fruit flavour. It's buttery and toasty, like a wine that's seen its share of oak-barrel aging. But there's an impressive seam of crisp acidity that inspires you to sip it with a meal rather than as one. Speaking of which, it would match well with grilled salmon or lobster.
Thorn-Clarke Terra Barossa Chardonnay 2009 ($15.95, No. 651349) is hardly a lumbering white monster one might expect from the hot Barossa Valley. It's medium-bodied and round, with nicely integrated oak and an almost tangy finish. Very versatile.
People who know their Aussie white wines well know there's an irony to the country's reputation for oak bombs. The rieslings, among the country's underappreciated strengths, tend to be as close to tart lime juice as wine gets. I love Aussie rieslings and I like D'Arenberg The Dry Dam Riesling 2008, another new Vintages offering ($16.95, No. 942953). There's an almost-sweet core here of citrus and peach, but there's high-voltage acidity, too. Perfect for citrus-marinated shellfish.
The crisp white from this week's Ontario release that's not to be missed, though, is André & Edmond Figeat Les Chaumiennes Pouilly-Fumé 2008 from France ($21.95, No. 171470). Light-bodied yet concentrated, it offers up flavours of lemon, herbs and hints of stone and smoke, all lifted by firm acidity. It would be a treat with light fish dishes and zesty cheeses.
And available only in British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba is another terrific riesling, Quails' Gate Dry Riesling 2009 from B.C.'s Okanagan Valley ($16.99). Lemon and lime are the predominant flavours here, supported by a deliciously dry, chalky-mineral finish.