I came of drinking age in the middle of the so-called critter-label boom, the days when Australia’s wine reputation increasingly rested on the backs of yellow-tailed kangaroos, waddling little penguins…an entire technicolored Darwinian menagerie, it seemed for a time. The juice in the bottle was often middling at best and, in general, lacked any sort of terroir specificity. It was typically gulpable, pleasant enough, well-packaged, and thoroughly forgettable: The wine-world equivalent of teen pop music. Eventually, Australia became a victim of the juggernaut success of these wines, and the reputation of much of its entire wine industry—with a few notable exceptions, of course—suffered as a result.
All of which makes the Australian wine world’s turnaround that much more remarkable. It’s not that great wine wasn’t being produced Down Under during those dark oenological days; it’s just that the good stuff was being drowned out.
Now, however, make no mistake: Australia is back, and the breadth of its spectacular geographical, geological, and climatic diversity is on full display in so many of the bottles being shipped across the Pacific to our own shores.
I spent nearly two weeks in Australia this past November tasting my way through the Barossa Valley, Eden Valley, McLaren Vale, Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley, and Margaret River. It was my first time visiting Oz, and as such, I arrived there hopeful and excited, but with no preconceived notions as to what I’d find.
By the end of the visit, I came away genuinely excited: Not just by the wines themselves, so many of which are as tied to their various terroirs as any of the best in the world, but also by the passionate, dedicated people growing the grapes and crafting the wine with vision and honesty.
Not only is the age of critter labels dead, but what has sprung up in its place is a wine culture as exciting, varied, and full of potential as anyplace I’ve visited recently.