But then, the problem for top-shelf Australian wines isn't price so much as taste. In the last decade, ultraripe, high-alcohol, extravagantly oaked shirazes from the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, regions close to Adelaide, came to dominate the luxury end of the Australian wine market in the United States. It is a rendering of shiraz that Robert Parker happens to adore, and the huge scores that his publication, the Wine Advocate, awarded many of the wines made them wildly popular, which encouraged producers to pump out more and more of these purple people-eaters (the ever-decorous Australians refer to them as "leg spreaders") and retailers and importers to load up on them.
But consumers have now soured on this genre. Hayward thinks it is a case of fruit-bomb fatigue—that people ultimately found the wines to be overbearing and tiresome. It didn't help that a lot of these wines seemed to share the same basic profile—sweet, jammy fruit, strong oak influences—and were more or less indistinguishable from one another. It has also been suggested that many of the hulking shirazes were simply overrated. Whatever the case, pricey Australian wines are now the lepers of the fine-wine market, and many oenophiles appear to have written off Australia entirely. "It is a nightmarish situation," says Posner.
It is certainly an unfortunate one, because Australia is capable of producing sensational wines, a point convincingly demonstrated at a Penfolds tasting I attended in New York last fall. Penfolds is Australia's best-known winery and makes its most famous wine, Penfolds Grange, a shiraz that has long been considered among the pre-eminent liquid collectibles. The lunch included the 2002, 1991, and 1990 Grange, all of which were terrific, as well as the 1990 vintage of the Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon, another benchmark Australian wine. They also served the Penfolds 1962 Bin 60A Cabernet-Shiraz and the 1967 Bin 7 Cabernet-Shiraz, two celebrated rarities. Although both were now a little creaky, they were still superb, with as much complexity and nuance as you could hope to find in a wine.
While Penfolds is itself one of the major Australian brands and is owned by an even bigger brand, the Foster's Group (yes, that Foster's), it continues to turn out an impressive portfolio. The Grange is a hefty investment—$250 to $400 a bottle, depending on the vintage—and the Bin 707 isn't cheap, either, selling for around $90 to $100. But Penfolds produces a number of less-expensive bottlings, including one of the wine world's best-kept secrets: the St. Henri Shiraz. Made without any new oak (it can be done!), the St. Henri is a delicious shiraz that can age for decades and easily holds its own against wines from France's Northern Rhone Valley (syrah's heartland). It goes for around $50 a bottle and should ideally be kept in the cellar for at least a few years; if curiosity pulls the cork, you should decant it for several hours before serving.
Not every Australian wine is big and red: The country also produces excellent dry rieslings. Look for examples from Grosset, Frankland Estate, and Kilikanoon as well as the Penfolds Bin 51 Riesling ($17) and a favorite of mine, the Leeuwin Estate Art Series Riesling ($21). Leeuwin, which is in the Margaret River district of Western Australia and also produces well-regarded chardonnays, cabernets, and shirazes, is represented in the United States by Old Bridge Cellars, one of several importers putting an accent on regional diversity and finesse-driven winemaking. While I definitely prefer elegance over power, I find that some of the more restrained Australian wines lack personality; it is almost as if they've had the character leached out of them. Harnessed exuberance is exactly what I want from Australian wines, but achieving that state of equilibrium is evidently not easy. That said, there are some good wines being imported by Old Bridge, as well as the Australian Premium Wine Collection, Epicurean Wines, and Southern Starz.
Surprisingly, some of the best Australian wines I've tasted recently are the handiwork of a pair of Americans, Aspen-based sommelier Richard Betts and his friend Dennis Scholl, an art collector and oenophile. Betts & Scholl, as their label is known, is producing wine in France, California, and Australia. Teaming up with winemaker Christian Canute, one of the leading talents in the Barossa Valley, Betts & Scholl puts out two exemplary grenaches, the O.G. ($29) and the Chronique ($49). These are big but balanced wines, full of sunshine and warmth and with a terrific herbal kick that evokes thoughts of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. With an assist from another eminent Australian vintner, Trevor Jones, Betts & Scholl also crafts a very winning riesling ($29); made in the Eden Valley, in South Australia, it is a crisp, spirited wine with bright fruit and pronounced minerality.