Red quality and prices up as shortage bites

Thanks to a global shortage of premium red wine, prices are likely to continue rising. But before ever-bigger price tags tempt us to temperance, there is some compensation in ever-increasing quality and the widening palette of flavours offered by Australian wine makers.

An early January tasting of 107 Australian reds led to these conclusions:

1. Quality generally is outstanding. 69 of the 107 reds tasted rated bronze medal or higher scores. 24 achieved silver or gold medal ratings.

2. Some quite strong regional identities are emerging and we are seeing affinities for particular grape varieties from some regions.

3. Vineyards along the western slopes of New South Wales’ Great Dividing Range are becoming a source of premium reds. Two of the best wines in the tasting came from Orange and Mudgee respectively. There were strong showings, too, from Cowra and Young.

4. We may yet see premium reds from the Riverina area. Two Creswick Estate reds (Shiraz 1995 and Cabernet Merlot 1995) scored well as flavoursome, affordable reds. They were not up with the best, but they offer value and better quality than we normally associate with the region.

5. Oak plays a major role in the flavour and structure of our reds. Oak is generally well used to complement flavour and aroma, but sometimes it intrudes on fruit flavour and regional character.

6. As a generalisation, 1995 vintage reds are shadows of their normal selves. There are a few beauties, but try before you buy.

Not surprisingly, producers generally seem to be taking advantage of the wine shortage. It is difficult to find a decent red that is not fully priced.

However, with the big companies now publicly owned and seeking respectable returns to shareholders, the price gap between their wines and those of smaller makers appears to have closed. The big companies continue to make some of the best wines, but they are not selling them at a discount.

Luckily for consumers, while producer margins appear fatter than ever, retailers still fight for every sale they get. Thus, the better known a brand is, the more likely that retailers will cut margins on it to flag what good value they’re offering.

It pays to shop around! And when it comes to the classics (eg: Wynns and Penfolds reds) the best time to shop is immediately after release. This is when retailer discounting peaks. Despite rationing of these wines, they are invariably offered at or near cost by the most aggressive sellers.

Penfolds Bin 28 and Bin 128 1993, for example, now retail for around $17 a bottle. But when they were released earlier last year, several outlets discounted them to $11.99 when bought by the dozen.

With small-maker wines, it is not uncommon to find cellar door prices below those of retail stores. A quick phone call to the cellar may save you money.

In my January tastings, I tried to assemble only wines currently available from their makers. Hence, many old favourites were not included. These then were my selections from a pleasingly varied bunch.

The absolute knock-out wines in terms of sheer strength and concentration of flavour were: Tollana Eden Valley Show Shiraz 1993; St Hallett Old Block Barossa Shiraz 1993; Reynolds Orange Cabernet Sauvignon 1994; Rosemount Estate Orange Cabernet Sauvignon 1993; Plantagenet Mount Barker Cabernet Sauvignon 1994; Rosemount Estate Reserve Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 1994; and Rosemount Estate Mountain Blue Mudgee Shiraz Cabernet 1994.

Just a whisker behind and offering similar style diversity were: Redman Coonawarra Cabernet Merlot 1993; Majella Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 1994; Oakridge Yarra Valley Cabernet Merlot 1994; Hungerford Hill Young/Cowra Cabernet Sauvignon 1994; Barossa Valley Estates Moculta Shiraz 1995; Evans and Tate Margaret River Merlot 1994; Mc Williams Rosehill Hunter Valley Shiraz 1991; Hardys Bankside McLaren Vale Shiraz 1994; Rosemount Estate McLaren Vale Shiraz 1994; Barwang Young Shiraz 1994; Barwang Young Cabernet Sauvignon 1994; Mildara Robertson’s Well Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 1994; and Mitchelton Goulburn River Shiraz 1994.

Amongst the less expensive commercial reds, McWilliams Mount Pleasant Philip Shiraz 1991 stood out for its idiosyncratic, gamy, earthy Hunter style. It’s one to love or hate. I loved it. my two tasting companions hated it. But for those who love stinky, old-style Hunter reds this one’s a bottle-aged bargain at $10-$12.