It’s been over 15 years since Australian critter wines and high-end, points-driven bottlings first began making headlines and dominating wine lists and shelves. For many of today’s buyers, that story might as well be ancient history. “Australia has quite the story to tell,” explains Tonya Pitts, the sommelier and wine director for San Francisco’s One Market Restaurant, “but it’s not the story so many of us grew up on.” For buyers looking to explore, “there is value, uniqueness, and something for everyone’s customers and all consumers,” she adds.
If it seems like there’s a more diverse crop of Australian wines hitting the wine streets, it’s not your imagination. “Australian wineries are coming into the U.S. market in numbers not seen in over a decade, and three out of four new entrants are pricing their wines [at] US$15 and above,” explains Aaron Ridgway, Wine Australia’s regional general manager for the Americas. “That level of confidence and excitement is helping lift the category to a place where U.S. buyers can build retail sets and wine lists that truly reflect the fascinating quality, diversity, and depth of Australia’s offering.”
The wines offer what Jane Lopes, the Nashville-based cofounder of Legend Imports, likes to call the best of both worlds. “Australia is like uncharted territory—it’s something new and different that people who’ve experienced a lot of things in the world can get excited about. But also, it’s not all crazy flavors and grape names that people never heard of, so it can be quite approachable. It can be really beneficial to work that double duty on shelves and on wine lists.”
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“You can make more money on these wines, especially the smaller producers,” recommends Gordon Little, the New York-based cofounder of Little Peacock Imports. “You can be different from the store or restaurant down the street, offer a great selection—and make a good margin.”
How to best showcase these wines? “Don’t have an Australian section,” recommends Little, “unless you really have an Australian section.” This may seem incongruous to the idea of selling more Australian wine, but Lopes agrees. “People aren’t necessarily looking for Australian wine. But if they’re looking for Cabernet and see a cool label, a nice presentation, at the price point they wanted—and it happens to be from Australia—they’ll buy it,” she says. And they’ll likely be impressed.
Which niche categories, underappreciated opportunities, and on-trend styles from Australia should buyers be keeping top of mind? SevenFifty Daily talked to importers, retailers, and sommeliers across the country to get their thoughts on the Aussie wines that are selling now.
1. Turn to Australia’s Crisp Whites
If you’re looking to beef up a selection of crisp white wines, “always choose Australia, and definitely include one of the driest Rieslings on the planet,” says Melissa McAvoy, the owner of Swirlery Wine Bar in Orlando. While there are certainly off-dry and sweet examples of Australian Riesling, dry is the reigning style.
This is a situation where highlighting the style over the grape variety works extremely well. “We’re not grabbing the person who’s like, ‘You know, what? I really want an Aussie Riesling!’ It’s definitely more about style and price point,” explains Kathy Marlin, the senior vice president of the Pioneer Division at Winebow Imports. Pouring a small taste or strategically positioning bottles in a chiller with a “yes, it’s really dry” bottle tag is an easy way to assure customers that they are getting one of the crispest, driest whites on the market.
Another option that never stays on the shelf for long at Copake Wine Works, my shop in the Hudson Valley, is Hunter Valley Semillon. A classic, racy, high-acid white when young, it’s a surefire hit for anyone looking to take a step away from Sauvignon Blanc without leaving the style altogether. In-the-know fans of the region also know that there’s a bonus factor. “For those willing to wait seven years or more, they are rewarded with unique Hunter-aged-Semillon characteristics,” explains Henry Hudson, the founder of Hudson Wine Brokers.
2. Seek Out the New Wave of Natural Wines
Natural wine and trendy styles like light, chillable reds and skin-contact whites tend to transcend regional boundaries and sell no matter where they’re from. “While some consumers may not be aware of natural wines from Australia, a lot of them have no preconceived ideas on Australian wines either,” says Hudson. “They are attracted by labels, pricing, and the ethos behind the winemaking.”
The natural wine scene in Australia is vibrant and has grown well beyond its original Adelaide Hills home base. “They won’t be cheap,” says Little, “but the best examples from anywhere won’t be cheap.” When the usual sources of natural wines dry up, or if you want to diversify beyond what everybody else is offering, seek out Australian options. They may take some leg work to track down, but importers such as Vine Street Imports, Tess Bryant Selections, and Terrell Wines are constantly expanding their distribution partnerships, so it’s worth going straight to the source to see if they may be looking to enter the local market.
3. Explore Australia’s Italian Side
Italian varieties, both red and white, are on-trend for buyers looking for flavors that lean towards the savory side. Grapes such as Dolcetto, Fiano, and Nero d’Avola are increasingly popular among winemakers now that the vines have made their way through quarantine programs at vine nurseries such as Chalmers and Yalumba. Especially well-suited to Australia’s warmer regions, they feed right into conversations about sustainable farming and winemaking.
This is especially true in the Riverland, where a cluster of brands such as Ricca Terra, Unico Zelo, Delinquente, and Humble Roots are all producing affordable, compelling wines in a region primarily known for bulk wine production. The bonus? “Lower inputs [are] required—in the vineyard and in the winery,” says David Forziati, the owner of Forziati Wine Imports in New York City. “The grapes just want to grow.” While vine vigor may need to be managed, “this is a much better problem to have than worrying about how to afford the massive quantities of water needed to grow other varieties,” he adds.
4. Check Out Grenache, a Warm-Climate Alternative to Pinot Noir
While it represents just over one percent of total plantings, Grenache has an outsized reputation. “It deserves to be a staple,” says Lopes. A long-standing component of Rhône-inspired Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvèdre (GSM) blends, it’s the lighter, fresher, more perfumed style that’s become a favorite among new-wave wine fans.
It’s this style that’s earning the grape its reputation as “warm-climate Pinot Noir” due to its aromatic complexity and silky texture, but with more consistency and less potential for heartbreak, given how finicky it can be in the vineyard. Lopes considers the grape the ideal solution to an age-old four-top challenge: “‘We like Pinot Noir and we like Cabernet. What should we drink?’ Grenache sits in the middle and pleases everyone,” she says.
5. Geek Out on Fortified and Aromatized Wines
“It’s a shame more people don’t know about the amazing fortifieds Australia has. We sell the 30-year tawny from Yalumba, and everyone who has it is blown away,” says Kate Webber, the wine director and co-owner of the Webber Restaurant Group in Groton, Massachusetts. Known as “stickies” in Aussie wine slang, these legendary wines can add some extra zip to an after-dinner shelf or menu. “In so many ways they seem more dynamic than, say, a 30-year tawny from Portugal. If we can get it, I always buy it, and it always sells out,” adds Webber, who notes that back vintages are plentiful.
If you’re really looking for the cutting edge of cool, keep an eye out for the new wave of vermouths that are starting to hit U.S. shores. “Customers are starting to talk about vermouth geography,” says Little. “Vermouths from Australia can add to that conversation.” Unique, local botanicals help complete the story and back up the premium pricing.
6. Don’t Forget Bold, Consumer-Favorite Reds
While lighter wine styles may be on-trend, Australia’s classic styles are still strong sellers for the country. “You don’t order a $200, 80-day, dry-aged steak from Snake River Farms, and get a glass of Pinot Grigio,” says Forziati. For those occasions, Australia’s full-bodied, Shiraz-based wines, especially those from warmer regions such as the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, remain a staple.
Unlike some of the high-octane styles of years past, the current wines tend to pair ripe, plush fruit with finesse and balance. At Copake Wine Works, we position them as an easy-to-sell alternative to the red blends that so many customers love. “These wines are perfect for that, at any price point,” says Forziati. “I can get a little defensive about it. It’s Shiraz, and it’s awesome.”
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Christy Frank is a partner at Copake Wine Works, a shop in the Hudson Valley of New York. She is an advanced sommelier with the Court of Master Sommeliers and holds the WSET Diploma in Wines.