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A New Wave of Australian Wine

When Richard Hargreave moved to Sydney from the U.K. to work as a sommelier in 2005, he arrived just in time to see Australia’s natural wine scene explode. Change came first to the Adelaide Hills, a cool-climate region in South Australia, he says. Many of the region’s young winemakers had worked for bigger, more established wineries in the adjacent Barossa Valley or McLaren Vale, but aimed to make wines like those they’d tried in places like Paris: fun, fresh, and in a style that they themselves wanted to drink.

That refreshing, juicy, fun style of wine immediately resonated with the public—and with sommeliers like Hargreave, who started at Quay and notched four years at Seiobo, Momofuku’s Down Under outlet. “In reality, [a lighter style is] more appropriate for the climate over there,” he says. “It gets really hot.” Hargreave says this style of wine was “completely opposite to what was considered a good wine in Australia 10 years ago”—but as its popularity grew, the trend trickled down to more established regions and producers. While not everyone converted to fully natural production, many began to spray fewer pesticides and reduce the amount of sulphur used in bottling.

Hargreave remembers a watershed moment when he felt the movement had fully taken hold: Cullen, a well-respected producer in Margaret River famous for high-end Cabernet and Chardonnay, came out with an orange wine. “For me, that was such a cool progression,” he says. “They’re very aware of who they are and their history, but they’re progressive enough to say, ‘This sounds interesting, let’s see if we can do something as good.’ That was a big moment.”

In the midst of this transformation, Hargreave transferred within the Momofuku empire to New York, then Las Vegas, before landing finally at Los Angeles’ Majordomo last year. Among other directives for his wine list—promoting small, sustainable wineries and back vintages of classic wines—Hargreave quietly set out to bring attention to the type of smaller Australian producer that American consumers might not yet have experienced. “So far, it’s been good,” he says. That doesn’t mean there’s a ton of Australian wines on the list at Majordomo, but between bottles of Luke Lambert Nebbiolo and Joshua Cooper Chardonnay, the quantity is enough to be striking, especially in contrast with the classic heavyweights on the list. “Certainly in the last couple of years there’s been an influx of these smaller producers and really exciting wines. There’s a lot more to choose from than when I moved here four years ago,” he says.

If you look at many trendsetting wine lists and stores across the country, you’ll notice the same: a small but significant—and growing—Australian presence. This would’ve been almost unimaginable a decade ago, given that in U.S. wine circles, Australia was mostly associated with the bifurcated arenas of bargain-bin bottles and bombastic point-chasing collectibles. But given that these new-wave wines can hold their own on lists against in-demand producers from Europe and the States—and are already wildly popular in Sydney, London and Tokyo—the question may not be, “Why is Australian wine gaining popularity in the U.S.?” but rather, “What took so long?”

The answer may reside in a perfect storm of variables. There are growing numbers of sommeliers with experience in Australia, like Hargreave, who understand that the depth of the market goes way past high-octane Shiraz. These new-wave Australian wines also fit the profile of a type of wine popular in America’s casual-cool dining scene: natural-ish, affordable and food-friendly. That’s a big part of the equation—the clamor for all-natural or natural-leaning wine lists has afforded this new generation of Australian wines a side door into the U.S. market.

But to understand how these small producers are finally making it to the U.S. is also to understand the role importers have in shaping what we drink. Well-connected small importers such as Vine Street Imports and, more recently, Tess Bryant Selections, have all bet big on small Australia—with the key word being “bet.”

A trio of Australian wines at Kismet in LA. | Photo by Dylan + Jeni.

Tess Bryant, who worked for a New York–based importer before striking out to build her own almost all-Australian portfolio last year, explains that when companies import wines from France, there are a lot of people sending wine over, so it’s possible to consolidate shipments and order wine only as needed. But getting wine from Australia over the equator to California is a different scenario—at least at the moment. Because she’s one of the few importers working this route, Bryant buys an entire container of 1,200 cases of wine at a time. “It’s a pretty big investment, and not an ideal cash-flow scenario,” she says. “Way more than presenting the wines to the public and getting people on board with Australia, I think the logistics are the main challenge that I’ve encountered, and perhaps why no one’s really done this exclusively with Australian natural wine before.”

Bryant became hooked on Australian wines after taking a scouting trip to the Adelaide Hills and Margaret River in 2017. What she found would change her career: a thriving community of small Australian natural wine producers she felt were right for the American market. “There were so many winemakers who were one or two or three vintages in that were just starting to make enough wine to start selling outside of their community,” she says. “It seemed like a really exciting opportunity to bring these wines to the U.S., and if I didn’t do it, somebody else might show up. It seemed like a now-or-never time.” Her employer wasn’t prepared to commit to Australian wines in the way she was, so Bryant quit her job and in the same week, bought a 40-foot container of wine to ship to California.

She says the reaction has been positive so far. “Mostly I’m selling to people who work with a lot of wines from the Loire or Catalonia, but Adelaide Hills is something they never would’ve conceived to work with, either on their shelves or list,” she says. “I find it really satisfying. At least half the people I pour wines for are creating a new section for these wines.”

For sommelier Kae Whalen of Kismet in Los Angeles, Australian wines were exactly that sort of big surprise. “About a year and a half ago, my experience with Australia was similar to what a lot of people’s were—a warmer climate, New World, a lot of big Shiraz,” she says. “You know that stereotype.” But after tasting wines from Patrick Sullivan, a winemaker from Victoria, Australia, brought in by star natural wine importer Amy Atwood, Whalen—who’d trained at Diner in Brooklyn and was recently voted one of Eater’s Young Guns of 2019—was converted.

At Kismet, a minimalist Los Feliz hangout that wouldn’t be out of place on the strip in Byron Bay, Whalen’s well-rounded list draws from around the globe—and includes a selection of Australian wines. Most of the Australian picks she features are lighter reds and skin-contact whites—the type of food-friendly fare that works with almost anything on the restaurant’s Mediterranean menu. But Whalen says she doesn’t hunt down particular styles or regions. “One thing that I really like to see or explore with a winemaker is when they have a voice that appears in each wine,” she says. From Australia, that might mean the single vineyard Grenache wines from the Margaret River–based Sam Vinciullo or the ever-changing blended wines from Sophie and Jasper Button, a brother-sister duo in the Adelaide Hills who make wine under the Commune of Buttons name.

What Whalen finds truly exciting is the way that the typical categorization of wine into red, white or rosé is something that many of the Australian producers she carries seem to have little interest in. “It’s an extension of an attitude that most natural winemakers share, but the Australians are in a place where tradition isn’t imposed the same way that, say, an AOC in Europe is, and they have a little more freedom to experiment,” she says. It’s that freewheeling experimentation that makes Australia especially compelling. “There are definitely some people who are like, ‘Why are there 11 grapes in this wine, and some are white and some are red and what do you call this?’ ” she says. “It’s always exciting to help people understand that [wine] doesn’t have to taste the same way all the time, and this is a good vehicle for that because these wines are so category defiant.”

New York sommelier Amanda Smeltz. | Photo by Eric Medsker.

At estela in New York, sommelier Amanda Smeltz finds this element of surprise that comes with the new Australian wine useful and almost subversive. She keeps a rotating stable of these wines on her all-natural list, noting that they work on multiple levels. “We have guests who don’t know much about wine, and Australia as a category is something many might feel like they understand. So if they order an Australian red, these wines really subvert their expectations,” she says. But there’s still room to surprise natural wine–savvy guests, too. “They probably don’t know the whole cool-climate pocket of the southern coast of Australia can be ideal for these lighter, fresh, more vibrant styles of wine,” she says.

Smeltz’s first exposure to new-wave Australian wine came when she inherited the wine lists at Bar Boulud and Boulud Sud, also in New York. The previous sommelier, Michael Madrigale, had a solid selection of wines from Australia on the list, including some from Brash Higgens, a former New York sommelier who’d moved to McLaren Vale to make Nero d’Avola in amphorae. Smeltz was intrigued, so she kept them around. “Some were still classically minded in terms of style, but the farming was better and the production was interesting,” she says.

But what Smeltz describes as phase two in the Australian new-wave evolution happened when she began to taste the wines that Bryant, her longtime friend, was bringing back from the Adelaide Hills. “I think Tess’ book is, ‘Okay, take off the gloves and question everything and make things that might look more like, say, natural French wine,’ that are so different than anything Australia has produced before,” she says.

Smeltz says that people sometimes overlook her wine list’s Australian section, but she’ll highlight it if she feels like people are stumped on what to order. “They look at the wine world as brands. I’ll have people staring at the French section and I’ll say, ‘Are you committed to France?’ And if they say no, I’ll say, ‘Can we go anywhere else?’ because France is such a knee-jerk impulse.” One easy way to get customers on board is to make it easy to test-drive wines on the by-the-glass list. “Right now I have a wine from Borachio that’s Chardonnay dominant, and it just doesn’t register as Chardonnay at all. It’s a lot of our staff’s favorite wine by the glass right now,” she says. “It’s been a huge success for us.”

But don’t overlook that notion of Australia as an easy, breezy lifestyle brand when considering why these wines are gaining in popularity at this particular moment, when casual and fun increasingly trumps fussy and stuffy. For Rowen McDermott, who co-owns Frankie, an Australian restaurant in Jersey City that’s replete with surfboards on the wall, boho rattan furniture and a free-spirited natural wine list, it was a no-brainer to carry Australian wines from small producers. But the connection goes deeper than simply matching the restaurant’s theme. For McDermott, who’s from Sydney, and his American partner, Rebecca Johnson, the Australian-ness of the place extends beyond food and wine to a whole lifestyle. “We’re big fans of Australian culture in the sense that it’s about a good quality of life,” he says.

Like the menus at their favorite restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne, Frankie’s menu has influences from the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia and England. But don’t call it fusion—it’s more that all of these cuisines are represented on the menu, from English comfort food to coconut green curry mussels. The wine list is similarly eclectic, spanning the globe mostly with a natural wine bent. McDermott estimates that at any given time, 30 to 40 percent of his list is Australian wines—not unlike the wine lists in hip restaurants in Sydney, where natural and homegrown is becoming the gold standard.

And local wine drinkers, both from the neighborhood and from New York City, are excited to try them. “We have a great following for people who come here for natural wines, but also some of those Australian wines you won’t find in the city,” McDermott says. Matching the spirit of the restaurant’s design, these Australian wines are fun and casual, with free-form artwork on the labels and names that could sub for indie band names, such as Yetti and the Kokonut or Ochota Barrels. Keeping in tune with his Australian winemaker counterparts, McDermott says he’s not tied to any particular style or grape when drawing up his list. “It’s more just a matter of finding wines that we enjoy drinking ourselves,” he says.

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