Appellations Down Under 

It pays to know your Aussie wine geography

With the hundreds of Australian and New Zealand wine choices staring at you, it's hard, without your own portable wine expert, to know which awesome deal to grab. These guys produce the most flavorful, approachable juice for the money right now, and limiting yourself to only one inviting bottle per night is getting challenging. Luckily, they label their wines with an appellation, or "Geographic Indication" (GI) as they call it in Australia. This labeling term tells you where the grapes are grown, and the more you know, the more you can cash in on the good values. Australia has been making wines for as long as the U.S., but they weren't interrupted by the brainfart known as Prohibition. They embrace technology in winemaking, as evidenced by their use of mechanical harvesters and high-tech fermenters. These practices enable Australians to keep their wines affordable and make us giddy for more. They have also used technology to figure out where they should plant their grapes. Long ago, vines were established near populated areas, but as they mastered soil and climate analysis, they uncovered where classic grape varieties, like syrah, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, would thrive.

Australia has five wine-producing states: South Australia, New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania. As of March 2003, 61 Geographic Indications had been defined in Australia. You'll see the "South Australia" GI on many bottles of wine, equivalent to printing generic "California" on a label: The fruit can come from anywhere within the expansive South Australia region. But within that GI, there are extraordinary sub-regions worth remembering. Barossa Valley pretty much grows some of the best fruit in the country, but they make concentrated, luscious shiraz, often from gnarled vines more than 100 years old. For cabernet sauvignon fanatics, look for Coonawarra on the label. The mixture of Cab with all sorts of other grapes always seems to turn out delicious. And McClaren Vale is, frankly, a great place for just about any grape to grow, like shiraz, chardonnay and other Rhone varietals such as grenache.

Victoria, the state where Melbourne is, hosts some of the best pinot noir in Australia in its Yarra Valley. The varied climate welcomes these hard-to-grow grapes. Tasmanian pinots, just arrived from the chilly island off of Australia's southern coast, are a welcome addition.

New South Wales' Hunter Valley makes magnificent chardonnay and even semillon, a dry, full-bodied white wine. Western Australia, with its GI called Margaret River, is a relative newcomer, but it's already prized. The cool climate in this region yields magnificent sauvignon blancs.

Speaking of amazing sauvignon blancs, my favorite place on Earth for these grapefruit-laden, acid-lovin' wines has got to be New Zealand. For those labels, the GI to look for is Marlborough. And for smooth talkin' chardonnay, grab those from Hawkes Bay.

Wine Editor Taylor Eason can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 162 or taylor.eason@weeklyplanet.com.

RECOMMENDED WINES

Yarra Burn 2000 Pinot Noir Yarra Valley A light yet luscious pinot with an incredible balance of tannins and acids. Fruits floating on the tongue include blueberry and baked cherry. $23. 1/2

d'Arenburg 2001 Footbolt Shiraz McClaren Vale Like a cat in a fight, this wine raises its hair and charges. But then it softens, purring with cherry and spicy black pepper. $20.

Nobilo 2002 Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough Smooth, easy drinking in this New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Classic flavors of grapefruit and green grass but well-balanced acidity that doesn't make you pucker. $18.

Ninth Island 2001 Pinot Noir Tasmania Juicy, juicy fruit, brimming with expansive, elegant cherry, laced with eucalyptus. Nice acids, making this a wonderful food wine. $18.

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