Winners pouring out of Australia

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As surely as a platypus is an egg-laying mammal, Americans will work themselves into a frenzy over all things Australian this month as the 2000 Summer Olympic Games open in Sydney.

Amid all the Aussie hype, it is unlikely that Australia's thriving wine industry will go unnoticed. Thousands of Americans who will travel to Sydney will be exposed to a wide variety of Australian wines. Chances are, they'll like what they taste because Australia's wine industry is consistently improving.

You won't have to travel to Sydney to taste many of Australia's finest wines, however. Each year, more Aussie wineries ship their products to the United States. And judging by the increased shelf space retailers are giving the wines, they have already won a broad following among American consumers.

In a stroke of luck, Australia has produced a vintage of classic quality - hailed as the finest in two decades - just as it was about to get its turn in the international spotlight.

The 1998 vintage reflects the ideal growing conditions that year in most of the wine regions of southeastern Australia, and that vintage is now well represented in American wine shops.

In a recent round of tastings of Australia's 1998s, I uncovered several wines of gold-medal quality. Reds predominate, but there were some exquisite whites. Most are on the expensive side ($20 and up), but there were also some extraordinary values at moderate prices.

Whites

1998 Leasingham Riesling, Clare Valley ($11). It's rare to find so much flavor packed into a riesling without a hint of sweetness. The flavors are both exotic - baked apple, tropical fruit, citrus, herbs and peaches - and graceful. The wine's taut structure brings all these disparate flavors together into a harmonious whole. This incredible value would be perfect with barbecued shrimp.

1998 Chain of Ponds Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills ($30). This rich, ripe wine is a far cry from the typically bombastic Australian style of chardonnay. Its subtle use of oak recalls the style of fine white Burgundy. The fruit flavors - apple, lemon and peach - are counterbalanced by notes of minerals and almonds. It manages to be both powerful and elegant - always a winning combination.

Reds

1998 Tatachilla Wattle Park Shiraz, South Australia ($11). This full-bodied, supple red wine is unusually smooth and graceful for a shiraz in its price class. Ready to drink right now, it displays appealing flavors of blackberry, herbs, mint and eucalyptus.

1998 Penfold's Koonunga Hills Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon, South Australia ($13). This wine clearly shows the effects of a great vintage. The Koonunga Hills bottling from Penfold's is always a reliable, moderately priced red, but 1998's version takes this wine to another level of power and complexity - making it a sensational value that savvy wine enthusiasts will want to stockpile. It offers gripping, layered flavors of black currant and blackberry, with hints of herbs and chocolate.

1998 Clancy's Barossa ($20). Australia winemakers love to blend varieties and when they do it well, the results can be impressive. This excellent red combines shiraz (54 percent), cabernet sauvignon (22 percent), merlot (12 percent) and cabernet franc (12 percent) into a harmonious whole. Flavors include black cherry, blackberry, meat and chocolate. The label is too complicated, but the wine makes up for that small sin.

1998 Tatachilla Padthaway Cabernet Sauvignon ($20). Is this Australia's tribute to the Napa Valley? Close your eyes and you could believe you're in the heart of California wine country. This wine offers classic Napa-style structure and flavors - black currant, chocolate, smoked meat - with no hints of the leathery notes that often distinguish Australian reds. It compares quite well with Napa cabernets at twice the price.

1998 Peter Lehmann "The Barossa" Shiraz ($20). This huge, luscious, velvety red wine is so immediately seductive it's easy to overlook the firm structure underneath. The youthful flavors of black raspberry and chocolate are decadently appealing now but should evolve over a decade into something more complex and equally appealing. But how do you keep your hands off it?

1998 Yunbar Estate "Sinners' Shiraz," Barossa Valley ($42). Yes, the price is daunting, but this is an Aussie classic. The aroma carries enticing hints of cedar and eucalyptus. The concentrated blackberry fruit is seasoned with notes of leather, smoked meat and herbs. The finish lingers and lingers. And as gripping as this wine is now, it should evolve for the next decade or two into a perfect 10.

The tasting provided strong evidence that 1998 has produced a great crop of Australian wines at a most propitious time. But some winemakers squandered their opportunity to make great wine.

Readers would be well advised to steer clear of the medicinal 1998 Owen's Estate Merlot from South Australia ($20); the thin 1998 Peterson's Mudgee Cabernet Sauvignon ($20); and the disappointingly neutral 1998 Thomas Mitchell Southeastern Australia Marsanne ($11).

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