Early on, no label was more effective at introducing Americans to the lush and forceful wines of Oz, especially chardonnay and shiraz. This was long before Yellow Tail sprang onto the American wine scene, remember.
Today, Australian wine has lost much of its cachet among Americans, for reasons that mystify even the most sagacious of the industry's observers, as Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer notes in this essay. Rosemount remains relatively popular in the American market, but it no longer generates the buzz it once did.
The two guys most responsible for Rosemount's early success also are still around and still making and marketing wine, though they no longer are affiliated with the brand, which passed from them to a series of corporations. They're Robert Oatley and Chris Hancock, both well past traditional retirement age but still charged with the conviction that Australian wine has a place on the American table.
Their vehicle for making that case is Robert Oatley Vineyards, nestled in the low and gentle hills of Mudgee, northwest of Sydney.
Chris Hancock, who makes the Robert Oatley wines, reprising his role at Rosemount, paused in Napa Valley not long ago to entertain a group of wine writers over dinner at Ken Frank's smart restaurant La Toque.
Hancock brought along several new and pending releases to show that the wines of Robert Oatley Vineyards represent another side of the Australian wine story. But before pouring them, he was asked why he didn't just pocket his money from the Rosemount sale and kick back at Robert Oatley's posh resort Qualia on Hamilton Island in the Great Barrier Reef. Why in 2006 did they start all over with an entirely new winery?
"It's in the blood," Hancock says. "What else are you going to do - sit on the beach and wait to die? I need to remain occupied, and what's better than to do something you do well? Besides, we have a bit of a history in the business, and we want to continue that legacy for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This is their heritage."
He and Oatley have no designs to repeat their immense success with Rosemount, though in just five years their annual production has hit 200,000 cases, with about a fifth of that exported to the United States.
As at Rosemount, Hancock's stylistic decisions focus on texture, flavor and balance. Now, as then, his wines are intended to be immediately accessible, true to varietal, and with a thrust that grabs the palate at the outset and keeps massaging it so endearingly that the diner returns eagerly for more.
That combination of accessibility and punch is what wine needs to keep attracting new customers, he believes. "Non-wine consumers tend to judge wine on the first taste. They don't judge on the bouquet, the nose," Hancock says. "Wine should deliver a hit of freshness in the front of the mouth, and then it should open up. You want to avoid green flavors, excessive tannins and too much acidity."
Australian wines could be languishing on the American market, he speculates, because much of what is being exported to the U.S. is perceived as "rich, heavy and high in alcohol."
"That's the antithesis of our style," Hancock says. "We want our wines fresh, bright, crisp and, above-all, food friendly."
Early on, he adds, Australian wines did tend to be richer and higher in alchol than what customarily was being found on the market. "They were almost syrupy," says Hancock. "That style was an instant hit, but it wasn't lasting, and now it deservedly is out of style. It was driven by one or two influential wine writers in this country. But now the Australian wine style is reverting back to being more food friendly. More thoughtful winemaking is going on right now."
Several other reasons could help account for the slip in esteem of Australian wine, he adds. Competition has intensified; Argentine vintners especially are making smart wines, Hancock says. In the United States, the economic recession, consolidation of distributorships, and the plunge in the value of the American dollar all have combined to complicate the prospects for Australian wines in the U.S., in particular Oz's smaller producers. "The U.S. has to stop printing money. A few years ago the Aussie dollar was worth half the U.S. dollar. Now we're almost at parity. This has made a lot of wine exporters look twice at their profitability."
But Hancock has been around long enough to see several economic booms and busts, and he's confident that the American economy will bounce back so strongly that the nation's wine enthusiasts will start to discover and embrace higher-priced boutique wines from Australia. "We're optimistic that the U.S. will resume its position as the economic powerhouse of the world. You have this great ability here to heal. We just want to be around when the good times come back," Hancock says.
In preparing for that day, the wines he is crafting at Robert Oatley represent a sharper and more graceful turn on the Rosemount model. Drinkability and authority still are evident in his signature, but the body is more buoyant, varietal flavors more distinct, acidity more refreshing. Today, he says, people are tending to eat lighter and fresher foods, filling their plates with a greater array of weights and flavors. He's tailoring his wines for that appetite. "You have to keep pace, or you get left behind," Hancock says.
"We're getting as much purity of flavor as we can from each varietal. We want recognizable varietal flavor in the same way that salmon tastes like salmon and beef like beef. It's a matter of making wines as focused as you can. We want to add another flavor to the table, but a flavor complementary and compatible," he says.
Where does terroir come into his equation? "One begets the other," he says. "It's getting the terroir right for the variety that gives you varietal character." Thus, while Mudgee is Robert Oatley's principal appellation, several of its wines carry appellations such as Mornington Peninsula, Margaret River, Great Southern and King Valley.
And with that, he took his seat and began to pour his wines. For starters, they included the lean and peachy Robert Oatley 2010 Great Southern Riesling, whose pointed acidity offset its modest residual sugar, and the broad and deep Robert Oatley 2010 Mudgee Gewurztraminer, whose unusually solid build and vibrant and persistent flavors of lychee nuts and rosewater were just the match for the warm lobster salad with roasted sweet potatoes that constituted the first course. The Robert Oatley 2009 Mudgee Chardonnay was a curious yet satisfying blend of older and more modern sensibilities in the handling of the varietal, at once ripe and toasty yet dry, taut and refreshing in the zest of its finish. While pinot noir isn't a varietal often associated warmly with Australia, the Robert Oatley 2009 Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir was substantial enough in rich cherry flavors, solid structuring and generous oaking to pair delightfully with ravioli of chickpeas and ricotta in a broth of wild mushrooms and parmesan.
My other favorites were the highly aromatic, sweetly fruity and complicated (earth, herbs, chocolate) Robert Oatley 2008 Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Robert Oatley 2009 King Valley Tempranillo, which for its inky color, ripe fruit, firm tannins and generous oak was a husky departure from the rest of the lineup. Both would have gone splendidly with the lamb loin and the carrot puree seasoned with cumin had not the meat been so salty.
Aside from the dinner, I've been impressed by several other Robert Oatley wines in recent months, including the racy 2010 Pemberton Sauvignon Blanc, which in the assertiveness of its grapefruit, cilantro and lime essence could as readily be from New Zealand as Australia; the bright and refreshing 2009 Mudgee Rose of Sangiovese, smelling of roses and tasting of strawberries; and even the coppery 2009 South Australia Pinot Grigio, which while lean in build and slow to open nevertheless rewarded the patient diner with clean fruit flavor and prickly acidity.
Robert Oatley wines, bottled with screwcaps, and widely distributed, generally are priced in the $15 to $20 range, though a few will be close to $30. Climb aboard for a different sort of ride on the Australian wave.