Two keys to Australian wine quality are the continent's mostly hot and dry climate and its great number of technically proficient winemakers. Australia's wine regions are spread across the southern rim of the country, generally close to the sea, from the Hunter Valley, just above Sydney on the east coast, across to the Margaret River, south of Perth on the west coast-a distance of roughly 2,000 miles. (The generic appellation South Eastern Australia is used to describe blended wines from virtually anywhere but Western Australia.) Making blanket statements about Australia's weather in a given growing season would be almost like saying that Southern California and North Carolina experienced the same climatic conditions.
Even within fairly small areas conditions can vary dramatically according to ocean influence, altitude and type of soil. The often scorching hot Barossa Valley in South Australia, for example, can produce red Australian wines that approach vintage port in their dried-fruit flavors and alcoholic heft. But parts of the Clare Valley, less than 50 miles away, are significantly cooler. At the same time, though, Barossa benefits from a high percentage of old vines with deep root systems, which are more likely to be able to get water than younger vines in other regions, which rely heavily on irrigation and scarce water resources.
Medium to full-bodied wines with flavors of black cherry, plum, and tobacco
Roasts, hamburgers, other grilled meats
Merlot enjoyed a surge in popularity in the 1990s as consumers suddenly discovered that they could enjoy aromas and flavors similar to those of Cabernet in a fleshier, softer wine with smoother tannins. A wave of Merlot plantings followed, frequently in soils and microclimates completely inappropriate for this variety, and the market was soon flooded with dilute bottles from young vines and high crop levels, and weedy, herbaceous examples from underripe fruit. Many of these undernourished wines were overoaked in attempts to mask their deficiencies. Over the same period, a number of Cabernet producers began picking riper fruit and doing a better job managing their tannings during the making and aging of their wines. The result was an upswing of powerful, satisfying Cabernets that were far less austere in their youth -- and a sharp decline in interest in Merlot.
Still, California's best Merlots, some of which predated the vogue for this variety in the 1990s, continue to be some of the finest examples of this variety outside Bordeaux -- in the same quality league with wines from Washington State and Italy's Tuscan coast region. Expect to find broad, supple wines with medium to full body, typically with aromas and flavors of black cherry, plum, dark berries, dark chocolate, tobacco, and earth, and suave, fine-grained tannins. Merlot also rules in Pomerol, and nowhere in the world does this variety make more complete wines than on the flat, clay-rich plateau that lies at the heart of this appellation.