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Educating Wine Pros About Oz

Wine Australia reaches out to U.S. sommeliers
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 6, 2009 12:40pm ET

Don’t be surprised if your favorite local sommelier suggests an Australian Pinot Noir, or maybe a nice glass of Down Under Sauvignon Blanc. The country’s wines other than Shiraz and Chardonnay apparently are making quite the impression in a series of six intensive immersion programs designed to “explore the less well-known corners of Australia’s viticultural landscape.”

Run by Mark Davidson, a former sommelier himself, the programs target restaurant pros in eight cities: New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington D.C., Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. A resident of Vancouver, Canada, Davidson addresses the West Coast cities.

The program started in August with Riesling and Pinot Noir, and continued in September with sparkling wines, crisp whites and rosé. Upcoming sessions cover Grenache and fortifieds, Cabernets and blends, and a final comparative blind tasting of Australian wines with global equivalents. The examples include current and older vintages.

The sommeliers’ reactions to the first few sessions underlines how much some of them have to learn about Oz. “The Pinot Noirs shocked them. They were surprised at how refined and elegant they were,” Davidson reported. “Some of them said they expected fruit bombs with lashings of oak. None showed that.”

The Pinots on the table are among my favorites in Oz, all from cool climate areas around Melbourne in Victoria: Bindi Composition 2007 from Macedon Ranges, Kooyong Meres 2005 from Mornington Peninsula and Yering Station Reserve 2006 from Yarra Valley. The Rieslings in that session weren’t too shabby, either, including Grosset Polish Hill 2008 from Clare Valley and Pewsey Vale Contours 2003 from Eden Valley.

Wines like that have been around for a while, but clearly if sommeliers have missed them, the rest of us have a ways to go. That’s understandable, as we all grapple with a wine world that’s evolving fast. Outstanding wines are coming from places that weren’t on the map a generation ago.

For example, why should a sommelier even think of Australia Sauvignon Blanc when all the buzz is about New Zealand, California and of course the Loire in France? Maybe because there’s something about Shaw and Smith Sauvignon Blanc from Adelaide Hills (shown in session 3) that’s unlike anything from elsewhere. It’s one of my go-to Aussie whites, and I can understand why the participants flipped over it. All the more fun for us, their customers, when they share their excitement over it with us.

That’s why the Australia wine industry has taken on the task of putting their less obvious wines in front of the gatekeepers. The wines can speak for themselves. Those of us who know the wines already understand how good they are, how their flavor and texture profiles deliver distinctive character. Even with Shiraz, which presumably the sommeliers knew about going in, the sommeliers were impressed with the balance and purity of fruit in wines such as John Duval, Mount Langi Ghiran and Langmeil Freedom.

This whole program seems designed to combat the prevailing notion that Australia makes nothing but big, oaky, overripe Shiraz. It's nice to see that the full range of wines Oz can do well is getting more currency.

Angela Medeiros Slade
Oakland, CA  —  November 6, 2009 6:26pm ET
We've been having lots of fun working with Wine Australia's Mark Davidson (for west coast) and Suzy Barros (for east coast). The seminar series is an exciting program, and top wineries are showing their support by providing really special wines, as appropriate, for the different sessions. Just today I packed up 8 little 70 ml-size bottles of Seppeltsfield 100 yr-old Tawny that were air-freighted over just for Mark & Suzy's November seminars on fortified!
Jason Adams
Florida —  November 7, 2009 10:03am ET
You can always find some maverick producers who are getting it right and turn some prejudices around. The issue is, these are the exceptions, and by no means the rule. The overall quality for Oz wines is a very different story.
I am glad to see they are spotlighting the good stuff, but with so much industrial Aussie wine out there, they have a long road to hoe.
Ronnie Sanders
Philly —  November 9, 2009 8:26am ET
Hey Jason, I respectively disagree with you. The amount of great Pinot Noir coming out of Australia right now is much greater than you would think. Furthermore, stylistically the wines are closer to what you would expect from the old world than the new world. The main issue as a consumer here in the US is finding these wines. Most are not exported and gobbled up down there. Most of these winemakers are younger and have experience working in Burgundy. There is a whole generation of VIctorian producers that are in their 20s and 30s that are making fantastic wine. Most of these pinots top off at 13%. Look for wines from Aliies, By Farr, William Downie, Freycenet, Phi, Punch. Ashton Hills, Bannonckburn, Bass Phillips, Giant Steps, as well as Kooyong and Bindi which are mentioned above by Harvey and Moondarra and Mac Forbes, all four of which my company imports. Debortoli is making some fantastic inexpensive Pinot that I would put up against anything in the world at its prices points. Americans just need to get over thier predjudices about what Australia is.
Jason Adams
Florida —  November 9, 2009 2:37pm ET
Ronnie,
I have no doubt as to the quality that is being made. I should have qualified that and said "found in the US market". As my former post made reference to, the wines you mention are exceptions to the rule that is in America.
Oregon is much the same way, as 60% of the wines never leave the state. That being said, the stuff that makes it over state wines is still pretty darn good.
The same can not be said for our friends down under. Until the Aussie's remedy that, I suspect they will continue to feel the wrath of the US consumer. The prejudice you mention is due to what we have seen shipped to us. Critter wines and over priced me too Shiraz has caught up with them and they know it.
Daniel Eggleton
Barossa Valley Australia —  November 9, 2009 4:25pm ET
To all above, there are a lot of us really trying to show what diversity there is available to the US market, however the marketplace, the buyers and the retailers is the place where we find the most resistance. It is still easier to sell the mega volume produced cheap wines to the uneducated many rather than try to lift expectations and understanding. I am a young owner operator, doing organics, sustainable practices and natural ferments, tiny volumes (down to single barrels)and single vineyards but do you think I can get traction over there? It is not cheap wine, but I can tell you that it is good! And I am not the only one, the younger makers here in the Barossa are madly trying to get our wines past "over ripe/ alcoholic/ tarry/prune juice" stage driven by a certain novelist on wines.... and get elegance into our wines, lower alcohols, fine tannins and purity of fruit. Blending and alternative varieties are playing a larger part in the renaissance in the Barossa. If there is a magic bullet I need it now! Cheers, Dan Eggleton Creed Wines
Greg Melick
Hobart,Tasmania, Australia —  November 10, 2009 5:06am ET
As a producer of very limited amounts of Pinot Noir I agree with the comments from Ronnie and Daniel.The export market seems to be in love with gimmicky critter labels and much of our super premium and premium wines are not made in sufficient quantities to justify the embuggerance of trying to establish an export market despite their obvious quality. Our dollar's current performance does not make life any easier although Tasmanian Rieslings can now compete in most of the price brackets because of their outstanding fruit/acid balances.(I confess to also producing Riesling).
Jason Adams
Florida —  November 14, 2009 5:21pm ET
Kudos to Daniel and Greg for bucking the trend and doing what they think is correct. No one really knows why Oz wine sales have taken it so much harder than anyone else in this time, but historically, the marketing has certainly been contrary to almost every other region in the world.
I am glad we are starting to see more emphasis on smaller high quality examples, but its unfortunate that it took this long for the trend to take hold. If our somms don't know about this, then certainly the general public does not.
We have seen the negociants of Burgundy and grand marques of Champagne make (some) strides due to the peer pressure smaller, better producers have exerted on them, and of course this is very much a work in progress. We all learned one thing - quality matters.
Based on this model, I don't understand why the OZ industry saw such value in producing wines that deemphasize varietal character and geography. In certain aspects the Aussies are very progressive and forward thinking (IE Stelvin closures). Sadly, none of that matters when the contents of the bottle dissapoints in case after case.
Oz had some great visionary leaders that were icons for the region. They have been replaced by corporate boards who most likely don't even drink wine. Oz needs the passion and commitment of the boutique producers to return and assume their rightful place at the top of their region.
Being that the Daniel's and the Greg's of the world already understand this, I can only hope that the corporate overlords who have applied for financial assistance from the Aussie gov't can read this and start to see that they have buried a viable region.

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