By coincidence or design, it's hard to tell, two Australian winemakers in back-to-back visits last week had the same points to make when I asked them about how things were going for them in regard to selling their wines in the U.S. Although they still encounter some resistance, retailers and restaurant wine buyers at least are willing to taste their products and, when they do, they have the same reaction.
"They say, ‘These don't taste like Australian wines,'" said Kym Tolley, whose Penley Estate wines from Coonawarra aims for lean textures and a narrow beam of intensity.
"These taste like European wines. I hear that a lot," said Paul Smith, winemaker at Wirra Wirra in McLaren Vale. "To me, they taste like good McLaren Vale wines, but if [buyers] like the style because it feels European to them, maybe that's a good thing. We make a lot of wines like these in Australia."
Both wanted to show me older vintages. Smith's array went back to a 1994 Shiraz and a 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon. Tolley's lineup included 1998 and 2000 Cabernet Sauvignons. If the point was to demonstrate that the wines kept their vibrancy when they matured, mission accomplished. A couple of off bottles skewed the results so it was hard to tell how much the wines had actually advanced, but I doubt if anyone who cellared the good bottles would be disappointed.
Wirra Wirra, out of the U.S. market for a couple of years as its previous importer went under, focused on its high-end bottlings. Its entry-level wines, well-made and priced at around $20, consistently offer ripe fruit flavors and supple textures without extra added weight. Its more costly wines up the ante by focusing on specific sites.
Chook Block, for example, is a small section of older Shiraz vines in the estate vineyard in McLaren Flat. It's been biodynamically farmed for five years. The wine from the newest vintage, Chook Block 2006, came off as focused, ripe and supple, with great depth of blueberry and plum fruit. Elegant and long, it has massive but warm tannins, finishing with a gorgeous balance (94 points, non-blind).
The older vintages, which never made it to the U.S. (or at least to my tasting bench) under the previous importer, showed just a bit less complexity and detail, but still were outstanding. The 1998 wowed me: supple, rich, not heavy but dense with dark berry and licorice, smoke and toast, plus some tomato leaf and ripe tomato flavors in the mix (93, non-blind), and the 2002 had dense, earthy, meaty flavors and finished sleek despite showing obvious maderization.
Smith noted that all the wines starting with the 2006 vintage have been bottled under screw caps. That ought to obviate any future madeirization.
Too bad the Shiraz RSW 1998 wasn't under spiral. A great vintage but the wine was stuffed by rampant oxidation. The 1994, a decent but not exceptional vintage, showed much better, with stewed plum, orange tea, chocolate, and a caramel tinged finish, long and supple (92, non-blind). 2002, the coolest vintage on record until 2011, bristles with tannins, forming a blanket around the ripe currant and plum fruit, and it picks up delicate savory mineral nuances (91, non-blind).
More recently Smith has been moving toward blending in grapes from cooler areas around McLaren Vale (such as Blewitt Springs) for more aromatics and more natural acidity. A barrel sample of 2010 shows sandy tannins and bright fruit.
Wirra Wirra renamed its top-tier Cabernet, called Angelus in Australia, for export when the Bordeaux Château Angélus threatened a lawsuit. Now called Dead Ringer (I love the Aussie tongue-in-cheek), it shows real class in a supple style that sets up a nice tension between richness and tannins, ripe fruit and herbal notes.
My favorite of the Wirra Wirra Cabernets, of course, was 1996, simply a great vintage all over South Australia, which showed both red and black fruits, aristocratic structure, suppleness and depth (93, non-blind). 1998 was dark and jammy, still youthful but showing some worrisome hard tannins (90, non-blind). Better was 2002, dense, focused, fleshy, with juicy blackberry and currant. It has elegant structure, most evident on the finish (91, non-blind).
Although 2004 lacked the complexity of the older wines, a barrel sample of 2010 was very floral and aromatic, with chocolate and violet overtones to the dense, plush dark plum and blueberry flavors and creamy mocha notes on the finish. "Probably from a new barrel," Smith noted. "I'm using less new oak, so this will only be about 30 or 35 percent of the final blend."
Tolley comes from a family deeply embedded in Australian wine history. The family winery, no longer extant, dated from 1892. Kym started his career as an assistant winemaker at Penfolds. As great as the iconic Shiraz Grange is, the most legendary wine made at that winery was the 1962 Bin 60A, a 50-50 blend of Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon and Barossa Shiraz. Max Schubert, who made that wine, was still the winemaker at Penfolds when Tolley joined the company, and Kym was put in charge of a project to resurrect the Bin 60A style in a new wine. The fermenting Coonawarra grapes, bright and jazzy, made an impression, and when he decided to go off on his own he decided on Coonawarra. Cabernet was obligatory there (plus some Merlot and Chardonnay), but he also planted Shiraz.
"My friend said, ‘Why in bloody hell would you want to plant Shiraz down there?'" he recalled. "I knew that historically there was lots of good Shiraz there. Yes, we have to work a little more to hold down the yields and make something with intensity, but on the sandy loam soils it does well."
The proof is in the bottle. Savory green peppercorn and tobacco overtones add zing to the Penley Shiraz Special Select 2005, a tight core of berry flavors picking up a dark chocolate smoothness on the finish (91, non-blind). It may not be what most would call a classic Australian style, but it's more in line with what a lot of sommeliers like these days.
The older Cabernets have real refinement and elegance, especially the 2000. Its silky texture, with a lovely caramel tone to the dark berry fruit, makes for a seamless wine. A green note comes through too (91, non-blind). The 1998 actually has deeper flavors, with swarming soft tannins. It's actually a more complex wine (92, non-blind) but personally I liked the elegance and drinkability of the 2000 better on this day.
Let's give Tolley the last word, as it seems to fit with the theme of the week, and the slowly expanding American understanding of how varied and distinctive Australian wines can be: "I just love doing stuff other people are not doing," he said.
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