Over dinner the other night, Chris Hancock, the wily veteran of Australian wine, posed an intriguing question. We had been tasting the new line of signature wines from Robert Oatley, which for the first time included several bottlings from Western Australia and cooler regions in Victoria, in the southeast.
Hancock’s question was simple: “If you were starting a portfolio of Australian wines, what regions would you go to for the grapes?”
My first response: If I wanted to impress hipster sommeliers, I would look to cooler regions in Victoria so the wines would tingle with acidity. Hancock frowned. “That’s not a very big market,” he said. Besides, he admitted, it’s not the Robert Oatley style.
“I am obsessed with mouthfeel,” he added. “The main reason anyone takes another sip, another glass, or buys another bottle, is because the wine feels good. It should have appealing flavors, but it’s the texture that makes the difference. With high-acid wines, you’re constantly fighting for texture.”
So where would I go? First some background.
Hancock and Oatley were the guys who, arguably, kicked off the Australian wine boom in the early 1990s with their Rosemount Shiraz, originally a lip-smacking mouthful of berry ripeness and smooth texture that sold for $10 at retail in the U.S. but tasted like it ought to cost two or three times as much. That wine, which relied heavily on McLaren Vale and Langhorne Creek grapes but carried a South Australia appellation, established the popular style of Aussie Shiraz. Over the years, it and its competitors veered off into excesses—some from overripeness, others from overproduction—that I believe damaged the category. That might not have happened if that original style had stayed the course.
Rosemount, originally a family-owned winery based in Hunter Valley, near Sydney in New South Wales, morphed into a big company that found itself in over its head when it merged with, and ran, Southcorp (now Treasury Wine Estates). Licking their wounds after some financial falterings, Oatley and Hancock, along with Oatley’s son Sandy, started a company that includes both the Robert Oatley wines and Sandy’s label, Tic Tok, aimed at producing good value, mostly under $20. The first wines were made in 2007.
For the signature label they chose regions not on everyone’s radar, hoping to get distinctive character and value. Oatley had extensive holdings in Mudgee, a cooler region at high elevation west of Sydney. His vineyards provided much of the source material, a good idea for Chardonnay, in my view, not so much for Shiraz or Cabernet. The wines had exciting flavors, but they felt sharp on the tongue. Not, it turned, as big a seller as they had hoped.
They brought in Larry Cherubino as the winemaker, whose own eponymous winery had been earning accolades in Australia for its high quality and regional specificity. Cherubino knew Western Australia well, and the newest bottlings in Oatley’s Signature Series reflect that. Tasting non-blind at dinner, I liked the silky, transparent and red-fruited Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 from Margaret River much better than the dense, somewhat tannic and unfocused Shiraz 2010 from McLaren Vale. I’ve always loved Margaret River Chardonnay, and the 2011 sang with the region’s tropical fruit, grapefruit and floral character on a polished frame. The other wine that impressed me was the Pinot Noir 2010 from Mornington Peninsula, in Victoria. It could use a tad less oak flavor, but the texture and ripe fruit are spot-on. All of these wines, priced at less than $20 at retail, represent outstanding value.
The Sauvignon Blanc 2011, from Margaret River, lacked the snap that I expect from this varietal, and the Riesling 2011, from Great Southern (in Western Australia), while polished, could have used more overt fruit. But it’s pretty clear that Cherubino and Oatley found good answers to Hancock’s region question, at least for some of the wines.
Oatley, for his part, regrets avoiding Western Australia in the past. “I lived in Hunter Valley, and I always insisted that we get our grapes from places where I could be in the vineyards,” he said. “I loved to ride my horses through the rows of vines. Often I could see things that needed attention. At 84 I finally got smart and realized that I liked so many wines from Western Australia I should trust my winemaker.”
What would be my choices for fruit sources? I would certainly pick Margaret River for Chardonnay. McLaren Vale should be a good choice for Shiraz, although to offer something a bit different I’d go for Heathcote in central Victoria. The most exciting Australian Rieslings for me come from Eden Valley or Clare. Eden is a bit more of a crowd pleaser, counting on more expressive fruit. Sauvignon Blanc? Adelaide Hills, which gets the balance of fruit and herbs I like best. Cabernet is more of a puzzler. In the under-$20 range I’ve had good ones from the warmer regions of central Victoria, Barossa and McLaren Vale, but I think I’d gravitate toward Clare or Wrattonbully, a bit warmer than neighboring Coonawarra. (Besides Heathcote and Margaret River, these are all in South Australia.)
Better yet, I might eschew both Cabernet and Shiraz and create a blend of the two. Make it good enough, give it a good name, and it could be my showcase wine.
If you follow Australia’s individual regions, where would you go to create a winning portfolio?
Vince Liotta — Elmhurst Illinois — April 4, 2012 9:28pm ET
Daniel Hayden — Holliston, MA USA — May 24, 2012 1:27pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — May 24, 2012 1:50pm ET
Daniel Hayden — Holliston, MA USA — May 25, 2012 1:24pm ET
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