Anyone who thinks all Australian wines are alike should have been tasting with me the past couple of days. At three wineries within greater Adelaide, all of which have achieved outstanding ratings, you couldn't find three more different approaches.
My plane landed Thursday and I headed right out to Adelaide Hills to see Michael Hill-Smith and Martin Shaw at their Shaw & Smith winery, which makes Australia's touchstone Sauvignon Blanc. They had the audacity to pour their Chardonnay M3 2001 and M. Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet 2002 over a lunch of sautéed whiting fillets. The M3 had considerably more finesse and charm.
Hill-Smith is a Master of Wine. He knows the world wine landscape, from Burgundy to Napa Valley, and he wants to make wines that "bust the stereotype," as he puts it, of Aussie wines as sunny, cheerful and soulless. He and his cousin, Shaw, built a no-nonsense steel-shed winery next to their vineyard, which is across the lane from another Adelaide Hills mainstay, Nepenthe. It's a relatively cool climate, and it suits the winery's emphasis on wines of lighter texture and crisp balance, without sacrificing the ripe generosity that makes Australia Australia. Even their Shiraz has a lilt to it.
Yesterday afternoon in a suburban Adelaide business park, I found Sparky and Sarah Marquis, who launched their own brand, Mollydooker, last year after an acrimonious breakup with their longtime partner in Marquis Philips, Dan Philips of the Grateful Palate. Finesse has little to do with their heady, high-octane, ultraripe wines—except in the texture, where they rate their wines on "fruit weight." In their lexicon, that's how long the fruit flavors last in your mouth before you become aware of the underlying tannins, acidity and alcohol.
They were in the midst of bottling their second vintage, 2006, and Sparky had to excuse himself several times from our tasting to chat with his associate at the bottling line. They have added a few more wines to the portfolio, including a $175 Shiraz called Velvet Glove, and a surprisingly supple and currant-filled Merlot called The Scooter at about one-fourth that price.
In between, I spent the morning at Magill Estate, Penfolds' home winery, tasting nearly four dozen wines with the chief winemaker, Peter Gago. A generous soul, he opened both old and new vintages of Penfolds classics, including Grange. They can do that at Penfolds, which has an uninterrupted history going back to the 1840s. It's now owned by Foster's, the brewing giant that includes Wolf Blass and Beringer in its portfolio. To Gago's relief, the honchos at Foster's have kept hands off the winemaking of the historic wines, such as Grange, Bin 707 and St. Henri.
Although Grange has a reputation for being a big, broad-shouldered wine, in the scheme of things it's not. Ripe? Yes. Big? Not in today's world. At dinner the other night, Michael Twelftree, whose Two Hands winery has been turning heads, brought along a bottle of Domaine du Pégaü Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Réservée 2003, which my colleague James Molesworth rated 97 points. It's a big, heady, Port-like wine that you sort of sink into like a big, overstuffed bed.
Here's the thing. Nothing Penfolds makes, not Grange, not RWT, not Bin 707 or even the majestic once-every-10-years Block 42 Cabernet, is even close to the Pégaü for alcohol and ultraripeness. The big Mollydooker wines out-muscle the Pégaü but the Velvet Glove just might give it a run for its money on complexity and sheer dazzle. But Shaw & Smith's Chardonnay, showing remarkably silky texture and definite touches of lime and mineral around a core of subtle peach and apple fruit, came off as the more elegant and lively side-by-side at lunch with E. Sauzet Puligny-Montrachet.
Sort of makes you think about where Australia fits in the spectrum of wine styles, doesn't it?