Now that I'm back from Australia, I've compiled the following small but quirky list of highs and lows:
Most Pleasant Surprise: Would you believe a serious Australian Merlot? Clarendon Hills Brookman Vineyard 2005, a supple, perfumy, languid mouthful of dark chocolate–infused currant and plum flavors hints at black tea on the very long and amazingly generous finish. A dead ringer for a fine Pomerol. Coming out later this year, probably at around $100.
Most Pleasant Surprise (Barrel Tasting Division): Pinot Noir from Brian Croser's new Foggy Hill vineyard way down on the Fleurieu Peninsula, south of Adelaide. This 10-acre vineyard sits atop a craggy hillside, above the fog line most days. It looks like Sonoma Coast, and the wines taste like they come from it. The first wines, from 2007, are destined for the Tapanappa label Croser owns with Jean-Michel Cazes of Bordeaux and Bollinger of Champagne. If they make it into the bottle with the flavor profile, texture and length they showed in the barrel, they could be the best Pinots in Australia.
Another Pleasant Surprise: Bindi V sparkling wine, a non-vintage blend that sells for $40 in Australia and competes impressively with the best domaine-bottle Champagnes. It tastes like a vivid Chardonnay with bubbles, showing real depth and breadth. The tiny quantities are not sold in the U.S., but if this winery can do, it why can't others?
Worst Potential Marketing Error: Rosemount is using the same screw-capped, diamond-shaped bottle on its high-profile Balmoral Syrah and GSM that it uses for its popular Diamond Label wines, which sell for under $12 in the U.S. The bottle is a great idea for the value-oriented series, but Balmoral and GSM used to stand apart in an eye-catching slope-shouldered bottle. But it's not available with screw cap, so now Balmoral just looks like another diamond-label wine.
Best New Wine Name: Gigglepot 2006, the new Cabernet Sauvignon from Mollydooker. Named after winemakers Sparky and Sarah Marquis' daughter, Holly, the wine occupies a middle tier of Mollydooker's wines, one notch up from the lower-priced Two Left Feet (a Cabernet-Merlot-Shiraz blend) and The Maitre d' (a Cabernet).
Most, Um, Striking Wine Label: Playmates, a Grenache made by Rolf Binder in Barossa (soon to be sent to the U.S.), featuring the silhouette of a long-haired, well-proportioned woman. No naughty bits show, but it's sexy. So far no objections from Playboy magazine, or the TTB.
Tempranillo, Anyone? A quiet buzz has started for Tempranillo as a red wine alternative to the Shiraz and Cabernet that dominate the Australian landscape. Two of the best I tried are from Yalumba in the Barossa and Red Edge in Heathcote. The Yalumba 2005 is pure and refreshing, with a peppery edge to the ripe berry flavors. Red Edge Tempranillo-Monastrell 2005 has savory tannins around a cardamom-scented core of dark plum flavor, lingering well. (Monastrell is the Spanish term for Mourvèdre.)
Other New Varietals: From barrel, I tasted 2007 Nebbiolo at Two Hands that was strongly reminiscent of a nice Nebbiolo d'Alba. Fermenting at Henschke were batches of Mencía (a Spanish grape) that sang of plums and felt soft and round and Tempranillo that reminded me of tamarillo fruits.
Hot New Wine Alert: Henschke, which makes Hill of Grace and Mount Edelstone bottlings from its own Shiraz vineyards in Eden Valley, has a new high-end Shiraz made from Barossa Valley fruit. The vineyards are all on the northeast portion of the valley, which the Henschkes call Tapa Pass. It's broad, velvety and seductive, very Barossa with its effusive dark fruit and mouthfilling texture. It reminds me of Penfolds RWT. The 2005 is out later this year. The price in Australia is under $30.
Traffic Observation: The freeway to and from McLaren Vale from Adelaide is one-way. Seriously. Traffic goes toward Adelaide in the morning, toward McLaren Vale in the afternoon, except on weekends when it's reversed. It saves about 15 to 20 minutes if you time it right. But a one-way freeway? Who thought of that?
Traffic Observation 2: Trams crisscross downtown Melbourne, so the traffic honchos invented the "hook turn." To turn right across the tracks, which run down the middle of the road, you pull up on the far left side of the intersection, wait for the light to turn red, and make the wide turn. It works.
Traffic Observation 3: The spookiest thing about motoring on the left side of the road, for this American driver, comes when I make a right turn (the mirror image of a left turn in the U.S.). I always look for a car coming up from behind on my right, even though the traffic in that lane is right in front of me.
My Proudest Traffic Moment on This Visit: Having just picked up my first rental car at the Adelaide airport, I parallel parked in front of my hotel. In one go. Not bad for a Yank who hasn't piloted a right-hand drive car for two years.