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harvey steiman at large

Tasting Tour of Oz

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 1, 2009 12:22pm ET

Every year I bring the wines for Thanksgiving dinner at the home of Paula and Ed, longtime friends with whom we have celebrated the holiday for years. From my mix of New World wines, Paula always gravitates toward the Australians. Last time, she asked me if I could help her learn a little more about Australia. I volunteered to put together a tasting for her and some of her friends.

I was pleased that someone wanted to delve further into Australian wine, especially given the blowback Australia has been getting recently. If you read the screeds from some wine columnists and commentators, you would think the country's wines, once the darlings of the in crowd, were no longer worth mentioning in polite company.

Those of us who are familiar with Australia know that the wines today represent some of the best and most diverse from anywhere. And yet some of these commentators keep repeating the tired clichés that all Australian wines taste alike and they have too much alcohol. Some of them complain that the wines are too expensive. Others lament that there’s nothing but cheap stuff.

I had those thoughts rattling in my brain as I rummaged in my cellar for wines to taste with Paula and Ed that would would get across the idea that Australia was geographically diverse, and that it makes a wide variety of styles. I also wanted those that were fabulous to drink, so I limited the search to those I had scored 90 points or higher (“outstanding” on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale).

Around the table of 11, everyone had plenty of experience with California wine, some with French wines too, but no one had "discovered" Australia yet. I think they caught the bug. They seemed to love 'em all.

Here's what I came up with, and how it played out.

I started with two Rieslings, both with a couple of extra years of age on them. Preferences were divided between the tart, minerally Frankland River Isolation Ridge Vineyard 2006 from Western Australia and the bright, fleshier, very lime-y Heath Southern Sisters Reserve 2006 from Clare Valley. Everyone appreciated that the wines felt light and easy to drink, both coming in at about 12 percent alcohol.

Next up was Green Point Chardonnay Reserve 2005 from Yarra Valley, to show something from Victoria and demonstrate what Chardonnay can do in a cooler climate. At 13.5 percent alcohol, it was hardly the big, gobs o' fruit style that some still think is all Australia makes. It had finesse, silk, elegance, and plenty of complex flavor.

I wanted to show an old-vine Grenache, since I think these wines remain largely undiscovered territory to American wine drinkers, so I poured the Yalumba Tri-Centenary Vines 2005. Michael, the owner of the firm where Paula works, got really excited about this one. "I never knew Grenache could be this good," he enthused. I understood. The combination of generous fruit and round structure was beguiling.

Not many Australian Cabernets are as balanced and focused as Penfolds Bin 707, but the 2004 counterpoises its rich fruit, flesh and open texture with just enough of a savory component to let you know it's Cabernet. This showed how classy Aussie reds could be.

At this point I think everyone was convinced, and we hadn't even gotten to Shiraz, Australia’s signature grape. I finished with a Cabernet-Shiraz blend, which some Aussies think makes the best wines; a cool-climate Shiraz, to show the grape's peppery side; and a classic big red style, but not too big.

For the blend, I thought I had pulled out a bottle of Wolf Blass Black Label 2002, but when I took the wine out of the box, it was the 1998. And it was terrific, plush, generous, complex, with some of the savory notes of the Cabernet mingling with the richness and ripe fruit of the Shiraz. It did what these blends are supposed to do: lighten up the fat Shiraz and fatten up the narrow Cab, all at once.

Shaw & Smith Shiraz Adelaide Hills 2005 had the peppery aromatics and the zesty balance, refinement and class of a cool-climate wine. It wasn’t lacking in ripe flavors, but the savory elements were more prominent.

When I opened the First Drop Shiraz Fat of the Land Seppeltsfield 2005, the first whiff seemed corky, so I set it aside and opened one of the wines I had brought to drink with dinner: Clarendon Hills Syrah Hickinbotham 2004. It dripped with ripe plum and blackberry fruit, wrapping it in silky tannins and delivering a long, exquisite finish. It turned out to be the wine of the night.

The original prices of these wines ranged from $16 to $80. Five of the eight wines were $30 or less. We had bright, vibrant whites and rich, mouthfilling reds. Everything had class, length and was balanced within its style, and it put the lie to some of nonsense being thrown around about Australian wines.

True, I omitted the waves of nondescript negociant nothings that are dragging down Australia's good name, and I avoided any of the overly dense, clumsy and alcoholic reds that have enchanted some high-profile American critics, also to the detriment of Australia's image. I wanted to show the wines that got me excited about Australia and, I hoped, would get Paula and Ed's friends on the bandwagon too. I think it worked.

Stephanie A Hubbell
winter —  May 1, 2009 3:08pm ET
I have always loved Aussie wines,but I am finding my wine drinking friends are turning their noses up at it.More for you and I to drink Harvey!
Stephanie A Hubbell
winter —  May 1, 2009 3:08pm ET
I have always loved Aussie wines,but I am finding my wine drinking friends are turning their noses up at it.More for you and I to drink Harvey!
Richard Robertson
May 1, 2009 11:21pm ET
Aussie wines have taken a beating for their heavy ripeness and high alcohol levels but unfortunately many great wines have been bypassed due to the current reputation. This has created a great opportunity to pick up some wines that don't fit this profile. Australia has been dealing with unbelievable temperatures and drought for a number of years but this doesn't mean that producers can't make some incredible wines. I look forward to all of the values that continue to occur due to the beating that they have taken in the press. I love a number of the wines coming out of Australia and when tasting blind a number of my friends who prefer great Bordeaux and Cali Cabs actually prefer the balanced Aussie wines that are produced. Unfortunately there is way too much negative press around Aussie wines, some deserved but much of it is what I consider piling on.
Aaron Meeker
May 4, 2009 3:56pm ET
Harvey,I think I am saying this and many consumers feel it. I love good wine. No matter where on the earth it is from. My palate prefers those from the "old world" but I have many a wine down under that floors me. I think a good deal of the problem is with many of the "professional" reviews seem very misguided. 90+ points is basically the entry point for Australia while some brilliant wines from Austria and Germany struggle to reach 89. This is where I believe Australia lost a bit of market and reality. There is terroir in The Barossa, more winemakers like Matt Gant from First Drop, are continuing to show it.
Angela Medeiros Slade
May 5, 2009 10:37pm ET
Great post Harvey! It must have been fun selecting the wines for the tasting - not to mention drinking them. For those of us who represent Australian wines, it's a case of 'Back to Basics' efforts to demonstrate our stylistic & regional diversity...account by account, consumer by consumer. During recent tastings, the response our more obscure or 'under the radar' Aussie wines has been overwhelmingly positive. Guess the proof is in the glass!

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