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The Other Australians

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 23, 2009 4:39pm ET

Last week, when I wrote about one veteran Australian winemaker’s thoughts about old vines, I promised to report on the other wines that caught my attention in the wide-ranging tasting. Wine Australia, the commercial promotion arm of the Aussie industry, put together one of the more impressive arrays to prove that Australian wine is more than big Shiraz from South Australia.

Though some of us have tried to make that point for a while, most American wine drinkers still haven’t picked up on it. The gathering of wine writers and sommeliers last week at Farallon restaurant in San Francisco was suitably wowed. Most of them knew about Aussie Riesling, which is something of a sommelier’s darling these days, but a surprisingly large percentage expressed pleasant surprise at how beautifully a set of older wines showed and the range of mouthwatering styles in Chardonnay, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, even Pinot Noir. The wines were not necessarily big and powerful, the way most Americans think of Aussie wines, but had grace and elegance.

In all, they presented 27 wines, one by one in a formal tasting, of which only four would qualify as big and rich.

Each of the first three flights, tasted blind, comprised three Australian wines and two non-Aussies. Rieslings showed well against Austria and Alsace. Pinot Noirs and Cabernets held their own with French and California bottlings.

Stylistically, Austria (the one without the kangaroos) makes a dry, crisp style of Riesling not too dissimilar from Australia’s, and I did not pick out Feldenspiel Lagler Setzberg 2007 as non-Aussie, though my notes indicate more raw acidity than the others. Alsace Rieslings, though typically drier than Germans, often have a bit of sugar left in them, and the Trimbach 2006 tasted very sweet next to the rest. I thought the Jacob’s Creek Steingarten 2006 from Eden Valley, Kilikanoon Mort’s Block 2008 from Clare and Tamar Ridge Kayena Vineyard 2004 from Tasmania left them both in the dust.

In a theory as thought-provoking as his ideas on old vines, Jacob’s Creek winemaker Phil Laffer suggested that the public’s lack of interest in Riesling has made Australia’s versions more consistently good. The success of Shiraz, Cabernet and Chardonnay has prompted growers to plant vineyards everywhere they could, he argued, including a lot of unsuitable spots. But much less so with Riesling, because the extra demand wasn’t there.

"Riesling has stuck to its spiritual homeland,” he said, “because of its lack of popularity.” Certainly Eden Valley, Clare, certain parts of Western Australia and, more recently, Tasmania are dead-consistent with the grape.

No one I know makes a beeline for Aussie Pinot Noir, which usually lacks definition and depth when compared with Burgundies and New World leaders such as New Zealand, Oregon and California. In this set, though, I found De Bortoli Yarra Valley Reserve 2007, with its focused blueberry flavors and lovely balance, more compelling than Hartford 2006 from California’s Sonoma Coast, which showed gritty tannins but nice flavors. Those were the only 90-plus Pinots on my scorecard. The pleasantly bright Pirie 2006, from Tasmania, had more going for it than the Brokenwood Beechworth 2006 from high-altitude vines in Victoria, which suffered from too much ethyl acetate. An Henri Rousseau Gevrey-Chambertin 2005 was just funky, possibly cork-tainted.

Among the Cabernets, the only Aussie that wowed me was Cape Mentelle 2004 from Margaret River. Despite a celery undertone—they can’t seem to overcome the veggies in Margaret River—the broad, spicy, ripe berry flavors won in the end, and it all persisted beautifully on a silky frame. It held its own with Château Grand Puy-Lacoste 2003, clearly the most elegant wine in the group. I found strong off flavors in Wakefield 2004 from Clare, Parker Coonawarra Estate 2004 and Newton Unfiltered 2002 from Spring Mountain in Napa Valley.

A group of four older wines should dispel any notions that Australian wines must be drunk early. The oldest, Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon Margaret River 1983, was particularly elegant, softly structured, still showing nice fruit. The original bell pepper character has matured into something more like savory herbs and roasted meat. Non-blind, 91 points. Mt. Langi Ghiran Langi Shiraz 1996 has matured in a distinctly peppery, elegant, tight and silky red, very refined and delicate. Also 91 points, non-blind. Gamy flavors overwhelmed the fruit in Hardy Shiraz Eileen Hardy 1999, dropping it to 86 points, non-blind, for me.

But the star among the older wines was Jim Barry Riesling Lodge Hill 1999 from Clare Valley, which you could have bought for about $12 when it arrived in 2000. Under its twist-off cap, it has picked up lovely wax and honey overtones while keeping its core of bright pineapple and pear fruit, elegant, racy and long. Non-blind, it’s worth 92 points today.

(I am only sharing ratings with older wines, as the younger wines either have recently been reviewed officially, or will be soon.)

Before the old-vine group, the final set focused on single-vineyard wines. One standout, Henschke Shiraz Mount Edelstone 2005, from Eden Valley, displayed classic big Shiraz character, rich, complex, high-toned, a gorgeous balance of vibrant fruit and spice, long and brimming with personality. In the same league, Shaw and Smith Chardonnay M3 Vineyard 2006, from Adelaide Hills, caressed the tongue with lithe, silky texture, offering complex, focused and refined flavors of nectarine, pineapple and spice. It reminded me of Puligny.

I was less enthusiastic about the other two. My love-hate relationship with Hunter Valley Sémillon continued with Brokenwood Sémillon ILR 2003, which still tasted too tart for me, even though it’s starting to develop some of that waxy character to go with its pineapple and quince. Coriole Shiraz The Soloist 2005, from McLaren Vale, gushed with lively fruit character but struck me as too tannic for the size.

The Australian wine industry, which cruised to prominence in the 1990s and early part of this decade on an ocean of cheap and cheerful wines and big, powerful, high-scoring Shiraz, seems to be making a big push to shine a spotlight on the rest of its repertoire. It has some catching up to do, but this tasting represented a start.

Dave Joyce
Winston-Salem, NC —  January 24, 2009 11:32am ET
Harvey - Glad to see the comparison for Aussie Rieslings. Riesling in general is still under-loved in the US, but Aussie Rieslings, and to a less extent NZ Rieslings, are the bright spot from a retailers point of view. They are some of our top sellers, very reasonably priced, and their drier, crisper styles and more citrusy flavors, seem to hit consumers right.

I look forward to reading about the younger reds that you tasted at this event. It certainly seemed that they "stacked the deck" on you in the Cabernet flight. Margaret River, Connawarra, and Clare Cabs are certainly not what is popular with my customers, and it sure seems that the competition put into that flight (Newton Unfiltered and Grand Puy-Lacoste) were chosen as they compared better with these "old school" style Aussie Cabs. I can think of a more "customer driven" flight featuring South Australia/Barossa Cabs against more fruit driven California Cabs, since both are the latest darlings of our customer base.

I also want to tell you that both my customers and myself are with you on the Hunter Valley Semillon. Sadly, Semillon in general from Australia is a tough sell as no one really gets it and pricing is not friendly compared to other Aussie whites. We appreciate the great coverage of Down Under. Keep it up!
Tom Miller
Vestavia Hills, AL —  January 24, 2009 8:42pm ET
Harvey, I noticed in your blog that you wrote "even Pinot Noir" when referring to the tasting of Australian (and other) wines at Farallon. When you travel to Australia, do you ever get a chance to try Mount Mary Vineyard Pinot noir? I first tried it at one of the early International Pinot Noir Celebrations in the late 1980s/early 1990s(?). Many attendees felt that it was among the best wines poured at that year's event.We recently had a bottle of the 1994 vintage that was absolutely stunning with years of life ahead. I would appreciate your thoughts on this wine as the Wine Spectator database only has reviews of older vintages of Mount Mary's Quintet Bordeaux blend. Thanks.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  January 26, 2009 12:30pm ET
Last I checked, only a handful of bottles are imported of the Mount Mary Pinot, which Australians in the know like a lot. I've had a taste in Oz, and it was a good wine but it didn't rock my socks.

These days I have my eye on Bindi, in Central Victoria, and Kooyong, on Mornington Peninsula, as the best hopes for Pinots with the finesse, depth and distinction I am looking for.

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