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Ninety-Nine Bottles of Wine on the Wall

Hitting the ground running in Australia with an epic tasting
First stop: Sydney, for a tasting of Aussie benchmarks back to 1976.
Photo by: Jack Malipan
First stop: Sydney, for a tasting of Aussie benchmarks back to 1976.

Posted: Mar 1, 2016 12:00pm ET

By MaryAnn Worobiec

Upon arriving in Australia, my first kangaroo sighting happened in Sydney. It was yellow, plastic and inflatable, with red boxing gloves.

The next day, I got my first glimpse at the task ahead. I was at the start of a three-week survey of wine in Australia, and my colleague Harvey Steiman and I kicked the whole thing off with an eight-hour tasting of 99 bottlings picked to highlight the breadth of Australian wines.

The tasting, held at the Wine Quarter in the Sydney suburb of Surry Hills, was organized for us by wine writers Andrew Caillard and Mike Bennie. Caillard is also an auctioneer and the architect of the Langton's Classification of Australian Wines. To call the two of them enthusiastic is an understatement-they are some of the most spirited and fun folks I've ever met in wine, and that's saying something.

Caillard was up first, and the initial plan for 24 wines ballooned to 75. "This tasting was meant to be a small, legacy tasting, and it became a Ben Hur," he admitted. The lineup consisted largely of Riesling, Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet, dipping back into vintages as old as 1976.

I've been studying Australian wines for years, with most of my experience coming from blind tastings in Wine Spectator's Napa office. It's such a treat to taste the wines with some context and conversation. Here's what I learned that day: While I already appreciated how large and diverse the Australian wine world is, the sheer range of wines this country makes is incredible. I see threads running through producers, regions, vintages and styles. But there is so much more to discover.

Bennie's 24 wines focused on a new generation-wines made by vintners who are inspired globally, who drink broadly and have a spirit of experimentation. The goal? To reflect the vineyard sites differently than their predecessors. "We're seeing generational changes happening; there's a recalibrating," Bennie said.

During our conversation, I was introduced to "Australian bush," a sort of Aussie spin on the traditional French garrique. It's a mix of mint or eucalyptus with wild flowers and red earth. When you step outside in the Australian wilderness and take a deep breath, that's Australian bush. It's a lovely element that I've picked up in wines before, but I didn't have a term for it until now.

So here's my task: to learn as much as I can on this trip, which takes me next to where real kangaroos and Australian bush mingle with the vineyards. There's no better way to understand a wine region than by getting your shoes dirty and meeting with the winemakers on their turf. I can't wait. 

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