Reports from Some Darkling Plains

Down Under but Coming Up

When it comes to Australian wine, I am far down the learning curve. To use a totally inappropriate (therefore irresistible) metaphor, Australian wine has never been my cup of tea. Years ago, when Australian bottles started appearing in significant numbers on the US market, I dutifully tried them. Most of them then were Shiraz or Shiraz blends, and Syrah is a grape I usually get along well with. But by and large, I didn’t like what I tasted: far too much fruit for me, too-high – and too-evident – alcohol, and too-often-grating tannins. All that fruit, however, seemed to please a lot of people, and Australian wines quickly won a permanent place for themselves in the market and the glass.

As far as I’m concerned, if I wanted to taste a lot of fruit I’d drink fruit juice and save myself a bundle of money. Or if I wanted fruit flavors with an alcoholic kick, I’d drink vodka and fruit juice and still save plenty of cash. I choose wine for a whole different set of tastes and pleasures, and I decided a decade ago that I wasn’t getting them from Australian wine – so I just turned my back on it.

Jim Gosper

Recently, however, some people whose palates I respect have been telling me that Australian wine has evolved, that what the Australians are sending us now is very different from what it had been, and that I ought to look again. So when Jim Gosper, the Director of Wine Australia for North America, presented the Wine Media Guild with a broad, geographically organized tasting of Australian wines with a focus on Cabernet Sauvignon, I faced up to my ignorance, freshened my palate, and tasted attentively – and was pleasantly surprised.

Not overwhelmed, mind you, but definitely more pleased than I expected to be. And certainly instructed, especially in how wrong I have been in my tendency to think of Australian wine as a single entity. If I took nothing else away from the event, I gained a valuable new awareness of just how vast Australia is and how diverse its many wine regions are. Regional names like Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria induce an image of a Britain-sized, tight little island – but Australia has a land mass greater than the US or Europe. Even if its wine zones are clustered not too far from its coasts, in the island-continent’s southeast and southwest corners, there are still more than 60 of them, with climates ranging from near-desert to sub-alpine.

I wasn’t always able to detect the subtleties of regional differences, because there does seem to be an Australian accent – an emphasis still on fruit-forwardness – that for me often obscured any goût de terroir (unless that is the Australian goût de terroir? I don’t know). But I can say with certainty that of the 30-plus wines presented, those of three regions really stood out for me: Margaret River, in Western Australia; Clare Valley, in South Australia; and McLaren Vale, also in South Australia. Barossa valley, in South Australia as well, was not too far behind.

The Cabernets were as follows:

  • From Margaret River: 2007 Streicker “Ironstone Block Old Vines” and 2005 Vasse Felix “Heytesbury”
  • From Clare Valley: 2006 Wakefield Estate (excellent value at $18 srp), 2005 Kilikanoon “Block’s Road,” and 2004 Wakefield Estate “St. Andrews”
  • From McLaren Vale: 2007 Mitolo Serpico, 2007 Kangarilla Road, 2006 Nashwauk, 2006 d’Arenberg “Coppermine,” and 2005 d’Arenberg “Galvo Garage”
  • From Barossa Valley: 2007 Kaesler

My favorites were probably the two d’Arenbergs, for their complexity. But what I liked about all the above wines was the quality of their fruit. That was the flavor that led on the palate, but it didn’t travel alone: It was part of a more restrained packet of intertwined flavors – which is really one of the keys to what I’m looking for in wine.

Beginning to See the Light

Vino 2010 occupied big chunks of the Waldorf Astoria and the Hilton here in New York during the first week in February. Designed primarily for wine professionals, the event was far too big for one tongue to taste it all. More than 500 producers showed their wares at two huge tastings, in addition to what was poured at numerous seminars and dinners.

Patti Jackson

I was involved with the wines of Puglia, presenting a small selection of them one evening at a delicious and authentically Pugliese dinner prepared in the Waldorf’s kitchens by Patti Jackson, the talented chef of Restaurant I Trulli, the New York outpost of all things Pugliese. My good friend – back where I grew up we would have said goombah – Charles Scicolone presented more Pugliese wines at a seminar the following morning.

Puglia is a region just finding its direction in the contemporary wine market. Vines have grown there and wines made there ever since Greek colonists arrived about 1000-900 BC. But there has never been a wine culture in Puglia: It was drunk every day, with food and as food, but very few people ever gave it any thought. A few pioneers actually bottled wine, and even made age-worthy wines – Rivera in the north of the region, Taurino, de Castris, Candido, Vallone in the south – but most Pugliese wine was consumed locally as vino sfuso – what we would call jug wine – or was sold as bulk wine far further north, much of it disappearing into the wilderness of France.

Only recently, with the influx of outside investment – notably Antinori, but also Campanians and Americans – has Puglia and the world started to pay attention to Pugliese wines. The potential is there: good soils, fine native grapes, especially the reds Uva di Troia, a specialty of the north, and Primitivo and Negroamaro, the leading varieties of the south. Negroamaro seems particularly to have the potential for greatness: an intriguing, distinctive flavor, natural complexity, and fine aging ability. But, as always in a newly growing wine area, the learning curve is steep – finding the right clone, the right sites, the right growing and harvest conditions.

These all take time, and producers in a hurry for international attention or Tre Bicchieri or high Wine Spectator scores are always drawn to new barriques, with their instant veneer of sophistication and vanilla. This is a new technology for the zone, and as always, it was first used with far too heavy a hand. So we are now in the Pepsi-Cola-tasting phase of a lot of Puglian wines. Hopefully they will outgrow it soon – and happily, Negroamaro particularly seems to shrug oak off.

So look for unoaked Primitivo, or old reliable wines like Rivera’s Il Falcone, or the Negroamaros or Salice Salentinos (usually 80-90% Negroamaro blended with 10-20% Malvasia nera) from old-line producers like Taurino or de Castris or excellent co-ops like Sampietrana. And check on the new kids from time to time to see how they’re coming along; some are very fast learners.

2 Responses to “Reports from Some Darkling Plains”

  1. Maureen Phair Says:

    Hi Tom,
    Back in November, I bought a couple of bottles of d’Arenberg, Galvo Garage 2005 from and loved it. Now, its a challenge to find additional bottles, no one has stock here in NJ….. Say Hi to Diane for us
    Maureen & Dawn

  2. tim ahern Says:

    I’m glad to see that the perception of Australian wine is starting to change in the US. It’s a bit of an embarrasment as far as I’m concerned that the biggest seller in the US market is Yellow Tail. You got shown just the tip of the iceberg at the wine gathering you attended, hopefully you will try some more in the future.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.