Archive for the ‘Australia’ Category

This is a post that will hardly be of interest to anyone but me. No pictures, just words. No tasting comments, just thoughts. Anyone not interested can leave now: No offense will be taken.

I’ve been wondering lately about whether it would be possible to put together a case of wines that would enable wannabe winos to learn the world of wine on their own, at their own pace. I myself got hooked on wine long ago by just such a mixed case that a retailer in Baltimore put together for me so I could explore wine.

Of course, the wine world was a lot smaller back then, and very different from what it is now. That case cost about $100, which then was a substantial fraction of my monthly wage, and it consisted, if memory serves, entirely of French wines – because way back then if you wanted to understand wine, wine spoke French. Germany, Spain, and Portugal came up in wine conversation only peripherally, Italy and Austria very rarely, and California was the smallest, remotest blip on the radar. For most American wine lovers, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand did not exist as wine-producing countries, only as exotic vacation destinations.

I don’t have to tell you that much has changed since then, and genuinely for the better. The wine world is broader and far more diverse now, and field and cellar techniques have improved to such an extent that I can honestly say we’re living in a golden age of wine. We now get good, better-than-drinkable wine from almost every harvest, whereas “back then” one or two of every ten vintages were superior, three or four were OK, and five or six were not worth the drinking.

With all the changes that have occurred, I wondered what would happen today if a naif, as I then was, should walk into a good wine shop and ask a knowledgeable retailer to put together a case of wines to introduce him or her to the world of wine. Phew!  Talk about the labors of Hercules: It would be an impossible task. One bottle from each of the principal wine regions of the world would overflow the case. One bottle from each of the principal wine-producing nations would easily fill it – and what kind of introduction to wine would that be, with something like a single Napa Cabernet representing all the wine of the US, or one red Burgundy all of France?  No, the task couldn’t be approached that way: The whole question has to be rethought.

Perhaps it could be done by using benchmark wines, great ones that show the heights wine can reach. That, of course, is where cost comes into play. Wine prices, like medical costs and the cost of a college education, have increased at many times the rise in incomes, and many times the rate of inflation, especially in recent years. The present-day equivalent of my 1968 $100 would be approximately $725 now: $725 would merely be a down payment on a single bottle of young Château Margaux. Back then, Margaux and Lafite and such wines – the great Bordeaux first growths – were little more than twice the price of wines like Château Gloria and Château Brane Cantenac, which were included in my introductory case. If memory serves, I’m pretty sure those two then cost under $4 a bottle. So the option of structuring our hypothetical case around benchmark great wines can only be a pipe dream: The cost would be prohibitive for all but hedge fund multimillionaires.

So what about organizing by grape variety?  That is, for American wine lovers at least, a very popular approach to wine, so let’s consider it. If we start with white wines, Chardonnay demands inclusion – but its very popularity makes it a difficult choice. Which Chardonnay fairly represents the variety?  Burgundy?  Chablis?  Napa? Sonoma? Long Island? The Finger Lakes? Sicily? Friuli?  Oaked, or fermented in stainless steel?

That would be only Wine #1. Suppose we go on to #2: say Sauvignon blanc. From Sancerre or some other spot on the upper Loire? Or somewhere in California or New York? Or Friuli or Alto Adige? And where do we go for Wine #3?  Riesling, to be sure – but from the Rhine or Moselle, or from Alsace, or the Pacific Northwest, or Australia, or Austria, or Italy?

Only three grapes considered so far, and you see the dimensions of the problems. And the three varieties I’ve so far mentioned show the still built-in Francophilia of the wine world. We haven’t even considered any of the great white grape varieties of Spain and Portugal, Italy, and Greece. And beyond them, there is the plethora of “lesser varieties” from all these countries and from France, any one of which makes perfectly enjoyable wine. Once we say basta to white wines and move to reds, the problem becomes greater still: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot noir, Syrah, Cabernet franc, Mourvèdre – or, to break the Francophilia, Aglianico, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Touriga nacional, Tempranillo, Nerello mascalese, and maybe even Zinfandel.

It’s an endless task. For that reason, for the past 20 years I’ve resisted all suggestions that I update Mastering Wine. It’s impossible: That book’s format can never be used again, not for anything that pretends to be a thorough introduction to wine. No: There’s only one way that our hypothetical instructive case of wines could be assembled, and it’s by pure subjectivity. An individual could do it, drawing entirely on his or her own knowledge and preferences – making them clear, of course, every step of the way. That could produce a coherent collection, with both scope and focus and even some serious attention to cost control. I’m considering trying it, but it will be a time-consuming job, so stay tuned for developments – but not right away.

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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.

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