Where to start with Australia? It's a giant country, a continent, and has a continent of wine. It's almost overwhelming once you start to think about all the sub-regions that are producing an unending array of wines.
In a Wine Australia seminar engagingly hosted by Rhys Pender MW yesterday in Vancouver, we were invited to broaden our horizons past the 'sunshine in a bottle' cliché of brash Aussie Shiraz, to reconsider some of the classics that have been quietly keeping on doing what they do well, the evolution to a more modern, light, and fresh style, often in 'new to our ears' regions, and some of those young guns, the new guard revolutionaries that are delighting in breaking the rules. Beeswax-sealed amphora wine? Hmmm.
All this in a tasting of 12 wines... could it be done? Well, if we apply Betteridge's law, then I'm sure you can guess the answer is 'yes'. A fascinating peek into the world of Aussie wine, and some excellent producers to keep an eye out for below.
A Little History
Hunter Valley Semillon
Some of the oldest ungrafted vines in the world live in Australia. Gnarly, knobby survivors from a different age, these stalwart Shiraz, Grenache, Mourvedre, Riesling, Semillon, and Marsanne plants have rooted deep, deep into the soil to weather the centuries.
When you think of a classic Aussie wine, perhaps Hunter Valley Semillon comes to mind. We learned that back in the day it used to be made as three brands, when it was de rigueur to co-opt European names: Chablis, Riesling, and White Burgundy. How it worked: pick part of your Sem early, so the acid's vibrant and the wine a natural pairing for oysters, call it "Chablis". Harvest the next block a week later, it's got a bit more sugar but still lively, call it "Riesling". Another week after that, you take the last of your grapes in from the field, richer and fuller, give it a decent oaking, and you have your "White Burgundy". How functional!
Today, the Sem is harvested "Chablis" style, early in January (the equivalent of July for us Northerners), and fermented in stainless steel. Drunk young it's full of lime, and about as acidic as you can take. But something rather magical happens as it ages, even under screw cap. Taste a 10 year old HV Sem and you'd swear it'd been fermented in French oak. It's got a rich, toasty, citrus and honey flavour, with another note, the closest I can think of is fresh plastic (it doesn't sound very appealing, but in the glass it is).
We tasted the 2007 McGuigan Bin 9000, and if I was blind tasting, I would have told you it was barrel fermented cool climate Chardonnay...
The cool thing about HV Sem is that they are released so cheaply new, that they're one of the perfect wines to start your cellar collection with. Even some of the best are under $15 a bottle as a new release. All you need is 5 or so years of patience before your collection is paying dividends.
Barossa Valley Grenache & Shiraz
Grenache might not be the first grape you think of when you picture Barossa. But we had a chance to taste the 2011 Yalumba Tri-Centenary Grenache, made from a block of 820 vines that have called Barossa home since being planted in 1889. It's not every day I get to taste a wine from such a venerable old block, and this had all the concentration of flavour you'd hope for. On the nose, preserved maraschino cherry and sweet dried sage; on the palate, tannins like melted butter, with Kalamata olive and cocoa on the finish.
Australia is quite rich in these blocks of old vines, so even though there will never be a glut of each wine, there are great examples like this to seek out to get a taste of the dense, layered flavours a 100+ year old plant can produce.
The 2013 St. Hallett Old Block Shiraz is everything you'd wish for and more. A deep purple colour, with dark, slow tears, as I swirled the glass and raised it to my nose I got the most unique perfume. Like exotic black tea, musky violet, or rose incense. Incredibly enticing. On the palate, cassis, black pepper, and very fine tannins. It was lifted by a little oomph of acidity to keep things fresh. This wine comes from 60 to 100 year old vines.
Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon
Next up was the 2012 Hollick Ravenswood Cab Sauv. The Terra Rossa soils of Coonawarra are so famous, you'd be forgiven for thinking there was red soil as far as the eye could see, but these iron rich clays are found in only a small strip of land about 2 km wide by 15 km long. The area used to be covered by ocean, and as it retreated, it left a compact layer of marine life that's now the limestone subsoil. A cool wind blows in from the Bonney Coast to the South, bringing Antarctic shivers with it, so the region is surprisingly on par with Burgundy or Champagne for being cool climate.
That means that in addition to the classic 'Coonawarra mint' you should expect freshness and good acidity in your glass along with flavours of black fruit (I got blackcurrant in the Hollick). The tannins are chalky, mouth coating, and dusty, a key tell if you happen to find yourself blind tasting a Coonawarra Cab.
There's been a shift to seeking out new terroir, be it to higher elevations, nearer to ocean breezes, or experimenting with unexpected grapes, all in pursuit of drinkable, refreshing wines. Especially in the pursuit of areas that will ripen fruit but not cook it.
Margaret River Chardonnay
This is a lesser-known region with some famous names firmly established: Vasse Felix, Leeuwin, Cape Mentelle. It's a big area, 100 km North to South and about 40 km wide, along the far West coast below Perth, notable for it's low diurnal shift (night and day temperatures don't swing widely). They never have to worry about frost in Margaret River, and apparently you'd have to go back to cold 2006 to find a challenging vintage.
We heard about a renewed focus on clones in the area, with Voyager planting a range including Dijon 95 for its lemon pith notes, and Mendoza, which produces hen and chick bunches, for balanced flavours.
The 2013 Voyager Estate Margaret River Chardonnay was a highlight of the whole flight. On the nose creamy and soft, but all crisp mineral, lemon curd, and silk on the palate. A delightfully pure and pleasing wine with long finish.
Yarra Valley Pinot Noir
NE of Melbourne, and below the Great Divide mountain range, you'll find the maritime influenced Yarra Valley. There are two main soil types here, in the South a rich deep volcanic soil, free-draining and fertile. In the North, a grey, silty lime that's nutrient poor, and perfect for Pinot.
The Soumah Single Vineyard 2015 Pinot from Yarra epitomizes the shift from full and fruity, to a more restrained, thoughtful Aussie PN. They're picking a bit earlier, and focusing on retaining acidity. I found cranberry and rhubarb notes in my glass, and was very taken with the floral nose of fresh iris blooms.
Winemaker Steven Worley explained the MV6 clone they have gives a full, round flavour, while the 777 Burgundy clone has dark fruit and great tannins, and the Pommard is a bit gamey and feral. A great winery to seek out for elegant, but not austere, refreshing wines.
McLaren Vale Aglianico?
The cool kid at the party was Alpha Box & Dice, who presented their 2011 McLaren Vale Xola Aglianico. Apparently Aglianico is a natural fit for the Vale (over a dozen wineries are doing an Aglianico now), where Italian varieties are being experimented with, and Alpha Box sees itself as an R&D lab for newer varietals in the region.
This wine was made in a biodynamic fashion (not certified), then aged for three and a half years in oak. I got some red cherry cola flavours, a hint of VA, and a little tar, along with very high acidity and grippy tannins. The branding on their wines is noteworthy for being so darn cool, with graffiti touches, bright colours and primitive-chic illustrations.
McLaren Vale wines always strike me with an intensity of smooth, rich fruit that is quite distinctive, but we were reminded in the seminar that this area has some of the most diverse soils in the winemaking world. Which means there's plenty of room for different expressions.
Strathbogie Ranges Shiraz
The 2012 Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch Shiraz was a deep limpid purple, so I expected a fruit bomb, but was I ever wrong. A cool 13.2% alcohol, this was more of a Syrah, plumped full of meaty and smokey notes, blueberry fruit, and a field worth of violets.
If this cooler region is capable of making a Syrah with all the violet and smoked meat you'd find in a Northern Rhone, but with more approachable tannins and at an attractive price point, I say game on!
You'll note this next section is, generally speaking, more about the maker than about terroir. Included in this vanguard of producers are some risk takers who are embracing the old-fashioned-is-new again (hence the amphora and beeswax reference above). Another commonality, besides the natural wine ethos, is that the names sound more like album or painting titles than wines. I'm feeling old for my age just writing that sentence.
The wines in this flight found favour with about half the crowd. Fans of the 'natural' wine philosophy were in their element, and while I enjoyed two of the wines, the others left me considering who would take a chance on a $50 bottle full of challenging-to-enjoy flavours? This is where things get interesting!
Evolution I am down with, revolution, caveat emptor.
We tasting their Skin n' Bones White 2015 from Adelaide Hills, made from the Savignin grape. Apparently, it was planted as Albarino, the vines being shipped over from Rias Baixas directly (does that mean lots of Savignin in RB?). In 2008, they realized what variety the vines were.
This wine had 30 days of skin contact before fermentation. On the nose, I got white floral, then a weightly apricot palate, a dense texture. It was tannic, with grapefruit, and saline. Lighter alcohol at 11.8%. My notes say 'jasmine finish'!
The 2015 Like Raindrops Grencache from McLaren Vale was next. This is sealed with a crown cap, and it came out cloudy and pale, with a yogurty nose. On the palate it had all the tannins and less of the fruit than desirable in a Grenache.
That being said, a goodly number of people raised their hand to express they were fans of this wine.
Their 2015 I Am The Owl Syrah from Adelaide Hills was up next. It had a deep purple colour, with pronounced nose of black fruit and pepper. Very appealing stemminess and violets. The tannins were lighter and more delicate than expected, and while the wine had a good weight, it had lovely flexibility on the palate. This is a style of Syrah I could get into.
Last, we reached for the 2015 Amphora Project Nero d'Avola from McLaren Vale, made using a wild ferment during six months fermenting in an amphora. In the glass a medium ruby, this had a somewhat muted nose, on the palate it had notes of green peppercorn, thin red fruit, light bodied with choppy tannins. Interesting rather than enjoyable to drink. Again, half the hands went up for this wine.
What do you think?
Do you have a style of Aussie wine that you gravitate towards, or a region? How do you feel about revolutionaries? I await your opinions!