australia

AUSTRALIA: FROM CLASSICS TO REVOLUTIONARIES

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.

Evolution

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!

Revolutionaries

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.

BK Wines

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'!

Jauma

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.  

Ochoa Barrels

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.

Brash Higgins

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!

REFRESHING AUSSIE WHITES FOR PATIO WEATHER

What do patio umbrellas, floppy hats, coconut scented sunblock and backyard bbqs bring to mind? If you’re a wine lover, it’s a crisp, refreshing glass of chilled white wine.

Here are a few selections from a country that knows how to rock the outdoor get together, Australia! They may be best known for their powerhouse Shiraz reds, but I think you’re going to fall in love with these distinctive, lively whites from some of the oldest family wineries in the country.

Next time you head to the wine shop, seek out the Aussie section for these tasty bottles:

‘The Money Spider’ Roussanne 2013 – d’Arenberg

Rumour has it, if the tiny money spider crosses your path, money is soon to follow. This zesty, zingy wine is vibrantly full of lime and honey blossom. If you’re into NZ Sauv Blanc, give this little number a try! $17+

Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2013 – McWilliam’s

Made from high altitude grapes, which helps capture bright acidity, and concentrated crisp green apple and pear flavors. If you’re into Chablis, give this zinger a chance to delight you at your next picnic. $18+

‘Museum Release’ Marsanne 2008 – Tahbilk

Not too many people have had the chance to taste a Marsanne-based wine, a bit of a shame really, as with a little age like this 2008 release, it has incredible mineral, peach & melon, plus a nutty, toasty richness. Perfect for a leisurely glass on a chic patio. $21+

‘Vat 1’ Semillon 2011 – Tyrrell’s

This lux sipper is perfect for bringing to a fancy BBQ, a total crowd pleaser with hints of lemon, lime and a hit of popcorn richness from bottle aging. Pair with some shrimp kabobs and you’re golden! $35+

BEST OF VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL WINE FESTIVAL #VIWF 2015

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I’m just back from the first day of tasting at Vancouver Wine Fest. The Savour Australia room is open from 230-5 for people in the trade (writers, wine buyers, restauranteurs), and it’s a nice chance to cruise the room and take advantage of the smaller crowds before the evening sessions which can get a little crazy… like 10 people deep at the table crazy.

What shocked me today is that I have more whites than reds to recommend. When you think of Aussie wine, don’t you immediately picture a juicy, jammy red? The whites were gorgeous; lively, great concentration and distinct flavours. I didn’t stick to just the Aussie’s though, I perused the entire hall, so there are wines below from Spain to New York state. The items I’ve listed below are either delicious, unique and delicious, or hard to find and delicious. 

Here, in no particular order at the whites I think you’ll enjoy:

~Mionetto Luxury Cartizze DOCG is a flagship Prosecco. It was creamy, with light mousse, apples and lemon. Not tart, overly foamy or aggressive like some Proseccos can be, this is the Champagne of Prosecco (sorry, I had to say it). $40-50.

~Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon 2007. I tried this, and couldn’t believe how rich and creamy the mouthfeel was. Then I learned that the wine had aged for 8 years, and yet somehow manages to taste bright and fresh. It’s a mouthful of mineral and lime goodness, but oh that texture is sexy. This wine is unlike any Semillon you’ve had before, seek it out! $50.

~McWilliams Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2013. So maybe I just love saying Tumbarumba, but this tasty Chard shows how vibrantly acidic yet balanced Aussie whites can be. A little apple and some oak, with creamy lees notes, just lovely. $20-30.

~Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch Chardonnay 2012. My favourite Chardonnay of the day was this wild fermented beauty from the Victoria region of Oz. It had a voluptuous and silky texture, and flavours of yeast, and lots of fresh fruit. Quality doesn’t come cheap though… $40-50.

~Brotherhood Sparkling Chardonnay. This New Yorker sparkler was very tasty indeed, and hails from America’s oldest winery established in 1839 in the Hudson Valley. We hear a lot about NY wines, but don’t get a chance to taste too many. Crisp, dry but not too dry, delish. $20.

~Devil’s Lair 2012 & The Hidden Cave 2014 Margaret River Chardonnay. Here’s a pretty pair from the far West coast of Oz, perfect for tasting together. The The Hidden Cave is unoaked, fresh, vibrant Chardonnay and the Devil’s Lair has seen some goodly oaking, and is perfect for someone who loves Cali Chard but wouldn’t mind a little more refinement. No oak vs. oak – you be the judge! The Hidden Cave $20-30. Devil’s Lair $40.

Sweeter Stuff:

~Goldtropfchen Auslese Riesling 2011. For those who like a little sugar in their bowl, this Mosel Valley beauty balances tight acidity with the perfect dose of sweetness, and the Riesling aromatics we all love (a little diesel, honeysuckle, stone fruit). $30-40.

~De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon 2011. From pretty Riverina comes this botrytis (“noble rot”) affected sweetie. This is lighter and brighter than I expected, full of apricot, orange peel, whiteflower honey, and some vanilla. $30 for 1/2 bottle.

~Taylor Fladgate 1965 Very Old Single Harvest Port. What can I say about this one? I didn’t spit it out, that’s for sure. It is a gorgeous golden cinnamon brown, and smelled of sweet tobacco, brown sugar and Christmas cake. Seek this out and savour (there was no one at the stand at the beginning of the show, but by last call it was a wall of elbows). $300.

~Gonzalez Byass Apostoles VORS 30 Yr Palo Cortado. If you don’t already love Sherry, give this a try. It just sings on the palate with a luscious undercurrent of briny sea smoke, and a layer of spicy, sweet baking spices. I bought a bottle of this one to put away for a rainy day. $35 for 1/2 bottle.

Reds:

~Cleto Chiarli Grasparossa di Castelvetro Amabile Lambrusco. Call me crazy, but I wasn’t keen on tasting five Lambruscos today. But wow, am I glad I did. This table is completely unique in the tasting hall. Ranging from lighter rose style Lambrusco, to this Amabile (sweet) style, every glass was smooth, sultry, with mild rounded tannins. Just plain elegant (not in the pejorative sense). None of that grittiness that can come with the territory. The Amabile is chilled before fermentation is completed to keep some residual sugar in the bottle. It’s not overtly sugary, there’s just enough to offset the keen acids, and highlight the smooth cherry notes. $30.

~Peter Lehmann 1885 Shiraz 2013. The vines that made this wine were planted in hot Barossa Valley in 1885, and they are giving concentrated, lush, ripe wine even today. The nose on this wine was plush, spicy and had lots of brambly fruit. This is a bottle to open by the fireplace for an evening of relaxed conversation and contemplation. When I think of good quality Aussie Shiraz, this is what it should taste like. $50.

~Wolf Blass Grey Label Shiraz 2012. This is from McLaren Vale and it’s rich, ripe, with toasty mocha and plenty of black fruit and spice. Bonus, it’s ready to quaff now! $30-40.

#VIWF has got something for everyone - let me know if you have a favourite that I missed.

TOP 3 TO TRY AT VANCOUVER INTERNATIONAL WINE FEST #VIFW 2015

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Hey wine fox! The public tasting nights are on now at Vancouver Wine Fest 2015.

The theme is Australia Shiraz/Syrah, and there are an incredible 170 wineries represented at the event. A little overwhelming right?

Well, you can always do what I do, and have a few “must try” wines to seek out before trying all those other incredible looking wines you’ve never heard of!

Here are my three picks for you to check out:

1) Start out your night with a sparkling from the land of the Tasmanian Devil! Tasmanian sparkling wine is so hot right now, which is a little ironic, as it hails from one of the coolest regions in Australia. The Jansz Premium Cuvee is made in the Methode Tasmanoise (a cute riff on Champenoise) on the North-Eastern corner of the island in red basalt soil. Expect creamy bubbles with a fruity hit of strawberry, honeysuckle and citrus… Yum!

2) Then, if you’re feeling up for a powerhouse red, get to the Wolf Blass table early to beat the crowds. Start with some of their delish Chard, before moving to the reds. Their Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz has ranked high in a blind test with some of the most expensive Bordeaux Cabs in the world. This is a great chance to taste a $100+ cult Cab and decide whether you think it’s worth all the fuss (I do!).

3) Since we’re ostensibly at VanWineFest to celebrate all things Shiraz (Australia is the focus, but wineries from all over the world are here), make sure to stop by the Yalumba table to try their Octavius Shiraz. Named for the 100L oak barrels (called ‘octaves’) made onsite by their own coopers, the grapes come from some very old vines in the hot Barossa Valley. Yalumba is the oldest family owned Aussie winery, and they make some truly delicious bottles. Also be sure to try their wild fermented Y Series Viognier, a silky little number with full body and lots of stone fruit.

PS: there are some legit old world fortified wine houses at the tasting. Before you leave, make sure to visit the Taylor-Fladgate, Fonseca, Croft & Gonzalez Byass tables for a little night cap!

Have fun! If you have a hot tip about a wine I’ve got to try at VIWF 2015, let me know below in the comments.