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In Defence of Australian Wine


Aussie wine gets a bum rap from many aficionados, and for relatively good reason. Five large companies produce 75% of the country’s wine, encouraging an increasing trend towards the lowest-common denominator. Yellow Tail Shiraz, for example, with some 6,500,000 cases exported to the USA last year, is undoubtedly now the Pepsi Cola of red wine – sweet and syrupy, made to an inflexible formula, recognizable as a global brand, and with about as much to do with natural farming techniques as, well, Pepsi Cola.

Add to that how many of the mid- and higher-price bracket wines have come to epitomize the “Parkerisation” of the global industry – with their “gobs of sweet ripe up-front fruit” that can be instantly attractive to those who want a bang for their buck, but is increasingly off-putting to those who like some subtlety with their oak – and it’s not surprising that there’s been a backlash to the wine world’s bargain basement.

But that’s not to say that producers big and small, old and new, aren’t still capable – indeed, determined – to make great wines worthy of their company and country’s reputation. Over the last year, I’ve opened a couple of the bottles we brought back from our visit to the Hunter Valley in January 2000, along with a few of those from other parts of Australia I picked up on a brief buying binge upon my return from that trip. Given that many of these were cellared in less-than-stellar conditions, I’ve been greatly gratified by their quality and evident lasting power.

1) Take the CHÂTEAU REYNELLA ‘BASKET PRESSED’ CABERNET SAUVIGNON 1995 from the MCLAREN VALE region just outside Adelaide. John Reynell planted his – and South Australia’s – first vines in 1838, and though Reynella is now part of the BRL Hardy empire (and absent even its own web site), it was still making good wines a decade ago, judging by this bottle. Here are my notes:

Color almost impenetrable, just a slight purple brick around an otherwise deep blackish purple hue. Nose of blackcurrant, mint, violets, wisps of oak and some herbal touches too. Alluring and balanced. Strong mint flavor up front on the palate – as one might identify with Napa – but less of an oak-laden fruit bomb than Cali. Relatively bright acidity, hints of sweetness, soft tannins suggesting a few more years ageing potential. Obvious blackcurrant flavors, plenty fruit. Well integrated oak, medium bodied, slightly bitter finish, a luscious and heady wine without rough edges. Had aged well and was probably close to optimum drinking – hefty amount of sediment left in the bottle, and the last glass and a half left in the (stopped up) bottle had pretty much collapsed by second night. Enjoyed with a cauliflower/olive pesto with mint/oregano/basil flavors.

2) Also from the MCLAREN VALE, but made from purchased rather than estate-grown grapes, I finally opened up my ROSEMOUNT 1995 GSM, – a down-under acronym, now widely adopted in California, for the Grenache-Syrah/Shiraz-Mourvedre blend so common to the Southern Rhone. Rosemount started some thirty years ago in the Hunter Valley but has since risen to a national prominence, second only to Penfold’s in its ability to make vast quanitities of prestige wines. This mid-level wine has a shelf life of about a decade. Fortunately I got to it in time. Here’s what I wrote earlier this year:

Color is an opaque and impenetrable color of dried blood. Slight crimson brick at edges. Nose is dominated by distinctive flavors of Aussie Shiraz – minty pepper but also aromas of violet, ginger and leather. Surprising acidity on the tongue, light on the front palate but gains weight in the middle and has deliciously long finish that kicks in with spicy touch a solid 30 seconds later. The Grenache fruit is spicy but friendly, the Syrah is definitely adding a meaty structure and it may be the Mourvedre that adds the tannins. It’s lost some fruit and hasn’t reached an apotheosis of sorts but the medium body weight is well balanced and the structure remains excellent. As wine warms up get more gingerbread, honey and leather.

The Leasingham Bin 61 Clare Valley Shiraz after several years in bottle: check the sediment on the right shoulder.

3) And then this last weekend, after a long day on the slopes and in serious need of a winter warmer, I opened up the LEASINGHAM BIN 61 CLARE VALLEY SHIRAZ 1997. The Clare Valley is north of Melbourne, further inland than the McLaren Vale, and its hardy conditions make for solidly structured wines. As per Reynella, Leasingham has ties going back to the 19th Century, and as per Reynella, it’s now owned by BRL Hardy, but, again as per Reynella, this Bin 61 helps explain why Australian wines got their good rap in the 1990s to begin with.

The oily “legs” hanging above the brick red color indicated a wine of considerable depth, and the bright Zinfandel-like nose of exotic berries, combined with white pepper and spicy herbs suggested a youthful wine still in its first flush of fruit. There was still considerable acidity, a firm body, and while the mid-palate tasted too much like wood – Leasingham matures both the Bin 61 and its “Classic Clare” Shiraz in American oak for 18 months – the finish was long and satisfying. Come the second night, what was left in the bottle had, not surprisingly, lost its fruity edge, and the last glass had enough sediment to qualify as silt, but still it was a mighty fine wine.

4) Finally moving on to S.E. Australia and the HUNTER VALLEY that’s but a short drive from Sydney, we earlier this summer uncorked the BRIAR RIDGE VINEYARD STOCKHAUSEN SIGNATURE RELEASE 1998 (The wine is named not for the avant-garde composer but for the wine-maker of several decades standing.) We’d purchased the wine at Briar Ridge itself back in January 2000 and after communicating direct with the winery by e-mail earlier this year, figured it was time to crack it open. My notes were as follows:

Deep purple color with light brick at top. Nose is soft and earthy and jammy: blackcurrant and gingerbread and cake and distinctive sweet Shiraz: somewhat light on palate but with a bright clean blackcurrant fruit flavor, tingling on tongue a little, clean but with lasting leathery peppery flavor. Not dense, not concentrated, not exceptional, but still clean and bright after seven years. Second night, at warmer temperature, notice the mint more on the nose, but the fruit seems darker and more pronounced, the overall effect richer and denser, a little more leathery and earthy. Chewy, even.

None of these wines were particularly expensive upon purchase. None of them were stored in ideal conditions. All of them have lasted a further three-five years from purchase, and a couple of them suggested they had far longer than that left to give. Fortunately, many of the other wines we brought back from Australia were built to last the long haul and are now in proper storage. I can’t wait to try them. But I’ll just have to force myself.

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