Australia ReVisited by David Lawrason
Celebrating Australia Day 2014
I am off to Australia next week, hired by Fine Vintage Ltd, to co-lead a group of Canadians on a tour to some of the best classic and new wineries of the world’s oldest continent. Believe it or not I have mixed feelings about trading -15C temps for 35 C summer temps Down Under; but I am almost giddy with anticipation for tasting and dining in regions like the Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, Eden and Barossa. Australia is one of the most exciting wine nations in the world these days, striking off in many directions in terms of production techniques, styles, grape varieties and regions.
Many visitors to Australia put iconic bucket-list destinations like the Great Barrier Reef, Sydney Harbour and Ayer’s Rock near Alice Springs at the top of their itineraries. We are going straight to wine country. Indeed Australia’s wine lands, with their burgeoning restaurant and hospitality scenes, are now drawing almost as many tourists as the icon destinations. The cuisine of Australia is an often eclectic fusion of Asian and Euro sensibilities, with far more very fresh seafood than one might expect, freshwater yabbies (crayfish) plus scads of grilled lamb, beef and of course, ‘roo.
Ontarians staying home can bask in the Aussie vibe through a major mid-winter promotion now in progress. It takes the form of twenty Australian brands being featured at six different LCBO in-store Food and Wine Tastings, fifteen new wines being released in VINTAGES on February 1, and a wine trade show called “Australia Today” at the Art Gallery of Ontario on February 6, complete with a seminar led by WineAlign’s John Szabo, Master Sommelier. Ontario residents will even get the chance to win a trip to Australia. (Details here.)
In a purely practical, wine-drinking sense the mid-winter timing is ideal. In the dead of Canadian winter we actually love to drink richer, fuller, warmer wine.
In a marketing sense, the timing of this promotion is crucial. Since 2008 Australian wine has taken it on the chin in the marketplace and it is now re-tooling its wine and its message to regain its poise. The blow was a confluence of consumer fatigue with big brands whose story was shallow, and rising prices for its better wines just as recession set in. I think Aussie winemakers also faced considerable and sometimes unfair stylistic-based criticism among critics, sommeliers and other “influencers” who were tilting to lighter Euro reds.
I love Beaujolais, Barbera, Bardolino and Burgundy too, but I never stopped admiring the best of Australia’s rich reds, as long as the alcohol levels weren’t performing like booster rockets. And I have found recently that many are now keeping that in check, or at least showing better, balancing acidity and fruit depth, due to better viticultural practices. The big Aussie red section of my cellar is growing again.
The Red Wines
Shiraz is of course the best known Australian red variety, but I would like to open this tour of grape varieties and regions represented on the Feb 1 release with the most under-rated great red wine of Australia – cabernet sauvignon. The thick-skinned, late ripening variety of Bordeaux’s left bank ripens better in Oz than in France, resulting in richer, better centred and balanced reds that don’t really need in-filling with merlot and other Bordeaux varieties. The moderate climate of Coonawarra is the heartland of great Aussie cabernet, with Katnook Estate 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon ($29.95) being a fine example indeed – excellent structure for the money. Château Tanunda 2011 Grand Barossa Cabernet Sauvignon ($19.95) is a glimpse into the more rugged style of Barossa cabernet, although from a lighter vintage.
Shiraz – with dark ripe cherry fruit, signature pepperiness and suave tannin – remains the backbone of Australia’s brand, and the best also show both heartwarming richness and head engaging finesse. In the VINTAGES February 1 release don’t miss Penfolds Bin 128 from Coonawarra ($34.95), a wine for the cellar. For a smoother and easier drinking style that catches some of the elan of McLaren Vale, try Dandelion Lioness of McLaren Vale 2011 Shiraz ($19.95)
Grenache is a peppery sister to shiraz that is very much worth exploring. It’s a heat-seeking grape that ripens to high sugar levels (thus high alcohol) and very soft texture with seductive flavours of strawberry and cherry jam flecked with herbs. When made from old ‘head pruned’ bush vines the low-acid structure is firmed up and the wines are quite concentrated, as in Chapel Hill 2011 Bush Vine Grenache from McLaren Vale ($26.95)
Shiraz and grenache are also often blended with the firmer mourvèdre grape that brings its firm tannin to the equation. These “GSMs” or grenache-shiraz-mourvèdre blends have a long track record in the reds of the south of France (like Chateauneuf-du-Pape). Many are spice bombs, a bit paler in colour but very complex, peppery and even herbal. The Schild Estate 2011 Old Bush Vine GMS from Barossa ($19.95) is a classic with all kinds of lifted rosemary, sage character that would be great with lamb.
In fact, blended reds are now a major focus in Australia at all price points. Cabernet and shiraz are often combined therein, as well as a whole range of new (for Australia) Italian grapes like sangiovese, Spanish grapes like tempranillo and Portuguese grapes like touriga nacional. Heartland 2010 Stickleback Red is predominantly cabernet sauvignon and shiraz with a splash of Italian dolcetto and lagrein. Lots of character for $13.95.
For the past five years I have been paying serious attention to Australian pinot noir, my favourite grape variety. Once considered too hot for fine pinot, Australia is finding more critical success centred on the maritime regions of the Mornington Peninsula and Yarra Valley within an hour’s drive of Melbourne. The Robert Oatley 2012 Signature Series Pinot Noir ($18.95) is a full flavoured, less expensive exploration of Yarra’s style, while Tamar’s Ridge Devil’s Corner 2012 Pinot Noir ($23.95) is a surprisingly refined and almost delicate, fruity style from Tasmania, the forest-clad island state off the south coast that provides Australia’s coolest grape-growing climate.
The White Wines
Among white grape varieties, Australia is pushing for freshness and vivacity at all costs. Gone are most of the golden, overripe, over-oaked chardonnays, being replaced with leaner wines based on higher acids attained at higher altitudes or nearer the coasts – ideally both. Mountadam Estate 2009 Chardonnay ($24.95) from the High Eden realm within Eden Valley is a terrific example of the genre. Aussies love odd names for their wine, none odder than Ad Lib Hen & Chicken Oaked Chardonnay ($19.95). This chardonnay from the cool and remote Pemberton region of Western Australia shows the region’s acidity well, although this re-released item is showing some age.
Riesling has always been a strong suit of Australia, particularly from the German-settled regions of Barossa, Eden and Clare near Adelaide. Australian riesling is bone-dry, powerful with a lashing of lime-like acidity and considerable riesling ‘petrol’. Western Australia is now paying attention as well and Robert Oatley 2012 Signature Series Riesling ($17.95) from Great Southern – in the same area as Pemberton – is a fine, more delicate example.
The great, perpetually unsung white variety of Australia is Semillon, an unusual variety originating in Bordeaux where it is often blended with sauvignon blanc. The Australians blend it as well, but in certain regions like Barossa and the Hunter Valley of New South Wales. McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant 2006 Elizabeth Semillon $19.95 is a textbook example of why most critics around the world name Hunter Semillon as one of the world’s best aged whites. It has riveting acidity and depth, and is perhaps the greatest ‘discovery’ of all in Ontario’s promotion. Make that a rediscovery. Semillon, like so many of Australia’s wines, has always been there. But nowadays Australian winemakers and marketers are redesigning and even replanting the garden to let the lesser known wines bloom.
VP of Wine
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