Just about everyone has had a taste the powerful Shiraz being produced in South Australia’s Barossa, McLaren Vale. Many are familiar with the steely Riesling from Eden and Clare Valley. Several of us have at least read about great Coonawarra Cabernet, although good examples are few and far between. A few have even understood that great Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay can be made in the cooler reaches of Adelaide Hills. But what else is there?
Australia has gone through some radical changes over the years. Not that long ago that 80% of the country’s production was fortified wine, and over 90% of the 2000 wineries today did not exist in 1970. Since the mid-1980s Austalia has excelled at providing exactly what people want. For many years that was tropical, high octane Chardonnay with a good dollop of oak and opulent Shiraz with more than a hint of residual sugar. All this at prices that got supermarkets salivating. Want that in a box? No problem, mate! Volume? Are you joking?
At the same time, Robert Parker and other powerful critics lauded extravagant, high-alcohol “gobs of fruit”-type wines, best exemplified by Mollydooker. The message was clear: Big is beautiful. And Australia was good at delivering just that. And they went all-in.
I won’t begrudge the aussies. I would probably have done the same thing. But the effect of this strategy, coupled with a very strong dollar, is that when the pendulum swung and those wines were no longer in fashion Australian wines became decidedly unmarketable.
The lesson is clear: It is good to have something to spearhead a market with. But once that is done, diversity is needed to keep interest high.
Now, I am a big fan of Australian wine, and I still find great surprises in the wines of some of the iconoclastic wineries, especially in Victoria (the likes of Jasper Hill, Mt. Langhi Ghiran and By Farr feature heavily on my lists and cellars). And I certainly think Australia has an almost unlimited, hitherto untapped potential to produce unique wines if it sets its mind to it. So I was happy to be invited to the tasting event entitled Alternative Australian Wine Grape Varieties with the hugely knowledgable Justin Knock MW (follow Justin on twitter), hosted at the spectacular Restaurant AOC in Copenhagen.
The goal of the tasting was to present some of the not so well known grape of South Australia. I find this experimenting hugely interesting, as the only thing that really separates the old and the new world is experience. Who’s to say that Shiraz is what the aussies are supposed to be doing just because that is what is planted? Maybe somewhere on that huge landmass they have the potential to produce sublime wine with Nebbiolo, Pinot Gris or Fiano?
There are a few obstacles though. Australia is hot; there is no denying it. Labels proudly tout “cool climate”, but the term is only relative to the rest of Australia (with the possible exception of Tasmania). Lack of irrigation water and increasingly erratic climate may also put a hamper on which grapes are able to thrive. With the marvelous quality wines coming out of Portugal, Greece and Spain today, I would put my money on the proven heat-resistant grapes of the Mediterranean like Mourvèdre (which there is a substantial amount of already, but it is rarely bottled on its own), Bobal, Touriga Nacional or white grapes like Assyrtiko or Carricante.
This tasting hinted that the trend had turned towards Italian grapes. I personally think this is misguided. I know Italian food and wine will never go out of style, but apart from a few exceptions, Italian wine is pretty bland stuff. It sells because of some romantic ideal, not because of what is in the bottle. I think it would be a dangerous road to go down, because Australia will never have that innate charm that Italy conjures in customers’ minds. And maybe the Italian charm works on the domestic market, but I doubt it will have the same effect on export sales though. Justin did point out that the selection wasn’t wholly representative though. I’ll have to take his word for it, until I visit later this year.
The best wines in the tasting were the Viognier from Yalumba, which really represents exceptional value and the Mourvèdre from Yangarra which was juicy, but actually had complexity. No surprises here, the varietals are no strangers to Australian winemakers. Overall though I left with the same feeling that I came with; there is great potential here, but it’s just that - potential.
I think part of the problem is that too few winemakers actually explore the world of truly great wine. I rutinely ask winemakers who they look up to, whose wines they drink with dinner at home. If you see the right empty bottles on his or her shelves, you have probably met someone who also makes great wine.
Thanks to Damien Miller, ambassador to Denmark and to Justin Knock MW for an informative event.
A: Recommended. If it fits your preferences, go get ‘em.
AA: You should go out of your way to source these wines.
AAA: Take a loan and buy more of this.
2011 Primo Estate, Pinot Grigio, McLaren Vale
Aromatic with lots of sweet fruit on the nose. Well-balanced, if not quite fresh. Round and well polished. More Gris than Grigio. Well made, and definitely something many will like. But hardly what the world of wine needs more of.
2011 First Drop “Bella Coppia”, Arneis, Adelaide Hills
Fresh, pineappley nose with a touch of mint. Smooth palate with good acidity. Surprisingly light, and none of the bitterness that I typically associate with Arneis. A good effort.
2012 Primo Estate “La Biondina” Colombard, McLaren Vale
Simple, primary fruit on the nose, which might become more interesting with a bit more bottle age. The palate is quite fat and round and doesn’t fit all that well with the nose.
2009 Cariole, Fiano, McLaren Vale
Rich, round nose with yellow apple, grapefruit and orange zest. Low acidity and quite funky. Complex in a way, but I’d say it’s past its prime. I have not tried younger versions.
2010 d’Arenberg “The Hermit Crab”, McLaren Vale
(74% Viognier, 26% Marsanne) Ripe stonefruit and fennel on the nose. Slightly prickly on the palate with ripe apricot and yellow peaches and a lovely waxy character from the Marsanne. A classic in its own right, and a well made wine.*
2012 Yalumba Viognier “Oxford Landing”, South Australia A
Bright, typical Viognier character on the nose of apricot, aniseseed and yellow pear. Quite zesty on the palate. One of the most affordable wines in the lineup, and a favorite of mine. Very good effort at capturing the soul of Viognier without being too heavy. The French could learn something here.
2009 Primo Estate “Il Briccone” Shiraz/Sangiovese, McLaren Vale
This is primarily Shiraz (the 2011 vintage states 85% Shiraz) so perhaps doesn’t fit at all in the lineup. Opulent, red-berried nose with some of that saline tell-tale Sangiovese seaweed and soy note (Yes, I am currently taking suggestions for better tasting note nomenclature). Lots of clove from the barrels. Warm finish.
2009 Mad Dog Sangiovese, Barossa Valley
Sweet, almost raisined fruit tones. More than healthy dollop of residual sugar. Oriental spice. Has a certain rustic charm.
2006 Primo Estate “Joseph”, Nebbiolo, McLaren Vale
Lean, green, pyrazine-rich nose – much more like Merlot on the nose than Nebbiolo. Well structured. A good effort, and a fun wine. Plenty of potential here, but still a long way to go.
2007 Longview Riserva, Nebbiolo, Adelaide Hills
Cherry liqueur and mature spicy notes. On the palate this is everywhere, no focus as at. Acidity stands out as does the sweetness, which lingers on the finish. Not bad.
2009 Thom Clarke “Morella” Nebbiolo
The first of the Nebbiolos to actually look like Nebbiolo! Liqueur-like nose with too much oxidation for its age – raisined fruit. No fun at all.
2010 Bleasdale Malbec, Langhorne Creek
Deep purple color. Dark, opulent black fruit character with roasted coffee tones and violets. Serious tannin structure. Finishes a bit raisined, but all in all a well made hedonistic wine.
2010 Yangarra Mourvèdre, McLaren Vale A
wine in the tasting. Rich, spicy, roasted nose with a lovely mint chocolate character on the nose. Juicy, rich fruit on the palate. Serious, but soft and drinkable. By no means a great wine, but the best red today.
2009 Hentley Farm, Zinfandel
Distinctly meaty character – no brett police here. Certainly a touch of oxidation as well. I don’t mind, there’s plenty of typical dark raspberry fruit as well.Not without complexity.
2010 Penfolds Reserve Tempranillo, McLaren Vale
Well-balanced, modest wine with some fine spicy notes from the wood and red fruit character. Well-balanced, but not as exciting as I would have hoped.