Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Miracle Occurred...

I tasted some Australian wines and liked them (gasp!). Sacré bleu!

Before you run for the shelters awaiting the Four Hoursemen of the Apocalypse, let me reassure you, gentle reader, that these were not the usual Australian wines that we see in the market. They were not the Yellow Tails that have polluted our fair shores for so long. Those wines are mainly from the South-East Coast of Australia, where it's extremely hot and dry and where huge vineyards are tended like futuristic crops straight out of Blade Runner. Nor was I blackmailed, bribed, influenced or otherwised pressured into being surprised at this tasting. As far as I know, there was no mind-control involved either, but then again, with those shifty Aussies, you never know...

No, these were a completely different animal. These were from a cooler side of the Down Under Continent: the Western Coast, near Perth. I was graciously invited to a sit-down tasting organized by the Australian Premium Wine Collection in a private room at the Modern, the restaurant inside the Museum Of Modern Art, to taste and analyze some wines coming in from that region.

Click this picture for a HUGE map

Joining us were four winemakers from the area: Allister Ashmead of Elderton Wines; Nicole Esdaile from Rutherglen Estates; Dean Hewitson, owner of Hewitson; and Hunter Smith of Frankland Estate. Our host was John Larchet, owner of the Australian Premium Wine Collection.

When I arrived, there was a forest of glasses set before us, most of them red wine, and the air was redolent with the heady aroma of wine. With only four whites, I was afraid this was going to be a tough slog. But I was in for a surprise. In general the wines were big, yes, but balanced, and this, as you know, is what I look for. Some tasted like they'd been acidulated slightly, but none was so out of whack as to be painful. That is, until lunch arrived, and we were poured the bigger cousins of the wines we'd been tasting. The contrast, as you will see, was profound.

Flight 1 ("For the Love of Vibrant Whites") began with the 2008 Hewitson "Lulu" Sauvignon Blanc, Adelaide Hills, my first surprise: typical gooseberry, lime and tropical fruits with hints of herbs on a fat frame with some nice acidity. Quite nice, really. We moved on to the 2007 Frankland Estate "Isolation Ridge" Dry Riesling, Frankland River which had some lovely mineral notes surrounded by candied lemon aspects with hints of tea. The 2006 Rutherglen Estates "The Alliance" Marsanne-Viognier (70% Marsanne, 30% Viognier) was also nice but nothing exciting, and I think it might have been acidulated, with hints of honeysuckle and lychees and apricots. Lastly, the 2007 Elderton "E Series" Unoaked Chardonnay was an interesting wine. It never went through malolactic fermentation to keep it crisp, and of course it saw no oak. Its flavors were reminiscent of an unoaked CA Chard, good if a bit on the tropical side.

Flight 2 ("The Art of the Red Blend") had me quivering in fear. Would these be your average fruit bombs with tons of oak and enough alcohol to start a bonfire? My first sniff of the 2006 Rutherglen Estates "Red" Shiraz-Petit Shiraz was something of a shock: leafy red fruits with some hints of bubblegum and stones, with a similar profile on the palate, ending in a medium short finish. The 2006 Hewitson "Miss Harry" GSM was also nice, with dark plummy notes. The next glass, 2003 Frankland Estate "Olmo's Reward" (59% Cab Franc, 16% Merlot, 14& Cab Sauvignon, 11% Malbec) reminded me of a Bordeaux blend, with bright dark fruits with some leafy aspects backed by plums and currants. This had a spicy body and good acidity, with some gripping tannins. The most interesting of the flight IMHO. Lastly, we tasted the 2005 Elderton Estate "Ode to Lorraine" CSM, which offered ripe plums, oak, and hints of herbs with some spicy acidity and softly fruity tannins.

Flight 3 ("The Real Thing: Single Variety/Single Vineyard Reds") was to me a rather blah one. Many of the wines had similar characteristics, and none really wowed me. All three Shirazes, 2004 Frankland "Isolation Ridge", 2005 Hewitson "The Madhatter", 2005 Elderton Estate Shiraz were typical of the grape: black pepper, rich dark fruits, some meaty aspects, plummy, soft on the palate, and ending with some surprisingly short finished. The 2006 Rutherglen Estates Petit Sirah was also typical of its variety, with bright violet fruits, plums, a fat body and gripping yet fruity tannins. Finally, the 2006 Old Faithful "Sandhill" Grenache (no oak) was a rather restrained version of the grape, with herbal red fruits, gripping and fruity tannins.

Flight 4 ("Surprise me please") was where these wineries were redeemed. Starting with the 2005 Smith-Cullam Shiraz-Cabernet, with its herbal red fruits, medium body, black pepper and medium finish, this flight was something of an eye-opener. The 2006 Hewitson "Old Garden" Mourvedre, planted in 1853, was delicious, even after spending 18 months in French oak. This wine took the oak and just bitch-slapped it: dark red fruits, vanilla, with a lovely perfumy nose, with more herbal red fruits on the palate ending in a somewhat short finish that showed a bit of heat. The 2006 Old Faithful "Top of the Hill" Shiraz offered red and dark fruits with some brett, vanilla and chocolate notes on a fat body that offered a long ending with some fruity tannins. And the 2004 Elderton "Ashmead" Cabernet was, to me, one of the wines of the tasting. This had that Bordeaux-ish Band-Aid nose, with cherries, herbs, chocolate, currants, graphite and minerals on a medium/fat body that hid some spicy zip and left you with a long finish covered in fruity tannins. Very nice.

However, with lunch, the old ways returned: 2003 Tir na N'og Old Vines Grenache, 2003 Hewitson "The Madhatter" Shiraz, and 2003 Elderton "Command" Shiraz. Big, spoofilated wines that cover your palate in ripe, sometimes over-ripe fruit and just smack you upside the head with both alcohol and body.

The 2003 Frankland "Isolation Ridge" Dry Riesling was one of the two saving graces, lovely and refreshing with a tartness that made you reach for it again and again. The other savior was a wine made back when they were going for a more balanced model: the 1992 Elderton "Command" Shiraz, with musky, mushroomy dark black fruits, leather, herbs, chocolate and some VA (Volatile Acidity) on a medium body with funky dark and red fruits and a long finish that hinted at some heat from the alcohol.

So overall I did enjoy the tasting, having left my preconceived notions of Australian wines at the door. Having an open mind and open palate certainly helps, and I found that there are indeed some well-made, drinkable wines coming from Down Under. But the wines we had with lunch were a warning as to what not to aspire to...

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