Thursday, January 26, 2012

Australia Education Part IV

Now we move to South Australia, the state located between Western Australia and New South Wales. The middle ground shared geographically mirrors its position from a wine production standpoint as well. The small, isolated wine region in Western Australia. together with the oldest and largest wine producing region of New South Wales form perfect bookends for established, tourist-friendly, generally quality-focused South Australia.
The larger region of southeastern Australia includes the majority of bulk wine production in Australia, specifically, Riverina located in New South Wales. Although it is not noted on the map, Riverina is north of Victoria.

Let's move south to north. Far down in South Australia, mid-way between Adelaide and Melboune (nearly part of New South Wales) in the Limestone Coast region, lies Connawara. Appropriately enough, as it is relatively off on its own, the area draws comparisons to Western Australia. Hugh Johnson, in his World Atlas of Wine 4th Edition, writes, "The Margaret River region can be seen as the Connawara of the west." Many wineries produce wines from Connawara, few call it home.
The striking terra rossa soil, a distinctive red on top with limestone underneath, makes outstanding cabernet sauvignon and shiraz. Riesling is making a name for itself but Bordeaux varieties (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc) are the calling card.

The Limestone Coast's long growing season, sometimes harvest does not begin until the rest of South Australia has finished, combined with the unique soil profile makes for distinct wines. The whites are full of citrus notes and bright acids. The reds, lively as well, show pepper and minerality, sometimes even raw meat. I know that last one sounds weird, maybe sanguine sounds better? Think about a good butcher shop (sorry vegetarians) and the enticing aromas inside.
I had good experiences with Bowen Estate but it has been a while, Highbank has impressed me in two tastings. Punter's Corner has been good and disappointing, but since they're reasonably priced I keep my eye on them. I wholeheartedly recommend Jim Barry wines in general (they're located in Clare Valley to be featured soon) but their Cover Drive Cabernet comes from Connawara and is an excellent example of the region. Wynns' shiraz and shiraz blends have always impressed me for the money.
Just north of Connawara is an emerging region with great potential and an already great name, Wrattonbully. Yalumba has focused some efforts there and it is an area to watch.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Australia Education Part III

From one side of the country we now travel nearly 2,500 miles across Australia's large expanse. The country ranks sixth in total area behind Russia, Canada, China, the United States and Brazil. Western Australia accounts for about one third of the total area of Australia. The wine regions are incredibly remote.
Early cultivation centered around Perth but eventually spread south to the Margaret River (a GI), Frankland. Mount Barker and Albany ( all included in the Great Southern GI). As a reminder, GI stands for Geographical Indication and serves as their equivalent to appellations or the United States' AVA (American Viticultural Area).
Great Southern features a mostly continental climate with sunny days and cool nights. The calling cards are riesling and chardonnay but reds do well also. You will find bright acids but no lack of texture. Rieslings from here remind me of the fresh sunny style from Columbia Valley (Washington State) but with the structure of Austria while the chardonnays strike a balance between cool climate California and Burgundy showcasing citrus rather than tropical fruit. The rest of the style is decided in the cellars, so big, oaky examples can be found.
Look for Frankland Estate, especially the riesling and chardonnay from Isolation Ridge. Their Olmo's Reward can be riveting as well, featuring lots of cabernet franc and reminding me more of Bordeaux than Australia. They have come out with a more affordable level of wines called Rock Gully but I have no experience with these yet. Plantagenet has a great reputation but my experience is too limited to offer specifics.
Margaret River juts out into the Pacific Ocean and consequently the maritime influence is strong. People like to refer to 'cool breezes' mitigating temperatures but I hear more dramatic tales of strong winds and at least one producer discussed planting to guard against those 'sea breezes.' Consider surfing if you visit. This is cabernet, shiraz and chardonnay territory as the area is warmer than Great Southern.
Cape Mentelle makes a shiraz that can often be confused for a Rhone Valley version and they produce a zinfandel, although I have not tried the zin. Leeuwin proudly mentions their pioneering efforts in the area. They remain a top-notch producer but are so proud of their efforts that the prices have prohibited me from trying many. I have found their chardonnays too heavy for me but the cabernets offer some dusty earth tones and more nuance than many from California. Moss Wood is routinely written up as a leader in the area but I have never even seen a bottle, much less tried the wine.
Vasse Felix offers some terrific values, at least from this region. Production volumes do not reach the enormous levels of Southeastern Australia and therefore you will not see Western Australia wines for under $10, maybe not even under $15, most are in excess of $20. Dr. Tom Cullity established Vasse Felix as the first winery in Margaret River. Though I usually warn against animals on labels, this falcon was trained to guard the grapes from predators. It flew away the first day and never returned. Now it is captured forever on the label. I heartily recommend their estate cabernet and shiraz.
My next two posts will focus on South Australia, including Barossa, Eden Valley and my promised land of Australian wine, McLaren Vale.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Australia Education Part II

Wine maps frustrate me, rarely delivering all of the important pieces of the puzzle at once. Perhaps a post in the future will address that. Suffice it to say that I got bogged down looking at maps the last few days instead of continuing with the education.
A look at Australia with Google Earth will easily show you where the growing happens. Look for green. The vast majority of the country is too hot for much of anything, certainly for viticulture. Look toward the coast.
New South Wales served as the birthplace and then epicenter of the Australian wine trade for more than a century but the production focused on sweeter styles of wines. While vineyards still flourish there, you will find precious few bottles represented on local shelves or wine lists. A handful of wines from the Hunter Valley make their way to the U.S. but are far from widely available. Located north/northeast of Sydney in eastern Australia, the region gets very warm and has some concerns with rain and humidity. Semillon, a grape used in small percentages in dry white Bordeaux and large percentages for sweet Sauternes from the same area, thrives here. Shiraz also performs well. Chardonnays are rich and unctuous. Brokenwood Estate makes a lovely, crisp, mouthwatering sauvignon blanc/semillon blend and Hope Estate produces some lovely values, including their shiraz and an overlooked grape called verdelho with a delicate approach but enough tactile touch to tantalize.
An interesting region to keep an eye on, or rather a palate, is the Yarra Valley, located east/northeast of Melbourne (nearly adjacent) in the hills near the southernmost tip of mainland Australia. It finds itself inside the larger area of Victoria, marked by more elegant versions of wines than we might expect from down under. The calling card for the U.S. is pinot noir but so far the bottles I have tasted show inconsistent results and I will refrain from offering any specific producers.
A full range of reds, whites and even sparkling wines emerge from the Yarra Valley, and Victoria, but importers feature pinot noir to differentiate the area from the rest of Australia. Chardonnay as well as cabernet and shiraz potentially perform well and display higher acidity than the fruit bomb style that thrust Australia onto the American palate but lead to fatigue and flagging sales in relatively short order. Based on my experience, the region, as represented by importers to the U.S., tried too hard to emulate their bigger, riper, fruitier brothers and sisters, losing their inherent character. Look for opportunities to taste as purer expressions arrive on our shores.
Next: Western Australia and then into the excitement of South Australia.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Education Begins - Australia Part I

Wine professionals are often guilty of creating confusion or over simplifying things for their audiences. It is possible I will commit the same errors, but I will strive to avoid them. My goal for this education focuses on providing accurate, useful information while actively tying it to wine styles available within the regions being discussed. This last portion makes all the difference. Without a frame of reference and some application of the facts, no true understanding can occur.
This should be at least mildly entertaining and will, I hope, be material you will reference again and again. With that in mind, this will not be exhaustive coverage of every grape, style or region. Instead, widely available options will take priority to increase the relevance. On with the show.
Despite the country's inclusion in the New World for wine discussions, grape growing in Australia began in the late 1780s. The grape most often associated with the area, shiraz, was not always a showpiece variety. In the 1980s the government paid growers to not grow the grape. This also led to replanting and loss of older, unprofitable, vines. The calling card for the continent was fortified dessert wines until about the 1960s. The British love the style and Australia could produce credible and consistent versions.
Important facts:

  • Just like California, if a specific variety is named on the label, 85% of the wine must be that variety.

  • Unlike California, if 5% or more of a variety is in the bottle, it must be listed on the label.

  • Helpfully, with more than one variety blended in, the grapes are listed in order of the largest to smallest percentage.

  • What the French call appellations and we call AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) the Aussies refer to as Geographic Indications - although you'll almost never hear this term.

  • Many wineries use bin numbers to identify their wines. Penfold's and Lindeman's are the best known producers using the bin system. There are no rules or regulations about this practice.

  • South Australia is actually a more specific designation than southeastern Australia.

There are plenty of maps available, but I find the Kobrand Wine and Spirits website to be among the best. Here is the link, it will take you to the whole country and then you can zoom in on specific regions.

Part two will take us to some of those specific regions and will be posted in a day or two.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

What if the "Experts" Can't Get it Right?

Wine confuses enough people without those in positions of perceived authority making egregious errors that further confound. Readers of wine magazines ought to be able to take printed facts as truth. Mistakes can happen to anyone but editors must remain vigilant to avoid as many as possible.
I recently found a small clipping I saved a while ago and later misplaced. It seems a perfect time to share it before embarking on my new educational focus. Bear in mind that Oregon Wine Press focuses on wines from Oregon, not France. Karl Klooster writes multiple articles in each edition and I have never observed even small errors from him. Guess he saved them up for a while. No printed retraction or explanation from the magazine appeared.
The article, "Grand Time at Gerding," discussed a wine tasting presented by Southern Oregon Wineries Association (SOWA) and appeared in the November 2010 edition. Mr. Klooster makes multiple mistakes in the following sentence.
"Petite Sirah, which is known as 'duriff' in the Rhone Valley, is mostly used in southern Rhone wines such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Cornas." Never mind that Mr. Klooster incorrectly capitalizes the "S" in southern Oregon in the next sentence. He does not make the same mistake with southern Rhone. Never mind that durif is not spelled with two f's. Those could both be printing errors and are eminently forgivable.
However, moving a wine region a hundred miles south and misrepresenting the grapes grown in two appellations necessitates more attention. First, Cornas is a northern Rhone appellation, not southern. Second, the appellation produces only syrah wines or else they can not be called Cornas. No other grapes are allowed. Third, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, correctly identified as a southern Rhone wine, does not include durif as one of the thirteen approved grape varieties. A fourteenth will likely be added soon, but that is still not durif. The French viewed the grape to be of inferior quality and limited its use to lesser appellations. Very little is to be found in France at all anymore.
As the educational journey begins, I will promise to be as accurate as possible. While I can not promise perfection, I guarantee nothing this sloppy will ever appear.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Preposterous Pundit Pontification of the Month (Silly Wine Review of the Month) Part Three

With two editions, the Wine Spectator provided plenty of choices, so I have some (dis)honorable mentions.

I reminded myself about the challenges of writing about sparkling wine and swore I would never pick on a review of that elusive, ethereal liquid that so captivates but is so hard to capture in words. So, I'll pick on two of them, both from A.N.

Henri Billiot & Fils Brut Champagne Cuvee Julie NV $97 93 points "This aromatic bubbly offers an exotic mix of flavors, with honeysuckle, marjoram, myrrh, coconut and ginger notes accenting patisserie apple, kiwifruit, honey and toast flavors. It's all packaged with vibrant, balanced acidity and finely detailed texture." Myrrh? Myrrh? MYRRH??? No frankincense? Couldn't wait until a December issue when it would be more topical?

Ruinart Brut Champagne Dom Ruinart 2002 $130 95 points "Like a well-tuned symphony the delicious wine offers beautiful harmony between the finely detailed texture, the lacy, mouthwatering acidity and the range of flavors, from fresh, floral tones of apricot, apple blossom and pink grapefruit zest to richer notes of toasted nut, spiced plum, freshly ground coffee, anise, cumin and cardamom." Wow! She had me all the way to "coffee, anise, cumin and cardamom," then it sounded like a nightmare. I know the producer and the bottling, if not this vintage and I have always enjoyed it immensely but A.N.'s ridiculous references could turn me the other direction if I didn't know better.

For A.N.'s winning entry, we travel to Alsace.

Mure Gewurztraminer Alsace Clos-St.-Landelin 2009 $45 93 points "A refined version, with intriguing note of candle wax, lemon curd and smoke, accenting honeyed flavors of quince paste, lychee, orange peel and dried herbs and spice. Layered and silky, this is rich and concentrated without being heavy, ending with a note of burnt caramel." Where do I begin? the whole thing seems like some experimental tryst gone wrong. Careless handling of candles lighting something on fire, fruits and a significant other distracting one from something on the stove and finally ending with caramel no one wants. Candle wax and burnt caramel...can't wait!


J.M. gets two entries here but it could have been a dozen or more. He writes some truly exotic notes. I mentioned this one the other day, but it deserves to be viewed in full.

Domaine des Florets Gigondas Supreme 2009 $55 91 points "A traditional style, with mature incense and black tea notes wafting up, followed by supple mulled black cherry, braised fig and anise notes. Incense hangs on the finish, which has latent grip." Maybe it's just too much time at Grateful Dead shows or hanging around with people covering up the smell of pot (that is the main reason for incense, right?) but this note nauseates me. I think if all of these smells greeted me on arrival at a host's home I would have to turn and leave. Now, imagine paying for them...

J.M.'s winner was on the first page of the first of two editions for November. Made the rest of the reading much less interesting but it clearly wins the prize.

E. Guigal Cote-Rotie La Landonne 2007 $500 97 points "This is very backward, with smoldering tobacco and charcoal up front, holding the dense core of black currant, anise and hoisin sauce at bay for now. Sage, sweet tapenade and bittersweet cocoa all roll as the grip takes over on the back end. A gutsy wine, with a charcoal-and singed iron-filled finish." Holding anise and hoisin sauce at bay seems like a good thing if they're in the same glass. I have been lucky to taste about a half dozen of the three La La bottlings from Guigal and they are exquisite wines. At some point, words can not do justice to the layers and nuances of wines like why try? It's probably enough to mention they are outstanding (again) and tell people to buy them if they like syrah. Or red wine. The other two from 2007 received 96 points each. If you can afford them you should try a bottle if you can find one. Telling me about singed iron will not tip the scales.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Preposterous Pundit Pontification of the Month (Silly Wine Review of the Month) Part Two

Kudos to K.M.!  This reviewer actually mentioned food and not in a derogatory way.  Usually wines with food referenced come with a rating in the mid-80s and "needs food," almost like an apology.  This was a 90 point review and an optimistic, unapologetic, "Try this with grilled pork."  Thank you, let's see more of this, please.
For a flat out bizarre review, check this out: "Smooth and spicy, with lots of tobacco and root beer overtones to the pear flavors.  The finish features a raw edge."  That's it, that's the entire thing.  Can you even tell what color it is?  Amazingly the wine is an 89 pointer.  Tobacco and root beer take me to oaky red wine, maybe zinfandel.  Pear takes us back to white, maybe a pinot blanc or cool weather chardonnay.  Anyone guess viognier?  Me either.  Seven Hills Viognier, Columbia Valley 2010, $19.  I want a bottle, if only to taste those bizarre elements in one glass.  Correction, I only want a taste, not a bottle.
J.L. and I do not share similar palates and I would call him out more often for his blathering pontification except that he frames it well.  He gets lost in wacky descriptors as much as anyone on the staff.  "Aromas of smoldering campfire embers" and "game meat, graphite, road tar and lead pencil" are two of my favorites from November.  But those same reviews also have "Nicely layered, clean and focused" and "ending with chewy tannins.  Should reward cellaring." to save the day.  I agree to disagree for the most part and respect his style statements greatly, something more of the writers could employ.
However, I must call him out on something.  In reviewing Bond Quella, Napa Valley 2008 (94 points, $275) he writes, "Even more expansive and syrupy on the finish."  This is my major stylistic difference with him.  He enjoys his wines thick, viscous and syrupy, I do not.  Two other reviews in the same edition should explain further.  Revival's Napa cabernet 2008 was "teetering on syrupy" and Vinroc Wine Caves' Atlas Peak cabernet was "almost syrupy." Guess just missing the syrup factor cost them a few points, both scored 92.  One can not help but wonder if they were even thicker and heavier and coated the tongue more completely whether they might have gotten the extra two points.  
You can keep the syrupy wines, they go with almost no food.  Remember, these pundits taste the wines alone so unctuous insanity doesn't betray itself by ruining dinner.

Preposterous Pundit Pontification of the Month (Silly Wine Review of the Month) Part One

Behind as usual.  We'll start with target-rich November.  Two editions in the month filled me with opportunities to wag my finger at their writers.
"Though not what you expect from a To Kalon bottling" seems insufficient.  I have had a handful of wines produced from To Kalon vineyard fruit and found them all to display more of the hand of the producer than to show a distinct thread inherent to the vineyard.  That should not necessarily surprise anyone when you realize the vineyard is over 500 acres.  Not exactly a pinpoint specific location.  At any rate, the comment might help To Kalon experts but left me baffled.  It's irrelevant though, as I'm not about to spend $125 on a bottle of wine from a producer I do not know, even with 93 points.
A large producer received a 90 for an upper end malbec and the review included the following note: "The better of two bottles tasted."  That's it.  No, 'seemed a bit corked' or, even better, 'we'll get a third bottle to determine which might be more representative.'  Nope, just a 90 for the good one.  How bad was the other?  How is this okay?  They did offer a corrective review for another wine, "Better than previously reviewed" so maybe there's hope.
The word "winey" continues to appear to describe wine.  Stop it!  No food reviewer writes about a chicken dish as tasting "chickeny."  The same writer fond of "winey" (three times in November) also pulled out "mature incense" for one wine.  I have no idea what that means.  
"Grippy plum skin frame" sounds interesting enough to forgive the silliness.  But speaking of a finish that "cuts a deep trough" sounds painful to me.  My tongue and the phrase "cuts a deep trough" should never meet.
Perhaps no one likes to write about merlot but T.F. got stuck rating 27 of them and used "tomato leaf" in eight of the reviews.  That's plain lazy.  Did you assume that no one actually reads merlot reviews?
B.S. referenced eucalypt, menthol and mint so often during his Barolo ratings that I found myself nearly convinced I don't like the wines.  I am tired of minty flavors in my wine and routinely avoid bottles with that aroma.  One of these got 93 points despite being described as having "eucalyptus, balsamic and licorice aromas."  Ugh.  In one glass?  93 points?  I know you're not trying to sell me the wine but sometimes it's awfully hard to tell why you liked it.
He also managed to mention citronella in three white Burgundy reviews, all of which were 90+ wines, in his estimation.  All I can think of is candles supposedly keeping mosquitoes at bay and for $57, $64 and $75 a bottle, I'll pass.
The most insane reference I found also belongs to our friend, B.S.  In a fairly rave review of a Canadian Icewine he tosses in, "flavors of truffle, decaying apple, honey and rhubarb."  Forget that most of the planet does not know rhubarb and let's focus on "decaying apple."  DECAYING!  Mmmm, can't wait to get a glass of that!  Next fall I could just fight off the raccoons and drunk bees instead of laying out $65 for a half bottle.  
More later...

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

New Year, New Mission

As my time away from the wine industry reaches more than a year I find myself missing certain aspects of my previous world.  Most notably, teaching.  Leading wait staff training sessions and conducting events for consumers made me happy and I miss the opportunity to educate, entertain and enlighten.  My resolution, only slightly self-serving, is to focus on a grape or region for a few posts each month.  Other rants and amusements will continue but I hope to offer some information to better help frame the world of wine in addition to that.  
I still plan to offer tasting notes from time to time but wine has to be about what you like, not what I like.  There are plenty of other places to read what Joe Blogger thinks is the next great grape or best buy.  
People told me they enjoyed tasting and talking with me mostly because I spoke clearly, explained well and made them feel comfortable.  If I could have spent more time doing that and less of my life stocking shelves for lazy chain retailers and chasing down checks from slow payers I might still be in the business.  
Look forward to some explorations and explanations of wine that you will be able to reference again and again.  The focus will be on lesser known or misunderstood grapes and regions.  Most people hardly need a primer on California cabernet sauvignon but maybe I'll get there eventually.  
The Mayans believed the world would end in 2012, wouldn't you hate to miss some good stuff if it's true?  If you don't buy into that and turn out to be right, then you will have more knowledge, and perhaps even inspiration, for further exploration beyond the Mayans wildest predictions.