Monday, April 16, 2007

Vino Down Under

I love Australians. I'm not sure why. I guess it's because they're like big, happy-go-lucky Americans with cool accents. They're like Americans who don't have to carry the weight of being American around with them. They don't have a history of exploitive, self-serving and destructive foreign policy to weigh them down, so they seem happier and more innocent than most Americans. Maybe they wouldn’t appreciate the comparison (particularly these days), but to me Aussies are the coolest.

And, of course, I’ve always wanted to go to Australia. When I started getting into wine, I discovered that there was a whole ‘nuther reason to go. They make wine in Australia!

And I thought Australia was beer country. But the Aussies have been making wine for over 200 years. True, a lot of it was cheap, over-sweetened fortified plonk for the Brits (who have a notorious sweet tooth when it comes to wines), but eventually Australia began to produce some serious wines, worthy of global attention.

It was probably the 1980’s before quality wine making really started to take hold down under, but the Aussies were quick studies and started producing some top-notch wines. For some reason (that I wasn’t able to discern after doing a two-minute Google search on Australian wine history) the grape that Australia is most well known for is syrah.

No, no, no, you say. Australia is known for shiraz, not syrah. You say potato, I say potahto. Australian shiraz is made from the French syrah grape that hails from the Rhone Valley. The grape that makes stunning (and pricey) Hermitage and Cote Rotie wines, and provides the backbone for Chateauneuf du Pape. The grape that makes some kick ass California wines, particularly in the Sierra foothills and Paso Robles regions. The grape that is my favoritist in the whole wide world.

Yeah, that one. For some weird reason, the Aussies renamed the grape when they imported it. Don’t ask me why – Google kept mumbling some nonsense about Persians. I think Google’s been doing drugs again.

Whatever, syrah/shiraz is far and away the most widely grown grape variety on the continent. Top locations for shiraz in Australia include the Barossa Valley, the Clare Valley, the Yarra Valley, and Coonawarra. Most of these are near Adelaide in South Australia, the IN destination for the Australian wine traveler.

Whereas French syrah-based wines tend to be deep and complex, Australia shiraz’s tend to be big, loud, friendly and forward – like Aussies themselves. They’re usually, very fruity, spicy, jammy wines that anyone can drink and enjoy. In reality they are so different from the earthy, complex French syrahs or the dense California syrahs, that there really is no way to compare them. Autralian shiraz is a thing unto itself.

Yellow Tail 2006 South eastern Australia Shiraz

OK, I’ve already tasted this one in a previous column, but this is the one wine that everybody buys. I could hardly do a column on Australian wine without at least mentioning the yellow label. Huge spice on the nose. Wow. Cinnamon, allspice and tons of nutmeg. It’s almost like a pumpkin pie! A touch of floral aromas that evolve into vanilla and caramel. Damn! That’s yummy! On the palate, massive amounts of dark, simple fruit and spice. That nutmeg is overpowering. Maybe not for everyone, but this sure does goes down smooth. No wonder people love this stuff! 3.5 stars. Yow! $6.99 at every grocery store on the planet.

Jacob’s Creek 2003 South Australia Reserve Shiraz

Dark aromas of bramble, roasted coffee and a bit of toast, evolving into what I refer to as “aromatic esters”, kind of a banana smell without the banana, if that makes any sense. Not much fruit on the palate. Noticeable tannins. Very disappointing, actually. Not much going on. A big pass. 2.5 stars. $11.99 at Cost Plus.

Yalumba 2001 Barossa Shiraz

Seriously funkadelic on the nose – strong notes of earth, smelly cheese, and barnyard. Yeah, baby – very Burgundy. Definitely not for everyone, and definitely not very Australian – but very interesting and unusual nonetheless. On the tongue, a bit of spice, subdued blackberry fruit. Nowhere near as interesting as the nose. Eh. 2.75 stars. $14.99 at Cost Plus.

Jim Barry 2004 Clare Valley Shiraz “The Lodge Hill”

OK, now we’re cooking with gas. On the nose, a delightful spiciness that develops into serious aromas of camphor, eucalyptus, oregano and a touch of citrus peel. Sounds more like an herbal tea than a wine, but this complex spiciness is more than offset by a base of dense dark fruits. On the palate, strongly spicy, carrying over the camphor flavor, counterbalanced by dark rich flavors of blackberry and black cherry. A bit of a floral flourish on the finish. Easily the most complex and interesting of the bunch – fruity, but miles from simple plonk. 3.75 stars. $22 at Vino 100.

P.S. I was glad to see that Vino 100 opened only 8 days after a thirsty SUV crashed their party and took out a whole wall of wine bottles. Although the decor still looks a bit, uh, 'unfinished' in places, drop by and give Debby your condolences. They still have plenty of wine and it appears that their entire stock of New Clairvaux was spared.

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