Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Australia's Best Kept Secret: It's Not All Yellowtail and Foster's!

At The Barrel Room, we frequently have guests visiting from Australia. As they scan our wine list, they always ask the same question: "where are all of your Aussie wines?" After a recent visit to Melbourne and nearby wine region the Mornington Peninsula, I have come to realize that the answer is not what I previously thought it was. 

For years, I have believed that Australian wines just didn't quite jive with my palate. Those I had tasted (mostly Shiraz) were generally over-extracted fruit bombs with too much oak and more residual sugar than I felt my beloved Syrah grape deserved to be laden with. But after having sampled a diverse array of Australian wines over the last few weeks, I now know the truth: there are fantastic wines being made in Australia, but those clever Aussies are keeping the good stuff for themselves!

Before heading to my first true Australian barbecue, I stopped at a nice little wine shop near my hotel to grab a bottle of something refreshing to help cool us off on a hot Melbourne summer day. Taking my time walking around the store, I observed a few things of note. One was that apart from a smattering of Italian and French wines, the vast majority of the selections were Australian, a stark contrast to most wine shops stateside. Very few of them were wines that I recognized, apart from the obligatory Penfolds, d'Arenberg, and yes, Yellowtail. Most of the bottlings had names and labels unfamiliar to me as an American. These were the boutique wines of Australia, the ones made in quantities too small for exporting. Another thing I noticed was that this particular wine shop only carried one American wine: Gallo White Zinfandel. That explains why the Aussies are about as excited about our wines as I had been about theirs! After a quick chat with the affable store manager, I left with a cold bottle of 2012 Pewsey Vale Riesling from the Eden Valley region. 

At the barbecue, the wine turned out to be a huge hit--with me. After first tasting its bone-dry, mineral rich character with bright lemon-lime citrus exploding on the palate, I surrepititiously tucked the bottle behind a few others in the ice bucket, making sure never to stray so far as to let it out of my line of vision. No one else seemed to notice its presence, so I poured myself another glass, and then another. Soon, I had finished the entire bottle. The wine reminded me of some of my favorite Finger Lakes Rieslings, (I'm looking at you, Sheldrake Point 2007 Reserve Riesling!) and I was truly impressed. At that point, I became very excited to see what else this underrated wine-producing country had to offer. 

The next day, on my way to another barbecue (it's true, the Aussies really do barbecue every day!), I picked up a bottle of 2012 Dominique Portet Fontaine Rosé, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Shiraz from the Yarra Valley, recommended by the same gentleman. I was skeptical of the blend, but the reliable pale salmon color told me this wine would not betray my taste buds--and it didn't. Crisp, clean and dry, its juicy red berry flavors with hints of fresh herbs made this wine the perfect quaffing beverage to cool off after a rousing family cricket match. Again, I may as well have just stuck a straw in the bottle, because I was fairly unwilling to share this extremely tasty wine.   

After discovering my natural talent for cricket, a nice, cold glass of rosé was necessary.
At restaurants and bars, there were more delightful surprises to be found. At the Builders Arms Hotel, a glass of NV Bress sparkling wine (a mineral-rich blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay) from Macedon, Victoria made for a perfect midday refreshment while taking a break from exploring the city's eclectic Fitzroy neighborhood. 

A block away, the Gertrude Street Enoteca, a combination bottle shop and wine bar, was a haven for those looking to explore Australia's diverse vinous offerings. I salivated for a while over the bottle selection, including a Lagrein from Macedon that I'll have to try on my next visit, and then sat down to taste a few of their by-the-glass offerings. The 2012 Cherubino 'Laissez Faire' Fiano, Western Australia's take on the classic white wine of Campania, Fiano di Avellino, paid a pleasing tribute to its southern Italian mentor, fresh and lively now, but sure to develop lovely honeyed and spicy notes with age. But the true star of the show was the 2009 Avani Syrah. Yes, you read that correctly. A burgeoning trend among Australian winemakers is to eschew the nation's famous 'Shiraz' nickname in favor of lighter-handed, minimal-intervention, lower-alcohol, northern-Rhône-style wines labeled with the grape's French name: Syrah (the two grapes are one and the same!).  This Mornington Peninsula wine, which clocks in at just under 13.5% alcohol (the 2011 vintage is under 12%!) is the first vintage produced by Shashi Singh, an Indian-born chemist-turned-restaurateur-turned-oenologist who moved to Melbourne with her chef husband thirty years ago. She applies biodynamic processes in the vineyard with the result of a beautiful, aromatic wine with notes of pepper, brooding black fruit, earth, and a hint of violet.

At the Enoteca, I met second-generation winemaker Andrew Marks, who has made wine all over the world but calls the Yarra Valley home. He spoke with me about the aforementioned Syrah trend, as well as the movement of many winemakers toward lower-alcohol, terroir-expressive wines like Shashi's. I told him of my plans to go wine tasting the following day, and if the Avani Syrah hadn't already convinced me to head to the Mornington Peninsula, Andrew sealed the deal.
Any day that starts with a paddle of beer is bound to be a good day.

Hops grown on site
The next morning, the adventure began...at a brewery. Red Hill Brewery, to be exact. If the Mornington Peninsula didn't remind me enough of driving through Mendocino's Anderson Valley, the taco truck parked right outside the brewery made me feel right at home. A paddle of beer was deemed the most appropriate way to start the day, which included samples of Red Hill's Golden Ale, Wheat Beer, Black Rye IPA, and Irish Red Ale. All were thoroughly enjoyable, and I learned that Australia is a true contender on the microbrewery scene. It should be noted that I did not see a single bottle of Foster's the entire time I was in the country, and am now thoroughly convinced that "Foster's" is Australian for "gullible Americans." 
Red Hill Brewery

After getting a nice base of beer in our stomachs to begin our day of wine tasting, we moved on to scenic Tuck's Ridge, where the quality of the wine matched the friendliness of the tasting room staff. It was here that I realized that the Mornington Peninsula resembles the Anderson Valley in more than just aesthetics. A coastal influence and significant diurnal swing (warm days followed by cool nights) help to produce crisp, acidic whites and light, earthy reds. Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Rosé, and Pinot Noir were the standouts, but the bottle I chose to bring home was a 2012 Savignin, a grape most commonly grown in the Jura region of France, which I learned had until as recently as 2008 been mistaken in Australia for the Spanish grape Albariño. 

The line-up at Tuck's Ridge

This wine was not available for tasting due to its extremely limited production, but it promises to excite my salivary glands with white peach, citrus pith, and apricots on the nose and palate--an experience I am quite looking forward to.  

Tuck's Ridge vineyards

The next stop was Main Ridge Estate, where the specialties were Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The group favorite, however, turned out to be a 2010 Merlot, whose soft tannins and dark fruit aromas enticed me in a way Merlot often fails to achieve. Flipping through a guide to Victoria's wineries that I found at Main Ridge, I perked up when I noticed that a few wineries were producing wines from one of my favorite underrated grapes, Gamay. 

Eldridge Estate

I asked where to find the best Gamay and was instructed to visit Eldridge Estate. I quickly found that I had not been led astray. This intensely aromatic wine had all of the best qualities of a Cru Beaujolais, and the winery's other offerings, particularly their two Pinot Noirs, were excellent as well. 
Eldridge Estate uses the ancient French tradition of
planting roses at the end of each row of vines. Roses
and grape vines are prone to the same diseases, so the
roses would serve as early warning signs for disease. In
modern times, the color of the roses usually indicates the
type of grape. At Eldridge, red roses = Pinot Noir, white
roses = Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, and pink
roses = Gamay.

All good things must come to an end, and our little group decided to finish the day the same way we started--at a brewery (this is what happens when you go wine tasting with beer drinkers). We found ourselves at Mornington Brewery, washing down more entire pizzas than I'd like to admit with delicious English-
style Brown Ale.

Needless to say, I was very pleasantly surprised by both the wine and the beer in the land down under. I boarded my plane home with a mixture of melancholy and excitement--sad that I had to leave this wonderful country and all of the delicious things it had to offer, but looking forward to coming back to The Barrel Room and sharing my discovery with my colleagues and our guests. Luckily, soon after my return I had the opportunity to attend a trade tasting of Australian wines, where I was able to sample some fantastic bottlings that actually are available in California. I was thrilled to taste such wines as BK Wines Cult Syrah from McLaren Vale, South Australia, Dandelion Wines Eden Valley Riesling, and the entire lineup from Fowles Wine--run by lovely husband-and-wife team Matt and Lu Fowles, who assure me that their 'Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch' Shiraz would pair fantastically with 'roo, my new favorite meat.

My first bite of 'roo. Once you go marsupial, you never go back.
We look forward to bringing some of the aforementioned wines on board at The Barrel Room in the not-too-distant future, but in the meantime we will soon be inviting you to join us in tasting some of the wines (including the mysterious Savignin!) that made the journey home with me--all of which are either unavailable or hard to find in the US. If you haven't joined our mailing list yet, be sure to do so or check our events page so you don't miss this exciting tasting! 


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