Friday, December 29, 2006

Its all the same wine. Yeah Right!

We didn’t know it, but when we flew into Auckland, New Zealand on December 3rd a storm was brewing. Perhaps fermenting, or batch fermenting, might be a better choice of words. It was, of course, the furor over the awarding of accolades to an early batch of the 2006 Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc. There might not have been anything wrong if the 2,228 cases of this early batch, called BR315, had been appropriately labeled, but they were not. They were no different in bottled form than the total production of more than 100,000 cases!

However New Zealand wine writer Michael Cooper had determined that a store bought sample of the wine tasted different to that supplied for competition. After further tasting (in which Mr Cooper preferred the competition sample 5 of 6 times, while other wine judges Kay Morganty, could not identify a difference, and Sam Kim, favored the store bought sample 5 of 6 times) the wine magazine Cuisine sent bottles of the wine to the Institute of Environmental Science and Research where it was discovered that the store bought and competition samples differed in their content of alcohol, sugar and acidity. Wither Hills winemaker and director Brent Marris described the competition sample as made to “best represent” the vintage, and that there was no attempt to mislead critics or the public.

On Saturday (December 2nd) while we were somewhere between packing our bags and flying the Pacific the wine lost its five star rating from Cuisine. Case closed? Not quite. On Sunday (December 3rd) Wither Hills took out full page newspaper ads defending their wine. On Monday Michael Cooper revealed his role to the media and the tasting done by himself and the two other judges. When Cuisine did not offer an explanation for its action of removing the five star rating and Cooper was told that this would not occur anytime soon, he decided to get the information to the buying public. By Thursday Brent Marris has resigned as chief judge of the Air New Zealand awards and Wither Hills had returned all medals awarded to the wine. On the same day we traveled out of Auckland to Waitomo, on the way passing the Tui billboard that is the title of this post. When a beer company puts up a billboard that implies a criticism of wine in general you know that they smell blood in the water.

On Friday (December 8th) Brent Marris stated on a radio show that he was following standard wine industry practice by bottling a wine that had been harvested earlier than later bottlings. New Zealand Winegrowers’ chairman Stuart Smith suggested that Mr Marris “review his position”. On Saturday the New Zealand Weekend Herald ran a synopsis on the preceding week’s events. But more scathing was a lengthy piece by Chris Barton entitled “Sour Grapes” which showed that the wine industry was divided over the role that wine shows/judging play. That may not seem like news, but the Wither Hills incident brought the divisions within the industry more clearly into focus for the public. The question that remains is whether the industry will address the concerns raised.

On December 14th and again on the 16th Lion Nathan, the owners of Wither Hills, placed a total of $4 million in discounts in the daily New Zealand newspapers. The discount was in the form of 800,000 vouchers, each good for a $5 discount on a bottle of the 2006 Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc. Brent Marris stated that the discount was Lion Nathan’s idea, “It had nothing to do with me.” You have to wonder if Lion Nathan will ante up any money for PR classes for Mr Marris, or if he’s cost them too much already? It seems a costly exercise for him to be seen and heard, instead of making wine. But then it was the winemaking that started the whole thing in the first place.

Is all this just fermentation in a wine glass? Several individuals I talked with were of the impression that Brent Marris continued to do more damage as the weeks progressed and he would have done better to state the facts as they were and not try to defend them. His attitude definitely made things worse for himself and New Zealand wine. Wither Hills was not on our list of wineries to visit but during some of our discussions I joked that we should visit and ask to taste both versions of the wine. That was greeted with laughter, but also nods of approval. Hmmm, the knives did seem to be out! In the end the decision was made for us. While tasting at Fromm Winery in Marlborough one of our party asked the cellar door staff if they could recommend any other Sauvignon Blanc wines. The answer came back, without hesitation, Wither Hills. Even though they were having problems, their wine was still one of the best.

The Wither Hills winery/cellar door is Napa Valley come to New Zealand, or at least Marlborough. Its big and bold and you can visit the barrel room or the top floors to view the vineyards. The cellar door staff are friendly, fairly knowledgeable, and unlike other wineries Wither Hills offers two vintages of its wines for comparative tasting. There is no doubt that the 2006 Sauvignon Blanc is an excellent wine, much more fruit forward and refreshing than the somewhat softer, less aggressive 2005. We left impressed, and realized that we had not asked to taste a sample of the BR315. Then someone suggested that maybe that was what we had tasted!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

New Zealand - Further Impressions

We are getting toward the end of our New Zealand trip, and having found excellent accommodation in Martinborough, with free wireless internet access, I thought I should post again. At least that is my excuse for the paucity of entries into this blog.

Navigating to and from Napier
After arriving in Wellington Miranda and I drove by car to Napier and the Hawkes Bay wine region. We had a little detour to Martinborough in the Wairarapa region, which resulted in our present accommodation, but more on that later. The trip to Napier is pleasant if you enjoy driving country roads, I mean Highways. Its more interesting if you come into Napier through the Gimblett gravels wine country. Napier, after being destroyed by earthquake in 1931, was rebuilt mostly in the Art Deco style. If architecture is your thing, go for it. We found it just a little too out of the way for trips to wine country, and arriving at rush hour made us realize that there are more people than sheep in some places in New Zealand. We pulled up our tent pegs and moved on to Havelock North.

A Few from Hawkes Bay
We got through quite a few wines on our first day in Hawkes Bay, but only two wineries. Outstanding hospitality from Nicholas Buck at Te Mata saw us in the vineyards, winery and tasting room for over 3 hours. Their Elston Chardonnay (2005) is pretty special, as is the Bullnose Syrah (2005). The Coleraine (from barrel) looked good as well. A quality line up in all respects.

The other visit was to Sileni where Grant Edmonds had lined up 18 wines. While Miranda looked after the owners’ toy Poodle I faced the task undaunted. My pick would be the 2004 Semillon (The Circle), with the 2005 EV Chardonnay, 2004 Merlot, 2004 Merlot (The Triangle) and the 2004 EV Pourriture worth trying as well.

I was on my own for the second day, which started at Stonecroft. After all the hype I was not as impressed by their Syrah as I was hoping. The 2004 Young Vines was all pepper, while the 2004 Serine was more approachable but will need time. Unfortunately Alan Limmer had “gone fishing” and his son, who was serving the wines, while very friendly was not a wine drinker. He wasn’t great at giving directions either when I asked about Unison, but fortunately I did find the winery. And it was worth it. I’m not a big Rosé drinker but their 2006 Rosé is excellent, as was most of their small line-up. The stand out wine was the 2005 Syrah. The best I tasted in the region, seek it out. Next was Te Awa where I preferred the 2002 Boundary. Trinity Hill did not excite me. I scribbled my tasting notes on their sheet of printed tasting notes, and its around here somewhere. Last was Vidal, which is in Hastings. The friendly young lady serving grabbed me a pour of the 2004 Soler Syrah from the restaurant, and it was worth it.

My most lasting impression about Hawkes Bay Syrah is the diversity of the wines. Admittedly I tasted across two vintages (2004 and 2005) but even so the differences are pronounced. The 2004 wines go from peppery (almost under-ripe) wines to over ripe wines, and even though the 2005s appear to have more depth, they ranged from a peppery style to something that approached Cabernet in its flavor profile. And all this from a handful of wineries in one region! You gotta love it.

Wine and the Big Picture in New Zealand
When in New Zealand, and especially Havelock North, you have to go to the movies, right? Well, you are on vacation. Havelock North has Cinema Gold, and Cinema Gold will sell you a glass of wine while you wait for your movie to begin screening. You can then take your wine with you into the theatre. Better still make it a whole bottle and store it in the pull out receptacle provided between the seats. Saluté!

Buring, a name alive and well in Martinborough
Arriving in Martinborough on a Sunday evening is not the best choice as many of the vineyards are only open on the weekends (or by appointment). We missed Margrain and Escarpment because we could just not quite hook up with Strat Canning or Larry McKenna at mutually agreeable times, but the unexpected should always be expected in wine country. On Monday, while I was busy sticking my nose into a tasting glass at Schubert Miranda was busy quizzing the server, Robert Hunter, about education of winemakers in Martinborough and learning that one was a UC Davis graduate. And not just any UC Davis graduate but the great nephew of an icon of the Australian wine industry, Leo Buring. The presence of another Cal Aggie graduate within spitting distance was enough for Miranda to drag me kicking and screaming (Yeah, right!) to Oak House and the once barn now winery that is the home of Buring wines. Chris Buring has worked as a winemaker in Martinborough since 1989 and started Burings of Martinborough in 2002. Lacking his own vineyards, he buys his fruit from local growers and was kind enough to show us his 2004 and 2005 Pinot Noir and then some blended barrel samples from 2006 of fruit from old and new vine Pinot Noir. Enthusiastic and technically proficient would be inadequate descriptors of Chris’s approach to his craft. And his Pinot certainly fits the bill. I just hope that the bottles of 2004 and the gift of a single bottle of the yet to be released 2005 make it back to San Diego unscathed by baggage handlers and customs officials.

For me this trip was capped by a discussion about Pinot with Chis Buring and his mention that the 2005 TerraVin Hillside Selection is an excellent Pinot Noir that he has purchased for his own cellar. Maybe I am beginning to understand New Zealand Pinot!

A Pinot you can Live In
We had originally planned to stay in Wellington and drive out to Martinbouorgh and the wineries. But Wellington is one busy city and a good 90 minutes from Martinborough; looks much closer when you view New Zealand as a whole! So on our way through to Napier we stopped to check out accommodation, and found Pinot Villas. If you come to Martinborough and you need a place to stay, look no further. It’s the best accommodation we have had on our trip, and the cost is extremely reasonable. Plus the internet is free! And if you get really lucky Millie will wink and wag her tail at you.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

New Zealand - Some Impressions

We have been in New Zealand for almost 10 days, long enough to form some opinions. And while my views may contrast with those of longer experience, its often first impressions that form the most lasting memories; I’m certain not to forget some of the experiences we have had so far.

Auckland and Waiheke Island
Our plans to visit some of the wineries around Auckland were dashed when we found our hire car had been broken into, about five hours after we signed the hire agreement, and it would take a week to fix. Did we want another car? Is crime a problem? Well, yes it is worse in the city. Then, seeing as how the deductible meant that we were already responsible for an unknown repair cost, we would use public transport for the rest of our stay. That was not entirely true. A few days later, when relatives arrived from Australia, we took the ferry across to Waiheke Island and hired a car so we could visit some of wineries and view some of the scenery.

I apologize to those who view Waiheke Island as a serious wine destination, but it seems little more that a tourist trap to me. If you wish to visit the wineries on the island, be warned that many require prior appointment. And tasting the wines can be expensive. We stopped at the Waiheke Island Wine Centre and had to hand over $15 to sample three wines. At Stonyridge Vineyard it cost a further $30 to taste 3 of their wines. While we didn’t taste widely among the wineries, what we did taste was far from impressive, and more remote in terms of value. The noted Passage Rock Syrah from 2004 cost me $80NZD at Accent on Wine in Parnell. At an informal offline, which included the 2004 Lagier Meredith Syrah (Mt Veeder, California), the Passage Rock sank to the bottom, or very near the bottom, of the 8 wines consumed on the night. I should have taken the hint when the store attendant at Accent on Wine said that most New Zealand reds were 2 to 3 time over priced! The one bright spot? Te Whau. Excellent food and the wine is quite good. I had The Point, but also try the Chardonnay.

Its Quite Restrained
This seems to be the chorus line among winemakers/cellar staff in Nelson and Marlborough. Do they know that this means austere, or severe on the palate? And its not really a term for acidic white wines. However some of my teeth have taken to aching but we haven’t had THAT many wines, and I can only think of one that really upset the apple cart in terms of acidity.

I planned on visiting only two wineries in this region at the north-western end of the South Island, and that is what we did. And if you don’t go out and chase down some of Andrew Greenhough’s (Green–hoff) Pinot Noir, especially the 2005, then I don’t know why you are reading this. Purity, density, complexity – its all there. Get some of the 2004 to drink while you wait for the ’05 to really strut its stuff.

The Max and Simon Show
Most posters and lurkers on the Auswine and Starwine forums will know Maximus, but I doubt that many will know his friend Simon. Both work in the wine industry, Max in Nelson and Simon in Marlborough. Max was very helpful getting us into the two wineries in Nelson, and in putting on an outstanding picnic-style late lunch offline with some really excellent wines including some great wines for Options. Thanks Max. Now if we can just teach you to throw a tennis ball!

Simon turned out to be the king of options players. While I was still trying to decide whether the first wine was from the Old World or New World, Simon already had country and grape! This guy is really quick off the mark, and so correct that either he has tremendous knowledge and an excellent palate, or x-ray vision. I know the answer.

We visited a total of eleven wineries in the Marlborough region. More than I had planned. And while we missed a couple that I wanted to see, we visited others that turned out to be very pleasant surprises. I hope to write more about some of these wineries at a future date, but for now I just wanted to mention two.

The first is TerraVin. I don’t know how widespread the reputation is of this winery, but if they continue to make wines of the quality that we tasted then their future is assured. Without a doubt the best Pinot Noir I have tasted. I’d love to put these wines in a blind tasting up against some really big names, maybe even from that place in France, begins with a B or something. The 2004 Hillside Selection was going all oldie worldie on me just before I tipped out my glass to taste the “J”. Oh yeah, sure, you made this in Marlborough, New Zealand. Its 85% Cabernet! Bordeaux blend, sure. But its bloody impressive. Still, THE wine was the 2005 Hillside Selection Pinot. If I can convince you to get just one bottle of wine, this is it. OK, get the ordinary Pinot, but make it the 2005. The yields were low, the flavors concentrated, and these wines have a mouthfeel that really is sex in a glass.

The next winery to blow my horn, so to speak, was Te Whare Ra. Don’t ask me to pronounce it, but in the native dialect Wh has an f sound. What is so special about this place? Well, they are a young husband and wife team making quality white wines, and a very nice Pinot as well. But it’s the whites that will spellbind you. The 2006 Riesling was delicate and yet filled the mouth with flavor and finished with lively acidity. It was the best example I tasted in Nelson and Marlborough. Their Gewurztraminer is also excellent as is their Noble Riesling. And a little thing called the Toru might not set your world on fire, but it will certainly make a warm summer evening pleasant.

Tomorrow we are bound by ferry to Wellington for a day of rest before its off to Hawkes Bay and big reds. Can anyone say restrained?

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Shiraz is New Zealand Bound

Its time for our annual trip downunder. This time we will be visiting Aotearoa, or the land of the long white cloud, also known as New Zealand. It’s the home of Sauvignon Blanc and more recently Pinot Noir. And while we will taste some of those wines, I’m looking for the new kids on the block, like Syrah which has been making serious inroads. Also a Cloudy Bay Chardonnay I tasted recently has made me hanker to taste more of New Zealand’s attempts at what is arguably one of the world’s most popular white wines, but not a wine that has brought New Zealand fame, at least not according to Robert Whitley.

Whitley wrote yesterday in an article the San Diego Union Tribune But I digress. As I was saying, I was on my way to New Zealand to judge the International Chardonnay Challenge in Gisborne. I can't believe I just used chardonnay and New Zealand in the same sentence. Oh, my! What is the wine world coming to?

As a judge of the ICC, and presumably a guest of his New Zealand hosts, Whitley really didn't need to pick on NZ chardonnay, after all the article was on the globalization of wine. You don't really win points with your hosts by that sort of attitude. Although I guess he doesn't care now as the event was held last month.

The article also suggested (to me) that NZ doesn't make good chardonnay but what ones I may find I can expect to taste pretty much the same as chardonnay from anywhere else. However from the (admitted limited) experience I have of NZ chardonnay they have more acidity than most Napa chards; making them much more refreshing and lively to drink. If they were more widely available in the USA, I could see them occupying space in my cellar. So while we are in NZ I'm certainly interested in seeking out chardonnays and finding out what winemakers see as the future of this variety in New Zealand.

We will be visiting wineries in four regions. Auckland, at the top of the North Island, then down to the top of the South Island to Marlborough and Nelson. This will be followed by a trip back to the North Island to the east coast and Hawkes Bay, and finally down to the bottom of the North Island to the Martinborough region near Wellington.

We won’t be visiting large number of vineyards. In fact I have tried to be quite selective, picking out 6 or 7 wineries in each region from among the recommendations made to me by members of various Australian wine forums. Although its late in the year and close to the holiday season many of the wineries I have contacted have been generous with their time. Replies from others have just listed information on the hours of operation of their cellar door, and so I imagine they want me to sample their wines as do other members of the public, and that is fine. All will get honest, critical reviews. But its obvious that the wineries that have offered to host us for a more intimate discussion of their operation will get more of my attention. Of course that could be good or bad!

The problem is what to do with the seven that have not replied. Are they so disinterested in the consumer that they don’t care to reply, just poor correspondents, too busy to reply, or has their email service gone down and they can’t reply? If they have a cellar door, should I make an attempt to belly up to the bar? If I come across their wines in our travels, should I buy them to taste? Maybe I’ll end up being too busy writing about all the excellent wines from the other wineries to care?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Hunting for a Wine Book for the Holiday Season?

Then look no further than Campbell Mattinson’s Wine Hunter. Check out these reviews of this outstanding book on one of the legends of the Australian wine industry.

James Halliday read an early version of the Wine Hunter, and wrote about it in The Weekend Australian newspaper. He called it: "One of the most remarkable wine books to come my way".He then said: "If this book does not add yet more awards, there is no justice. It will capture anyone who reads it: this is not a wine geek book but an epic."

Gary Walsh at read the book and said: “I started reading it this morning and finally put the book down late in the afternoon. Finished. It’s really quite brilliant. A captivating, compelling and very moving read written in the unique Mattinson style. A beautiful story first, and a wine book second. I think it has universal appeal.”

Paddy Kendlar, of the Herald-Sun and Wine Outlaw fame, wrote: “I started reading a wine book last weekend and finished it on the Sunday night. Literally couldn’t put it down, except to take a break when the story became somewhat sad ... It’s a wonderful story with a perception and sensitivity almost matching that of the subject. The few O’Shea wines that I have tasted – made under the McWilliams Mount Pleasant label – were more than forty years old at the time. They were magnificent. Campbell Mattinson has captured the essence of a great Australian artist. I heartily commend this remarkable book to all winelovers and it would make an ideal Christmas gift.”

There are still copies to be had for those in the land downunder. No I have not read it as yet. But I hope to do so in a few days time when we make our way to New Zealand and Australian relatives bring over the two copies I have purchased. I’m looking forward to turning a few pages while I sip on the odd New Zealand Syrah.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A Sparkling Thanksgiving

Miranda and I have been preparing some of the side dishes for Thanksgiving dinner that we will celebrate at a friend’s home. OK, to be correct I was simply serving as the dogsbody. But while we both slaved away we listened to others call into a talkback show on NPR with their own potential culinary disasters. One of the guests was Joshua Wesson of Best Cellars wine shops and Best Sommelier in America in 1984, among other accomplishments. Joshua had been asked onto the show to provide advice about wines for Thanksgiving. His advice? A very strong recommendation for Australian Sparkling Shiraz! The reasons he suggests sparkling Shiraz? Well the lighter alcohol and hence lighter body together with the slight sweetness help to cut through all that fat and salt that goes with a Thanksgiving meal. That sounds reasonable to me, plus it’s a celebratory wine. What more could you need?

Joshua is not the only one to be extolling the virtues of sparkling Shiraz for Thanksgiving. I’d seen an article in the San Diego Union Tribune on August 2nd by food writer Maria C. Hunt where she noted that “In Australia, sparkling shiraz is the traditional wine paired with Thanksgiving turkey.” I didn’t have the heart to write in and say that we don’t celebrate Thanksgiving downunder because she at least had the right idea about what wine to serve!

Are we serving sparkling Shiraz this Thanksgiving? No, we will be going with a couple of big, bold Aussie Shiraz. But that is only because I had promised to provide some interesting, if perhaps not appropriate wines. The Sparkling Shiraz we have in the cellar will see the light of day around Christmas. One is the 2004 Majella Sparkling Shiraz from Coonawarra in South Australia ($24USD). The other, another 2004, is quite inexpensive at $10USD. It’s the Paringa Individual Vineyard Sparkling Shiraz from South Australia; I guess its true, South Australia is just one big individual vineyard!

This second wine is not a classic example of sparkling Shiraz, although it is good value. It became a purchase only because I had the choice of two wines. And that may have been the problem if you were out looking for a sparkling Shiraz for Thanksgiving, or any celebration. There are not a lot of alternatives. That was why it was so pleasing to hear that Joshua Wesson was so enthusiastic about Australian sparkling Shiraz. If the demand builds, then the supply will follow.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Australia vineyards offer more than 'critter wines'

The problems that Australian wineries have in educating drinkers of inexpensive ‘critter wines’ have been acknowledged by Francine Bryan Brown, public relations director of Wine Australia USA, an industry-funded promotional board. From an article by Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune (November 2nd, 2006) Brown said Australian winemakers are attempting to sell the concept of regionality.

Some sections of the article bear quoting.
Brown said the cheaper wines, nicknamed "critter wines" by some, serve as a "very good introduction" to Australian wines. From there, it's a "natural evolution" upward in terms of quality and price.

Brown said the Australians want to educate Americans to think of the country as something other than an enormous monolith churning out critter wines.

These comments are interesting even if they do state the obvious, but they also include this. "We're not overly concerned," she said. "There are so many good wines out there, and the winemakers are so terribly committed."

The winemakers have to do all the work? No Francine Brown, they make the wine. You have to do the work of selling regionality to the wine drinkers in the USA.

How is that being done on the Wine Australia USA website? It includes promotional materials, listing of wine events (there was a Wine Australia Festival, San Diego on September 12 which was news to me), and sections on the industry, wine styles and regions. Its all pretty basic stuff, but it’s a start.

How about a section that highlights a varietal wine style from a particular region with tasting notes from known critics (both American and Australian) followed by a summary pointing out the regional characteristics for the varietal? What about a comparison of wines between regions? Give wine drinkers a real sense of the differences that exist within the sea of Australian wine. Make them want to go out and look for these different wines and experience the differences for themselves.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Wine Advocate and Regional Australia

When Issue 167 of Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate was released to the public on October 31st I thought the American wine critic had beaten his Australian counterparts to an obvious improvement in reviewing wines from the land downunder. The section of Issue 167 containing the Aussie reviews is headed Australia (Part 1 – Barossa, McLaren Vale, and Clare Valley). When I saw this I believed, almost immediately, that Parker was moving away from a generic Australian listing to a more regional organization of his tasting notes. The idea made perfect sense considering the discussions on premium wine marketing that have popped up on wine websites and wine forums, including the Mark Squires' Wine Bulletin Board hosted on, in recent months.

But alas, it was not to be. TWA #167 is a simple alphabetical listing of wineries in the Barossa, McLaren Vale, and Clare Valley producing wines that received scores meritorious enough to allow them to be recommended. There are 712 in total, including two that received no rating. The rest of the recommended Australian wines will appear in the next (December) issue.

Is the idea of wine reviews grouped according to region so bad for Australia? Wine Spectator does this for France, Germany, Spain, etc. And its particularly useful. I can quickly chase up notes on how wines have faired in the Pfalz, without having to first gather a list of wineries and hunt and peck them out alphabetically. Yes, there may be a problem for those Australian wines that are blends of fruit from different regions, but they could simply be grouped under “Multiregional”. And there should be no problem in having a producer listed multiple times, for example as a maker of wines in the Barossa Valley and Multiregional. In fact it would help many, less familiar with Australian wines, appreciate the diversity of wines made by some of the larger producers in Australia.

The real reason for a regional list of wine reviews is to demonstrate the regional differences that exist within “Brand Australia”. As has been discussed on the websites and wine forums mentioned above, too many wine drinkers perceive Australian wine as coming from Southeastern Australia. Its a generic location that appears on many inexpensive Australian wines that have flooded both local and overseas markets. While its true that wines like [yellow tail] have introduced countless thousands to cheap Australian wine, the question is how do you get these folks to become more passionate about wine. How do you get them to seek out the higher quality wines from smaller producers that display regional characteristics?

Well, in my opinion, one of the best ways is education. One excellent way would be a publication with tasting notes organized by wine regions. Unfortunately the major reviewer of Australian wines James Halliday does not do this in his Australian Wine Companion. Halliday does have a map with regions indicated by number and the region of each winery is noted within the text but you have to go back and forth between the two to figure out where you are. Inefficient. Campbell Mattinson’s recent Collected Reviews is just an alphabetical listing. You can do much better Campbell. The only other Aussie review I have is Robin Bradley’s Australian Wine Vintages. It suffers from the same problems as Halliday’s book.

The one book in my wine library that comes any where near close to providing material on regional differences in Australian wines is John Beeston’s The Wine Regions of Australia. First published in 1999, its now beginning to show its age and many new wineries are naturally not listed. But it is an excellent primer on regional geography, history, and there is even the odd note on varietal characteristics for some regions. (A second edition was publised in 2002.)

Perhaps what is needed is an enterprising internet site along the lines of Appellation America. There are small attempts at sites like Wine Diva. But the site needs to be user friendly, a place where the uninitiated can come to learn. Unfortunately wine forums have a habit of being a little too cliquey; otherwise they would be ideal locations to host education about and discussion on Regional Australia.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Pot Luck

This tasting, held at Vintage Wines of San Diego on September 9th, was described as “John has been pulling bottles from his cellar for the sale. Come try 6 wines that are sure to be interesting, and maybe some Gems!” John Lindsay is the owner of Vintage Wines and every now and then holds a sale of wines that are rarely available for sale at retail wine stores. Serving the wines as the regular $5 Saturday tasting meant that this was going to be not only a splendid opportunity to taste old wines but also excellent value.

I try to taste through the wines at these tastings blinded to everything but the theme of the tasting. But as soon as I walked in the door I was told that a 1984 Magill Estate Shiraz was on the list, and then when I walked into the tasting room the magnum of Cuvaison Chardonnay was thrust into my face so that I could not avoid reading the label. Oh well, there would be four wines that I would not know about. It turned out to be six wines as the tasting was of eight wines in total. I’ve listed the wines in the order they were tasted along with their identities, and prices if known.

1975 Cuvaison Chardonnay, Napa Valley, California (Magnum) (13.7% alcohol)
Golden in color with secondary flavors of honey and marmalade beneath a nutty almond note that was mixed with some hints of wax and glacé fruits. Medium weight on the palate and although its showing its age there is still some vibrant acidity and nice length to the finish. Holding well but won’t go too much further. 2, 2, 4.0, 10.1 = 18.1/20, 90/100.

1991 Mount Eden Vineyards, Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz, California (12.2%) ($39.99USD)
Mahogany with an orange brown edge. Distinct spicy Pinot aroma over earthy notes, Quite ripe and very impressive. Does not seem very old at all. Really impressive presence of flavors on the palate, very firm tannins and great length. Excellent wine. 2, 2, 4.3, 10.3 = 18.6/20, 93/100.

1989 Nuits St. Georges, Emmanuel Rouget, Burgundy, France (13%)
Lighter colored, almost tawny, with an orange brown edge. Pinot Noir but the flavors are more in the burnt spectrum, caramel, bacon fat, freshly burnt gun powder. Medium weight with overt, juicy acidity. Lacks character on the mid-palate and fades a little on the finish. Not the quality of the previous wine. 2, 2, 3.9, 9.7 = 17.6/20, 88/100.

1989 Ravenswood Zinfandel Old Hill Vineyard, Sonoma, California (13.9%)
Looks old. The orange brown on the edge carries into the core of the wine but it is still quite vibrantly colored. Caramel, smoked meats, bonox, over licorice; great depth of flavor. Overly acidic to my palate, feels like its past its drinking window. But the tannins still hold a finish that is flavorsome. Some may like its appeal. 2, 2, 4.0, 9.5 = 17.5/20, 87/100.

1997 Ravenswood Zinfandel Old Hill Vineyard, Sonoma, California (14.5%) ($49.99USD)
Much younger wine. Dense cherry red with just a slight fading of orange to the edge. Big and opulent with dark fruits over black currents and a little nail polish (ethyl acetate) and vanilla oak. Nicely structured with good presence of flavors on the palate, firm tannins and a lengthy finish. 2, 2, 4.0, 10.0 = 18.0/20, 90/100.

1985 Concerto di Fonterutoli, Mazzei, Chianti, Italy (13%) ($99.99USD)
Dense red-brown with orange brown edge. Initially unyielding, but a little air brings up the ripeness of mint, cedar and some dusty oak. Definitely Cabernet. A real mouthful of wine with big, firm tannins but lacking depth to the midpalate. Nicely flavored finished. 2, 2, 4.1, 9.8 = 17.9/20, 89/100.

1984 The Magill Estate, Shiraz, Penfolds Wines, South Australia (12.5%) ($99.99USD)
Almost burgundy in color with a slight orange brown edge. Hmmm, sweet toffee over licorice and damp earth. Very appealing. Medium weight with wonderful carry of flavors onto the palate. Holding well, with nice acidity and great length. A very nice old wine. 2, 2, 4.2, 10.2 =18.4/20, 92/100.

1974 Burgess Cellars Petite Sirah, Napa Valley, California (13.2%)
A light cherry red fading to orange brown. Very forward, aromatic, and spicy, almost sweetly so, over milk coffee and raisins. Very unusual but very appealing. Wow, great, lively mouthfeel with excellent presence of flavors and a beautiful lengthy finish. Definitely the wine of the tasting. 2, 2, 4.3, 10.5 = 18.8/20, 94/100.

Nothing in the world of wine is ever simple. When I went up to the serving bar to put some names against my tasting notes I was told that the last wine was the Magill Estate! Well OK, but if that was so then the wine had aged in a remarkable and completely unexpected way. And I definitely wanted some, and a few bottles of the Mount Eden Pinot as well, please.

At home I opened a bottle of the Mount Eden. The cork was stained its entire length, but the wine was a twin of the glass tasted earlier in the day. I told Miranda, “You think this is good? Just wait until we open up a bottle of the Magill.” It was decided that we would take one to a restaurant the following evening where we would celebrate a friend’s birthday.

The ullage level on the Magill was to the neck, so a little crust under the capsule was no surprise when the sommelier pointed it out. When the cork broke half way along its length, I simply noted that Penfold’s corks were notorious for doing that, and getting the rest of the cork out would test his skill. He did an excellent job, getting the other half out in one piece.

Then he let me taste the wine. My turn to show a little skill, because this was not the wine I was expecting. I recognized the wine. A really nice old wine with notes of toffee, a little licorice and damp earth. It may have seen better days, but it was going to be quite happy to kick up its heels for the next couple of hours. But should I confess that this was not the wine that I had told them to expect? After all, the mistake was not mine, the error had occurred the day before when wines at the tasting had been mixed up, besides this wine was much more in the style of an aged Shiraz. In the end it did not matter. The wine was a hit.

But the question for me became just how much of mix up had there been at the tasting? Well, I can be confident with the first three wines. The Chardonnay can’t be in error and neither can the Mount Eden, having tasted a separate bottle. The Bugundy was a Pinot. The two Zinfandels? I would not have picked either as Zins, but the color on the 1997 showed it to be the youngest wine of the group. The Super-Tuscan had Cabernet, no problem there. The Magill is correctly identified after tasting the separate bottle. That just leaves wines number 4 (1989 Ravenswood Zinfandel) and number 8 (1974 Burgess Cellars Petite Sirah). Tasting notes on the Burgess from the Gang of Pour pretty much nail it as the last wine in the tasting.

One other point that some might have noticed about most of these wines is the alcohol content. Apart from the 1997 Ravenswood at 14.5% everything else is below 14%. The Mount Eden and the Magill are both well below 13%. Makes you wonder why winemakers seek high alcohol content in wines intended to rest in cool dark cellars for decades. They can’t be using the past as a guide.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The Top Red in Restaurants

What was the most frequently ordered red wine in restaurants in the USA in 2005? Well as long as you don’t consider White Zinfandel a red wine, even though it is made from red grapes, then the top wine is Australia’s Yellow Tail Shiraz. In fact Yellow Tail Shiraz is the only true red in the top ten wines; there are a couple of Pinot Grigio wines and the Pinot Grigio grape, when ripe, can be colored. The Yellow Tail achievement is significant because white wines outsold red wines by a more than 2-to-1 margin. And 21 of the top 60 wines were Chardonnay, one of which was? Yes you guessed it, Yellow Tail Chardonnay! More->

Monday, October 23, 2006

Mate. It's off.

It seems as though playing the heir to a vineyard in A Good Year has rubbed off on Russell Crowe. While dining at Marco Pierre White's exclusive London restaurant Mirabelle Crowe ordered a bottle of Penfolds Grange Hermitage (sic) 1964, his birth year. At a cool £3500 one expects excellence, but Russell got a wine tasting of mold. "The sommelier spent about 45 minutes trying to convince us that it was the chestnut undertones and the wafts of blackberry. I just turned round and went, 'Mate. It's off.'

The bottle was eventually replaced.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Rules to Live By

Brian Croser, well known Australian viticulturalist and protege of Len Evans, recently gave a short speech at the Adelaide University Wine Club in which he reminisced about the great man. Most notable was his listing of Evans’ Theory of capacity, which is quoted below.

Len made his contribution to the academic understanding of wine through the 10 points of his Theory of Capacity which I will enunciate in his memory,

  • There is an awful lot of wine in the world, but there is also a lot of awful wine.
  • No sensible person drinks to excess, therefore any one person can only drink a certain amount in a lifetime.
  • There are countless flavours, nuances, shades of wine; endless varieties, regions, styles. You have neither the time nor the capacity to try them all.
  • To make the most of the time left to you, you must start by calculating your future capacity. One bottle a day is 365 bottles a year. If your life expectancy is another 30 years there are only 10,000-odd bottles ahead of you.
  • People who say “You can’t drink the good stuff all of the time” are talking rubbish. You must drink good stuff all the time. Every time you drink a bottle of inferior wine, it’s like smashing a superior bottle against the wall. The pleasure is lost forever - you can’t get that bottle back.
  • There are people who build up huge cellars, most of which they have no hope of drinking. They are foolish in overestimating their capacity but they err on the right side and their friends love them.
  • There are also people who don’t want to drink good wine and are happy with the cheapies. I forgive them. There are others who are content with beer and spirits. I can’t worry about everybody.
  • Wine is not meant to be enjoyed for its own sake; it is the key to love and laughter with friends, to the enjoyment of food, beauty and humour and art and music. Its rewards are far beyond its cost.
  • What part is wine of your life? Ten percent? Ergo, 10 percent of your income should be spent on wine.
  • These principles should be applied to other phases of life. A disciple kissed a beautiful young lady and she demurred. He was aghast and said, “Don’t get the wrong idea. I’ve worked out I can only make love another 1343 times. I’m bloody sure I’m not wasting one on you.”

Monday, October 09, 2006

Wine Hunter

If you have any sort of knowledge of Australian wines at all, then the name of Maurice O’Shea should not be unfamiliar to you. Just how or when it filtered into my wine consciousness, I don’t quite recall. In the mid to late 1970’s by brother worked in Newcastle, a mere stones’ throw, in Australian viticultural distances, from the Hunter Valley, so it may well have been on a visit there. Or perhaps it was during one of the wine classes I took in Sydney during that same time period. In any event the mention of the name was made in revered, almost mythical terms; there seemed so little known of O’Shea. And his wines, while legendary, were like the man. They were gone, but they could have been myth as well.

Part of the story has now changed. Maurice O’Shea is back. Much of O’Shea and his life, at least as much as is knowable, has been brought to life by Campbell Mattinson in a new book Wine Hunter. In fact there are two books. One is called The Wine Hunter: Maurice O’Shea – The Man Who Changed Australian Wine, and the second is a larger version simply called Wine Hunter and subtitled The story of Maurice O’Shea. The greatest vigneron in Australia.

I wish I could say that this is a review of one or both books but alas it is not. A signed copy of the shorter version sits waiting for me in Australia. I plan on getting the longer version by extending my subscription to Matttinson’s online The Wine Front. The problem is that the longer version will also have to be sent to an address in Australia. Its not Campbell’s fault. He’s a one man show and he is already offering the book and subscription to his online site at a significant discount; overseas mail costs would almost certainly cut into his share of the sales and he has to make a living.

But if you are an Australian and you drink wine or appreciate Aussie history or just damn fine writing, then you should buy this book. I can’t wait to read both books because Campbell has won significant awards for his writing which is in a class of its own, especially when it comes to wine writers. In lieu of my review here is a link to one by Australian wine critic James Halliday.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Wine Scores

A *, 0 and 50. They all seem to be the similar when it comes to wine scores, at least according to the pundits at The World of Fine Wine. To be more specific the folks at The World of Fine Wine “believe that our 20-point scale, calibrated specifically for fine wine, strikes the best balance for our purpose”. Its not entirely clear how this specific calibration was done, although the simple answer seems to be that they have equated 0 (zero) with 50 points in the 100 point system because that is the score that advocates of the 100 point system give to a wine for simply being wine. Further expansion of the 20 point score against the 50-100 range can be deduced from the scale they provide. Below 7 does not seem to count for much, except perhaps for a single star! Other comparisons are more simple to make 9=75, 12=82, 14 is a touch over 85, 17=90, 19=96. Comparison with the five point star system is a little more difficult to discern. But perhaps that is the point. If you use the star system you really are not too sure of a precise score out of 20 or 50. While for the 20 point system you have somewhat more confidence but not quite the infallibility of those who say they score out of 100; of course the fact that they really only use 50 points does raise a small question about exactly how fallible they are. In truth the reviewers at The World of Fine Wine break their scores into half points, so they use a 40 unit scale. I wonder where you sit if you use a 20 point system, but break it down into tenths of a point? That’s a 200 unit scale.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

"a good excuse for the cast to enjoy a couple of months in Provence"

Oh, dear. That's not the sort of comment you want to hear about your movie, is it? But this is exactly what Variety reviewer Todd McCarthy has said about A Good Year, the romantic comedy based on Peter Mayle's novel of the same name. The film has just been released at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the reviews do not appear to be bubbling with excitement. Seems that Russell Crowe's attempt at humor is a little strained. Well at least its not corked! And we (the audience) will get to spend a few hours in Provence. Perhaps some wine and cheese might help to pass the time?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Penfold's Yattarna, Good as an $11 California Chardonnay?

On Saturday, August 12, I made what has become a less than frequent visit to Vintage Wines on San Diego to partake of their weekly $5 tasting. The theme on this Saturday? Chardonnay.

I tasted the wines double blind. That is I did not know what wines were in the tasting or their order. I’ve listed the wines in the order they were tasted along with their identities.

2004 Chateau Souverain, Sonoma $10.99USD
Straw yellow. Buttery, oaky aromas over fruity aromatics, spices, ripe apple, and a little anise. Medium weight with soft, mouth filling entry backed up by clean acidity, good presence of flavor on the palate and nice length to the finish. Misses on the mid palate. 2, 2, 4.0, 9.8 = 17.8/20, 89/100. (5)

2004 Devil’s Lair, Margaret River, Australia $15.99USD
Light straw yellow. A little toasty oak struggles up from a sweet musky note mingled with citrus. Medium weight, well structured with crisp acidity and excellent carry of flavors onto the palate. 2, 2, 3.5, 10.0 = 17.5/20, 87/100. (6)

2004 Arnoux,Hautes cotes du Beaune Les Picotins $14.99USD
Straw yellow. Hmm, honey, peanut butter and treacle. Very atypical for New World. Crisp acidity covers the palate. Great structure, excellent presence of flavors and a persistent finish. 2, 2, 4.1, 10.2 = 18.3/20, 91/100. (2)

2003 White Rock, Napa Valley $21.99USD
Darker straw yellow. Toasted oak, a little ethyl acetate and citrus, almost marmalade. Soft and round with supple entry. Nice carry of flavor onto palate and good length. 2, 2 3.9, 10.0 = 17.9/20, 89/100. (4)

2004 Cloudy Bay, Marlborough, New Zealand $23.99USD
Straw yellow. Beautiful aromatics that include melon, citrus and integrated oak. Wow, mouth watering acidity closes off a stunning complexity that caresses the palate and leaves a lingering memory. Very impressive wine. 2, 2, 4.3, 10.5 = 18.8/20, 94/100. (1)

2003 Penfold’s Yattarna, Australia $53.99USD
Light straw yellow. Subdued, slight petrichor (minerality), over faint anise, oak and citrus. Medium weight with soft and supple entry, nice complexity with excellent carry of flavors onto the palate, pleasing apple-crisp acidity and a lengthy finish. Nice wine. 2, 2, 3.6, 10.3, 17.9/20, 89/100. (3)

Learning the identities of these wines was more than a little surprising. It was not too difficult to identify the Ch. Souverain and the White Rock as California Chardonnay, or the Arnoux as the only serious Old World member. I was not sure where the second wine (Devil’s Lair) was from; New World certainly. And I was willing to guess that the second last wine was probably Australian, simply because it was not a typical California Chardonnay. But it was the last wine that completely fooled me. I was leaning toward Burgundy but it just did not seem to be a complete fit. However its not uncommon in these tastings for at least one wine to be a standout, at least in price, and in previous Chardonnay tastings quite expensive Burgundys have been included. But I was not expecting to see Yattarna, and having never tasted the wine before I would never have picked the style, assuming that what I tasted was typical.

This is the wine Robert Parker Jr. can’t give 80 points? I tasted through the wines again, from lowest rated to highest. I still agreed with the order I had rated the wines. Yattarna scores the same as an $11 California Chardonnay? No, not exactly. It’s the second highest scoring wine on the palate, but it falls down because nosing the wine reveals so little of its character. I guess I could rewrite the tasting note to make more of that point, but that would make this blind tasting a wasted exercise. For me the combination of a tasting note and scoring individual facets of the wine serves that purpose well enough. Yattarna is not just an 89 point wine, but then neither is the Chateau Souverain. And neither of them are drinking as well as the Cloudy Bay!

Just how good is the Cloudy Bay? I bought a few bottles so I could sit down with one.

2004 Cloudy Bay Chardonnay $23.99USD (Screwcap)
Straw yellow. Very open and forward with layers of tropical fruits over buttery oak. Very appealing. Developed nutty, citrus notes with time. Full bodied, soft and supple entry with excellent carry of flavors and attention getting acidity that cuts across the palate ending in a lingering finish. Beautiful wine. 2, 2, 4.2, 10.3 = 18.5/20, 93/100. 14% alcohol. Tasted September 2, 2006.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Doctor Jay Miller to Assume Role as Reviewer of Australian Wine for The Wine Advocate

Robert Parker Jr., used the Mark Squires Bulletin Board on to announce major additions in the staff of The Wine Advocate. Included among those additions is Dr. Jay Miller, currently Store Manager, Wine Director, & Proprietor of Bin 604, a wine shop in Baltimore, Maryland. According to Parker, Dr Miller will be "providing extensive, detailed coverage of areas he loves, and already knows exceptionally well, the Pacific Northwest, Spain, Australia, and South America, another region that has not been covered in as much detail as required by the remarkable number of high quality wines emerging from Argentina and Chile. Dr. J. will also be responsible for the fortified wines from Portugal. Given his Rabelaisian appetite, he will also be furnishing enormous contributions to our Hedonist Gazettes."

Dr. Miller has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and has worked as a child psychologist. Miller and Robert Parker have a past history. According to his bio on the Bin 604 website Miller met Parker while working part time as a wine consultant for Wells Liquors. While working at Wells, he met Robert Parker, a regular customer. Bob, impressed with Jay’s knowledge and keen tasting skills, invited Jay to work as his assistant on the Wine Advocate, Bob’s monthly wine tasting newsletter. From 1985 until 1998, in addition to practicing psychology, Jay assisted Bob with wine tasting, visits to vineyards, and editing the Wine Advocate. During his 13-year tenure with Bob Parker, Jay tasted over 65,000 wines.

Miller left The Wine Advocate and the mental health field in 1988 to work full time in the wine wholesale business. He started Bin 604 in late 2001. Just how much experience Dr. Miller has with Australian wine is hard to gauge. His wine store obviously sells Australian wine, and there are tasting notes that provide some insight into preferences.

But perhaps the most interesting news is that Dr. Miller will also review fortified wines from Portugal. Hopefully this means that he will also give more exposure to the fortified wines of Australia. In addition Parker noted that The Wine Advocate "will expand coverage by at least 30-50 percent as many areas that have been short-changed because of a lack of person-power will now receive full coverage." One hopes that this means a greater coverage of Australian wines, instead of the limited focus of the past that tended to concentrate too much on South Australia.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Shiraz Made Australia’s Grape

Breaking News: Late yesterday Australia’s Prime Minister John Howhard announced that his government had passed legislation making Shiraz the national grape. "This decision is not about choosing one variety over another. It recognises Shiraz in its historical role in laying the foundation for the Australian wine industry," he said. "Over the next weeks members of my government will be meeting with officials from the United Nations to draft language that will ensure that the name Shiraz is used only in Australia. We will not allow use of the name in other countries." When questioned, Howhard conceded that Australia may allow use of Syrah by other countries. "At least until such time as we are successful in securing a UN resolution restricting the cultivation of Shiraz (Syrah) to Australia."

"Shiraz is already recognized by the tens of thousands of enthusiasts who attend our annual Festival", explained Justin Time of Timeless Winery and the President of the Board of Shiraz Imbibers & Cultists (SIC). "This is a vote for agriculture, for the rich history and the role that wine has played in this great country," he added. "It is extremely far-sighted that the Government has chosen to support both SIC and the 'grass-roots' Shiraz constituency with this vote." His final comment was met with raucous approval from the hundreds of SIC members present. "On to the U.N."

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

A Point About 100 Points

I dropped by Tom Wark’s Fermentation blog the other day and found a post on wine ratings. Tom posted on the topic because he had received emails linking to an article by Gary Rivlin on wine rating in The New York Times. There really is nothing new in the Rivlin article, in fact there is one statement that I see over and over again, and that is the argument that Robert Parker, Jr. “introduced the 100-point system to the wine world in 1978”.

Now let’s get this straight, once and for all time. Robert Parker, Jr. made the 100-point scoring system popular. He did NOT invent, introduce, or in any way originate the use of 100 points in the scoring of wine. To confirm this all you have to do is look at a copy of Dan Murphy’s A Guide to Wine Tasting (Sun Books, Melbourne, 1977). Chapter Fourteen is devoted to Score Cards. In discussing examples of existing score cards, Dan writes “Many judges in various countries think that a scale of 100 has its value, since a judge may include far more individual facets of the wines and allot points (or subtract them) accordingly. This may help his accuracy and consistency.”

He then goes on, in Figures 7 through 13, to show “a series of score cards which I have used in my business for twenty-five years and which I find useful also for scoring wines at shows.”

Unlike Parker’s simple allocation of 100 points, Murphy’s scoring is different for different wine styles, no doubt one reason why it is not in popular use today. But let’s give credit where it is due. Robert Parker, Jr. made popular something that existed at least a quarter of a century before he began the Wine Advocate. He may have massaged it a bit to make it suit his style, but he did not invent, introduce, or in any way originate the use of 100 points in the scoring of wine.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The passing of an Australian wine pioneer

My most vivid memory of Len Evans is of a raspy, almost high pitched English accent, which came from a cherubic face that broke into a grin without too much cajoling and then the head was thrown back in laughter. And that was all from images of him on TV being interviewed about some aspect of wine. I never actually met the man, although if you learned to love wine in Australia in the 1970’s and later it was almost at Evans’ insistence. His Complete Book of Australian Wine was encyclopedic and in the early 1970’s no one was a serious wine drinker without a copy. I guess I came closest to him, in spirit at least, when I dined in The Great Cask Hall at Rothbury Estate. Surrounded by fellow immunologists I hoped I was not the only one to realize that this was more than just a place to throw back a few glasses of wine.

And now he is gone. Described as a “legend in his own lunchtime”, Len Evans, OBE, OA, passed away on August 17. He died of a heart attack at the wheel of his car in the Newcastle's John Hunter Hospital car park where he had gone to collect his wife, Patricia after she had recovered from surgery. He was 75. Only 75, he always seemed much older, wiser. Perhaps it was all that wine, more likely it was decades of selfless effort and struggle on behalf of the the Australian wine industry and more importantly the Australian wine drinker.

His list of achievements is overwhelming. I prefer a simpler statement.

Len Evans (1930-2006), Welsh born, English raised, Australian immigrant, welder, ring barker, script writer, glass washer, and doyen of the Australian wine industry. How we needed you, how you did us proud, and now how we will miss you.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Most Collected Wines in Australia - The List

The August/September 2006 issue of Gourmet Traveller WINE magazine contains an interesting insert - a commemorative poster displaying the top 50 labels of the most collected wines in Australia.

Now whether this really is the definitive listing of the most collected wines in Australia is probably debatable, but it is certainly an excellent starting point as the list has been generated from a study of over 1 million bottles held for over 3,500 private wine collectors. The total number of bottles of each wine, irrespective of vintage, was determined and each label was then ranked according to those totals. The study was done by Wine Ark, said to be Australia’s largest wine storage provider. The figures come from a June 2006 stocktake of their managed cellars. The count revealed that 84% of the collection was red with shiraz being the most popular grape (46%), followed by Cabernet sauvignon (33%). Sixty-six percent of the wines were from South Australia with 19% coming from each of Barossa and Coonawarra.

Wine Ark was founded in 1999 and provides not only storage, but also wine sales, wine cabinets and a Cellar Club. Its not clear whether the wines sales of Wine Ark influence what ends up being stored by its customers. There is bound to be some influence, although as noted by Judy Sarris in her Gourmet Traveller WINE article, Wine Ark does not offer Penfolds through their Wine Ark Club. That is significant because the top two wines are from Penfolds, poor man’s Grange, followed by the big boy himself.

The Top 50 Most Collected Wines are-
1 Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz Blend
2 Penfolds Bin 95 Grange Shiraz
3 Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
4 Lake's Folly Cabernet Blend
5 Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon
6 Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon
7 Wynns Coonawarra Estate John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon
8 Penfolds St Henri Shiraz
9 Cullen Cabernet Merlot (inc Diane Madellene)
10 Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz
11 Rockford Basket Press Shiraz
12 Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon
13 Wynns Coonawarra Estate Michael Shiraz
14 Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay
15 Petaluma Riesling (inc Hanlin Hill)
16 Grosset Polish Hill Riesling
17 Orlando (Jacob's Creek) St Hugo Cabernet Sauvignon
18 Howard Park Cabernet Merlot
19 Jasper Hill Georgia's Paddock Shiraz
20 Penfolds Bin 128 Shiraz
21 Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz
22 Dalwhinnie Moonambel Shiraz
23 Petaluma Coonawarra Cabernet Merlot
24 Mount Mary Quintet Cabernet Blend
25 Lindemans Limestone Ridge Shiraz Cabernet Blend
26 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier
27 Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz
28 Penfolds RWT Shiraz
29 Torbreck The Steading Grenache Mataro Shiraz
30 Parker Coonawarra Estate First Growth Cabernet Blend
31 Tyrrell's Vat 1 Semillon
32 Tyrrell's Vat 47 Pinot Chardonnay
33 Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz
34 Lindemans Pyrus Cabernet Blend
35 Fox Creek Reserve Shiraz
36 Giaconda Chardonnay
37 Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz
38 De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon
39 Grant Burge Meshach Shiraz
40 Hardys Eileen Hardy Shiraz
41 Bowen Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
42 Lindemans St. George Cabernet Sauvignon
43 Mount Langi Ghiran Langi Shiraz
44 d'Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz
45 Katnook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
46 Grosset Watervale Riesling
47 Pierro Chardonnay
48 Tyrrell's Vat 9 Shiraz
49 Turkey Flat Shiraz
50 Peter Lehmann Stonewell Shiraz

What are the top collected Shiraz? I knew you would ask. Here are the top twenty.
1 Penfolds Bin 95 Grange Shiraz
2 Penfolds St Henri Shiraz
3 Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz
4 Rockford Basket Press Shiraz
5 Wynns Coonawarra Estate Michael Shiraz
6 Jasper Hill Georgia's Paddock Shiraz
7 Penfolds Bin 128 Shiraz
8 Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz
9 Dalwhinnie Moonambel Shiraz
10 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier
11 Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz
12 Penfolds RWT Shiraz
13 Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz
14 Fox Creek Reserve Shiraz
15 Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz
16 Grant Burge Meshach Shiraz
17 Hardys Eileen Hardy Shiraz
18 Mount Langi Ghiran Langi Shiraz
19 d'Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz
20 Tyrrell's Vat 9 Shiraz

How many do you have?

The Top 100 Collected wines and other lists are here.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Make me ripe, and don’t forget the acid

A Saturday visit to Vintage Wines of San Diego saw me tasting my way through their $5 Chardonnay offering. Six wines that contained several surprises, soon to be the subject of a future post. I also selected several wines from their Wine Bar, among them the 2004 Massena The Eleventh Hour Shiraz from the Barossa Valley. Massena is a partnership between Dan Standish and Jaysen Collins that has been making wine since the 2000 vintage. The Eleventh Hour is 100% Shiraz that was initially based on 60 year old vines in Greenock that were saved, at the eleventh hour, from destruction. The 2004 wine also includes fruit from 90 year old vines from the Light Pass region of the Barossa. The wine spends 18 months in French oak and is made by Traditional Barossa winemaking of open fermentation, basket pressing and naturally occurring malolactic fermentation ensures purity of fruit, with open and round tannins.

The Massena wines have received acclaim from numerous critics, but this was my first experience with the wines. Just from the color it was clear that this 2004 shiraz was no shrinking violet. And it was not, in fact it smelled very much like a young port. My notes were Very porty, dried tea leaves, blackberry, blueberry, plum, and every other dark fruit you might think you can smell. [No, this has to be port.] The smell was so rich and overripe I just had to take the glass to some others to smell. The opinion was the same, very portish. An expedition was undertaken to explore the wine shop to learn the alcohol content. Fourteen and half percent! That has got to be low?

But how did the wine taste? At this level of ripeness and probably with a good amount of time in oak (I didn’t know it was 18 months at that time) I was expecting a tanninc, flabby monster. Surprise, surprise! It’s a very deceptive wine. The entry onto the palate is soft and supple but once the wine starts to cross the palate the acidity kicks in and you are in for a rocky, disjointed ride with the firm tannins gamely trying to smooth things down at the finish. They fail. The discussion then turned to where did all this acidity come from? The fruit was obviously picked very ripe, the fermentation done to get as much from that fruit as possible. The acidity had to have been added, and a little too liberally it appeared.

Let’s not jump to conclusions. The wine in the Wine Bar comes from bottles that have been opened the previous day. It was possible that the acidity was due to a poor response of the wine to temperature and air during that time. The only thing to do was to purchase a bottle and drink it at my leisure at home.

As we were going to help Miranda’s mother celebrate her birthday on Sunday, we could also drink The Eleventh Hour. Although the wine was better with our meal of spare ribs, green salad and garlic mashed spuds, this wine is not Aussie Shiraz at its finest hour. My notes after consuming much of the bottle, and really trying to see its good sides, it does smell very appealing, were -

Massena The Eleventh Hour Shiraz Barossa Valley 2004 $37.99USD
Deeply colored, almost purple, with red edge. Very portish, ripe and sweet with plum, blackberry, blueberry and smoky oak. Developing aromas of prunes and dried dates. Soft and supple entry but the wine is disjointed due to sharp biting acidity, especially on the finish. The palate lacks balance, depth and complexity. The fruit is simply overripe and the acidification overdone. 2, 2, 4.0, 8.0 = 16.0/20, 80/100. 14.5% alcohol. Tasted August 14, 2006.

I know that its not unusual, nor illegal to acidify wine in Australia. In fact with the ripening conditions in Australia it can be necessary. However in this case it has been overdone and has not provided this wine with any favors at all. The life span of this wine is likely to be short and I cannot recommend it.

The problem is that I am likely to be in the minority is criticizing this wine. I was in the minority on Sunday as both Miranda and her mother did enjoy the wine. But if you take very small sips of the wine, as both Miranda and her mother do when they drink wine, you don’t notice the acidity that much. And it is very easy to be seduced by the opulence of the rich fruit flavors; I was certainly fascinated until I tasted the wine.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Wine Odyssey – a year of wine, food and travel

There are not many individuals who live the vinous existence enjoyed by Australia’s James Halliday. That is why I was pleased to find his Wine Odyssey – a year of wine, food and travel. Written in a diary-like format, the book chronicles Halliday’s experiences in the world of wine for 2002. And when I say world, I mean that Halliday does get about. He is more than just an acknowledged expert on Australian wines, his expertise as a critic, judge and just plain wine expert is sought in the New World and Old World alike.

Halliday describes himself as a workaholic in the first sentence of the Prologue, by the end of the book that is more than believable. I was convinced the first time we learn that it is not uncommon for his wife to meet him at Melbourne airport with fresh clothes so that he can jet off to judge yet another Wine Show, or speak at a wine symposium. All of this is done against the backdrop of consulting for Coldstream Hills Winery (which Halliday and his wife Suzanne sold to Southcorp in 1996), tasting through thousands of Australian wines for his annual Wine Companion and selecting the annual Top 100 wines for the Weekend Australian. And these are just a few of the regular events that occupy his time during the year.

A diary should be a personal account of the life of the writer, even if it is only a slice of that life, as is the case with Halliday’s Odyssey. While this book does document Halliday’s life on an almost daily basis it is not cluttered with the personal detritus that some writers might be tempted to include, and some readers may be expecting! Instead it is well tempered with vinous experiences that the wine aficionado will appreciate. The most telling, at least for me, is a reminiscence of a visit, with his wife Suzanne, to France in the early 1980’s. At La Pyramide (a restaurant) in Vienne he seeks out wines of his birth year. One is a 1938 Romanée-Conti. I’ll let Halliday tell of the experience.

“As Louis, the venerable sommelier, teased the cork out of the bottle with his splayed fingers, a sixth sense warned me that something extraordinary was about to happen. As I smelt the wine he poured for my approval, Suzanne said, ‘Why are you crying?’ My first reaction was to indignantly deny that I was doing any such thing, but then I realized that tears were indeed trickling down my cheeks. It was an entirely involuntary reaction to the sheer perfection of the wine.”

If that little anecdote does not give some insight into the love that Halliday has for the liquid that he has devoted his life to, then I clearly don’t have the measure of the man.

For the less emotional, but still voyeuristic, purists there is the description of the purchase and consumption of a double magnum of 1865 Chateau Lafite, as well as 77 vintages of Chateau Latour from 1920 to 2000. Another highlight are the photographs that add visual detail to many of Halliday's exploits, all snapped by the author. There is much to recommend this excellent little book, I mean diary.

Wine Odyssey: A year of wine, food and travel (Paperback) by James Halliday, 304 pages, HarperCollinsPublishers PTY Limited (May 1, 2004). $20.95USD

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Dan Berger Downunder

Noted American wine writer Dan Berger gave the Wine Press Club of NSW Annual Lecture on August 9th at the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney, Australia. The title of Berger’s presentation was “The Quality or the Critter? Australian Wines and the American Palate”.

Berger began by arguing that Australians should stop worrying about the so-called grape glut, noting that it’s “a classic example of Chicken Little hollering that the sky is falling combined with that of the boy who cried wolf, as well as a number of other Mother Goose tales”. As Berger argues, these events are cyclical, but I wonder if he has ever farmed grapes and had to rely on adequate prices for survival of his livelihood?

He then went on to state that “I can tell you that, in general, the higher you go on the price scale for Australian wines, the more quality you get. I cannot say the same for French, California, or Italian wines.” That is an interesting comment given some of the discussion that has taken place in some wine spheres in recent weeks. There may well be differences in quality in terms of price but the problem, at least in the USA, is whether there are sufficient differences among the wines at a particular price point to justify purchases from multiple wineries? When most of the wine taste the same, why buy them all?

Berger also noted that he had talked with Peter Gago of Penfolds, and had been told that there is actually a shortage of many different wine grapes, including top rated cool climate Chardonnay fruit and quality Sauvignon Blanc. This is a good thing for Australian grape growers as the larger Australian wine makers buy grapes for both inexpensive (commodity sector in Berger’s words) as well as the higher-end wines. According to Berger this situation is different from the USA where the larger wine companies (The Wine Group, Gallo, Bronco) have no wines in the quality range. Grape gluts in the USA are thus more likely to adversely affect the industry.

Berger then addressed the future of Australian wine and some of the strategies he thinks should be used. The list he commented upon included

1) Highlight your regions,
2) Eschew number mongers
3) Launch campaigns highlighting gold medals and trophies at wine shows around the world
4) Empower the consumer with factual data
5) Tell a story
6) Focus more of your efforts on Riesling and on rose and dessert wines like ports, sherries and muscats that are classic Australian offerings and which are unique here.

I’m not going to comment on Berger’s strategies, except for the last one. In addressing his last point he states “As for your dessert wines, they are some of the world’s finest, and yet the only time I see overt praise for them is about the coldest days of winter. If we all don’t stand behind these amazing products, they one day may be just a memory.” When I see comments about regionality, medal winners and Australian fortifieds lumped together I'm reminded that its the one wine style that is known in the USA on the basis of

1) At least one major critic raves about them,
2) At least one major critic awards them massive points,
3) The major region (Rutherglen) is known, and yet
4) They remains the best value for money both inside and outside Australia.

Australian fortified wines need to tell their story? To whom? Maybe someone should tell Dan Berger about a place called Seppeltsfield and a company called Fosters. When a behemoth like Fosters divests itself of the jewels that are the Seppeltsfield fortified brands one significant story in Australian wine history may be coming to its ending.

For those who want to read Berger’s comments his presentation is here.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Craggy Range Winery Dinner

August 1st saw The WineSellar & Brasserie in San Diego holding a New Zealand Winemaker Dinner hosted by Steve Smith, M.W. (Master of Wine), Wine & Viticulture Director of Craggy Range Winery. I was interested in attending this gathering for several reasons. First, we see very little in the way of New Zealand wine in the USA, unless its Sauvignon Blanc. Second, with a trip planned for December of this year I’ve been cramming on New Zealand wine knowledge and with Steve Smith, MW as the host the evening seemed like it might yield a few gems of knowledge about the kiwi wine scene.

The Craggy Range Winery makes some 30 different wines, with the duties being split between three winemakers. The wines are primarily single varietal, single vineyard bottlings made from grapes grown on the company's own vineyards in the winegrowing districts of Hawkes Bay and Marlborough. Craggy Range is an investment of the Peabody family, originally from North America but residents of Australia for many years. Steve Smith, MW is both shareholder and General Manager. Craggy Range Winery is a very recent addition to the burgeoning New Zealand wine industry. Land was first purchased in 1998, and the first wines were made in the 1999 vintage from small parcels of mature vineyards in Marlborough and Hawkes Bay regions.

Reception:Little Bites
2005 Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc, Te Muna Road Vineyard (13.1% alcohol)
Miranda and I arrived a little too late to take advantage of the nibbles served during the reception, but we did get a glass of the 2005 Te Muna Road Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc to sip as we wandered among the aisles of cases of wine that dominant the floor space of The WineSellar. The wine was making such a favorable impression as we were ushered upstairs to the Brasserie that we kept a tight grasp on our glasses, meaning that we had all the more to taste over our first course.

1st: Heirloom Tomato salad with Buffalo Mozzarella , creamy citrus vinaigrette
2005 Craggy Range Sauvignon Blanc, Te Muna Road Vineyard (13.1% alcohol)
Part of the Varietals Collection, the Te Muna Vineyard is in the Martinborough region, at the southern end of the North Island. Straw gold in color, this is a very attractively scented Sauvignon Blanc with obvious notes of pineapple, guava, and citrus. The palate is dominated by excellent, bright, crisp acidity and impeccable balance that leads to a bone dry, lengthy finish. One of the best Sauvignon Blancs I’ve had. 2, 2, 4.1, 10.1 = 18.2/20, 91/100.

I’m not a big fan of acidic, dry wines with the acidity of tomatoes and the sharpness of vinaigrette, and this first course was no exception. Pity, this wine deserved something a little less overpowering.

2nd: (Lightly) Pepper crusted line caught Ahi, seared rare, veal reduction with crushed cherries, parsnip puree
2004 Craggy Range Pinot, Te Muna Road Vineyard (14% alcohol)
Another in the Varietals Collections, the 2004 Te Muna Road Vineyard Pinot Noir was fermented in 50% new French oak barriques using a 100% spontaneous natural ferment (i.e. indigenous yeast). Light cherry in color with a faint orange/brown tinge to its edge it boasts concentrated pure Pinot spicey richness. The palate has prominent juicy acidity, silky tannins and excellent carry of flavors; the acidity perhaps little too aggressive at present. Still, it’s a nice wine that could do with a few years in the cellar. 2, 2, 4.2, 9.6 = 17.8/20, 89/100.

The Ahi was a much better pairing with the Pinot. The rare, oily flesh was just what the acidity of this Pinot needs at this stage of its life.

3rd: New Zealand lamb rack, red wine reduction, lightly herbed, sweet garlic mashed, mushroom, glazed turnips and Swiss chard
2002 Sophia, Craggy Range, Gimblett Gravels (14% alcohol)
Part of the Prestige Collection the 2002 Sophia is a blend of 63% Merlot, 27% Cabernet Franc,
5% Malbec and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine is a dense cherry red with a red edge, and is rich and concentrated with earthy aromas backed up by flavors of smoke and tar that developed into fruitcake with some air. Even though the entry onto the palate is soft, this is not a shy wine, its full bodied and mouth filling, with prominent mouth drying tannins. The structural foundation is solid, so give it at least five years in a cool dark place and it should be a beauty. 2, 2, 4.1, 10.3 = 18.4/20, 92/100.

I’ll eat rack of lamb with anything, but I never eat it this rare. Still this was what the Sophia was made for, all that blood and iron! But it really is still too young to be truly food friendly.

Finale: Valrhona chocolate Dessert Duo of flourless chocolate cake and bittersweet chocolate terrine, blueberry coulis and a rumor of crème anglaise
2002 Le Sol, Craggy Range, Gimblett Gravels (15.4% alcohol)
The Le Sol is another member of the Prestige Collection. Its 100% Syrah that sees new and seasoned French oak barriques, without racking. Densely colored it is made from 50% dimpled (i.e. late harvest) fruit. And unfortunately this shows in the intensely flavored bitumen, medicinal, and stewed fruit notes that override a faint aroma of mint. The palate is equally aggressive in its flavor profile, although the feel of the wine is pleasing and nicely balanced with bright acidity and firm tannins. I was expecting much more from this wine. 2, 2, 4.0, 10.0 = 18.0/20, 90/100.

Pairing the Le Sol with dessert was not a great idea, and the suggestion of Steve Smith to sip a little of the wine with the lamb was a much better suggestion. But again the Le Sol needs time to overcome its aggressive youth.

During his discussion on the wines Steve Smith noted that the reason for the inclusion of late harvested grapes in the Le Sol was due to a difference of opinion between himself and a younger winemaker. Unfortunately the younger man has since passed away and, as he had argued for the inclusion of the dimpled fruit, the wine will continue to be made in this style in his memory. While one can understand the emotional ties that bonded these individuals as people as well as winemakers, one must ask whether it is really sound judgment to restrict the winemaking in this way when the history of the wine is so young – only two vintages have been released to my knowledge.

Its also the youth of Craggy Range wines that raises another question. As Miranda and I sat over our food and wines I wondered what the future would hold for Craggy Range. They seemed to be doing the right thing in terms of promotion, sending their top winemaker and GM to spread the word to the biggest market in the world for fine wines. But what chance do these wines have to compete? Part of the answer was down stairs in The WineSellar. People were certainly buying the wine, a case of the Pinot went out the door as we made our way downstairs, and there were only two bottles of the Sophia left in the box that had been full when we arrived. I picked one up, $52.99USD, the Le Sol was $60.99USD. At those prices there is not a lot of value in either of those wines, especially give the lack of a track record. I had picked up a bottle of the Pinot previously for $33.99USD, that’s reasonable for Pinot, but not this pinot. I’ve seen the Sauvignon Blanc for around $20USD, which is expensive for New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.

At present the USA is awash in wine that sells for much less than the Craggy Range wines. Bringing wines into this market from overseas is currently fraught with problems, especially at the higher end of the market. Ric Einstein of has recently discussed the problems facing Australian wines. The situation with New Zealand is likely to be worse, given the lack of exposure in the USA market. In addition, Bordeaux blends are common from the Napa Valley and elsewhere, excellent quality Syrah can be found by the dozens for much less that $60, Pinot is everywhere for $30. Plus excellent New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc sell for less than $20; although that Te Muna SB was tasty! I’m hoping that when we visit New Zealand in December I’ll find that the other Craggy Range wines are of the same quality. Whether I’ll find wines that are better value is a different question.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Some Tastes

I’ve been trying to catch up on getting the tasting notes I have for a swath of wines into some semblance of order for my Tasting Notes eBlog. They are mostly Shiraz/Syrah or blends that contain Shiraz. So far I have been able to get the 2004 Aussie Shiraz down and they are listed below in descending order of preference with the score I gave them. But there is more detail if you link to Tasting Notes where the wines are listed in the order in which they have been consumed (usually over on evening or two).

However the pick of the wines that I have been able to post has not been Australian. It was the 2003 Lagier Meredith Syrah from the Mt Veeder region of California. You can find its tasting note here.

2004 Australian Shiraz
Tuesner The Riebke Ebenezer Road, Barossa Valley Shiraz 2004 $17.99USD – 91/100
Henry’s Drive Dead Letter Office Shiraz 2004 (55% Padthway, 45% McLaren Vale) $28.99USD – 91/100
Marquis Philips Shiraz 9 McLaren Vale 2004 $35.99USD - 89/100
Glaetzer Bishop Shiraz Barossa Valley 2004 $34.99USD - 89/100
Olive Hill Winery Jimmy Section Shiraz McLaren Vale 2004 $34.99 (French Oak) (Screwcap) – 89/100
Mitolo Jester McLaren Vale Shiraz 2004 $17.99USD (Screwcap) – 88/100
Strathewen Hills Patterson Lakes Shiraz Port Phillip (Vicoria) 2004 $23.99USD (Screwcap) – 86/100
Fetish Wines The Watcher Barossa Valley Shiraz 2004 $16.99USD (Screwcap) – 86/100
Deakin Estate Shiraz (Victoria) 2004 $4.50USD – 86/100
Hewitson Ned and Henry’s Shiraz Barossa Valley Shiraz 2004 $15.99USD (Screwcap) – 83/100