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 glacĂ© 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.