Tuesday, December 09, 2008

An Enviable Selection of Australian Wine

Where do you buy your wine? From the cellar door, a mailing list, a specialized wine store, or a supermarket? I buy from a mixture of sources, although the majority of my wine purchases are from a specialized wine shop. The reasons for this are quite simple. The selection is outstanding, the knowledge of the staff is vast and the prices are very competitive. The only problem is that much of the wine for sale is current vintage, there is a back room of earlier vintages but the selection is not all that extensive. More importantly it contains very few Australian wines. So if I want an Aussie wine with some age on it I’m forced to buy the wine and let it mature. Not ideal when you want the wine now. However I think I may have solved that little problem, at least for those times when we are in Australia.

Its all thanks to my old mate Ted. He lives at Warrimoo in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales (NSW) and Miranda and I almost always spend a week or so with him tooling around the little towns that dot the highway between Penrith and Lithgow. On our recent trip we found ourselves in Leura, a pleasant little town of about 4000 people. We had spent part of the day doing the Scenic Railway, Walkway and Cableway and decided to take a look at a few bookshops and pick out a place for dinner. For dinner we would need some wine and Ted suggested we drop by Leura Cellars. Now Ted is not a wine tragic. He certainly likes the odd glass or two and has a few bottles laid away for a special occasion, like when we come to visit. But he would be the first to say that wine is not one of the major interests of his life but he knew of Leura cellars and their wine selection because this shop in this little town caters to a wealthy clientele of mountain drinkers who know their wines.

Leura Cellar is on the wonderfully picturesque Leura Mall. The street level is a conventional Aussie bottle shop filled with recent vintages. It’s the stairway which descends to the lower level that holds the surprise. The lower level houses the Vintage Cellar, and its not just a few dusty, old bottles of wine. Here you will find Penfolds Grange from 1965, Penfolds St Henri from 1968, McWilliams Elizabeth Semillon from 1984, Petaluma Riesling from 1985, De Bortoli Noble One from 1982, and a host of others. This truly is a wonderful space to wander, picking up a bottle here and there of wine 10, 20, or even 30 years old. I defy any true wine enthusiastic to walk back up those stairs empty handed!

So what did we chose for dinner? A bottle of 1996 Mcwilliams Maurice Shiraz from the Hunter Valley for $50AUD. We dined in the courtyard at Café Bon Ton with individual appetizers (mine was the Crisp Fried Lambs Brains with Pecorino and Herb Crust, Black Pudding, Sauce Gribiche and Quail Eggs) and split the house specialty of Slow Braised Pork Cheeks with Star Anise, Cassia Bark, Root Vegetables and Shitake Mushrooms, which paired wonderfully with the Maurice O’Shea Shiraz (Corkage: $5AUD/person). It won’t take a fortune teller to predict that we will be visiting Leura again.

The Complaints against High Alcohol in Wine – a little history

They never seem to stop do they? It’s a pity most of the complainers know very little of history, at least those ranting against Australian wines. I was remained of this again last week on a note over at GLUG. In reply to the growing argument, primarily by UK wine merchants, that Australia make wines lighter than 13-14% alcohol David Farmer quotes from H.E. Laffer’s "The Wine Industry of Australia" (1949). Lafer discusses the complaints of a Dr. Thudicum. "In records of the trade round about 1870 there was a good deal of discontent among shippers because some of the wines imported were said to be over 26% proof spirit (this equals 14.85% alcohol by volume), and were therefore charged one shilling and sixpence a gallon extra duty. Dr. Thudicum claimed that these must have been fortified, because it was not possible for that amount of alcohol to be produced by natural fermentation. The controversy raged through the columns of the daily Press, both in editorial and in letters from correspondents. The learned Doctor based his assertion on the claim that it could not be so "because it would simply upset the whole scientific facts hitherto established throughout the world."

Dr Thudicum is rebuffed by a letter on 18th December, 1873, from P.B.Burgoyne which states "There is one remark of Dr. Thudicum's which I take leave to dispute. He says, 'If Australian wines have to pay the half-crown duty on importation into England, it is because they are brandied.' Now, although I would not pretend to say, nor do I believe, that all the Australian wines that have come under my notice are without brandy added, yet I can, and do most positively assert, that the 'Tintara' grown by A.C.Kelly, M.D., which wine has been made the scapegoat by Dr. Thudicum (vide the Journal of the Society of Arts, December 5th, page 48) does generate 26 degrees proof spirit in fermentation and no brandy is added.....".

A good dose of alcohol has always been, and will always be, in the wines from the hotter regions of Australia like the Barossa Valley. The real story, if the international critics want to make note of it, is that the cooler regions of Australia do make the wines they prefer. The problem is that very few, if any, of these critics make the effort to taste those wines. And so they continue to complain when all they really need is a little history lesson and the initiative to seek beyond what is put in front of them. Even Robert Whitely agrees with that.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Wine in Plastic

If you are more than just a casual drinker of wine you know that there is a whole industry producing glasses so that you can savor your favorite wine. Should you wish to you can purchase a seemingly endless array of wine glasses of different shapes and sizes to draw the most out of your Shiraz or Zinfandel, or Chardonnay, or just about any other variety. There are even glasses made that supposedly suit wines from different regions. There are completely opaque glasses that hide the wine from view to glasses that lack both the foot and stem of the conventional wine glass. And, of course, all this can come at considerable expense. Plus you have to wash them and if they are expensive that means hand washing with special detergents and drying clothes to preserve their pristine appearance. And then someone drops one and all you are left with is a mess to clean up. Why doesn’t someone make a shatterproof, durable, dishwasher friendly and cheap wine glass so that I don’t have to worry about how much longer my good glasses have to endure mistreatment by those who don’t really care about either the wine or the glass?

Drum roll, Cue curtain. Enter the Govino shatterproof wine glass. These glasses are stemless and made from Polyethylene Terepthalate Glycol (PETG) which has uses in blister packaging and plastic bottles. My order of Govino shatterproof wineglasses arrived last night and so we put a couple through their paces (see below). I purchased the glasses through the Govino website and with UPS ground shipping and tax the final cost came out to a little over $4/glass. Each glass comes in its own plastic sleeve and there sitting on top of all of them was a printed note advising that they be hand washed because of the variability in dishwashers! Whether they will survive our usual dishing cycle will be tested soon because I really don’t feel like hand washing a $4 glass.

First the “glass” itself is extremely light and very transparent ("crystal clear") so viewing the color of a wine is no problem at all. And the nose and taste of the wine we drank last night (Carlisle 2005 Knights Valley "Pelkan Ranch" Syrah, 15.7%) was the same in both the Govino and a similarity shaped and inexpensive stemless glass from Crate and Barrel. And the alcohol in the Carlisle didn’t melt the Govino on contact. Yes, I’m being facetious but it is worth pointing out that PETG is apparently quite durable, although it can be scratched. I would think that dropping the Govino onto a hard surface would cause little damage in terms of breakage. Miranda wouldn't let me test that on our stamped concrete floor.

An indentation at the widest point of the glass does help hold the glass because it is quite firm at this point. However the top of the glass can be compressed by simply squeezing your fingers together. Fortunately the plastic is so thin and flexible that it springs back into shape. The real problem is the lip. For some reason the lip has been made to curve slightly into the glass. It’s a small curve, probably less than a millimeter, but you notice it as soon as you put the glass to your mouth and take a sip of wine. It may be that without this curl the plastic lip would be quite sharp but each time I took a sip of wine I thought to myself that it would be quite easy to cut your own lip if you were bumped while drinking. Miranda liked the Govino, didn’t see the lip as a problem, and thought I was being more paranoid than normal. Her argument was that I've been bumped while drinking from glasses with very thin lips and I'm still here with my lips intact, in fact not even scratched.

After we had our wine I simply rinsed the Govinos with cold water and let them drain overnight. This morning they were water stained (as is usual with San Diego water) but unlike their cheap glass cousins from Crate and Barrel the Govino cleaned up nicely with a simple wipe using a soft cloth.

So is the Govino a quality wine glass? No. This is not the glass to use for a dinner party or even as a cheap replacement for wine tasting. But I can see it as a good alternative in situations where there is the possibility of having your quality glassware mistreated and broken, like at a gathering of folks who simply want a glass of wine and don’t care what the glass or wine is. Or for when Miranda’s mother visits; she is the only person in our household to have broken a glass while drinking. So the Govino will get a run at our next BBQ or informal gathering of non-wine tragics. One thing is for sure we will be able to leave them out to drain overnight without worrying about whether the cats have smashed them onto the kitchen floor during their own social event.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

How To Taste Wine

Before I get into vivid, mouthwatering descriptions of some of the wines we tasted during our trip to Australia I thought I would share a post or two on a few wine related gems from downunder. The first involves a little book that I purchased at Shaw Vineyard Estate. The Shaw Vineyard estate is at Murrumbateman, about 30 km north of Canberra and is part of the Canberra wine region. It is also one of those wineries that bears a unfortunate resemblance to Frass Canyon winery of Sideways fame. Lots of glitz and kitsch but not much personality. We were there on the weekend when the region’s wineries have their Wine Roses and all that Jazz celebration, and so Shaw had a quartet playing right in the packed cellar door which is also attached to a restaurant that was full of noisy patrons. Not exactly ideal circumstances when it comes to a quiet taste of a few wines.

So after the mad scramble to get a little taste of Riesling we amused ourselves by looking over the merchandise that was for sale. Hidden way at the end of the counter in the cellar door, almost out of sight was a little display of books titled “Len Evans – How to taste wine”. You little beauty, a small treatise by the man Hugh Johnson described as “the finest judge of wine I know”. This should be full of invaluable tidbits of tasting lore. And it is, as long as you are not expecting enlightenment on the mechanics and physiology of wine tasting. The advice is of a different kind. Its the wisdom of a sage among wine judges.

“How to taste wine” was written just before Len Evans died unexpectedly in 2006, the very last paragraph of the text, in a section called Reflections, sums up his philosophy of wine, and so I quote it verbatim.

“What I really wanted was to sit at the foot of a great palate, the most
knowledgeable wine guru, the ultimate taster. Unfortunately there was no such
person around at that time, nor is there one today. All one may do is scratch a
bit here and scratch a bit there, trying to put enough together to achieve some
sort of understanding of this most wondrous of drinks. And I do hope some of the
above helps, even if all it does is open some minds to the possibilities of the
subject. “

There is, of course, more in this little book. Evans devotes 30 pages to the assessment of wine, covering the areas of color, nose, entry, middle palate, after palate and finish. But there is no technical detail, just observations gleaned from 30 plus years as a wine judge. His strongest recommendation? Smell a wine deeply for "a great deal of what is to be learnt of any wine is there, 'on the nose' ". Perhaps paradoxically Evans is not a devotee of describing the aroma/bouquet of wine. His explanation is that he has “neither the olfactory range or the inclination” to adopt “the endless wine vocabulary used overseas”. To Evans “wine smells of itself”. Perhaps such an explanation seems unsatisfactory given his extraordinary tasting ability but Evans is no scientist, his strength lay in an ability to compare and contrast wines, remembering the experience more viscerally than cerebrally.

He is also not above poking a few jabs at the insularity of wine critics/judges, especially from the States. You know the ones, they “start writing for newspapers and magazines and appear on TV: they get feted a little, and in no time they’re all experts. We’ve had lots of them over here to judge different shows and some of them, to be frank, are quire ordinary. They may be alright when they can read the labels but when it’s blind they’ve made some shocking mistakes.” Ouch. But then I wouldn’t expect anything else but the unpalatable truth from Len Evans.

The one semi-technical contribution in this little book is described in the section called An Indulgence. Its Evans’ attempt to depict the structure of individual wines in a graphic format. Each graph is broken into nose, entry, middle palate, after palate and finish – the aspect of tasting described earlier in the book. The height of the line and the width of each segment conveys the impact of the wine. If necessary the intensity can be displayed by the width of the line and the density by dots of varying size. It looks somewhat clumsy and it is difficult to appreciate how a single line contains the many dimensions of a wine. But then it comes from the mind of a true individual in the world of wine. Afterall who else could pen a "Theory of capacity"?

How To Taste Wine (paperback) by Len Evans, 112 pages, Barbara Beckett Publishing, Paddington, Australia (2007) $19.95AUD.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Two Weeks Exploring Australian Wine – A brief overview

We have been back from Australia for a little over a week and it has taken me that long to recover from a head cold, thanks to a fellow passenger on our return flight. The only saving grace was that I didn’t succumb to the sniffles, sneezes and aching muscles while we were on our 3,000 kilometer odyssey through some of Australia’s best wine country. Miranda was not so fortunate; she came down with the dreaded “common” cold the day before we left Dubbo and we were almost through with McLaren Vale before she recovered enough to last though a full day of wine tasting.

Even with the unplanned visits to various Chemists (pharmacists), for the latest in cold remedies, the trip was a great opportunity to explore the diversity of Australian wine. We discovered excellent whites at Printhie near Orange, got a lesson on how to stylishly open a screw capped wine bottle from Ken Helm as we sampled his outstanding Canberra Rieslings, had dinner under a stamped metal ceiling in an historic guesthouse with a boisterous bunch of Aussies, and were the fist through the door at the 2008 Cork and Fork in Cowra. And that was just the first two days!

Two weeks, three states, six wine regions, and all by car. Red wine, white wine, dessert wine, fortified wine, sparkling wine, even wine that technically was not wine at all - we tried them all. Some were simply not that good, others superb. We had cellar door experiences that were not all that polite to hours and hours of joyously sampling Mollydooker wines with Sparky’s mum. We explored Joseph’s room and found a barrel of wine to celebrate our own centenary. We had a winemaker tell us that the wine we gifted him was not that good, only to apologize the next day. It didn’t matter. He was correct and anyway he was allowed to roast Washington Syrah because he had shared his food, his wines and his back verandah late into the night. We had so much wine at one dinner that the waitstaff were forced to bring a separate table to hold all the bottles, and some of the half open bottles had to be given away to other diners. We rode on a paddle steamer, had dinner on a slag heap and ran over a wild pig. We left no stone unturned.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Off to the Land of Wonder, the Land Downunder

Our annual trip to Australia is occurring a little earlier than usual. Real early, like tomorrow. If we have picked our QANTAS flights correctly we should be boarding the A380 Airbus some time after 10pm at LAX for the 14 plus hour flight. This year our wine exposure is a little more ambitious than in the past. A two week road trip visiting six wine regions in three different states. The trip will start in Dubbo, NSW where Miranda and I will be joined by my cousin Ngaire and her husband Chris. First stop will be the cool climate wine area around Orange sampling wines from Canobolas-Smith, Mayfield, and Printhie. Then it will be off to The Falls for a relaxing dinner (and wine) and a good nights rest.

The second day was to be visits to selected wineries in the Hilltops and Canberra regions. But Chalkers Crossing at Young have told us they won’t be open and the Canberra wineries are holding their Wine, Roses, and All that Jazz celebration. So all we hope to achieve is to fight our way through the crowds so that we can taste whatever Clonakilla has on offer that weekend.

It may be fate that the second day promises little wine as the next two as sure to hold some of the highlights of the trip. Why? One word, Rutherglen. Well OK, four words. Rutherglen and fortified wines. For those who don’t know, Rutherglen is the epicenter of fortified wine in Australia, and the wines they make there are among the best in the world. And we get to visit the big guns like Chambers, Morris, Buller, and Campbells. And we will also drop by Warrabilla to taste the big, bold wines of Andrew Sutherland Smith. This should be two days of wine heaven.

To recover from all that alcohol we will spend the next two days traveling along most of the Murray River from Albury to Murray Bridge. We will be driving through a number of wine regions (Goulburn Valley, Swan Hill, Murray Darling, Riverland) as we motor alongside the Murray, but apart from accommodation in Swan Hill and Loxton we won’t be stopping because the next wine region on the itinerary is McLaren Vale. Tastings have been organized at Arakoon, Kay Brothers, d’Arenberg, and Mollydooker. A highlight will be a BBQ with Roger Pike and the chance to taste his Marius wines as we look out over his vineyards. We had hoped to stop by the Redheads Studio and Samuel’s Gorge but I guess they are too busy making and selling wine to answer my email request for a tasting appointment!

The next region is that little known wine making area, the Barossa Valley. We will taste at Winter Creek, Trevor Jones, and Teusner, and then recover over dinner at Vintners Bar and Grill with several winemakers. The next day will see us at Seppeltsfield. Miranda and I visit this grand old place every time we are in the Barossa, but this time it will be special as we will be tasting the wines under new ownership. Diggers Buff, Hobbs and Tim Smith will also be letting us sample their wines.

On the next day we will visit our last Barossa winery, Dutschke, before heading up to Clare Valley and tastings at Kilikanoon, Neagles Rock, Pikes and Paulett. Then it will be back to Dubbo via Broken Hill because its always good to get a little bit of the reality of the outback under your belt before you return to the maddening pace of southern California.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Battle for the Internet

Its the question that has all waiting with bated breath. The outcome may well make grown men cry, women scream, babies clutch for the mothers’ breast and Aussie wine aficionados run screaming into the night. Nah, it won’t be that dramatic but it will be interesting. One month ago Shiraz posted on Australian Wine - The Critics Web Sites. That post garnered quite a few comments mainly from Gary Walsh of the redesigned The Wine Front. Gary was quite concerned that I hadn’t looked deeply enough into the fine cyberspace tuning that The Wine Front had received. After all the site would now be putting up a hundred or more new-release wine reviews each month. That would be more than any other site and certainly more than James Halliday’s online Wine Companion site. Well OK, that’s great. I still don’t like the search capability of the new site but if it is notes on current wines that drinkers of Australian wines need then go for it.

The zeros and ones had only just settled themselves after the thrust and parry of the comments to that post when I received the monthly update from the Halliday's Wine Companion site. The big news? You get no prize for guessing. “Starting in September, James will be adding 100 new tasting notes to winecompanion.com.au every month. These tasting notes will not appear in the Australian Wine Companion and are only available online to winecompanion.com.au members.” The 100 tasting notes are easily searched as the list is a simple alphabetical one of the wines. Click on any wine name and it opens the tasting note. The only problem is that I can’t find a link to those tasting notes on the site itself, you have to click the link in the subscriber email. Back to you Campbell and Gary.

And it didn’t take long. October 1st saw an email from Campbell Mattinson to subscribers of The Wine Front.

Dear subscribers, I think you're going to like this. From now on Gary Walsh and I will be putting out The Wine Front Hot 50 each month - as a pdf document. To grab your copy just click the link below. We looked at the fact that we are now reviewing several hundred wines each month, which means that unless you're visiting the site almost daily, it's easy for a good number of really good wines to pass you by. This publication should help fix that - it distills the best down to the Hot 50. Beat that James.

Halliday’s response? Well all was quiet, except for a post on SHIRAZ on October 7th from the online Wine Companion viz. ”With an increasing number of great wine resources available online, a review of a few of them was worthy of a blog post. Your overview of winecompanion.com.au accurately reflects the feedback we have received directly for our users. The feedback is partly why, as of last month we are now adding 100 new tasting notes every month (Septembers - http://winecompanion.com.au/wine_search.cfm?latest=1). Also stay turned for the Vintage Search, its on its way. *whip cracked*”

It’s the last sentence that is the interesting bit. As I look over the site now I see quite a few changes to the search capability. True, its still not close to the search capability of Parker’s online The Wine Advocate, but now the “Search Wineries” pull down allows you to click on a state of Australia and it opens up with a map showing you the location of the major regions and you can click on any one (or the text list of regions) and you get an alphabetical list of wineries. That is useful if you want to know where different regions lie in respect to each other and the wineries they contain. The aficionados may already know that but your interested wine drinker, especially those outside Oz will find it very helpful. The “Wine Tasting Notes” pull down has also been ungraded so that you can now pick a variety (Shiraz) and a region (McLaren Vale) and the page will open to a list of wineries and the ability to sort them by Name, Vintage, Rating, Price, Drink By, and Date Tasted. This is certainly more helpful than in the (recent) past. It still can’t do a search that will reduce the number of wines by adding additional search terms so that I can get only the 2002 Shiraz wines from Barossa with ratings above 90. But maybe if the whip is cracked often enough that might just happen. But did this whip crack have any sting in it for The Wine Front?

I guess it did because a week later Campbell was sending out another email to subscribers.

Dear Subscriber,

It's been a gentler past week at The Wine Front - only just shy of 50 new reviews in the past seven days - but you'd hardly know it, with all the comments and new information going onto the site. If you're not visiting the site regularly - you should be.

BEST VALUE: But if you don't visit often, a really nifty way of getting the best out of the site is via the categories and tags. For instance, if you want to see all the BEST VALUE wines we've tasted recently, go to the Best Value tag at: http://www.winefront.com.au/tag/top-value/

BIODYNAMIC: Or you want to see the Biodynamic wines we've reviewed recently go to the Biodynamic tag at: http://www.winefront.com.au/tag/biodynamic/

IMPORTS: Or maybe the imports? See all our most recent Import reviews at: http://www.winefront.com.au/category/import/

We've also got our CALENDAR up and running now - it's on the bottom right of the screen. Check it out - there are some good events coming up - and let us know of any events we should have in there.

In other words, lots happening on the site every day.

Campbell Mattinson

So I wandered over to the site. To be honest I’m not a big fan of the way the categories and tags are used on the site. But hey, if that is what works for subscribers then who am I to complain. The Hot 50 is there as a PDF with an alphabetical listing of the wines reviewed in September and their scores as well. But the PDF is 33 pages long and there is no listing of the Top 50 that allows you to click on the name of the wine and skip straight to the review; Halliday wins that round. The Wine Calendar is a different matter. Those looking for wine events are likely to find this quite useful. For the Aussie scene its probably more useful than something like the Local Wine Events site as its more national than international and likely to be of great use to event organizers and retailers looking to attract those with a serious interest in wine.

Will the Wine Companion respond? Probably not, they don’t really need a wine calendar. They should keep sprucing up those search capabilities because as much as I’d like to back the young turks the smart money is still going for Halliday.

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Landmark Australia Tutorial

Wine Australia has announced the first Landmark Australia Tutorial for 1-5 June, 2009. The Tutorial is a five day course comprising text, narrative study and wine tasting on Australia’s fine wines. It is limited to international opinion-formers "with extensive wine experience in buying, selling or editorial decision making. Candidates must demonstrate how they have influenced their business across one or more of these decision making dimensions over the previous 2 years. Previous experience judging at wine shows will also be viewed favorably." The selection process is limited to twelve participants, each of whom will receive all expenses-paid trips courtesy of Wine Australia. Applications close Friday 28 November 2008 and the winning entrants will ne notified 15 December 2008. and must be available to travel to Australia during Monday 1 to Friday 5 June 2009.

The Tutorial has three principal tutors, Dr Tony Jordan, Michael Hill Smith AM MW and Andrew Caillard MW, as well as leading Australian wine experts James Halliday and Brian Croser.

“The opportunity for us to engage the next generation of wine media, trade and commerce with an Australian fine wine story full of courage and ambition is very exciting,” said the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, general manager of market development, Paul Henry.

“The belief in the existence of terroir, the notion of regionality, the benefits of blending etcetera are all vexed questions that we should now confidently address, staking a bold claim to be judged as a leading producer of wines of character, quality and interest.”

The Tutorial will be hosted at The Louise luxury vineyard retreat in the Barossa Valley, which is associated with the highly praised restaurant Appellation.

Apart from exposure to some of the more legendary Aussie wines including Penfolds Bin 60A, Mildara's Peppermint Pattie and the original Maurice O'Shea's the participants will be guided through several Masterclasses entitled, Australia's Regional Classics, An Historic Perspective, and Pinot Noir.

The Landmark Australia Tutorial could be considered to be smaller brother to the worldlier Len Evans Tutorial, albeit with a much more pertinent focus on Australia. Limiting the tutorial to a lucky dozen does seem restrictive, but I would hope that the lucky few return to heir homelands to spread the message about the great diversity and excellence of Australian wines. All Wine Australia needs now is a tutorial for Australian winemakers in promoting their wines in a more and more competitive global marketplace.

Media Release.

An Aside: Shiraz won't be an applicant (because I have a full time job) but we will be checking out Appellation during our upcoming Oct-Nov trip to Oz which will include visits to wineries in half a dozen wine regions and dinnner at Appellation with some noted winemakers.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

More Devalued Australian Wine

I iust received an email from an Etailer here in the US offering Penfold's Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2004 for $11.99USD or $9.99/btl if you buy six. Usual excuse - the distributor wants to move some boxes - one time deal. Wine Searcher has this from $9.95 to the more usual $24.99.
Linked over to their site to see what other deals are on offer. Quite a few. The best is the 2003 Winter Creek Shiraz at $14.99uSD or $12.99/btl for 6. I paid $27.99USD in 2005 for this. Its $19.99 to $29.99 on Wine Searcher. I'll have a six pack please!
Wines like the Fox Creek Reserve Shiraz 2004, Tait Shiraz 2005, Kurtz Boundary Row Shiraz 2003, Margan Semillon 2004, Koonowla Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, Connor Park Shiraz 2002 have 20-50% price reductions. Obviously these are not current vintages but it just goes to show that its been difficult to move Aussie wine for more than just a vintage or two.
What does Grant Burge 'Barossa Vines' Chardonnay 2005 sell for in Oz? $8.99USD here

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Australian Wine - The Critics Web Sites

Blogging is almost always about links. The more links you have in your posts, especially to sites with significant traffic, the better chance you have for search engines to include your blog in searches for that link. There are two important aspects to links. First, they have to be current because the internet is simply not static enough for links to remain permanent. And second, the dynamic nature of the ‘net means that new sites are added all the time, and the best of those need to be added to your repertoire of traffic catchers. But links also serve another purpose because they are often placed outside of a post, such as those on the right-hand side of the page for SHIRAZ. These links qualify simply as resource pages. They allow bloggers to expand the knowledge base of their site by doing nothing more than providing a link. Here, at SHIRAZ, I’ve not blogged about the resource links because like many bloggers I assume that those who visit SHIRAZ will know what resource links are. However checking the OutClicks for SHIRAZ suggests that most don’t take advantage of resource links, so maybe its time to blog about them!

In the next few posts I’ll be covering several categories of web sites as they relate to Australian wine. These lists will not be exhaustive and will often only cover sites in Australia, although some of the more important foreign sites will be included. The first category will be the sites of those who can best be described as critics of Aussie wines, the folks that provide not only assessment of wines but also commentary.

James Halliday – Australian Wine Companion. $34.95/year.
Although thought of as part of the old guard by some, James Halliday reigns supreme as the most experienced and most knowledgeable critic of Australian wine. Halliday has also had enviable exposure to the best wines outside Australia, so his analysis is able to place Australian wine within a world context. Halliday may be the oldest Aussie wine critic but his new web site brings him into the 21st century! This site boats over 45,000 tasting notes, information on wine regions and wineries and commentary on current aspects of the Australian wine industry. There is also free content to entice possible subscribers. All of this is easy to access by pull down menus. Searching the site and especially tasting notes is limited by an inability to search by vintage; for example, you can’t get all of the tasting notes for 2002 Barossa Shiraz in a single search. Halliday does send out emails to subscribers on a regular basis that include a few tasting notes but the majority of his notes come from his annual hardcopy Wine Companion, so current tasting notes are limited.

THE WINE FRONT $39.95/year.
Given birth by one of Australia’s best wine writers, Campbell Mattinson, THE WINE FRONT has now been fused with Gary Walsh’s Winorama which was a very successful free site devoted primarily to tasting notes. Mattinson and Walsh fit into a small group of young Turks hoping to rise to prominence and unseat the “old guard”. I was initially very optimistic about the potential that this partnership could bring to critical analysis of Aussie wines. And although the jury is still out, I have to confess to an initial disappointment with the new THE WINE FRONT. The site does have significant positives. The tasting duo hopes to add several hundred tasting notes each month which makes the content very current in terms of wines available at retail; this is a big advantage over other critics (think Halliday, Parker’s The Wine Advocate) that normally release once per year. The site also boasts a first, at least for Aussie wine reviews, in a free feature called Double Take in which both Mattinson and Walsh independently review the same wine. Plus there is a limited amount of free content as a teaser to potential subscribers. However the search features on the site are archaic at best being limited to categories and a generic text search; a page describing tips for searching using this latter feature would be very helpful. If you want to look at all the tasting notes for 2005 Barossa Shiraz, as an example, you will be disappointed; you just can’t do it. And even when you pull up a search you have to scroll through complete notes, there is no facility to search abbreviated descriptions of individual wines which makes things very hard going. Fortunately its early days for this web site and hopefully it will improve, the potential is certainly there.

Jeremy Oliver $39.95 +GST
A site I do not subscribe to as it gives no free content to judge the quality of the material within. Oliver is highly regarded as a critic of Australian wine, although I doubt his name is known much outside Australia. I’ll continue to give this a miss until some free content appears.

TORBWine Free.
Run by Ric Einstein, an amateur wine critic (i.e. Ric does this in his spare time which he seems to have a lot of!). This site contains wine news, commentary and tasting notes. But the most interesting content is the Tour Diaries. Each Year Ric and a few of his mates visit Australian wine regions, mostly South Australia and Victoria, and taste with dozens of wine makers. The writing is a blend of humorous anecdote mixed with serious descriptions of current wines. Tour Diaries is a great way to find out what is happening on the Aussie wine scene, and its a pity that Ric doesn’t visit more wine regions during the year. You can search the tasting notes under several categories but like the sites above its not a sophisticated search engine. Tasting notes are listed by wine and clicking on the wine description will open up the tasting note but the lists are not alphabetical and so it can be hard work to find what you want.

Wine Pros Free
This is another free site that contains wine news, commentary and tasting notes but much of it is archived material that was provided as content when James Halliday used to contribute to the site. Now that Halliday has gone there is little, if any, current content. But the WinePros archive is now a portal for Visit Vineyards; a very new site that looks at both wine and food. Its a little too early to judge its potential, but it does contain content from several Australia writers as well as the well known English Master of Wine Jancis Robinson

A note on search engines for individual wine sites.
None of the wine sites described above use state of the art search engines and so its almost always a hit and miss affair if you want to extract their descriptions of 2002 Barossa Shiraz, for example. That is a major failing for sites which aim to provide material that their visitors and/or subscribers can search. Its simply not efficient to search these sites. In fact its probably easier to do a Google search for the information you want. There is however one site that does provide a very refined search engine, eRobertParker. This site ($99USD/year) is not limited to Australian wine but a few clicks will get you results for quite complicated searches. Its no problem to find all the 2002 Barossa Shiraz that Parker has reviewed. Under Category Search you simply click on Australia, then select Vintage, click on 2002 and then select Location, select Barossa Valley and then click on Variety, and select Syrah (well nothing is perfect!). You can then display the notes for the 111 wines and sort them by wine name, rating, price or maturity. Clicking on an individual wine opens up the tasting note. Now that is a search facility!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Devaluing of Australian Shiraz in the US

A winemaker makes a wine, sells it to an exporter/importer who sells it on to a distributor who then sells it to a retailer who then offers you the wine at a competitive price. Or so the theory goes. But in reality many things influence the competitive pricing of wine. One of these is the inability to sell the wine for its recommended retail price, a not uncommon event in the USA with Aussie Shiraz these days. Another is when an importer/exporter is revising their portfolio. Combine the two and you get a fire sale.

Such seems to be the case with wines under The Grateful Palate umbrella. The Grateful Palate has recently reduced its portfolio to about 25 producers from a high of 70 a few years ago. Its not clear whether producers have been dropped or have left Grateful Palate but the result has been deep discounts on Australian wines. Take, for example the deals I was offered today. McLean’s Farm 2002 Shiraz (Barossa Valley) which sells retail (according to Wine Searcher) for $23.99 to $29.99USD, but offered to me for $8.99. Or the 2004 Gibson Old Vine Collection Barossa Valley Shiraz, $99.99USD retail on Wine Searcher, but I was able to purchase it for $44.99. The most recent vintage sells for $96AUD mail order from Gibson’s.

Some say that Australian wines in the US need to drop their prices to more reasonable levels after the big increases that have followed with the extravagance of high Parker points. This may be true, but there is another story that may be building behind this and it is that importers/exporters, distributors, and retailers are seeing significant losses in profits with the selling of Australian wines. When you lose money you tend not to want to expose yourself to the same position again. And so when a major importer/exporter has a fire sale on Aussie wines the question that needs to be answered is who would want to build a portfolio of Australian wines when they see others having problems selling the wines unless they have dramatic reductions in prices?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Merlove - a movie about Merlot

Well it had to happen sometime. The movie Sideways was seen as doing so much damage to Merlot (at least in the US) that a response had to be produced, and now it has with Rudy McClain's Merlove. Its a documentary that eventually finds it way to Ch. Petrus.
Check out this trailer. Its the first time I've ever heard a wine described as "Sophia Loren's dirty underwear."

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Blinded by Shiraz

Australian Shiraz has been criticized, especially outside the boundaries of the island continent, as having a sameness, of being big, blustery fruit bombs, high in alcohol but low in regional expression and not long in life. Its very easy to dispel this myth, all you have to do is gather together a few quality shiraz from several regions and taste them. That’s the easy part. Putting together a blog post that would do the wines justice is more difficult. I’ve been haggling with myself for months about how to approach the content of this blog post, especially the title. There was a point when I was going to call it “Top Gear” and describe the wines in terms of exotic, or not so exotic, cars from the BBC program of the same name. After all wine has been likened to everything else, so why not describe New Zealand Syrah like an Audi R8 - “Meet the new everyday superwine”, or Rutherglen Muscat like a Maserati Quattroporte ;“Quite possibly the most beautiful and desirable wine in the world”. How about the Renault Laguna “has the same old anonymous character” for cheap Bordeaux?

But no, it wouldn’t work simply because I haven’t driven any of those cars, so I would be clueless about comparing them with wine. And besides there are too many wines that could be described the way my car is “Not the most practical, but distinctive, fun-ish”. Even some cheap Bordeaux fits that label. More to the point the wines in this tasting were Aussie Shiraz or blends and exotic foreign cars just didn’t seem to fit the different styles. Still, in hindsight, there was one that you could think of as the new Aussie Supercar, the Bolwell Nagari. “Ahhhh, that’s really good”.

The Shiraz tasting was organized by Chris Davis, a relative and long time wine enthusiast, who feels there is need of improvement in the appreciation of fine wine in the central west of NSW. And he’s determined to do something about it, even if it costs him quite a bit of money and hardly anyone turns up to the tastings he plans. And that is exactly what happened on this evening. Chris turned out an outstanding group of wines, and very few turned up.

The format of the tasting was to be based around my leading the description of a group of wines in the company of a dozen or so wine lovers ranging from neophyte to several serious palates. But as the day drew closer more and more people found something else to do! Maybe it was because there was going to be someone from America leading the tasting of Aussie Shiraz or perhaps it was because the tasting was to occur during the last hectic two weeks before Christmas. Either way, if you didn’t show you, you missed a worthy celebration of Australian wine.

The wines were wrapped in paper and carried different colored dots so that we could match our notes to individual bottles. For all intents and purposes a blind tasting. Well, almost. In a weak moment, Chris had told me that there would be a couple of older wines including a Penfold’s Bin 389 and a Hunter Valley wine. And, maybe one from the Mornington Peninsula. Prior appointments and the favor of the wine Gods meant that only three of us tasted the wines blinded; Chris, Mike(2) and myself. The others who showed up quite a bit later got to pick and choose from the uncovered bottles.

On to the wines First up -
Deep, dense cherry red with red edge. Lovely fruit flavors together with vanilla, pepper and oaky notes. A hint of nail polish (ethyl acetate). Full bodied with very firm tannins and juicy acidity. The latter detracts from the palate appeal. Will need loads of time to come together. 2, 2, 3.5, 9.7=17.2/20, 86/100.

Difficult to tell. Big, so it could be Barrosan. Mike(2) thought Victorian and probably Mornington Peninsula but I’d not tasted a Mornington wine with such firm tannins. So if it was Victorian it was probably more northerly.

Much older wine, very orange/brown at all levels. Nice notes of leather, caramel, a little spice, smoked meats and a touch of earthiness. Palate is soft and supple with great balance and excellent length. Very nice old wine. 2, 2, 3.9, 10.0=17.9/20, 90/100.

Mike(2) was very firm in his opinion that this was Hunter Valley and I was inclined to agree but I knew that there was an aged Bin 389 in the tasting, so I wanted to wait until I’d tasted all the wines.

Dense, deep, dark cherry. Intense color. Very expressive nose of dark fruits, oak and pepper (probably from the alcohol). Beautifully flavored and not adversely affected by a little menthol note coming up with time. Very powerful on the palate with outstanding presence of flavors and great length. Beautiful wine. 2, 2, 4.3, 10.6=18.9/20, 95/100.

No doubt a recent vintage from the Barossa, and (this is cheating) from the bottle weight it has to be Trevor Jones Wild Witch.

Mahogany, great depth of color with a dense browning on the edge. Great complexity with coffee and chocolate predominate. Fuller bodied with wonderful depth and a core of firm tannins, and a lengthy, lengthy finish. The only weak point is that it faded too quickly with time. 2, 2, 4.3, 10.4=18.7/20, 94/100.

OK, this is the Bin 389. That makes the Red dot wine a good candidate for the Hunter.

Dense cherry red with red edge. A little sulfur stink and then it opens to cherry and other red fruits, but presenting a little green in this company. Nice clean acidity focuses the balance in this excellent little wine. 2, 2, 3.4, 10.1=17.5/20, 88/100.

Hmmm, this could well be Mornington Peninsula Shiraz. Its certainly a cooler climate wine.

Deepest color, black at its core with a dark red edge. A big, overpowering, wine with olives, oak and a little chocolate. With time some coffee and tomato paste. Soft and supple on entry but its mouth filling and expressive with great length. Lacks a little on the mid-palate but the flavors carry and the depth and concentration is excellent. It just needs time to fill out a little. 2, 2, 3.7, 10.0=17.7/20, 89/100.

Clearly Barossa but the olive note suggest that its not something I’m familiar with because I don’t find that in Shiraz all that often. (EDIT: Nothing is ever simple with wine. In the last few weeks I’ve had two wines from the Barossa that have had aromas of olives. The 2005 Rusden Ripper Creek (a 60/40 blend of Cabernet sauvignon and Shiraz) and the 2005 Glaymond The Distance Shiraz.)

The wines-
Pink: 2004 Langi Shiraz, Mount Langi Ghiran, Grampians, Victoria, 15% alcohol.
Red:1991 Maurice O’Shea Shiraz, Mount Pleasant, Hunter Valley, NSW. 12.5% alcohol.
Yellow: 2005 Wild Witch Reserve Dry Grown Shiraz, Trevor Jones, Barossa, SA. 14.8% alcohol.
Green: 1996 Bin 389 (Cabernet/Shiraz), Penfolds, SA. 13.5% alcohol.
Orange: 2005 Reserve Shiraz, Paringa Estate, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria. 14.5% alcohol
Brown: 2004 Shiraz, Glaetzer, Barossa, SA. 14.5% alcohol.

A tasting like this leaves little doubt that Shiraz is truly Australia’s top gear of wine. Wines from four different regions, each of which show distinctive character. And two showing how gracefully these wines, from both little (Hunter Valley) and well (Barossa Valley) known regions can age. Aussie Shiraz is simply not all the same, all the time. The next time someone tells you that all Australia does with Shiraz is produce fruit bombs, hit them with a bottle of Maurice O’Shea from the Hunter Valley, and as they reel from that give them the coup de grâce with a heavy weight, the Trevor Jones Wild Witch.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Exiled to Wine Siberia

The last post on Shiraz noted that forums were discussing the news that wine importer The Grateful Palate (TGP) was trimming it portfolio of Australian wines. At that time it was not clear which producers would be affected by the reorganization. The lists of who is still in and who is out were revealed by Dan Philips in letters to his distributors (August 7th) and suppliers (August 14th).

Those still in:
Ashton Hills Vineyard, Ballycroft Vineyards, Battley, Buckshot Vineyard, Burge Family Winemakers, Clarendon, Glaymond, Greenock Creek, Hare’s Chase, Hazyblur, Hobbs Wines, Kalleske/Pirathon, Kay Brothers Amery Vineyards, Lengs & Cooter, Lillypilly, Loan Wines, Majella, Noon Winery, Paringa, R Wines, Red Edge, Ringland Vitners, Rudderless, Samuel’s Gorge, Schutz Barossa, Tim Smith Wines, Trevor Jones, Tscharke, Whistling Eagle, William Downie, The Willows Vineyard

Those out:
Betts & Scholl, Cape D’Estaing, Clos Clare, Digger’s Bluff, Geoff Weaver, Gibson, Henry’s Drive, Hutton Vale, Lashmar, Longhop, Lunar, Mclean’s Farm, Nurioopta High School, Old Plains, Oliver’s Taranga, RBJ, Rockford, Rusden Wines, Scarpantoni, Shirvington, Silesian, Teusner, Torzi Mathews, Troll Creek, Two Way Range, Wild Duck Creek Estate

Philips notes that TGP’s portfolio now consists of “about 25 producers including R wines”. This is a considerable reduction from the zenith of some 70 producers in 2004, and does suggest that the market for Australian wine in the United States has contracted significantly over the last few years. The possible reasons for this loss of interest have been discussed ad nauseam on wine forum and won’t be repeated here. However Dan Philip’s communication to his distributors is worthy of examination because it smacks of a superiority which could lead one to think that Dan Philips has more control over the Australian wine scene than just his current portfolio.

Writing about the wineries that are no longer part of his portfolio Philips noted, “Some of these departed months ago, others in the past days or weeks, but all have been exiled to wine Siberia and will no longer enjoy life in the Distributor Collective of Fine Wines at The Grateful Palate.” Reading this I was immediately struck by three things. The references to loyalty suggested that producers may have left TGP, rather than being purged. And what did he mean by producers being exiled to wine Siberia, and what was this Distributor Collective? Then there is the reference to “party official Robert Farver”! Is Philips trying to establish his own little egalitarian experiment in the world of wine? Does being exiled to wine Siberia mean that producers outside of the collective can expect attempts to freeze them out of the US market? Or is it just an attempt at humor? If the latter is the case then it really is a joke that is in poor taste. Through TGP Dan Philips has been responsible for a considerable growth in imported Australian wine, but that has not come without some criticism. A number of the wines imported by TGP (and others) experienced significant mark-ups on the US market, especially if they received high scores from wine critic Robert Parker. Because of the three tier system in the US its highly questionable whether the Australian producers of these wines received a fair remuneration for their wines. Those profits would have been more likely to go to the importer and distributors with most retailers having to compete amongst themselves to sell wines being offered at, often, ridiculous prices. It is no wonder that the portfolio reduction came about “due to market conditions and a very clear message from virtually all of our distributors”; that reads to as “we have overpriced these wines and so the ones that you can’t distribute we’ll just dump”!

There is something else here that is a little worrying. Through TGP Dan Philips is very generous to those individuals who sell the wines he imports. Its not unusual for him to take a large group of individuals to Australia to explore the wine regions and to taste wine. There is nothing wrong with this. But there is a perception that he is too friendly with some wine critics, particularly a wine critic that has always claimed that his organization always pays it own way and avoids conflicts of interest. There are also rumors out there in the wine world that if you leave TGP then the scores you receive from a certain wine critic may not be all you expect. You have to wonder just how big that wine gulag is in Siberia? It will be interesting to see what scores the critics give to the wines that have ended up in Dan Philips’ wine Siberia. You can be certain that there will be more than just a couple of people following that story.

Fortunately all is not lost for the producers that have been exiled. Some, like Rockford, can’t even satisfy their Australian consumer base. Others have begun new relationships with importers and have seen significant increases in sales. What is more telling is that Australia has over 2,000 wineries and so if you only have 25 of them in your portfolio you might be more out in the cold than you think.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Major Importer of Australian Wines Trimming its Portfolio?

Just a week or two before we left for vacation in July I was offered deep discounts on wines from several Australian producers including J P Belle Terroir, Kay Bros, and Rusden. The reason given for the deep discounts was that the distributor was dropping these wines. I bought a few 6-packs and thought nothing more about it. Then today a thread on eRobert Parker’s Bulletin Board has become embroiled in a discussion about how many producers Dan Philips’ Grateful Palate, a significant importer of Australian wines, is dropping from its portfolio. Guess who imports J P Belle Terroir, Kay Bros, and Rusden?

The discussion on eBob suggests that some 18 brands would be dropped from the Grateful Palate (GP) portfolio. At present its anyone’s guess as to which brands are being cut but the non-GP brands being kept likely include Kalleske, Kays, Tscharke, Noon, Greenock Creek, and Majella. There may be others as well as the Grateful Palate portfolio of Australian producers imported by Dan Philips is long and includes many small wineries that make some outstanding wines. A sampling includes Burge Family, Glaymond, Tim Smith, Scarpantoni Estate, Shirvington, Samuel's Gorge, The Willows, Tim Smith Wines, as well those mentioned above.

The reason for this possible slashing of products is not clear, but both Michael Opdahl (Joshua Tree Imports) and John Gorman (Southern Starz) have contributed lengthy posts on the current difficulties being experienced by those trying to sell Australian wine into the US market; “Australia is one seriously screwed up wine category right now and desperately in need of a major make over.” John Gorman.

I certainly agree with some of the major concerns including the influence of the dramatic increase in the value of the Australian dollar against the greenback over the last 4-5 years and the confusion produced by the sameness of many Australian wines especially those in the $25-50USD price range. Another important concern, reflected somewhat in the sameness of many wines, is the limited exposure of the US market to the diversity of Australian wine. There many be millions of cases of Australian wine brought into the US each year but much of it comes either from the amorphous wine region called South Eastern Australia and/or reflects the lack of knowledge about Australian wine by the American wine consumer. Educating and refining the wine palates of a population as large as the US is a daunting task. For example, here is simple question. How many wine regions (called geographical indicators, GI) are there in Australia? Ten, twenty, thirty? Try 64! Next question – How many can you name?

Wine Australia has made some attempt to expand knowledge of the diversity of Australian wine with their Regional Heroes program but the audience that has some knowledge of how this works is abysmally small. More importantly even if consumers can describe the most important varietal or style from a region and its recognizable characteristics they may still be unconvinced as to why they should pay $50 for a Barossa Shiraz when they can get a Shiraz for $10 from South Eastern Australia. What is needed are clear definitions of why some wines are superior to others. A good example of how this can be achieved is the definition of wine styles for Rutherglen Muscat. If you appreciate this type of wine (as I do) then just a little reading makes very clear to you what defines a Rutherglen Muscat versus a Rare Rutherglen Muscat. A similar type of definition (and code of practice) could be applied to other wine styles. For example the spectrum of Barossa Shiraz could include generic Shiraz that comes from multiple vineyards versus that from single vineyard sites. The age of the vines could also be used to further refine the style. Selection of parcels of grapes or certain barrels could be used to highlight wines that are a wineries’ best exemplar of the region.

A good example of how selection of vineyards and barrels can be used to identify wines of increasing superiority is that used by Wayne Dutschke of Dutschke Wines. The St. Jakobi Shiraz is a single vineyard wine, the "Oscar Semmler" is a blend of the best structured and most mouth filling parcels of Shiraz from the St Jakobi vineyard and represents "the best of the vintage”, while the “Single Barrel Shiraz” is the best barrel from the harvest of the St Jakobi vineyard. That is an easy system to understand both in terms of what each wine represents and why each is priced differently. And no where near as confusing as the R wines of the Grateful Palate.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Striking Terror in the Heart of the Wine Drinker

Last Wednesday night I opened a bottle of Yangarra Estate Vineyard 2005 McLaren Vale Shiraz. A big, powerful wine, heady stuff, but with an unnerving streak of upfront acidity that cut right through the wine to the finish. On Thursday night that acidity made the wine unapproachable and I discarded it in favor of something more suitable for dinner. The Casa Quemada 2004 Syrah from Spain. Uh, oh. The cork came out with a red streak along its length. Pouring the wine into a glass revealed burnt, pruney, notes and a sharp acidity with a distinct note of oxidation on the palate. OK, I thought, its just a poor cork but Miranda’s comment of “It tastes like vinegar” didn’t help. Let’s open something else. How about a Chateauneuf-Du-Pape? The cork on a bottle of Domaine Pontifical (Francois Laget-Royer) 2003 came out stained red all over and the wine, even with its whiff of barnyard, also carried a dominant acidic flavor that sliced the palate to pieces. Simply not a pleasant drink. This was getting worrying. Two wines with evidence of leaking corks, both overly acidic and a third that developed the same character overnight. All three looked like they had prematurely aged. Has the cooling unit in my cellar failed? Normally its not a concern because I’m in and out of the Vintage Keeper almost daily, but we had been away for a month. Had the unit overheated during that time, shut down but then recovered before we came back? Foil cutter in hand, I went back to the cellar, that question gnawing at my gut. The tops came off four random bottles and all showed no signs of leakage. Feeling only slightly less concerned I wandered off to bed, only to lie there wondering if I shouldn’t go and open a couple more bottles. A little flash of wisdom came to me. If the cooling unit had failed and the cellar had heated then the corks on my bottles of vintage Toro Albala Don PX should have leaked because they are pushed in only three-quarters of their length and held there by string. Back to the cellar. Yes, the wine was along the full length of the cork inside the bottle, but there was no leakage. Maybe I’m OK. Let’s sleep on this and open some more wine tomorrow.

Next day. Crunch time. If this wine is stuffed I’m really going to be pissed-off. Encouragingly, the foil cutter crisply cut the top of the capsule and every turn of the Screwpull brought out more and more of a pristine cork marked only the words Penfolds St Henri 2002. Beautiful, but the faint orange/brown edge wasn’t cheering. A little riper and richer than the normal vintage of St Henri but all is in balance. Its not falling over prematurely, in fact, the depth suggests this will keep until the cooling unit does fail! I’m not going to need the Tums tonight. Even more encouraging was a glass of the Domaine Pontifical. Reaching past the poop and the drying tannins, it was now quite drinkable, the acidity subdued by twenty-four hours under vacuum. It looks like I just had a bad run of a few wines. That’s a relief because we have guests this weekend and I’m planning on opening some nice bottles. Still I wish that gnawing in my stomach would go away!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

How Do You Select a Wine?

A recent report by Dr. Liz Thach (Professor of Management and Wine Business, Sonoma State University) suggests that the most important criterion in selecting a wine is having tasted it before, while the least important aspect is an alcohol level that is below 13%. What is interesting about these criteria is that they are almost universally consistent across the globe.

The study was done by universities in Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the United States, and was funded by the Grape and Wine Research Development Corporation (GWRDC) of Australia.

Your Chance to Influence My Wine Drinking

Our annual trip to Oz in early November is in the planning stages. This year its going to be somewhat of a marathon endeavor because we want to see what is left of the Murray River (at least the part that still has water) and so we plan on a road trip visiting NSW, Vic and SA. Naturally wineries will be on the agenda and I’ve put the early list below. We usually aim for about 4 wineries a day simply because I try to organize to spend a couple of hours with the winemaker/cellar door staff to talk about the wines; rather then just belly up to the bar for a few sips and talk about the weather.

There are gaps in the list, especially for Orange and Canberra; and the Clare list is probably too heavy with red wine makers. So if you feel like adding a few names, and the reason why you think we should visit, please do. (NOTE: The numbering is not in any order of preference and we haven't yet make enquiries to the wineries so its not a list of the order we will visit either.)

Orange wineries
1) Canobolas-Smith

Canberra wineries
1) Clonakilla

Rutherglen wineries
1) Buller and Son
2) Campbells
3) Chambers
4) Morris
5) Stanton & Killen

McLaren Vale wineries
1) Marius
2) Mollydooker
3) d’Arenberg
4) Redheads Studio
5) Mitolo

Barossa wineries (Day 1)
1) Dutschke
2) Trevor Jones

Barossa wineries (Day2)
1) Seppeltsfield
2) Tuesner
3) Winter Creek
4) Red Nectar

Clare wineries
1) Kilikanoon
2) Neagles Rock
3) Tim Adams
4) Pike
5) Jim Barry

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Australian Wine Reviews Get a Needed Boost

Two of the more active online sites posting reviews and commentary on Australian wines have announced that they will merge to form what will arguably be the internet site for information on current wine releases and wine news from Australia. The new partnership will be under the banner of Campbell Mattinson’s THE WINE FRONT which came into being in 2002 and has steadily grown to be a major resource for content on Aussie wine, winning the 2005 Wine Press Club Wine Communicator Award, as well as being a two-time finalist at the World Food Media Awards. The other partner is Gary Walsh’s Winorama which over the last three years has achieved the reputation of being a major source of (free) reviews of current release Australian wines. Mattinson and Walsh believe they can publish between 200 and 500 wine reviews each month in addition to the ongoing news and feature articles/videos that formed the foundation of THE WINE FRONT site. There is no online, or even printed, resource which I can think of that has this level of focus on Australian wines. One other feature that will be unique to the new site will be the “Double-Take” review where Mattinson and Walsh review the same wine, side by side. Some examples of this novel format have already been posted.

The merger of these two online sites is excellent news for lovers of Aussie wines. Both Mattinson and Walsh are well known and respected within the Australian wine community with Mattinson in particular being that rare breed of accomplished and enthusiastic wine writer with an excellent palate, and a true if somewhat biased fervor for all things Australian in wine. Walsh, an Englishman, has an excellent palate and his well crafted reviews are often infused with wit. His love of wines from that often neglected wine region, the Hunter Valley, adds a depth to the appreciation of Australian wines that is missing in much of the online and print media.

Subscription to the new site will be $39.95AUD per year. This is an extraordinary value when compared to other media that publish regularly on Australian wines including Winestate, Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Decanter, Australian Gourmet Traveller – WINE, Jeremy Oliver, etc. The only possible competition in the near term would be James Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion because of its wealth of reviews from Halliday’s yearly review of thousands of wines. However the new site, with its reviews of current releases should soon rival Halliday and will be more useful to those wishing to obtain reviews before buying a current release. The site should also eclipse Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate which only publishes once a year on Australian wines and now has a reviewer with far less exposure to the Australian wine scene than either Mattinson or Walsh. The only thing THE WINE FRONT might gain from the Parker model would be a search facility similar to that used on his online site.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Save Miguel?

The Portuguese cork industry has begun an ad campaign designed to argue for the greenness of corks versus screwcaps. But you would be hard pressed to figure that out from the internet campaign which has actor Rob Schneider searching to discover who Miguel is and how to save him.

In Australia the campaign will include a letter to winemakers from cork maker Amorim extolling the ethical virtues of cork. But with 70% of wine bottles in Australia already under screwcap it is going to be hard sell, even if the Girl Guides are onside!.

Perhaps the better question might be - Is Miguel worth saving?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Wine, beer, sausages…….and lots more

The last month was pretty slow here at the Shiraz eBlog. Well, working for a living does have its down side. But a 12,000 word book chapter (no, not on wine) was finished, as were three internet courses at UCSD (no, not on wine), and a new research grant (no, not on wine) has been received. The last means even more time will have to be devoted to non-wine endeavors. But before I get down to working on cutting edge immunology I believe a little R&R might be in order. And so July has been filled with a jam packed agenda.

First we will be jetting to Chicago to (briefly) check out some Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. Nope, sorry. No wine there either. Then it will be off to St Louis to cross the swollen Mississippi into Illinois for the July 4th family reunion. There is a nascent plan to visit a few Illinois wineries, and taste wines from some of the less well known varieties, and native American grapes. Expectations that we will find great wine are not high, which is why there is a plan to travel with a case of wine from the cellar. I’m hoping we do find some drinkable Illinois wine because that box of wine is really destined for London, England where we will consume some with friends and then take the rest on the Carnival Splendor for a cruise to St Petersburg, Russia. Of course traveling does make one thirsty and its quite possible that we will consume all of the box of wine in London. In that case there will be nothing for it but to visit some of the local wine shops to restock. Plans are being laid for visits to Philglas & Swiggot (in Marylebone), Berry Brothers & Rudd, and Fortnum and Mason.

Naturally one cannot visit England without sampling some sausages and so while we are in Marylebone we will also be dropping by Biggles Gourmet Sausage shop and The Ginger Pig to purchase some bangers, snags and mystery bags. I’ll bet there are some that go with a big Aussie Shiraz and a BBQ! But BBQ or no, one cannot sample sausage and mash without the presence of a cleansing ale and so at some point I’m hoping we can fit in a trip to The George Inn to do just that. And while we are there we might as well pay a visit to the nearby Market Porter; after all its real close to the Borough Market where The Ginger Pig has a stall of all its current sausages. And just to be true to The Thirsty Traveller we will complete the trifecta by visiting The Lord Clyde.

Now it has come to my attention that others (notably my wife, Miranda) are laying plans of their own. These include various London Walks, and a visit to Bath, as well as dinner with Irish cousins. The latter group is not known to appreciate BIG wines, but with pleasure there is always a little pain! Basically that means me offering everyone a monster alcohol wine, just on the off chance that someone might like it!

The cruise highlights will probably be finding time to read several wine books, including Benjamin Wallace’s “The Billionaire’s Vinegar”, George Taber’s "To Cork or Not to Cork" and Alice Feiring’s “The Battle for Wine and Love”. The cruise will not disembark us at any notable wine destinations and even though the ship does have a wine bar I’m not expecting any wine epiphanies onboard, that is unless we can get enough wine in our luggage and the luggage of friends to make the dinners just that little bit more out of the ordinary.

And who knows, I might even blog about some of this!

Friday, May 23, 2008

New High-tech Wine Cap Design: An advance, Or...

A competition, called Big Bang, founded in 2000 by students at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management has awarded its top prize of $15,000 to a design for a new wine bottle closure that would allow the wine to breathe much like traditional bark corks.

The folks behind this certainly seem to have all the knowledge and experience needed to do this.

Their team, Advanced Enological Closures, set out to design a better bottle cap because cork taint, a byproduct of a fungus that infects cork and makes wine smell like moldy mop water or sweaty gym socks, now contaminates the corks of an estimated one in 20 wine bottles on store shelves, ruining billions of dollars of wine annually. Although synthetic corks have been developed in response to the problem, they allow too much oxygen into the bottle, according to Keller. Overly oxidized wine has a shorter shelf life and can develop a fingernail-polish odor. Screw caps -- another alternative to bark corks -- are a viable option for wine white, but do not allow in enough oxygen for fine red wines, Keller said. Without enough oxygen to draw on, red wines start to smell like burned rubber or matchsticks as they age. LINK

But wait! The idea does seem a bit strange, especially given that oxygen is the enemy of wine.

The team's design, a "breathing screw cap," has small vent holes and is fitted with a liner made of alternating layers of thin metal and a porous polymer. The liner can be customized to allow optimal oxidation for specific varietals, something that is impossible with bark corks. A patent is pending for the design.

"If you open up lots of bottles of the same wine, you'll notice variability from bottle to bottle because of differences in the amount of oxygen that gets in," Keller said. "With cork, you just never know. Our product will give a level of control that the wine industry has never had."

Then there was this.

Keller's design offers the prospect of a cap that eliminates the worry about taint while still letting in oxygen.

His team's patent-pending design – which so far lacks a catchy name – is a 5-cent disc that fits beneath a screw cap. Made from alternating layers of polyethylene – the same material used to make sandwich bags – and perforated aluminum or tin, it can be fine-tuned to match the oxygen demands of different varietals.

"Pinot noir needs a little, cabernet sauvignon needs a lot," Keller said.

That last statement sounds just a little, no make that a lot, like rubbish. It is known that oxygen levels can vary among different grape varieties, but that has been demonstrated during the winemaking process. To my knowledge there is no evidence that different grape varieties require different levels of infusible oxygen during aging. To reconfirm just how important a lack of oxygen is to wine I turned to the best source of knowledge on screwcaps, Tyson Stelzer. Here is a little of what he wrote in 2007.

The question of the ageing rate of wines in screw cap has been a hot topic of late. It is my belief that the rate at which mature notes (or "characters," as we say Down Under) develop in screw-capped wines is in fact absolutely no different to that under traditional closures. This is evidenced by the fact that wines under screw cap age at a similar rate to those with the very best corks. For a wine under an average cork, however, oxidation effects give the impression of accelerated ageing, which has led to the notion that wines mature slower under screw caps. I believe that the absence of oxidized characters in screw-capped wines gives the mistaken impression of slower ageing.


More criticism has been levelled at screw caps by the media in relation to reductive characters than any other fault. I encourage you to view these accusations objectively and judge for yourself. If there is a causal link between screw caps and reductive characters, as some claim, then we should be tasting more reductive wines under screw cap than under cork.

Check it out for yourself, but my experience, and that of hundreds of experts with whom I have had this conversation, is quite the opposite. In my own tastings in recent years, comprising thousands of predominantly Australian and New Zealand wines, I have encountered more reductive wines under cork than I have under screw cap.

The managing director of the AWRI, Professor Sakkie Pretorius, commented recently that "The idea that there is a high incidence of post-bottling reduction in wines sealed with screw caps is a false premise. With Australian wines, where the AWRI has particular expertise, this is demonstrably not the case…. Our position, which we believe is undeniable, remains that the propensity of a wine to develop 'reductive' aromas post-bottling is a function of the wine, and that post-bottling reduction is not the 'fault' of the closure but may be exacerbated by the closure if the wine has a propensity for such aromas to develop."

"In his Screw Cap Symposium presentation, Peter Godden discussed data from one of our AWRI Advanced Wine Assessment Courses which indicates a higher incidence of reduction in wines sealed with cork compared to wines sealed with screw caps. Two subsequent courses have provided similar data."

That seems pretty clear to me.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Len Evans Tutorial

In a previous post I mentioned that one of the major (and hopefully) lasting contributions of the great Len Evans to Australian, and indeed world, wine was a five day tutorial. Held annually since 2001 The Len Evans Tutorial hosts 12 selected scholars to a stunning array of wines. But its just not about drinking fine wine. Each day starts with the blind tastings, and judging, of 30 varietal wines. In the afternoon there are masterclasses focusing on recent vintages of the greatest wines of France, Italy, Spain and Germany. Dinner is a more relaxed affair comprising five or more brackets of wines, some 40 or more years old. On the final morning the six red Burgundies of the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti are presented blind, and each scholar has to identify the vintage, and the six Appellation Controlees from which they respectively come. The complete wine list for the 2007 tutorial was an amazing collection of wines.

Want to be part of what James Halliday has called "the most exclusive wine school in the world"? All you have to do is apply to be one of the dozen selected.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Think you know Australian Wine?

Consider yourself an expert on Aussie wine? Able to identify the characteristics of a Rutherglen Fortified, an Eden Valley Riesling, or a Semillon from the Hunter? Think you know the difference between a Shiraz from the Barossa, McLaren Vale and the Grampians? Then you should be a star when you take Wine Australia’s Regional Heroes Tasting Challenge.

If taking the challenge is a little too daunting, or you don't know all that much about Aussie wine then click on the Taste Chart and drag and drop the different wine styles to learn about their characteristics.

UPDATE: I made one error for each of Barossa Valley GSM, Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc, Margaret River Chardonnay, Grampians Shiraz, Yarra Valley Pinot Noir, and Great Southern Riesling. Not bad but 14/20 correct ain't fantastic. I take some consolation in the fact that my errors are with wines that I have not seen a lot of, except what's with not knowing Margaret River Chardy?