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 CafĂ© 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.