Thursday, August 20, 2009

Australian Wine is Boring

Perhaps its just because I’m Australian that I find myself scratching my head in frank puzzlement when someone says that “Australian wine is boring”. Its just so hard to believe. Such a statement cannot come from someone who has tasted across the diversity of Australian wines, can it? It must be because there has not been enough exposure because the variety that comes from 50 plus wine regions and thousands of wineries is simply mind boggling. How can I be sure? Well I’ve tasted wines from regions in South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, The Australian Capital Territory, Western Australia, and Tasmania. Reds, whites, desserts, sparkling, warm climate, cool climate, high elevation, and low elevation, mass produced and exclusive boutique. With such variety its just too hard to make everything boring!

Who would say that French wine, or Italian wine or even Californian (let alone the whole of the USA) wine is boring? Wine from any country covers a spectrum from undrinkable to nectar, so how can one country’s contribution be boring. I suppose if you were just drinking a narrow spectrum of very similar wines then you might begin to think that everything tastes the same and get bored with the similarity. And its quite possible that if you buy your Australian wine outside the island continent that you do suffer from a lack of choice. Its also possible that some Aussie wines from South Australia especially those from Barossa and McLaren Vale do have a sameness about them. But isn’t that to be expected? Those two regions are not that dissimilar, especially when compared with the Grampians, or the Pyrenees, or Mornington Peninsula.

There actually is no simple way to get a true idea of the diversity of Australian wine without visiting the country itself. But the next best thing might be to look at what wines Australians collect. The Wine Ark among other things stores wine for Australian wine collectors and it has cellars in Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, Sunshine Coast and Perth. That means they cover the largest population areas of the country and so would have a pretty good sampling of what is popular in Australia. They have just surveyed the more than 3,000,000 bottles of wine in their cellars that comprise over 8500 collections across the country to discover Australia’s Most Collected Wine. It comes as no surprise that the most collected wine is Penfolds Grange but the other 49 wines in the top 50 are likely to raise some eyebrows especially here in the USA.

From my point of view the most interesting list is that of the Top 10 Collected Shiraz wines, seven of which come from South Australia which has all those hot nasty regions producing all those syrupy, goopy wines. I’ve tasted all ten wines with the exception of the Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier. You could do a whole lot worse than build a collection of Aussie Shiraz around the wines listed. Mind you I have only one in my cellar, the Penfolds St Henri Shiraz, but then I do have a bunch of other Shiraz that cover the full range of diversity if not regionality.

Here are the Top 10 Shiras by ranking and region.
1 Penfolds Bin 95 Grange Shiraz -Various Regions - SA
2 Penfolds St Henri Shiraz -Various Regions - SA
3 Rockford Basket Press Shiraz - Barossa Valley
4 Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz - Various Regions - SA
5 d'Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz - McLaren Vale
6 Penfolds RWT Shiraz - Barossa Valley
7 Jasper Hill Georgia's Paddock Shiraz - Heathcote
8 Henschke Mount Edelstone Shiraz - Eden Valley
9 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier - Canberra District
10 Dalwhinnie Moonambel Shiraz - Pyrenees

The survey resulted in Top 10 Collected lists for Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Semillon. Take the lists to your favorite wine shop and see what they have. I’m currently drinking the 2005 Petaluma Piccadilly Chardonnay from the Adelaide Hills of South Australia that I picked up for the ridiculous discounted price of $12.99USD.

A word of warning. Don’t rush out and buy the recent vintages of these wines to consume tonight because the list is of cellared wines which often show their best, depending upon the wine, after a few to many years of maturity. And remember this is just 60 or so of thousands upon thousands of wines, so if at first you don’t find what you like keep looking!

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Should Wine be Bottled like Beer?

In the most recent issue of Wines and Vines English wine writer Jamie Goode has a very readable article on Oxygen and Wine. Jamie covers several aspects including a research initiative being funded by Nomacorc, bottle closures and the technology being used to measure oxygen in wine. One of his conclusions is that the variability of oxygen pickup during bottling can be a significant problem for wine. But the most interesting point he discusses is that the beer industry has spent considerable time and effort to avoid the presence of oxygen in its product. In relating this to wine Jamie notes

George Crochiere gives some examples of the sorts of levels of oxygen that might be introduced to wine bottles during different filling procedures. In the worst-case scenario, a gravity-filled bottle sealed with a cork without any vacuum will pick up 2.6ppm oxygen during filling and have a further 1.8ppm oxygen in the headspace, giving a total of 4.4ppm.

If a vacuum filler is used and the headspace is evacuated, this figure will fall to just under 1ppm. If a screwcap is used and the bottle is filled using a vacuum filler, then pick-up in bottle filling is 0.6ppm. If liquid nitrogen dosing is used, headspace pickup is 0.7ppm; without this it is as high as 4.75ppm, giving an initial TPO (Total Pack Oxygen) of 5.36ppm. Crochiere points out that in the beer industry, the best-run bottling lines give oxygen pick-ups of between 0.05 and 0.15ppm, while average lines are 0.2-0.4ppm.

Obviously bottling under a vacuum and using a screwcap cuts the level of oxygen dramatically but not to the level of the best bottling achieved with beer. Even an average beer bottling line reaches levels that are better than the best wine practices. So why is wine not bottled like beer?

Clearly one argument is that we still don’t know what level of oxygen wine requires especially for maturation (cellaring). And we also don’t know whether different wines may need different levels of oxygen when placed in bottle. There are companies producing liners for screwcap that allow different levels of oxygen to pass. Different levels of oxygen, that does make the imagination wander. Just picture, one day Penfolds Grange may come in screwcaps of different colors. One color will signify a liner that allows little or no oxygen ingress/egress so you can cellar the wine for decades, another color may signify a liner that allow a little oxygen to enter so that maturation is hastened over a decade or less, and another may let in even more so that you can quaff your Grange as soon as you get it home from the wine store. And, of course, seeing as the Fosters Group makes both beer and wine your Grange for the cellar is likely to come with a twist top crown seal!

Saturday, August 01, 2009

1299 Bottles of Beer on the Wall

There was time when beer was the only alcoholic beverage I drank. That was back when beer in the Student’s Union bar at ANU was a cheap 20 cents a glass (10 oz) or a $1 for a jug. Before I graduated I had moved on to spirits with Canadian Club being a favorite. Although the Scottish father of one girlfriend was always trying to convert me to Scotch, even at his daughter’s wedding reception! During those days wine was just starting to interest me. It became the primary focus only after I had a job and money to spend.

Decades later my exposure to beer usually means a Corona when Miranda and I have a quiet lunch or dinner at one of the local restaurants. But my interest in beer has been reignited after I met an Englishman in Washington, DC! It all came about when 20 of us sat around a table trying to figure out which research laboratories were the most deserving of government largess. After 10 hours of restrained squabbling it was time for dinner. Lebanese food and Lebanese wine, a passable start to the evening. But what to do next, walk back to the hotel, seek out an ice cream parlor, or follow the Englishman to a pub where he said they serve over a thousand beers. The English are not known for exaggeration but a thousand beers? Three of us decided to check it out, one because like the Englishman he makes his own home brews and the other two because we were thirsty.

What we found after a not insignificant walk on a rainy night was a covered stairway leading up to what looked like a house and turned out to be what can only be described as a dingy, dark bar. This didn’t look good but the dirty carpet, worn floorboards and smell of stale beer didn’t slow down the Englishman. Down to the bar only to find that there was no space. Up to the main floor where he found us a table cramped up against a wall, surrounded by tables of 20 somethings coddling all manner of beer glasses and bottles. Beer bottles and cans were everywhere as were beer posters and signs. A waitress placed a small booklet in front of each of us and said she would be back to take our orders. The Englishman was not exaggerating. There were 10 pages of beers with at least 100 per page. There were beers from Albania to Wales. The beers from Belgium alone covered almost two pages. Australia had two, two beers that is. There was one beer from a country called Tasmania! I didn’t want to point out the obvious because the list did split England, Scotland and Wales.

I started with a St Peter’s Old Style Porter (10.9 oz for $10.95USD) and followed that with a Daleside Old Leg Over cask ale (16.9 oz for $10.95USD). I was just warming up for a shot at a Thomas Hardy’s or JW Lees vintage ale when it was decided that we all needed to be sane and sober for another day of deciding who was worthy of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money.

But I’ll be back!

The Brickskeller was begun in 1957 with 51 different beers. In 2002 it held the Guinness World Record for the most varieties of beer commercially available, a crown which, I believe, is now held by the Delirium Cafe in Brussels; they serve over 2,400 different beers. The Brickskeller claims to be the Mother Church of Beer and to have served over 6000 different beers. With George Washington University close by you could call it a cross between a university bar and a dark, slightly unkempt, English pub. But whatever you want to call it, it’s definitely worth a visit.

I said I’ll be back but in truth I only get to DC two, sometimes three times a year. That means relying on the Brickskeller to quench my new found interest in beer could leave me might dry. Fortunalely San Diego does have its own version of the Brickskeller called South Bay Drugs and Liquor. Drugs and liquor in one place? Well this is California.

South Bay Drugs and Liquor began life as a drug store (or Chemist for those outside the USA) but has grown a sizable listing of 300 or so local and international beers, including vintage ales. Now I know where to get that JW Lees vintage ale.