It's Time to Rediscover Australian Wines

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Attending one of the largest wine tastings that featured wines from the many different regions in Australia has to be one of my highlights for the year. Featuring over 500 wines from nearly a hundred different wineries brought together under one roof. Wow!

A little history lesson first. With my foray into wines back around the turn of the century (that’s 2000, not the 1900’s) I remember when the Aussie’s started breaking into the wine markets in the U.S. Sought after for their smooth style and generous fruit, it was a combination that satisfied a good bit of the American wine drinkers, myself included. Most notable and interesting are two wines from different price points that cemented my love of their wines. The first, sort of the holy grail of wine finds, I recollect finding a Jacob’s Creek Cab/Syrah blend in the closeout bin of a local wine shop, all of $3.99. No one in the store had tasted it but at that price, it was worth buying a bottle. It was so good I went back to buy more the next day and unfortunately told the staff how good it was. The following morning Wine Spectator ran it as their Daily Wine Pick under $10 with, from what I recall, a 91 Point review. Back to the shop but this time I’m too late! Sold Out! My mention and Spectator’s review cleared the decks of all remaining bottles. I’ve never learned to buy in quantity.

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The other wine is now like an old friend. There when you need it and always ready to please. From d’Arenberg and their 1998 vintage I bought some of their wine called “The Dead Arm”; 100% Shiraz from the McLaren Vale; a big juicy and seductive wine. It was the wine that started me down the road to seek out more Australian wines, and I found plenty.

While “The Dead Arm” was always on my radar, click here for my recent review of 2015, a few years later the wines coming from that same continent started to diminish in quality. Mostly just fruit bombs with no character, counting on their marketing prowess to move the wines using what would later be called “critter wines” for the numerous animals that would grace the labels of so many wines. But labels can’t always make up for quality or drinkability. The wines started falling out of favor.

Never to just give up on any region, I still kept a watchful eye on what was coming into our shops from Australia. As expected, I would find a wonderful wine to bring to my table from time to time. Most, as I remember, came from a handful of producers who had always excelled and were present at the tasting. Things seemed to be picking up a few years ago. A steady stream of good to great vintages combined with a renewed interest and focus on creating great wines for the consumer seemed to dominate the tasting.

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Australia has always been a very innovating wine country. Trying new varietals and blends, winemaking processes and with labels that range from the more traditional to those reflecting eye-catching themes as I stated earlier. Herein lays the beginning of my problem in writing about this tasting. So many wines, so little time (well, to be fair it was a 3 hour tasting) and for someone who NEVER spits, a real effort on my part not to, shall we say, over-imbibe (not to worry, I took the train into the city and since the local station is so close to my house, I walked there and back as well. Truth be told, I was fine the entire time).

So a little charting a little addition and I think I’ve come up with the best way to move forward. Regionality would seem to be the best fit and since I’m all about the past with a dash of the present, I’m going to highlight some of those producers that have been a constant through the years with a dash of a couple wineries that are a beaut mate (my attempt at being an Aussie).

Staring with South Australia and due to the fact that many of the first wines of substance came from the areas of Adelaide, McLaren Vale, Barossa, and Coonawarra I’ll then follow that with Western Australia and Victoria. We shouldn’t forget New South Wales, Tasmania, and Queensland, but no wines did I try from those areas.

Responsible for more than half of Australia’s wine production, South Australia is a hodgepodge of climates as well as both valley and higher elevation sites and soil types; thus the ability to grow so many different types of varietals. Some of the most familiar and successful wineries have emerged from South Australia; those I’m focused on to be Henschke, Hickenbotham, Penfolds, Torbreck, and Yalumba and out of order because I’ve already mentioned them, d’Arenberg.

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Notable wines from each and every one are 100% approved by me are Henschke’s “Johann’s Garden” from Barossa a blend of Grenache and Mataro, from Eden Valley (also South Australia) their “Mount Edelstone” Shiraz. Unfortunately, they did not have their “Hill of Grace” Shiraz open for tasting but achieves near perfect scores. As one of the Sixth Generational Henscheke’s, Justine, their marketing & public relations manager was pouring the wines. Even at her young age her accomplishments are many. Along with her vast wine education she has an Advanced Diploma in Arts (Acting) and a Bachelor of Commerce (Marketing). She has also judged wine competitions. Wine runs in the family, you can almost take that literally.

Hickinbotham Clarendon Vineyard (once called Clarendon Hills – easy to remember as there’s a suburb here in Illinois by the same name) from the McLaren Vale are now part of the Jackson Family since 2012 with the wines being made by Chris Carpenter (the same winemaker for Cardinale, a post from a day or so ago). Outstanding wines from both owners for years; this is a winery to seek out. Stephen Gonda, the Sales and Marketing Manager for the winery, poured me two examples of their phenomenal wines; “Brooks Road” Shiraz and the “Trueman” Cabernet Sauvignon, both receiving high acclaim, which is well deserved. Stephen was most informative (I guess you’d expect that from a person in his station) when I questioned the name and ownership change and my familiarity with the winery as well as other tidbits of useful information.

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I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the likes of Penfolds. Their “Bin 389” Cab/Shiraz Blend as well as “Bin 407” Cabernet Sauvignon, both excellent wines, both 90 Plus wines. BUT, the real topper was the 2015 “Grange.” A stellar wine with almost perfect scores year after year and the iconic wine from Penfolds.

Another Barossa winery I knew not to miss was Torbreck Vintners. A few days before the event they were listed in Wine Spectator’s Advance under the Producer Spotlight. As luck would have it, some of those wines happened to be at the tasting. “Hillside,” (Grenache) “The Factor,” (Shiraz) “The Steading,” (Grenache, Shiraz, and Mataro) and “The Struie” (Shiraz); my notes mentioning how each is lush, full-bodied and smooth. Great timing!

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Then there’s Yalumba; one of, if not, the oldest family-run winery in Australia. It is also a giant in the wine production area. With a plethora of varietals and styles, Yalumba sells nearly one million cases annually; it’ll be over a million by the time I’ve written this post! Three of their outstanding “Rare & Fine Collection” of wines happened to be available; “The Signature” (Cabernet/Shiraz), “The Menzies” (Cabernet Sauvignon) and “The Octavius” (Shiraz). The wine all being poured by the Brand Manager for that collection, Jessica Hill-Smith. Now at the time I wasn’t that familiar with family names and such. Upon my return and doing a little more investigating work, I found that Robert Hill-Smith took the reins back in 1985. Hum, same last names, at least one generation between them, I’m now thinking that this may be the daughter of the now Chairman-of-the-Board. Duh!

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The last South Australian winery I’ll mention before moving on (yes, there’s more), is d’Arenberg. This was another oops moment for me. Behind the table is this gentleman with even longer hair than mine pouring the wines. Now to my benefit, I THOUGHT he might be involved with the winery from my previous research. The fourth generational owner and winemaker at d’Arenberg, Chester Osborn stood there happily greeting everyone. Just when I wasn’t sure I could look more stupid, I blurted out and asked how long he had been winemaker. “35 years” he responded, my only hope of redemption was to tell him that I had been a fan of “The Dead Arm” since just prior to 2000, somewhat hoping to make myself seem more like a groupie than an idiot. Can’t say for sure if it worked or not.

Western Australia is the largest state but only contributes about 3% of the countries wine production. Although it accounts for over 20% of the premium wines produced in Australia. Identified by the legendary Robert Mondavi in 1972, the Leeuwin vineyards was regarded as one of the best sites for premium wine production, which owners Denis and Tricia Horgan agreed and set about to produce the same. Slightly cooler climate, lower rainfall, and a low diurnal and a seasonal temperature range gives the wines their power and finesse. Leeuwin was also one of the first wineries I sought out, primarily due to their “Art Series” Chardonnay. Every year receiving critical acclaim. I love a good Chard. It was there, it was delicious! Their second and third lines “Prelude” and “Siblings” both provide quality and affordability.

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Vasse Felix, while not a newcomer to Western Australia, is a label that has only started to receive notoriety, at least from what I’ve seen. Interestingly, around 2005 the winery appointed Virginia Willcock as Chief Winemaker. Digging a little deeper, it was right around that time that the wines seemed to develop not only more interest but attaining serious scores from various reviewers. Coincidence, I think not as Virginia was the one pouring the wines this day. Her passion and love for the wines showing through with each pour. She is also one of the most awarded female winemakers in Australia with too many honors to mention without extending this post another thousand words or so. Three Chardonnays graced the palate; the “Margaret River,” “Filius” and “Heytesbury.” Each a step above the other, but none left behind! The “Heytesbury” showing gorgeous fruit with that touch of oak balancing the wine; a World Class (or should I say Glass) wine. While I haven’t talked up the reds as much from the Margaret River, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a suburb wine; a blend of 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Malbec and 2% Petit Verdot, this wine is named after Dr. Thomas Brendan Cullity who founded the winery in 1967, the Vasse Felix 2015 Tom Cullity. The wine shows impeccable balance of fruit and rustic qualities making this full-bodied wine a joy now and for many years to come. Another great producer from the Margaret River.

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The cool climate region of Victoria, more specifically the Yarra Valley, is known for its Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, and that’s just what I found from producer Giant Steps, a newer addition to the Aussie wineries. Joining Giant Steps in 2003 as their Head Winemaker, Steve Flamsteed, was there to pour his wines. Focusing on single-vineyard wines and mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, they do produce a couple of other wines, Syrah (yes, they do use Syrah not Shiraz), a red blend, a Viognier, and even a Vermouth, none of those were there to taste. Two Chardonnays started the lineup. The “Sexton Vineyard” and the “Wombat Creek Vineyard.” Both excellent but maybe just a slight nod to the “Wombat Creek Vineyard” for a fuller wine and tremendous balance. The Pinot Noirs consisted of the “Applejack Vineyard,” “Sexton Vineyard” and the (here we go again) “Wombat Creek Vineyard.” Once again, my fav was the “Wombat Creek.” A little digging and I found that Wombat Creek is actually the highest elevation vineyard in the Yarra Valley, that must have something to do with it. Some excellent wines coming from this producer and head winemaker although very limited in production.

So for those of you still awake and alert; thank you, for the others, sleep tight. Joking aside, this is the time to rediscover Australian wines. There is probably a fair amount of wines out there. While looking towards those wineries that have been a staple and persistent in quality, don’t overlook some of the newer labels as they are some of the innovators producing a fresh style of wine.

Cheers