Archive for the ‘Review Australian wine’ Category

Announcing the Pizza Wine Wars!

pizzaFake wars seem to be hot these days. If you turn on your TV, you  can see Bridal Wars (about bitchy brides), Parking Wars (about bitchy parking meter attendants), and even Cupcake Wars (about… cupcakes). I’m not kidding: you can apparently make a war out of anything.

If you’ve seen any of these shows, you know they’re all based on the premise that you can generate hysterically overwrought competitive fervor by pitting one boring thing against another, and offering a cash prize to the winner.

My War is anything but boring. Its mission is to find the World’s Greatest Wine To Drink With Pizza. That’s a tall order, since there are many, many worthy candidates out there, and it’ll take a lot of drinking to choose the winner. But I’m up for the challenge. Put me in, coach!

I already have one worthy candidate, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. You can click here to read the entire post about Garnacha de Fuego, but let me just say that it’s a kick-ass Spanish red that was born to marry pizza, or for that matter, any red sauce dish.

Last night I found another contender. I had a Hawaiian pizza in front of me (ham and pineapple, a relic of my college days) and popped (or rather, unscrewed) a new Australian Cabernet. I usually like Aussie Cab — lots of punch for the buck. This one is called Woop Woop Cabernet woopSauvignon 2009, and it’s made by a group of  seemingly crazy Aussies in the McLaren Vale district. At least they seem crazy, because on their website they say stuff like, “Do ya reckon he went all the way to Bullamakanka? Cut it out. He wouldn’t have gotten within a cooee of Woop Woop.” Huh?

Gotta love those Aussies.  Woop Woop is apparently an Australian expression similar to our BFE (do I need to explain?), so they say their wines are “Out there from Out There.” This Cab’s grapes are sourced from remote vineyards in South Australia, including McLaren Vale and Langhorne Creek. Both sites feature topography that creates a substantial cooling influence, producing very good acid in the fruit.

So that’s why this works so well with pizza! The bright acid in this wine hits the natural acid in the tomato sauce and the whole thing ignites the fruit in the wine. It caught me by surprise, because the nose is pretty restrained, showing just tart red currant and cranberry. But the fruit on the palate is rich and intense, suggesting black raspberry, dark cherries and blackberry. When I sipped the Woop Woop with my pizza’s sweet pineapple and smoky ham, I thought I was in heaven.

Woop Woop Cabernet weighs in at 15% alcohol, so it’s no lightweight. But that great acid keeps it from being heavy or jammy, and gives it great balance. It really is an amazing bottle for $12 or so. And here’s one final kicker — there’s no oak in this wine, but you won’t miss it. The rich, tangy fruit is all you’ll need.

Make sure you send a comment if there’s a wine you want to enter in the Pizza Wine Wars, and Cheers!

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Elegance and Balance: Hesketh “The Protagonist” Shiraz 2008


Label artwork for The Protagonist by Hamish Macdonald

Restraint isn’t something we’ve come to expect from Australian wines. There are plenty of 15 and 15.5% Aussie Shiraz that bowl over your palate and senses with intense fruit, oak, and alcohol.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that — there are times when I revel in the sheer excess of it all (see my review of Some Young Punks wine,“Taking Excess to the Extreme”).

But after basking for awhile in the hedonistic pleasures of such wines, reason (and shame) eventually bring me back to the balance point: i.e. that elusive place where fruit, alcohol, and tannin are all in perfect balance.

I drank a wine recently that struck me as pretty close to the balance point. In a wine bar in Arizona, I ordered a Shiraz I’d never seen before — Hesketh “The Protagonist” Barossa Valley Shiraz 2008. I know Barossa’s warm climate can produce blockbuster Shiraz, so I prepared my nose and palate for some monster fruit. Read the rest of this entry »

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Great Value “Second Label” Shiraz from Australia: Four Sisters Shiraz

4 sistersTrevor Mast is a great Australian winemaker whose wines have made it to the front cover of Wine Spectator magazine, alongside the likes of Penfold’s Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace. His wines and wineries have all the credibility they’ll ever need.

Trevor is also known as a pioneer of cool-climate viticulture, which is evidenced by the boatload of awards and high ratings that he’s won over the years for his Mount Langi Ghiran wines. Langi Ghiran was his first and flagship  winery, which he bought in 1987, but he created Four Sisters Winery in the mid-1990′s so he could offer a line of wines that was stylish but sophisticated and appealed to a younger crowd, i.e. the Millennial Generation. He had several Millennials at home — his four daughters — and they’re the namesakes for the winery.

To give you a bit of backstory, Mast was first bitten by the wine bug when he was 20 years old, and honed his skills in viticulture and winemaking with a four-year stint in Germany. It may seem like it’s a long way from German Riesling to Australian Shiraz, but the remote region of Victoria where Mast’s vineyards lie can be just as challenging for its cool temperatures.sisters

The cool-climate growing conditions of Victoria province are obvious in the Four Sisters Shiraz 2008 that I enjoyed yesterday. It stands apart from most other $15 and under Shiraz because it’s not just fruity and jammy. The acid produced by the cool temperatures makes it bright and snappy, and the 4% Viognier blended right in during fermentation keeps the fruit bright and fragrant. The 2008 vintage in particular produced rich and intense flavors in the berries. There’s certainly plenty of Shiraz’ trademark black raspberry fruit in this wine, but it’s joined by spice, vanilla and that tangy finish.

This would be a great food wine, and I’d love to taste it with spicy red sauce or maybe red Chile. Do yourself a favor and find this or any other Four Sisters wine and give it a try. I’m going to do the same. Cheers!

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Top 100 Accessible Wines: D’Arenberg Stump Jump GSM

d arenbergTop 100 lists can be a pain in the anatomy. They’re published annually by the major wine review magazines, and every year they generate huge demand for the all the wines on the list. Unfortunately, most of those wines were sold out before the list was published, and thirsty consumers everywhere are doomed to be frustrated when they can’t buy any of the wines. (You can read my frustrated rantings in a previous article, What’s Wrong With Top 100 Lists.)

There are a few exceptions, and one of them is Australia’s d’Arenberg winery, which appears on the lists with amazing regularity. These folks (do they call them “blokes” down there?) have been making wine since the late 1800′s. They are clearly not Johnny-Come-Lately’s, or a Flash In the Pan. These guys have been doing it right for well over 100 years. I’ve sold and enjoyed many of their Shiraz, Shiraz blends and Cabernets, but their most humble wines keep showing up in, of all places, the Top 100 lists. Last year’s Wine Spectator Top 100 list included d’Arenberg’s Stump Jump Shiraz 2008. This was a cheap, cheerful Shiraz that was fruity and well-balanced. I’ve been able to sell lots of it, because the winery apparently “declassified” some juice from a  more expensive Shiraz in order to bottle more of the Stump Jump. That’s a a win-win situation for wine drinkers and the winery too.

And lo and behold, this year’s Wine Spectator Top 100 list included d’Arenberg’s Stump Jump Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvedre 2008. Wow. Top 100, two years in a row. Read the rest of this entry »

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A Response to Randall Grahm on NPR


Last Sunday I tuned into National Public Radio about halfway through one of my favorite shows — The Splendid Table. There’s usually lots of interesting talk about food and sometimes twine, and this week the host was interviewing Randall Grahm, who is a very well respected California winemaker and wine industry leader, as well as the creator of the Bonny Doon label. He was apparently promoting his new book, “Been Doon So Long,” but I turned on my radio (i.e. got into my car, which is where I always listen to NPR), while Grahm was talking about Australian Shiraz.

Actually, he wasn’t just “talking,” he was criticizing Aussie Shiraz. He seemed to be suggesting that it’s substandard wine that has no redeeming qualities, not even as an entry level wine to launch beginning wine drinkers on a road that will eventually lead them to better quality wines. He was comparing Aussie Shiraz to French Syrah, and saying the folks Down Under pale by comparison.

Now there’s LOTS of Australian Shiraz out there, everything from tooty-fruity slightly sweet stuff to very serious and highly-rated wines. Does he really mean they’re all bad — that the output of an entire continent is questionable? And if Aussie Shiraz is all bad, is French Syrah really all good? Read the rest of this entry »

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High Alcohol Wines: Go Big or Go Home

bigI’ve heard it both ways: I’ve talked to smart, passionate Australian winemakers who say, “We  CAN’T make low alcohol wines: our grapes aren’t even ripe until they achieve the equivalent of 15% (give and take) alcohol.” And I’ve heard more “traditional” winemakers say, “No wine, under any circumstances, should be more than 13.5% alcohol.” So who’s right? Or is anyone really “right”?

I think this whole debate started with the Old World winemakers (you know, those guys in France, Italy, and Germany) who were jealous of our New World wines. They said our Cabernets and Chardonnays, not to even speak of our Zinfandels, were too high in alcohol to be palatable. They were used to these 12.5 or 13% wines that are light on the palate and sold as being the best “food wines.” That means they don’t have enough boldness to challenge the flavor of the foods they’re consumed with.

So OK, us New World wine types nodded our heads to the Old World guys, acknowledging that they must be the “experts” since they’ve been around a lot longer than we have, and then we cracked open a bottle of some lush, hedonistic Australian Shiraz that could be a meal in itself. And we LOVED it!

Here’s why: The New World of wine (read America, Australia, Argentina, Chile) have very different climactic conditions than the Old World. We  have more heat, more hang time, and less rain than the old World. We can achieve a level of ripeness in our grapes that the Old World couldn’t achieve in their wildest dreams! And ripeness, or higher brix (sugar content), translates into higher alcohol. We make higher alcohol wines because we CAN. In Europe, they CAN’T. But they’ve convinced the wine world (and us) that their wine is “correct” and ours is “wrong.”

I’d like to turn that on its ear. I say that if our New World winemakers can create wines with 15% alcohol that are balanced — i.e. have the fruit, acid and tannin to match the high alcohol — then we should bloody well enjoy them and pity the poor Europeans who have to drink their wimpy wines.

In fact, I want to start a movement. It’ll be called the “15% or Bust” Club.  We’ll promote our ripe, lush, BALANCED high-alcohol wines, and we won’t take any guff from the Old World types. After all, it’s Go Big or Go Home, right?

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Wine as Old as Dirt — Australia’s Domaines Tatiarra

cambrian500,000,000  years is a long time. It’s long enough for molten rock to turn to solid stone, and for stone to turn into crumbly red soil.  And for 499,999,970 years that rock/soil baked in the Australian sun, just waiting for its destiny…

Which tuned out to be these red grapes that the Aussies call “Shiraz.”

Now, there’s  LOTS of Shiraz grown in Australia, because the Aussies love the rich, jammy black-raspberry-tinged wine that it produces (and so, incidentally, do we). But none of it tastes quite like the Shiraz grown on the world’s oldest soils — the Cambrian soils of Heathcote, Victoria province.

It was about 30 years ago that grapes were first planted in this area, and about 20 years since Bill Hepburn planted a 10-acre vineyard on the site that is now Tatiarra. There’s been about 10 years of drought that threatened the vines’ existence, but they’re scrappy Australian vines managed by savvy Australian vineyard managers. They’ve not only survived, but have produced intense, concentrated, inky-colored grapes for an unparalleled collection of wines.

Of course, they had some help: enter Ben Riggs, the talented winemaker that created Tatiarra’s amazing wines. After learning his craft at wineries in France, Italy and California, he came back home to Australia to do what he does best.tat

Ben loves these Cambrian soils, and the extreme temperature changes (remember that old dog, “Diurnal Temperature Shift”) that give Heathcote grapes their intense flavor and structure. These grapes make BIG wines — wines like Barolo’s and Rioja’s that are still young at 10 years, and don’t even grow whiskers until they’re 15 or 20. Heathcote Shiraz is like that: muscular, dark and mysterious, and loaded with complex flavors.

The first wine we tasted was Tatiarra Heathcote Cambrian Shiraz 2005, and I was blown away by the depth and complexity. It was inky dark in color, with a nose of leather, cocoa and black berries. The palate stopped me short, because just five years after vintage date it was dense and muscular. But some sloshing and swirling revealed the incredible rich fruit, balanced by firm tannins and moderate acid. Licorice and vanilla were lurking somewhere in the background, too. Amazingly, this thing was BALANCED! It was huge, but  it was balanced.

Tatiarra The Pressings Shiraz 2006 had less earthiness and more lush fruit than its cousin. I got dark berries, chocolate and cedar on the nose, and the  palate coated my mouth with blueberry and blackberry fruit. A good hit of vanilla comes in on the end, thanks to 18 months aging in new American oak, and the finish lingers… This wine needs time to reach its peak, that’s for sure, but even now it’s a pleasure to taste such hedonistic loveliness.

Both these wines are over 15% alcohol, and no doubt there will be critics who lament the high alcohol content. But they wouldn’t be Cambrian wine without it. The truth is that this terroir needs to produce massive wines, and I for one, will just sit back and enjoy every one of them. Cheers!

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Some Young Punks — Taking Excess to Extremes

squid fistYou gotta love those Aussies. Who else in the whole wide wine world would have the nerve to put comic book art on their labels? And a “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea” monster, no less.  These labels will have one of two effects on wine buyers: it will scare the bejesus out of them (the hide-bound traditionalists); or it will have them running, not walking, to buy themselves a bottle.

So who are the miscreants responsible for this wine? Jen Gardner, Colin McBryde and Nic Bourke call themselves Some Young Punks, (click to check out their very cool website) and they’re out to make “exceptional wine with small estate charm.” They’re also out to set the wine world on its ear, or at least shake up the stodgy wine industry professionals and old-fashioned wine drinkers who value restraint and propriety. I mean, really, who else would name a wine “Monsters, Monsters Attack” (an off-dry Riesling with more comic book art on the cover), or create a second line with art from vintage pulp fiction book jackets — not the movie Pulp Fiction, but the cheesy novellas published in the 1940′s and 50′s. Take a look at “Quickie”, a Nebbiolo/Shiraz blend. Need I say more?quickie

The Punks declare that  “these labels are as bright and intense as the wine they clothe.” But are they any good?

I’ve tasted just one wine so far,  The Squid’s Fist 2007, and it’s certainly no slave to tradition. What’s in the bottle is a few feet off the beaten path (no surprise there…). Squid’s Fist is an unlikely blend of 61% Sangiovese and 39% Shiraz. This is the first Sangiovese I’ve seen from Australia, which is a long way from its traditional home in the hills of Tuscany. Young Punks Sangiovese is grown in the warm climate region of McLaren Vale, where the heat produces very rich, ripe grapes, much higher in sugar content (and therefore alcohol content) than their Italian cousins. This style reminded me of good California Sangiovese, like the kick-ass one made by Seghesio Vineyards. It would no doubt horrify an old Italian, but it sure blends well with Aussie Shiraz.

Squid’s Fist leads with a nose that gushes fruit — rich jammy aromas of blackberry and licorice. The palate is as ripe and fruit-forward as you’d expect, with dark blueberry, black cherry and a hint of vanilla. The finish lingers, or just clings to your palate with velvety softness. Does that sound good to you? It was to me, but it’s unarguably a prime example of the over-the-top Aussie style. There are critics out there who wail and gnash their teeth over the huge fruit, high alcohol style, but I’ve never met an Aussie who gave a hoot. They’d say, “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the Southern Hemisphere.” I say, drink it if you like it. And if you also have a chuckle over the wild and wacky label, so much the better. Cheers!

The squids Fist 2007 $1799

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Taking Australia to Court: A Review of The Innocent, The Guilty and The Verdict

shinasGeorge Shinas is a guy you notice. He’s large enough to define his space in a room, and he has the manner of someone who’s accustomed to being listened to. And well he should be — he’s a Criminal Court Judge in Australia’s Victoria Province.

George also makes wines that are every bit as big and commanding as he is. He has a passion for wines and winemaking that comes through in his words and his bottles.

George grew up with wine: the son of Greek parents who emigrated to Australia in 1952, he was quite literally raised in their restaurant. Wine was a part of their heritage and lifestyle, and eight generations before him had made their own wine. George’s was so popular in his home town of Mildura that other restaurant owners begged him to sell it to them, and George finally sold his first commercial wine in 2002. Shinas Estates was born!

Shinas produces just three wines, all made from estate fruit. George handcrafts his wines, starting in the vineyard: irrigation is kept to a minimum to stress the vines, yields are kept low to concentrate flavors, and the fruit is given extra hang-time to maximize ripeness. George’s winemaking process also stretches the envelope, with extra soak time and barrel time, and no fining or filtering to strip away flavors. The resulting wines are so good, they should be illegal (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun). Read the rest of this entry »

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Hit Upside the Head by Boxhead: Reviewing Cabernet

boxhead WOW! Sometimes a wine hits your palate and all you can say is — you got it — “wow”. Boxhead Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 is definitely that kind of wine.

Right up front I have to admit my prejudice for Australian wines and winemakers. No one in Australia is afraid to make big, balls-y, fruit-packed wines. They don’t care about the critics who whine that reds are getting too extracted and too high in alcohol. Down Under, the more fruit the better! The more alcohol the better! Go for it!

And what about all those over-the-top Australian wine labels? We’ve seen Evil, Boarding Pass, Fetish, and Dead Letter Office, to say nothing of this importer’s labels (Vine Street Importers): Some Young Punks, Barrel Monkeys, and Naked on Roller Skates. You gotta love it… Read the rest of this entry »

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