Today's topic serves a double purpose: First, I'm headed back to Australia next week to serve as a judge in the Sydney International Wine Competition; looking forward to renewing acquaintances with old friends Down Under and meeting new ones. Second, to get my palate recalibrated to the distinct character of Australian wines, I'm tasting my way through a smorgasbord of the country's wines this week.
My first Antipodean report focuses on the grape variety that Australia made famous: Shiraz, the Aussie name for the grape that the French (and most Americans) know as Syrah.
Before we move along to the tasting notes, though, I can't resist one comment from a U.S. wine consumer's perspective about Australian wines in general and Shiraz in particular: From the standpoint of value, seeking wines that boast what online wine enthusiasts call "Quality-Price Ratio," there seems to be a gaping hole in the middle of the price spectrum.
At the low end, you'll find plenty of Shiraz in the single-digit dollar range, a niche symbolized by the ubiquitous Yellow Tail brand. And at the high end, you'll find sought-after labels at nosebleed prices that range from $30ish (like today's Leeuwin Estate) up to the startling $199 price tag I saw attached to a Penfolds Grange at a local shop the other day.
But where's the in-between? In contrast with France, Italy and Spain, where I happily spend much of my shopping dollar for wines from $8 to $15 that offer "interesting" drinking at a reasonable price, there's relatively little Australian wine available - at least in the places I shop - in this comfortable middle range. For Australia, it seems that the interesting wine isn't cheap, and the cheap wine (with occasional happy exceptions like the Tatachilla rated today) isn't interesting.
I don't think the producers can be held to blame for this. On my last visit, I was bemused to discover that many of the most sought-after Australian wines sell for rational prices at the "cellar door" (tasting room), even before the exchange rate is taken into account. So what happens to elevate the prices of the Oz wines that the critics like as they cross the Pacific?
I'll leave this as an exercise for the reader, but if you have a theory, you're invited to express it in our Wine Lovers' Discussion Group, where I have posted this column under the title, "30 Second Wine Advisor: Australia revisited." You are welcome to comment, ask questions and join in an online discussion here:
For today's tasting I selected Shiraz from two price levels: The Tatachilla came highly recommended by Gordon Jackson at Old Town Wine & Spirits in Louisville, a $9 Shiraz that exceeds expectations for its price niche. The Leeuwin Estate, at $29, is on the low end of the upper bracket, a pricey wine by my usual budget standard but one of unusual complexity and grace.
Leeuwin Estate 1999 "Art Series" Margaret River Shiraz ($28.99)
Very dark reddish-purple in color, this Western Australian Shiraz breathes fresh, plummy black-fruit aromas accented with fragrant pepper and spice. Good balanced fruit and acidity plus soft tannins and a whisper of oak make for a subtle, complex and refined wine, one that might pass as a "ringer" in a tasting of Northern Rhone reds. These are not terms that you usually hear as a description for Australian Shiraz, but I like it very much. U.S. importer: Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, Calif. (Sept. 14, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: Lamb burgers loaded with fresh ginger and garlic made a first-rate match.
VALUE: Although it's priced for a special occasion, the cost seems justified when its quality is judged straight across against similar Syrahs from France ... or some of the best from California.
WHEN TO DRINK: Already four years old and no longer listed by the winery as a current release, it is nevertheless showing no signs of age; it should hold up well for years under good cellar conditions.
WEB LINK: The Leeuwin Estate Website is at
Tatachilla 2000 Breakneck Creek South Australia Shiraz ($8.99)
Dark ruby in color, not quite brilliantly clear. Fragrant black pepper aromas blast from the glass, followed by menthol/eucalyptus, hallmarks of the South Australia Shiraz style. Full and ripe in flavor, almost hot on the palate, it's a big if unsubtle mouthful of wine. If you like this type of Shiraz - and many of the big-name critics do - it's a great bargain at this price. U.S. importer: Rock Creek Wine Merchants LLC, Bethesda, Md. (Sept. 14, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: The assertive flavors of lamb burgers flavored with fresh ginger and garlic stood up nicely to this forward wine.
VALUE: Plenty of wine for a budget price, provided you like Australian reds in this big, fruit-forward style.
WHEN TO DRINK: Like similarly oversize Zinfandels, I like to drink wines like this young, while the fruit is fresh. However, the winery says it will last for two to four years in the cellar.
WEB LINK: You'll find the winery Website here:
Wine Lovers' Voting Booth:
Is red wine seasonal?
Autumn is coming soon in the Northern Hemisphere, just as our cousins Down Under are starting to look for signs of spring. The conventional wisdom holds that red wine, robust and hearty, is a drink for winter, to be set aside during the hot and sultry days of summer.
What do you think? Do your wine-tasting preferences change with the weather? Or do you remain true to the wine of your choice regardless of what's happening outside?
This week's Wine Lovers' Voting Booth seeks to find out, as we ask, "is red wine seasonal?" To cast your ballot, simply click to
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This week on WineLoversPage.com
Here are links to some of our recently published articles and features that I hope you'll enjoy:
Ric Einstein reports: Blackberry and Prune Milkshakes
In the beginning, for many a boomer, there was Riesling. For many of us, writer Randy Caparoso says, it was the first truly fine wine many of us grew to appreciate. Now, Caparoso says, just maybe, the times, they are a'changing once more.
http://www.wineloverspage.com/randysworld/foodriesling.phtml Reports from our Readers: Tales of travel
Ready for some armchair travel? We're delighted to publish two outstanding illustrated wine-and-food travel reports submitted by readers. From London, Nicos Neocleous submits an extensive wine travelogue from Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
Chicago wine lover Howard Roth, meanwhile, files a report from Oaxaca, Mexico, where wine was in short supply but great regional food more than made up for that.
Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
Alto Adige (Sept. 12, 2003) http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor/tswa030912.phtml
Rediscovering Riesling (Sept. 10, 2003)
What's a table wine? (Sept. 8, 2003)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Salmon and pasta (again) (Sept. 11, 2003)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, Sept. 15, 2003