Is there a "White Shiraz"?
Pardon the rhetorical question, but some days it seems that big, powerful Shiraz dominates Australia's wine exports to the extent that we forget about all the other good wines coming from Down Under. Yes, even white wine.
But one Australian quest seems to remain a vinous Holy Grail, more a dream than a reality: Where's the "White Shiraz"? I'm not talking about a pink-wine-from-red-grapes here, but a white equivalent to Shiraz, a grape that thrives so well in the continent's climate and soils that it can make a uniquely Australian wine with huge economic potential.
While Chardonnay does well from the Hunter Valley through South Australia to the Margaret River in the far West country, and Riesling from the Clare and Eden Valleys can be a delight (more about that in Friday's edition), neither of these white wines strikes me as expressing Australia as boldly as Shiraz does with the reds.
Two white varieties that carry relatively little weight in the Old Country, however, do seem to have potential to take off in Oz; much as Malbec, lightly regarded in its French homeland, has skyrocketed in Argentina. Let's have a quick look at them both:
SEMILLON is used in France almost entirely as a blending grape with Sauvignon Blanc to make White Bordeaux and, at its pinnacle, the great dessert wines of Sauternes and its neighbors. In Australia - particularly in the Hunter Valley northeast of Sydney - it has a long history as a table-wine variety. (And, in a twist on European place-name borrowing that perhaps outdoes even California "Chablis" and "Burgundy," it was long marketed as "Hunter Riesling.") It's also grown in Chile and spottily in the Western U.S. With managed yields and careful vinification it can make a rich, almost honeyed but sturdily acidic white with considerable cellar potential. Overcropped and grown for profit, it makes forgettable jug wines.
VERDELHO, a Portuguese grape, was once so widely planted on Madeira that it bestowed its name on a Madeira style, between Sercial and Bual in sweetness. It has almost died out there, although the name remains. In Australia, too, it was a major wine grape during the 1800s but lost popularity. In recent years, however, it has been coming back strong, with varietally labeled Verdelho becoming common in recent years. High in acidity with a citric lemon-lime character, well-made Verdelho can be a refreshing table wine or a strong structural element in blends.
Today's featured wine, continuing this week's focus on Australia, is a 60-40 blend of Semillon and Verdelho from Yarraman Estate in South Eastern Australia, the broad wine region that includes both New South Wales (Sydney) and Victoria (Melbourne). Closed with a sturdy metal screw cap, it offers startling complexity, good texture and balance in a food-friendly wine of unusual character for just $10, making it one of my best white-wine values of the still-young year. (Tasting notes below.)
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Yarraman Estate 2004 South Eastern Australia "Barn Buster" ($9.99)
This blend of Semillon (60%) and Verdelho (40%) is a rather pale straw color with glints of gold. Pleasant and complex aromatics blend a whiff of tangerine, a breath of honeydew melon and a distant piney note that's not resinous but pleasantly reminiscent of a breeze through a conifer forest. Flavors are consistent with the nose, light-bodied, fresh and tart, pineapple and a hint of ripe mango shaped by snappy acidity that hangs on as a palate-cleansing element in a long finish. Very fine indeed. U.S. importer: Robert Whale Selections Ltd., Washington, D.C. (Jan. 22, 2007)
FOOD MATCH: It was splendid with an Asian seafood-and-pork partner at the dinner table: Cantonese-style shrimp with lobster sauce.
VALUE: Food friendly, balanced and surprisingly complex, it's a fine value in the $10 range.
WHEN TO DRINK: It's not meant for aging and best enjoyed while the fruit flavors are fresh, although it should hold up well for a year or two under the metal screw cap.
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Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2007