The other Australia
The more time I spend in Australia and New Zealand, the more I love these quirky places and their friendly people and the more I want to come back often.
It's easy for English speakers to travel in these places that seem almost like home, because we can understand the language (most of the time, although it gets a little dodgy when they start talking about "football") and because things here seem a great deal like home. Except, of course, when they're different, as in the occasional encounter with a standard yellow-and-black kangaroo-crossing road sign.
Just when you think you know Australia, something about it will surprise you ... and this observation is certainly true when it comes to the country's wines.
As I've frequently pointed out before, many wine lovers in the U.S., basing our opinions on the range of Australian wines most likely to turn up on our shelves (and on most of the Australian items that win high-point reviews from critics Robert M. Parker Jr. and Wine Spectator magazine), assume that just about all Australian wines are big, fat, highly alcoholic, fruity and in-your-face blockbusters. And having just finished sampling dozens of wines much like this as a judge at the Sydney International Wine Competition just ended, I can confirm that quite a few of them are.
But you'll find an exception to every rule; and in my case, having stayed on in Australia for a few days after the Sydney competition and enjoyed a bit of quick wine touring with Australian friends in Victoria, the smallish Australian state surrounding Melbourne, I'm delighted to have rediscovered a lot of elegant, balanced and refined wines that don't fit the bold-and-brawny stereotype.
With grateful thanks to my pals Rob Keith (and his wife Jenny) and Murray Almond for joining me and handling the right-hand-driving chores, I'd like to devote the rest of today's article to a quick survey of a few good non-stereotypical Victorian wineries and wines - at least some of them available in the U.S., Britain and elsewhere - that I've had the pleasure of sampling this week.
When you think of Victoria, forget the familiar names of the better-known Australian wine regions like Barossa and McLaren Vale, Coonawarra or the Hunter Valley. On these trips we've veered onto roads less often taken: The Victorian wine regions Nagimbie Lakes, Bendigo and Geelong ("Juh-LONG").
About a 90-minute drive northeast of Melbourne toward the "Great Divide" mountain range that runs between Melbourne and Sydney, Nagimbie Lakes is a scenic, hilly and relatively cool region, cool enough that the grapevines have only just started budding, several weeks behind the vineyards in northern New Zealand that I visited last week and those in Victoria's coastal regions. We visited two good-size producers there whose wines are reasonably easy to find outside Australia: Chateau Tahbilk, a historic winery with rustic tasting room and underground cellars that date back to the 1860s (as do some of the winery's oldest Shiraz vines, several rows of which are still used to make wine); and Mitchelton, housed in a stark white modern building with an eye-catching tower that strangely resembles an airport control tower.
Two Mitchelton wines offered distinctly different approaches to Australian fruit. The 2000 "Crescent" Central Victoria Shiraz Mourvedre Grenache (AUS$25) is ripe and complex, with aromas of plums and pepper and slight, pleasant "animal" notes. A wine of excellent balance, it was almost Rhone-like in character. The 2001 Print Shiraz (AUS$25), showed characteristic Australian aromas of mint and menthol over ripe black fruit; good structure and balance kept it out of the "blockbuster" category, however, and it carries its 14% alcohol well.
Today (Monday in Australia, Sunday back in the U.S.), Murray Almond introduced me to his home region, Geelong, which was originally one of Australia's original wine-growing areas but lost that tradition for generations and is only recently resuming it. Near the coast southwest of Melbourne, it's a relatively cool growing region, and many of its wines aim at refinement rather than power.
At Fettler's Rest winery in Geelong, wine maker Scott Ireland produces wines under two labels: The Jindalee brand is made to sell at a bargain $5.99 in the U.S. and comparable prices in Britain; it's a juicy, ripe and fresh wine aimed quite frankly at the mass market (and slightly sweetened with grape concentrate to meet perceived American tastes for bottlings imported to the U.S.) While not a wine for "connoisseurs," it's fruity and gulpable, well worth examination as a more stylish alternative to the ubiquitous Yellow Tail. The winery's Fettler's Rest wines, in contrast, are stylish, a half-dozen grape varieties from an AUS$15 2003 Gewurztraminer that's fruity, floral and bone-dry to the Fettler's Rest 1999 Jindalee Estate Geelong Shiraz (AUS$19.50), a dark-purple wine loaded with seductive black fruit, a bit leafy but pleasantly so, a wine that breaks the stereotype of Oz Shiraz with balanced, accessible fruit, good balance and smooth, almost silken tannins.
Two more new Geelong wineries in stunning facilities with wines to match are Pettavel and Shadowfax, the latter named after Gandalf's horse in Lord of the Rings. Both producers make delicious wines that respect their Australian heritage while breaking cleanly away from the perceived style. I was particularly delighted with Pettavel 2000 Émigré Geelong Shiraz (AUS$40), which seemed to fit the oversize Oz Shiraz mold with its inky color and big, plummy aromas, but exceeded expectations with a big but remarkably smooth and balanced flavor; and Shadowfax 2001 "One Eye" Heathcote Shiraz, a complex, refined Shiraz that highlights plummy fruit with perfumed white pepper in the aroma; juicy Plums, fragrant pepper and an intriguing note of dark, sweet chocolate on the palate. (Pettavel's wines aren't exported; Shadowfax wines are available in limited quantities in the U.S. through Appellation Imports of Columbia, Md.)
As I wrap up this two-week trip through a swath of Australia (plus short stops in New Zealand and California's Central Coast), I intend to put my wine tasting notes, food reports and photos online as soon as time permits. I'll let you know and provide links to the information as soon as it's available. Meanwhile, The Wine Advisor remains on a Monday-only production schedule until I get back to the office, but I plan to resume normal publication later this week or, at the latest, next Monday.
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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:
Oxford Town Wine: Traveling with wine
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). While I'm on the road, however, we are publishing only on Mondays. Here's the index to last week's columns:
Postcard from Australia - Judging wine (Sept. 29, 2003) http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor1/tswa030929.phtml
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, Oct. 6, 2003