A wine tasting with friends. Did you say Australia Mate? For some, “Australia” induces images of Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, The Crocodile Hunter and his charming accent, but wine enthusiasts know that “Aussieland” has more to offer such as super rich Shiraz!
The opportunity to tour and taste the vineyards of Australia came my way via a shout from my Aussie-born neighbor and wine enthusiast friend Dr. Peter White of Upland California. “Hey Mate are you ready to see Australia? My family and I have people to meet, places to see, and a few good drops for you to taste. We are leaving the middle of the month and we need a “journo” (Aussie-talk for journalist) in our mob and you’re it,” he declared.
Accompanied by Sue and Simon White, flying 13+ long hours over the deep dark sea to a large South Pacific continent found somewhere between Hawaii and Antarctica, caused me some anxiety, strike that, severe anxiety!
I confess I don’t like flying, yet the thought of seeing Sydney, Melbourne (mel-bun), Brisbane, the Gold Coast and more was sufficiently alluring. Besides, it would be “research” for future writing. I would finally see kangaroos (roos), koalas, dingos and other native wildlife. I was in!
Australian viticulture in a nutshell goes something like this. The Australians have been making wine for approximately 200 years when the earliest vines were brought from Europe from early settlers, mainly the Germans and Italians. Who would have guessed that such humble beginnings would lead to such an enormous and diverse production of great wines?
Vintners are growing and producing world-class wines from approximately 60 wine regions located across the country with 103 “defined geographic indications” for growing districts (zones, regions and sub-regions). Australia’s wine country prospers along its southern expanse. The major regions in Australia are Western Australia (Margaret River, Pemberton), New South Wales (Hunter Valley), South Australia (Coonawarra, Clare Valley, Padthaway, Adelaide Hills, Barossa), Tasmania, and Victoria (Yarra Valley, Geelong, Mornington Peninsula, Goulburn Valley). Their growing season is opposite of ours (Northern Hemisphere) with harvest time generally starting in late January through March.
In the USA, Australian wines can easily be found in America, mainly under the labels of the larger producers including Jacob’s Creek, Penfolds, Lindemans, Rosemount Estate, McWilliams and Yellowtail – considered an “average” (ordinary or inexpensive) pour. But there are many more diverse winemakers to taste and sample.
The land Down Under has become the world’s fourth largest exporter of wine, and rates seventh in worldwide production at approx.130 million cases – the majority with “twist-off” tops. Don’t laugh, the Aussies got it right on that one! There’s never a “dud” bottle. Australia’s wine consumption is approx. 45 million cases, nearly twice as much per capita as in the states. There are approximately 21 million people in the country compared to over 305 million in America, and Australia is a country of beer drinkers!
On the recommendation of Aussie born winemaker Daryl Groom of Healdsberg-Sonoma, we would visit wineries in the Yarra (yarr-ah) Valley, including De Bortoli because of its similar Italian heritage to my family’s winery.
The lush rolling hills of the Yarra Valley reminded me of areas of Bordeaux in the fall season. Yarra Valley is the closest wine region to the Victorian capital of Melbourne. Less than one hour from downtown, it is recognized as Australia’s leading cool climate region and home to over 80 wineries and growers with 3,800 hectares. It is a diverse terroir, offering a range of classic wine styles, exhibiting fine fruit flavor, fine tannins and outstanding palate length. It is cooler than Bordeaux, but warmer than Burgundy, with well structured soils proven ideal for viticulture.
Unfortunately, the (Feb 2009) bushfires in this area were manifest in places where many hectares of vines had not been harvested. What a sad sight it was to see unpicked grapes (raisins) on the denuded vines. Roland Holmes, Wine Educator at Coldstream Hills shared, “We were forced to pick one month early and at night due to the excessive heat and smoke from the fires… we lost nearly 75% of our crop in Yarra.” There were large parcels of vines that had to be left. A stark reminder of the fierce fires that rained down on Yarra … it ain’t easy making wines, Mate.
Our visit to De Bortoli Winery and Restaurant was most informative and enjoyable. We were welcomed by Brett Stanley, Hospitality & Tourism Manager in the tasting room, or “cellar door” as they say. We were escorted to the private “Trophy Room” where the finest of De Bortoli Wines awaited our sniffing and swirling. I spit excess of course! Brett shared the story of the family, its winery and the outstanding vintages. Steve Webber is the experienced winemaker.
The wines presented for tasting included 2007 Estate Sauvignon Blanc, 2007 Estate Chardonnay, 2007 Estate Pinot Noir, 2006 Estate Shiraz-Viognier, 2006 Melba Lucia blend of Cab Sav, Merlot, Sangiovese, and Petit Verdot. The highly acclaimed 2006 Nobel One, a sweet Botrytis Semillon, was a wonderful sip of golden Semillon at its finest. After our sampling, we moved upstairs for a delicious gourmet luncheon. My dish was soft Polenta with Italian meats and fresh greens on the side. Dr. White enjoyed duck breast. Shopping for bottles and giftware followed.
Our explorations were enjoyed by all thanks in part to Peter’s niece Kate White of North Rocks in New South Wales. Her expertise in pre-arranging our visits made life much easier, and she even provided chauffer service to South Sydney’s Cronulla Beach for the “Jazz & Shiraz” Food and Wine Festival – 25 wineries plus 20 food providers on the beach! Remember, they drive on the opposite side of the road. Neither Simon nor I could take the responsibility for driving. We only sniff and swirl!
Finally… in retrospect what can I say about my Ozzie trip? Well… I did not meet Nicole or Hugh, but I met a few creatures including roos, wombats and koalas, and a mob of genuinely, friendly, outgoing, spirited people. The country is fresh, alive and lives up to its hype of “God’s own Country”… and the juice was great. I never tasted a wine I didn’t like! I’ll be back.
Gino’s Top Aussie Drops
You may be able to find a few of these reds in the states. Check the World Wide Web for more info.
Jim Berry, 2006 Shiraz-Cabernet Clare Valley
Coldstream Hills, 2006 Reserve Shiraz Yarra Valley
De Bortoli, 2007 Pinot Noir Yarra Valley
De Bortoli, 2006 Shiraz-Viognier Yarra Valley
Tim Gramp, 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Clare Valley
McLeish Estate, 2006 Shiraz Hunter Valley
Petersons, 2007 Back Block Shiraz Hunter Valley
Tintilla, 2005 Reserve Shiraz Hunter Valley
Torbreck, 2007 Shiraz Barossa Valley
Vasse Felix, 2006 Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon Margaret River
Special “Thanks” to Dr. Peter and Sue White for sharing their spirit of Australia with me.