Category Archives: Australia 2.0

Tod Dexter of Dexter Wines, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria

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Hopefully you caught my article on Australian wine in the Village Voice this morning. I am featuring a different winemaker on my blog each day this week.  Check back to hear from our vintners Down Under.

Tod Dexter of Dexter Wines, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria

Signature Wines: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. I recently blended a wine for Route du Van that is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc (54%), Pinot Gris (22%), Viognier (18%) and Chardonnay (6%) and it is only 11.8% alcohol. It is a great summer drink.

Where were you born?  Where do you live now? Born in Melbourne, now live in Mornington Peninsula.

How did you get into the wine business? Our family always enjoyed good food and wine. I tried a number of jobs: carpentry, hospitality, outdoor sports retail and ski instructing. But after a ski season in Colorado, when I drove out to the Napa Valley and got my first job in a winery, was when I decided to join the business. That Napa job was with Cakebread cellars in 1979.

What is most and least rewarding about being a winemaker? It is so rewarding in many ways. Being able to grow a crop and change it into such a complex beverage and seeing the pleasure it brings so many people perhaps sums it up. Least rewarding is the challenges faced today in such a competitive market worldwide. The consumer has never had it better in terms of choice and price of great wine!

What are the challenges of making wine in your region? The weather! We can swing from drought years to wet years, it seems, on a more regular basis, which is challenging for any farmer.  

Have Australians’ wine preferences changed in the last 10 years? Yes. There is a slow shift from big, high-alcohol wines back towards wines of better balance and lower alcohols. Chardonnay is making a comeback and the love affair with New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is slowing down.

Dexter Wines Vineyard Mornington Peninsula

Have you been to the U.S.?  Do you think Australia gets an unfair reputation in the U.S. for producing unbalanced, fruit bombs? Yes, I have visited the U.S.  No, it is not an unfair reputation based on the majority of Australian wine that has been exported to date.

Which wine or grape is the least understood or respected? In Australia, perhaps Italian or Spanish wine. We are only beginning to truly open the door to these regions. The strength of our dollar is helping as imported wines are now cheaper than ever.

What excites you most about Australian wine right now? The swing back to better balanced, more drinkable wines, particularly in Chardonnay.

What do you drink when relaxing at home? Beer, Gin & Tonic and Mojitos! Wine with a meal, of course, and most often Pinot Noir.

What types of food do you like to eat; any special dishes you make/care to share? Fresh pasta, BBQ-anything, locally caught fresh fish. We lean towards Asian influences–Australia is almost part of Asia geographically–but Italy and France also have a strong influence. 

What music do you listen to? I guess I lean towards Rock and Blues with a mix of other genres. Depends on the mood. Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, John Butler Trio, Xavier Rudd, The Waifs, Ray Charles and Eilen Jewel.

Which non-Australian wines do you like? Burgundy, Northern Rhone, Alsace, Italian Reds.

Are there any wines you can’t stand to drink? New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and new world Pinot Gris. Of course, there are a few exceptions!

If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be? Alaska, Kashmir or Mongolia.

Is there a winery dog? Yes. Stella, 5 years old. German Short Hair Pointer. 

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Cool-Climate Aussie Wine and the Gift of Forgiveness

Pewsey Vale at farmer's market

If you want the short explanation for what Aussie wine you should be drinking now, read my column Unscrewed in the Village Voice. For those interested in the long answer, read on…

WHY AUSTRALIA NOW?

If your last memory of Australian wine was an overripe, jammy Shiraz you tried to repurpose as boiled down syrup for dressing scones or steaks (depending whether it was breakfast or dinner), erase it, please. The new breed of Aussie wine is leaner, more structured and food-friendlier than before, and they are headed to New York’s shores, thanks to a wave of young, dynamic winemakers and importers.

Not that older generations of Australian vintners didn’t already produce balanced, delicate wines; it’s just the bulk of what landed on our shelves accommodated our wallet and palate preferences of the time: “cheap and cheerful” in the image of, if not, Yellowtail; or big and alcoholic, propagated by Robert Parker’s world wine-ratings domination. Thankfully, consumer fealty is no longer pledged to critters or critics as we slowly move out of both eras and into a phase of open-minded discovery.

Trying to broach the topic of Australian wine in this smidgen of a column, however, is akin to condensing the Iliad into a leaflet (although that is essentially what we have done with Aussie wine imports). Australia is a tome-worthy topic; if you want to dig deeper into it, a very good one has been written: James Halliday’s Wine Atlas of Australia.

Let me start with a brief geography lesson. I attended an Australian wine tasting and conference the other week, and during a panel Q&A, a fellow attendee (and presumably knowledgeable member of the wine trade) raised his hand to ask why nobody has vineyards in the middle of the country. Remember that photo in high school geography class of a big, fat rock known as Ayers? It sits in a desert. I am sure Mr. Whomever-taught-him-social-studies-in-high-school would have been mortified by the query.

This initially hilarious gaffe led to my realization that Australia is grossly misunderstood in a number of ways, starting with her climate, geography and topography. Australia is the sixth largest country in the world, and the driest habitable continent, thus a lot of the land is far from suitable for grape production. Up North, the weather is downright tropical: good for beach-holidays and diving the Great Barrier Reef, but not vineyards. That leaves the South for the preponderance of vineyard sites, and if you look at a map, we are really talking about the Southwest and Southeast regions.

australia-wine-map

But within the SW and SE of Australia lies incredible diversity. The number of Macro-, Meso-, and Micro-climates in Australia is as multitudinous as ethnic eateries in the five boroughs. So, it is unfair to continue lumping all of Australian wine into one category, one style, one grape (Shiraz/Syrah) with one broad brushstroke. It’s like equating a New Yorker with a Texan (macro); a LES denizen with an Upper East Side socialite (meso); or Christopher Street “patron” with Charles Street resident (micro). We are all Americans, but definitively not the same.

So what happened Down Under? Export growth to the U.S. exploded in the ’90s and in 2004 Australia overtook France as the second largest supplier of wine to the U.S. market. But like many trends not based on quality and integrity, oversaturation led to busted demand (like Jersey Shore and supposedly, now, cupcakes). Additionally, many producers had relied on a narrow profit margin based on a currency advantage that ultimately swung out of their favor, leading to both hard financial times and a vinous identity crisis.  One sad outcome of all this was the death of boutique importers bringing handpicked, unique wines from talented winemakers to the U.S. Suddenly “Aussie wine” was a dirty word (or phrase, rather).

But this should really be old news, and fast, because there is a silver-lining to market corrections. Instead of serving up another global Frass Canyon-style spit bucket of Shiraz, a la Sideways, the country has come together collectively through the Government supported Australian Wine Trade Board to promote their wine regions individually. Although every region holds gifted vintners worthy of our attention, the hot new wines piquing the interest of writers, importers and consumers are coming from “cool-climate” regions.  What does that mean? Cooler climates tend to produce grapes that lead to wines of greater finesse, delicacy, balance and acidity and often, lower alcohol. The antithesis of what we previously demanded from Australia.

Gordon Little pouring at Wines of Australia Tasting

Courageous New York-based importers of small batch Aussie-only wines Gordon Little and his wife Lauren Peacock of Little Peacock Imports, are working to deliver the Aussie wine renaissance to New York. Calling them courageous may sound melodramatic, but given America’s slow-to-fade hangover from the first Australian wine experiment, staking their livelihood on championing these wines is a form of bravery.  The company slogan: “Wines Aussies kept for themselves. Now imported to the United States” provides hope that careful curators like them are staging a comeback, with New Yorkers’ palates serving as proving ground.

Mr. Little outlined their goals: “introduce Australian wines that reflect their terroir or sense of place,” that “over-deliver at the price point, have vibrant acidity and moderate alcohol and pair well with food.”  Mr. Little and his wife spent weeks chasing down wines from smaller producers “who care about growing good fruit and using a more minimal intervention approach in their wines, letting the soils speak for themselves.”

Mr. Little spoke to a few of the struggles they are facing in the current NY Market: “Australian wine above $10 is a challenge – first, because New York is a highly competitive wine market. Second, and more importantly, with Australian wine we have to change perceptions of what it is and can be.” He noted that many educated wine drinkers had no idea that Australia produced Pinot Noir, let alone good ones. His advice for tasting the promise of Australia’s fine wines is to look for smaller producers from cooler-climate zones. He also provided us recommendations of regions to look out for, including ones with ample Pinot Noir.

Margaret River: On the furthest shores of southwest Australia lies this maritime region known for profound Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, as well as surfing off some particularly gorgeous beaches. Fine wines are the foundation of the region’s reputation, and these gems are finally receiving the international acclaim they deserve. Bordeaux blends, especially whites, are also praised. Pioneers and premium producers include LeeuwinMoss WoodVasse Felix, and Stella Bella..

Yarra Valley: Known for its stunning beauty, the vineyards in this cool-climate region in Victoria may date back to 1838, but it’s also the stage for many young winemakers spearheading the new wave of Aussie wines. Their philosophy: lower alcohol, reduced use of oak, hand-harvesting, and food-friendliness. These winemakers refer to themselves as the “South Pack.” The region’s principal grapes are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz close behind. Looking for Côte Rôtie-style wines? Some exceptional bottlings of Syrah blended with a small percentage of Viognier are produced in Yarra. Try wines from Luke Lambert, Jamsheed, Ben Haines, Giant Steps, and Punt Road.

Mornington Peninsula: Terroir, terroir, terroir. This could be written of most places, but is especially significant in this crescent-shaped region where soil, aspect, altitude and wind change by the meter. Pinot Noir dominates red wine production, Chardonnay for white, with exceptionally made (and often priced) single-vineyard bottlings showing off the potential of this playground of the nearby affluent Melbourne locals. Moorooduc Estate and Dexter Wines are both available in New York and produce delicious, competitively priced wines.

Adelaide Hills: Twenty-five minutes east of Adelaide, altitude is the key to this region’s cool climate; in that short time, temperature can drop by as much as 30 degrees. Vineyards are tucked into dips and peaks of valleys, and in between cherry and apple orchards — driving through this landscape could satisfy a rollercoaster enthusiast. Planted predominantly with white grapes, many claim the Hills as the home of Aussie Sauvignon Blanc, and increasingly, sparkling wines from Pinot and Chard. Reds are driven by Pinot, with a growing appreciation for spicy Shiraz and Italian varieties such as Nebbiolo and Barbera. Look for Shaw and Smith, Henschke, and d’Arenberg, with more producers coming soon.

Eden Valley: Sitting within but high above the Barossa Valley is this cool, windswept region that produces a high percentage of Shiraz but is prized for its Riesling. Eden Riesling develops unlike any other place in the world besides the Clare Valley (also in Australia), into bright, stony, lime-juice-y concentrated wines that are not only a great value but have the capacity to age up to ten years (if not longer). In fact, shop for older vintages, as the high acid in young wines can brighten teeth like Crest Whitening Strips. Pewsey Vale, the oldest winery dating to 1847, sets the benchmark for the region, and is relatively easy to find in NYC stores.

If you prefer to taste before you buy, Public Restaurant and Eleven Madison Park are the two big supporters of Aussie wines in New York, with rare and small parcels often pre-sold to them first.

Public, 210 Elizabeth Street, 212-343-0918; Eleven Madison Park, 11 Madison Avenue, 212-889-0905

To accompany this article, I reached out to nine wineries around Australia for a short Q&A. I wanted to give vintners an opportunity to speak directly to American drinkers about the experience and struggle of winemaking in Australia. A new winery and winemaker will be posted on my blog each day. Please follow at chasingthevine.com

 

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The Lightness of Being Australian Chardonnay

Aussie Chardonnay Tasting

Aussie Chardonnay Tasting @ Corkbuzz

Today’s Topic: Chardonnay from Australia. Writing that took a lot of nerve, so please refrain from grumbling and hear me out. I probably elicited a cask’s worth of groans over my Shiraz post last week; maybe you are wondering how I can now press you to read about Chardonnay. Where are the Hungarian whites? The Romanian Pinots? Even the Australian Pinots! I will be getting to those too, promise.

Remember, the point of this blog is to not just uncover regions and wines you’ve never met, but to revisit categories whose cobwebs deserve to be dusted off. Carrie gave Mr. Big a second chance and they ended up married–yes, I just referenced Sex and the City and it felt icky, but I’m trying to make a point here. Should Australian Chardonnay get another shot at your affection?

As I mentioned in my Shiraz piece, I am in an ongoing Wines of Australia immersion class during which we explore different regions/styles/varieties in each session. This week we sampled Chardonnay.

I admit to never, ever, ever, never reaching for a bottle of Chardonnay, ever. Not when sitting down to dinner at home (truth be told, we eat sitting on the couch, but still) nor for a post-work aperitif with the ladies; not ever at a wine bar with a long list of white Burgundies (value problem in this case) nor when a restaurant only offers a choice of either Chardonnay or Pinot Grigio. Well, maybe then, but if that’s the extent of their wine program, I should probably be ordering a cocktail. Simply. Never. Do. I. Drink. Chardonnay.

Now that you know how low Chardonnay ranks on my personal beverage totem pole, here are 5 Australian Chardonnays that I would not only drink if I had to, but would twist open on my couch, sacred place that it is, because I want to. This demonstrates an overarching principle that I too must be reminded of: We have one shot at this life; always keep an open mind.

We tasted through two flights of wines populated with pretty examples of how refreshingly different Chardonnay can be. In fact, one reason Chardonnay is so loved by growers and winemakers is for its adaptability and malleability: Stainless steel; lightly oaked; Mediterranean sun; cool climate. Each unique set of circumstances and choices provides a distinct rendition on a general theme.

I prefer a lightness and brightness in my white wines; imagine the weight of a balloon drifting into the sky and the brilliance of a sunlit diamond. Many of the Australian Chardonnays showed those qualities and were fresh, perfumed, and perhaps most important to consumers, competitively priced. Gone were the heavily oaked, dull palates of many earlier forms of Aussie Chardonnay.

Australia does some other varieties extremely well, in ways that no one else can touch: Inimitable Clare and Eden Valley Riesling, and Hunter Valley Semillon, for example. So, I can’t agree I believe the way to America’s heart should be through Chardonnay, but at least these wines prove they have a place on the wine drinker’s table—or couch.

I have included some tasting notes with each wine. Truth be told, the personalities of each wine evolved so much, that each note is merely a snapshot of a moment in a glass.

  1. Wirra Wirra Scrubby Rise Unoaked Chardonnay 2011, Mclaren Vale, SA, $12.00: Refreshing, good value offering mandarin-orange aromatics and peaches and pear on the palate.
  2. West Cape Howe Chardonnay 2011, Western Australia $17.99: Bright and fresh with kiwi, guava and lemony-citrus notes busting out of the glass.
  3. Stonier Chardonnay 2007, Mornington Peninsula, VIC $20.00: Elegant and lively showing ripe lemon and stone fruit laced with minerality. Interesting savory note on finish.
  4. Heggies Chardonnay 2011, Eden Valley, SA $20.00: Jasmine and orange-blossom evolve into ripe white fruits and citrus with an herbal edge. Well-balanced and priced.
  5. Giant Steps Sexton Vineyard Chardonnay 2008, Yarra Valley, VIC, $35.00: Obvious but lithely applied oak-influence, balanced with bright apple and notes of garden herbs. Delicious.

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Australian Shiraz 2.0: Six Wines Worth Finding

Recent tasting of Australian Shiraz at Corkbuzz Wine Studio

Recent tasting of Australian Shiraz at Corkbuzz Wine Studio

I think we can all agree that Australian Shiraz went through a bubble not unlike the housing crisis in the U.S. But just as homeownership is making a slow, wobbly comeback, so is Shiraz trickling back into the market.

I addressed some of the issues the Australian wine market faced in a previous post, so this is old news. But to briefly recap the story of Shiraz, by winemakers’ own admissions, they glommed on to the trend of producing ripe, oaky syrup intended to please palates of critics and Coca-Cola loving Americans. But they made too much of it, and the style expired (or is still expiring—fingers crossed for the Mid-West!), as all trends do. Americans opened up their wallets and palates to different countries—Argentinian Malbec, for example—as well as to leaner wines with greater finesse. Shiraz was left to wither on the proverbial vine.

Enter Australia 2.0. The country has since come to realize their epic mistake for relying on one grape, one style, one low price point and a couple of critters to represent the country’s potential. Frankly, any thoughtful wine drinker can look at a map of Australia and conceive that there are many different micro-climates, varieties, producers and thus styles that should be heading our way.  However, Australians needed introspection; thus, the industry took a look at their own map, defined their regions, embraced them and are looking to share it with us.

In progression towards this goal, Wine Australia has hosted monthly regional immersion classes for industry folks in hopes we spread the good wine word. I have attended class the last four months, each one focusing on different grapes/styles/regions.

To be honest, when the Shiraz class came up on the schedule, I wasn’t particularly thrilled. I had recently been to a tasting that left me underwhelmed—many of the wines were too ripe, lacked acidity, and had the same profile for which we sent the grape packing in the first place. So, why relive the nightmare in the classroom, when there are so many other wines worth knowing? However, I kept an open mind because that is kind of the point of discovery and Australia is, by my own acknowledgment, a big place.

We tasted 22 wines in all price points, and surprise, many of them were wonderful! I felt like I was tasting the real Shiraz, or at least something different from the past 10 years. Don’t get me wrong—the wines still hold loads of plush fruit, but many had depth, complexity and finally some acidity. The class was a great re-introduction to Aussie Shiraz’ potential, and I kept notes on a handful of wines I believe deserve recognition.

What’s fun about this list is that good Shiraz is being made all over Australia, some regions with cooler climes and thus less ripe styles. Here are a few worth seeking out, and my simplified tasting notes from class:

2010 Inkberry Mountain Estate Shiraz-Cabernet, Central Ranges, NSW, $13: Black cherry, blackberry, black raspberry and a touch of menthol; good value.

2009 Fowles Stone Dwellers Shiraz, Strathbogie Ranges, VIC $20: Fruit and flowers nose; fruit leather, Christmas spice, Sichuan peppercorn and integrated oak palate.

2010 Shingleback The Davey Estate Shiraz, McLaren Vale, SA $22: Mint-choco chip ice cream with silky, warm blackberry sauce; lingering, pepper and herb finish.

2008 Plantagenet Shiraz, Mount Barker, WA $29: Earthy, floral and fruity; lifting acidity and a chocolate-minty finish.

2009 Brokenwood Shiraz, Hunter Valley, NSW, $36: Potpourri of baking spice, dried orange rind, cherries with traces of white fruit; good structure and acidity.

2007 Kilikanoon Oracle Shiraz, Clare Valley, SA $70: Vibrant mint, tobacco and black fruits; silky tannins fine like turkish coffee.

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