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How fine is Australian wine?

January 26, 2016

Australia Day fine wine tasting - read more on My Custard PieHappy Australia day. A big shout to about 16,000 Aussies who live in the U.A.E. especially the mad, outgoing, generous, wonderful bunch who I’m proud to call my friends. I presume the celebrations will involve cold beer… and possibly wine.

Earlier this week I got to taste some Australian fine wine. Are you shaking your head at this concept or do you think you have the measure of mass market Australian wine? I looked back at my copy of Jancis Robinsons’ Wine Course which was published and went with me to Saudi Arabia in 1995. Why did I take a wine book to a place where alcohol is strictly forbidden? My logic was I’d have more time to study, if in theory only rather than actual tasting. This was to a country where the word wine is blacked out on boxes of wine glasses! End of aside.  Anyway, Jancis’ intro to Australia is all about the divide between grape growers and makers (not the same), mechanical picking and lorry loads of refrigerated grapes travelling miles to make crowd-pleasing bulk wines, unfettered by legislation, regulation or parsimony with acidification or oak chips.  The Brits in particular took to the honest, uncomplicated, easy (binge) drinking wines, without mystifying labels and names that were easy to pronounce, with gusto. I remember Jancis saying in a wine programme, people who think they like Australian Chardonnay actually like the taste of oak.  After such a passionate love affair, there was an inevitable a cooling off period and I have friends in number who have adopted the ABC approach (anything but Chardonnay).

Of course this is just a simplistic picture of the winemaking scene and from early on there were pioneers in quality over quantity, most notably Penfold’s Grange Hermitage. Made annually from 1951 – despite being forbidden to do so by the vineyard’s owners – by winemaker Max Schubert, who emulated a European style of vinification, it’s been in the hands of winemaker Peter Gago since 2002. Maurice O’Shea of Mount Pleasant, is known as the father of modern winemaking in Australia. The late Peter Lehmann, the “baron of the Barossa”, carved out his own niche for more nuanced, well-balanced wines with great aging potential. Henschke Hill of Grace is another icon. Chester Osbourne has added bucketloads of Australian exuberance and contempt for convention by making distinctive and pretty quirky wines since the 1980s for d’Arenberg with minimal input viticulture including organic and biodynamic practises. There are many more…

So back to the wines of today. The tasting was held at Le Classique at Emirates Golf Club and I was advised to start with Victoria (Beechworth, Mornington Pensinsula, Yarra Valley and Heathcote) and Tasmania, via Western Australia (Margaret River) ending with South Australia (Adelaide Hills, Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, McLaren Vale and Coonawarra).

My favourites

Victoria produced the bulk of my favourites and the Pinot Noirs stole the show. William Downie labels stand out as they have no text whatsoever on the front of the label and hand-drawn typography on the back. The wines stood out too; all three I tasted were balanced, polished and quite Burgundian in style:

  • William Downie Pinot Noir 2012 – rusty colour in the glass, with a little bit of attractive funkiness on the nose – I like Pinots which aren’t completely perfect – luscious raspberries and cherries. Ordering this one. 220 aed
  • William Downie Pinot Noir 2013 – balanced, velvety, sour cherry sweets finish. 190 aed
  • William Downie Thousand Candles 2012 – attractive pinky, rusty hue in colour, soft fresh cherries with a slight earthiness. 260 aed
  • Dexter Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir 2013 – jammier than the Downies but good value at 110 aed
  • Jamsheed Beechworth Roussanne 2013 – rounded, fresh apricots, not overly complex but great value at 110 aed.
  • Jamsheed Beechworth Syrah 2013 – licorice notes and good acidity temper the ripe plummy fruit. Good value at 150 aed
  • Jasper Hill Georgia’s Paddock Shiraz 2013 – rounded tannins, good acidity but not sure it’s worth paying more than Jamsheed for – 220 aed
  • Jasper Hill Georgia’s Paddock Nebbiolo 2013 – closed nose, ashes and tobacco over deep, dark cherry. Too young but could reward keeping. 190 aed
  • Giaconda Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2013 – flinty, citrus crispness balanced perfectly by slightly fat creamy, biscuit lees. Swooning at this exquisite wine – by far the best white of the night – and at the price (although you’d expect fine wine to come at cost..and this is). 480 aed

Runners up included  Dexter Mornington Peninsula Chardonnay 2014 and Pipers Brook Pinot Noir 2013 from Tasmania. Both well made and good value (110 aed and 120 aed respectively). Sadly my favourite Tasmanian Tolpuddle Pinot Noir was not at the tasting.

From Barossa my favourite was Peter Lehmann’s Stonewell Shiraz 2009, more restrained with good acidity, a foil to the heavy hitters. A bit of Viognier added some welcome green notes to the inky, graphite Torbreck, The Descendent 2006 (but this Shiraz is too huge for my tastes). From McLaren Vale Clarendon Hills were interesting especially the freshly picked raspberries of the Blewitt Springs Grenache 2010. I have a soft spot for d’ Arenberg but didn’t get round to tasting anything that night;  should have poured some of the Rhone style d’Arenberg Ironstone Pressings 2010.

So tackling preconceptions head on, was there a roomful of jammy Shiraz and over-oaked Chardonnay? Yes and no. Shiraz was by far the most represented red and some huge, vanilla scented, tobacco laden, deep inky reds of at least 16% volume were being poured. This is not my cup of tea but the murmurs of approval showed that this style, especially appreciated in the US, still has masses of appeal. Molly Dooker Carnival of Love Shiraz 2012 and Torbreck, The Factor 2007 were going down a storm. I overheard St. Hallett Old Block Shiraz, 2012 described as the perfect pizza wine.

One Chardonnay from Western Australia, which will remain nameless, had the burnt match of sulphur on the nose and an unappealling cloying oakiness. There was a relatively high alcohol Riesling which was nauseatingly flabby. These were exceptions and it seemed as though flinty, lean Chablis style whites were on the ascendency.  Perhaps some were a little too spare, but all more restrained, balanced and citrus forward. I would have loved some more unusual whites – maybe harking back to the days of Mitchelton Marsanne for instance.

Cheeeeese - Australia Day fine wine tasting - read more on My Custard Pie

My supper! As still on Vegetarianuary the roast beef, foie gras, charcuterie, salmon and all the canape were off limits

While Australia taught the world about consistency and drinkability, it seems that the more interesting winemakers have learned from the past, especially when exports became less attractive after the rise of the Aussie dollar, and are more nimble and distinctive. Modern winemaking is tempered by respect for age-old traditional principles, including using combinations of grape varieties instead of just the single varietal sytle the Aussies trailblazed. At a De Bertoli tasting I attended last year, winemaker Stephen Webber conceded that the French might have had something all along. There is a new interest in ‘regionality’, still unfettered by the demands of appellations.

In Dubai you can find these wines at Le Clos at the airport terminals 1 and 3.  More info about buying wine in the UAE here.

I was invited to the Le Clos tasting as a regular customer and decided to tell you about it – no obligation. Happy Australia day.

  1. January 26, 2016 2:54 pm

    Wow – you have enjoyed a fine selection there. William Downie, Jamsheed and Giaconda are consistently wonderful wines and now we are back in Melbourne they are definitely disappearing from our cellar! Off to visit Giaconda in April which should be very interesting so stay tuned 😊

  2. January 26, 2016 5:20 pm

    Wow, Dubai is the jewel of the Middle-East, isn’t it? It seems that all the best can be found there!

  3. January 26, 2016 8:50 pm

    It’s so rare for me to see Australian wines here and when I do they are the not very good kind. I have to say that I am very content drinking the wines of France….although I still have memories of the Henschke Hill of Grace that I had in another life when I had money and collected wine:)

  4. January 26, 2016 9:26 pm

    I really don’t know much about wine, but I know what I like and the majority of the wine I like actually happens to be Australian.

  5. January 27, 2016 2:03 am

    We were appalled at the Aussie wines in the UK, most with labels we’d never heard of. It looks like you were generally tasting quality drops. Each Aussie region has it’s strength, but I love our cool climate pinot noirs too

  6. January 27, 2016 4:12 am

    Nice one! Some of my favourite wine makers in that bunch. Next you will have to come to Australia and taste at the cellar doors – happy to be a tour guide 🙂

  7. January 27, 2016 3:48 pm

    Oooh what a lovely post Sally, I’m more than a bit partial to a Pinot Noir! I’ve been off the meat and (mostly) off the wine this month with a couple of Saturday ‘damp patches’ so will be looking forward to refamiliarising myself with the old vino next week 🙂

  8. January 28, 2016 12:18 am

    It can be so hit and miss sometimes but their definitely are some beauties out there. We live near the hunter valley in Newcastle where there are 3 incredible organic vineyards, tamberlane, krinklewood, and Macquarie dale who do the most gorgeous rosé. I doubt they’re big enough for export tho. U may just have to plan a cellar door tour one day. 😀

  9. January 28, 2016 1:51 am

    Lovely post Sally – reminds me how lucky I am to have these wines on my doorstep….

  10. January 28, 2016 1:26 pm

    YES my wish/ dream is to travel to Australia and taste those alleged wines from Vine yards – beautiful and resourceful past Sally!

  11. January 30, 2016 11:37 am

    I love Australian wines. Funnily enough, we hardly ever go for the French ones, but tend to stick to Australia. I think I just love the flavor profile more. I don’t know any of the wines you mentioned though but will keep a look out for them!

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