Syrah/Shiraz

The Not Shiraz Of Australia

10 June 2017

The wild success of Australian Shiraz caused its own undoing. Like Santa Margherita did with Pinot Grigio, Yellow Tail made Shiraz first ubiquitous and then reviled. Fortunately for Italy, few regard the insipid and overpriced Santa Margherita as representative of all Italian wines. I’m not sure the same can be said of Yellow Tail and its fellow critter quaffers (wines with cute animals or animal parts on the labels). Insta-hangover Yellow Tail put me off of all Australian wine for years, and only after I visited the continent a few years ago did I start dipping my toe in again.

Australia’s unjust reputation as a lake of rustic, chemically-tinged Shiraz lingers, despite the country’s vast variety of wine grapes and wine styles, made in an array of vastly varying terroirs. It’s not all sun-baked cooked fruit Down Under. The cool-climate Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and even Rieslings are pure delight: fresh, vivacious and well-balanced.

Don’t beat yourself up too much if you’re unaware of these wines. A large part of the responsibility for Australia’s ongoing reputation as a Shiraz monolith lies with distributors. At a recent Australian wine tasting in Chicago, I tasted some superlative not-Shiraz, and I wondered aloud to a gentleman pouring why we don’t see more of that sort of wine on store shelves. “It’s the distributors,” he remarked. “This is really hard to sell to them — they just don’t buy it.”

Most distributors must think that we’re not interested in interesting Australian wines. Let’s give them a reason to change their minds. I found all sorts of beautifully crafted wines at this tasting, and I didn’t have the time to try even half the ones I wanted to.

First, what to avoid: About 60% of Australia’s wine grape crop comes from hot interior regions, according to The World Atlas of Wine, and much of this is sold in bulk, often without indicating its place of origin. Skip any wine that doesn’t come from a specific region. Look in particular for bottlings from the Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley, Margaret River, Yarra Valley and Tasmania. Of course, this list is not exhaustive — Australia makes high-quality wines in numerous other locations — but I find examples from these regions consistently compelling.

You might not see the specific labels below on a wine list or in a local shop, but this at least gives you an idea of the sort of thing that’s happening right now in Australia. My goodness, they’re making some exciting stuff!

WHITES:

Assyrtiko: I can’t recall trying an Assyrtiko produced outside of its home in Greece (the grape originated in Santorini). The Oxford Companion to Wine notes that “its ability to retain acidity in a hot climate has encouraged successful experimentation with it elsewhere,” notably in Australia. This 2016 Jim Barry Assyrtiko comes from the Clare Valley, north of the Barossa Valley which is north of Adelaide. Its higher altitude gives it cooler nights than Barossa, and cool nights help grapes retain acidity. I loved this wine. Its apple-inflected fruit had a touch of creaminess to it, and its lemon-lime acids were so lively as to verge on pétillance. The wine felt juicy, but it ended clean and dry. Not inexpensive at $35, but it has the chops to back up the price.

Chardonnay: I’m sure that like California, Australia makes its share of flabby, over-oaked and over-buttered Chardonnays. And like California, it can also make Chardonnay with focus and elegance, rivaling those of Burgundy. For example, the 2014 Tolpuddle Chardonnay from Tasmania, an island off the south coast that is Australia’s coolest wine-growing region, had a wonderful aroma of slightly burnt buttered popcorn. It tasted a little of butter too, it’s true, but juicy lemon-orange acids and refined white-pepper spice kept the wine perfectly in balance, and it finished on a refreshing tart note. Superb, but expensive at $60.

Marsanne: This grape variety may be from the Rhône, but the world’s largest Marsanne vineyard is in Australia’s Nagambie Lakes region, north of Melbourne, as are the world’s oldest Marsanne vines. Both belong to Tahbilk, a winery founded by a Frenchman in 1860 (the oldest vines date to 1926). The 2015 Tahbilk Marsanne had the appealing aroma of a fresh caramel apple, overlayed with a hint of roses. It starts with clean, clear, pure fruit, which promptly gets roughed up by some rowdy orangey acids. The wine tastes fresh, juicy and round, and worth every penny of its $18 price tag.

Rebecca Loewy of importer Old Bridge Cellars with some Brokewood Semillon

Riesling: Riesling fear still runs rampant. Just as many think of all Chardonnay as oaky butter bombs, there are those who regard all Riesling as insufferably sweet. There is sweet Riesling, yes, but there are also bone-dry versions like the ones presented at this tasting, a 2016 Jim Barry “Lodge Hill” Riesling ($19) and a 2010 Kilikanoon “Mort’s Reserve” Riesling ($35). They both came from the Clare Valley, a region which produces “some of Australia’s finest Riesling,” according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. And both had classic aroma aromas of shower curtain (more often called “petrol”) and white fruit, flavors like apples and pears, tart and juicy acids, and dry finishes. The impressive liveliness of the 2010 Kilkanoon served as a reminder of Riesling’s capacity to age with great grace.

Semillon: The most important grape in Sauternes can also produce dry wine of great distinction, as evidenced by the 2009 Brokenwood “Oakey Creek” Hunter Valley Semillon ($32). This wine is an exception to my cool-climate recommendation — it’s far to the north of the other regions noted above and as such, it’s subtropical — but according to The World Atlas of Wine, “Hunter Semillon is one of Australia’s classic, if underappreciated, wine styles.” I loved the Brokenwood’s juicy freshness, balanced with a touch of creaminess to the fruit. It was the wine equivalent of a margarita, in the best possible way. I’d buy this wine any day.

Vermentino: Traditionally grown in northern Italy and Southern France, this grape also does quite well in the McClaren Vale, a region just south of Adelaide with thin topsoil and a climate that “could hardly be better for the vine,” according to the World Atlas. The 2016 Mitolo “Jester” McClaren Vale Vermentino had aromas of shower curtain and tart orange, and deliciously light and clean fruit on the palate, followed by orangey acids and a dry finish that verged on tannic. Very well-integrated, and a steal at $16.

REDS:

Grenache: I tried two examples of this very fruity variety, known as Garnacha in Spain, from regions on either side of Adelaide: the McClaren Vale to the (cooler) south and the Barossa Valley just to the north. The 2014 Yaldara “Ruban” Barossa Grenache tasted ripe and richly fruity, with ample white pepper spice and a savory, almost bacony note underneath. An excellent value for $23. The 2013 Woodstock “OCTOgenerian” from McClaren Vale blends 15% Tempranillo with the Grenache, resulting in a cherry-tinged wine with a cough-syrup note, leavened by bright acids, focused spice and a eucalyptus freshness. A bottle of this would be $27 well spent.

Pinot Noir: Perhaps the ultimate cool-climate red grape, known for its success in places like Burgundy, Oregon and New Zealand, Pinot Noir also shows beautifully in Australia. Consider the 2016 Innocent Bystander Pinot Noir from the Yarra Valley, which exhibited classic aromas of dark cherry and earth. I loved its clear tart-cherry fruit, lively acidity and notable spice, as well as its surprisingly long finish. It would surely pair well with a range of foods. More power to you if you can find a Pinot of similar quality for $20. I also tried the 2016 Giant Steps Pinot Noir, also from the Yarra Valley, which costs twice as much. For that additional $20, you get more depth and ripeness of fruit, more polished acids and spice, and more-than-usually graceful shifts from note to note.

Shiraz: Well, I couldn’t escape an Australia tasting without trying at least one Shiraz, so I made it count. I sampled the 2012 Jim Barry “The Armagh” Clare Valley Shiraz, and I knew immediately that I would love it. I could smell the wine three inches away from the rim of the glass! The aroma exploded with big, jammy red fruit, along with a touch of wood. Woo! And what a luscious flavor: huge fruit, like fresh raspberry jam, and no small amount of wood. Yet both flavors were beautifully balanced, and ample acids kept the wine from feeling ponderous — it felt startlingly light on its feet, though certainly not light-bodied. Immense, but elegant. And that’s what you get if you plunk down $245 for a bottle of Shiraz!

The Federalist At “Hamilton”: Wines Fit For A Founding Father

29 October 2016
Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lin-Manuel Miranda at the party celebrating the Chicago premiere of Hamilton

A cast party seemed like an odd venue in which to taste wine, but as a recovering theater major, I have a soft spot for musicals. Getting a new one off the ground can be tough, especially if it’s a wordy period piece, and I decided that if my blog post about the partner wine of the musical can also help promote a good show, then so much the better. So I accepted the invitation to the party celebrating the Chicago premiere of Hamilton.

Serving glasses of a wine named The Federalist during the intermission of a musical about Alexander Hamilton would seem gimmicky if the quality were less than excellent. After all, who cares if the wine’s name ties in to the theme of the show if it doesn’t taste any good?

Federalist Sonoma County ChardonnayAs we entered the party, I wasted no time in scooping up a glass of the 2015 Federalist Sonoma County Chardonnay. In general, Sonoma has a cooler climate than Napa, because the county is closer to the cool ocean currents off the coast. Cooler temperatures often result in higher acidity, which means that Sonoma Chardonnays are less likely to be blowsy and overripe than Napa Chardonnays.

And indeed, this Federalist Chardonnay was a well-balanced beauty. It suckered me right in with its aroma of buttered popcorn and a bit of tropical fruit. The fruit tasted rich and ripe, and there was an overlay of oak. Some people despise butter and oak, I know, but in the right proportions, they can be gorgeous flavors. Especially when they’re balanced, as they were here, by ample acids and a shaft of white pepper spice. This wine sells for about $14-$16 a bottle, which is a fantastic value for the money. Comparable white Burgundies cost twice as much.

I also tried the 2014 Federalist Lodi Cabernet Sauvignon, which I approached with no small measure of skepticism. At this summer’s Wine Bloggers Conference in Lodi, I tried a handful of Cabernet Sauvignons, and I found only one I could actually recommend. Now, I’m pleased to report, I have two. I enjoyed the cool, clean, rich fruit, the lively and rustic acids, the perk of white pepper spice and the supple tannins. It had some finesse, this Cabernet, and again, it’s surprisingly affordable at around $17 a bottle. Another fine value.

Federalist Dueling PistolsI noticed Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton and the star of the production on Broadway, standing not far away, and I took the opportunity to ask him about Federalist wines and their partnership with his show. I had just started my question when Mr. Miranda took the opportunity to give me a pithy quote: “I have to go over there now,” he said.

Well, he’s more of a whiskey drinker in any case.

His speedy departure gave me a moment to try the third wine offered at the cast party, the 2012 Federalist Dry Creek Valley “Dueling Pistols” blend of 50% Zinfandel and 50% Syrah. I was especially excited to try this wine, because I can’t recall ever trying such a blend. According to The World Atlas of Wine, Sonoma’s “Dry Creek Valley still has a reputation for some of the finest examples of [Zinfandel],” and certainly this wine gave me no cause to dispute that assertion.

The “Dueling Pistols” smelled of rich, ripe fruit and tobacco — one of my favorite combinations. I absolutely loved its opulent fruit leavened with zesty spice, ample tannins and more of that wonderful tobacco on the finish. This wine is rich, dark and very sexy. It costs more than the others, around $35-$40 a bottle, but every penny you spend is repaid on your tongue.

Miguel Cervantes and Mario Cantone

Miguel Cervantes and Mario Cantone with a bottle of “Dueling Pistols”

Heading back to the bar for more, I turned around to discover Mario Cantone, of Sex and the City fame. He knew the Federalist wines well, since he spends quite a bit of time in Sonoma, and he agreed that the Chardonnay in particular is “delicious.”

The lead of the Chicago Hamilton production, Miguel Cervantes, approached us as we were chatting, and it turned out that he had never tried any of the Federalist wines. My quick-thinking friend Liz Barrett of Terlato (The Federalist’s distributor) offered to get him a glass so that he could give one a try, and she returned with a sample of the “Dueling Pistols.”

Mr. Cervantes proved quite adept at describing his experience with the wine. He gave it a smell, and said, “Oh yes, I like bigger, spicier wines.” After giving the “Dueling Pistols” a sip, he said, “I like the dry start — it’s not a Kool-Aid start like some Syrahs.” He took another taste and continued, “It gets in there dry, and then it’s a big old kick-you-in-the-face finish. I like it a lot.”

Me too. After trying this superb Zinfandel/Syrah blend, I have to wonder why we don’t see that combination more often. It really works. And even at $35 or $40 a bottle, the “Dueling Pistols” goes down a lot more easily than the price of a Hamilton ticket.

Note: The samples of these wines and the tickets to the cast party were provided free of charge.

Exploring The Terroir Of Chile

12 December 2014

Lapostolle's Single-Vineyard CarmenereSingle-vineyard wines are nothing new. Burgundy has perhaps the most famous examples, and in recent years, vintners in the U.S. have also started marketing vineyard-designated bottlings. But it’s still relatively rare to see single-vineyard wines from anywhere in South America, which has a shorter history of high-quality winemaking.

Vinous excellence is certainly no stranger to South America now, however, as illustrated by this recent tasting, and this one, and this one. It makes sense that ambitious winemakers would now want to take things a step further and start delving into the subtleties of terroir.

The word “terroir” refers to all the factors affecting a certain patch of land, be it soil composition, exposure to light or wind, elevation, rainfall, etc. Wines lose their sense of terroir in direct proportion to the size of the geographical area from which their grapes were harvested. A Sonoma Coast wine will have, in theory, more of a sense of terroir than a wine labeled simply “California,” even if the Sonoma Coast wine comes from more than one vineyard.

This concept sounds esoteric, and you may very well be wondering, who cares? And it’s true that a single-vineyard wine does not guarantee quality, nor does a blended wine necessarily suffer in any way. Some of the world’s very best wines are blends. But single-vineyard wines most often come from vineyards that winemakers regard as special. Setting the grapes from this vineyard aside allows them to display all of what makes that particular site great. A single-vineyard wine also connects the taster to the land in a way that a blend, however grand, simply cannot.

Lapostolle Carmenere Gift BoxI was very excited, therefore, to learn about Lapostolle‘s single-vineyard Carmenères and Syrahs. I can’t recall tasting single-vineyard Chilean wines before, and I’d never tried a single-vineyard Carmenère from anywhere. This variety was popular as a blending grape in Bordeaux in the 18th century, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, but it slowly fell out of favor for various reasons, and now it rarely pops up in its homeland. The grape arrived in Chile from Bordeaux in the 19th century, where it was mistaken for Merlot until 1994. Now, just 20 years later, Carmenère has become the signature variety of Chile.

The country may be extraordinarily narrow, but the terroir varies as much east to west as north to south because of the effects of the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains. It was absolutely fascinating, then, to taste single-vineyard Carmenères from Marchigüe, near the Pacific, Apalta, in the middle of the country, and Portezuelo, closer to the mountains (as illustrated by their labels).

Each was a delight. The 2010 Marchigüe smelled of plum jam, and it had dark fruit leavened by bright green peppercorn spice. The 2010 Apalta had a heady, jammy aroma and flavors of ripe dark-red fruit and big but focused white peppercorn spice. The group favorite, however, was the sexy 2010 Portezuelo Carmenère, with its creamy raspberry aromas and big, dusky fruit. Some smokiness and meatiness undergirded the fruit, and despite the ripeness and sultriness of the wine, it maintained impressive focus. Though each wine came from the same grape, the same vintage and the same producer, each had its own distinctive character.

Lapostolle Pirque SyrahI also had the opportunity to try two of the six Syrahs, which come from vineyards running north to south. The 2010 Pirque and the  2010 Las Kuras both came from vineyards relatively close to the Andes, but the Pirque vineyard is in Maipo, and Las Kuras is in the Cachapoal Valley, the wine region immediately to the south. The Las Kuras Syrah smelled of chocolate and violets, and its bright acids and black pepper spice kept its dark fruit well in balance. The Pirque also had notes of chocolate and violets in its dark fruit aroma, but it felt silkier on the tongue and revealed itself more slowly than the Las Kuras. It had a freshness underneath its ripe, ripe fruit, like eucalyptus or green peppercorn. It felt sexy and very classy, whereas Las Kuras was more of a “punch in the face — in a good way,” as a fellow taster noted.

Either the half-case of Syrah or the half-case of Carmenère would be an ideal base for a wine-tasting party. It’s great fun to try the wines side-by-side to compare them. The boxes also make a beautiful gift for a wine lover you would like to impress. Each half-case costs $200, and you can purchase them at uncorked.com. The Carmenère box includes two wines from each of three vineyards, and the Syrah box includes six different wines.

I suspect we’ll be seeing more and more single-vineyard wines like these coming out of South America, and if these thoroughly delicious bottlings are any indication, we’re in for a treat.

Note: These samples were provided free of charge by Terlato Wines.

Unusual Australian Shiraz

31 October 2014

Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier L Block ShirazMy first instinct, when offered two complimentary samples of some Australian Shiraz, was to decline them. Australian Shiraz is one of the least unusual wines I can think of, right up there with Napa Cabernet. But these were from Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier, and that winery’s 2012 Shiraz-Viognier ranked among my Top Red Wines of 2013. Just as important in my decision to write about the samples, these Shirazes weren’t from one of Australia’s more well-known wine regions. They came from Pyrenees.

I think of “the Pyrenees” as the rugged mountain range dividing Spain and France, but it is also “the (ironic?) name of the rolling landscape to the east of the Grampians” in Victoria not far from Melbourne, as The World Atlas of Wine explains. “Formerly known as the Avoca district,” according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, Pyrenees is “…red-wine country, making wines of a distinctive and attractive minty character.” The Oxford Companion to Wine is even more complimentary of the region, arguing that “The Pyrenees on the eastern side can provide Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon every bit as sumptuous as that of Heathcote or Bendigo…”

Acclaimed Rhône winemaker Michel Chapoutier visited the area in 1998, and he was immediately taken with a certain undeveloped stretch of land that received ample sunlight mitigated by cool breezes. Already in a beneficial business relationship with Anthony Terlato, Chapoutier telephoned him, exclaimed something to the effect of, “You gotta see this!” and exhorted Mr. Terlato to get on the next plane to Australia, as Liz Barrett, Terlato’s Vice President of PR, related to me over a recent dinner. Anthony’s son Bill flew down, and Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier was born.

Over the next two years, they planted mostly Shiraz in what became known as the Malakoff vineyard. Notably, these vines grow on their own ungrafted rootstock, since Pyrenees is unafflicted by phylloxera. This destructive louse requires most of the world’s vineyards to be planted on American rootstocks, making the Malakoff vineyard unusual indeed.

Barrett and I tasted two of Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier’s wines over a delicious steak dinner at Chicago’s Tango Sur, and they proved to be an excellent accompaniment to the beef. First, we tried the 2011 Lieu Dit Malakoff Shiraz which runs about $50 a bottle. It smelled of deeply dark fruit, and there was a meatiness to the aroma. Barrett exclaimed, “Raisinettes!” and she was quite right. This is a masculine, muscular wine with ample ripe fruit, lots of black pepper spice and some underlying freshness, all under very tight control. That control is what elevates this wine above many other Australian Shirazes I’ve tasted, and justifies the price tag.

We also sampled the 2009 L Block Shiraz, named for a certain L-shaped section of the vineyard with more slate and iron in the soil. It smelled big, deep and juicy, with notes of hearty black cherries. Barrett took a sip and remarked, “It’s a he-wine,” and indeed, there was something masculine about this Shiraz as well. It had ripe raspberry-jam fruit, black pepper spice, strong but supple tannins and raisins on the finish. It was big and ripe but wonderfully light on its feet, with a lively mouthfeel. I could see why this wine fetches around $60 a bottle.

If you’re planning a special dinner for your partner, or just want a really beautiful wine to cozy up with on a chilly autumn evening, either of these unusual Shirazes would be an excellent choice. If $50 is beyond your budget, opt for the Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier Shiraz-Viognier instead. For about $18, it’s one of the best red-wine values available anywhere.

Unfashionable Sparkling Shiraz

29 March 2014

Paringa Sparkling ShirazLately the trend has shifted to wines with a sense of terroir, a sense of the specific site where the grapes were grown. This encompasses not just the soil but all factors affecting the particular vineyard, yet the soil tends to be the most tangible influence. A fashion for earthy-flavored wines has gone hand in hand with the increasing interest in terroir-focused wines, with more and more wineries seeking to emulate the Burgundian style: earthy reds specifically reflective of their vineyards.

Overtly fruity Australian Sparkling Shiraz is nothing like that. In fact, it’s so unfashionable (except perhaps in Australia itself) that I could barely find a passing mention of it in The Oxford Companion to Wine, The World Atlas of Wine or The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. The most I found was in Sotheby’s, which described Seppelt’s Show Sparkling Shiraz as “the biggest, brashest and most brilliant” of Sparkling Shirazes, “even though its massive, concentrated black-currant-syrup fruit is too much for many to swallow more than half a glass.” Burgundian style that is not. You won’t find any sommeliers in Brooklyn clamoring to pour you a flute, not even ironically.

But just because a wine is deeply unfashionable doesn’t mean it’s unworthy of consideration. I may have my wine blogger license revoked for what I’m about to write, but I quite like a glass of Sparkling Shiraz from time to time. In fact, I was feeling particularly unstylish just yesterday evening, and I opened up a bottle to serve as an apéritif before a dinner party. I love how incongruous the purplish wine looks in a champagne flute.

The 2012 Paringa Sparkling Shiraz I served is much lighter than the Seppelt described above, which is aged for 10 years before it’s released. With 36 grams of residual (unfermented) sugar per liter, the Paringa tastes sweet but not syrupy. I quite liked its aroma of dark grape jelly and its ripe, openly grapey fruit. Some lemony acids kept things in balance, aided in that effort by tight, frothy bubbles and some light tannins on the finish. It’s fun and surprising, both in terms of color and flavor, which makes it an ideal party wine.

I could find nothing about Paringa’s South Australian Sparkling Shiraz on its website other than an image of the bottle. Fortunately the importer, Quintessential Wines, is a bit more forthcoming: “The grapes come from 14 year-old vines grown in a sub-surface limestone layer beneath a sandy loam topsoil. The 2012 vintage was an outstanding year… The wine is matured in French oak for a short period of time prior to bottling.” The tannins on the end were at least partially the result of this brief stint in oak.

Neither the bottle nor the website mention whether the wine is bottle fermented in the manner of Champagne, which leads me to believe it’s tank fermented instead. Certainly the reasonable price of $14 or $15 a bottle points to tank fermentation. Nevertheless, the bubbles aren’t too large or aggressive, as is sometimes the case with tank-fermented sparklers.

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend serving Sparkling Shiraz to any wine snob friends — they might raise an eyebrow, or worse, surreptitiously research the wine on their smart phone and discover that Paringa is “Great with your favorite chocolate dessert or with bacon and eggs in the morning,” according to Quintessential Wines. Those pairings don’t exactly inspire confidence. An austere Crémant d’Alsace might be a better choice, assuming you don’t want to splash out on a Grower Champagne, currently the most fashionable of bubblies.

If, on the other hand, your friends don’t give a brix about wine fashion and just like to have a good time, a Sparkling Shiraz would be a fun and memorable way to kick off your next party.

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