About a month or two ago I received a rather odd email. Well, perhaps not as odd as oddly flattering. The writer was a representative for Wine Australia Organisation who gingerly asked if I would be interested in visiting their Australia Day Tasting in London in the end of January. Since Australia is one of the wine countries of which I know the least and since I adore London as a city I quickly rearranged my plans for that week and started dreaming of all the lovely wine bars I would take the opportunity to visit.
Now not only am I less than well-informed about Australian wines, I also carry with me prejudice formed through my experience with Australian wines in the early 2000’s and narrow-minded sneers of the Norwegian wine community. And as we all know being aware of your prejudice is nowhere near the same as being able to overcome it… A few recent experiences have however started to sway me. Getting to know and enjoy the wines of garage duo Ochota Barrels and mad entrepreneur Lucy Margaux have helped me broaden my perspective a bit, as has a general increase in my knowledge of wine over the years.
Arriving at the fair hall earlier than I would have chosen in the morning, energized only by an Americano and a panini that was all the more disappointing as the proprietors of the small café that I had stopped by were Italian and should know better, it took me a while to get my bearings. Over 70 tables stood lined up after an intricate design in the grand hall, and sommeliers, importers and journalists milled about, cheek kissing, guffawing and name-dropping.
I had signed up for one of three master-classes that day, so before I actually had the time to start tasting I was led in and seated for what promised to be the GREAT AUSSIE STAND-OFF (insert exclamation marks, smileys etcetera).
The principle was simple. Take one Master Sommelier and one Master of Wine. Let them taste three dishes and then select a wine pairing without having the opportunity of tasting the wine and dish together. Let the public decide whose pairing was the best. No actual Australians involved or harmed aside from the bottles that were sacrificed.
My session pitted Natasha Hughes MW against Clement Robert MS. The dishes were prepared by Roger Jones of the Harrow at little Bedwyn, and were all quite sweet, posing a challenge for the experts. To my mind it’s a bit strange pitting an MW and a MS against one another. Pairing is so much more central to a Master Sommeliers examination than a Master of Wines that it would almost be unfitting if an MW won. On the other hand I did favor Natasha Hughes pairing in two of the three cases – Mr. Clemants pairings canceled out each other to the degree where the dish and wine hardly tasted anything.
What I did bring with me from the tasting however were the two sparkling wines;
This wine sweeped the court with any and every Australian sparkling I’ve tasted before. Elegant yet bready aromas followed up by a sufficient acidity and rich, lingering aftertaste, quite reminiscent of an aged spumante of higher quality.
This is a blend of 11 vintages of Shiraz, bottle fermented and spending 9 months on the lees. Mostly reminiscent of dry lambrusco but with a heftier pricetag, it’s never the less a high quality wine and an interesting and enjoyable new experience.
After exiting the master class and doing some basic reconnaissance one thing was clear; at this wine fair I had no method of distinguishing good producers from bad. Of course I recognized some of the wineries – I’m not completely oblivious. But I didn’t recognize enough of them to signify certain stands as better than the rest, to differ promise from plonk.
And boy was there plonk. At one point during the tasting I started wondering whether I had time traveled back to the 90’s for all the over-extracted and burned aromas showing up in the wines…
But in my darkest hour I was saved.
Walking past a stand I recognized the producer Dalwhinnie from a Decanter article I read not long ago and asked if I could taste the wines. The importer, a very cheery young man in a shirt just as happy as him, acquiesced with the words “Excellent choice, you’re going straight for the top!” and poured the wines.
Good acidity and well-balanced structure. Long, with a pleasantly lingering aftertaste and aromas of oyster shells, chalk, yellow plum and lemon pulp.
Direct aromas of raw deer meat. Good acidity, light tannin structure, middle length, a bit watery in the finish. Would have benefited from firmer and more plentiful tannins.
Tasting with and talking to the very open and amusing staff made me promptly change my selective method to an even less scientific one. The following hour I chose stands after nothing other than the clothing and attitude of the people present, and to great success! Frumpy old ladies, tall men in baseball caps and hipster shirts, nose-pierced young women with batique pants and soft spoken voices… It seems as if the degree of personality in the wines was directly linked to the personality of the people selling them. Some of the best I encountered was;
Fabulous and at the same time ridiculous wines from a New Zeelander vinifying in Barossa Valley. Since I knew nothing of him before this tasting I’d rather let someone else explain the details…
“Little Wine” #5 NV, Sami-Odi, Barossa Valley
Complete and even tannins. Good length and a very focused structure, almost like a wedge (a very delectable one).
“Little Wine” #4 NV, Sami-Odi, Barossa Valley
The same outstanding quality as #5 but a bit thinner in the fruit.
Dallwitz XIV 2014, Sami-Odi, Barossa Valley
Dense red black color and aromas of blood, smoked meat, pencil and juniper berry. Softer fruit profile than the Little Wine #5, with more sporadic tannins.
ODI 2013, Sami-Odi, Barossa Valley
The same dark color with aromas of blueberries and blood. Tight, seemingly in a fase but quite promising. Give it two more years.
Another strong presence at the Australia Day Tasting was Vinterloper. Apart from being the only winemaker that I actually managed to have a real conversation with he shared some very interesting thoughts not just on his own winemaking but also on the latest vintages in Adelaide Hills.
R/14 Riesling 2014, Vinteloper, Clare Valley
Made with bought grapes. High, marked acidity, which leaves everything else in the background. Might settle with a bit more time on bottle.
Much more character than the R/14, fermented and matured in barrel and benifiting from the added oxygenation.
Good balance. A slightly milky note. Interesting to pair with food.
Made from Touriga Nacional & Shiraz grapes. Field blend from a vineyard planted in 1991. Aromas of moccha and dark berries. Soft lucious acidity and medium length. Lovely wine and what the winemaker himself says that he is aiming for in the future.
Other interesting although be it not as even producers were Some Young Punks, First Drop Wines & BK Wines by Swig Wines Ltd. In fact, many of the wines I encountered during the day showed – if not outstanding quality – then excellent promise. The large corporations may still have a tight hold over the Australian export market, but the next generation is here, and they seem to be adding a good deal of soul and vision to the Australian wine scene…