Monday, October 26, 2015

Australian wines impress skeptical somms at Wine & Spirits Sommelier Scavenger Hunt

Bar Boulud sommelier Michael Madrigale, second from right, leads McLaren Vale Grenache Squad. Josh Greene looks on
Oenophiles sometimes disparage ordinary consumers for unimaginative wine purchases, but the wine trade, as a whole, is far more conservative, even young sommeliers who consider themselves open-minded. Once somms and wine buyers get an image of a wine in their head, even if it's not true anymore, it's really hard to change.

Australia has probably suffered more from U.S. trade perception than any other country. I rank Australia as one of the five greatest wine-producing countries in the world for quality, and I don't mean low-end. But is it in the top five on any U.S. wine lists?

How to correct that? Wine & Spirits magazine held its second Sommelier Scavenger Hunt last week, sending five teams of three North American sommeliers each to five different Australian wine regions.

Last year, the first time Wine & Spirits did this, Michael Madrigale's New York-based team shocked everyone by showing the tremendous diversity of terroir in Napa Valley Cabernet. This opened the eyes of the many sommeliers in attendance, but most of them have to sell Napa Cab anyway so it probably didn't have much market impact.

Australia is a different story.

MS John Szabo and Team Canada with two thumbs up for Hunter Valley Semillon
"Our goal is to try to convince people that Australian wine is terroir-driven," Wine & Spirits editor Josh Greene told me. "Australian wines are up against a trade that is so against them because of what they tasted 10 years ago. We see it as our role to educate people about terroir-driven wines."

I believe in Oz; I've been to Australia on vacation a couple of times (got engaged there, as a matter of fact) and drank amazing wines every night just ordering off the list. But I can tell you it's hard to sell an Australian wine article because food editors aren't any more interested than wine buyers. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing: many people think they know Australian wine but what they really know are only the machine-harvested supermarket wines. If you have never had a Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon or Clare Valley Riesling ... and these weren't even in the Wine & Spirits competition.

Instead, the sommeliers picked the following regional wines:

Hunter Valley Semillon
Margaret River Chardonnay
Tasmania Pinot Noir
Yarra Valley Pinot Noir
McLaren Vale Grenache

It's surprising at first that nobody chose Barossa Valley, and reportedly this did not sit well with winery owners there. But these are North American sommeliers, and perhaps Barossa Valley Shiraz is irredemable in their eyes. I can't argue; I drink a fair amount of Australian wine, but never that.

The somms' knowledge before flying to Australia varied. John Szabo, head of team Hunter Valley, is Canada's first Master Sommelier and was already a big fan of those wines, which hit their peak at about 10 years of age and are surprisingly affordable given that. But Carlton McCoy, also an MS who works in Colorado, said he chose Tasmania because it sounded like an interesting place to visit; he had only had a couple of wines from there before.

There was no easy winner this year. Madrigale's team once again had the best showmanship, giving everyone free baseball cards, and they took first place. But unlike last year, they didn't win because of the wines they chose. Any of four regions could have placed first (the Margaret River team and wines were underwhelming).

Angela Slade, North America director for Wine Australia, who had to come up with the money to send the sommelier teams, said, "I was surprised at how surprised people were. That the team that went to Tasmania had no idea what was going on before they went. And they're wine professionals."

Slade was delighted with the results, though, as she should have been. A roomful of sommeliers and writers tasted 30 Australian wines and everyone left impressed.

"This is the kind of education that's authentic," Slade told me. "We're beating our heads to try to educate the American trade. Consumers, whenever we pour our at events, they love the wine. Where we have the need for education is with the trade. This event, it's peer to peer, it's authentic."

Wine & Spirits will publish an article about the event later in the year and I don't want to steal too much of the magazine's thunder, but what the hell: here were my very favorite wines, and links to buy them, before the wine buyers who were in the room gobble them up.

I particularly urge you to try some 10-year-old Hunter Valley Semillon. Last year my wife and I went diving in Papua New Guinea. Thinking it wasn't impossible that we would never return, I took my last wine order at dinner in Brisbane quite seriously, so I ordered one of Brokenwood's single-vineyard Semillons from 2006. The sommelier came out and said, "You must be a sommelier." No, I'm a wine blogger, I said. "It figures," he said. "I love those wines, but the only people who order them are sommeliers and wine writers, but they always order them."

Brokenwood ILR Hunter Valley Semillon
We tasted the '05 at this event and it was wonderful, earthy and smokey, but with plenty of lemon fruit, an appealingly waxy texture, yet just 11% alcohol. I couldn't find the '05 online but I have had the '06, which you can buy from the link above, and it's similar, just a year younger.

Cullen Kevin John Margaret River Chardonnay 2012
Easily the best wine of an uneven group, this well-balanced, medium-bodied wine was made following the biodynamic calendar and aged for five months in French barriques. The somm team for some reason didn't choose the famous Leeuwin Estate Artist's Reserve Chardonnay, but this wine showed how good Margaret River Chardonnay can be. It's pretty expensive though, unlike everything else listed here.

Dalrymple Cottage Block Tasmania Pinot Noir 2012
Nicely balanced wine with raspberry fruit and good structure. Native yeast fermentation. Pretty good price ($55 at Wally's, not a cheap store) for a single-vineyard Pinot of good character, because you have to compare these wines to Sonoma Coast Pinots, which don't have to be shipped around the world.

Tolpuddle Tasmania Pinot Noir 2014
My favorite of a strong lineup of Tasmania Pinot Noirs, with a spicy nose, rich red-fruit flavor without too much body, and good length. Like a lot of Tasmania Pinots, there's a fair amount of whole bunch fermentation here for greater complexity. The link is to the 2013, which I have not tasted. I'm told Australians buy up all the best Tasmania Pinots so if you want to try one, you'll have to take a shot.

Yarra Yering Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2006
I can't believe you can buy this online so easily here; there's even a bottle in California for under $60. It's lovely and is drinking great right now: smokey on the nose, but with rich cherry fruit on the palate. My favorite wine of all 30 we tasted.

Seville Estate Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2013
Gentle tannins, light red fruit, good length. A lovely wine, and an estate Pinot Noir for under $40. Can't beat that with a stick.

Ochota Fugazi Vineyard McLaren Vale Grenache 2014
The owner/winemakers of Ochota told Madrigale that they think you can tell what a winemaker's wine will be like by the music he/she listens to. They like Fugazi, and their Grenache is edgy: picked early (from 68-year-old vines), it spent 90 days on the skins and stalks, with 80% whole bunches. It's lean and pretty, with floral notes and a light body. I think the music theory might have some validity. If a winemaker likes top 40 music, they probably make top 40 wine. This is alternative, non-commercial, uncompromising, and yet melodic; I loved it.

Brash Higgins McLaren Vale GR/M Grenache Mataro 2014
"Brash Higgins" is the nom-de-vin of former New York sommelier Brad Hickey, and this wine hits a lot of sommelier erogenous zones: it's biodynamic, the grapes are co-fermented with native yeast and spend 42 days on the skins. It's a medium-bodied wine with good spiciness, the bright cherry fruit of Grenache and some backbone from the Mataro. A steal at $40 a bottle. You've read this far; unless you're the Wine Curmudgeon, you gotta buy and try some of these wines.

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