Australia’s wine dark sea

Go into any supermarket or wine shop and browse the shelves of New World wines and you could be forgiven for thinking that there are only about 6 different grape varieties in existence.

The French role model for wine is so embedded that it is the classic grapes from that country that are most widely used and the styles of France that are emulated around the world.

It therefore comes as quite a shock to learn that most of the wine regions in countries outside Europe have climates very different from those in the classic regions of France, be it Bordeaux or Burgundy.

The harvest at d’Arenberg in the McLaren Vale, perhaps the most Mediterranean-like region of Australia.

Time after time the climates of the wine making zones in Chile, South Africa, California and Australia are described as Mediterranean, and yet most producers in these places grow Chardonnay, Cabernet sauvignon and Merlot. Traditionally only the mavericks and the odd obsessive seem to have actually grown grape varieties that originate in the Mediterranean.

Actually I am nor sure that is entirely true. Very often viticulture in these places began with a wide range of grape varieties, but in modern times the focus has been on the famous ones – which usually turns out to be the French grapes – rather than grape varieties that are associated with less well known and less admired wine types from Europe. Very often all sorts of grapes are grown, often in the most unlikely places, but they do not catch on for all sorts of reasons, be they fashion or snobbery.

Well, I detect a change.

I have experienced that change in Chile  – see here and here – as well as South Africa – see hereCalifornia and even New Zealand, but I found the change most marked in my recent trip to Australia.

I took this photograph at Tyrrell’s in the Hunter Valley. All the wines were superb here and I was thrilled to take this photo, but had to wait ages for her to look up so that I could see the joey in the pouch.

Time after time in wine shops, restaurants and wineries I found Australian wines made from an exciting array of grape varieties, quite unlike the relatively narrow range that fills the shelves of the Australian section in wine shops and supermarkets in the UK. There was a huge variety just presented as normal over there and most of the more intriguing grape varieties originated in Mediterranean countries.

As a consequence of the exciting wines that I found in Australia I have recently put on a few very well received tastings of these wines – in the main you have to seek them out, but the work is worth it.

Map of South Eastern Australia – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

White Wines

I am always saddened that so few consumers – even in the countries make them –  have caught on to the delights of the white wines from Mediterranean countries. To my mind some of the most exciting white wines around come  from Italy, Spain, Portugal and even Greece – or are made from the grapes that hail from those places. It shouldn’t surprise us really as the cuisine of the Mediterranean tends to go much better with white wine than red. However historically it was much more difficult to make good white wines in hot places until well into the twentieth century, so the white wines of that part of the world were pretty much written off as no good and that reputation has become embedded in our memory.

The Eden Valley, the cool part of Barossa.

2014 Peter Lehman H&V Verdejo
Peter Lehman
Barossa Valley
South Australia

I have long been a fan of Verdejo (Ver-deh-ho) it is a lovely grape that is native to Castilla y León and to my mind makes Spain’s most reliable white wines in the little wine region of Rueda. The grape has travelled a little bit, I have had good Verdejo from Virginia – click here –  for instance, but I was thrilled to find it producing excellent whites in Australia too. Normally Verdejo makes wines that are very much in the mould of a Sauvignon Blanc, but the vine can cope with much hotter conditions that Sauvignon, so it could be a big part of the future of white wine in Australia.

Sadly I rather get the impression that this is the only vintage ever made of this wine. If that is so, they really should rethink as I have shown this at 2 tastings now and people have absolutely loved it.

Interestingly it is quite different from a Spanish Verdejo. It is much lighter, fresher – even at 3 years old – and more zingy. The colour is very pale, while the nose gives lime and tangerine with just a touch of something salty.

The beautiful southern end of the Eden and Barossa Valleys.

The palate is pure, mineral and and light – it is 11.5% abv – with a tiny touch of petillance, clean citrus and light stone fruit. It is very refreshing and quite delicious. The style leans more towards a fine Vinho Verde or Txakoli than Rueda and while it is not like nothing else produced in Australia – except some of the fabulously taut and lean Eden Valley Rieslings – it is a real triumph in my opinion. If you can find any, try it with some garlic prawns, grilled fish or barbecued sardines – 89/100 points.

I can no longer find any stockists for this lovely wine, so contact Peter Lehman wines for information.

Many times on the trip I enjoyed some simply cooked prawns, Moreton Bay Bugs or clams with garlic and oil and lemon together with a glass of white wine made from a suitably Mediterranean grape variety – my favourite place for such delights was Sydney Fish Market or Claypots Evening Star in South Melbourne Market and my favourite grape to accompany them was Fiano which seems to be becoming very popular down under.

The busy but tiny kitchen at Clay Pots Evening Star, a great place for seafood and wine.

2016 Hancock & Hancock Home Vineyard Fiano
Hancock & Hancock
McLaren Vale
South Australia

I like Fiano. It is a fabulous white grape from Campania in southern Italy. Campania is a great region, centred on Naples it produces some of Italy’s most exciting wines, using a palate of high quality indigenous grapes including Fiano. The best examples are widely considered to be those from vineyards on the volcanic slopes around the town of Avellino. Fiano di Avellino is a DOCg and is a prestigious, fine and mineral dry white, while other examples from Campania, grown on non-volcanic soils, tend to be softer and easier to drink.

Fiano is an ancient variety that is believed to have been used to make the famous Apianum wine in Roman times. Back then the grape was known as Vitis Apiana beacuse it apparently attracted bees (apis). Of all Campania’s whites I find the best Fiano to be the most refined and most balanced in terms of fruit and acidity.

Fiano is also found in other parts of Campania, including the Sorrento peninsula, and Puglia – the heel of Italy. I was vaguely aware that a few people grew the grape else where. Jenny Dobson makes one at Bush Hawk Vineyards in New Zealand’s Hawkes Bay, but it seems that Australia has really taken this, slightly exotic grape, to its heart and around 70 producers have now started making examples of Fiano – which is hardly surprising as Italian food and Mediterranean style is big down under, so Fiano would be a perfect accompaniment.

Chris Hancock.

Chris and his brother John Hancock have owned their Home Vineyard in McLaren Vale for over 10 years now. They farm some 80 year old Grenache and Shiraz, together with Cabernet and Touriga, as well as having a 2 hectare plot of Fiano that was head grafted, in situ, onto Chardonnay in 2012. Chris Hancock, who is an honourary Master of Wine, worked with Robert Oatley for many years and Chris is still involved with the Robert Oatley company which distributes his Hancock & Hancock wines.

Hancock & Hancock Home Vineyard – photo courtesy of the winery.

A part of this was fermented in neutral, old, oak barrels to give roundness and volume rather than flavour, but most was fermented in stainless steel at low temperatures.

To look at the wine has a crystalline purity about it, then on the nose it has nectarine and white peach together with some lemon zest, dry honey and herbs. On the palate there lots of fruit giving a juiciness which is then balanced by freshness and a little taut minerality in the background. The texture is succulent, ever so slightly creamy even which together with the lemon, stone fruit and touch of herbs makes it delicious and very drinkable.

It is light and crisp enough to be refreshing, yet juicy enough and succulent enough to feel interesting and more complex. In a kind of way it shows the ripeness of the place it is from and some the beguiling minerality of the grape, which gives it an inbuilt tension. Lovely with fish, chicken, Mediterranean food, or just to drink on its own – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from:
The Oxford Wine Company, Farnham Wine Cellar, Flagship Wines, The Wine Reserve, Drinkfinder, Amazon.co.uk, Eynsham Cellars, Luvians Bottleshop, Ann et Vin, Warren Wines & Amp Fine Wines. More stockist information is available from Hatch Mansfield, the distributor.

2016 Jim Barry Assyrtiko
Jim Barry Wines
Clare Valley
South Australia

The wonderful Assyrtiko grape is the main grape variety used on the island of Santorini in Greece. This amazing grape is responsible for producing some of the very finest dry white wines – and great dessert wines too – of the entire Mediterranean world. At their best these wines are bright, mineral and refreshing and there is nothing better with a bit of fish or some calamares. If you like crisp, dry, taut white wines, along the lines of Sancerre or Chablis, then you would certainly like a dry white Santorini.

Sue and Peter Barry in the Lodge Hill Vineyard August 2012.

Peter Barry certainly does. He is the third generation winemaker at his family’s Jim Barry winery in South Australia’s Clare Valley. In 2006 he and his wife Sue were on holiday on Santorini and they were astonished by the quality of the local wines. Their bracing acidity reminded them of the Rieslings that they made back home, but they had something extra too. That something extra was probably minerality, which is what the combination of the Assytiko grape and the volcanic soils delivers.

Peter had got the bug and returned to the island in 2008 in order to collect some cuttings of Assyrtiko from the always excellent Ktima Aryros, Argyros Estate. After a period of quarantine the vines were eventually planted at their beautiful Lodge Hill Vineyard. Peter was convinced that although the soils were very different, the other conditions would really suit Assyrtiko.

Lodge Hill Vineyard.

There is nothing fancy about the winemaking here, just perfectly ripe grapes cold fermented at low temperatures in order to retain all the freshness and delicate flavours of the grape.

The nose is lovely, floral, citric and lifted with some richer notes of apricot and pear and even a hint of sage. The palate is gorgeous, bright, fresh, pure and pristine with a lovely little touch of silky succulence balancing the high acidity. There are lime, orange, pear, apricot and nectarine flavours together with a little chalky minerality. It balances purity and freshness with fruit and texture beautifully. It’s quite a beguiling wine, but in the end delivers a wonderfully vibrant wine with crisp acidity, pure minerality and delicious fruit. It is a tad richer and softer than a Santorini, but that just adds to the sensation of trying something totally new. This is a fine white wine – 93/100 points.

This is a perfect wine to serve with some clams in white wine and garlic, seared scallops, grilled prawns, moreton bay bugs, some sea bass, sea bream, swordfish or tuna, or try it with spaghetti all vongole

By the way, they only made around 3,000 bottles, so grab it while you can!

Available in the UK for around £20 per bottle from:
Corking Wines, Noel Young Wines, The Solent Cellar, D Vine Cellars, Eagle’s Wines,Vagabond and House of Townend.

Red Wines

The reds are just as exciting and more prolific too. Everywhere I went there were delicious Mediterranean grapes on offer, even places that didn’t release one often had them to taste. The wonderful restaurant at Innocent Bystander in the Yarra Valley offered litres of Sangiovese straight from the barrel, but did not sell it to take away. It went superbly with their fabulous pizzas and local meats.

2015 La La Land Tempranillo
Wingara Wines
Murray Darling
Victoria

Tempranillo is of course famous as the main grape of Rioja. In Rioja the style of wine is as much about the ageing in wooden barrels as anything else, so the fruit is not always the most important character of the wine. Elsewhere in the Iberian Peninsula you get Rioja look alikes as well as wines with brighter fruit and less obvious oak ageing. Very often in Iberia Tempranillo goes by other local names such as; Ull de Llebre (Catalunya), Cencibel (La Mancha), Tinto Fino, Tinto del Pais, Tinto del Toro (Castilla y León), Aragonez (southern Portugal) and Tinta Roriz (northern Portugal, especially the Douro).

Although there are some plantings of Tempranillo in Argentina, Chile, California, New Zealand and South Africa I have always been surprised that the grape has not yet really broken through to be a proper mainstream international grape variety. Well, there was a lot of it in the wine shops in Australia, so perhaps its time has come?

Wingara are a big company who make huge volumes of wine, they also own the Deakin Estate and the Katnook Estate in Coonawarra, and this wine comes from their vineyards in the Murray Darling Sunraysia region, which straddles the border between New South Wales and Victoria near the border with South Australia. The vineyards are in Mildura, right on the border with New South Wales. This is a huge region that is irrigated and geared up for volume. However Australia often shows that volume and quality often go hand in hand and this is a terrific wine that is aged for some 8 months in used American oak.

You have to put Rioja out of your mind with this wine. It gives aromas of plums, rich, jammy strawberries, vanilla and sweet spice. The palate soft, juicy and fleshy with sweet red fruit and sweet, ripe tannins, a twist of something darker, vanilla and a light dusting of spice.

This is unashamedly a crowd pleaser of a wine and it certainly pleased my crowds and I know from experience that it goes with almost anything, even chilled at a barbecue – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for £9.99 per bottle from:
Majestic Wine Warehouse.

2016 The Bullet Dodger Montepulciano
Delinquente Wine Company
Riverland
South Australia

Not a grape you often see in Australia, but the the guys at Delinquente – pronounced ‘dellin-qwentay’, it’s Italian for delinquent – seem to like being different. The driving force is the wonderfully named Con-Greg Grigoriou. They use Italian grapes and one of their team, Jason Ankles, draws their striking, if somewhat disturbing labels.

Riverland is not a glamorous wine region. It is one of the big irrigated regions of Australia that traditionally produces work horse wines rather than boutique wines, Berri Estates, Banrock Station and Angove’s are all nearby. However, Con-Greg loves the place. He grew up here by the Murray River and is utterly convinced that it can makes wines as good as anywhere else in the country – on this showing I would have to agree.

Con-Greg Grigoriou amongst his Riverland vines.

Montepulciano is widely grown in Italy, in fact it can be used in over 40 different DOCs or DOCgs. The most famous wine it makes though is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo on the Adriatic coast of Italy. These are usually attractively fruity, inexpensive, easy drinking wines with soft tannins, but there are more ambitious versions produced as well as some impressive examples from the Conero DOCg in the Marche region near Ancona.

The fruit is all from a single vineyard, owned by Bassham Wines in Barmera. It was originally planted with Chardonnay, but was top grafted- i.e. in situ – in 2009 with more adventurous grape varieties and it is farmed organically. It is fermented in stainless steel and sees no wood at all. The aim appears to be to capture the pure, vivid, ripe fruit and he succeeds in that. The palate is succulent, juicy, creamy and generous like a smoothie of rich plum, black cherry and blackberry together with a little spice. The tannins are very soft, so the wine has no astringency and I defy anyone not to enjoy it. This is utterly delicious and comforting in a richly hedonistic way – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK from £14 per bottle from:
The Good Wine Shop, Forest Wines, Kwoff, Unwined in Tooting. More Information is available from Indigo Wines, the UK distributor.

I’m not very good at drinking red wine without food, but this could do the trick. It would also be perfect with a barbecue, or almost any meaty or rich food actually, but I enjoyed my bottle with a curry, it was a great match.

2014 Robert Oatley Signature GSM
Robert Oatley Wines
McLaren Vale
South Australia

Perhaps this is not as unusual or surprising as the other wines in the line up, but it’s really good and fits the theme perfectly. Australian GSM blends – Grenache-Shiraz-Mourvèdre have been with us for quite a while and are gaining popularity. Who knows they may well have kick started the whole Mediterranean grape wave in Australia.  Mourvèdre by the way is the same grape as  Mataro and Monastrell. Of course the blend is a nod towards the style of Côtes-du-Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

The late Robert Oatley.

Bob Oatley was one of the great characters of Australian wine who founded the famous Rosemount Estate nearly 50 years ago. Rosemount was immensely successful and it grew from a tiny boutique estate into a giant winery and Robert eventually sold it in 2001. However by this time he had also bought the venerable Craigmoor Winery in Mudgee in New South Wales and set up Oatley Vineyards there. This slowly became the hub of an enterprise that makes wine right across the premium vineyard sites of Australia and has cellar doors and restaurants in the Mudgee and Margaret River regions. In the 1990’s Robert Oatley was the first person to make a wine as a ‘GSM’.

This wine is a blend of 50% Grenache, 45% Shiraz and 5% Mourvèdre from southern McLaren Vale, which has a distinctly Mediterranean climate and a gentle maritime influence. The blend is matured in French oak barrels for 9 months.

It’s a wine that always goes down well, with warm aromas of mixed red fruit, rich strawberry and cherry, spices and a touch of leather. The palate is juicy, mouth-coating and sumptuous with concentrated red fruit, liquorice, sweet spice and savoury, gamey, earthy notes and all the while it has that hallmark South Australian softness. All in all a delicious and very, very drinkable wine – 90/100 points.

Serve it with slow cooked lamb, venison, kangaroo, lamb kebabs cooked on rosemary twigs, shepherd’s pie or just about anything hearty.

Available in the UK for around £15.00 per bottle from:
The Oxford Wine Company, The Halifax Wine Company, Just in Cases, Fareham Wine Cellar, Winedrop & the Clifton Cellars. More stockist information is available from Hatch Mansfield, the distributor.

2012 Alpha Box & Dice Xola Aglianico
Alpha Box & Dice / Viottolo Vineyards
McLaren Vale
South Australia

Aglianico (Ali-ani-coe) is yet another great Italian grape variety. Like Fiano it comes from Campania in the south where it makes all sorts of red wines, and the odd rosé, but is most famous for producing Taurasi GOCg in central Campania and Aglianico del Vulture in the wild landscape of Basilicata.

I love Taurasi. At its best it can be one of the very best red wines of Italy, but the grape is very tannic and very acidic – it’s often called the Barolo of the south, although it is much more full-bodied – so it is best to drink it from a producer who really knows what they are doing. Some of the best examples that I have ever tasted are made by the wonderful Raffaele Guastaferro of Cantine Guastaferro – he uses 200 year old vines! – the wonderful Feudo di San Gregorio and the lovely Milena Pepe who makes a huge range of fabulous wines at Tenuta Cavalier Pepe.

Because it can be such a hard grape, I was very excited to find Aglianico in Australia and hoped that the longer growing season and more sun would tame the grape’s wild nature. I was not disappointed.

Alpha Box & Dice cellar door.

Alpha Box & Dice is a little like Delinquente in that they present themselves to the world in a very modern way rather like craft beer producers do. Indeed much like craft beer you will struggle to find any actual information on their labels, just striking artwork and strange mottos for life. The place is quite extraordinary with a very relaxed feel and lots of mismatched furniture at the cellar door, but the wines are breathtaking.

The farming here is all biodynamic and while the labels seem cool and amusing you get the feel that the winemaking is taken very seriously indeed – I think you have to with a grape like Aglianico.

The grape is a very late ripener and even in Australia it is not picked until the very end of the season in late April. Once the grapes have been de-stemmed, to help reduce tannin, and the fermentation has taken place the wine is aged in used oak barrels for 36 months. This allows the air to trickle in and soften the tannins in the wine.

Oh my I loved this, it looks quite earthy and garnet with an amazing nose of flowers, balsamic, umami, liquorice, dried fruit and spice with some coffee thrown in. The palate is a shock, even here in Australia it is very acidic – in a good way – with rich cherry, some blackberry, plum, dry, peppery spice, leather, coffee, meat and lovely supple, ripe tannins that just nibble at your gums. A heady wine indeed that needs chargrilled meat or some really good beef – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £20 per bottle from:
All About Wine, Vincognito, Drinkmonger and WoodWinters. More stockist information is available from Boutinot, the distributor.

2010 D’Arenberg The Cenosilicaphobic Cat Sagrantino-Cinsault
D’Arenberg
McLaren Vale
South Australia

Sagrantino is an amazing grape variety that is nowhere near as well known as it ought to be. It comes from Umbria in Italy where it is used to make the Sagrantino di Montefalco DOCg wines and the Montefalco DOC wines that blend it with at least 70% Sangiovese to soften the tannins.

I love D’Arenberg, they are quirky and inventive and never afraid to put themselves out there. The Osborn family have owned it since 1912 and d’Arenberg Osborn – d’Arry – and his son Chester have achieved great things over the last 50 years or so. They actually released the first successful table wine in South Australia as recently as 1955. This was d’Arry’s Original, then called a Red Burgundy, now labelled as Shiraz-Grenache! Their range is large and idiosyncratic, but never disappoints.

Chester & d’Arry Osborn.

This particular wine was new to me this year and I am thrilled by it. 85% Sagrantino is tamed by 15% of light, spicy Cinsault and the South Australian sun. Some of the wine is trodden by foot, it is basket pressed and aged for 2 years in old French and American oak barrels, just to let the air soften those hard ‘gritty’ tannins. Cenosilicaphobic by the way means the fear of an empty glass!

Foot treading the Sagrantino at d’Arenberg.

This is another full on wine with aromas of dried cherry, chocolate, plums, earth, mocha and something wild and floral about it – possibly from the Cinsault. The palate is full and rich with a nice combination of soft, voluptuous richness and hard edged richness. There’re rich fruit, liquorice, balsamic, spices, coffee, chocolate and while there are plenty of tannins they are not aggressive and they have been tamed. A wonderful wine to enjoy with stews and pies – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £20 per bottle from:
Quality Wines, ND John, Auswinesonline.co.uk, Drink Finder. More stockist information is available from Enotria & Coe, the distributor.

I would also add that the Wine Society has a wonderful range of own label Australian wines called Blind Spot and that too includes some wines made from some less well known grape varieties. As you can probably guess some of these excellent wines are made from grapes from the Mediterranean world. These include Garganega – a white Italian grape variety famously used to make Soave – and a Barbera – a black grape more normally associated with Piemonte, both from King Valley in north east Victoria near the border with New South Wales. Then there is a delicious Old Vine Mataro – also known as Mourvèdre and Monastrell – from McLaren Vale in South Australia. In my opinion everyone in the UK who is interested in wine should be a member of the Wine Society, as their range is superb and beautifully put together.

So you see there is a great deal of variety available from Australia, even though they might not be in every supermarket. Australia can do so much more than Cabernet, Shiraz and Chardonnay and can bring its own style to a whole raft of grape varieties more normally associated with the Mediterranean world. What’s more all these wines are absolutely delicious and really food friendly too.

2 thoughts on “Australia’s wine dark sea

  1. Pingback: Wine of the Week – Aussie Riesling personified | Quentin Sadler's Wine Page

  2. Pingback: Fine White wines, Rosés and Sparklers from an Unexpected Corner of Italy | Quentin Sadler's Wine Page

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