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Tasting the wines the world apparently finds boring

I recently spent three days in South Australia tasting virtually every significant forthcoming release from Australia's three largest wine producers: Foster's, Constellation Wines Australia and Pernod Ricard Pacific.

04 Apr 2010

By Jeremy Oliver

Large Australian wine companies have lost the plot. They're making hectolitres of dull, bland, boring and entirely nondescript but perfectly sound wines that are entirely incapable of reflecting a sense of place or even the region in which they're grown. The flagship bearers of the Australian wine industry are falling well behind the pace of rejuvenated European wine brands as well as the more exciting New World producers from countries like South Africa, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina. Buy Australian, then, if you can't be bothered to turn on your brain and just want to play safe, very safe. Or maybe not.

This, however, is the view played like a broken record by much of the world's wine media, who on the surface of it would appear to spend more time reading and re-writing each others' columns than actually tasting the wines they so constantly harp about.

So, while doing the groundwork for the next edition of The Australian Wine Annual, I recently spent three days in South Australia tasting virtually every significant forthcoming release from Australia's three largest wine producers: Foster's, Constellation Wines Australia and Pernod Ricard Pacific. And I was delighted with what I found. Here are some edited highlights, each of which will be found on the Australian wine market for $25 or much, much less.

Day One was at Chateau Reynella, McLaren Vale, the spiritual and administrative home of Constellation in Australia. I was taken by a fine, elegant and pinot-driven Yarra Burn Vintage sparkling from 2007 which underpinned its vibrant presence of cherry/berry fruit with pleasing meaty and autolytic complexity, before finishing with tightness and freshness. The Yarra Burn Rosé from 2006 is rounder and more creamy, with rose petal aromas, a fine chalkiness and a delightful contrast between richness and focus.

In the white department, Amberley's Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2009 hits true Margaret River regional character, with pristine gooseberry, lychee and passionfruit flavours backed by a light herbaceousness and punctuated by clean acids. Brookland Valley's Verse 1 Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2009 is even better, with more finesse and a penetrative core of guava, lychee and melon flavour. Better still is the Starvedog Lane Sauvignon Blanc 2009, whose smoky bouquet and generous cassis and gooseberry flavours are knit with a measured minerality and plenty of winemaker-induced funkiness.

Those seeking everyday value might check out the bargain-priced Nottage Hill Riesling from 2009 (less than $10), which despite some residual sweetness is fresh, long and genuinely varietal. The generously flavoured, smooth and vibrant 2009 Chardonnay (also less than $10) is even better. As you'd expect, Leasingham's Bin 7 Riesling 2009 is a big step up towards a truly floral bouquet and a supple, almost fluffy presence of crystalline citrus flavour, backed by hints of apple and pear. I'm a tough customer on Australian pinot grigio, but took a fancy to Starvedog Lane's 2009 edition - a savoury, complex and chalky dry wine that should flesh out well. Brookland Valley's Verse 1 Chardonnay from 2009 is a delicious modern wine with appropriate emphasis on fruit and freshness.

I enjoyed the savoury, dusty, spicy presence of black, red and blue fruits evident in Houghton's The Bandit Shiraz Tempranillo 2008, while the Moondah Brook Shiraz 2008 (around $15) offers terrific value for its deep, ripe and sweetly oaked expression of slightly menthol-like fruit. Starvedog Lane's 2008 Shiraz Viognier might be on the overtly floral side, but offers great short- to medium-term drinking, while Leasingham's firm and minty Bin 61 Shiraz 2007 is a deep, dark and mineral example set for the long term.

Amberley is releasing its very polished, dusty and supple Cabernet Merlot from 2008 at bargain prices (sub $20), while Leasingham's stalwart Bin 56 Blend of cabernet sauvignon and malbec (sub $25) is typically rich, ripe and robust.

Day Two at Orlando's Rowland Flat headquarters in the Barossa introduced me to some equally brilliant value and style. First up is the Jacob's Creek Reserve Riesling 2009 (around $15), a fluffy and elegant wine that delivers all the intensity, perfume, fresh line of fruit and acidity you could ask for at this price. However, this almost pales against Richmond Grove's charming and willowy Watervale Riesling 2009, a true regional beauty of suppleness and truly essential flavour. At under $20, it's a complete steal, even better than the long, powdery and slightly toasty Orlando St Helga Riesling from 2009.

Somewhat counter-intuitively for me, I cannot help from recommending Jacob's Creek's drier, spicy and almost savoury Shiraz Rosé from 2009 (under $10), while its 2009 Three Vines Rosé (under $15) is even better, with a fine chalkiness and a long, vibrant finish.

I really liked the basic Jacob's Creek Shiraz 2007 (under $10) for its generous, sumptuous presence and its surprising balance and sophistication. Brilliant value indeed. The stylish and quite savoury Three Vines Shiraz Cabernet Tempranillo from 2008 (under $15) backs its fresh spectrum of berry flours with hints of musk and mint, plus a fine chalkiness. And it might be multi-regional - enough these days for wine critics to start crossing themselves or groping for idols - but Wyndham Estate's Bin 555 Shiraz from 2008 is sumptuous, smooth and simply delicious. Look out also for the George Wyndham Shiraz Grenache 2008, which for under $20 is a very convincing southern Rhône effort indeed. From the Limestone Coast, the rather pliant and restrained George Wyndham Shiraz Cabernet 2006 (under $20) is very stylish and complex - better than Limestone Ridge at less than half the price.

My final tip is the redoubtable Shiraz 2006 from the famous Rutherglen brand of Morris - a ripe and meaty regional classic capable of lasting for decades.

This is still one heck of a lucky country! My next column will feature the Foster's highlights. 

Published: 04 Apr 2010