A Fresh Start for Australian Wines

April 29, 2010

In some ways the Australian wine industry is like the pro athlete who in one week, gets caught with a hooker, punches his coach, inadvertently fires his illegal firearm in public, tests positive for eleven of the twenty something substances banned by his sport, tears a hamstring, and drives his car into a parade float–all while having a performance slump.

 Right now wines from down under are reeling from both bad luck and bad decisions. Recent droughts, hot summers and unfavorable exchange rates with the Australian currency create real obstacles for the wineries.  In addition, large multinational corporations pumping out swill rather than building a better brand with their finer wines have wreaked havoc with Australia’s reputation. Finally, the trend in wines has been away from the bigger, bolder juice that Australia has become known for. One in every six wineries in Australia is unprofitable today as prices have been slashed, and the surplus of wine creates a problem for selling their newer vintages.

 Although Australian wines have taken a few hits recently, they’re also a lot like the All-Star Wrestler that keeps getting up again and again in spite of the beating he takes. If the wine’s problems seem like a terminal diagnosis, tasting the wines I recommend below gives me new hope for the region, like a doctor saying: “Yes, the prognosis is correct, you have four months to live. Oh…. Wait…I’m sorry. I was looking at the wrong test results. Your results look fine.”

 Now many Australian wineries are diversifying to new styles of wine offering an option to the flabby, heavier fruit bombs that were so popular a few years ago. There is a broader showcase of terrific regional wines emerging that promises to pull them from their own NBA rookie-like public relations nightmare.

 Yalumba 2008, Viognier ($11.99): Peaches, citrus, spice, apricots and all the other flavors work together in this wine for the greater good. No prima donnas here to spoil a great team effort.

 Small Gully 2004, The Formula Robert’s Shiraz ($16.99): The Charles Barkley of wine:  A little flabbiness doesn’t matter if it’s doing everything else right . Just when you think it will be another over-the-top example of what Australia was doing wrong, structured flavors of mocha, dark fruit, and menthol arrive to give it game. 

Wine and Nerds: A Good Pairing

April 22, 2010

Some friends and I were hanging out at a buddy’s house when we started giving him a hard time about his collection of action figures he kept on his bedroom shelves. He’d been buying and selling them all his life. There they sat, still in the box he purchased them in, unused and protected in their special place. After looking at one I put it back on the shelf, apparently in the wrong position because he immediately scooped it up and placed it back in its original hallowed spot. It seemed crazy to me that someone would just keep them almost hermetically sealed and pristine for so long. Some of them even carried a signature from an actor who played a role on the TV series the figure came from. He almost went ballistic when a friend suggested we open one to see it more closely. It was crazy.

He tried to defend himself by turning to me and asking me how many bottles of wine I had tucked away in my cellar. I wasn’t following his point. He asked if we could open one of my Conn Valley Cabernets. Indignantly I told him he was mad to even think of already opening something from the 2005 vintage. He then suggested we open a 2004 Cerbaiona Brunello.

“Maybe in ten years,” I retorted, laughing.   

“How about a Chateau Branaire?” he asked.

“Sorry, man. Those are in their original wooden box. I might sell them someday,” I replied (years ago I bought those at a great price and I’m sure some adoring fan would be happy to have them).

“Then let’s have your bottle of Dashe Zin,” he continued.

“Michael Dashe signed that!” I cried. “Are you crazy?”

“Oh, that’s right,” he said. “You keep that right under the Nebbiolo, correct?”

Jeez, was this guy insane? Everyone knows you don’t keep a full bodied California Zinfandel in the medium bodied Italian varietal section.

 Don’t get me wrong. He’s a nice guy. He’s just a little over zelous with his collection. And recommending that we open my signed bottle of Dashe? Honestly!

 This week’s recommendation is for the nerdier wine enthusiast.

Marquis de Fonsequille 2007, Vacqueyras ($17.99): Vacqueyras is a little known and under-appreciated appellation in the southern Rhone region of France. MdF is big and tannic, yet structured and balanced. It has a meaty gaminess wrapped up in a medium body: A great match for red meats.

Crazy Eddie’s Used Wine Lot

April 15, 2010

Completely uneducated, I went to a used car lot to buy my first car. The first clue telling me I chose the wrong dealer was when I looked in the rear view mirror and saw the salesmen high-fiving each other as I drove the car off the lot. By the time I owned the car for a year I created a new way to drive that involved holding the window up with my elbow, holding the dash in place with my knee, and keeping a list of which accessories shorted out the entire electrical system. Thinking back, that dealer did not have my best interest in mind. For my next purchase, I needed to not only educate myself but find a new place to shop for cars.

 With wine, a little education and the right place to shop can also make a big difference in the quality of the product you end up with. For an education, there is a great new book out by wine critic Carolyn Evans-Hammond called Good Better Best Wines. It’s kind of a Consumer Reports for wines where she rates the popular big brand name wines under $15. The reviews are complete with tasting notes and clear photos of the labels. The book is available through Amazon and like the wines she reviews, is under $15.

 For a place to shop, look for more wine-focused liquor stores where the staff is passionate about wine. France 44 in Minneapolis, for example, has free wine tasting every Friday and Saturday. It allows you to “test drive” the wine before you buy. Shakopee Wine Cellars offers an interesting twist with its video coupon. You sign up, and then once a week you receive a short video via email featuring the owner’s smiling mug announcing a special deal available only to those on his email list. He often talks about the featured wine so it’s a great way to learn about what you’re buying. Unlike my car dealer, he’s not trying to get rid of the lemons. Rather, the owner finds a wine he likes and then charms the distributors for a super price that he can use for the video.  

 This week’s recommendation:

Souverain 2008, Alexander Valley Chardonnay ($15.99): This wine is the purple Buick of the wine world: It’s big and it’s smooth and doesn’t apologize for lumbering along in the left lane with its huge, delicious flavors of oak and butter.

With Wine, Trust Your Own Palate

April 9, 2010

“Who are three people who have never been in my kitchen?” replied Cliff Clavin, the know-it-all character from the sitcom Cheers, during his appearance on Jeopardy. This was not the answer host Alex Trebek was looking for when the he asked the contestants to identify the three names listed on the board. Technically, Cliffy’s answer was correct; the three never once stepped foot in his kitchen.

            “But that’s obviously not what we were going for here,” said Trebek after hearing Clavin’s technically correct answer.

            “Obvious to whom?” replied Clavin, again making a legitimate point.

            Cliff’s answer was right yet in the end, the response was ruled wrong and Mr. Clavin lost all his prize money.

 Tasting wine differs from Jeopardy because with wine there are no incorrect answers about what you experience. How can somebody else possibly tell you what you taste, what you like, and why? So many times people believe, incorrectly, that they need to have the same experience as the critics. They’re told which wines they should like or dislike. This is exactly why such a culture of snobbery surrounds wine. Here’s my point: Tasting wine is not like completing a history test or filling out an IRS form; you can put whatever answer you like and it’s still right. When your friend at a wine party describes “hints of forest floor” in a wine, your description of, “tastes like those little plastic green army men I used to play with,” is no less valid. If it tastes like plastic toys to you, nobody can, or should, tell you otherwise.

 To prove my point, a highly regarded wine critic recently admitted that his palate changed when he scored a wine 91 points. He said he would have rated it at 89 if he tasted it 18 months earlier. C’mon, what math teacher has ever said, “The answer for this problem is 42 but last week it was 18”?  

 So next time you’re in a situation where someone is telling you what you should obviously taste in a wine, think “obvious to whom?” Then see if you denote a nuance of those little plastic army men. Like Cliffy, you’d be correct. Below is this week’s recommendation.   

 Cline 2008, Cashmere ($15.99): This wine is very smooth. No hints of forest floor but I do get a very unique mix of burnt marshmallow on the nose and graham crackers on the palate. Remember, that doesn’t mean you should too.

The Great White Wine Migration

April 1, 2010

I can tell it’s spring again because the white wines are returning. One by one they show up, back again from whatever home they make for the winter, and settle into their summer grounds on porches and at picnics. As more and more arrive they begin to drive out the reds. With the warmer temps and longer days I start to spot the first Pinot Grigios here and there shortly after the snow is gone. Then, a few weeks after the last wind-chill advisories, the first Chenin Blancs appear. A friend of mine recently told me he spotted a Rose’ downtown someplace but that may just have been a fluke; one rogue glass that arrived too early and way ahead of the others. Or maybe my friend got it confused with a cranberry juice; the two have a very similar appearance.

The last to arrive are usually the Sauvignon Blancs. To attract them, try putting some goat cheese or feta on a small serving plate outside on a picnic table on a warm, sunny day. Last week my wife and I were excited to find a nesting pair in our refrigerator door so we expect to see a lot more of them this summer. Rieslings are attracted to almost anything but it’s still fun to see them show up. Chardonnay is one white that stays throughout the entire winter. To attract Chardonnay put out some Brie. I still have not spotted the more elusive Viognier or Gewurztraminer. I typically see them arrive with the summer salads, gathering around light fish and spicy Asian foods.

Although it varies greatly, around our household the whites stay in larger numbers through the summer months until the colder temperatures bring the reds back again. Following the great white migration is a great way to learn more about the variety and diversity represented within the world of wine. 

Below are a few whites that are easily spotted at local picnics and back porches on warmer weekend days.

Hermann J. Wiemer 2006, Dry Riesling ($17.99): This variety of white is easily identified by its lemon-lime mid palate. A complex specimen, it also has a unique eucalyptus element on its finish.

Kim Crawford 2009, Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc ($15.99): This white was introduced from New Zealand but large populations are doing very well competing against their relatives from California. Its grassy nose makes it easy to distinguish from other Sauvignon Blancs.

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