The Boston Phoenix
September 21 - 28, 2000


| by restaurant | by cuisine | by location | hot links | food home |
| dining out archive | on the cheap archive | noshing & sipping archive | uncorked archive |

Gold-medal wines

A tour of Australia's Olympic wine industry

by David Marglin

So you're home watching the Olympics with those precious little narratives, learning more than you thought there was to know about Australia and the athletes who came to Sydney to compete, and you're thinking to yourself: this would be a whole lot more enjoyable if I had some nice Australian wine in my mouth.

Indeed it would. Australians are fearless winemakers who have come a long way in the past decade. Like the American West Coast, Australia's wine regions enjoy consistent climate year in and year out, so the fruit is consistently ripe. This leaves winemakers free to experiment, both in their vineyards and in their wineries. The jewel in the Australian wine crown, of course, is the shiraz (syrah) grape, but Australians blend their precious shiraz with just about every red variety they grow, including cabernet sauvignon, grenache, mourvèdre, and merlot. They even make some very exciting sparkling shirazes.

But what's really interesting about Australian wine -- and what makes it a good fit for the Olympic season -- is the attitude of the people who make it. Compared to American vintners, who enjoy a similar climate, they seem less concerned about their numeric ratings and sales numbers. Australian winemakers are keenly competitive, but what they seem to care about most, in true Olympic fashion, is winning medals in wine competitions -- especially those held in Australia, where hundreds of wines are tasted "head to head." Winemakers compete against each other in producing wines they like, and they fully expect the palates of drinkers in their two big overseas markets -- Britain and America -- to come to them. The result is a focus on making powerful, fruit-forward wines that are easy to drink, if often idiosyncratic.

A persistent knock against Australia in the '70s and '80s was that its vintners did not export the good stuff, but kept it for themselves. Now Australia recognizes the importance of building brand recognition, perhaps thanks to another curiosity of the Australian wine business: the majority of the industry is controlled by major corporations like Mildara Blass and Southcorp. (Southcorp, the country's largest wine producer, owns Penfolds, Lindemans, and Seppelt, among others.) The growth ambition of the Australian wine corporations is no secret; Mildara Blass (owned by Foster's Brewing) just purchased California's Beringer Wine Estates for $1.5 billion. Meanwhile, the Australian indies, which lack similar marketing clout, have to work that much harder to get their product in stores and restaurants -- and the best way to do that is to make big, noticeable wines.

In addition to its shiraz, Australia is gaining recognition for its cabernets and pinot noirs, as well as its Rhône-style blends. As far as whites go, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc are the leaders, but the most exciting varietals are riesling and sémillon. Once I used to scoff at these varietals, because the examples available around here were simply not very good. Now, however, they often achieve excellence.

As you're reveling in the Olympics, take advantage of this opportunity to try some awesome Aussie wines, many of which will astound you as much as the Games. And bear in mind, as you get into the Olympic spirit, that the next Games are in Utah, not exactly a major wine-producing state. So empty your glasses while ye may. No worries about these wines, which should make even the track-and-field events a bit more riveting.


1999 Buckeley's Sémillon-Chardonnay South Australia ($9.99). According to the label, Buckeley's means "no chance" in Australian, but there is a good chance you'll like this wine. It's not overly creamy, as many sémillons are; the 37 percent chardonnay gives it good crispness and acidity, and it has wonderful zinginess. Great with fish sticks, fried clams, or ginger shrimp.

1998 Tatachilla Chenin Blanc/Sémillon/Sauvignon Blanc South Australia ($9.99). A chenin blanc blend is a slightly astonishing concept, but this one works. It sneaks up on you with dry softness, then it smacks you with a tropical-fruit finish. Thoughtful wine -- good with Indian food or cioppino.

1998 Leasingham Riesling Bin 7 Clare Valley ($10.99). Lotsa citrus, as the maker (too?) boldly proclaims on the back label. Yes, it packs that familiar riesling dash of green apples as well. Fine with a lemony fish, like bluefish, or a mustardy chicken dish.

1999 Grosset Polish Hill Riesling Clare Valley ($29.99). A splurge. This is an appealing wine -- fresh, crisp, and lively. It has lots of apple and some funky pear flavors, and it's wonderful with brie or shellfish, even a ceviche. A gold-medal wine all the way, by the Aussie master. (Note: although my bottle had a cork, Grosset is experimenting with screw caps -- those bold Aussies!)


1999 Deakin Estate Shiraz Victoria ($10.99). I have seen this on excellent, eclectic wine lists all over town (at Jasper White's Summer Shack, for example), and I loved it every time I gave it a spin. It tastes of big plum -- hot, pungent, maybe just a mite stewy, but rewarding nonetheless. Great with stew, spicy foods, even an intense bluefish or roughy. Great value.

NV Alfred Deakin Estate Sparkling Shiraz ($11.99). A grape-soda extravaganza, fresh and refreshing. Not as deep as the Peter Rumball (see below), but a cool quencher nonetheless. Goes with meats, flounder with hazelnuts, even (gasp!) certain cheeses. Cocoa and coffee notes (sorta mocha, I guess) make this a quaffer.

NV Peter Rumball Sparkling Shiraz ($24.99). There are only a couple of sparkling shirazes available locally, and this is by far the best I have found. It's sharp and refreshing, deep red in color, with subtle flavors and relatively low alcohol (12.5 percent). All the shiraz elements and delicate bubbles, too. It is made by the méthode champenoise, and it pairs well with anything spicy, but I love it on its own. A definite crowd pleaser -- easy to drink, fun to look at.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

The Uncorked archive