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On Top Down Under

I’ve written a lot about French wines in the first 3 months of the blog and also had a go at trying to decode Italian wine lists (Navigating Italy). In my looking forward to 2013 post I talked about discovering more about the delights of Australian wine so here is an overview of some of the key Aussie wine regions and the grape varieties to look out for, along with some recommendations. I’ve tried to concentrate on wines that are easily available to everyone.

The great thing about Australian wine is the simple labeling. 99% of the time the label will tell you the name of the producer, the region it is from, and the grape varieties used to make the wine. This is one of the key reasons for the success of Aussie wines, but so too is the quality at the mid to high end of the market. Also, some of the names of the wines are superb!
Aussie wine

South East Australia – a note of caution

The regional identifier of South East Australia (or SE Australia) is a catch-all which covers most of the major wine producing states (except Western Aus). Quite often the grapes used to produce these wines have been deemed not good enough to go into the regionally labeled wines. They will have been bought by a high volume wine maker to produce cheap and cheerful wines, so could be a blend of grapes from 3 or 4 different states. It’s not to say these are poor wines, it’s just they won’t have the complexity or sense of place (terroir) that you will find from location-specific wines. These are the wines you find in the cheap supermarket promotions.

Western Australia

Although WA accounts for a small proportion of Aussie wine (under 5%), the quality is excellent. The vast majority of wines from the region are in the premium category. The Margaret River region is the most famous in the area. The key grapes grown in the area are Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Chardonnay. My pick of the producers is Leeuwin Estate, who’s “Art Series” Chardonnay is regarded as one of the best white wines in the country. Other regions to look out for are Great Southern and Swan Valley.

Ring Bolt Cabernet Sauvignon 2097, Margaret River (Tesco £10.99)
Plantagenet The Lioness Pinot Noir, Great Southern (Tesco £12.99)
Vasse Felix Chardonnay 2010, Margaret River (Majestic £13.99)


South Australia

Could be called the wine state of Australia. When we come to looking at the names of the sub-regions I’m sure you will recognise many of the famous names from bottles you have drunk. When you see the names Barossa Valley or McLaren Vale, the grape that immediately screams out at you is Shiraz. Look out for Barossa wines from Peter Lehmann, king of the valley. These areas have very hot and dry summers and produce blockbuster red wines, which are rich, chocolaty and spicy. Yum! For Cabarnet Sauvignon, look no further than Coonawarra. The wines have lovely blackcurrant and eucalyptus characteristics and are a brilliant accompaniment to rare red meat.

And don’t forget the white wines. Some of my favourites come from the Clare and Eden Valleys, especially the precise citrus-led bone-dry Rieslings, which can be stunning.

D’Arenberg One Hundred for Four Shiraz, McLaren Vale (The Wine Society £7.50)
Jacobs’s Creek Reserve Pinot Noir 2011, Adelaide Hills (Sainsburys £9.99)
Tim Adams Riesling 2006, Clare Valley (Tesco £10.49)
Peter Lehmann BVS Shiraz 2010, Barossa Valley (Majestic £12.49)
Walter Clappis The Hedonist Shiraz 2010, McLaren Vale (Waitrose £12.99)

Victoria

The coolest of the mainland states in Australia, so the emphasis is more on cooler climate grapes such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The Yarra Valley region is a great place to start for both of these grape varieties. For wine connoisseurs head for the Mornington Peninsular, where winemakers are starting to make quite a noise with their high quality output. Giles, an ex-colleague of mine who spent some time in the area, has pointed me in the direction of “Main Ridge Half Acre” – Giles, I’ve found a source and got some on order! www.houseoftownend.com

And for something completely different, head towards Rutherglen and their luscious dessert wines made using Muscat – a very wine that works as well with fruit-based desserts as it does with chocolate.

Brown Brothers Late Harvest Muscat 2010, Rutherglen (Majestic £8.49)
Billi Billi Shiraz 2008, Grampians (The Wine Society £8.50)
De Bortoli DB Reserve Pinot Noir, Victoria (Majestic £9.99)
Willing Participant Chardonnay 2010, Yarra Valley (Waitrose £12.99)

New South Wales

Home of the Hunter Valley, the most northerly and tropical of Australia’s wine producing regions. The Shiraz is from the region is often described as softer and spicier than those from further south, and are generally thought to age very well. For white wine, the region is famous for Semillon, although many of the other regions are beginning to produce more and more of these grassy, citrusy wines. A region I keep reading about (well I definitely notice it!) is the superbly named Tumbarumba – I’m on the look out for some Chardonnay from he as the write-ups get better and better.

Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Semillon 2005, Hunter Valley (Tesco £9.29)
Taste the Difference Semillon 2010, Hunter Valley (Sainsburys £9.99)
Robert Oatley Finisterre Chardonnay 2011, Mudgee (The Wine Society £16.00)

Tasmania

The cool climate of Tasmania provides new opportunities for Aussie wines and the primary grape growing in the state is Pinot Noir. The island is producing nuanced and delicate wines from this notoriously difficult grape and I look forward to discovering more. White wine development is also very exciting, with precise and fruit driven Rieslings, as well as a growing reputation for Pinot Gris, in the style of the Mosel – very exciting.

For special occasions

The very best Australian wines are up there with the very best in the world. If you really want to push the boat out and try something really special, here’s a premium list to choose from.

Katnook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Coonawarra (The Wine Society £18.00)
Kooyong Beurrot Pinot Gris 2010, Mornington Peninsular (The Wine Society £18.00)
Leeuwin Estate Prelude Chardonnay 2009, Margaret River (The Wine Society £23.00)
Ocean Eight Verve Chardonnay 2010, Mornington Peninsular (The Wine Society £23.00)
D’Arenberg Dead Arm Shiraz 2008, McLaren Vale (Majestic £27.00)
Sandalford Estate Cabenet Sauvignon 2007, Margaret River (The Wine Society £29.00)
Ten Minutes by Tractor Estate Pinot Noir 2010, Mornington Peninsular (Majestic £35.00)
Leeuwin Art Series Chardonnay 2008, Margaret River (Majestic £55.00)

From the sublime to the (not so) ridiculous

OK then, lets give Tesco a go. After the amazing Leoville-Barton tasting earlier I the week I thought I’d go to the farthest extreme and taste some “cheap” or “bargain” wine from the UK’s biggest supermarket, and the biggest supplier of wine to the UK consumer in volume (definitely) and value (probably).

Me and The Fish hate shopping at Tesco. It reminds me of an awful amusement arcade full of families screaming at each other. Having said that, we often use the Tesco Express at the end of our road as it is very convenient, you know what you’re getting and you know the price will be decent. But we needed some ingredients for Sunday dinner so went to the Tesco supermarket in Rickmansworth. It wasn’t fun, but it was interesting.

The wine section is actually very well put together with three distinct sections. The first is for offers, the second is arranged by colour & country, the third is fine wine. In between the sections there are also some “have you tried this” sections with useful advice on different grapes, growing areas and food matches. Well done, tick! By the way, the fine wine section had a really good selection, including a M Chapoutier Cote Rotie 2009 for about £30… But that’s not what we’re here to discuss today!

We went to the offers section, and I was looking for a 3 for £10 offer to lambast… But nothing so incredible to be found. Even that crappy Italian Dino rubbish was at £9.99; I wonder how many bottles they sell at that price?? It was in this section, however, that The Fish spotted the “Simply” range at £4.79 a bottle. Now this is a great idea. Tesco has taken the New World direction and “simply” put together a range of varietally named wines. If anyone watched “Chateau Chunder”, the programme on BBC4 earlier this week about the growth of Aussie wine, they will recognise the importance of this simple strategy. So we decided to go for 2 of these to try on a Sunday afternoon.

We chose the Spanish Garnacha and the German Riesling. And this is what I thought:

Simply Garnacha 2011

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The label on the Garnacha reads: “Made from sun ripened Garnacha grapes, this fruity red is medium-bodied, full of spicy bramble fruit flavours and juice red currant notes.”

Very young and purple in colour with a very attractive nose. It’s like a cocktail of stewed black fruits and just a hint of spice. On the palate there’s some black currants and maybe even a bit of dried morello cherry. Unfortunately that’s where the good bit ends and the alcohol starts to burn and overpower everything. You would think the ABV was upwards of 14%, whereas its actually 13.5%. This is by no means a bad wine and you’ll find it hard to get a Cotes Du Rhone as good at this price. Me and The Fish enjoyed a couple of glasses on Sunday afternoon and I threw the rest into my oxtail braise! 83 points

Simply Riesling 2011

“An authentically German Riesling, with well balanced flavours of green apples and citrus fruit with a juicy finish”.

In the glass the Riesling looks a bit like very weak lemon squash but is lovely an clear. I found it very difficult to get much aroma either straight from the fridge or after an hour in the glass; however there are some very muted hints of green apple and lime there somewhere. On the palate we have a blast of sweetness, almost medium sweet. It’s like a really sweet but juicy (homemade?) cordial of apples and limes, and its only 10.5% alcohol. This is definitely not my style of Riesling as I love the bone dry new world style, particularly from South Australia, but I can definitely see The Fish drinking this through a straw in the garden during the summer holidays! 80 points

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Barcelona. The good, the bad and the bubbly!

Now my knowledge of Spanish wine certainly isn’t great. I know my Rioja from my Ribera, understand the difference between a Crianza and a Gran Reserva, and love the refreshing whites from the the north of the country, particularly Verdejo and Abarinho. But what about Barcelona, and what about Penedes?

The white wines by the glass are simple affairs, reminiscent of the slightly round white wines from the Rhone; pleasant but lacking that streak of acidity to really give them a lift, especially when drunk with some of the marvellous seafood pinchos. What I was really surprised and delighted by are the number of varieties grown in the area, and the quality of the wines produced using the more commonly known grapes.

For lunch on our first day we sat down at a very good seafood tapas restaurant, Mariscco in Placa Reial. Looking through the wine list, what caught my eye was a Penedes DO Riesling (Torres Waltroud 2011) so I went with my instinct and what a good choice it turned out to be. At first taste I thought it may be a touch off-dry, but this was simply the juiciness of limes and pineapple chunks coming through. The finish was actually bone dry and rather reminiscent of a wine from the Clare Valley – a very modern and enjoyable wine (89 points). The seafood was outstanding. Percebes, langoustine, clams, cuttlefish, followed by some beautiful veal fillet.

Mariscco restaurant in Placa Reial

We also enjoyed some simple but refreshing Basque white wine in a couple of the great pinchos bars; nothing to write home about with too much conviction but perfect for this most superb method of informal dining.

The best seafood dish ever??

The second memorable white was the exceptional Jean Leon Chardonnay 2009. Only 12,000 bottles produced in the vintage and ours was bottle number 9,554. The wine had beautifully integrated oak, which surprised me when i found it had spent 9 months in new French oak. The nose was a pleasant apple and pear combo, with the fruit coming through in the taste, swathed in a rich vanilla cream. Once we took the wine out of the ice bucket we were able to enjoy it at its full and charming best (91 points). What I haven’t mentioned is Can Majo, the superb restaurant where we enjoyed this wine in Barcelonta, overlooking the sea. The Majo paella was maybe the best seafood dish I have ever eaten and I implore you to go if you ever find yourself in the vicinity.

So what about the reds? Well this is the only “bad” I can write about. And the main reason is the lack of local red available by the glass. Rioja – tick, Ribera – tick. But very little of the local stuff. The couple of places we did find with Penedes, or if we were very lucky, Priorat, on the list by the glass were fantastic! The Garnacha is spicy, yet silky, concentrated and inky. It was just such a shame that there was so little around!

La Vinya del Senyor – a great wine bar in Placa Santa Maria

On our last evening we went to the superb wine bar in Placa Santa Maria, called La Vinya del Senyor. OK, we went the day before and enjoyed a lovely glass of Cava and Ribera, but the list was excellent so we decided to head back for a bottle of Priorat. And boy was it worth it. We asked the waiter for some inspiration and he pointed us in the direction of the Somni 2009. Wow! Spicy, smokey, brambly, black currant and blackberry nose. Lovely cassis flavour, reminiscent of a great black currant sorbet. Warm, concentrated, complex and long, like a black fruit duvet! This was perfect for a chilly evening in Barca (by their standards), and one I will be tracking down for Xmas (94 points).

The star of the show – Somni 2009, Priorat DOCQ

So that just leaves the bubbles. To be quite frank, I’ve never met a Cava I’ve really got along with… Until this weekend. I’ve always found Cava lacking the acidic backbone I so enjoy in champagne and English fizz. But this weekend I found the Cava zing and it was certainly worth waiting for. We enjoyed a lovely Titianna Brut Nutural (extra dry) at the aforementioned La Vinya del Senyor, but the real magic came when we visited Freixenet, one of the biggest Cava producers in Catalunya. I’m going to write a separate piece about the tour and tasting at Freixenet as it is definitely something I would recommend to anyone visiting the Barcelona area, and anyone who feels they don’t quite “get” Cava.

A taste of things to come

Overall, Barcelona is a wonderful city and brilliant place for a city break. The food is simply outstanding, the culture is magnificent and the people are welcoming. As a matter of fact, I can’t wait I go back!

The good.

I have fallen in love with pinchos – the most social way of eating I have ever come across. As for the wine, well the brooding, fruity reds of Priorat certainly get the gold medal but the whites made from the more internationally recognised grapes are also excellent and I look forward to finding some for my collection.

The bad.

There isn’t any really. The biggest bugbear was the lack of local wine by the glass and the omnipresence of Rioja and Ribero. In fairness that really isn’t too much of a chore but I think the locals should be proud of their wine and encourage more of us tourists to give it a go.

The bubbly.

Well I’m a Cava convert. The cheap stuff we buy in supermarket in the UK really doesn’t do this drink any justice. There is so much choice and there are some really complex wines out there – you just have to search them out and have a bit of patience. I will write up my notes from the Freixenet tasting in the next day or so to try and give a bit more depth to the subject.

Gracias!

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