Distinctive Australian Whites (Almost)

30 04 2021

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

I had it all planned out. Australia is a red wine country, but is developing pockets of renown for dramatic and exciting whites that were worth their own dedicated post. One pioneering winery Down Under with particular experience in one such white grape had recently decided to create a new international vinous holiday as an ode to it, and I thought I had a bottle of that very variety from that very producer tucked away in the cellar. Kismet. My theme was set, my plan ready, my mind willing. It came…sort of close to working out. While you will quickly see the monkey wrench thrown into the works, the bottles below, and Australia’s burgeoning white wine culture generally, remain well worth highlighting and supporting. In addition to the new and classic styles of Southern Hemisphere white discussed in this post, don’t sleep on Hunter Valley Semillon (especially if you can wait 10+ years on it), Adelaide Hills Gruner Veltliner (yes, there is such a thing), Margaret River or Tasmanian Chardonnay (dangerously close to the very best out there), sweet Rutherglen Muscat, and all the other regional white wonders that Australia has to offer. It’s a world of possibilities in a single country, for which the below trio of nearly-whites offers a tantalizing glimpse.

2018 Yalumba Y Series Shiraz-Viognier (~$20)

Yalumba has a long history working with Viognier. They were involved in the planting of the first commercial Viognier wines in Australia back in 1980, the year I was born. They are the only Australian winery I can think of whose flagship white wine, The Virgilius, is 100% Viognier. And their entry-level Y Series Viognier is one of the most recognizable and best-selling examples of this precocious grape in the world. It is no surprise, then, that Yalumba would realize that Viognier was possibly the only remaining grape without its own dedicated Hallmark holiday on the calendar and decide to do something about that. Enter International Viognier Day, which will now be on the last Friday of every April and whose inaugural edition is today, April 30th, 2021. I am not a massive fan of self-created grape holidays — it’s a little like trying to give yourself a nickname — but I do love good Viognier and the added profile that Yalumba has brought to this under-appreciated party grape, so I will let this one slide. Even better, I knew I had a bottle of Y Series Viognier on me to celebrate this newly auspicious occas–

Not a white, as it turns out.

Oh. Y Series SHIRAZ-Viognier, you say. Turns out that when a wine is 95% Shiraz, it is NOT a white wine. Hmm. Can one celebrate International Viognier Day with a 5% Viognier wine? With a theme to salvage, I say yes. One killer use for Viognier is as a magical co-fermentation blending partner for Syrah/Shiraz, where it can add alluring magnetic aromatics and a sense of silkiness and playfulness to the overall wine, so I will raise a glass to that for Yalumba’s special day. The Y Series wines make use of the broad South Australia regional designation to allow them to pull from a multitude of vineyard sources in order to dial in proper varietal-based wines around a $20 price point. This Shiraz-Viognier saw wild yeast fermentation at cooler temperatures to preserve fruit, and while Viognier was added as whole berries “where possible”, it was not a full co-ferm where both types of grapes were all crushed and fermented together (pro-tip: ALWAYS go full co-ferm). All-stainless maturation rounds out the effort to make an open, honest, yet wallet-friendly expression of a classic blend.

This sort-of Viognier emerges a lush, brilliant, but otherwise very un-Viognier ruby-purple colour, fully translucent in the glass. The wine’s tech sheet uses “Turkish Delight” TWICE in two sentences to describe the aromas and flavours, but I get its Americanized candy equivalent Big Turk front and centre instead, cherry red Jujubes enrobed in sweet milk chocolate. Sweeping florals, icing sugar and bergamot (I see you, Viognier) linger over lifted anise and blackberry aromatics. Bright and tangy on the tongue, it seems almost sharp in the absence of softening oak and scaled back from a stereotypically bombastic Shiraz display, mixing frozen blueberries and sandpaper, Ocean Spray and squid ink, with bitter iodine and scrappy tannin on a shorter finish. This last medicinal streak lends relief and a clinical dimension to an otherwise soft, yielding body. Consider this the red to use for toasting to Viognier Day when you tragically realize you have the wrong bottle.

87+ points

All-Stelvin Ratings: 7.5/10, 7/10, 4/10 (JB needs to stick to a consistent font.)

2019 Jim Barry Watervale Riesling (~$22)

From one lights-out Australian family producer to another, this one in its third generation of winemaking in the Riesling Mecca of Clare Valley, located almost due north from the nearby (but much warmer) Barossa. Clare Valley is a top quality region (and maybe the only wine region on Earth best known for my favourite red and my favourite white grapes, Syrah/Shiraz and Riesling) but is a bit player in terms of quantity, accounting for less than 1.5% of Australia’s total annual production. Toward the south end of the Clare is the village of Watervale, population 246, that has gained an outsized reputation for Riesling in particular; this particular offering is a single-vineyard bottling from Watervale’s Florita vineyard, clocking in at a smooth 2.96 pH and ready to epitomize the Clare Valley’s take on this most transparent of grapes. Imagine getting a pinnacle-region single-vineyard expression of ANYTHING for $22. But here we are. Australian whites, man.

The reserved demeanour of this Riesling is perfectly reflected in its ultra-pale lemon-green colour, eerie and gleaming. It smells like a world of hurt: incisive wet rock, honed steel, Astroturf, salty lemon and orange rind, punitively aromatic but achingly tight and mineral. Surprisingly, it does not immediately go for the jugular when you taste, instead lingering with powdery anticipation before the acid drills down inside your teeth, a slow-motion Venus flytrap. It almost feels fleshy for a half-second before stretching, leaning out and drying, piercing lemon and grapefruit flavours giving way to chalk and stone, rainwater and printer paper on an extended arid finish. I just had a Grosset Watervale Riesling a week or so ago, and this is an eerie echo of that, an emphatic and rugged reflection of the Clare Valley, a beacon of Riesling’s New World home.

89+ points

2018 Jim Barry Assyrtiko (~$34)

And now for something completely different. Winemaker Peter Barry tasted Greek grape Assyrtiko while on holiday in Santorini in 2006, thought it somewhat reminiscent of Clare Riesling, obsessed about it to a point where he decided to give it a go in his home and native land, endured a TWO-YEAR quarantine process for importing cuttings from Greece (obtained from 300 year-old pre-phylloxera wines from Argyros Estate), made them the first ever Southern Hemisphere plantings of the grape in 2012, entrenched them in Jim Barry’s jewel Lodge Hill Vineyard, waited two years to squeeze out an inaugural harvest of 15 litres, but persevered to create something totally sui generis. Its 2.8 pH echoes the most extreme wines of the Okanagan, and the world, on the litmus scale. I have always struggled with how to pronounce this grape’s name, bouncing between “ah-SUR-tih-ko” and “ah-sir-TEE-ko”, and it turns out that both are wrong: it’s “ah-SEER-tih-ko”. It’s also telling a compelling story in its adopted home.

This is so pale that it’s nearly water-white, a burst of spritz the only hint of the personality lurking within. A pure streak of lime mirrors the Riesling above, but it is then expanded by more generous cantaloupe and mango fruit, surprising bay leaf and parsley, calming honeysuckle and burrowing white stone, all wrapped in a faint pleasant rubbery note, like nostalgic memories of water out of the backyard hose. The Assyrtiko immediately asserts itself on the palate, attacking like a rabid dog over all parts of the mouth at once, juicy and alive, green herbs (dill, basil) and salty seawater amidst honeydew, limeade, water chestnut and a buzzsaw of acid and minerality. It feels pared down and sharpened, but also feels like it’s the one actively doing the sharpening. The powdery finish dissipates the electric energy of the wine slowly, incrementally, bringing relief and a firm sense that the multi-year quarantine was clearly worth it.

91 points


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