Wine Reviews: Red ShowDownUnder

13 06 2017

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

FullSizeRender-646I first got seriously into wine about 10 years ago, when the Australia Phenomenon was in its heyday and Argentinian Malbec was just a glint in some clever investor’s eye in Mendoza.  Yellow Tail Shiraz was my gateway drug, a fact that is assuredly true of more than one of you currently reading this as well.  Looking back now on the Australian wine scene then, there are still tons of similarities.  Critter wines, like it or not, are still a thing. On the quality pinnacle, the high-end wines from Down Under rocking people’s worlds in 2017 aren’t that different from those doing so in 2007.  But I’ve noticed a couple clear differences in the imports from Australia that have evolved over the last decade:  first, a welcome explosion of site-driven elegance from the cooler areas of the country, be it Pinot from Yarra or Mornington or bubbles from Tasmania or the laser purity of some of the post-modern wines coming out of the Adelaide Hills.  Second, a new focus on bottles like the ones below, step-up bottlings, a shade above entry-level in price and a world above the critters in authenticity and quality.  The $20-$30 tier of wines has never had stronger representation on our shelves from Australia than it does currently, as more and more producers zone in on these bottles as the best way to build a lasting relationship of trust with consumers as opposed to an $11 fling.

So what better way to celebrate how far Australia has come as a mature wine producer, and how far I’ve come in my 10 years of Yellow Tail-catalyzed oenophilia, than by lining up two step-up bottles, each from highly respected multi-generational family wineries and legendary regions, and tasting them side-by-side?  It’s not about picking a winner — the mere fact that the exercise is possible is a win in and of itself — but I’m sure that won’t stop Jim Barry and Yalumba from exerting full effort in this battle of reds under screwcap.  Let the showdown from Down Under begin. Read the rest of this entry »





2013 Nugan Estate Third Generation Chardonnay

28 10 2016

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

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Nice to see some work go into a value label design.

If you were on the hunt for the largest subnational designated wine region in the world, the gargantuan South Eastern Australia appellation might be your first and last stop.  While most demarcated wine appellations gain their distinction by having a set of physical characteristics or surroundings in common — climate, soil, terrain, aspect, varietal — this one is intentionally celebrated for its internal differences.  Spanning five separate states within Australia (Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and even Tasmania) and covering the bulk of the prime vine-growing area in the country, South Eastern Australia is an umbrella region created to permit the blending of grapes from a variety of disparate conditions across a vast geographic area into a single appellation-level wine.  While the scorching Barossa Valley may have nothing in common with the cool, maritime Yarra Valley 800 kilometres away, producers under the SE Australia label can pick and choose grape characteristics from each (like rich fruit in Barossa and juicy acidity from Yarra) and meld them together to create a more balanced, interesting blend.  Australia has long been a wine nation that does not frown on cross-regional blending (the country’s top grape, Penfolds Grange, is such a blend), and when used correctly, it can allow for producers to put out well-made and eminently drinkable wines and surprisingly accessible prices. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2012 Jim Barry The McRae Wood Shiraz

5 04 2016

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

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Serious, serious Shiraz.

I decided to have a good start to the week.  I usually hew to the age-old rule of opening nice stuff on weekends but sticking to the cheaper end of the cellar on Monday, but yesterday I said to hell with it:  forget convention, I’m opening something fun.  This led me to the upper echelon of my sample rack, and to one of the better Australian Shirazes I’ve ever had, Jim Barry’s The McRae Wood.  Excellent Monday decision.

Jim Barry’s wines are no stranger to this blog – I’ve reviewed his highly impressive entry-level Cab and Shiraz and his mind-blowing, Grange-challenging top-end Shiraz The Armagh.  This bottle is closer to the latter than the former, a reserve-level Shiraz clocking in at around $60 and often known as The Armagh’s little brother.  Jim Barry is based out of the Clare Valley in South Australia, an elevated and cooler-climate region due north of Adelaide and just northwest of Big Shiraz Mecca, the Barossa Valley.  Clare is best known as Riesling country and is about as stylistically different from the Barossa as you can get by travelling 100 km or so, producing leaner, less ripe and more elegant wines and rethinking what it means to be an Aussie Shiraz as a result.  The McRae Wood Shiraz is sourced from a special single vineyard in the Clare Valley, a 70-acre plot of land that Jim Barry purchased from his neighbour Duncan McRae Wood in 1964 to plant his very first Shiraz vineyard.  This eponymous bottling honouring the initial owner of the land was first released in 1992, making this the 20th anniversary vintage of The McRae Wood. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: Pewsey Vale’s Regal Rieslings

16 03 2016

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

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I believe, Eden Valley. I believe.

I’ve talked before about how valuable comparative tastings can be.  Want to understand what Malbec tastes like, or what makes California Cabernet different from the same grape grown in Bordeaux, or what oak aging does to Chardonnay?  Don’t buy one bottle and drink it in isolation; buy two or three, which belong to your target group or establish your desired contrast, and have them together.  In this case my research question was:  how does Australian Riesling age, and what happens to it when it does?  My sample set was about as perfect as you can get:  two Rieslings from a star region (Eden Valley), from the same producer (Riesling expert Pewsey Vale), even from the same VINEYARD, separated only by six years of bottle age and the winery’s Museum Reserve library release program.  The results were phenomenal.

The Pewsey Vale Vineyard in the cool and elevated (and thus strangely named) Eden Valley, located northeast of Adelaide and right beside and above the Shiraz mecca (and actual valley) Barossa Valley, is a specialized Riesling-only shrine, exactly what you would see in the textbook description of a great Riesling site:  cooler climate (brought on in this case by its 500m altitude), poor rocky soils, hilly landscape.  The vineyard is 169 years old and has the distinction of being the very first spot planted to grapes in the area; when it was first planted in 1847, those inaugural vines included a few plantings of Riesling.  After the vineyard fell into disuse and disrepair, subsequent owners recognized its potential and single-planted the whole vineyard to Riesling in the 1960s, using cuttings from those first 19th century Riesling vines to do so.  Today all of Pewsey Vale Vineyard’s plantings have been propagated from those original 1847 vines. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2014 Yalumba Old Bush Vine Grenache

18 09 2015

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

Raise a glass to Grenache!

Raise a glass to Grenache!

This is a bottle of eager-to-ripen Grenache from the scorching Barossa Valley in Australia.  This is a delicate, pretty, dainty, almost ethereal wine.  These sentences are both somehow true.  Happy International Grenache Day, everyone!

Yes, the third Friday of every September is set aside to celebrate the wonders of a grape that is prominent on the world wine scene, yet still strangely underrated, often anonymously doing the heavy lifting in a Rhone-style blend and only occasionally stepping out into the spotlight on its own.  This is my second time toasting the grape in September:  I revelled in the glory of the Okanagan’s first ever Grenache back in 2013.  I appear to have missed this global vinous holiday last year, but am now fully prepared to make up for lost time.

Yalumba is Australia’s oldest family-owned winery, founded 166 years ago in 1849 and still in the family today.  You may know them for their string of top notch value wines (the Y Series Viognier is particularly awesome for what it costs), but they have offerings all across the price spectrum, and their standing and longevity has given them access to the types of fruit sources necessary to put quality in the bottle.  With respect to Grenache in particular, Yalumba owns some of the oldest Grenache vineyards in the Barossa Valley; the fruit sourced for this bottle was planted between 1898 and 1973.  Vines that pre-date your great-grandparents used for a $22 wine!  Yalumba is also the only winery in the Southern Hemisphere to have their own cooperage, so they select and import oak and then toast it to their liking and make their own barrels.  Cool. Read the rest of this entry »





Calgary Wine Life: Vasse Felix Winemaker’s Dinner @ The Lake House

16 07 2015

Let’s play word association.  I say:  “Australian wine”.  You immediately think — ?  You are probably lying if you don’t say “Shiraz”, and with that comes immediate images of big, lush, ripe, fruity, alcoholic reds, bursting with flavour and spice if lacking slightly in nuance.  The wine scene in Aus is certainly becoming more varied and complex as the years go on, but consumer memory changes slowly and initial impressions run deep.  That’s why one of the first instructions that Virginia Willcock, esteemed winemaker at southwestern Australia’s Vasse Felix winery, gave us about her wines was:  “Don’t call them Australian wines.  They’re not.”  At least not in the preconceived way we all think about them.

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Vasse Felix is located in the Margaret River region, a 3 hour drive south of Perth, which is a city surrounded by, well, nothing.  Willcock calls it “the most isolated wine region in the world”, but what it lacks in proximity it makes up for in a much cooler, more temperate, maritime climate than the rest of the country, a growing season that is often compared to that in Bordeaux, and resulting wines that exhibit finesse, elegance and character, wholly unlike the fruit monsters on which Australia made its international name.  Vasse Felix is the first wine estate founded in Margaret River, established in 1967, and it produced the area’s first Cabernet Sauvignon in 1972.  It continues to specialize in Cabernet, and also in Chardonnay, both classic Margaret River varietals, and it does not produce any other types of wines.  As Willcock says, they elected to be the master of a couple trades instead of a jack of all of them (a lesson that many other New World wineries could be well served in learning). Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2011 Wine Men of Gotham Shiraz Grenache

7 11 2012

[This bottle was provided as a sample for review purposes.]

Cartoon Aussie label looks can be deceiving.

Don’t worry — this won’t be the wine you think it is.  After living through over a decade of mass-produced, hugely ripe, straight-ahead, destined-for-export cheap wines coming out of Australia bearing tongue-in-cheek labels laden with any number of hand-drawn creatures, we can all be forgiven for looking at any sub-$15 Aussie red with a cartoon label with a touch of skepticism.  While I think the country as a whole often gets unfairly typecast by virtue of the overwhelming response that Yellow Tail and its brethren received when they burst onto the international market, it’s probably fair to say that most inexpensive Shiraz still tends to follow this formula…after all, why mess with success, especially the economic tidal wave of success that these wines continue to enjoy?  But this bottle does exactly that, delivering a wine that is light years from what your taste buds are expecting of a Shiraz Grenache from Down Under and trampling on some prejudices while it’s at it.

The first hint that Wine Men of Gotham’s Shiraz blend might be different from most is its alcohol level:  at 13%, it’s a good 1.5% to 2% lower than the standard modern Shiraz from Australia.  This is particularly unusual/impressive because (1) the regions where the wine’s grapes originate (Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and Riverland, although the label bears the catch-all “South Eastern Australia” name due to this multi-zone viticultural collaboration — SE Australia is an area that spans most of the grape-growing land in the country outside of the West Coast) generally tend to have warmer-than-average climates, which encourages faster sugar ripening and thus higher-alcohol wines, and (2) Grenache grapes are known for producing wines with heightened alcohol levels, especially in hotter climates.  It’s near impossible to produce a big, goopy, jammy Shiraz Grenache at 13% alcohol, which suggests that the Wine Men had something else up their sleeves for this bottle. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2010 19 Crimes Shiraz Durif

19 09 2012

Looks like a Deadwood episode, tastes a fair bit better.

I’ve seen this bottle in every wine store I’ve been in over the past couple of months, so I presume it’s attracted some critical mass of popularity and is doing well for itself.  I didn’t buy it for that reason, however, or because of its admittedly compelling bottle frosting and showstopper labelling.  I bought it because I felt sure that the makeup of this red blend was some sort of elaborate winemaker’s pun.  19 Crimes is a mixture of Shiraz and Durif.  Shiraz, as I discussed in my last review, is the same grape as Syrah.  Durif also has a more commonly known alias; in North America and elsewhere, it’s usually called Petite Sirah.  So this wine is actually a Syrah/Petite Sirah blend…Syrahs of all sizes?  Not quite.  Petite Sirah is not a type or class of Syrah but a stand-alone grape variety…and while we’re at it, nothing about it is petite at all once it hits the glass:  its diminutive first name refers to the size of its grapes on the vine rather than its flavours or structure.  Since Petite Sirah’s grapes are smaller, this creates a larger ratio of skins to juice, and since the skins are where a red wine’s colour and tannin resides, this makes most Petite Sirahs deep, thick, opaque and massive.  But still not Syrahs.  Who said learning about wine was hard? Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2006 RedHeads Studio Esule

16 04 2011

Awesome label, domineering wine.

Here we have a wine with a great back story, a fun concept and a kick-ass label, but which is made in a style that just makes me cringe.  It’s from the McLaren Vale, one of the premium wine regions in Australia located immediately south of Adelaide in the dead centre of the country’s southern coast, and it takes the super-ripe, ultra-concentrated Aussie style to crazy, irrational extremes.  It is probably a well-made wine for its style, but I will take a rather harsh stand and say that there shouldn’t BE any wines of this style.

But let’s rewind to the good stuff first.  RedHeads Studio is a garage wine collective located in south-central Australia.  “Garage wine” is a term used to describe high-quality, small-production artisan wines generally made by winemakers who don’t own vineyard land themselves but who buy grapes from growers and make custom wines in small crushing/fermenting facilities.  Some of the first such facilities in Bordeaux, France were actually in garages, which is what coined the term.  RedHeads is home to a number of such custom winemakers, who are often responsible for creating modern, edgy wines. Read the rest of this entry »





Wine Review: 2008 Schild Estate Barossa Shiraz

26 03 2011

My wine-loving history in a bottle.

I’m psyched about this review tonight for a few reasons.  First, I have been buying Schild Shiraz basically since I started collecting wine.  This 2008 will be the 4th vintage that I’ve purchased (making Schild my first legit vertical), and while four years isn’t that long in the grand scheme of things, it takes me back to my earliest serious interest in wine, a time when ALL I drank was Australia Shiraz. (Incidentally, who DOESN’T start drinking wine via Aussie Shiraz?  It’s like the vinicultural gateway drug.)  Second, this particular bottle of Schild was the recipient of an honour this year that many $100+ bottles would kill for:  it was named the #7 wine of the year in Wine Spectator magazine’s Top 100 Wines of 2010 list.  This doesn’t mean that Wine Spectator thought that this $28 bottle of Shiraz was the 7th best wine on Earth last year, but it does mean that, when taking quality, availability, value and other factors into account, this Schild rose almost to the top of the heap.  Spectator scored it 94 points (very rare for a wine at this price point) and generally showered it with praise.  Third, unlike some of the bottles I’ve discussed in recent weeks, this one is widely available almost everywhere. Read the rest of this entry »








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