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Two Weeks Exploring Australian Wine – A brief overview

Date: Mon, Nov 24, 2008 Wine Tasting

We have been back from Australia for a little over a week and it has taken me that long to recover from a head cold, thanks to a fellow passenger on our return flight. The only saving grace was that I didn’t succumb to the sniffles, sneezes and aching muscles while we were on our 3,000 kilometer odyssey through some of Australia’s best wine country. Miranda was not so fortunate; she came down with the dreaded “common” cold the day before we left Dubbo and we were almost through with McLaren Vale before she recovered enough to last though a full day of wine tasting.

Even with the unplanned visits to various Chemists (pharmacists), for the latest in cold remedies, the trip was a great opportunity to explore the diversity of Australian wine. We discovered excellent whites at Printhie near Orange, got a lesson on how to stylishly open a screw capped wine bottle from Ken Helm as we sampled his outstanding Canberra Rieslings, had dinner under a stamped metal ceiling in an historic guesthouse with a boisterous bunch of Aussies, and were the fist through the door at the 2008 Cork and Fork in Cowra. And that was just the first two days!

Two weeks, three states, six wine regions, and all by car. Red wine, white wine, dessert wine, fortified wine, sparkling wine, even wine that technically was not wine at all - we tried them all. Some were simply not that good, others superb. We had cellar door experiences that were not all that polite to hours and hours of joyously sampling Mollydooker wines with Sparky’s mum. We explored Joseph’s room and found a barrel of wine to celebrate our own centenary. We had a winemaker tell us that the wine we gifted him was not that good, only to apologize the next day. It didn’t matter. He was correct and anyway he was allowed to roast Washington Syrah because he had shared his food, his wines and his back verandah late into the night. We had so much wine at one dinner that the waitstaff were forced to bring a separate table to hold all the bottles, and some of the half open bottles had to be given away to other diners. We rode on a paddle steamer, had dinner on a slag heap and ran over a wild pig. We left no stone unturned.

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Off to the Land of Wonder, the Land Downunder

Date: Thu, Oct 23, 2008 Wine Tasting

Our annual trip to Australia is occurring a little earlier than usual. Real early, like tomorrow. If we have picked our QANTAS flights correctly we should be boarding the A380 Airbus some time after 10pm at LAX for the 14 plus hour flight. This year our wine exposure is a little more ambitious than in the past. A two week road trip visiting six wine regions in three different states. The trip will start in Dubbo, NSW where Miranda and I will be joined by my cousin Ngaire and her husband Chris. First stop will be the cool climate wine area around Orange sampling wines from Canobolas-Smith, Mayfield, and Printhie. Then it will be off to The Falls for a relaxing dinner (and wine) and a good nights rest.

The second day was to be visits to selected wineries in the Hilltops and Canberra regions. But Chalkers Crossing at Young have told us they won’t be open and the Canberra wineries are holding their Wine, Roses, and All that Jazz celebration. So all we hope to achieve is to fight our way through the crowds so that we can taste whatever Clonakilla has on offer that weekend.

It may be fate that the second day promises little wine as the next two as sure to hold some of the highlights of the trip. Why? One word, Rutherglen. Well OK, four words. Rutherglen and fortified wines. For those who don’t know, Rutherglen is the epicenter of fortified wine in Australia, and the wines they make there are among the best in the world. And we get to visit the big guns like Chambers, Morris, Buller, and Campbells. And we will also drop by Warrabilla to taste the big, bold wines of Andrew Sutherland Smith. This should be two days of wine heaven.

To recover from all that alcohol we will spend the next two days traveling along most of the Murray River from Albury to Murray Bridge. We will be driving through a number of wine regions (Goulburn Valley, Swan Hill, Murray Darling, Riverland) as we motor alongside the Murray, but apart from accommodation in Swan Hill and Loxton we won’t be stopping because the next wine region on the itinerary is McLaren Vale. Tastings have been organized at Arakoon, Kay Brothers, d’Arenberg, and Mollydooker. A highlight will be a BBQ with Roger Pike and the chance to taste his Marius wines as we look out over his vineyards. We had hoped to stop by the Redheads Studio and Samuel’s Gorge but I guess they are too busy making and selling wine to answer my email request for a tasting appointment!

The next region is that little known wine making area, the Barossa Valley. We will taste at Winter Creek, Trevor Jones, and Teusner, and then recover over dinner at Vintners Bar and Grill with several winemakers. The next day will see us at Seppeltsfield. Miranda and I visit this grand old place every time we are in the Barossa, but this time it will be special as we will be tasting the wines under new ownership. Diggers Buff, Hobbs and Tim Smith will also be letting us sample their wines.

On the next day we will visit our last Barossa winery, Dutschke, before heading up to Clare Valley and tastings at Kilikanoon, Neagles Rock, Pikes and Paulett. Then it will be back to Dubbo via Broken Hill because its always good to get a little bit of the reality of the outback under your belt before you return to the maddening pace of southern California.

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The Battle for the Internet

Date: Tue, Oct 21, 2008 Wine Tasting

Its the question that has all waiting with bated breath. The outcome may well make grown men cry, women scream, babies clutch for the mothers’ breast and Aussie wine aficionados run screaming into the night. Nah, it won’t be that dramatic but it will be interesting. One month ago Shiraz posted on Australian Wine - The Critics Web Sites. That post garnered quite a few comments mainly from Gary Walsh of the redesigned The Wine Front. Gary was quite concerned that I hadn’t looked deeply enough into the fine cyberspace tuning that The Wine Front had received. After all the site would now be putting up a hundred or more new-release wine reviews each month. That would be more than any other site and certainly more than James Halliday’s online Wine Companion site. Well OK, that’s great. I still don’t like the search capability of the new site but if it is notes on current wines that drinkers of Australian wines need then go for it.

The zeros and ones had only just settled themselves after the thrust and parry of the comments to that post when I received the monthly update from the Halliday's Wine Companion site. The big news? You get no prize for guessing. “Starting in September, James will be adding 100 new tasting notes to winecompanion.com.au every month. These tasting notes will not appear in the Australian Wine Companion and are only available online to winecompanion.com.au members.” The 100 tasting notes are easily searched as the list is a simple alphabetical one of the wines. Click on any wine name and it opens the tasting note. The only problem is that I can’t find a link to those tasting notes on the site itself, you have to click the link in the subscriber email. Back to you Campbell and Gary.

And it didn’t take long. October 1st saw an email from Campbell Mattinson to subscribers of The Wine Front.

Dear subscribers, I think you're going to like this. From now on Gary Walsh and I will be putting out The Wine Front Hot 50 each month - as a pdf document. To grab your copy just click the link below. We looked at the fact that we are now reviewing several hundred wines each month, which means that unless you're visiting the site almost daily, it's easy for a good number of really good wines to pass you by. This publication should help fix that - it distills the best down to the Hot 50. Beat that James.

Halliday’s response? Well all was quiet, except for a post on SHIRAZ on October 7th from the online Wine Companion viz. ”With an increasing number of great wine resources available online, a review of a few of them was worthy of a blog post. Your overview of winecompanion.com.au accurately reflects the feedback we have received directly for our users. The feedback is partly why, as of last month we are now adding 100 new tasting notes every month (Septembers - http://winecompanion.com.au/wine_search.cfm?latest=1). Also stay turned for the Vintage Search, its on its way. *whip cracked*”

It’s the last sentence that is the interesting bit. As I look over the site now I see quite a few changes to the search capability. True, its still not close to the search capability of Parker’s online The Wine Advocate, but now the “Search Wineries” pull down allows you to click on a state of Australia and it opens up with a map showing you the location of the major regions and you can click on any one (or the text list of regions) and you get an alphabetical list of wineries. That is useful if you want to know where different regions lie in respect to each other and the wineries they contain. The aficionados may already know that but your interested wine drinker, especially those outside Oz will find it very helpful. The “Wine Tasting Notes” pull down has also been ungraded so that you can now pick a variety (Shiraz) and a region (McLaren Vale) and the page will open to a list of wineries and the ability to sort them by Name, Vintage, Rating, Price, Drink By, and Date Tasted. This is certainly more helpful than in the (recent) past. It still can’t do a search that will reduce the number of wines by adding additional search terms so that I can get only the 2002 Shiraz wines from Barossa with ratings above 90. But maybe if the whip is cracked often enough that might just happen. But did this whip crack have any sting in it for The Wine Front?

I guess it did because a week later Campbell was sending out another email to subscribers.

Dear Subscriber,

It's been a gentler past week at The Wine Front - only just shy of 50 new reviews in the past seven days - but you'd hardly know it, with all the comments and new information going onto the site. If you're not visiting the site regularly - you should be.

BEST VALUE: But if you don't visit often, a really nifty way of getting the best out of the site is via the categories and tags. For instance, if you want to see all the BEST VALUE wines we've tasted recently, go to the Best Value tag at: http://www.winefront.com.au/tag/top-value/

BIODYNAMIC: Or you want to see the Biodynamic wines we've reviewed recently go to the Biodynamic tag at: http://www.winefront.com.au/tag/biodynamic/

IMPORTS: Or maybe the imports? See all our most recent Import reviews at: http://www.winefront.com.au/category/import/

We've also got our CALENDAR up and running now - it's on the bottom right of the screen. Check it out - there are some good events coming up - and let us know of any events we should have in there.

In other words, lots happening on the site every day.

cheers,
Campbell Mattinson


So I wandered over to the site. To be honest I’m not a big fan of the way the categories and tags are used on the site. But hey, if that is what works for subscribers then who am I to complain. The Hot 50 is there as a PDF with an alphabetical listing of the wines reviewed in September and their scores as well. But the PDF is 33 pages long and there is no listing of the Top 50 that allows you to click on the name of the wine and skip straight to the review; Halliday wins that round. The Wine Calendar is a different matter. Those looking for wine events are likely to find this quite useful. For the Aussie scene its probably more useful than something like the Local Wine Events site as its more national than international and likely to be of great use to event organizers and retailers looking to attract those with a serious interest in wine.

Will the Wine Companion respond? Probably not, they don’t really need a wine calendar. They should keep sprucing up those search capabilities because as much as I’d like to back the young turks the smart money is still going for Halliday.

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The Landmark Australia Tutorial

Date: Mon, Oct 6, 2008 Wine Tasting

Wine Australia has announced the first Landmark Australia Tutorial for 1-5 June, 2009. The Tutorial is a five day course comprising text, narrative study and wine tasting on Australia’s fine wines. It is limited to international opinion-formers "with extensive wine experience in buying, selling or editorial decision making. Candidates must demonstrate how they have influenced their business across one or more of these decision making dimensions over the previous 2 years. Previous experience judging at wine shows will also be viewed favorably." The selection process is limited to twelve participants, each of whom will receive all expenses-paid trips courtesy of Wine Australia. Applications close Friday 28 November 2008 and the winning entrants will ne notified 15 December 2008. and must be available to travel to Australia during Monday 1 to Friday 5 June 2009.

The Tutorial has three principal tutors, Dr Tony Jordan, Michael Hill Smith AM MW and Andrew Caillard MW, as well as leading Australian wine experts James Halliday and Brian Croser.

“The opportunity for us to engage the next generation of wine media, trade and commerce with an Australian fine wine story full of courage and ambition is very exciting,” said the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, general manager of market development, Paul Henry.

“The belief in the existence of terroir, the notion of regionality, the benefits of blending etcetera are all vexed questions that we should now confidently address, staking a bold claim to be judged as a leading producer of wines of character, quality and interest.”


The Tutorial will be hosted at The Louise luxury vineyard retreat in the Barossa Valley, which is associated with the highly praised restaurant Appellation.

Apart from exposure to some of the more legendary Aussie wines including Penfolds Bin 60A, Mildara's Peppermint Pattie and the original Maurice O'Shea's the participants will be guided through several Masterclasses entitled, Australia's Regional Classics, An Historic Perspective, and Pinot Noir.

The Landmark Australia Tutorial could be considered to be smaller brother to the worldlier Len Evans Tutorial, albeit with a much more pertinent focus on Australia. Limiting the tutorial to a lucky dozen does seem restrictive, but I would hope that the lucky few return to heir homelands to spread the message about the great diversity and excellence of Australian wines. All Wine Australia needs now is a tutorial for Australian winemakers in promoting their wines in a more and more competitive global marketplace.

Media Release.

An Aside: Shiraz won't be an applicant (because I have a full time job) but we will be checking out Appellation during our upcoming Oct-Nov trip to Oz which will include visits to wineries in half a dozen wine regions and dinnner at Appellation with some noted winemakers.

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The Landmark Australia Tutorial

Date: Mon, Oct 6, 2008 Wine Tasting

Wine Australia has announced the first Landmark Australia Tutorial for 1-5 June, 2009. The Tutorial is a five day course comprising text, narrative study and wine tasting on Australia’s fine wines. It is limited to international opinion-formers "with extensive wine experience in buying, selling or editorial decision making. Candidates must demonstrate how they have influenced their business across one or more of these decision making dimensions over the previous 2 years. Previous experience judging at wine shows will also be viewed favorably." The selection process is limited to twelve participants, each of whom will receive all expenses-paid trips courtesy of Wine Australia. Applications close Friday 28 November 2008 and the winning entrants will ne notified 15 December 2008. and must be available to travel to Australia during Monday 1 to Friday 5 June 2009.

The Tutorial has three principal tutors, Dr Tony Jordan, Michael Hill Smith AM MW and Andrew Caillard MW, as well as leading Australian wine experts James Halliday and Brian Croser.

“The opportunity for us to engage the next generation of wine media, trade and commerce with an Australian fine wine story full of courage and ambition is very exciting,” said the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, general manager of market development, Paul Henry.

“The belief in the existence of terroir, the notion of regionality, the benefits of blending etcetera are all vexed questions that we should now confidently address, staking a bold claim to be judged as a leading producer of wines of character, quality and interest.”


The Tutorial will be hosted at The Louise luxury vineyard retreat in the Barossa Valley, which is associated with the highly praised restaurant Appellation.

Apart from exposure to some of the more legendary Aussie wines including Penfolds Bin 60A, Mildara's Peppermint Pattie and the original Maurice O'Shea's the participants will be guided through several Masterclasses entitled, Australia's Regional Classics, An Historic Perspective, and Pinot Noir.

The Landmark Australia Tutorial could be considered to be smaller brother to the worldlier Len Evans Tutorial, albeit with a much more pertinent focus on Australia. Limiting the tutorial to a lucky dozen does seem restrictive, but I would hope that the lucky few return to heir homelands to spread the message about the great diversity and excellence of Australian wines. All Wine Australia needs now is a tutorial for Australian winemakers in promoting their wines in a more and more competitive global marketplace.

Media Release.

An Aside: Shiraz won't be an applicant (because I have a full time job) but we will be checking out Appellation during our upcoming Oct-Nov trip to Oz which will include visits to wineries in half a dozen wine regions and dinnner at Appellation with some noted winemakers.

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More Devalued Australian Wine

Date: Wed, Sep 24, 2008 Wine Tasting

I iust received an email from an Etailer here in the US offering Penfold's Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2004 for $11.99USD or $9.99/btl if you buy six. Usual excuse - the distributor wants to move some boxes - one time deal. Wine Searcher has this from $9.95 to the more usual $24.99.
Linked over to their site to see what other deals are on offer. Quite a few. The best is the 2003 Winter Creek Shiraz at $14.99uSD or $12.99/btl for 6. I paid $27.99USD in 2005 for this. Its $19.99 to $29.99 on Wine Searcher. I'll have a six pack please!
Wines like the Fox Creek Reserve Shiraz 2004, Tait Shiraz 2005, Kurtz Boundary Row Shiraz 2003, Margan Semillon 2004, Koonowla Cabernet Sauvignon 2003, Connor Park Shiraz 2002 have 20-50% price reductions. Obviously these are not current vintages but it just goes to show that its been difficult to move Aussie wine for more than just a vintage or two.
What does Grant Burge 'Barossa Vines' Chardonnay 2005 sell for in Oz? $8.99USD here

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Australian Wine - The Critics Web Sites

Date: Sun, Sep 21, 2008 Wine Tasting

Blogging is almost always about links. The more links you have in your posts, especially to sites with significant traffic, the better chance you have for search engines to include your blog in searches for that link. There are two important aspects to links. First, they have to be current because the internet is simply not static enough for links to remain permanent. And second, the dynamic nature of the ‘net means that new sites are added all the time, and the best of those need to be added to your repertoire of traffic catchers. But links also serve another purpose because they are often placed outside of a post, such as those on the right-hand side of the page for SHIRAZ. These links qualify simply as resource pages. They allow bloggers to expand the knowledge base of their site by doing nothing more than providing a link. Here, at SHIRAZ, I’ve not blogged about the resource links because like many bloggers I assume that those who visit SHIRAZ will know what resource links are. However checking the OutClicks for SHIRAZ suggests that most don’t take advantage of resource links, so maybe its time to blog about them!

In the next few posts I’ll be covering several categories of web sites as they relate to Australian wine. These lists will not be exhaustive and will often only cover sites in Australia, although some of the more important foreign sites will be included. The first category will be the sites of those who can best be described as critics of Aussie wines, the folks that provide not only assessment of wines but also commentary.

James Halliday – Australian Wine Companion. $39.95/year.
Although thought of as part of the old guard by some, James Halliday reigns supreme as the most experienced and most knowledgeable critic of Australian wine. Halliday has also had enviable exposure to the best wines outside Australia, so his analysis is able to place Australian wine within a world context. Halliday may be the oldest Aussie wine critic but his new web site brings him into the 21st century! This site boats over 45,000 tasting notes, information on wine regions and wineries and commentary on current aspects of the Australian wine industry. There is also free content to entice possible subscribers. All of this is easy to access by pull down menus. Searching the site and especially tasting notes is limited by an inability to search by vintage; for example, you can’t get all of the tasting notes for 2002 Barossa Shiraz in a single search. Halliday does send out emails to subscribers on a regular basis that include a few tasting notes but the majority of his notes come from his annual hardcopy Wine Companion, so current tasting notes are limited.

THE WINE FRONT $39.95/year.
Given birth by one of Australia’s best wine writers, Campbell Mattinson, THE WINE FRONT has now been fused with Gary Walsh’s Winorama which was a very successful free site devoted primarily to tasting notes. Mattinson and Walsh fit into a small group of young Turks hoping to rise to prominence and unseat the “old guard”. I was initially very optimistic about the potential that this partnership could bring to critical analysis of Aussie wines. And although the jury is still out, I have to confess to an initial disappointment with the new THE WINE FRONT. The site does have significant positives. The tasting duo hopes to add several hundred tasting notes each month which makes the content very current in terms of wines available at retail; this is a big advantage over other critics (think Halliday, Parker’s The Wine Advocate) that normally release once per year. The site also boasts a first, at least for Aussie wine reviews, in a free feature called Double Take in which both Mattinson and Walsh independently review the same wine. Plus there is a limited amount of free content as a teaser to potential subscribers. However the search features on the site are archaic at best being limited to categories and a generic text search; a page describing tips for searching using this latter feature would be very helpful. If you want to look at all the tasting notes for 2005 Barossa Shiraz, as an example, you will be disappointed; you just can’t do it. And even when you pull up a search you have to scroll through complete notes, there is no facility to search abbreviated descriptions of individual wines which makes things very hard going. Fortunately its early days for this web site and hopefully it will improve, the potential is certainly there.

Jeremy Oliver $39.95 +GST
A site I do not subscribe to as it gives no free content to judge the quality of the material within. Oliver is highly regarded as a critic of Australian wine, although I doubt his name is known much outside Australia. I’ll continue to give this a miss until some free content appears.

TORBWine Free.
Run by Ric Einstein, an amateur wine critic (i.e. Ric does this in his spare time which he seems to have a lot of!). This site contains wine news, commentary and tasting notes. But the most interesting content is the Tour Diaries. Each Year Ric and a few of his mates visit Australian wine regions, mostly South Australia and Victoria, and taste with dozens of wine makers. The writing is a blend of humorous anecdote mixed with serious descriptions of current wines. Tour Diaries is a great way to find out what is happening on the Aussie wine scene, and its a pity that Ric doesn’t visit more wine regions during the year. You can search the tasting notes under several categories but like the sites above its not a sophisticated search engine. Tasting notes are listed by wine and clicking on the wine description will open up the tasting note but the lists are not alphabetical and so it can be hard work to find what you want.

Wine Pros Free
This is another free site that contains wine news, commentary and tasting notes but much of it is archived material that was provided as content when James Halliday used to contribute to the site. Now that Halliday has gone there is little, if any, current content. But the WinePros archive is now a portal for Visit Vineyards; a very new site that looks at both wine and food. Its a little too early to judge its potential, but it does contain content from several Australia writers as well as the well known English Master of Wine Jancis Robinson

A note on search engines for individual wine sites.
None of the wine sites described above use state of the art search engines and so its almost always a hit and miss affair if you want to extract their descriptions of 2002 Barossa Shiraz, for example. That is a major failing for sites which aim to provide material that their visitors and/or subscribers can search. Its simply not efficient to search these sites. In fact its probably easier to do a Google search for the information you want. There is however one site that does provide a very refined search engine, eRobertParker. This site ($99USD/year) is not limited to Australian wine but a few clicks will get you results for quite complicated searches. Its no problem to find all the 2002 Barossa Shiraz that Parker has reviewed. Under Category Search you simply click on Australia, then select Vintage, click on 2002 and then select Location, select Barossa Valley and then click on Variety, and select Syrah (well nothing is perfect!). You can then display the notes for the 111 wines and sort them by wine name, rating, price or maturity. Clicking on an individual wine opens up the tasting note. Now that is a search facility!

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The Devaluing of Australian Shiraz in the US

Date: Sat, Sep 20, 2008 Wine Tasting

A winemaker makes a wine, sells it to an exporter/importer who sells it on to a distributor who then sells it to a retailer who then offers you the wine at a competitive price. Or so the theory goes. But in reality many things influence the competitive pricing of wine. One of these is the inability to sell the wine for its recommended retail price, a not uncommon event in the USA with Aussie Shiraz these days. Another is when an importer/exporter is revising their portfolio. Combine the two and you get a fire sale.

Such seems to be the case with wines under The Grateful Palate umbrella. The Grateful Palate has recently reduced its portfolio to about 25 producers from a high of 70 a few years ago. Its not clear whether producers have been dropped or have left Grateful Palate but the result has been deep discounts on Australian wines. Take, for example the deals I was offered today. McLean’s Farm 2002 Shiraz (Barossa Valley) which sells retail (according to Wine Searcher) for $23.99 to $29.99USD, but offered to me for $8.99. Or the 2004 Gibson Old Vine Collection Barossa Valley Shiraz, $99.99USD retail on Wine Searcher, but I was able to purchase it for $44.99. The most recent vintage sells for $96AUD mail order from Gibson’s.

Some say that Australian wines in the US need to drop their prices to more reasonable levels after the big increases that have followed with the extravagance of high Parker points. This may be true, but there is another story that may be building behind this and it is that importers/exporters, distributors, and retailers are seeing significant losses in profits with the selling of Australian wines. When you lose money you tend not to want to expose yourself to the same position again. And so when a major importer/exporter has a fire sale on Aussie wines the question that needs to be answered is who would want to build a portfolio of Australian wines when they see others having problems selling the wines unless they have dramatic reductions in prices?

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Merlove - a movie about Merlot

Date: Tue, Sep 16, 2008 Wine Tasting

Well it had to happen sometime. The movie Sideways was seen as doing so much damage to Merlot (at least in the US) that a response had to be produced, and now it has with Rudy McClain's Merlove. Its a documentary that eventually finds it way to Ch. Petrus.
Check out this trailer. Its the first time I've ever heard a wine described as "Sophia Loren's dirty underwear."

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Blinded by Shiraz

Date: Wed, Sep 3, 2008 Wine Tasting

Australian Shiraz has been criticized, especially outside the boundaries of the island continent, as having a sameness, of being big, blustery fruit bombs, high in alcohol but low in regional expression and not long in life. Its very easy to dispel this myth, all you have to do is gather together a few quality shiraz from several regions and taste them. That’s the easy part. Putting together a blog post that would do the wines justice is more difficult. I’ve been haggling with myself for months about how to approach the content of this blog post, especially the title. There was a point when I was going to call it “Top Gear” and describe the wines in terms of exotic, or not so exotic, cars from the BBC program of the same name. After all wine has been likened to everything else, so why not describe New Zealand Syrah like an Audi R8 - “Meet the new everyday superwine”, or Rutherglen Muscat like a Maserati Quattroporte ;“Quite possibly the most beautiful and desirable wine in the world”. How about the Renault Laguna “has the same old anonymous character” for cheap Bordeaux?

But no, it wouldn’t work simply because I haven’t driven any of those cars, so I would be clueless about comparing them with wine. And besides there are too many wines that could be described the way my car is “Not the most practical, but distinctive, fun-ish”. Even some cheap Bordeaux fits that label. More to the point the wines in this tasting were Aussie Shiraz or blends and exotic foreign cars just didn’t seem to fit the different styles. Still, in hindsight, there was one that you could think of as the new Aussie Supercar, the Bolwell Nagari. “Ahhhh, that’s really good”.

The Shiraz tasting was organized by Chris Davis, a relative and long time wine enthusiast, who feels there is need of improvement in the appreciation of fine wine in the central west of NSW. And he’s determined to do something about it, even if it costs him quite a bit of money and hardly anyone turns up to the tastings he plans. And that is exactly what happened on this evening. Chris turned out an outstanding group of wines, and very few turned up.

The format of the tasting was to be based around my leading the description of a group of wines in the company of a dozen or so wine lovers ranging from neophyte to several serious palates. But as the day drew closer more and more people found something else to do! Maybe it was because there was going to be someone from America leading the tasting of Aussie Shiraz or perhaps it was because the tasting was to occur during the last hectic two weeks before Christmas. Either way, if you didn’t show you, you missed a worthy celebration of Australian wine.

The wines were wrapped in paper and carried different colored dots so that we could match our notes to individual bottles. For all intents and purposes a blind tasting. Well, almost. In a weak moment, Chris had told me that there would be a couple of older wines including a Penfold’s Bin 389 and a Hunter Valley wine. And, maybe one from the Mornington Peninsula. Prior appointments and the favor of the wine Gods meant that only three of us tasted the wines blinded; Chris, Mike(2) and myself. The others who showed up quite a bit later got to pick and choose from the uncovered bottles.

On to the wines First up -
Pink
Deep, dense cherry red with red edge. Lovely fruit flavors together with vanilla, pepper and oaky notes. A hint of nail polish (ethyl acetate). Full bodied with very firm tannins and juicy acidity. The latter detracts from the palate appeal. Will need loads of time to come together. 2, 2, 3.5, 9.7=17.2/20, 86/100.

Difficult to tell. Big, so it could be Barrosan. Mike(2) thought Victorian and probably Mornington Peninsula but I’d not tasted a Mornington wine with such firm tannins. So if it was Victorian it was probably more northerly.

Red
Much older wine, very orange/brown at all levels. Nice notes of leather, caramel, a little spice, smoked meats and a touch of earthiness. Palate is soft and supple with great balance and excellent length. Very nice old wine. 2, 2, 3.9, 10.0=17.9/20, 90/100.

Mike(2) was very firm in his opinion that this was Hunter Valley and I was inclined to agree but I knew that there was an aged Bin 389 in the tasting, so I wanted to wait until I’d tasted all the wines.

Yellow
Dense, deep, dark cherry. Intense color. Very expressive nose of dark fruits, oak and pepper (probably from the alcohol). Beautifully flavored and not adversely affected by a little menthol note coming up with time. Very powerful on the palate with outstanding presence of flavors and great length. Beautiful wine. 2, 2, 4.3, 10.6=18.9/20, 95/100.

No doubt a recent vintage from the Barossa, and (this is cheating) from the bottle weight it has to be Trevor Jones Wild Witch.

Green
Mahogany, great depth of color with a dense browning on the edge. Great complexity with coffee and chocolate predominate. Fuller bodied with wonderful depth and a core of firm tannins, and a lengthy, lengthy finish. The only weak point is that it faded too quickly with time. 2, 2, 4.3, 10.4=18.7/20, 94/100.

OK, this is the Bin 389. That makes the Red dot wine a good candidate for the Hunter.

Orange
Dense cherry red with red edge. A little sulfur stink and then it opens to cherry and other red fruits, but presenting a little green in this company. Nice clean acidity focuses the balance in this excellent little wine. 2, 2, 3.4, 10.1=17.5/20, 88/100.

Hmmm, this could well be Mornington Peninsula Shiraz. Its certainly a cooler climate wine.

Brown
Deepest color, black at its core with a dark red edge. A big, overpowering, wine with olives, oak and a little chocolate. With time some coffee and tomato paste. Soft and supple on entry but its mouth filling and expressive with great length. Lacks a little on the mid-palate but the flavors carry and the depth and concentration is excellent. It just needs time to fill out a little. 2, 2, 23.7, 10.0=17.7/20, 89/100.

Clearly Barossa but the olive note suggest that its not something I’m familiar with because I don’t find that in Shiraz all that often. (EDIT: Nothing is ever simple with wine. In the last few weeks I’ve had two wines from the Barossa that have had aromas of olives. The 2005 Rusden Ripper Creek (a 60/40 blend of Cabernet sauvignon and Shiraz) and the 2005 Glaymond The Distance Shiraz.)

The wines-
Pink: 2004 Langi Shiraz, Mount Langi Ghiran, Grampians, Victoria, 15% alcohol.
Red: 1991 Maurice O’Shea Shiraz, Mount Pleasant, Hunter Valley, NSW. 12.5% alcohol.
Yellow: 2005 Wild Witch Reserve Dry Grown Shiraz, Trevor Jones, Barossa, SA. 14.8% alcohol.
Green: 1996 Bin 389 (Cabernet/Shiraz), Penfolds, SA. 13.5% alcohol.
Orange: 2005 Reserve Shiraz, Paringa Estate, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria. 14.5% alcohol
Brown: 2004 Shiraz, Glaetzer, Barossa, SA. 14.5% alcohol.

A tasting like this leaves little doubt that Shiraz is truly Australia’s top gear of wine. Wines from four different regions, each of which show distinctive character. And two showing how gracefully these wines, from both little (Hunter Valley) and well (Barossa Valley) known regions can age. Aussie Shiraz is simply not all the same, all the time. The next time someone tells you that all Australia does with Shiraz is produce fruit bombs, hit them with a bottle of Maurice O’Shea from the Hunter Valley, and as they reel from that give them the coup de grâce with a heavy weight, the Trevor Jones Wild Witch.

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Exiled to Wine Siberia

Date: Thu, Aug 21, 2008 Wine Tasting

The last post on Shiraz noted that forums were discussing the news that wine importer The Grateful Palate (TGP) was trimming it portfolio of Australian wines. At that time it was not clear which producers would be affected by the reorganization. The lists of who is still in and who is out were revealed by Dan Philips in letters to his distributors (August 7th) and suppliers (August 14th).

Those still in:
Ashton Hills Vineyard, Ballycroft Vineyards, Battley, Buckshot Vineyard, Burge Family Winemakers, Clarendon, Glaymond, Greenock Creek, Hare’s Chase, Hazyblur, Hobbs Wines, Kalleske/Pirathon, Kay Brothers Amery Vineyards, Lengs & Cooter, Lillypilly, Loan Wines, Majella, Noon Winery, Paringa, R Wines, Red Edge, Ringland Vitners, Rudderless, Samuel’s Gorge, Schutz Barossa, Tim Smith Wines, Trevor Jones, Tscharke, Whistling Eagle, William Downie, The Willows Vineyard

Those out:
Betts & Scholl, Cape D’Estaing, Clos Clare, Digger’s Bluff, Geoff Weaver, Gibson, Henry’s Drive, Hutton Vale, Lashmar, Longhop, Lunar, Mclean’s Farm, Nurioopta High School, Old Plains, Oliver’s Taranga, RBJ, Rockford, Rusden Wines, Scarpantoni, Shirvington, Silesian, Teusner, Torzi Mathews, Troll Creek, Two Way Range, Wild Duck Creek Estate

Philips notes that TGP’s portfolio now consists of “about 25 producers including R wines”. This is a considerable reduction from the zenith of some 70 producers in 2004, and does suggest that the market for Australian wine in the United States has contracted significantly over the last few years. The possible reasons for this loss of interest have been discussed ad nauseam on wine forum and won’t be repeated here. However Dan Philip’s communication to his distributors is worthy of examination because it smacks of a superiority which could lead one to think that Dan Philips has more control over the Australian wine scene than just his current portfolio.

Writing about the wineries that are no longer part of his portfolio Philips noted, “Some of these departed months ago, others in the past days or weeks, but all have been exiled to wine Siberia and will no longer enjoy life in the Distributor Collective of Fine Wines at The Grateful Palate.” Reading this I was immediately struck by three things. The references to loyalty suggested that producers may have left TGP, rather than being purged. And what did he mean by producers being exiled to wine Siberia, and what was this Distributor Collective? Then there is the reference to “party official Robert Farver”! Is Philips trying to establish his own little egalitarian experiment in the world of wine? Does being exiled to wine Siberia mean that producers outside of the collective can expect attempts to freeze them out of the US market? Or is it just an attempt at humor? If the latter is the case then it really is a joke that is in poor taste. Through TGP Dan Philips has been responsible for a considerable growth in imported Australian wine, but that has not come without some criticism. A number of the wines imported by TGP (and others) experienced significant mark-ups on the US market, especially if they received high scores from wine critic Robert Parker. Because of the three tier system in the US its highly questionable whether the Australian producers of these wines received a fair remuneration for their wines. Those profits would have been more likely to go to the importer and distributors with most retailers having to compete amongst themselves to sell wines being offered at, often, ridiculous prices. It is no wonder that the portfolio reduction came about “due to market conditions and a very clear message from virtually all of our distributors”; that reads to as “we have overpriced these wines and so the ones that you can’t distribute we’ll just dump”!

There is something else here that is a little worrying. Through TGP Dan Philips is very generous to those individuals who sell the wines he imports. Its not unusual for him to take a large group of individuals to Australia to explore the wine regions and to taste wine. There is nothing wrong with this. But there is a perception that he is too friendly with some wine critics, particularly a wine critic that has always claimed that his organization always pays it own way and avoids conflicts of interest. There are also rumors out there in the wine world that if you leave TGP then the scores you receive from a certain wine critic may not be all you expect. You have to wonder just how big that wine gulag is in Siberia? It will be interesting to see what scores the critics give to the wines that have ended up in Dan Philips’ wine Siberia. You can be certain that there will be more than just a couple of people following that story.

Fortunately all is not lost for the producers that have been exiled. Some, like Rockford, can’t even satisfy their Australian consumer base. Others have begun new relationships with importers and have seen significant increases in sales. What is more telling is that Australia has over 2,000 wineries and so if you only have 25 of them in your portfolio you might be more out in the cold than you think.

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Major Importer of Australian Wines Trimming its Portfolio?

Date: Thu, Aug 14, 2008 Wine Tasting

Just a week or two before we left for vacation in July I was offered deep discounts on wines from several Australian producers including J P Belle Terroir, Kay Bros, and Rusden. The reason given for the deep discounts was that the distributor was dropping these wines. I bought a few 6-packs and thought nothing more about it. Then today a thread on eRobert Parker’s Bulletin Board has become embroiled in a discussion about how many producers Dan Philips’ Grateful Palate, a significant importer of Australian wines, is dropping from its portfolio. Guess who imports J P Belle Terroir, Kay Bros, and Rusden?

The discussion on eBob suggests that some 18 brands would be dropped from the Grateful Palate (GP) portfolio. At present its anyone’s guess as to which brands are being cut but the non-GP brands being kept likely include Kalleske, Kays, Tscharke, Noon, Greenock Creek, and Majella. There may be others as well as the Grateful Palate portfolio of Australian producers imported by Dan Philips is long and includes many small wineries that make some outstanding wines. A sampling includes Burge Family, Glaymond, Tim Smith, Scarpantoni Estate, Shirvington, Samuel's Gorge, The Willows, Tim Smith Wines, as well those mentioned above.

The reason for this possible slashing of products is not clear, but both Michael Opdahl (Joshua Tree Imports) and John Gorman (Southern Starz) have contributed lengthy posts on the current difficulties being experienced by those trying to sell Australian wine into the US market; “Australia is one seriously screwed up wine category right now and desperately in need of a major make over.” John Gorman.

I certainly agree with some of the major concerns including the influence of the dramatic increase in the value of the Australian dollar against the greenback over the last 4-5 years and the confusion produced by the sameness of many Australian wines especially those in the $25-50USD price range. Another important concern, reflected somewhat in the sameness of many wines, is the limited exposure of the US market to the diversity of Australian wine. There many be millions of cases of Australian wine brought into the US each year but much of it comes either from the amorphous wine region called South Eastern Australia and/or reflects the lack of knowledge about Australian wine by the American wine consumer. Educating and refining the wine palates of a population as large as the US is a daunting task. For example, here is simple question. How many wine regions (called geographical indicators, GI) are there in Australia? Ten, twenty, thirty? Try 64! Next question – How many can you name?

Wine Australia has made some attempt to expand knowledge of the diversity of Australian wine with their Regional Heroes program but the audience that has some knowledge of how this works is abysmally small. More importantly even if consumers can describe the most important varietal or style from a region and its recognizable characteristics they may still be unconvinced as to why they should pay $50 for a Barossa Shiraz when they can get a Shiraz for $10 from South Eastern Australia. What is needed are clear definitions of why some wines are superior to others. A good example of how this can be achieved is the definition of wine styles for Rutherglen Muscat. If you appreciate this type of wine (as I do) then just a little reading makes very clear to you what defines a Rutherglen Muscat versus a Rare Rutherglen Muscat. A similar type of definition (and code of practice) could be applied to other wine styles. For example the spectrum of Barossa Shiraz could include generic Shiraz that comes from multiple vineyards versus that from single vineyard sites. The age of the vines could also be used to further refine the style. Selection of parcels of grapes or certain barrels could be used to highlight wines that are a wineries’ best exemplar of the region.

A good example of how selection of vineyards and barrels can be used to identify wines of increasing superiority is that used by Wayne Dutschke of Dutschke Wines. The St. Jakobi Shiraz is a single vineyard wine, the "Oscar Semmler" is a blend of the best structured and most mouth filling parcels of Shiraz from the St Jakobi vineyard and represents "the best of the vintage”, while the “Single Barrel Shiraz” is the best barrel from the harvest of the St Jakobi vineyard. That is an easy system to understand both in terms of what each wine represents and why each is priced differently. And no where near as confusing as the R wines of the Grateful Palate.

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Striking Terror in the Heart of the Wine Drinker

Date: Wed, Aug 13, 2008 Wine Tasting

Last Wednesday night I opened a bottle of Yangarra Estate Vineyard 2005 McLaren Vale Shiraz. A big, powerful wine, heady stuff, but with an unnerving streak of upfront acidity that cut right through the wine to the finish. On Thursday night that acidity made the wine unapproachable and I discarded it in favor of something more suitable for dinner. The Casa Quemada 2004 Syrah from Spain. Uh, oh. The cork came out with a red streak along its length. Pouring the wine into a glass revealed burnt, pruney, notes and a sharp acidity with a distinct note of oxidation on the palate. OK, I thought, its just a poor cork but Miranda’s comment of “It tastes like vinegar” didn’t help. Let’s open something else. How about a Chateauneuf-Du-Pape? The cork on a bottle of Domaine Pontifical (Francois Laget-Royer) 2003 came out stained red all over and the wine, even with its whiff of barnyard, also carried a dominant acidic flavor that sliced the palate to pieces. Simply not a pleasant drink. This was getting worrying. Two wines with evidence of leaking corks, both overly acidic and a third that developed the same character overnight. All three looked like they had prematurely aged. Has the cooling unit in my cellar failed? Normally its not a concern because I’m in and out of the Vintage Keeper almost daily, but we had been away for a month. Had the unit overheated during that time, shut down but then recovered before we came back? Foil cutter in hand, I went back to the cellar, that question gnawing at my gut. The tops came off four random bottles and all showed no signs of leakage. Feeling only slightly less concerned I wandered off to bed, only to lie there wondering if I shouldn’t go and open a couple more bottles. A little flash of wisdom came to me. If the cooling unit had failed and the cellar had heated then the corks on my bottles of vintage Toro Albala Don PX should have leaked because they are pushed in only three-quarters of their length and held there by string. Back to the cellar. Yes, the wine was along the full length of the cork inside the bottle, but there was no leakage. Maybe I’m OK. Let’s sleep on this and open some more wine tomorrow.

Next day. Crunch time. If this wine is stuffed I’m really going to be pissed-off. Encouragingly, the foil cutter crisply cut the top of the capsule and every turn of the Screwpull brought out more and more of a pristine cork marked only the words Penfolds St Henri 2002. Beautiful, but the faint orange/brown edge wasn’t cheering. A little riper and richer than the normal vintage of St Henri but all is in balance. Its not falling over prematurely, in fact, the depth suggests this will keep until the cooling unit does fail! I’m not going to need the Tums tonight. Even more encouraging was a glass of the Domaine Pontifical. Reaching past the poop and the drying tannins, it was now quite drinkable, the acidity subdued by twenty-four hours under vacuum. It looks like I just had a bad run of a few wines. That’s a relief because we have guests this weekend and I’m planning on opening some nice bottles. Still I wish that gnawing in my stomach would go away!

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How Do You Select a Wine?

Date: Tue, Aug 12, 2008 Wine Tasting

A recent report by Dr. Liz Thach (Professor of Management and Wine Business, Sonoma State University) suggests that the most important criterion in selecting a wine is having tasted it before, while the least important aspect is an alcohol level that is below 13%. What is interesting about these criteria is that they are almost universally consistent across the globe.

The study was done by universities in Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the United States, and was funded by the Grape and Wine Research Development Corporation (GWRDC) of Australia.

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