Monday, September 22, 2014
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Planet of the Grapes: Defending Australian wines

Last summer, I wrote about a so-called “wine safari” led by Tria wine bar’s Fermentation School. These happened during the lunch hour, and the object was to teach would-be wine lovers how to navigate the aisles and shelves of the oft-maligned Fine Wine & Good Spirits stores.

Safari, of course, conjures up images of machetes and pith helmets and gunbearers and dangerous wild animals. It may seem a little extreme to equate wine with big game, but so many people I talk with seem to experience wine shopping with the panicked confusion of someone lost in the Serengeti. They speak as if the chance of hunting down an interesting, good-value bottle is as likely as bagging an albino elephant (or something like that, just to torture the safari metaphor as far as it will go). It’s actually not. You just have to be willing to look beyond the usual suspects like chardonnay, pinot noir, and malbec.

“There's been more of an investment in esoteric wines,” is what I was told last summer by Max Gottesfeld, the retail wine specialist at the 12th and Chestnut store. Gottesfeld was referring to wines from corners of the world or from obscure grapes that many consumers aren't familiar with: wines like zweigelt from Austria, lagrein from Alto Adige, furmint from Hungary, treixadura from Galicia, monica from Sardinia. When you're dealing with finding value from esoteric sources, consumer education becomes vital.

Sadly, since I wrote that column, the wine safaris have ended. They were very popular for a few months, but according to Michael McCaulley, Tria’s managing partner, “the PLCB were freaked out when we did them...not sure if we'll do them again.”

That’s a shame. I believe this leaves a small void in our city, where wine education in the PLCB stores has long been woeful. After all, it was only last year that the state created the actual position of “retail wine specialist,” requiring advanced training for those selling premium wine. Yes, go ahead and scratch your head that the state took this long to commit to employees with true wine knowledge.

To that end, I’m beginning a weekly wine safari here on Philly.com, a journey through the wine store shelves in search of great wines that are obscure, forgotten, underrated, or just plain weird – and above all delicious.

So our first stop, in this column, is Australia. Yes, I can hear you now: Australia! What wine region could be more ubiquitous and overrated than Australia?!! After all, it wasn’t too long ago when you Australian wine was everywhere you looked. By 2004, Australia had overtaken France as the second largest supplier of wine to the U.S.

Of course, at that time, much of Australia’s success was based on cheap and easy “critter” wines like Yellow Tail, which at its height sold about 4 million cases per year. At the same time, at the higher end, influential critics like Robert Parker started giving high scores to big, high-alcohol shiraz and cabernet sauvignon, so-called “fruit bombs,” that defined the market for Australian reds.

By the end of the 2000s, however, the backlash against these wines came swift and furious. By 2009, sales of Australian wines over $15 had dropped about 17 percent, and wines at the high end had dropped by 50 percent. An unfavorable exchange rate between the Australian and U.S. dollars hurt, too.

Moreoever, a new generation of critics lambasted Australian wines. Among wine geeks, Australia became the poster child for everything wrong in the world of wine. In one particularly damning piece at Slate, subtitled “How Yellow Tail crushed the Australian wine industry,” Michael Steinberger, wrote: “Foster’s may be Australian for beer (mate); it appears that ‘screwed’ is now Australian for wine.”

All of this is why, on Tuesday, Vine Street Imports hosted a tasting event called Defend Australia, which brought together dozens of wine industry types to the National Museum of Jewish History.

“Oz has become all too easy of a target to pick on,” read the manifesto-like press kit at Defend Australia. “Plainly put, what has been pawned off and consumed over the last ten years in Australian wine is not really wine.”

“We will shed Australia’s old reputation for a new one consisting of better winemaking, truer expressions of terroir, and more interesting wines which we know you will want to drink,” said Ronnie Saunders, president of Vine Street Imports.

I tasted about 30 wines, and truth be told, the chardonnay, the pinot noir, and the cabernet sauvignon still didn’t excite me. But the grenache – in particular the Jauma ‘Wood Vineyard’ 2011 and the Ochota Barrels ‘Fugazi Vineyard’ 2012, both from McLaren Vale in South Australia were complex and fantastic.

But it is the white wines that have converted me into a new advocate of Australia — in particular the rieslings from Clare Valley and semillon from Hunter Valley. These bright, low-alcohol wines pair so well with food, and will make you rethink what “Australian Wine” means.

Margan See Saw Semillon Blend 2009. $9.99

A blend of 85 percent semillon, 10 percent chardonnay and 5 percent verdelho. Rich, warm, with aromas of orange peels and white flowers, but crisp and refreshing enough to pair well with seafood. Great value that’s reminscient of a white Bordeaux. 12% abv.

 

Pikes Riesling Traditionale 2009. Clare Valley, Australia. $21.99

Are we in Alsace or Australia? Classic riesling, with lots of lime and pear and a hint of minerality on the nose. Light-bodied, but a thrilling balance of acidity and fruit. 12% abv.

 

Frankland Estate Riesling Isolation Ridge 2009. Western Australia. $24.99

Zingy and nervy, with lots of citrus, but also notes of flowers and flint.

 

Jason Wilson edits TableMatters.com.

Jason Wilson TableMatters.com
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