Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Thunder Down Under

My initial experience with Australian libations came during my first semester in college. I was a semi-clueless freshman, hanging out with some of my soon-to-be fraternity brothers. One of them handed me something that looked like a can of 10w/30.

"Foster's. Australian for beer." (Any self-respecting Ozzie will clip you for repeating that phrase. Victoria Bitter is Australian for beer.)

I didn't bump into any other Australian beverages until eight or nine years later, when I learned the then-well-kept secret: Australia makes some pretty good wine.

Set the Wayback Machine for the late 18th Century. Not long after England claimed Australia in 1770 and began using it as a penal colony, Australians started producing wine. The first large scale production came about around the turn of the century, and the first bottles were available for export in the 1820s. Wine production in Australia roughly mirrored that of the United States. Of course, there was one major difference:

Prohibition.

While America made fortunes for the mob, bootleggers, and makers of bathtub gin, the Australians continued to refine their winemaking skills. By the time American winemaking got back on its feet in the 1970s, the Australians were pumping out large quantities for sale all over Europe. Australian wine was so popular and planted so widely that, in the late 1980's, the Australian government ordered thousands of acres of vines pulled to combat a glut of grapes. Then someone had a bright idea -- sell wine in America.

The strategy paid off handsomely. In 1990, Australia exported about 600,000 cases of wine to the U.S. Last year, the US imported over 25 million. China recently started importing Australian wine and quickly became the world's fastest growing market. Australia is best known for Shiraz (remember – it’s Syrah) and Chardonnay, although any number of other grapes flourished in recent years.

Australia remains a major force in the inexpensive wine world. I heard someone once refer to inexpensive label Australian wines referred to as "pop tart wines" -- since, in his opinion, they tasted identical, much that only a connoisseur can tell strawberry Pop Tarts from blueberry. While largely true, I find many of those wines are quite decent as "sluggables." (I also have a weakness for Pop Tarts.)

Here's some Down Under tipple for you:

Penfolds 2004 Thomas Hyland Shiraz -- Penfolds, arguably the most famous Australian label, has the distinction of making the Shiraz which started both the Sweet Partner in Crime and I down the Aussie wine road. My initiation was in graduate school while half-cocked at a party thrown by an Ozzie whose name escapes me. The SPinC -- also in graduate school, supplementing her meagre stipend by working at Outback. Penfolds is a solid, dependable Shiraz. The Thomas Hyland has a nice upfront nose of dark berries. The flavor is very pleasant and plummy. The finish is fruity, has a good amount of peppery taste, and lasts a long time. We had this with some kabobs with sundried tomato sausage, peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, and pineapple. Deeelishous. $13-15.

Little Penguin 2006 Chardonnay -- The Little Penguin (like Rosemount, Yellow Tail, Four Emus, etc.) is one of the aforementioned "pop tart wines." I find most inexpensive chards pretty bland or, if Californian, oaky as a burnt tree. Little Penguin actually distinguishes itself from the pack. I bought a bottle on a whim. I needed a sluggable white to go with angel hair pasta and shrimp. I was pleasantly surprised. The nose is nothing too out of the ordinary -- typical chardonnay scents of pears and such. However, the first taste was spicy, almost like cloves, dissolving to a nice fruity middle. The finish was surprisingly crisp. It's nothing too complicated -- but for $4-5 a bottle, this wine's a great value. Pastas, seafood, chicken -- any of your typical chardonnay pairings would work.

Villa Maria 2005 Private Bin Hawkes Bay Unoaked Chardonnay -- I'll stray just east of Australia because I need to shoot praise towards New Zealand. New Zealand's wine production is growing rapidly and is positioned in a slightly more expensive price range than their neighbor. New Zealand does exceptionally interesting, tasty Sauvignon Blanc. Other varietals, like this Chardonnay, are becoming more popular. One characteristic of New Zealand wines is a pungent, complex nose. No exception with the Villa Maria. There's a strong scent of ripe bananas and flowers. It's a little acidic, but not minerally like the Chablis after which it's styled. Instead, there’s more of a creamy banana flavor. (The SPinC didn't get bananas at all when we tried it -- she got vanilla.) The finish is a little sharp and dry. You'll find this at around $10. The Villa Maria website suggests "A crisp salad of celery and green beans with potatoes, lemon and olives." Sounds like a winner to me.

Enjoy the fruits of the Southern Hemisphere Remember, in the words of Charles Schultz: “Don't worry about the world coming to an end today. It is already tomorrow in Australia.”


4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I've always found the Rosemount wines to be decent, for an inexpensive wine, but was pleasantly surprised a few years ago to find a Reserve Rosemount Shiraz, on sale for only $12 if I remember correctly. It was excellent! My only problem - I have to special order it, or hope the New Hampshire State Liquor store happens to be carrying it. I've only found it there twice :( I unfortunately can finish a bottle on my own in one sitting... I don't like to share it!

The Rosemount Shiraz/Cab blend isn't too bad either.

Anonymous said...

Off the subject of your post... but I just saw on the news that Two-Buck Chuck has been named best Chardonnay of the year out in California. I can't find any links to confirm.

Not bad for $1.99 a bottle!

Anonymous said...

http://www.napavalleyregister.com/articles/2007/07/01/features/food_and_wine/doc4684875e0c50f434254801.txt

Mike said...

Rosemount was long my frontline sluggable red. The Cab/Shiraz was my winter wine, and the Cab/Grenache was my summer one. Things have changed a bit. I feel like their blends have decreased in quality somewhat, but I'll put their straight shiraz up against a lot of other wines.

As for the findings about the "Charles Shaw," I guess I have a basis for a column in and of itself!