The Scene: A novice wine drinker scurries nervously down the aisle of a local wine store. He studiously avoids eye contact with the "overly helpful" store employees who hover like Eddie Bauer associates around a 2-for-$25 rack of mock turtlenecks. All he wants is a bottle of wine that will simply taste good to his uneducated palate. Ducking left out of the chardonnay aisle, he finds himself staring at an array of multicolored bottles of red wine from Australia. He exhales, looks left and right, snags a bottle of Rosemount Shiraz, tucks it under his arm like John Riggins, and heads straight for the checkout...
Yes, yes -- that was me back in the day. I didn't have much of a palate. My knowledge of pairings didn't extend much past "red with beef, white with chicken." Swirling wine was something snooty people did. I just wanted something where I'd like the taste and I could fill my glass again and again without thinking.
The Australian aisle was my saving grace. The Ozzies produced an ocean of cheap "plonk" (still one of my favorite words in WineSpeak...) in the mid-to-late 90's, but they established themselves as go-to cheap, decent "wine for the people." I drank plenty of that stuff. My palate became more adventurous as I started going to wine tastings and learning more about pairing food with wine, and I largely drifted away from Aussie offerings. I was introduced to California Syrah and I became acquainted with the offerings from the Syrah-heavy wines from Rhone valley in France, so the cheap, down-under versions tasted like fruity messes. New Zealand also burst onto the scene with their crazy sauvignon blancs and pinot noirs, so Australia got eclipsed in my wine rack for awhile.
I'm coming back around on Australian wine. The Barossa Valley shirazes have become more and more interesting over the last several years, as I wrote about last January. They've also become more and more expensive. The latest trend I've seen, however, is Australian winemakers following in the footsteps of the Italians.
About a decade ago, Italy started cranking out these wines they called "Super Tuscans." These were sangiovese-based wines blended with non-native grapes like cabernet sauvignon and merlot. The result was powerful, fruity and complex wines that the Parkerites snapped up by the case. (I like Super Tuscans, but I think many of them are terribly overpriced and far too fruity to pair with a lot of Italian cuisine, but that's just me...) The Australians started doing the same sort of blending on a large scale with Shiraz over the last few years. The result has been an increase in relatively inexpensive, food friendly, complex wines.
On the heels of my column about domestic white blends, I thought I'd have a look at some of these reds from where the liquid in the blending tank spins the other way:
First Drop 2006 "First Love" Red Wine -- Since I'm writing this column on Valentine's Day, this wine seems like a fitting place to start. The First Drop is a blend of Shiraz, Grenache, and Barbera. (65/25/10) The nose is interesting. The Shiraz comes through on the nose with a big whiff of ripe blackberries, but there's an undertone of earth there. The flavor is, as you'd expect, big and fruity -- but tempered and given a bit of depth by the Barbera. The finish is a little smoky and still quite fruity, with some solid tannins. I really enjoyed this wine as a kick back bottle at the end of the evening, but you could certainly have this with any number of foods. It bills itself as a "Southern French inspired wine with Italian stylings." I have no idea what that means. It's good. Try it. $10
Turkey Flat 2005 "The Turk" -- Here's an interesting blend: Shiraz, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Mourvedre. (50/28/16/6). Turkey Flat does a lot of wines in the $25-60 range, so this one's their "experimental" second label wine. A successful experiment, at that. The Turk (the nickname of the winery itself) starts you with a deep nose of dark fruit and licorice. It's fruity on the initial taste, but broadens into a chocolatety middle. The finish is slightly dry and very chocolatey. Not surprisingly, a great wine to actually have with chocolate. It's no slouch with food, either. We had this with a pork tenderloin roasted with sliced fennel bulbs. The aromatics in the fennel nicely complement the fruitiness in the wine. $12-15.
Water Wheel 2006 "Memsie" Red Blend-- Water Wheel wines is in the Bendigo region, which is one I haven't explored very much. "Memsie" is the name of the estate where the grapes are grown, and that moniker is also on their red and white blends. Their red is a Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon/Malbec/Petit Verdot blend. (70/16/6/6) Not surprisingly, this was the fruitiest of the three wines I tried here. This wine has a classic fruity Shiraz nose of plums and berries tempered by the smoky scent of the malbec. Probably the most complex smelling wine of the bunch. Jammy initially at first taste, the wine mellows quickly and ends up tasting like a fruity cab. Some licorice and spice float around in the body as well. The finish is quite long with soft tannins. Like the others, a very pleasant wine by itself because of the out of the ordinary nose, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommended it with burgers or any kind of red meat, really. $11-13.