Okay, I lied. Yes, I was sitting at a bar in Sydney. Yes, I was hittin' on a young bartendress named Nikki. Yes, I was drinking Victoria Bitter like water, trying to fool my body into thinking it was still in California. But that's where the truth ends.
I wanted to work. Really. It was my intention to get all the last minute shit out of the way before departing for Adelaide the following morning to hook up with my fellow journalists in the Clare Valley. My laptop was underneath my bar stool. But I couldn't. I'd struck up a conversation that I found more fascinating than anything I could possibly write. So I stalled. Procrastinated. I let Nikki's voice fill the void that had guilt all over it.
The Aussies have a great attitude about life. Carefree but careful, exotic yet refined; they seem impervious to stigma while being vulnerable to vanity. It's a refreshing purity that leaves the senses overwhelmed with hope that one day we Americans can approach life on the same plain. Convention is convenient, but reality rules in Australia. God bless 'em!
I finished my beer, my conversation with Nikki, and found my lonely room on the 12th floor. It'd almost worked. I'd almost made it back to California time. But not quite. And that was okay. My body was spent. My mind muddled. So I shut my eyes; blocked out what had been and dreamed of things that would be.
The flight was short. On time. I was met in Adelaide by a spunky member of the Australian Trade Commission. She whisked us through the city and headed due north toward the Clare. Although ahead of schedule, I was late. I was joining my group four days after their invasion. They'd been through the Hunter Valley and the Margaret River area in Western Australia.
We were meeting at Leasingham Winery, tasting a few wines, then walking the Riesling Trail. With all due respect, when I saw our itinerary I did try to weasel out of the trail walk. Didn't seem too exciting to me. If I wanted exercise I'd have gone to Gold's. But hey, I'm learning to play the game. And it seems riesling is the new hot wine down under. Especially among young adult drinkers. That was the reason for the trail walk -- stop at the better producers and quaff a few for the road. So I agreed.
My traveling companions were Frederic Koeppel, Thomas Couttrell and Margaret Thomas. (Margaret and I traveled together so many times in 1998 that in some bible belt states we're legally married.)
The riesling template was drawn at Leasingham. The style, defined. A bit austere, dry, very Alsatian and stylistic. So I want to state this up front: in all honesty, this isn't my style. But I respect it. And can appreciate it. So take note before reading on.
We started with a sparkling riesling, which was actually very pleasant, and moved through Leasingham's entire portfolio. The wines that stood out were the 1995 Classic Riesling, for its trueness to the grape (whatever that means); Bin 37 Chardonnay, which reminded me of an encounter I had with a hot lady and a stick of butter; the 1997 Grenache, which screamed Nikki -- floral, spicy, clean and a lot of fun; and a 1996 Classic Clare Shiraz, which matched the personality of our Play! writer Tammy Dubose -- big, bold and black.
Lunch was good. Enough said. Now it was time to hit the trail.
Rain clouds threatened overhead, and there was that fleeting moment when I thought we may actually get out of this. But nothing fell. So we engaged. Fifteen minutes in we stopped at Tim Adams' winery. Honestly, I could live without his whites, but some of the reds were impressive, especially the 1997 "The Furgus," a blend of Grenache and other red varietals. Back to the trail.
Next stop was Mount Horricks. The 1998 Riesling was typical of the region, probably better (for me) with food; the 1996 Cabernet/Merlot blend was quite impressive; the 1996 Shiraz reminded me of the review we did a while back concerning a koala bear and a thong; but the 1998 "Cordon Cut" Late Harvest Riesling was awesome. This wine was as close to perfect as I've ever tasted.
Just down the trail was Grosset. Here, two of the three wines tasted stood out: the 1997 "Picadilly" Chardonnay, which reminded me of Howard Hunt -- rich, powerful with a hint of petrol; and the 1996 Gaia (which means Goddess of the earth), a cabernet/merlot blend that gave me visions of Demi Moore in GI Jane -- firm, tight and fleshy.
Dinner was with Mildara Blass, the equivalent of K-J in the states. Lots o' wines, lot's o' labels. We tasted a lot of black wines: Black Opal, Black Marlin, Black Silk... Honestly, they were okay. The two stand outs were the reserves -- cabernet/merlot and the shiraz.
Next morning we met up with a group of wholesalers/retailers touring the Barossa Valley. Got to see my old buddy Ron Loutherback from the Wine Club. Seems Ron's been dippin' into the "Just for Men" rather heavily. Maybe that explains why he doesn't understand Wine X. D'oh!
Anyway, we started at Peter Lehmann with an interesting experiment of pairing a 1986 Late Harvest Semillon with breakfast. Being extremely allergic to dairy and eggs, I found the wine wonderful with just some fresh fruit and marmalade. The tasting afterward was a free-for-all, with more wines than I cared to taste at (and within) that hour, but here were some of my faves: 1993 Riesling Reserve, 1996 Barossa Shiraz, 1996 Barossa Cabernet, 1993 Stonewall Shiraz (awesome) and the 1997 Noble Botrytis Semillon (even more awesome!).
One of my unasked questions got answered here. In Australia, winery tasting rooms are called Cellar Doors. On to Yalumba for a tour, tasting, lunch.
Usually, on the first night of a press trip we journalists get together and declare that under no circumstances will we take a winery tour. For some unexplained reason every winery seems to think theirs is the first we've ever seen. That stainless tanks are exciting. Their barrels, unique. I can't tell you how many times I've had winemakers and winery owners walk me through the winemaking process, from crush pad to bottling line. (The bottling line seems to be the pride and joy of every winery.) Hey. You've seen one, you've seen them all. Boring with a capital B. I don't care what you do to the grapes, if it doesn't taste good in the bottle, who gives a shit!
But the grounds of Yalumba are actually fairly incredible. We avoided the dreaded winery tour by being honest: we were behind schedule. Uh-huh.
The tasting was unique. Four labels -- St. Hallett, Henschke, Yalumba, Jim Barry -- showcasing their best wines. Wines that retail from $25 to $150 a bottle. Standouts included Henschke 1995 Mount Edelstone, which instantly conjured up images of "a dungeon of delight;" Yalumba 1995 "The Menzies" Cabernet Sauvignon, which then introduced Elvira to the dungeon; Yalumba 1994 Octavius, which gave Elvira a hickey; and the Jim Barry 1996 "The Armagh" Shiraz, which drew the experience to a climax.
Lunch was educational. Another unasked question answered: sweet dessert wines in Australia are called stickies. Two wines were served, both excellent: the 1997 Heggies Viognier and the 1997 Yalumba Botrytis Riesling, which was, of course, like Linda Fiorentino covered in honey -- hot, sweet and sticky.
The next stop was a taste-a-thon at Wolf Blass. Looking back at my notes I notice a lot of "X+s," so I'll recommend the whole portfolio. The couple standouts were 1998 Chardonnay, which was like sucking on a butterscotch candy in someone else's mouth (I get tingly just thinkin' about it), and the 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon "Yellow Label," which reminded me of a dream I had in which I was standing naked on a mountain of blackberries, bound by leather straps and being pelted by raspberry rain. What? You don't have that dream?
Dinner time! At Charles Melton. Tell you the truth, I never heard of this guy before I read his name on the winery sign. Tell you the truth, after tasting his wines, I'll never forget it. Wow! Where have they been hiding him? From the first sip -- a 1998 Rose of Virginia -- through the 1997 "Nine Popes" to the NV Sparkling Shiraz, nothing showed under XXX. We all kept looking at each other mouthing, "Is this as good as we think it is?" Uh-huh!
I felt sorry for our first stop in the Barossa the next morning after the wines we experienced the night before. Luckily it was Southcorp, whose labels we've showcased in the mag for a while. If you've followed our reviews of Penfolds, Lindemans and Seaview, you know these wines rock, so I'll spare you the redundancy. However, we got to taste a few new wines, so here goes: Edwards & Chaffey 1996 Chardonnay, which was like Tony Robbins -- rich, intense, passion(ate) fruit and concentrated; the Edwards & Chaffey 1996 Shiraz, which reminded me of licking blueberry sauce from the navel of my girlfriend; the Yattarna 1995 Chardonnay, which was just plain awesome (the 1996 was almost as good); and the Penfolds 1996 Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon, which was as big as a 707 (Boeing). They did pull out a 1982 Grange for a capper, but because I despise journalists reporting on wines the vast majority can't find or afford, I'll remain silent on that one.
We staggered to lunch at Landhaus, a quaint, personable one-room restaurant/hotel (B&B) in the Barossa. Here's an incredible deal. The room goes for about $150/night Australian (including breakfast), which equates (at this time) to about $80 (US); a three-course meal starts at $47 (about $30 US), and the owners cater to your every need. I'll tell you something -- the next time I go to the Barossa, I'm takin' Nikki.
Off to Orlando, which produce's Carrington sparkling wines and Jacob's Creek. Again, here's a producer that generates consistent wines year after year for reasonable prices. A couple wines that stood out were the 1996 Limited Release Chardonnay, which, like a date with Mr. Perfect, was rich, smooth and had a nice lingering effect; the 1997 Shiraz Cabernet, a spicy dish of dark chocolate, red fruits and violets; and the 1994 Limited Release Shiraz-Cabernet, which reminded me of my childhood when my mom would take my to Marshall Field's for their Frango Mints.
We had dinner at this very cool wine bar/restaurant in Adelaide called Universal Wine Bar. This is a definite must if you're in the area. Don't miss the oysters, veal or baked Mulloway fish (with peppercorns, zucchini salsa and saffron mayo). Before all the food, we tasted some wines (no, really?) and here's what stood out: the Shaw Smith 1998 Sauvignon Blanc, which cried-out Napa Valley in style and structure (and price too, unfortunately); the Petaluma 1997 Chardonnay "Picadilly," which purred like a Ferrari; and the Hillstowe 1996 Shiraz "Mary's Hundred," which had an interesting toasted coconut characteristic (either that or dessert was being served at the next table).
The next morning found us heading south of Adelaide to McLaren Vale. Another taste-a-thon was scheduled at the Visitor's Center. I guess I didn't realize it, but looking back at my notes, there were a lot of "XX" wines. The whites had characteristics that reminded me of wines coming from the Russian River Valley in California -- very tropical, melony and citrusy -- and the reds (mostly shiraz) had this fresh-cracked black pepper and crushed raspberry/blueberry thread that was very distinctive. The stand outs were Hamilton Wine Group 1997 Chardonnay "Richard Hamilton;" Hillstowe 1997 Chardonnay; Tatachilla Winery 1997 Chardonnay and 1996 Keystone (grenache/shiraz); Wira Wira 1997 Chardonnay; Rosemount 1996 Balmoral Shiraz and 1996 GSM (grenache/shiraz/mourvedre); d'Arenberg 1996 Shiraz "The Dead Arm" (that's a nice image!) and 1996 Grenache/Shiraz "Ironstone Pressings;" and Hasselgrove 1996 Reserve Shiraz "H."
They poured us back into the bus, and we headed for another winery I'd never heard of: Coriole.
The focus here, interestingly enough, is chenin blanc and shiraz. I say "interesting" because we didn't taste any chenin. Oh well. Coriole is another gem that most haven't heard of but will never forget one they taste. One of my notes mentions the winemaker's ability to integrate just enough oak so as to be powerful yet not too overpowering. They're also experimenting with Italian varietals, particularly sangiovese. Personally, I think the Italians are in big trouble when the Aussies start producing Italian-varietal wines in more abundance. Look what they've done with syrah and other Rhone varietals.
Anyway, wine-wise, here's what stood outta at Coriole: the 1998 Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc, with the typical grassy/herbal notes that make you feel like you're walking hand in hand with your significant other through an open field on a bright sunny day; the 1996 Sangiovese, which was almost more Italian than Chianti; the 1996 Dive (sangiovese/cabernet), whose nose was more beautiful than Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus;" the 1996 Redstone (shiraz/cabernet/grenache), which can be simply described as "yummy;" and the 1995 Shiraz Lloyd Reserve, which brought back memories of an encounter with licorice whips, chocolate and a very sexy red head.
Not only were the wines beautiful at Coriole, but the grounds -- gardens and landscaping -- were truly inspiring. If you're in the area, don't miss it.
Still reeling from images of the redhead, I found our bus parked outside Domaine Chandon Australia. Here we hooked-up with our buddies from retail/wholesale (again) and tasted through DC's export line, Green Point. (The name stems from the property the winery is built on.) In all honesty, I found these wines a step closer to the French Champagne style and a notch better than their American counterparts. The 1995 Brut, which accounts for the vast majority of the production, was smooth, creamy and went down easier than a hooker on Sunset. The 1995 Brut Rose was equally nice, showing a bit more dough and yeast than the regular brut. The 1993 Blanc de Noir was like a Kentucky Derby winner -- crisp, well-balanced and a long finish, and the Estate still wines -- 1997 Chardonnay and 1997 Pinot Noir -- exposed more fruit than the swimsuit models in Sports Illustrated.
Learned another Aussie-ism at dinner -- a cleansing ale is a palate cleaner.
We were off to Melbourne for, as Ed would've said, the really big shoe: Wine Australia. This was probably one of the best, most well-organized and truly enjoyable wine "cattle call" tasting events I've ever attended. Of course, the last thing I wanted to do is taste wine, so I cruised chicks for a while then, when that lead nowhere fast, I started back in on the wines. Because there were so many labels to recommend, I'm only going to list names that really stood out. Here goes: Penfolds Great Grandfather Tawny Port. Now, I'm not a real Port lover (unless she is), but this bottle floored me. Aged for about 45 years before release, it's the best I've ever tasted. My notes say "better than sex" but, looking back, that might've been written in a state of euphoric confusion. The Cape Vale 1998 Riesling "Whispering Hill
" was quite nice -- off-dry, floral and spicy, with a long-lingering finish -- as was the Brian Barry 1997 Riesling "Jud's Hill Vineyard," which was rich, complex and rather dapper.
My next quest was finding a good Australian pinot noir. Id heard rumors that there were a few, but up until this point, I hadn't experienced anything close. Someone suggested Bass Philip. So I tried 'em. The wines were okay, and although we normally don't print anything negative, I found them to be overhyped, overpriced and overly average. Sorry. Then I found the Paringa Estate 1997 Pinot Noir. Now we're talkin'. Good fruit, not overly oaked, bold, spicy and probably the best pinot I'd tasted thus far.
Sandwiched between the show and sleep were various breakfasts, lunches and dinners with...guess what? More wine. Yippee. I do, however, want to recommend a few places to chow down in Melbourne: Cafe e Cucina, Georges, Stella (one of my faves), Flower Drum (Chinese -- and, if I may add something here... I hate to say it like this, but to experience a Chinese person with an Australian accent is, well, funnier than shit), and Cafe Grosse (Italian). We also had breakfast with Cranswick Winery, billed as a "Botrytis Breakfast," which featured stickies with stacks (pancakes) and other assorted breakfast items. The wines were quite exciting, especially the 1995, which is about as good as it gets.
It was over. The show. Four days of tasting hell. Now, it was time to say good-bye to my journalist buds and head to the Coonawarra. I was looking forward to being on my own (well, kinda) for the last four days of the trip.
Upon arriving I learned the game plan had changed. Slightly. Seems there was a show in town and the only hotel was booked...and someone had forgotten to reserve me a room. No worries, I was told. I'd stay at a guest facility at Hollicks Winery. Sounded good. Until I found out the "guest house" was a trailer with no heat and three electricians staying in it (who were working on the winery). With all due respect to Hollicks (which was extremely kind to even offer it to me), it sucked. It was the longest three days/two nights of my life. I froze at dusk, thawed at dawn and tried to put on a "havin' a great time" face at every winery. I was not a happy camper. And I mean that literally.
Regardless, I was a professional. I had to look at the region objectively. Okay. It's flat, boring and what little life there is there, isn't. One decent restaurant, one main drag, two cow-poke towns. The wines, however, saved face.
First stop, well, tasting, was also Hollicks. Gotta say, very consistent, well-made wines. The 1998 Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon was the Daddy Warbucks of wine -- forward, rich and left a long-lasting impression. The 1996 Chardonnay reminded me of a young Sean Connery -- smooth, elegant and well-integrated. On the red side, the 1996 "Walgha" Shiraz was, like the Nelson twins, a bit young and brash, but talented, and the 1994 "Ravenswood" Cabernet Sauvignon (Can you say lawsuit? Sure, I knew you could.) was like Stalone in Copland -- big, intense and packin' heat. And the last wine, a sparkling merlot, was, well, very interesting. I'd recommend it.
Learned something -- a new appellation is in the works to the north of the Coonawarra and will be called Wrattonbully. No comment.
Down the road (yes, the only road there) was Bowen Estate. Nice wines. The 1997 Chardonnay was forward, smooth and had a lot of passion (fruit); the 1996 Shiraz was like eating fresh raspberries sprinkled with freshly cracked black pepper over vanilla ice cream, garnished with a slice of coconut (I swear); and the 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Cabernet Franc was like an all-you-can-eat salad and fruit bar.
Southcorp again. Great. Love 'em. Actually, got to taste some tank and barrel samples which was a nice twist. The Wynns 1998 Riesling was very good, with fruit cup flavors and a spicy finish, and the Rouge Homme 1998 Pinot Noir was like drinking a red fruit smoothie squirted with Hershey's milk chocolate. On the serious side, the Wynns 1996 "John Ruddoch" Cabernet Sauvignon left impressions of James Earl Jones -- rich, deep, firm and extremely talented, and the Wynns "Michael" Shiraz reminded me of a phone booth packed full of college students -- intense, firm and smelled of tobacco (or a related illegal substance).
I'd survived the Coonawarra. Barely. Now, it was on to the Hunter Valley on my own. No guides. No pre-arranged schedules. No unheated trailers. Just me, a car and 48 hours of whatever I wanted to do. And this was going to be an interesting adventure. I was to rent a car in Sydney and drive the two-and-a half hours north to the Hunter. Renting the car was no biggie. Driving on the wrong side of everything was. Or at least I thought it would be. See, my first experience with the "wrong side" was rather traumatic, well, at least it was for the cab driver when, upon arriving in Australia, I flagged him down and almost sat on his lap getting in the "passenger's" side (really the driver's side). 'Course, he had a smile on his face so... Never mind. Anyway, it took a while to get used to it (especially driving through the city), but once on the open highway it was a piece of cake.
The Hunter Valley, often overlooked for more famous Australian winemaking valleys, is, simply put, drop-dead gorgeous. Spread out amongst rolling green hills and mountains resembling northern Sonoma County, this be da spot. I stayed at The Convent at Pepper Tree. (Yes, I was a good boy.) It's a beautiful guest house in which you can indulge in every sense. Okay, I took that from their brochure, but it's true.
My first stop, which was late in the day, was Scarborough. I must mention at this point that Ian Scarborough was very generous with his time and efforts to get me the appointments I wanted in the Hunter. We took a quick tour of the valley and mapped out my plans for the following days. Thanks, Ian. His wines were very generous, too. Concentrating on chardonnay and pinot noir, both his domestic and export labels were well-balanced, crisp and nice on the lingering finish.
Note: As Ian showed me around the lower Hunter, I noticed lodging called Mistletoe Lane Retreat Guest House. If you're looking for wonderful views, privacy and very cool-looking guest cottages, check it out.
The following morning I had an appointment at Brokenwood Winery. Semillon is supposed to be the great white in the Hunter, and I'd heard good things about Brokenwood's, so what the hell. I soon learned that, as with riesling in the Clare, Semillon here is made crisp, austere (in its youth) and very different than in other regions. As it ages it picks up a deep honeyed nut quality and smoothes out. Wines are best consumed 10 to 15 years after bottling. Again, not exactly my style, but...
I tried. I really tried to like the 1992 Semillon, but it just wasn't my thing. The 1998 was so young, bitter and tight I felt as if I was back in LA dealing with child actors. So, on to the others. The 1997 "Graveyard" Chardonnay was pretty powerful, toasty and bright; the 1997 "Graveyard" Shiraz was like breakfast in a log cabin -- smoky, bacony and a little tight but nice; the 1997 "The Mistress Block" Shiraz moved the breakfast into a grand ballroom with marble floors; and the 1997 Shiraz "McLaren Vale" added chocolate-dipped strawberries to the menu.
I learned something -- a common thread of flavor in shiraz from the McLaren Vale is dark chocolate.
On to Mount Pleasant, the fifth-largest winery in Australia. Again, a producer very proud of its semillon -- and the fact that it's aged five years in the bottle before release. Personally, I can wait another five, maybe more. Not that there's anything wrong with it. It's just not my style. The reds, however... kick ass! The 1995 "Maurice O'Shea" Shiraz is made from 118-year-old vines and shows it with great depth and rich flavors. The 1996 "Rosehill" Shiraz had that Vicks thing going for it that just made me want to rub it all over my body and... Regardless, it was nice. They broke out a 1993 "Maurice O'Shea" Shiraz that was mature and simply lovely. If it's any indication where the 1995 is headed, buy some!
I always want to pronounce the next winery "tie-rells," but it's actually "tier-els." Tyrrell's makes a wine that I've been a fan of for many years -- Long Flat Chardonnay. I think they make a Long Flat Red, too, but I didn't taste it while I was there. Anyway, I skirted through the semillons (not that there's anything wrong with them) and got down to business. The 1997 Pinot Chardonnay (don't ask) Vat 47 was a typical Aussie full-blown chard that, like Christina Ricci, had big, forward fruit(s). The 1998 Long Flat Chardonnay was like chewing a fresh stick of bubblegum dipped in alcohol, while the 1997 "Old Winery" Chardonnay was a combo of the first two. Then came the 1996 "Moon Mountain" Chardonnay. This is an in-your-face wine with everything but oak. Very cool.
Red-wise, the 1997 Pinot Noir "Eclipse" was peppery and spicy -- kinda like the receptionist at the winery -- and the 1997 Cabernet Merlot "Old Winery" wasn't overly complex but had nice flavors and a round finish. There ya go.
It was time to head back to Sydney for a couple days' rest before my flight back. I'd tell you about my adventures around the city, but to be perfectly honest with you, I rarely left my room. Okay, that's not entirely true, but close. I guess the Australia Trade Commission felt bad about my Coonawarra experience because they booked me a suite on the 32nd floor of the ANA Hotel overlooking the harbor and famed opera house. The room was bigger than my house (not to mention better decorated). I didn't want to leave. Actually, the guilt of not working the first evening there was gnawing at me, so I plugged the laptop in and got busy. I did see some sights, but Felicity Carter, a native Sydnian (or whatever) can fill you in on what to do and where to go. (see This City Bites).
I will end, however, by saying that I strongly suggest you save some cash and get your ass down there or over there or whatever. Australia's a beautiful place, and the wines, well, they speak for themselves. G'day.