Australia


Every print and online wine publication in the Northern Hemisphere has been promoting what we’ll call Wines for Summer Sipping lately, and here at BTYH we’re no different. Few activities are more relaxing than sitting on the porch or patio, lounging by the pool or gamboling in forest cool and dim or meadow wide and fragrant at a picnic while sipping a refreshing, delicate, summery wine. And here’s one of the most attractive around. The name and label are quite clever; notice, class, the provocative use of negative space.

Innocent Bystander Pinot Gris 2009, from the Yarra Valley region of Victoria — the large geographical bump on the bottom of southeast Australia — is, in three words, charming, delightful, appealing. A blend of 91 percent pinot gris grapes and 9 percent viognier, aged a few months in older French oak barrels, and sporting a lovely pale-straw-gold color, the wine offers a seductive bouquet of jasmine, green apple and lemon balm infused with bee’s-wax and hints of cloves and ginger. Bone-dry but nicely ripe and rounded, Innocent Bystander Pinot Gris 09 delivers flavors of pears and roasted lemon buoyed by touches of dried thyme and lime peel, pea shoots, more ginger and just a pass at the tang of grapefruit’s bracing bitterness, way out at the edge of the finish. Crystalline acidity and a nod at damp limestone complete an irresistible package. Try with grilled shrimp and mango salsa, sushi, simply prepared fish dishes (no cream sauce, please) or as a crowd-pleasing aperitif. Very Good+. About $15-$16, a Great Value.

Imported by Old Bridge Cellars, Napa, Cal. A sample for review.

I don’t typically compose a post at the moment of drinking, I mean, of course, tasting a wine, but the day is so damned pleasant — except for the noisy yard work going on to the north and the east; people assume no one is home during the day, I guess — ANYWAY, the afternoon, as I said, is pleasant and I just opened my first rosé wine of the season, though as far as I’m concerned it’s always open season for roses.

The Robert Oatley Rosé of Sangiovese 2009 is from the Mudgee “geographical indication” of New South Wales. Officially, Mudgee is included in the Central Ranges region, along with Cowra and Orange. If you know anything about Australia’s wine geography, Mudgee is inland from Hunter Valley on the east coast. So, this is 100 percent sangiovese, made all in stainless steel. The color is a moderately ruddy copper/salmon; call it angry peach. Irrepressible scents of watermelon, strawberries and orange zest draw you in to meet flavors of nectarine, apricot and dried cranberry given a savory slant by a hint of sage. The wine is quite dry and slightly minerally in the limestone area; bright acidity cools a lovely dense texture that somehow segues into a bit of ripeness on the finish. The wine possesses the heft to accompany antipasti, other sorts of hearty appetizers and hard cheeses. Or take it on a picnic, well-chilled; it’s closed with a screw-cap, so it doesn’t matter of you forget the corkscrew. The alcohol content is a comfortable 12.8 percent; whoa, is that my third glass? Just kidding! Very Good+. About $15.

Imported by Robert Oatley Vineyards, Petaluma, Ca. A sample for review.

Yes, friends, there are bubbles concealed in the Plutonian depths of the blood-red Hill of Content Sparkling Red (non-vintage), made primarily from shiraz grapes grown in the South Australian region of Padthaway. The first time I encountered sparkling shiraz, as it happens on a trip to Australian, my impression was of drinking sparkling roast beef, but I was so much younger and naive 11 years ago. Certainly the Hill of Content Sparkling Red is a little meaty but not that brashly beefy as the example to which I was initially introduced. The bottle is sealed with a crown cap — like on a soda bottle — which indicates that the pressure inside is not as great as the pressure inside most sparkling wines; this is gently effervescent, a breeze of bubbles rather than a torrent. The bouquet offers plums and raspberries and notes of toast and leather. In the mouth, flavors of spiced red currants and cassis, as well as plums, are cushioned in a dense chewy texture; the base wine for this sparkler spends two-and-a-half years in French oak, and you feel the force and the resonance. A few minutes in the glass bring up hints of fruitcake, if fruitcake were not sweet, and more leather. I have seen this rather astonishing product listed on some retail websites as a dessert wine, but it clearly is not; imagine the driest wine you ever tasted and then go beyond that into a region of Platonic dryness. What’s most unusual here is the sense that you are drinking a chilled sparkling wine and partaking of cold tannins. And yet — always an “and yet” — there’s a pretty, winsome quality about it, a thread of something floral and delicately macerated the belies its size and power. Very Good+, and a Great Bargain at about $15.

The Australian Premium Wine Collection.

Sent as a sample for review.

Yesterday was the first meteorological day of winter, but that season debuted officially at our house two nights ago with the first ritual preparation of the cod and chorizo stew, with leeks and potatoes, that LL and I dote on. I have written about this delicious, body-filling and soul-satisfying dish before, so I won’t go into detail about it, but I do want to mention, of course, the superb wine we drank with it so successfully (and the wine’s cousins).

This was the Frankland Estate Poison Hill Vineyard Riesling 2008, from the Frankland River region of Western Australia. The estate produces three single-vineyard rieslings, as well as a sort of cadet version under the Rocky Gully label, all finished with screw-caps.
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The Frankland Poison Hill Riesling 2008 delivers incredible purity and intensity; this is a purposeful and confident riesling, shimmering, vibrant and concentrated in dimension and detail. Piercing limestone and damp shale qualities support classic notes of diesel fuel (call it rubber eraser if that makes you feel better), pear and peach with spiced apple and ginger. Hints of jasmine and honeysuckle seem to draw from the Platonic essence of those blossoms, so the effect is more earthy than overtly floral. This is a case when the accumulation of different sorts of delicacy meld into the balance between power and elegance; while there’s a sense that what you’re drinking is transparent and ethereal, you never forget this riesling’s strong connection to the soil. Rattling in its dryness, startling in its crystalline acidity, the Frankland Poison Hill 2008 finishes with marked austerity, high-toned and a little glacial, yet packed with citrus and spice. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Exceptional. About $28.
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The Frankland Estate Cooladerra Vineyard Riesling 2008, Frankland River region, feels even more serious than the Poison Hill ’08 rendition. This riesling is substantial, generous and expansive, while still tiptoeing an edgy line of blade-like acidity; there’s a risk in seeking this kind of precise balance between tension and resolution in a riesling, but the scheme works here. And for all its grand airs, the Cooladerra ’08 offers delightful elements of peach and lychee, lime and gravel, wrapped in an elixir of petrol and lilac. Drink now through 2013 or ’14. Excellent. About $28.
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Last of this trio is the Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Riesling 2008, Frankland River Region. You’re greeted by an extraordinary bouquet of petrol and taffy, lychee, candied grapefruit, smoke and bergamot; riesling lovers may dab it behind their ears. After that beguilement, you’re surprised when the wine explodes with unassailable dryness, irrepressible acidity and irreproachable minerality in the crushed gravel, damp shale mode. I mean this wine is so crisp that it feels as if you could break it over your knee and pass out the shards to the poor in spirit, yet if ever a wine carried elegance to the point of severity, this is it. And still — and still — how winsomely it brings up a note of orange rind and another note of cloves, and a hint of quince, and an element so earthy and macerated that the wine is almost savory. What a performance! Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Exceptional. About $28.

Imported by USA Wine West, Sausalito, Cal., for The Australian Premium Wine Collection. These were sample bottles sent to me for review.
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The friendly drivers of UPS and FedEx bring wine to my door, not every day of the work week but often three or four days, sometimes two or three. It varies by circumstance and weather; shipping drops off during the hottest and coldest months. Some weeks, I receive a couple of cases of wine altogether; other weeks only a few bottles. Without these samples for review, a blog like this couldn’t exist, just as newspaper and magazine book pages couldn’t exist without the copies of books sent by publishers.

On August 20, I received seven bottles of wine, one from Argentina, two from Australia, one from California and three from Oregon. Prices ranged from 8 to $105. Contemplating these wines and the enormous variety and variation they representeded, I thought, “Eureka! Here’s an interesting post for BTYH, reviews of the wines I received on a single day, whatever their origin or cost.”

The order is from cheapest to most expensive.
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Black Swan Wines, which carry a South Eastern Australia designation, are imported to the U.S. and bottled by Barossa Valley Importers in Modesto, Cal., the mention of the town of Modesto telling us that Black Swans are Gallo wines. I received two from an extensive roster, the Shiraz 2008 and the Riesling 2008. Of this pair, the Riesling ’08 is the Bargain.
Not that I minded the Black Swan Shiraz ’08. Produced in 230,000 cases, it offers the definite character of a mass-produced wine, that is, one feels it as a “red wine” rather than as anything definably shiraz-like. Its mildly spicy black fruit scents and flavors are passably decent and it offers a pleasing texture, and if we were at a party and someone handed me a glass (or plastic cup, more likely) of this wine, I wouldn’t turn to LL and raise an eyebrow too noticeably. In fact, that setting would be this wine’s highest purpose, as a red vinous beverage to be knocked back when dozens of people are thwacked by loud music and have to shout in each others’ ears to be heard and the whole situation borders on the mindless. Fun!

The Black Swan Riesling ’08, on the other hand, makes a real claim to varietal character. The wine is fresh and clean, as we would hope, and displays sufficient hints of peach, pear and lychee highlighted by the grape’s requisite note of petrol (you may call it rubber eraser) that when I swirled, sniffed and sipped, I thought, “Well, shut my mouth, this is riesling,” not, I hasten to say, riesling of great intensity and purport, but certainly more than merely decent. The texture niftily balances crisp acidity with moderate lushness, and the finish brings in spice and limestone.

I rate the Shiraz as Good and the Riesling as Very Good. Each about $8.
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Don Miguel Gascon is an actual winery, founded in 1884, with an actual winemaker, Ernesto Bajda. This, too, is imported by Gallo, though unlike the Black Swan wines, Gascon Malbec 2008 is made, aged and bottled in its home, the Mendoza region of Argentina. This is a great wine for the price; I have used several previous vintages as Wine of the Week.

Made from 100 percent malbec grapes and aged seven months in a combination of French and American oak barrels, Gascon Malbec 2008 is a dark ruby-purple color with a violet rim (that’s when you tilt the glass and look through the edge of the wine to reveal all the hues); the bouquet bursts with scents of ripe blueberry and blackberry, spicy oak and briery, brambly elements. Black fruit flavors are permeated by plum dust, hints of coffee and tobacco, a bit of cedar; the texture is dense and chewy, and though the wine is robust (and a little exotic), tannins and oak influence are kept to sensible supporting roles. We drank this one night with grilled pork chops, and it was a hit. Very Good+. About $14, Good Value.
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The words no producer wants to read in a review are “disappointed” and “I liked the less expensive wine more than the expensive one.” Alas, that is what I must write today regarding three pinot noirs from Willamette Valley Vineyards.

The one I liked best, the one that seemed purest, most intense and unsullied is the Willamette Valley Vineyards Whole Cluster Fermented Pinot Noir 2008. “Whole Cluster” means that the freshly picked and sorted grapes are placed, uncrushed, in stainless steel containers that contain carbon dioxide gas, sprayed with yeast and then sealed in. As fermentation slowly occurs, the weight of the grapes on top begins gently to crush the grapes below, releasing the juice. The result, as in this example, is urgent freshness and elixir-like fruitiness, first grapey and then redolent of black and red cherries and mulberries. In the mouth, this wine dips a delicate toe into the dark waters of spice and macerated black fruits; a few minutes in the glass manifest something slightly leafy, a little mossy and earthy. The texture is so satiny as to be almost viscous, but vibrant acidity cuts a swath. Utterly charming and delicious. Drink now through 2011. Very Good+. About $19.

I loved the bouquet of the Willamette Valley Vineyards Pinot Noir 2007. A welter of cranberry, black cherry and sassafras, lilac and baking spice, it would easily seduce the most jaded nose. When you taste the wine, however, you find that touch of brown sugar and emphatic spice that too often characterizes West Coast pinot noirs. This element coasts on a tide of burly oak, and together they swamp the wine’s fruit, so that the finish devolves to wood and wood’s austerity. Very good. About $25.

My mantra is “If a wine smells like wood and tastes like woody, it’s too damned woody.” That’s my reaction to the Willamette Valley Vineyards Elton Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007. Yes, ’07 should turn out to be a fine year for Oregon, and, yes, the Elton Vineyard is highly respected, but vintages and vineyards matter little if a wine is over-manipulated in the winery. At first glance, one might think that the oak regimen for the wine was perfectly balanced, 14 months in French barrels, 20 percent new, but there’s many a slip between the cup and the lip, and for my palate the wine was insufferably oaky. I spent half an hour or so with this glass, swirling, sniffing, sipping, waiting for some nuance, some detail to emerge, but those pleasurable factors seemed not to have a chance. 410 cases. Perhaps a few years aging will make a difference, but I don’t have much hope. About $45.
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Here’s the story: 14 years ago, young Will Jarvis, son of the owners of Jarvis Winery, had an 8th grade science project. It seemed natural to make red wine, for which he had to receive permission and made a two-gallon barre, illustrating the whole process. Ten years later, he and his parents tried the wine and thought it was so good that it inspired the present wine, a first release of Jarvis “Will Jarvis Science Project” Cabernet Franc 2007, Napa Valley. No, readers, this is not the original wine, but it’s certainly one of the best cabernet franc wines to be made in California.

The color is dark ruby-purple, almost black. The first impression is of immense minerality, like shoals of granite and shale, but the wine is immensely fruit-endowed too, bursting with scents and flavors of spiced and macerated blueberries and black currant jam. The wine exhibits tremendous heft and substance, breadth and depth, but it’s neither heavy nor obvious; it wears its size stylishly, legitimately. As moments elapse, the wine unfolds layers of smoke and charcoal, touches of loam and burning leaves, deeper hints of violets and tar. When you take a sip, it’s not only mouth-filling but encompassing. Yes, quite a wine. It was in all new French oak, but only for nine months; how reasonable is that? 391 cases. Best from 2010 through 2015 or ’17. Excellent. About — ouch! — $105.
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