The Other Australia - Robin Tours Victoria State Wineries
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed October 6, 2003. For more information go to wineloverspage.com
The more time I spend in Australia and New Zealand, the more I love
these quirky places and their friendly people and the more I want
to come back often.
It's easy for English speakers to travel in these places that seem
almost like home, because we can understand the language (most of
the time, although it gets a little dodgy when they start talking
about "football") and because things here seem a great deal like
home. Except, of course, when they're different, as in the
occasional encounter with a standard yellow-and-black kangaroo-
crossing road sign.
Just when you think you know Australia, something about it will
surprise you ... and this observation is certainly true when it
comes to the country's wines.
As I've frequently pointed out before, many wine lovers in the
U.S., basing our opinions on the range of Australian wines most
likely to turn up on our shelves (and on most of the Australian
items that win high-point reviews from critics Robert M. Parker Jr.
and Wine Spectator magazine), assume that just about all Australian
wines are big, fat, highly alcoholic, fruity and in-your-face
blockbusters. And having just finished sampling dozens of wines
much like this as a judge at the Sydney International Wine
Competition just ended, I can confirm that quite a few of them are.
But you'll find an exception to every rule; and in my case, having
stayed on in Australia for a few days after the Sydney competition
and enjoyed a bit of quick wine touring with Australian friends in
Victoria, the smallish Australian state surrounding Melbourne, I'm
delighted to have rediscovered a lot of elegant, balanced and
refined wines that don't fit the bold-and-brawny stereotype.
With grateful thanks to my pals Rob Keith (and his wife Jenny) and
Murray Almond for joining me and handling the right-hand-driving
chores, I'd like to devote the rest of today's article to a quick
survey of a few good non-stereotypical Victorian wineries and wines
- at least some of them available in the U.S., Britain and
elsewhere - that I've had the pleasure of sampling this week.
When you think of Victoria, forget the familiar names of the
better-known Australian wine regions like Barossa and McLaren Vale,
Coonawarra or the Hunter Valley. On these trips we've veered onto
roads less often taken: The Victorian wine regions Nagimbie Lakes,
Bendigo and Geelong ("Juh-LONG").
About a 90-minute drive northeast of Melbourne toward the "Great
Divide" mountain range that runs between Melbourne and Sydney,
Nagimbie Lakes is a scenic, hilly and relatively cool region, cool
enough that the grapevines have only just started budding, several
weeks behind the vineyards in northern New Zealand that I visited
last week and those in Victoria's coastal regions. We visited two
good-size producers there whose wines are reasonably easy to find
outside Australia: Chateau Tahbilk, a historic winery with rustic
tasting room and underground cellars that date back to the 1860s
(as do some of the winery's oldest Shiraz vines, several rows of
which are still used to make wine); and Mitchelton, housed in a
stark white modern building with an eye-catching tower that
strangely resembles an airport control tower.
One of Tahbilk's most popular wines, available around the world, is
the 2002 Marsanne, a white Rhone-style variety (bottled with a
Stelvin-brand metal screw cap, not a cork), which sells for
AUS$10.95 at the winery. A clear brass color, it breathes
attractive white flower and honey aromas and offers a rich,
slightly oxidative flavor, clean and long. At the other end of
Tahbilk's price spectrum, the 1998 "1860 Vines" Shiraz (AUS$99.95),
made from grapes grown on vines more than 140 years old, is a
stylish red wine with scents and flavors of ripe, juicy plums
accented with brown spice, more elegant than blockbusterish.
Two Mitchelton wines offered distinctly different approaches to
Australian fruit. The 2000 "Crescent" Central Victoria Shiraz
Mourvedre Grenache (AUS$25) is ripe and complex, with aromas of
plums and pepper and slight, pleasant "animal" notes. A wine of
excellent balance, it was almost Rhone-like in character. The 2001
Print Shiraz (AUS$25), showed characteristic Australian aromas of
mint and menthol over ripe black fruit; good structure and balance
kept it out of the "blockbuster" category, however, and it carries
its 14% alcohol well.
Today (Monday in Australia, Sunday back in the U.S.), Murray Almond
introduced me to his home region, Geelong, which was originally one
of Australia's original wine-growing areas but lost that tradition
for generations and is only recently resuming it. Near the coast
southwest of Melbourne, it's a relatively cool growing region, and
many of its wines aim at refinement rather than power.
At Fettler's Rest winery in Geelong, wine maker Scott Ireland
produces wines under two labels: The Jindalee brand is made to sell
at a bargain $5.99 in the U.S. and comparable prices in Britain;
it's a juicy, ripe and fresh wine aimed quite frankly at the mass
market (and slightly sweetened with grape concentrate to meet
perceived American tastes for bottlings imported to the U.S.)
While not a wine for "connoisseurs," it's fruity and gulpable, well
worth examination as a more stylish alternative to the ubiquitous
Yellow Tail. The winery's Fettler's Rest wines, in contrast, are
stylish, a half-dozen grape varieties from an AUS$15 2003
Gewurztraminer that's fruity, floral and bone-dry to the Fettler's
Rest 1999 Jindalee Estate Geelong Shiraz (AUS$19.50), a dark-purple
wine loaded with seductive black fruit, a bit leafy but pleasantly
so, a wine that breaks the stereotype of Oz Shiraz with balanced,
accessible fruit, good balance and smooth, almost silken tannins.
Two more new Geelong wineries in stunning facilities with wines to
match are Pettavel and Shadowfax, the latter named after Gandalf's
horse in Lord of the Rings. These wines are not yet available in
the U.S., and that's a shame, as both producers produce delicious
wines that respect their Australian heritage while breaking cleanly
away from the perceived style. I was particularly delighted with
Pettavel 2000 Emigre Geelong Shiraz (AUS$40), which seemed to fit
the oversize Oz Shiraz mold with its inky color and big, plummy
aromas, but exceeded expectations with a big but remarkably smooth
and balanced flavor; and Shadowfax 2001 "One Eye" Heathcote Shiraz,
a complex, refined Shiraz that highlights plummy fruit with
perfumed white pepper in the aroma; juicy Plums, fragrant pepper
and an intriguing note of dark, sweet chocolate on the palate.
As I wrap up this two-week trip through a swath of Australia (plus
short stops in New Zealand and California's Central Coast), I
intend to put my wine tasting notes, food reports and photos online
as soon as time permits. I'll let you know and provide links to the
information as soon as it's available. Meanwhile, The Wine Advisor
remains on a Monday-only production schedule until I get back to
the office, but I plan to resume normal publication later this week
or, at the latest, next Monday.