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Oz Blockbusters: Can You Tell 'Em Apart?

There's no doubt that Australian producers can make delicious,
blockbuster wines, but some complain they're too formulaic.
How true is this charge?
A blind tasting provides
some surprising answers. 

(SEPTEMBER 5, 2002) So you think you can tell Sauvignon Blanc from Riesling? So did I, but tonight I ate a little crow with my dinner.

     Nevertheless, the meal was marvelous, thanks to a generous host who gathered some two dozen of us for another of his grand tastings at Le Mas Perrier near Philadelphia. Our task was to blind-taste 10 top-rated wines from down under ó five whites and as many reds ó each made from a different grape variety.

     We guests were a pretty representative cross-section of American wine-lovers, varying in experience from beginners to veterans. And yes, we blundered with some of the whites, but I was surprised at how well we did. Following are my notes. (Click here if you can't wait to peek at the final tallies.)

METHODOLOGY

     We're given names and reviews of the first ten wines, but we're not told which is which. We're each asked to name our favorite, then match the wine in each glass to the right name. Finally, a bonus flight of dessert wines is served with labels showing.

FLIGHT #1: DRY WHITE WINES

WINE #1. Oaky aromas that stay pretty toasty throughout the first five courses. Nice body on the palate and some tasty pear, quince and lees flavors mingle with the vanilla. Pleasant stuff, but I'm stumped for clear varietal indicators. Taking my cue from the oak treatment, I guess Chardonnay, but it's *+2000 Tallarook "Victoria" Marsanne.

COMMENT: C'est la guerre. I could say the oak threw me off, but I've been tricked by Rhone Marsannes too.

WINE #2. Lightest-colored wine in the flight and easily the most distinctive. Intense aromas of pear and pineapple give way to massive grapefruit notes. Explodes on the palate and lingers on the finish. Clearly the class of the flight, but what is it? The sheer size of the wine and lack of oak lead me to say Riesling, but it's **++2001 Palliser Estate "Martinborough" Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand), perhaps the best down-under Sauvignon Blanc I've ever tasted.

COMMENT: Outsmarted myself. In retrospect, the wine is varietally true. It's a beautiful example of the big, loud, Jimmy-Cagny-pushes-a-grapefruit-into-your-face style of SB that New Zealand is famed for. But nothing else on the table tasted like Riesling, so I... okay, it sounds lame, but I wasn't alone. Fifteen others joined my folly.

WINE #3. Unusual for an Oz white, at least in my experience. Aromas of grilled nuts. Full and soft on the palate, with a long, flinty finish. Spice notes emerge after a while. Like it a lot! I figure it probably isn't Chard, since it's not about ripe fruit flavors. The minerals and slippery texture make me guess Marsanne. Wrong. It's **+1998 Petaluma "Tiers" Piccadilly Valley Chardonnay.

COMMENT: Violates the stereotypes about Australian Chards, in a good way. Not your usual pumped-up monster; all about finesse. Too soft to be Chablis, but that's sort of the model.

WINE #4. Tropical fruits and a little licorice give way to apricots and some floral notes. Finishes decently, but not nearly as large a wine as the previous two. The fragrance says Viognier to me and for once in this flight I'm correct. It's *+1999 Yalumba "The Virgilius" Viognier.

COMMENT: This is good, not great Viognier, but the winemaking was appropriate to the fruit.

WINE #5. Here's the one that really leads me down the primrose path. Peaches, melons, lively acidity and a big squirt of cumquat on the finish. I'm practically sure it's a well-behaved New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but no! It's *2001 Mount Langi "Ghiran" Riesling.

COMMENT: Nice stuff, but totally unlike its German and Alsace counterparts. Has the acidity you expect from Riesling, but where are the minerals?

FLIGHT #2: DRY RED WINES

WINE #1. Opens with scents of cinnamon and sandalwood, but these quickly give way to gushers of strawberry, cherry and raspberry. Gotta be Pinot Noir, and if so, it's one of the best I've tasted from Oz. Sure enough, it's **+ 2000 Paringa Estate "Mornington Peninsula" Pinot Noir.

COMMENT: I've tasted quite a few Australian Pinots in the past few years that remind me of California attempts from 10 years ago. This, however, is a big step forward. Lush and fleshy, it flaunts its fruit and gets away with it. No one's going to mistake it for Burgundy, but the grape shines through. My kind of Pinot.

WINE #2. Starts out dumb as a box of rocks, but eventually tells its story. Strawberries talk first, then smoke and mint nuances chime in. High alcohol. That's enough to assure me it's*+1998 Clarendon Hills "Blewitt Springs" Grenache.

COMMENT: This wine doesn't get much respect tonight, but I've tasted other vintages that weren't quite as tight-lipped. A backward wine that may show better in another six months.

WINE #3. Aromas of chocolate and earth pretty much spill the beans about this big boy. Cassis and Bordeaux-type herbs follow up, trailing a hint of coffee bean. If there's any Merlot on this table, here's the prime suspect. Sure enough, it's ***-1997 James Irvine "Grand" Merlot.

COMMENT: Unlike some wildly overdone, pruney Oz Merlots I've tried before, this one's a model of balance. The 15.3% alcohol never betrays itself, and the fruit is straight down the middle. Class act. (NOTE: the same wine performed very poorly when tasted a year later from a different cellar. I would have to assume some bottles were damaged in transit.)

WINE #4. Soapy aromas blow off in a hurry, and loads of blackcurrant emerge. As the minutes tick by, the wine gets bigger, grapier, more penetrating. Lots of tannin on the finish, but the wine shrugs it off. Cab or Shiraz? Tough to say at first, but since it's unquestionably the biggest wine of the night, logic leads me to Shiraz. Peppery nuances creep in, confirming my guess and yes, it's ***+1998 Bestís "Thomson Family" Shiraz.

COMMENT: Blockbuster Shiraz in its infancy. Not showing a lot of varietal character tonight; more like a barrel sample. It's so full of fruit, though -- even at this stage, impossible to resist.

WINE #5. Wow! Exotic blueberry flavors remind me a little of Bryant Family. Very ripe, but not overripe. Bit of anise and hint of tobacco on the finish. The oak char resembles that of wine #4, but there's enough delicious fruit peeking out that I feel safe guessing ***1998 Penley Estate "Coonawarra" Cabernet Sauvignon.

COMMENT: Of all the reds tonight, this one might give a purist the most cause for carping. Don't get me wrong, it tastes fantastic -- but the oak seems a little heavy-handed. Nevertheless, I'd happily say yes to another glass right now.

FLIGHT #3: DESSERT WINES

1. ***+Non-Vintage Chambers Rosewood "Rutherglen Rare" Tokay is so dark, some almost mistake it for a red. It's black as a Pedro Ximenez sherry and does it ever dominate! Complex flavors of raisins, nuts and other goodies make it a liquid dessert. Fans of old Madeira (like myself) will find this irresistible.

2. **+1978 Bullers "Vintage" Port suffers only in comparison to the Tokay. Not what you're used to from Portugal ó more like a red version of the above. Like drinking fruitcake. Lovely close to an exciting evening.

Concluding Comments

     Following are the voting tallies. As you'll see, not everyone felt confident enough to vote, but the overall results show some clear patterns. Especially when it comes to reds, the best Australian wines show plenty of varietal character.

     In fact, we nailed all the reds by big pluralities, which frankly surprised me. Either Oz winemakers are more sensitive than some critics claim, or the grapes are so gorgeous that their varietal character just can't be denied.

     The whites gave us more trouble. Two dozen blind tasters couldn't even tell Australian Riesling from New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc! However, the voting also shows that both the Chardonnay and Viognier were varietally true. I'd even call them elegant.

     Taster preferences were intriguing. The Palliser Sauvignon Blanc was the most liked and most hated white -- clearly a standout. Voting for the reds was less convincing, with Cab claiming a narrow victory over Shiraz (same number preferred it, but fewer people disliked it). In my opinion, this says more about Cab-loving American palates than the actual quality of the wines.

How distinct were the dry whites?
Whoops! Only two varieties (Chardonnay and Viognier)
were correctly identified by a plurality of tasters.

 

What we what thought it was

Marsanne Sauvignon. Blanc Chardonnay Viognier Riesling
What
it
really
was
Marsanne   4 6 8 3 2
Sauvignon Blanc  0 2 2 3 16
Chardonnay 5 1 8 7 0
Viognier 4 4 4 8 3
Riesling 10 10 0 1 1

How distinct were the dry reds?
All five varieties were correctly identified by a plurality
of tasters. Pretty darned good showing!

 

What we what thought it was

Pinot Noir Grenache Merlot Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon
What
it
really
was
Pinot Noir 17 2 1 3 1
Grenache 1 16 4 0 1
Merlot 2 1 11 6 3
Shiraz 1 2 4 9 5
Cabernet Sauvignon 2 1 2 3 11

Favorites by Group Vote

BEST LIKED DRY WHITE WINE

7  votes - 2001 Palliser Estate "Martinborough" Sauvignon Blanc (NZ)
6 votes - 2000 Tallarook "Victoria" Marsanne
5 votes - 1998 Petaluma "Tiers" Piccadilly Valley Chardonnay
5 votes - 2001 Mount Langi "Ghiran" Riesling
2 votes - 1999 Yalumba "The Virgilius" Viognier

LEAST LIKED DRY WHITE WINE

10 votes - 2001 Palliser Estate "Martinborough" Sauvignon Blanc (NZ)
5 votes - 1999 Yalumba "The Virgilius" Viognier
3 votes - 2000 Tallarook "Victoria" Marsanne
2 votes - 1998 Petaluma "Tiers" Piccadilly Valley Chardonnay
2 votes - 2001 Mount Langi "Ghiran" Riesling

BEST LIKED DRY RED WINE

8 votes - 1998 Penley Estate "Coonawarra" Cabernet Sauvignon
8 votes - 1998 Bestís "Thomson Family" Shiraz
6 votes - 1997 James Irvine "Grand" Merlot
3 votes - 2000 Paringa Estate "Mornington Peninsula" Pinot Noir
0 votes - 1998 Clarendon Hills "Blewitt Springs" Grenache

LEAST LIKED DRY RED WINE

9 votes - 1998 Clarendon Hills "Blewitt Springs" Grenache
8 votes - 2000 Paringa Estate "Mornington Peninsula" Pinot Noir
4 votes - 1998 Bestís "Thomson Family" Shiraz
1 vote - 1997 James Irvine "Grand" Merlot
1 vote - 1998 Penley Estate "Coonawarra" Cabernet Sauvignon

My Personal Favorites

DRY WHITE WINE:

2001 Palliser Estate "Martinborough" Sauvignon Blanc (NZ)

DRY RED WINE:

1998 Bestís "Thomson Family" Shiraz

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