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
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.)
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
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"
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"
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
FLIGHT #2: DRY RED WINES
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"
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"
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.
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
were correctly identified by a plurality of tasters.
What we what
thought it was
How distinct were the dry reds?All five varieties were correctly identified by a
of tasters. Pretty darned good showing!
What we what
thought it was
Favorites by Group Vote
BEST LIKED DRY WHITE WINE
7 votes - 2001 Palliser Estate "Martinborough" Sauvignon
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
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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