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Australia vs. France

If you think Australia's new cult wines can't
compete with France's finest, taste these...

(May 18, 2003) Could any Australian Cab be near as good as 1990 Margaux? Would you believe an Oz Chardonnay could beat the pants off a Verget Batard?

     Oh yeah? I've got a generous friend who delights in discrediting sacred cows, and he did it again a few nights ago, by vote of some 26 tasters.

     Our host assembled six of France's most exalted cuves and stacked them up against half a dozen of his own favorites from Oz. Then he served them blind, alongside a fabulous meal at one of our city's best restaurants.

     All the rest of us had to do was eat, drink, vote -- and argue, of course. A few stubborn souls (including me) consistently preferred the French wines, but Australia overwhelmingly won the voting in all but one flight.

     The wines were decanted and served single-blind, in three flights. Our host named the wines in each flight and even provided tasting notes -- but he didn't tell us which was which. We had to vote on our favorites before the wine in each glass was identified.

     Here's how they tasted to me:

Flight 1 (Chardonnay)

Wine #1 Offers aromas of pure tropical fruit, unsullied by oak. There's a touch of custard on the palate alongside some mango and minerals. Finish is fairly lengthy, but noticeably thin. If any wine tonight is Chablis, this would have to be it, but I'm surprised that **1996 Domaine Laroche Chablis les Clos (France) is the weakest in this flight.

Wine #2 shows the most oak of all the Chards, but gains impressively with airing. Butterscotch flavors fade in favor of powerful stone and steely notes. Drenches the palate and finishes well. I'm not used to Australian Chards besting big name Grand Cru Burgs, but **++1998 Curly Flat Chardonnay (Australia) beats the Chablis convincingly. Essentially tied for first place by group vote.

Wine #3 shouts "great Burgundy," but I've rarely tasted one that pushes ripeness and concentration to such an outrageous extreme. Amazingly complex package of pear liqueur, apricots, rose petal -- whew, what a wine. The finish never ends, and with each passing minute the flavors expand. The darkest in color of all the Chards, it's also the most backward. Easy to guess that this is the ***+1996 Verget Batard-Montrachet (France). Doesn't win much support from other tasters -- maybe it's just too backward for them -- but this heads the flight on my card and it's my second-favorite wine of the evening.

If my wife had been present, I'll bet she would have chosen Wine #4. Lightest in color, it's all about flowers and fruit, but does it with fantastic finesse. Perfumed nose of jasmine and peaches. Pirouettes on the palate with every sip. If you think Australian wine is all about power and oak, you're going to be stunned by ***+1999 Leeuwin Art Series Chardonnay (Australia). The group also places this wine above the two Burgs, in a virtual tie for first place.

Flight 2 (Syrah)

Wine #1 announces itself as Australian Shiraz from first sniff. Licorice beats out blackcurrant when you sniff and when you slurp. Well, maybe it's closed. After 15 minutes, some black cherry flavors emerge, but the heavy char on the oak treatment won't back off. The texture is really thick -- almost like port, the taster beside me observes -- but I can't believe this is all we're getting from **+1994 Penfolds Grange Shiraz (Australia). The group and I both rank it third in the flight.

Wine #2 isn't hard to guess either. It's dripping with bacon-fat -- too much for me, but I'm not the world's biggest fan of Cte Rotie. One taster says it's a little oxidized. I don't agree, but maybe I just can't taste past the earth and game. This is my least-favorite wine of the flight and the evening, and the group doesn't like it much either. Still, two tasters find merit in *+1985 Guigal la Landonne (France).

But Wine #3 -- now here's sensational French Syrah. Pure, rich, grapey and so concentrated, with no need for any gussying up. Although it's the most backward wine of the flight, there's so much fruit here that it just doesn't matter. Bravura performance for ***+1991 Chapoutier Hermitage le Pavillon (France), my clear favorite of the flight and the group's second-favorite.

I could call Wine #4 controversial, but really, just one particular purist takes loud exception to this wine. The rest of us either adore it passionately or (like me) can't help being seduced. Aromas of coconut, chocolate fudge, crLme de cassis and other confections. On the palate, it's almost as rich as the Chapoutier, and lots more talkative tonight. This is what Grange is supposed to do when it's on top of its game, but Sarah and Sparky Marquis can take pride that their ***+2001 Shirvington Shiraz is the runaway favorite of this flight. Wows the group and wins more first-place votes than any wine this evening.

Flight 3 (Cabernet Sauvignon)

I've got CLEAR FAVE scrawled across my card next to wonderful Wine #1. Didn't take many notes. Didn't need to. This is a wine you never forget. Intense aromas of violets, joined by creamy cassis and blackberry. Beautiful, bottomless, many-layered, a vinous Grand Canyon. Has to be ***++1990 Chteau Margaux (France), my favorite of the flight and the evening. The group favors it for wine of the evening, but surprisingly, it's virtually tied in this flight with an Australian!

Wine #2 could teach many California Cabs a thing or two. Vanilla bean and licorice give way to a truckload of kirsch. Very strong mineral notes and even some iodine in the mix. It trails the group vote and it's last on my own card, but hey, it's up against towering legends. You have to give credit to ***-1994 Cyril Henschke Cabernet Sauvignon (Australia) for holding its own in this flight.

And Wine #3 nearly edges out the Margaux! Mocha fudge icing covers a Sacher-Torte of blueberry, blackcurrant and bittersweet chocolate. Can't be the Margaux or the Mouton, but lots of tasters just don't care. Must say I'm quite smitten too with ***2001 Clarendon Hills Hickinbotham Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Australia).

Wine #4 is one of the biggest Cabs I've ever had the fortune to slurp. No question it's Bordeaux, with its earthy complexities. And the coffee bean and cherry liqueur mean this has to be ***+1982 Chteau Mouton-Rothschild (France). Dense as all get-out and extremely long, it's still a ten ton baby tonight. One taster thinks it starts to fade toward the end of the evening, but I think that's just the tannin. My take is that it may have simply started crawling back into its shell. In any case, it wins the flight, but curiously not the evening. My second-favorite wine of the flight.

Dessert Wines

Our incredibly generous host then pours us ***+1988 Chteau d'Yquem to enjoy with dessert, paired against an impudently charming **+Hardy's Show Reserve Port (non-vintage, I think). Call me a Philistine, but even though I appreciate the d'Yquem, I find the port more to my liking after so many stupendous reds. Funny, this is the one flight where I actually favor Australia, and the only one where the group overwhelmingly votes for France.

Rankings by Group Vote

As you can see, the French wines were getting pummeled until Mouton and Margaux muscled in. And even then, the Clarendon Hills Cab went nose-to-nose with Margaux. Considering that the latter may be one of the greatest Bordeaux ever made, I'd call the Oz performance not too shabby.

Chardonnay

1. 1998 Curly Flat Chardonnay (10 Liked Most, 3 Liked Least)
2. 1999 Leeuwin Art Series Chardonnay (10 Liked Most, 4 Liked Least)
3. 1996 Domaine Laroche Chablis "Les Clos" (3 Liked Most, 8 Liked Least)
4. 1996 Verget Batard-Montrachet (3 Liked Most, 9 Liked Least)

Syrah

1. 2001 Shirvington Shiraz (13 Liked Most, 5 Liked Least)
2. 1991 Chapoutier Hermitage le Pavillon (7 Liked Most, 3 Liked Least)
3. 1994 Penfolds Grange Shiraz (4 Liked Most, 5 Liked Least)
4. 1985 Guigal la Landonne (2 Liked Most, 11 Liked Least)

Cabernet Sauvignon

1. 1982 Chteau Mouton-Rothschild (10 Liked Most, 9 Liked Least)
2. 1990 Chteau Margaux (7 Liked Most, 4 Liked Least)
3. 2001 Clarendon Hills Hickinbotham Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (7 Liked Most, 6 Liked Least)
4. 1994 Cyril Henschke Cabernet Sauvignon (3 Liked Most, 7 Liked Least)

Dessert Wines

1. 1988 Chteau Yquem (Overwhelming Favorite)
2. Hardy's Show Reserve Port (Non-Vintage) (Only 2 votes)

Wine of the Evening by Group Vote

Notice how many votes the Leeuwin Chardonnay got. Well deserved!

1. 1990 Chteau Margaux (9 votes)
2. 1999 Leeuwin Art Series Chardonnay (5 votes)
3. 2001 Shirvington Shiraz (3 votes)
4. 1988 Chteau d'Yquem (2 votes)
5. 1998 Curly Flat Chardonnay (1 vote)
6. 1985 Guigal la Landonne (1 vote)
7. 1994 Cyril Henschke Cabernet Sauvignon (1 vote)
8. 2001 Clarendon Hills Hickinbotham Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (1vote)
9. 1982 Chteau Mouton-Rothschild (1 votes)

My Personal Rankings

As you can see, I wasn't quite as seduced by Oz winemaking as the group. But I was really only disappointed by one Australian -- the famed Grange! I was especially wowed by the finesse, length and complexity of the whites. Either of those two Oz Chards are well worth a search.

Chardonnay

1. 1996 Verget Batard-Montrachet
2. 1999 Leeuwin Art Series Chardonnay
3. 1998 Curly Flat Chardonnay
4. 1996 Domaine Laroche Chablis les Clos

Syrah

1. 1991 Chapoutier Hermitage le Pavillon
2. 2001 Shirvington Shiraz
3. 1994 Penfolds Grange Shiraz
4. 1985 Guigal la Landonne

Cabernet Sauvignon

1. 1990 Chteau Margaux
2. 1982 Chteau Mouton-Rothschild
3. 2001 Clarendon Hills Hickinbotham Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
4. 1994 Cyril Henschke Cabernet Sauvignon

My Choice for Wine of the Evening

1990 Chteau Margaux

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