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Gunning for Burgundy

(July 17, 2005) Itís no news that Australian producers can make good Pinot Noir and Chardonnay -- and South Africa has ambitions with these grapes too. But how far along are they, really? Can the Southerners compete with the best?

We recently attended a blind tasting devoted to this possibility. The tasters were wine-lovers, but not fanatics, except for yours truly. The wines came from top producers Curly Flat (Australia), Hamilton Russell (South Africa), Vincent Girardin (Burgundy) and Martinelli (California). We were told exactly what we would be tasting and even given reviews, but the flights were served blind.

What happened? First some observations:

White Burgundy takes a beating. I was personally very impressed by the 2001 Girardin Corton-Charlemagne, and one taster chose it as his favorite. But it needed most of the meal to open -- and the mineral flavors turned off many tasters, who ranked it their least favorite Chardonnay. Since minerality is CCís strong suit, I doubt extra airing or bottle-age would have helped it.

South African Chard scores surprise upset. 2004 Hamilton Russell Chardonnay won the white flight by a convincing margin. It was my own second-favorite and nobody liked it least. Plus, at $25 a bottle, itís by far the most affordable. Whatís not to like! (On the other hand, the heavily-oxidized 2003 Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir was easily the worst wine in the red flight, both on my own card and by group vote. However, I suspect it may have been heat-damaged in transit.)

But save room in your cellar for 2004 Ozzies! My own favorite wine of the evening was the big, ripe, long, complex 2004 Curly Flat Chardonnay. It even towered above the excellent 2002 and 2003 Curly Flat Chards. Iíve been hearing that 2004 Australians will be awesome and hereís the first proof.

Martinelli Pinot wins big. 2001 Martinelli Vineyard Reserve Pinot Noir was the red flightís runaway favorite. I liked it best, the group liked it best, and even a voter who said he had never tasted a California Pinot that could beat fine Burgundy -- yep, even he liked it best.

VERDICT. Both Southern countries win big tonight in the Chardonnay department. Pinot Noir is a trickier game, even though things look promising. The Curly Flat Pinots were tasty and correct, but could use more oomph. If their 2004 Pinot proves as good as the Chard -- watch out.

Now for the blow-by-blow:

CHARDONNAY FLIGHT

Chard #1. Tasty tango of mango, almond, lees and stones. Most acidic wine of the flight. Penetrating on the palate with a long finish. Sure tastes like CC to me, and sure enough, itís **+2001 Vincent Girardin Corton-Charlemagne. Mineral flavors expand as the evening wears on. (The same flavors that give it so much personality turn off many tasters, however. Itís voted the least favorite of the flight.)

Chard #2. Not much to sniff right now, but thereís plenty of fruit on the palate. Creme brulee comes out with airing and it finishes well. I donít have a clue where itís from, so guess it to be South African. But itís actually **2003 Martinelli Martinelli Road Chardonnay. If you have any, give it another 6 months before pulling a cork. Couldnít hurt.

Chard #3. Mostly about oak at first, but half an hour later, it rocks! Crisp, but not as acidic as #1. Big, broad, fruit-drenched palate, with a minerally whang on the finish. I guess it to be Australian, but what do you know -- its South African! Sure would like to find more of ***2004 Hamilton Russell Chardonnay.

Chard #4. Clean, stony and long. Tropical fruit, but not as much as Wine #3. Nothing to dislike here, but takes a back seat to #3. I guess it to be Australian and itís **+2002 Curly Flat Chardonnay.

Chard #5. Seems similar to Chard #4, but the oakier nose suggests itís younger. Also seems to be the thinnest Chard of the flight, though not bad. Itís *++2003 Curly Flat Chardonnay.

Chard #6. Wow, now what have we here! Rich, ripe, decadent stuff. Higher alcohol than some of the others, but way more stuffing too. I guess it to be Australian and GREAT. Even more convincing as minutes tick by. Donít miss out on the ***+2004 Curly Flat Chardonnay. Iím apt to favor reds, but this is MY WINE OF THE EVENING.

PINOT NOIR FLIGHT

Pinot #1. Plummy, full and pleasing on the palate. No flaws, but not awfully graceful tonight. Probably not Burgundy. Could be California, but no, itís *++2001 Curly Flat Pinot Noir.

Pinot #2. Now this tastes Burgundian. Big strawberry flavors, shaded by earth, minerals and a hint of cinnamon. Delicious! I guess it to be the Charmes-Chambertin, but its **+2001 Martinelli Vineyard Reserve Pinot Noir. My WINE OF THE FLIGHT and the groupís favorite too.

Pinot #3. Seductive violet aromas, with earthy undertones. Strawberries, cherries and whisper of what -- beets? Hmm. Well, maybe. Lovely stuff with its own special flair. Itís **- 2002 Curly Flat Pinot Noir.

Pinot #4. Similar nose to #3, but somewhat less developed. Maybe a little more balanced on the palate. No trace of beets. Still, I rate **-2002 Vincent Girardin Charmes-Chambertin identically to #3, and the flavors are very close too. Call me a Philistine, but thatís what I taste.

Pinot #5. Cherry aromas joined by stones on the palate. Thins with airing. Lightest wine of the flight, though it tastes very nice. Itís *+2003 Curly Flat Pinot Noir.

Pinot #6. Curious performance. Starts out bold and fruity, then rapidly falls apart. Blooms and dies in under an hour. Winds up so oxidized, you have to wonder if this wine has been heat-damaged. Iím reserving judgment on 2003 Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir.

VOTING RESULTS

Votes for Chardonnay liked MOST

4 Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2004 (South Africa)
2
Curly Flat Chardonnay 2004 (Australia)
1
Martinelli Chardonnay "Martinelli Road" 2003 (California)
1
Vincent Girardin Corton-Charlemagne 2001 (Burgundy)
0
Curly Flat Chardonnay 2002 (Australia)
0
Curly Flat Chardonnay 2003 (Australia)

Votes for Chardonnay liked LEAST

4 Vincent Girardin Corton-Charlemagne 2001 (Burgundy)
2
Curly Flat Chardonnay 2003 (Australia)
1
Curly Flat Chardonnay 2004 (Australia)
1
Martinelli Chardonnay "Martinelli Road" 2003 (California)
0
Curly Flat Chardonnay 2002 (Australia)
0
Hamilton Russell Chardonnay 2004 (South Africa)

Votes for Pinot Noir like MOST

6 Martinelli Vineyard Reserve Pinot Noir 2001 (California)
1
Curly Flat Pinot Noir 2002 (Australia)
1
Curly Flat Pinot Noir 2003 (Australia)
0
Curly Flat Pinot Noir 2001 (Australia)
0
Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2003 (South Africa)
0
Vincent Girardin Charmes-Chambertin (Burgundy)

Votes for Pinot Noir liked LEAST

5 Hamilton Russell Pinot Noir 2003 (South Africa)
1
Curly Flat Pinot Noir 2001 (Australia)
1
Curly Flat Pinot Noir 2002 (Australia)
1
Vincent Girardin Charmes-Chambertin (Burgundy)
0
Curly Flat Pinot Noir 2003 (Australia)
0
Martinelli Reserve Pinot Noir 2001 (California)

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