Australia Day wines
Australian wines are close to my heart. When I was barely 21 years old, my great uncle Mick (who lived in Adelaide South Australia) sat me down to explain why he enjoyed the “Beef and Burgundy” club so much and why his native Australian wines were so interesting to him… Uncle Mick was a noted scientist in his day, so he had a very precise and specific way of walking me through the origins and flavor profiles of various varietals. All this, combined with the Australian wine industry’s massive expansion during the past 20-30 years, brings me to my recent “Australia Day” wine dinner.
Australia Day is the 26th of January and for us in the United States is most closely compared to the 4th of July, in that it marks the founding of the country, and includes much summer time celebration. Since summer is in January in southern hemisphere, it makes sense to have outdoor barbeques and parties, while here in North America we made due with yearning thoughts of beaches while inside the warm confines of a cozy restaurant.
My challenge was to match five wines to a multi-course menu prepared by a generous and talented chef/friend.
The opening course was handmade mini quiches and spiced nuts. Guests socialize before seating so I sought a light bubbly. Australia is the proud producer of many sparkling wines, including a number of world-class sparklers from the southern most Australian state of Tasmania (topic to be explored in a future post), but we went for a good value in the DeBortoli Sparkling Brut NV. This sparkler has a fresh citrusy nose that foreshadows flavors that are equally crisp and dry with some hints of apple flavors pulled together by a clean finish. Everyone agreed that the sparkler did a wonderful job of ‘waking up’ our palates. Many inexpensive sparkling wines are sweet but this $10.99 DeBortoli was dry, providing a fine foil to the appetizers.
Second course was shrimp. But not just regular shrimp – our chef friend demonstrated a technique of cooking the shrimp with the tail and shell to impart richer flavors and served them split much like a lobster. This was topped with a white wine reduction containing a touch of kiwi fruit. The kiwi was light enough to impart a slight fruitiness without becoming sweet. The wine pairing was Pirie Tasmania South “Estelle” 2007, a blend of Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris. While these grape varietals typically suggest a sweetish wine like those from Alsace region, our “Estelle” was bursting with fruit, but with an accompanying acidity which made the finish more like an Australian dry Riesling (many of which can make you pucker). This wine, like the first one was a bargain at $14.99.
Our main course was lamb chops (or as I like to call it: lamb-cicles) with a red wine macadamia reduction. If my great uncle Mick were still around, he would be embarrassed if I matched lamb with anything other than shiraz, so we made sure to have good examples! There is no better way to compare wines than to have them next to each other, so we provided everyone with two wines (and initially we didn’t tell them which was which!). The two reds were Peter Lehman Clancy’s 2006 (a blend of mostly Shiraz with some Cabernet and Merlot – a very uncommon blend outside of Australia $15.99) and the Two Hands “Bella’s Garden” Shiraz 2004 (100% shiraz typically $60 but we got a sale price of $34.99). As you might expect the more expensive “Bella’s Garden” was a favorite. This powerful wine has trademark Shiraz characteristics, including dark purple color, rich dark berry and smoky flavors accompanied by a long, spicy, lingering finish. This wine could be too powerful for many foods, but with our dinner it was a fine experience. The “Clancy’s” shiraz blend, despite being a less expensive wine showed admirably in the shadow of the more expensive Australian cousin. The blend of Shiraz with smaller amounts of Cabernet and Merlot creates a wine of great richness, yet with enough tannic backbone to balance the flavors and complete the experience. Overall “Clancy’s” is more approachable compared to the “Bella’s Garden” and considering the price, “Clancy’s” is quite impressive.
No meal is complete without dessert. Some years ago our chef friend made a pavlova for the Australian Ambassador and Embassy Delegation – so we were happy for him to prepare the same dessert for us ‘normal people’. Since the pavlova is light and airy with fruit and cream involved, I knew a typical Australian Port or Muscat would be too heavy (although there are many that are tasty and complex on their own) so we sought out a lighter dessert wine alternative in the d’Arenberg Stump Jump “Chardonnay Sticky”. This wine is produced by late-harvesting chardonnay grapes that have given up much of their moisture, thus the drier grapes late in the season contain high levels of sugar, creating a lightly sweet wine. The flavors typically associated with Chardonnay; of tropical fruits and apple are present, but additional layers of sweet butterscotch and orange round out the flavor package. Altogether a fine accompaniment for the dessert that left us all satisfied.
DeBortoli Sparkling Brut NV ($10.99) – 3 starts out of 5 stars – a fine sparkler to kick off a meal and ‘wake up the palate’. If you can find it, drink it now.
Pirie Tasmania – South – “Estelle” 2007 ($14.99) – 3.5 stars out of 5 stars – a blend of 50% Riesling, 30% Gewürztraminer, 20% Pinot Gris. Spicy, succulent lime and citrus flavors, crisp finish. Drink it now.
Peter Lehman “Clancy’s” Blend 2006 ($15.99) – 3.5 starts out of 5 stars – Shiraz is the dominant grape, but lesser quantities of Cabernet and Merlot add structure and richness to this great-value red. Drink it now.
Two Hands “Bella’s Garden” Shiraz 2004 ($35.99, normally $60) – 4 stars out of 5 stars – This 100% Shiraz is a huge and impressive wine, not for the feint of heart. Drink it now or wait another 2-3 years.
d’Arenberg “The Stump Jump Sticky Chardonnay” 2008 ($9.99) – 3.5 stars out of 5 stars – an intriguingly different ‘sticky’ made from 100% Chardonnay grapes, lots of flavors like apple and tropical fruits but with rich layers of dried apricots and sweet oranges. Drink it now.