WineInk: An Australian Snapshot
Watching Nadal’s historic win and longing for a tasting trip
Maybe it’s the beauty shots that were shown at each commercial break as I watched Rafael Nadal win his 21st Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in epic fashion. The iconic visual scenes of the east coast of the continent, including the Great Ocean Road, the waves at Bells Beach and the nearby Yarra Valley wine region, all seemed like they were from another planet. Or perhaps it was that bottle of Chester Osborn’s D’Arenberg Dead Arm Shiraz that I guzzled with gusto at a recent meal alongside a rare Colorado rack of lamb.
Whatever it was, mate, I am seriously jonesing for a wine country trip down under.
With the Earth tilting away from the sun, February is not the ideal time for wine touring on the upper half of the globe. Ah, but if you could use a hint of heat, long to see some green and want to take a walk amongst the vines, there is another world below the equator, where the grapes are hanging heavy right now as the harvest season begins.
A flight from Aspen to Melbourne, with a connection in Los Angeles, will take just over 21 hours and is hardly a picnic, but it is the restrictions from the pandemic that have made an immediate Aussie sojourn seem about as likely for me as a trip into space in a Kemo Sabe cowboy hat.
Currently, access to Australia is restricted to Australian citizens, permanent residents, and their families, along with international students and skilled workers. But this could change in the coming months. Last week Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison indicated that international tourists may be welcomed “well before Easter,” which is April 17. That would be good news for the “Cellar Doors,” as the Aussies call their tasting rooms, which have had to do without international travelers – their bread and butter – for going on three harvest seasons.
The Australian wine industry is perhaps the most geographically isolated and yet it is as tentacle-connected as any in the world. They supply the massive market of China with the bulk of their wine, sell vast quantities to the Americas, and are found on the poshest wine lists in European and Middle Eastern hotels and restaurants. But for most wine tourists, the Australian continent is simply an ocean too far away to experience themselves. So, it is left to the Australian winemakers to travel the globe to sell their wines.
In the early 1990s, Australia and New Zealand winemakers realized something that ski instructors already knew. The end of a season in one place on Earth means the beginning of another season elsewhere on Earth. These Aussies boarded jet planes after their local harvests ended in April and headed to France, where they could work a second vintage in a calendar year. They became known as the “Flying Winemakers.” And not only did they double their experience in their craft with each additional vintage, they also brought back skills and techniques that changed the Australian wine industry forever.
When the COVID restrictions did not exist there was constant back and forth movement amongst winemakers and consultants who would ply their trade year-round, moving from south to north and north to south as the Earth starts its inevitable leans, towards and away, from the sun. Hopefully that annual migration of winemakers will return again soon.
While times have been difficult for Australian wine in recent years due to a combination of COVID, bush fires and tariffs imposed on exports to China, the 2021 harvest last April was the largest in the nation’s history . Its total production made it the fifth most productive wine country on the planet. Now the challenge will be to market those wines.
So, while I cannot make a trip right now to see the Tolleys in Coonawarra or the Osborns in McLaren Vale or Peter Gago in Adelaide I can help by buying, and drinking, some wines produced by the “antipodeans,” as those who reside in Australia are occasionally called. Because of its immense size, there are a number of wine regions throughout Australia with the majority in the cooler, southern half of the country.
The heart and soul is found deep in South Australia, where the often hyper heated and vast Barossa, Eden and Claire Valley wine regions host the gnarly old vines that produce one of the wine world’s great pleasures – Shiraz. The intense, concentrated and heavily oaked wines that were in vogue in the 1990s were well-timed for the region’s signature grape and helped birth the explosion in the popularity of Australian wines.
But in recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in the beauty of the fruit and the flavors that are imparted from these amazing vines, some over 75-years-old. Younger winemakers are focused on the reduction of oak and producing purer examples of Shiraz. For a wine lover, a visit to the Barossa and its neighboring wine regions is like a tennis fan travelling to Rod Laver Arena, a trip to historic and hallowed ground.
And a taste of the Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz from the adjacent Eden Valley is like a five-set victory in a major.
The Hunter Valley, a two-hour drive from Sidney, may be the most well-known Aussie wine destination. There, upscale farm-to-table restaurants and posh accommodations beckon high-end visitors in a style that is said to be very Napa-like. One unique wine variety there is Semillon, a full-bodied, floral white wine that is indigenous to France but grown in limited quantities elsewhere. The Tyrrell family, which has been growing grapes in the Hunter Valley since the 1850s, produces what may be the best expression of the wine with their Tyrrell’s Wines Vat 1 Hunter Valley Semillon. It is considered a homegrown gem and one of the great white wines anywhere.
Just an hour from bustling Melbourne is a region that is quietly becoming known as a cradle for pinot noir. The Mornington Peninsula juts into the sea and is surrounded on three sides by ocean waters that provide fog and near constant cooling breezes before warm sunshine nurtures the grapes during the day. There are a number of casual cellar door tasting rooms, and a trip to the architecturally magnificent Port Phillip Estate and the welcoming Yabby Lake are worth the long journey.
And on the west coast of Australia lies a wine and surf paradise called Margaret River. A three-and-a-half-hour trip down the coast from Perth, this relatively new region (grapes were first planted in the late 1960s) has boomed and become a hot spot for both Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Over 100 wineries in the region are in close proximity and make for an easy and picturesque wine holiday. (Plus, the beaches and the surfing are outrageous. Warm water and huge rollers traverse the Great Southern Ocean, crashing on rocky reefs and bone-crunching beach breaks. The white sand beaches are magnificent and back right up to forests, filled with koalas and kangaroos, that spill into the vineyards on the other side.) It is a special place that is home to one of my favorite wines: the Leeuwin Estate Chardonnay.
It took a tennis tournament to make me long, once again, for a trip to one of wine’s great nations. And I have to say, after watching Raffa take the Australian Open, I have to consider a trip to Spain as well.
The beauty of tennis. The beauty of wine.
D’Arenberg Dead Arm Shiraz 2017
Chester Osborn, winemaker at D’Arenberg Estate, is one of the most outsized characters in all of wine. With a full head of wild hair (or is it a wild head of full hair), pointed boots and a wardrobe befitting an English rock star, he makes dozens of wines from dozens of grapes with a total commitment to the fruit. Such is the case with these outstanding Dead Arm wines produced from Shiraz grapes grown in South Australia’s McClaren Vale. I find the wine to be dark, dense, and delicious, even though the vintage will mature as it ages. There are hints of spice and caramel on the tongue and the tannins will pucker your cheeks. But most of all, simply tasting this wine takes tasters on a trip to the southlands. You know, where the antipodeans live.
“Without any exception the worst snow storm known since the advent of the railroad west of Leadville has been raging over the crest of the continental divide since last Thursday,” asserted the Aspen Tribune on January 31, 1899.