Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
“Enough is enough,” I hear you thinking. Four straight weeks of Australian wine columns? I understand, and we will shift directions … next week. After traveling thousands of miles through Australia, tasting hundreds of wines and meeting with scores of winemakers, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge some of the top drops (another quaint Aussie expression) of the journey. The problem is that there were just so many. There was a 1989 Leeuwin Estate “Art Series” Chardonnay that winemaker Paul Atwood poured, proving that Australian Chardonnay has the ability to age. A Spanish-tinged SC Pannell “Pronto Tinto” paired with chorizo and anchovy paste on toast at Melbourne’s hip Cutler & CO gastropub was like taking a trip to Spain the long way around. A Highbank Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon that I had with grilled steaks at the Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate was as good a Cab as I can remember. And the sparkling wines that Adam Keath turns out at Domaine Chandon in the Yarra Valley could be poured in Champagne and few would guess their origin to be someplace other than pernay.I could go on. And on.But while there were many great sips, the best memories are always a result of the people I was with and the places I visited when I tasted the wines.Using that criteria, I will forever fondly recall the Cullen 2007 “Kevin John” Chardonnay that I drank (no spitting of this wine) with Vanya Cullen on the patio of the restaurant at her Estate in the Margaret River region of Western Australia. Though I had hounded her with e-mail messages that I was coming, it was a chance meeting in the foyer that led to our taking a walk through the vines, getting our hands in the dirt and ultimately having lunch together.With the soils of her vineyard still under my fingernails, I sampled some of the best Chardonnay I have ever tasted. Brilliant fruit, elegant mouth feel, a touch of wood, but all grape. A masterpiece that she named after her deceased father, who was one of the region’s pioneers. It took its place on the table adjacent to a beautiful Bordeaux blend, the Cullen 2005 “Diana Madeline.” Cabernet Sauvignon with near-perfect proportions of Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, this wine was named after her mother, the late matriarch of the Estate. Drinking these two wines with Vanya, on the deck, surrounded by the post-harvest vines splendid in their fall colors, was like sitting down to lunch with the entire family. Most impressively, these Cullen wines did not taste of Burgundy or Bordeaux, the places these varietals call home. Rather they were products of another place and people – a biodynamic vineyard in the Wilyabrup region of Margaret River, planted by John and Diana Cullen and tended to today by their daughter, Vanya. Simply delightful.Then there was the tasting at the Victory Hotel in the McLaren Vale with the members of the “Vale Cru”, as a group of new-age winemakers call themselves, in this incredibly beautiful region of South Australia. A group of young and young-at-heart winemakers, they are committed to the concepts of creating high quality, small-batch wines, all made by hand.The Cru hosted a group of wine journalists in the cellar of the hotel, which sits astride a hill overlooking vast vineyards and, beyond them, the sea. The spirit of this group was inspiring. They are making incredible wines and growing amazing grapes that have heretofore not been widely planted in Australia. Sangiovese, Vermentino, Cinsault and Tempranillo all make it into the wines. Though we tasted dozens of wines that morning, many of them memorable, a 2009 Samuel’s Gorge Tempranillo caught my attention early on. It had doses of dark fruit and spice with an earthy texture that made it, at least for me, an obvious example of the fearless spirit of the region’s winemakers.It was the product of Justin McNamee, a creative and wild-haired winemaker who opened the tasting with remarks stating that the Cru was a “collection of peasants who make their wines with passion” and describing their role in the vineyards as simply that of “shepherds that sleep amongst the flock.” Justin’s labels are also some of the most unique I have ever seen. They feature a series of pixilated squares, all in relief, that in totality make up an abstract photo/painting collage of the vineyard. Below it is a second label describing the wine. This second label sits slightly off-center, which Justin notes is a metaphor for his winemaking philosophy.East on the Mornington Peninsula, I found a pair of special wines from makers in completely differing circumstances. At Port Phillip Estate, I dined at and toured one of the most amazing new wineries and cellar door facilities that I have ever seen. Winemaker Sandro Mosele proudly showed the rammed-earth, glass and steel structure where he makes exceptional Pinot Noir under both the Port Phillip Estate and Kooyong labels. The building is an exemplary combination of form, function and esthetic beauty that sets new standards for a winemaking facility.Though Sandro uses the same winemaking techniques for both labels, I preferred the wines from Kooyong, especially a wonderful 2005 Ferrous Pinot Noir. This wine was lush and rich, a great companion with the food served in the Estate’s restaurant, where chef Simon West prepares exceptional small plates for pairing with these wines.A few miles across the Peninsula, but seemingly a world away, down a meandering, tree-shaded road to the coast, I had a breakfast tasting with the capable and charming Kathleen Quealy. Legendary in Victoria for the adventurous wines she made at T’Gallant (which was sold to Fosters), she is running the little store that has become a tasting room for her label, Quealy Wines, as well as those of Elgee Park and Baillieu Vineyards, two of the oldest wineries on the Peninsula. Kathleen makes wines for all three labels and still finds time to manage what could best be described as the Oakville Grocery (a Napa Valley icon) of Australia.In front of a warming fireplace, and after a spectacular Croque Madame breakfast sandwich (local ham and Gruyere cheese on homemade sourdough toast topped with a farm-fresh, organic poached egg), I tasted through the wines. A standout here was a Quealy Pinot Grigio 2009. Floral and aromatic, it brought a touch of summer to the chilly fall morning.While the stated purpose of my trip was to find Australian wines other than Shiraz that would be important in the coming years, two very different Shiraz also made an impression.The first was a Sparkling Shiraz called The Black Barossa. A surprise pouring in the pressroom at the Tasting Australia event in Adelaide, minutes before the Le Cordon Bleu Food Awards extravaganza, convinced me that this was a wine with a story. Louisa Rose, the precociously brilliant winemaker at the Eden Valley’s Yalumba winery, made the wine. I use the term “precociously brilliant” because in 2008, before she reached 40 years of age, she was named the Aussie Winemaker of the Year. She explained to me that in 1997, following one of the best vintages in the history of the Barossa, she asked for, and received, two liters of the very best Shiraz from each of the 38 best producers in the valley. She blended these selections and used the traditional method that the French refer to as the mthode Champenoise to make this Sparkling Shiraz.As Louisa tipped the magnum to my glass, out poured a dark, deep purple/black liquid that foamed and bubbled unlike anything I have seen before. If you looked into the glass from the top it was like looking into a cauldron with bubbles rising to the top of the seemingly lava-like liquid. I have not tasted much Sparkling Shiraz (it is truly an Aussie thing), but this complex, creamy and (again I use the word, bubbly) wine was as unique as any I have ever tasted. Finally, my favorite glass of wine of the entire trip came on a Sunday morning over breakfast with my wife, Linda. She had brought me a bottle of a Cape Jaffa 2007 “La Lune” Shiraz from a side-trip she took to South Australia’s Limestone Coast. A cool-climate Shiraz made by a surfing winemaker on a certified biodynamic vineyard with a cloth label, it was, she knew, exactly the kind of wine I would treasure.As we awoke that morning and prepared a breakfast of eggs from chickens just up the street, locally grown and smoked bacon, and toast with the sweetest of local honey, all on our outdoor grill in the rain, a perfect rainbow formed over the Indian Ocean. I mean perfect. Two or more miles long, it started in sand dunes to the south and arced across the sky until ultimately disappearing into a turquoise sea to the north.I knew then, sipping the Shiraz, breaking into the eggs’ brilliant yellow yolks and holding hands with my favorite traveling companion, that under this Western Australian rainbow I had found the proverbial pot of gold.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.