In the Intensive Sommelier Training at the International Culinary Center we have had three Master Sommeliers as instructors (plus one guest MS instructor).
To our advantage one of them, Alan Murray MS, is from Australia. Here is his bio from the Culinary Center’s web site:
Alan had his first glass of quality wine in the Hunter Valley, just north of Sydney, Australia, where he was raised. After that glass, he spent nearly all of his vacations in Australia’s diverse wine regions, tasting and learning as much as he could. And he’s still learning all he can. Alan moved to San Francisco to work at Rubicon, with its ambitious wine program and encyclopedic wine cellar under the direction of Master Sommelier Larry Stone. With Stone’s encouragement, Alan worked toward achieving his own title of Master Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers, becoming the first Australian to earn this distinction. Alan moved on to become the wine director at Masa’s Restaurant in San Francisco in 2001 before becoming a wine instructor.
I have to admit that I had some less-than-complimentary preconceptions of Australian wine based on a limited experience of them. But, Alan managed to make me a fan as he put his homeland’s best foot forward and Day 5 became the best class of the New World Wine regions.
The Facts on Australian Wine
Australia ranks 6th in the world in terms of total wine production and it is the 2nd leading exporter (behind Italy) to the United States. The population is less than New York state and yet it consumes more wine per person than any other English-speaking country in the world.
There are no native grape species to Australia but currently there are more than 100 different varietals planted in vineyards around the country. The top white grape in Australia is Chardonnay and other important white grapes include Riesling, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. The top red grapes are Shiraz (Syrah) and Cabernet Sauvignon, other important red grapes include Merlot and Grenache. Muscat is grown to make sweet wines that Australians call “stickies.”
Like many other countries, Phylloxera ravaged the country in the 1800s. The emergence of quality followed the success of California in the 1970s as several quality wine producers began to gain ground, chief among them Penfolds Grange Shiraz.
Most of Australia is too hot for grape growing as nearly 90% is either desert or tropical. The southern portions of the country are mostly warm to hot with temperate and sometimes cool pockets.
Australia is divided into 7 states, only five of them are suitable for wine production: Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania. Wines from these states may then be labeled according to:
(1) The Country “Product of Australia” (no vintage or variety allowed on label),
(2) The Super Zone “South Eastern Australia” (an enormous appellation covering most producing areas),
(3) The State of Origin
(4) The Zone (example: Barossa is a zone within the state of South Australia)
(5) The Region (example: Barossa Valley and Eden Valley are a regions within the larger Barossa Zone)
(6) The Sub-Region (Smaller appellations within a region, example: High Eden is a sub-region of Eden Valley)
Wine laws in Australia are similar to that of the United States. Most premium wine is labeled by grape varietal and if so it must contain at least 85% of that grape and if the region is listed 85% must have been grown there. If two or more grapes are used and none meets the 85% mark, then the grapes will be listed in order to descending content. Official wine producing areas are known as Geographic Indications (GI). The largest GI is South Eastern Australia and it is the only region that is larger than a single state.
Western Australia is the largest Australian state but it has some of the smallest amount of vineyard acreage. The wine regions are located almost exclusively in coastal areas south the state capital of Perth. The southwestern tip is where the Indian Ocean and Southern Ocean converge and the Maritime climate plays an important role in wine production.
The largest and most famous GI of Western Australia is Margaret River. It is 75 miles from north to south extending nearly 20 miles inland to its eastern border.
The state of South Australia is the most important wine-producing region in the country and it is responsible for about 50% of the nation’s production. The recognized vineyard areas include the GI regions of the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Clare Valley and Coonawarra.
The Barossa Valley is located about 40 miles northeast of Adelaide. It has a long tradition of winemaking dating back to the 1840s and old-vine blocks of Shiraz and Grenache found in the region can date back to that time. Barossa Valley is home to the sub-region of Eden Valley which has a higher elevation which enables it to produce quality Riesling and at lower elevations some of the highest quality Shiraz is made.
Clare Valley is about 25 northwest of the Barossa Valley centered around the town of Clare. It is one of the top appellations for dry Riesling and full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz.
McLaren Vale is a coastal region that is 20 miles south of Adelaide. It has a warm climate that is impacted by the cooling ocean breezes. They produce powerful Bordeaux varietals, Shiraz, Grenache and Chardonnay.
Coonawarra is the southernmost winemaking zone of South Australia. The name means “honeysuckle” in the native Aboriginal language. It is known as the Limestone Coast and it is covered with a mixture of red clay and sand known as terra rossa soil. The Limestone Coast GI is more than 200 miles south of Adelaide and it covers the important region of Padthaway as well as the newly established GI regions of Mount Benson, Penola, Robe and Wrattonbully.
Other Regions of Note: The largest specific appellation in South Australia is Riverland. It supplies almost 50% of the wine made in South Australia. Closer to the city of Adelaide are three regions of note: Adelaide Hills, Adelaide Plains which are in the same Mount Lofty Ranges GI zone as the Clare Valley, and Langhorne Creek, part of the Fleurieu GI zone along with McLaren Vale. Most of the vineyards planted in the Adelaide Plains GI are at above 1,500 feet of elevation so cooler climate grapes dominate the plantings.
Victoria is the southernmost wine region of mainland Australia and it is bordered to the west by South Australia and to the north and east by New South Wales. It ranks 3rd amongst Australian wine states. The state has several different climate zones which enable winemakers to produce top-quality cool-climate wines and riper styles of sweet fortified wines which the locals call “Stickies.”
The Port Philip zone is located along the coast of Melbourne. It is noted for its cool-climate wine regions and some of the best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The most well-known wine region in the Port Phillip zone is the Yarra Valley. Other important regions include the Mornington Peninsula, Geelong and the Macedon Range.
East of Melbourne, along the border of New South Wales, is South East Victoria and North East Victoria GI zones. North East Victoria has a warmer climate which produces full-bodied reds and sweet wines from the Muscat grape. Rutherglen is the best-known GI region in this zone and King Valley is growing as well.
New South Wales
New South Wales is home to Sydney, the largest city of Australia. The most famous wine region is the Hunter Valley, second only to the Barossa Valley in name recognition. It is about 100 miles north of Sydney, its subtropical climate and often barren soil make it difficult to grow grapes. The Hunter Valley GI can be divided into two major winemaking areas: Upper Hunter Valley in the north and Lower Hunter Valley in the south which is dedicated to Shiraz and Sémillon.
Although Tasmania was the second state planted to vines after New South Wales a large wine industry has never been established on this large island. Although the production is small the quality is often high, specializing in Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and sparkling wines.
Learning Objectives of Unit 3 – Day 5: Australia
At the beginning of class lectures a list of learning objectives is provided to the students. By the end of the class, the students should have a certain degree of understanding from their own reading and the lectures and be able to provide the answers to list of questions. The Learning Objectives for Unit 3 - Day 5 along with the answers are as follows.
By the end of class, students should be able to:
(1) What is the minimum % for varietal labeling
(2) State the significance of the ordering of grapes listed on a wine label
Answer: If there is no grape that is 85% of the blend then the grapes must be listed in descending percentage.
(3) Name Australia’s most famous wine.
Answer: Penfold’s Grange was founded in 1844 by Dr Christopher Rawson Penfold.
(4) Identify a few GI’s within each: (South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia)
Answer: South Australia (Barossa Valley GI, McLaren Vale GI, Clare Valley GI and Coonawarra GI), Victoria (Port Philip zone), New South Wales (The Hunter Valley GI), Western Australia (Margaret River GI)
(5) Discuss history of the creation of the Australian Super-Zone
Answer: South-Eastern Australia, rather than being a wine region in the standard sense, is officially classified as a viticultural “super zone”. It covers the entire south-eastern third of Australia, a vast area whose western boundary measures some 1250 miles. The south-eastern halves of both Queensland and South Australia are covered by the title, as well as New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania in their entirety. Consequently, the South-Eastern Australia super zone essentially covers every significant Australian wine area other than those in Western Australia.
(6) Refer to the GI that is well known for fine Riesling
Answer: Clare Valley GI
(7) Identify a cool climate region within each prominent state
Answer: Western Australia (Margaret River), South Australia (Clare Valley), Victoria (Geelong), New South Wales (Orange) and Tasmania (Huon Valley)
(8) Suggest a wine from the state that produces promising sparkling wines
Answer: Most Australian sparkling wine is produced from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but an Australian specialty is Sparkling Shiraz. The most important regions for sparkling wines are Adelaide Hills, Tasmania and Yarra Valley. I would recommend the 2001 House of Arras E.J. Carr Late Disgorged Chardonnay Pinot Noir, Tasmania. It spent 10 years on lees and sells for $130.
(9) Discuss the Cabernets of Coonawara and its special soil
Answer: Coonawarra is a wine region located within the Limestone Coast in South Australia. It is known for the Cabernet Sauvignon wines produced on its “terra rossa” soil.
(10) Describe the attributes of any wines tasted today
Answer: See below
On the fifth day of Unit 3 we tasted the following wines:
1. 2011 Vasse Felix, Chardonnay, Margaret River, Western Australia
This is a clear white wine, straw in color, day-bright with medium viscosity and minimal rim variation. On the nose it is clean with medium intense aromas of fresh pears, green apple, and a hint of yeasty toasted bread. On the palate it is has flavors of fresh tart green apples, pears, and peaches. It is dry with medium+ acidity, medium body, and medium alcohol. It is somewhat reserved, extremely well balanced and very non-new world in style. If it had some minerality it might be mistaken for a French wine. This wine was a pleasant surprise and never in a million years would I have thought that it came from Australia. This wine sells for around $50 per bottle.
2. 2006 Pewsey Vale, Riesling, The Contours, Eden Valley
This is a clear white wine, straw in color with a tint of green, medium- intensity, day-bright with medium viscosity. On the nose it is clean with medium+ intense aromas of canned peaches, fruit cocktail, lemon-lime, melon and a very floral bouquet of orange blossoms. On the palate the nose is confirmed, it is dry with medium+ acidity, medium body medium alcohol and a medium length finish. This wine sells for around $27 per bottle.
3. 2011 Penley Estate Phoenix, Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve, Coonawarra
This is an opaque red wine, dark ruby at the core to pink with minimal rim variation, day-bright with medium+ viscosity. On the nose it is clean with moderate aromas of black currants, black cherries, cocoa and dusty earth. On the palate it has additional notes of very ripe cherries, black pepper, cedar and tobacco. It is dry with medium+ tannins, medium+ acidity, medium alcohol and a medium length finish. If tasted blind I might have guessed that this was a $35 wine from Rutherford as it has a similar dusty quality. This wine sells for around $20 per bottle.
4. 2011 Torbreck, Shiraz, Woodcutter’s Shiraz, Barossa Valley, South Australia
This is an opaque red wine, dark purple at the core to violet at the rim with minimal rim variation and medium+ viscosity. On the nose it is “clean” with medium intense aromas of blackberries, prunes, dried meat, black pepper, black licorice, dried herbs and vanilla. On the palate it has flavors of prunes, blackberries, black pepper, hints of dried meat and eucalyptus with a noticeable influence of oak. It is dry with some residual sugar, it has medium+ tannins, HIGH alcohol, medium+ body, moderate complexity and a medium+ length finish. This wine is POWERFUL, concentrated in flavor and will overwhelm anything but the heartiest of dishes. This wine sells for around $17 per bottle.
5. 2011 Langmeil, Valley Floor Shiraz, Barossa Valley, South Australia
This is an opaque ruby-red wine, day-bright, medium concentration, with medium+ viscosity. It is clean with moderate intense aromas of cooked black fruit; blackberries, black pepper, vanilla, a hint of dried meat and a touch of tarragon. It is dry with very noticeable residual sugar, medium+ tannins, medium+ body, medium acidity, medium+ to high alcohol, moderately complex and a medium length finish. This wine sells for around $28 per bottle.
6. 2009 D’Arenberg, Shiraz, “The Dead Arm”, McLaren Vale, South Australia
This is an opaque red wine that is black at the core to violet with minimal rim variation and medium+ viscosity. On the nose it is “clean” with aromas of dried black fruit, cherry pie, black berries, dried meat, licorice, black pepper and vanilla. On the palate the nose is confirmed, it is dry with medium+ tannins, medium to medium+ alcohol, medium acidity, moderately complex and a medium length finish. This wine sells for around $45 per bottle.
7. 2005 Yarra Yering, Underhill Shiraz, Victoria Australia
This is a red wine, opaque, purple at the core to garnet with moderate rim variation, minor sediment (after decanting), and medium+ viscosity. On the nose it is “clean” with moderate intense aromas of dried plums, dried meat, old leather, burnt coffee, brown sugar, burnt rubber, paprika, copper and smoke. On the palate it has flavors of dried black fruits, pepper, and hints of charcoal and damp earth. This wine is dry with medium tannins, medium+ acidity, medium body and a medium+ length finish. A complex and intriguing wine that in my early years of winetasting I would not have liked as I was more accustomed to young fruit driven wines. This was my favorite in the line-up and it sells for around $85 to $100 per bottle.
8. NV Yaluma, Museum Reserve, Muscat, South Eastern Australia
This wine is clear, amber in color to gold at the rim, low concentration and high viscosity. On the nose it is clean with aromas of dried apricots, brown sugar, candied oranges, dates, figs, golden raisins, buttered toffee, candied ginger, panettone roll, and honey. On the palate the nose is confirmed, it is dessert-sweet, it has medium+ acidity, is full bodied with high alcohol, very powerful, highly complex with a very long clean finish. This wine sells for around $14 to $20 per 375 ml bottle. I’m not the biggest fan of dessert wines, but the complexity of this “Sticky” is amazing as there is something different every time you return to the glass. If you are looking for a complex dessert wine, I can’t imagine finding anything of this high quality for such a low price.
Overall, I was really surprised by the quality of these wines particularly the Vasse Felix Chardonnay, the Underhill Shiraz and the Sticky. If your impression of Australian wines is that that they are just simple bombastic fruit bombs these would really change your mind.