The Australia Day Tastings, our biggest European trade events of the year, took place in London, Edinburgh and Dublin at the end of January, attracting over 1200 visitors from across Europe. There was a fantastic atmosphere at all three tastings; a constant flurry of visitors, busy master classes and great feedback on social media and in the press. In this blog, three members of the British and Irish wine trade share their discoveries from the tasting and their thoughts on contemporary Australian wine.
Australia Day Tasting in London - Roger Jones, owner of The Harrow at Little Bedwyn
Having worked at the Australia Day Tastings for the last six years, it was a rare chance to be free to go around and taste. I was not looking for anything in particular, just checking up on new vintages of the 300+ Australian wines we list, and I was pleasantly surprised by new wines and wineries that I was not aware of. I was also there in my role as Ambassador to The Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships looking at sparkling wines.
Off to a sparkling start
Sparkling wines were a highlight for me at ADT. Impressive, show-stopping, classy - these all describe the wines that I tasted. To be honest, besides the classics such as Arras, many Australian sparkling wines had dropped off my radar. The best that I tried included a Sparkling Chenin from Voyager Estate. Chenin is not a well-renowned Australian variety, but this sparkling is a wonderful example of how good sparkling Chenin can be: innovative, exciting and great value. Tasmania’s Jansz of course showed well: the Premium Cuvee Chardonnay/Pinot Noir NV is one of the best value sparkling wines on the market. The Rose NV, however,was a step up and was truly a great wine. The Josef Chromy NV was a full-flavoured textured delight, whilst the best of the day was Bird in Hand Joy, a luxurious vintage sparkler.
Bird in Hand was set up by father and son Michael and Andrew Nugent in 1997. Named after the local Bird in Hand gold mine and led by winemaker Kym Milne MW, the winery specialises in Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Shiraz and sparkling wine. These I have not seen in the UK for some time, so I was delighted to see them now with Seckford Agencies. The Chardonnay did very well in our Mamba Riedel Decanter Awards a few years ago.
Elegant Pinot Gris and the Barossa shines
A variety that caught my attention was Pinot Gris. I am a traditionalist, but Pinot Gris is definitely a variety that Australia can showcase at its best. Australia - especially in the hands of winemakers like Mike Aylward at Ocean Eight and Dave Neyle at Lobethal Road - produces fabulous Pinot Gris. Mike’s 2017 Pinot Gris was certainly one of the standout wines at the tasting, showing both texture and acidity, but in a controlled elegant manner.
Another highlight was the wonderful wines of John Duval, ex-Penfolds Chief Winemaker, which get better and better. I have collected these wines from the start. John produces four red wines; ‘Plexus’, a blend of Shiraz, Grenache and Mourvedre, ‘Entity’; 100% Shiraz and in exceptional years a limited release reserve Shiraz called ‘Eligo’. His final red is ‘Annexus’, a Grenache that I have not tried and which was only produced in 2013, 2015 and 2016. His most recent releases showcase how the Barossa has changed, using French oak instead of American, and the results are sublime, elegant, retrained Shiraz that are world class.
A great find at ADT was Maverick: I’ve not seen this label in the UK before. The founder Ronald Brown, besides talking non-stop, produces some pretty ‘Maverick’ wines. 100% home-grown biodynamic fruit, sourced from unique sites across the Barossa and Eden Valley. The wines are highly rated by James Halliday, with all their recent releases gaining 5 stars with marks above 95. I loved his Cabernet blends, showcasing that the Barossa can make seductive wines, and I also tried a terrific aged Riesling.
A fascinating tasting, with a great buzz. However, the tasting didn’t change my perceptions towards Australian wine. For me, it confirmed that Australia still produces the biggest and finest range of premium New World wines.
Australia Day Tasting in Edinburgh - Simon Woods, wine writer and blogger
Thanks to global differences, as Australia Day dawns each year in Sydney, Scots still have 11 hours left to celebrate Burns Night. Fitting then that Wine Australia chose this slot for this year’s annual tasting in Edinburgh. Whiskies may have been downed later that evening, but the crowd gathered at The Balmoral were there for the 400+ wines that were on show from more than 30 regions around Australia.
Physiological and temporal constraints meant that trying all the wines was a no-no, so I majored on relevant wines for a piece I’m preparing for Imbibe on how Iberian and Italian grapes perform Down Under, and then filled the remaining time with a combination of the new and the great.
Top class Australian Shiraz, Cabernet and Chardonnay
And there were plenty of great wines on show. My red of the day was probably Dalwhinnie’s 2013 ‘The Eagle’ Shiraz from the Pyrenees where intensity and complexity combined to impressive effect. Still in Victoria, I’d also put in a good word for the thoroughly charming 2015 Payten & Jones ‘Major Kong’ Shiraz (Yarra) and the 2012 Domaine Tournon ‘Shay’s Flat’ Shiraz which, like all the wines from this Chapoutier outpost, spoke Australian with a strong French accent. Leading the South Australian charge was an excellent complement from Peter Lehmann in the Barossa Valley, with the multi-layered 2012 ‘Stonewell’ being the pick of an excellent range.
However, while there were several other top class Shirazes. What’s interesting looking back through my notes is just how well Cabernet Sauvignon showed, especially from Western Australia. When I taste wines from the likes of Cullen, Voyager Estate, Vasse Felix, I’m always surprised there’s not more of a buzz around Margaret River Cabernets. Houghton’s refined 2014 ‘Jack Mann’ showed that other Western Australia regions can excel with the grape, while Katnook (Coonawarra) and Yalumba (Barossa) showed that South Australia still has plenty to offer in the Cabernet department.
Competition for the Chardonnay crown seems stiffer. Vasse Felix’s 2016 ‘Filius’ (Margaret River), Dalrymple’s 2014 ‘Cave Block’ (Tasmania) and Journey Wines’ 2015 (Yarra) all put in very respectable showing for their regions, but on this showing at least, Adelaide Hills took the prize, thanks to the 2015 Shaw + Smith ‘M3’, 2015 Petaluma ‘Tiers’ and the brilliant 2016 Tapanappa ‘Tiers Vineyard’, the wine I would have chosen to take from the tasting in case of a fire…
Exploring Australia’s alternative varieties
But what about those Italian and Iberian grape varieties? A bit of a mixed bag on this showing. I remember tasting at an Australian show in the late 1990s and hearing fellow judges make the comment ‘Just another dry red.’ In other words, while there was nothing especially wrong with the wine, there was little about it that spoke of either the region or the grape variety. So, there were some wines here that, while competent, said little about the grape that appeared in the label. But this shouldn’t be a surprise, since few wineries have more than a handful of vintages’ experience of working with these varieties. As both vines and winemakers mature, that should change.
And there are already plenty of successes, and several were on show in Edinburgh, with Sangiovese being the pick of the Italian grapes. The Payten & Jones Leuconoe (Yarra), a blend of three vintages, captured the cherry cola edge of the grape and added in a touch of Aussie mint/eucalypt, while The Hedonist 2016 (McLaren Vale) had similar cherry alongside earthy blackcurrant flavours.
There was a very strong Italian feel to the Alpha Box & Dice range, and while all showed well, the savoury, grippy 2014 McLaren Vale Aglianico and supremely gluggable 2016 Langhorne Creek Montepulciano were especially good. Pick of the Italian-inspired whites was The Journey Fiano 2017 (Heathcote), which combined pithy fruit with a pleasing waxy note.
Iberian grapes were thinner on the ground, but there were still a couple of stars. The 2014 L.A.S. Vino ‘The Pirate Blend’ from Margaret River, made from Tinta Cão, Touriga Nacional and Souzão, was a wonderful, gentle, spicy red with a wild, savoury/meaty edge and a hint of mint, while the 2016 S C Pannell Tempranillo/Touriga Nacional from McLaren Vale showed almost Rhône-like savoury spiciness, and a subtlety missing in many of the other Tempranillo-based wines.
Will a time come when these grapes are challenging the supremacy of more familiar grapes? Maybe, maybe not. But they’re proof, if it was needed, that Australia has plenty to offer the world beyond the (excellent) Shiraz, Chardonnay and Cabernet. And Pinot Noir. And Grenache. And sparkling wine. And Liqueur Muscat. And…
Australia Day Tasting in Dublin - Gary O'Donovan, MD and Buyer of O’Donovan’s
The day got off to a great start as I attended the ‘50th Anniversary of Margaret River Wine’ master class by Sarah Ahmed. It was a great reminder about how good the quality and styles of Margaret River wines really are. The Chardonnays on show would rival the quality of the best grown internationally and how recommendable they are for Chardonnay lovers everywhere. Regarding the red wines on show, the Cabernet Sauvignons and Cabernet blends were elegant, yet powerful and full of character and fruit, and showed us implicitly that in Margaret River, Cabernet Sauvignon has found a place called home.
The rise and rise of premium Australian wine
The overall impression of Australia at the tasting was one of a country whose wine quality levels have moved up a notch in recent times, and that the Aussie wine industry wants to let the world know it. The regions that stood out alongside Margaret River wines were Yarra Valley, McLaren Vale, King Valley, Coonawarra and the Barossa Valley. For me these are the ‘go to’ regions, which best exhibit Australia’s quality potential. It was good to see King Valley making an impression, and I enjoyed tasting the innovative Mediterranean grape varieties.
My perception of Australian wine has certainly been enhanced by this tasting and it demonstrated why Australian wines are making a serious comeback in the Irish market. From cutting-edge vineyard/variety matching on ancient soils to pioneering winemakers experimenting and challenging convention, Australia offers quality and diversity. At the tasting I found wines that can age well and sing without a microphone, and I hope to refresh my Australian listings this spring.