Howard Park Riesling 2009

It’s endlessly contested, but beauty (if it exists at all) is something I search for in wine as in most things. Perhaps that marks me as profoundly romantic, or foolish, but if something so inessential, so essentially frivolous as wine doesn’t encapsulate an aesthetic of a kind, then I really do wonder the point of it at all. Hence my difficult relationship with wines that express themselves on a purely functional level – I’d rather drink beer. 

Riesling is a varietal that gets me excited because it sometimes reminds me, more than any other wine, of perfume. I, along with my excellent co-author Chris, are fans of fragrance, and Riesling, in its expressive austerity, comes closest to the manufactured landscapes of man-made smells. Which is quite remarkable, really, as a commercial smell is carefully crafted, layered and assembled to be both distinctive and reproducible; one might reasonably assume a relatively haphazard aroma like that of wine would never come close. Yet it does, to my delight and endless fascination.
This wine isn’t perfect, but it has a sense of construction and layered complexity that excites me. The aroma is awash with high toned, aldehydic aromas that echo the extravagant top notes of an old-fashioned, French whorehouse-type cologne. There are some deeper, lemon rind notes underneath the florals that provide an anchor of sorts, something fleshier around which more fleeting aromas can circle.
The palate is quite generous and, compared to some Howard Park Rieslings I recall from the late 1990s, much less austerely acidic. This isn’t such a bad thing, especially for present drinking. There’s a dramatic but cuddly entry onto the palate, followed by a wash of soft lime juice through the mid-palate. It’s a bit lazy, but it’s also very pretty, content to be admired for its easy charm. A tangy after palate and long finish round things off well.

Howard Park
Price: $A22
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Retail

Yalumba Viognier Eden Valley 2008

Wonderfully refreshing and complex, this is miles away from the screechingly acidic honeysuckle toffee you so often get in viognier at this price point. Glowing golden green in the glass, I suddenly found myself remembering what it was like to lick buttercream frosting off of the metal stand mixer beaters when I was young: there’s a brief, sharp flash of alloyed brightness that quickly folds itself into a lusciously textured, lemon-rind and salt water taffy hugeness that is barely contained within a hulkingly big, disproportionately sized wine that thankfully stops just this side of gaucheness. On the nose, the aromatics remind me of Osage orange and bitter white flowers; there’s also a subtle hint of freshly churned butter as well as a suggestion of something akin to marjoram.I’m very impressed with this wine, but I will that it stops just short of greatness: there’s some tension in the outsize-osity of the finish that is uncomfortably close to a beer gut spilling over the waist of daggy polyester trousers, I’d say. For all of the wine’s charms, it could do with a bit less ripeness, a bit less flab, and a bit more minerality – but still, could you possibly have expected better for the price?Yalumba
Price: $13
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Retail

Ridge Dusi Ranch Zinfandel 2006

I’m an unabashed fan of Ridge wines, rarely having experienced a disappointing example. Ridge introduced me to the joys of Zinfandel with its Geyserville label, and continues to provide beautiful Californian wine experiences each time I am lucky enough to taste its wines. Sometimes, one connects with a particular producer’s approach beyond all reason; if I overpraise Ridge wines, understand this is as much an emotional response to context and company as to the wines themselves. 

Be that as it may, I defy anyone not to respond positively to the exuberance of this wine’s aroma. It’s powerfully fruity in a way utterly unfamiliar to me, raised as I have been on Australian red wines. There’s rich fruit cake, spice, and an overwhelming sense of completeness that makes this an envelopingly sensual experience. Forget angularity and enjoy the luxe of this wine’s blanket of aromas. 
The palate is surprisingly elegant considering the range of flavours and 15.8% abv. Yes, I consider this wine an elegant, balanced wine, despite its scale and technical measurements, which makes its achievement simply more remarkable. Masses of flavour immediately on entry, slinking to a middle palate awash with fruit cake flavours. Clearly, this isn’t a chiselled wine style, but nor is it formless. In fact, there’s plenty of structure, and my only criticism is that these elements don’t cohere as well as they might. The acidity in particular stands out a bit from the rest of the wine. This isn’t nearly enough to derail my enjoyment, however, so I prefer to focus on the immense generosity here, as well as the unexpected freshness of the flavour profile. Alcohol becomes most evident on the finish, which is noticeable hot.
An astonishing wine in many ways. Wines like this will never be considered great, but in their own way they exemplify the purity of a certain regional style. 

Price: $NA
Closure: Cork
Source: Gift

Stefano Lubiana Brut NV

I’m sad tonight for two reasons. Firstly, the ferment on my sad little student wine appears to have stuck, and secondly, Dan flies home tomorrow morning, so I shall shortly be deprived of his compelling company. To make the most of what remains of his visit, though, we’re currently working our way through a selection of wines. First up is this sparkling from Tasmania, which is being rapidly consumed as we await a delivery of assorted Dominos pizzas.

Colour is a rich golden hay, with quite vigorous mousse and a very fine bead. Pungent aromas of brioche, rich fruit, some cheese, etc. Basically, it smells very much like a sparkling wine on the fruitier, richer end of the scale. It also smells great, inviting, and flavoursome.
The palate confirms these impressions. Full but well weighted, the wine enters with a lovely tingling on the tongue and light nectarine fruit flavours, before switching gears on the middle palate and expressing more power and weight. The fruit flavours become a tad simple at this point, but remain delicious and brisk. A lively after palate leads to a finish of reasonable length.
This seems to me a fruit-driven style of good balance, if slight coarseness on the palate in terms of the straightforwardness of its fruit flavours. Crucially, the acidity is in balance, avoiding the harshness of some local sparkling wines. 

Stefano Lubiana
Price: $A35
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Schloss Lieser Niederberg Helden Riesling Spätlese 2007

I chilled this wine in preparation for last night’s salmon dinner, but we didn’t get around to drinking it. So it came out tonight instead, was asked to partner chicken, and did so with aplomb.

It had to blow off a fair bit of sulfur first, mind you. Quite prickly and stinky for a few minutes, leading to a much cleaner, rather candied expression of yellow fruits and citrus, along with a hint of cheese. There’s a nice streak of savouriness too, minerality I guess, that cuts through the rich fruit aromas. It’s not exactly slick; rather, it’s a dressed up country cousin of a wine — attractive and neat, but roundly wholesome too.
Great presence in the mouth.  Entry is quite tingly and full-flavoured, leading to a middle palate of significant proportions and generous intensity. There’s a degree of formlessness to the fruit flavours, which detracts a little from the precision of other components like the firmish acidity and mineral edginess. A chalky mouthfeel tightens the after palate, cleaning up a slight excess of sweetness and laziness of form, before a nice long finish fades slowly on the tongue.
Not bad at all, then. I like the interplay of sweet, almost crackly fruit with adult savouriness and delicious texture. A touch more focus would make this even better.

Schloss Lieser
Price: $A49.95
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Bonny Doon DEWN Thoma/Chequera Syrah 2006

One of the many pleasures of a visit from my excellent co-author and his partner is I invariably end up with a wine or twelve from the USA. It seems most locally available wines from the States are very expensive, especially compared to their price back home, so I don’t often indulge. Hence, most opportunities I’ve had to drink good American wine have been courtesy of Chris and Dan.

Here’s one such wine. It’s notable for being from Bonny Doon, cult Californian producer whose driving force, Randall Grahm, caused hearts to beat faster on Twitter and in the blogosphere a few months ago when he published some less than flattering observations about Australian wine. I’ll reserve my own thoughts around that incident and simply remark this wine is a fascinating counterpoint to some Australian Shiraz styles.
A few notes. The alcohol level is 12.8% abv. The fruit comes from two vineyards in quite different areas of California: Thoma Vineyard (El Dorado County) and Chequera Vineyard (San Luis Obispo County). The label is typically awesome Bonny Doon, neo-constructivist in style. As an aside, Mr Grahm seems to have a talent for simultaneously awful and awesome wine names. Bouteille Call, The Heart has its Rieslings. Need I go on?
Forgive my digression. To the wine itself, its aroma expresses in softly cool climate Syrah mode. It’s nowhere near as aggressively floral as something from the Gimblett Gravels, for example, nor is it as deeply spiced as Grampians Shiraz. To start, the aroma profile is quite meaty, with a bacon fat vibe that dovetails elegantly with spice and fruit. It’s light and detailed, ephemeral perhaps, lacking some power and depth but showing good nuance and sophisticated balance. 
The palate is true to form, being fleet of foot and moderately intense. The flavours are delicious; red and purple berries, spice, a bit of funk. Again, it’s not a wine of overt power, and could do with some stuffing, but as an expression of restrained Syrah it strikes me as successful, not least because it’s absolutely delicious. Shared between three of us, the bottle simply disappeared in an instant. From a functional standpoint, there’s something to be said for low alcohol, subtly flavoured wines, because they are just so easy to drink, and won’t punish you for indulging in an extra glass. 
After we polished off this bottle, I opened a 2008 Dowie Doole Reserve Shiraz which, it should be said, is drinking superbly right now. The contrast couldn’t be greater. The McLaren Vale wine was powerful and rich and deep and all the things one looks for in a robust Australian Shiraz. And yes, it totally overwhelmed the Bonny Doon wine. But, a day on, I’ve retained an impression of the Californian that is firmly positive. Very worthwhile. 

Bonny Doon
Price: $NA
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Gift

Braided River Pinot Noir 2008

The companion wine to the Sauvignon Blanc tasted earlier this week. I must be in a better mood tonight because I find myself more forgiving of what are similarly soft stylistic choices with this wine. Part of it is that I like Marlborough Pinot Noir, surely the daggiest red style produced in New Zealand. I enjoy its abundance, silky ease and accessibility; the opposite of brutish Central Otago wines and tiresomely stylish Martinborough ones. 

I like the colour; it’s quite brilliant, with a low level of density yet showing flashes of precocious purple amongst its garnets and rubies. Those nose was a little harsh at first; with what appeared to be a bit of volatility and some sulfur perhaps; it’s mostly blown off now, though. What’s left are typically sour tamarillo fruit aromas, piercing and light. There’s no depth or complexity at all, but it’s pleasingly varietal and nimble. 
The palate is similarly dimensioned and shows the same varietal correctness as the nose. Entry is fruit-driven, with some sweet, squishy fruit atop what is an acid-driven structure. It’s all a bit edgy and thin perhaps; I want more stuffing, but what’s there is pretty and great to quaff. The middle palate shows a tad more generosity, seemingly sugar-derived, before a tart after palate introduces a smattering of grainy tannins. Not a bad finish, with some sappy complexities taking over right at the back of the mouth.
As with the white, this is a well-judged commercial wine that seems to be hitting the spot more effectively for me this evening. 

Braided River
Price: $A24.95
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Offcuts: dinner and three wines


Chris’s partner, Dan, is in town. It’s been over a year since I last saw Dan and, aside from a little more grey, he is happily the same as ever. Last night, we decided to have dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant called Libertine. It’s in the newish Barracks complex in town; one of those upmarket developments with a cinema, wine shop, gourmet ice creamery and several restaurants. All of life’s inner city essentials in one handy location. 
The restaurant itself has an attractive ambience, with glowing chandelier-laden décor. Food-wise, it was consistent on the night, a pumpkin curry the unlikely highlight of the meal. The wine list is well-selected and diverse, and we chose three different wines to accompany our leisurely dinner. Prices are from the list via my memory. 
Domaine Pichot Coteau de la Biche 2005 ($A62, restaurant list)
A sec Vouvray, this went very well with our entrées of chicken paté, kingfish sashimi and scallops. Quite full aromas of stewed apple and pear, tending towards the odd, sweet prickliness of fairy floss that I seem to find a bit in Vouvray. In the mouth, generous and fresh, with more smashed apples and an edge of pineapple giving way to a lightly textural after palate and soft finish. Great acidity that is the primary contributor to its food-friendliness. This is drinking well but could happily sit in a cellar for years to come.
Eldridge Estate Gamay 2008 ($A50, restaurant list)
This makes a compelling case for Mornington Peninsula Gamay; perhaps fortunate as it may well be the only one made. Simple to start, flavours presenting similarly to the dreaded dry red Pinot style. It really took off about half an hour in, with attractive spiced complexity overlaying detailed, balanced red cherry fruit. Expressive on both nose and palate, there’s real vitality to this wine’s flavour profile, and it shows sophistication without sacrificing an ounce of deliciousness. Weight and texture are both well-judged; again, a good food style and one that went with both curry and full-flavoured pork belly. A great house red for the well-heeled.
Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut Riesling 2009 ($A12/glass, restaurant list)
We were quite lucky on the food and wine matching front; this went well with pear tarte tatin. Pure indulgence; ultra-clean flavours of preserved citrus, ripe tropical fruits and flowers, elegant in the mouth, with brilliantly balanced acidity. It’s sweet yet fresh, opulent yet shapely. Finally, a dessert wine with manners — an exercise in vinous propriety.

Auguste Clape Cornas 2006

Last Saturday afternoon, I found myself in Berkeley, California, home of Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. For you Aussie readers, I’ll just say that Kermit is no Dan Murphy; he’s been in the business for decades and could well be said to have single-handedly revolutionized the import business by traveling to Europe (OK, mostly France) by himself, tasting small, handmade wines from family-owned wineries, and then going to the trouble of importing them in refrigerated containers to preserve the wine’s quality. The California wine scene hasn’t been the same since Kermit hung out a shingle, and we are very much the richer for it. Where else can you find an artisanal Côtes du Rhône for less than $12 or small production wines from places you’ve never even heard of?As Randall Grahm once wrote, one should “Go to Berserkeley, get a case of Clape” – so I figured sure, why not. Probably not a case – I mean, a case of this stuff costs more than most studio apartments in Berkeley – but a single bottle? That, I could do, even if I think it’s a new record for me (even Ridge Monte Bello costs less as futures here). We stopped next door at Acme Bread for a whole wheat walnut levain and pain de mie, hit the Cheese Board for some delicious cooperatively retailed small production cheese from Marin County, ran by Genova Deli in Oakland for some prosciutto di Parma, and we were good to go.Back in Oakland – I had come up for the weekend to spend time with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years – we got to work. I opened the wine, poured two glasses… and was instantly greatly relieved that it was obviously worth the money. The best wines in the world defy description; the only word that comes to mind in that situation (to me) is ineffable. I experienced a visceral, physical reaction: the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, I stopped thinking, and a few moments later I came to again. Thinking that this puppy would need a lot of exposure to air, I headed back to the kitchen and helped prep the food; later, armed with an array of cheese (if you’ve never had Cowgirl Creamery‘s Red Hawk, by the way, I can’t recommend it highly enough), freshly baked bread, zucchini torta, and a mountain of charcuterie, we got down to drinking.If memory serves me correctly, the primary aromas of this wine were steely minerality, a fleeting floral note, dark red or black fruits (think cassis, perhaps), wet, stony earth, leather, a little bit of smoke (perhaps from a butcher’s), and a trace of bacon fat. In short, this is exactly what you would expect from syrah from the northern Rhône. No matter how many times I returned to the glass, it absolutely refused to settle down into any kind of a predictable pattern. Just as a good perfume is designed to constantly change every time you smell it, this wine was a beautiful, living, breathing thing constantly suggesting new ways of approaching it. Over time – it took a few hours to dust the bottle – it did mellow out somewhat, with the tooth-staining, formidable tannins relaxing somewhat into a sweeter, less aggressive profile – but even then, it threw forth an impenetrable aura of undeniable, reserved elegance very much like traditional luxury goods do: you know it’s expensive, you know it’s the best – and there’s also a certain humorlessness that goes with the terroir, er, territory.Lest I leave out any part of a standard tasting note, I will here perfunctorily note that the color was an exuberantly youthful purple, noticeably clear at the rim, and very clean. The finish was masculine and tannic, but no match for the initial attack of the wine: the initial sensation of leathery minerals with raspberry darkness was more than you could possibly want.Thinking about the wine for the next two days, however, I almost found myself longing for something a bit more, well, strange about this wine. In a very real sense, this wine is indeed brilliantly made and an archetype of a style, the obvious bottle that launched a thousand New World imitators. But what if you’re a New World kind of guy? To me, this wine was almost more of a learning experience than pure physical pleasure: to drink this wine is to understand where you (and your country’s wines, in part) came from. To drink this wine is to be properly schooled in How It Is Done. To drink this wine is to be presented with a tangible challenge: How are we in the New World to respond to this? The country that we have: where is the place that could produce a wine anywhere this elegant, this powerful, this beautiful? Do we even know where it is? And if we did, how would we farm it? Would we succeed?I believe that I have had the great good fortune to taste several New World wines that approach, equal, or even exceed the greatness that this wine personifies. Christophe Baron and Tim Kirk have both (in my mind) proven that great Syrah can be grown outside of the northern Rhone: a Cayuse or Clonakilla syrah exhibits all of the same characteristics in of course regionally distinct ways… and I have to guiltily admit that I admire their wines the more for it. The Clape family figured it out a long time ago; Baron and Kirk are relatively new at this, and I find their achievements all the more impressive for it. However, parochialism and nationalism aside (on my part), I am ultimately simply grateful that wines like this exist. After all, that moment of pure physical pleasure, of experiencing a beauty outside of time, isn’t something that just happens: it takes hard work. Without the dedication and efforts of these men, experiences like this would simply not exist.Auguste Clape
Price: $87
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Braided River Wairau Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2009

I’ve had some interesting conversations over the last couple of weeks on the merits (or otherwise) of writing up straightforward, commercial wines. There’s no arguing the relevance; this wine is available pretty much everywhere, and as a consumer I’m just as interested as the next snob in reading a bit about what I might buy. But as a writer, my issue is that, more often than not, they provoke no reaction. They are exactly what I think they will be, and where’s the fun in that?

Absolutely regional aroma, showing typical passionfruit and light cut grass. Say what you will about Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc; there’s no denying it stands out like dog’s balls in a line up, and I’d argue this demonstrates inherent merit in the style, taste notwithstanding. This one is quite soft, though, some Vaseline on the lens obscuring the harsh angularity that can be an issue in some examples.
The palate is correct, but is marred for my taste by an excess of apparent sweetness. No doubt I’m in the minority here; this is exceptionally well-judged in its attempt to alienate no-one, and on one view there are few higher compliments one could pay a commercial style. In the mouth, soft and almost cuddly, with accessible citrus and passionfruit flavours expressed with watercolour imprecision. No great length, no great surprises.
What you see is what you get.

Braided River
Price: $A18.99
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample