This week, we asked our stalwart enophiles to go out and find a bottle of Australian wine costing between $15 and $30. By at least one account, the image of the Australian wine industry has been decimated by the flood of $10-and-under “critter bottles,” so the other rule of the night was no critters. However, a second rule apparently in effect that night was “no white wines” — although we’d mandated nothing of the sort, every bottle that showed up was red. Facing a lineup of alcohol contents ranging roughly from 14 to 15.5%, we took a collective deep breath and dove right in.
Leading things off was the 2006 d’Arenberg “The Laughing Magpie” (McLaren Vale), a blend of 94% Shiraz and 6% Viognier. The nose was floral — perhaps that Viognier coming through? Sasha picked up cucumber lotion, Adam got steak and charcoal, and Jason picked up raspberry truffle chocolate.
The palate, unfortunately, wasn’t quite as generous. The wine ran a bit sour, with notes of big tart red berries predominant. After a while, people started to pick up some bitter dark chocolate and some unripe blackberry, along with what Jason called “a shot of espresso.” Brian was disappointed by the inky wine, which he’d enjoyed before, and said it might’ve benefited by some decanting. At $20, this was a pass for most people, but Brian said he’d buy it again if only “to tie-dye with it.”
Next up was the 2008 Layer Cake Shiraz (South Australia), which smelled like prunes, vanilla, and even rosemary and thyme. I thought it smelled like “a dark, inky jam, but without any sugar,” and Liz thought it smelled like “a blueberry flatcake,” whatever that is.
Miraculously true to its moniker, the wine tasted distinctly chocolate cake-y. Jason likened it to a “mocha truffle,” while Adam countered with “chocolate mousse.” I noted that it was heavy and very choclately, and wrote down that “I wouldn’t even eat cheese with this, I’d eat… well… chocolate cake.” The berry notes weren’t big, and what berries there were could best be described as having a distinct raspberry chocolate liqueur character. No black pepper, and no tannins — regrettably, since those are two of our favorite elements of a corking Aussie Shiraz — but if it’s cake you’re into, then $18 is probably a reasonable price to pay for this novel twist on the term “dessert wine.”
Third in line was the 2004 Henschke “Euphonium” (Keyneton Estate, Barossa), a kitchen-sink blend of Shiraz, Cabernet, Merlot, Cab Franc, and Grenache. The nose was beguiling, with notes of vanilla, black pepper, green pepper, tobacco, and tar (along with some “pound cake,” Sasha claimed). The berries were ripe and plush, but not terribly extracted. Burnt toast and coffee also made appearances on the bouquet.
The palate was a delight: “very soft,” said Andrew, “but still has body.” Blueberry and blackberry notes were complimented by delicate, velvetty tannins that left a powdered dark-chocolate coating on the tongue. Brian appreciated the arrival of some black pepper character, and found the wine to be quite balanced. “There’s a little touch of sourness in it,” someone said, to which Andrew replied “there’s a little touch of a lot of things in it.” At $45, this wasn’t going to be on anyone’s weekly grocery list, but it was certainly a nice change of pace.
Following a tough act was the 2006 Peter Lehmann Shiraz (Barossa) which boasted a nose of cloves, eucalyptus, and black pepper. Some cinammon made a fleeting appearance, and there was also something floral and perfumy about it.
The palate did its best to live up to the Euphonium’s lofty standard, and, in doing so, ran a bit hot, we thought. Big notes of coffee, fruit leather, and even a little “tea” (courtesy of Sasha) were challenged by the presence of the alcohol. Some tasters also found the tartness to be a bit high, and the $15 bottle wasn’t one that many people seemed eager to re-visit. Andrew, however, said he thought it was a fine price for a wine of that presence.
Next up was the 2005 Peter Lehmann “Clancy’s” (Australia), a blend of Shiraz, Cabernet, and Merlot. Say what you want about this wine’s provenance — it had an awesome nose. Notes of toffee, musky cologne and leather were complimented by what I described as “aged Cuban rum.” It smelled a bit, then, like a guy who’s been smoking a lot of good tobacco in his big leather chair.
The palate drew mixed reviews. Brian appreciated the sturdy tannins, and several people picked up notes of raspberry and even smoked meat (particularly salami), but others found it too tart. With a lackluster finish, the wine didn’t live up to its $22 tariff at Whole Foods. Liz thought it might be an ideal food wine, if only it were cheaper.
The last bottle of the evening was a personal favorite of mine, the 2006 Yangarra Shiraz (McLaren Vale), which I’ve always appreciated for its balls-out pepper character. Sure enough, the black pepper was out in full force all over the nose. Adam smelled some coffee beans, Leah picked up cigarette smoke, and Sasha ventured into vegetable territory, noting scents of scallions and onions. Brian and Jenn agreed, stating that it even smelled a bit of caramelized onions. There was definitely something slightly root-vegetable about it. My kind of nose!
The palate was generally a crowd-pleaser, although a few people found it a bit tough to love. Big black pepper notes were complimented by charcoal, especially on the back end, along with a tart raspberry jam. A couple of winos found it too sour, but many in the room complimented the Yangarra for its “generous, plush nature,” and its “spicy character on the back end.” At $20, it’s a bottle that several people planned to re-visit, myself among them.
The Euphonium had been the big winner, but it had also featured the big price tag, and none of the other bottles won universal acclaim. The concensus following this meeting was that there seem to be a number of good (if not great) Australian bottles in the $15 to $25 range, but perhaps no more so than Spain or even California, so the country’s status as the go-to destination for value within that category is anything but cemented. We’ll continue our search for dynamic Aussie bottles that blow us away, so that we might buy them en masse and contribute to the rectification of Australia’s image problem.
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