And here I thought the Wine and Food show and the California Fair were exhausting. I hadn't tried "speed dating for winos" yet; the Australia's First Families of Wine event (at the Chateau Laurier, no less) was definitely a first ... and a challenge, to say the least.
Here's the deal: there's a winemaker at each of the 11 tables in the room. You have eight minutes to hear their shpeel, sample two wines and rinse your glass before the bell rings and you're off to the next table. No big, long romance, no timid foreplay. Let's cut to the chase and drink ... er, taste.
Two wines per table, that's a lot of stuff to cram into a couple of hours. But I was up to the challenge, as were the other cool kids (we all seem to end up at these things together: Natalie, Holly, Randy, and Nita, Holly's co-host at Imbibery.) There was some lighthearted chatter and gentle ribbing about what constitutes "real" media, and then we got down to business. Here are some of my highlights:
d'Arenberg 2003 Galvo Garage (McLaren Vale) - We were welcomed to the table by winemaker Chester d'Arenberg Osborn, whose rock-star image flies in the face of old-school wine snobs. His table, adorned with a severed hand (the "Dead Arm") and stuffed-toy versions of Aussie critters, matched his quirky personality ... and his wardrobe. He poured us this wine, a Bordeaux blend redolent with jammy aromas, a silky texture and restrained but present tannins. Woody, smoky and rustic on the finish.
De Bortoli 2008 Noble One Botrytis Semillon (Victoria) - A renowned "stickie" and De Bortoli's flagship wine, this delicious alternative to Sauternes was overflowing with notes of caramel, apricot, and peach and orange blossom. If sunflowers had a taste, it might come close to these warm, honeyed flavours and long, syrupy finish.
Henschke 2008 Keyneton Estate Euphonium Shiraz (South Australia) - Some cab sauv&franc, along with a bit of merlot, was blended in with this one. Floral nose (roses and violets), with a follow-up of blackberries and currants. On the palate, jammy, smooth and raisined, with a spirited finish.
Howard Park 2008 Scotsdale Shiraz (Western Australia) - My favourite red of the afternoon. So *not* your typical Aussie shiraz (which was the goal of this event - to demonstrate what Oz wine is REALLY about.) Complex profile of floral and ripe fruit notes with some minerality. Layers of character held up with a peppery feel and firm tannins, rounding out nicely balanced and warm.
Tahbilk 2009 Marsanne (Victoria) - You'd think you were drinking an oaky chardonnay, when in reality, this grape mellowed out in stainless steel. The varietal, as it matures, gives off similar traits to wines that have been oaked: creamy, buttery texture, toasted and smoky on the palate. Flavours of musk melon and flint throughout.
Yalumba 2009 Eden Valley Viognier (South Australia) - Favourite white. Robert Hill Smith, Yalumba's head honcho, challenged us to find another viognier that was as true to its varietal as this one. (I passed him my card with Daniel Lenko's name scribbled at the top. Ball's in your court, Mr. Smith.)
Yalumba 2005 Hand Picked Single Site Swingbridge Vineyard Craneford Shiraz - That name alone is a mouthful; the wine makes it even tastier. A refined, somewhat coy, and enthrallingly complex balance of aromas (violets, cassis and chocolate), structure and sweetness. This is a wine to sip over a few hours, just to see what will happen next in the glass.
After the structured tasting was done, I lingered a bit at the Yalumba table, chatting at great length with Robert. He spoke of passion, of history, and of how the world is unfortunately glued to an ill-conceived notion of what 'Aussie shiraz' is. Not surprisingly, it all started with Robert Parker. He proclaimed the '82 Bordeaux vintage—with its warm, rich season that yielded highly concentrated flavours in young wines—'extraordinary'. This spurred winemakers around the world to create over-the-top fruit bombs in cookie-cutter fashion, at any cost, to gain the treasured upper-90 scores from the influential critic. The hallmark 'Aussie shiraz' style flourished, mostly because Parker said so.