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In a word association game if I heard someone mention Shiraz I would immediately blurt out Australia and in another kneejerk response I would exclaim critter labels! It is not that Shiraz cannot be found on the label of a California wine or even in France but something about that name implies Australia. Last week my tasting group retrained our crosshairs on the greatly imported product of Australia.

Firstly, the name Shiraz stems directly from the ancient Persian Capital where it was believed that the grape began and was then brought to the Northern Rhône… however I am not ready to expound on the legends of origin.

Shiraz is far afield from its Northern Rhône counterpart; packed with a swift strike of ripened fruits, cocoa and a little spice but also plagued with higher amounts of alcohol, these wines are more akin to Zinfandel in delivery. Bombastic and enjoyable in their place. While Shiraz and Syrah are synonymous, the style differences of the two are vast.

At the tasting we had a more numerous showing of Australian wines than any other nation but we changed up the pace by inserting a California example as well as a Northern Rhône from St. Joseph. They were ,in this particular order:

08 Stump Jump

09 Layer Cake

07 Penfolds Bin 128 Shiraz

07 Rancho Sisoquoc Syrah

05 Aramis Shiraz “Black Label”

09 Two Hands “Gnarly Dudes” Shiraz

08 Domaine Faury St. Jospeh

We began with the routine inspection of the Stump Jump. It was satisfying with a purple garnet coloring; a moderate intensity on the whiff revealing ripe red fruits (cherries ‘n berries) and some lifted vanilla aromas. It was full bodied with enough acidity to stave off the flabbiness, moderate oak and a medium finish that was marked by the warmth of the alcohol spiking.

Next, another Supermarket standby the Layer Cake Shiraz which smelled of black cherry and herbs de provence. The pleasant aromas translated to the buds with white pepper, cherry and dried herbs. The deep ruby juice was dry; it had moderate acidity, light tannins and a remarkably longer persistence of fruit flavors.

The Penfolds Bin 128 was more of the same and we decided to take a break, inserting the Rancho Sisoquoc from Santa Barbara County, which surprisingly continued in the same vein. On the nose there was some blueberries and smoke and that is where the romanticism ends. The palate was dominated by alcohol, tweaking the full-bodied wine into an unfavorable realm. The peppered cherry flavor really was not working for me either.

Onto the fifth wine of the night, snacking on baguette, cheese and cured meats to help alleviate the heavy doses of alcohol from wearing out the tongue, we proceeded to the Aramis “Black Label” which performed differently than the other wines in the group—it also had the most age on it. With an enticing bouquet of eucalyptus, dark berry and some rose petals the wine delivered a full body with borderline heavy drying tannins—more structure than the previous wines—and a long, lingering finish of smoke, cocoa, cedar and some fruit beneath it all.

Finally the last wine served was the St. Joseph, shifting gears to break from the exuberant fruit forward display of the wines. The wine was reserved and it was an injustice for it to be served last. The traits of this wine were reeled in, it was tightly bound and because the alcohol was so low by comparison it was a little underwhelming. We worked with the wine but did it no favors by serving it after the majority of bigger bodied wines. Yet it showed some of the bacon, red fruit and a lot of earth that we were expecting.

After the tasting we were treated to an amazing dinner by the host. It was a nice way to punctuate a successful tasting of our newly formed wine group and nicer still is the fact that I am inching closer to the five hundred mark in style. Now up, serving number 275.

Aside from Yellow Tail acting as an ambassador and the pesky Outback commercials, Australia is on the brain, omnipresent and huge. A little more comes to mind when I think of Australia, like the first girl I ever loved, getting to try a bottle of Sparkling Shiraz—a promise fulfilled, in my blog long ago—and the Kinks classic ode, among other rock bands saluting the land down under.

Tuesday happened to be an eventful day, I interviewed and got the position for wine specialist in a local Whole Foods, made some matzo ball soup and was able to taste eight Aussie wines, winding down the total to taste to 309.

Before we learned anything about Australia, we opened the class with a blind tasting. A straw colored wine was poured and notes were taken. We were asked to identify the wine and after the identifying process, whether or not we liked it.

After deliberation and much discussion we decided that the wine showed well but was nothing too special, and as a class we were not sure what exactly we had tasted.

A Riesling on the nose—with fragrant white flowers wafting out of the glass—but it gave way to a fuller body with less of the razor sharp acidity that is often appended to Rieslings of character. We were undecided. Eventually the wine was revealed and much to our chagrin it was Yellow Tail Chardonnay. Oh well, for a wine that is routinely panned it showed well, definitely exceeding the five dollar price tag.

After the palate shake up, we worked our way through the diverse states of Australia, beginning in Western Australia and moving east, wading through major growing areas like the Limestone Coast to the Barossa Valley. We learned about some major players in the Australian wine world like Penfolds and their highly acclaimed Grange, Leeuwin Estate wines, Two Hands and d’Arenberg. We witnessed the proclivity towards Rhône varietals, especially Shiraz and some of the major white grapes like Chardonnay and Riesling.

Australia follows a typical trajectory in comparison to other New World winemaking nations, steadily reducing yields and achieving higher quality through technology and savvy. With so many quality wines being produced in Australia, it was nice to taste through a decent smattering.  And they were:

09 Yellow Tail Chardonnay

06 Leeuwin Riesling Art Series, Margaret River

09 Torbeck Semilon, Barossa Valley

NV The Black Chook Sparkling Shiraz, McLaren Vale

07 d’Arenberg Cabernet Sauvignon, McLaren Vale

07 Penfolds Shiraz Bin 128 Coonawarra

08 Two Hands Grenache Yesterday’s Hero, Barossa Valley

09 Two Hands Shiraz Angel’s Share, McLaren Vale

There were some interesting wines in the mix that night. The Riesling from Leeuwin really reeked of petrol, a heavy funk was tough to fight through but on the palate it dissipated, leaving only grapefruit, lemon and green apple fillips on the tongue. It refreshed my palate with the appropriate amount of acidity and had powerful flavor intensity with a lingering finish.

Some of the reds were interesting and my favorites were definitely the Penfolds Shiraz and the d’Arenberg Cabernet for their structure and mouth feel. However, I would like to focus on the Two Hands wines that were a bit extracted, especially Yesterday’s Hero, with a strong bouquet of raspberry jam and a hint of candied strawberry, it was aggressively sweet. Still dry on the mouth, no RS (residual sugar) but my god it was like a Seder came early and having the compote for dessert before all the other courses. Devoid of structure, the flavors were dictating the wine. Though the Grenache was blown out, their Shiraz was refined by comparison. It had a more complex and layered nose and flavor profile with cocoa, pepper, herbs, tobacco and some dark fruit to round out the concoction. The mouth feel was viscous and sensitive, not overbearing. Interesting to see the range of styles a winemaker can deploy.

Ending the class with the Black Chook was really like the big exclamation point. My formal tasting notes stop there—I can definitely vouch for my first time tasting a sparkling Shiraz; the Black Chook was awesome, but that happens to be my taste. Sparkling Shiraz down, now on to the stickies from Australia’s cellar door.

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