Nothingness, the new black

As a teen in the 80s I fully expected that by 2012 we’d be living on the moon, flying around in Jetson-style hover thingies and fighting off nasty alien invaders. Not so. Not even closely so. Sure, the world is different, but different in a way nobody really quite predicted. After all, people like to predict extremes – from the clean and neatly designed Star Trek future where everyone happily fits into skin tight pants and flies around in shiny spaceships, to the dirty and chaotic world of the Terminator where you’re lucky to have what you got and everything is covered in dust. And why not? If someone would have told me that in 25 years I’d be able to sit on my couch and chat with anyone around the world for free, I would have said, “big f’ing deal.” If that same person would have said that I’d be able to play Scrabble on a mobile phone that’s the size of a graham cracker, I’d say, “Cool, but still…BFD. Where’s my jetpack?”

The wine industry is notorious for trying to predict what is going to happen in the future and wine marketers are constantly trying to decide what The Next Big Thing is. Wasn’t that supposed to be Viognier? Whoops. Is this the year for Pinot Gris and/or Pinot Grigio? (By the way, thanks for the confusion Australia as you’re the only place on the planet that makes BOTH!) Alternative varieties (reds other than Shiraz, Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir; whites other than Chardonnay, Sav Blanc, Riesling and Semillon) are all the rage, but which ones will stick? Imports? Rosé? They all seem to appeal to segments of the market, but what’s new that will appeal to the masses?

Here’s my answer: nothing…or maybe everything. What the 21st century has brought us is a big fat old case of information overload, which means that each person’s individual tastes can be catered to. There are a million sources out there, each telling us what is good and why it’s good, while old school marketing campaigns are less effective at convincing people of what they like before they’ve had it. (GABBO is coming!) People find specific things that appeal to them and latch onto it. Instead of The Next Big Thing, it’s The Next Lot Of Small Or Medium Sized Things.

The classics will coexist with modern styles and everyone will be happy. That’s what the future is.

Speaking of classics, turn this one up LOUD!

No, really LOUD:


Que Syrah, Shiraz

So, the other day a friend tweeted about a great new “Syrah” from a Great Southern producer. I made some comment about how I think Australian winemakers should stick with Shiraz, that Syrah comes off as pretentious and lacks meaning. My friend countered and said something to the effect of, “why should they have to stick with the status-quo?” I said, “Let the wine, the brand and the region speak for themselves without confusing people.” A few other people chimed in, then, presumably, everyone’s real life got in the way and the mini-debate stopped.

Without the hindrance of 140 characters, or the annoyance of a “long update,” I thought I’d explain my point of view here.

First of all, Shiraz and Syrah are the same thing. Syrah is what it’s commonly called in France, America, New Zealand and the South American wine growing regions. Shiraz is basically what Australia decided to run with once Hermitage was put on the Can’t-Use list. There are no rules to determine who can or can’t use Syrah or Shiraz and because of this, the choice is purely preferential.

Over time, it has come to pass that wines usually labelled Syrah are reflective of the Northern Rhone version of the wine (more delicate/elegant, white peppery, earthy and restrained) while wines labelled as Shiraz are more reflective of classic Australian style (bold fruit, higher alcohol, juicy and more in your face). So, naturally, when an Australian producer makes a more Northern Rhone style wine, the desire to label it as a Syrah seems reasonable. They want people to know that what they are making is of a particular style and different from a typical Shiraz.

My issue here is twofold: 1) Australia has really made a name for itself by making Shiraz. Say what you will with regards to the popular style, it is recognized around the world. This is something Aussie winemakers should both be proud of and take advantage of. Consumers, both at home and abroad, look specifically for Australian Shiraz. And by creating the varying styles of Shiraz that are currently being made, people will eventually identify with the brand and/or region from which the wine comes – it’s already happening. Labeling it as Syrah will be confusing to the consumer (look what’s happened with Pinot Gris & Grigio) and will inevitably be misleading.

Which leads me to point 2) Because there are no rules governing what can or can’t be called Syrah or Shiraz, as soon as Syrah becomes officially trendy, we will start seeing “classic Aussie Shiraz” labelled as Syrah. You can bet your bottom dollar on that. 15.5% Barossa Syrah, anyone?

That’s about all I got, but I’m happy to hear comments on this and discuss.

The blogging zombie…

Don’t call it a comeback, I’ve been here for years. I can’t even pretend to be LL Cool J, so let’s just move on…

What’s the difference between inspiration and motivation? I’m not sure which one applies, but last night I was both inspired and motivated by hometown heroes turned aged-rock stars, Mudhoney. I caught wind of the fact that they were coming to Perth and my mind immediately said, “Well hell, I gotta go,” in the way that it used to each time they played in a bar back home. Then it hit me: it was over 20 years ago that I first saw them! Mark Arm is FORTY-NINE years old! I AM FORTY-THREE years old! SHIT HAS CHANGED! I started to worry that one of my favourite bands were over the hill try-hards, hanging on to the tattered threads of their glory years.

But (he said to the surprise of none) I was wrong. Mudhoney rocked the way they did when Good Mudhoney used to play in the 90s (Bad Mudhoney would turn up once in a while, mainly due to Mark Arm and Steve Turner being some combination of doped up/drunk/couldn’t give a fuck about the gig. It was rare, but I’ve seen Bad Mudhoney a few times). I don’t want to turn this into a concert review, so I’ll leave it at saying that they totally rocked; Mark Arm and Steve Turner are my generation’s Jagger and Richards…kind of…only way cooler…and not as tragic…yet…but they are about equally skinny.

It made me wonder about how you predict a band is going to age gracefully, like wine. How do you tell? I’ve hosted a number of corporate tastings, wine education courses, been the wine geek at parties and one of the most popular questions is, “Will this wine age well?” It’s a tough question. Textbook answers will say that a wine has to have exceptional balance of flavours & textural components (fruit, acid, tannin) for it to age well, yet a young Hunter Valley Semillon has an acid profile that feels like it will strip the enamel off  your teeth – and they can age for decades.  There is a thought that high alcohol wines won’t stand the test of time, whereas makers of such wines swear by the fact that they can.  Pedigree, of course, is hard to go past.  I tell people to trust wines with a proven track record of age-ability.  Finally, personal taste is the ultimate decider.  I’m of the opinion that the idea of an aged wine is, for many, much better than the reality of it.  The best advice I ever had on this topic was to buy a case of wine you like, then have one each year until you think it’s perfect, then drink them all!

So, my comeback post finished.  Ideally there will be some more and with some regularity, but when you’re my age, regularity is no certainty.


Castle Rock Riesling 2010

In the early 90s I attended  Rock School (it wasn’t really called that, but that’s how I refer to it now) –  a two-year trade program focusing on audio & video production and business.  It beat the hell out of regular college and I thought it would be cool to learn how to make records.  I kind of learned how to make records, but was never going to be any good at it.  But…one of the more excellent courses I took was called The History of Popular Music.  In this course we discussed what it is that makes music popular.  The simple answer was structure:   verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, verse (optional) chorus – or some slight variation thereof.   An assignment that I fondly recall was to find a perfectly structured song and hand it in on a cassette tape (cassettes, kids, are a primitive form of media storage that old people previously used .  They pre-date mini discs, even).  How cool was it to have homework that made you go listen to a bunch of music?!?!  My entry from 20+ years ago comes at the end of this post.

I was reminded of this piece of personal history due to a wine I recently had: the 2010 Castle Rock Riesling.

To me, this wine is all about structure – it has all the components of a great cool climate Australian Riesling.   The aromas are lifted and complex with lime zest, mandarin and a soft floral edge. The palate is tightly woven, pure, clean and harmonious.  The primary fruit characters of lemon/lime and orange peel are complimented by regional characters of minerality and talc. These flavours dance across the palate in different sorts of combinations with each mouthful, eventually finding a way to linger in its own, specifically Porongurup way.  This wine can be from nowhere else and is made by one of the nicest, humblest and most talented winemakers in the region, Rob Diletti.

This wine has all the structure of a great piece of music.  And like a great piece of music, revisiting it from time to time should put a smile on your face…maybe not for 20 years, but certainly for the next 10.

Hello, my name is Mike and I have a problem

I’m always on the lookout for a wine bargain. I scour auction sites, websites, bargain bins at bottle shops and subscribe to dozens of email newsletters who are all too eager to offer the greatest deal ever. And if they offer something interesting at a good price, or something I’m familiar with at a stupidly low price, I usually take the bait. I can’t help it…it’s an addiction. My wife both enjoys the benefits of my sprees and reminds me that my wine purchases are often unsustainable in the long (or even medium) term.

A recent auction purchase, however, is giving me reason to gloat. For less than $15 each, I got six bottles of the 2006 Foxes Island Pinot Noir, from Marlborough.

Pinot Noir, in my opinion, is a “wine nerd’s wine.” It’s the kind of wine that, if made well and from a good vintage, can offer some of the most complex characteristics in any red wine, while retaining a light-to-medium bodied framework. It’s delicate, cerebral, often ethereal, and takes time and effort for one to realise WHY it’s so damned good.

The 2006 Foxes Island isn’t a great wine (if it was, I wouldn’t have been able to buy it for $15 a bottle), but it certainly does give you an indication of how good Pinot Noir can be. The nose is slightly stewed, but throws out a complex array of forest berries, leather and a slight hint of metal shavings. The palate is bright & juicy with sour cherries, vanilla and allspice, all harmoniously sliding down the gullet effortlessly. There are some slightly grippy tannins yet to fully settle, which suggests this wine has still a few years left in it. With a reasonable alc/vol of 13.5%, this wine is conducive to being served slightly chilled (though definitely not cold) and can be paired brilliantly with Chinese barbecue pork.

Reality is not always what smacks you in the face, but what you realise after a bit of thought…

Gewurztraminer: wine’s blonde redhead

I didn’t consider wine as a feasible alcoholic beverage until my late 20s. Like most kids in the Pacific Northwest, I grew up on beer, bourbon and tequila…and at times, simply whatever was available. I was never really “into” anything as far as booze went. Some friends got snobby about whether Jack Daniels was better than Jim Beam, or this beer versus that beer. I had a few things I liked well enough, but was pretty easy going. My earliest wine memory is of my older sisters pouring Ernest & Julio Gallo white casks into glasses and topping them with 7-Up for a refreshing little spritzer. Undoubtedly that was my first wine drinking experience as well. Humble beginnings indeed.

The first bottle of wine I ever bought was a Washington State grown Gewurztraminer. I was the mid 90s, I was living a grown-up, mature, cosmopolitan lifestyle in the big city (or the small city with a big attitude as I like to call Seattle) and felt like I should see what this wine stuff was all about. The name caught my attention as much as anything and I remember the description on the back label included a phonetic pronunciation – geh-WURZ-tra-MEE-ner. Sounds good to me, plus I learned a new word. Win!

Gewurztraminer a variety that grows successfully in Washington State and you can find it in supermarkets easily enough. And like my sisters before me, I found that sweetness was a good introduction to wine. A soft entry, if you will – who wouldn’t like it? Originating from Alsace, it also grows around the place in Australia: Victoria & Tasmania seem to grow the lion’s share, but you can find it in NSW, Queensland, South Australia and WA as well. The grapes are a pinkish purple and, from what I hear, difficult to get right as the sugar/acid balance needs to be perfect. It’s usually low in acidity and sweet, but not necessarily due to residual sugar, it’s a wine best known for its striking lychee & perfumed characters both on the nose and palate. It’s hard to mis-identify.

Recently I had a 2005 Delatite Dead Man’s Hill Gewurztraminer

My only regret is that I don’t have any more. I’d really love to see how this wine develops over a few more years. This Victorian example has all the hallmarks of a Gewurz: intense floral aromas of rose and lychee; also a hint of toasty development, but the primary characters are so strong that anything else is going to take a while to get through. The palate was juicy with lychee, boiled quince and a slight hint of candied ginger. There was some mid-palate sweetness and the acidity was barely detectable, but it still finished fresh. As an options wine I would have guessed it to be much younger. It was near perfect with a spicy Thai chicken stir fry. I’ll bet money that my sisters approve.

Click here to visit the Delatite website.

Gewurztraminer: soft, sweet, approachable, can suit some foods perfectly, others not so. Complex, often misunderstood, but never mistaken. Like this:

Cool happenings in Perth…no, really.

Putting the social into Social Networking, a group of 13 Perth Twitter-junkies met for a wine themed dinner in Victoria Park – the first #byowednesday. Groundbreaking? No. Interesting? Unless you were there, probably not. Am I wasting your time? Read on and see for yourself.

For me, it’s now been three years of living in Perth and from the beginning I’ve been slightly mortified at the lack of serious wine criticism over here. Maybe it’s because there’s really only one major newspaper, but wine reviews are mostly uninspiring, banal and downright boring. It’s like reading headlines: “Summer is here, so here’s a list of some SSBs that I like,” and blab blah blah. Never mind that most taste the same, although one might be an SBS if that tickles your fancy. Pay a little more and get one that has a label to impress your guests. Or, if you’re a connoisseur, try a Great Southern Riesling – the wine that everyone loves, but nobody buys.

OK, I might be a little harsh or unfair and I realise that people aren’t trying to mislead or deceive, but it appears to me that the WA wine scene has become a victim of its own parochialism. And I believe its in danger of being left behind as the rest of Australia plows forward with new techniques and styles. Fortunately, as the world is becoming more and more grass-roots in its ability to create change-effecting momentum, blogs and social networking are working as seed and fertiliser.

Back to the dinner: it was held at Elie’s Tent on Albany Highway, Vic Park and arranged by, arguably, Perth’s most prolific wine blogger, Jesse Lewis (AKA @good_drop, whose blog can be found here). It was purely to get some similarly minded people together to drink and talk about wine. Everyone was to bring a masked bottle, covered up so nobody knew what it was. The bottles were poured one at a time and after everyone had a chance for a sniff & a taste, the owner of the wine proceeded with some “wine options”-like questions until it came time to reveal what the wine was. All 13 attendees participated and everyone enjoyed the experience.

I was slightly stricken by the fact that there were scarcely any mainstream styles (granted, that’s mostly to be expected considering the quality of people) and the ensuing discussions after the wines were revealed were thoughtful, interesting, humorous and, at times, challenging. The wines we had were: an aged Margaret River Riesling, a Napa Valley Viognier, a Spanish Albariño, a 7-year-old South Australian Arneis, a yet-to-be-released Chardonnay, a 6-year-old Heathcote Sangiovese, a Rioja, and a Shiraz each from Victoria and the Great Southern.

Even though it was probably about five degrees too warm in the room for the reds and one or two of the wines were just slightly past their prime (and might not have even been that good to begin with!), what we ended up with was a table full of people talking the wine talk that is sorely missing, if not completely absent, in Perth media. If the industry wants to educate wine drinkers, develop palates beyond commercially made product and steer them toward regionally and varietally defined wines, then voices like those in attendance for the inaugural #byowednesday need to be heard.

Tyrrell’s Single Vineyard Stevens Semillon 2005

Australia Day 2011 was also my 3rd year of being an Australian citizen. Woot! But it was still just a Wednesday. Boo! On the other hand, I have Thursday off and am planning a trip to Scitech with my kid. Woot! So the net result is a win.

I was lucky enough to have been treated some delicious, fresh crab for lunch and the bottle of wine I decided to bring along (without knowing what I was having for lunch) was a 2005 Tyrrell’s Single Vineyard Stevens Semillon.

I’ve been a fan of Tyrrell’s for quite some time and, like all wine geeks, love a good Hunter Semillon. It truly is a wine that should be celebrated as an Australian icon because, like the great wines throughout Europe, when the vintage is right these wines can be treasured for many, many years. And I believe the 2005 Hunter Semillons from the great wineries associated with the variety will go down as some of the very best.

This wine was simply delicious. The aromas are quite complex with lemon/citrus, lanolin, some flintiness and the classic toasty character these wines are known to develop over time. It’s a pleasure to smell, really – if a wine can ever smell smooth, then this wine does. On the palate it’s soft and textured with tart lemon custard, honeysuckle and, again, that quintessential toastiness. The acid balance is in near perfect harmony with all of these flavours, which makes this wine ultra-refreshing.

At nearly six years of age, this wine is drinking like a youngster with plenty of life ahead of it. If you can find the patience to lock some of these away, I’d imagine you could do so for another 10 years (although you’ll wind up with a completely different wine) and have in your possession a wine that showcases just how great Hunter Semillons can be.

Source: gift (!)
RRP: about $30
Closure: screwcap
Alc: 11%

For the Little Rebel in all of us

This past weekend my wife and I hosted a few local families who have kids going into pre-primary with our 5 year old next month.  We called it a get-together because said 5 year old refused to recognise it as a party since there were no balloons or prizes.  Fair enough, really.  It was a good chance to throw some meat on the barbecue, let the kids go nuts and have some drinks with other grown ups who have become socially immoblised by a school kid and a toddler.

Naturally, I was put in charge of booze and music.  Which is kind of ironic because what I like from either category doesn’t really appeal to the masses, but I do my best to walk that fine line between my own tastes and catering.  I asked for musical suggestions on Twitter a few days before and one friend said, “just grab random and sometimes inapproriate CDs and chuck em in and hope for the best.”  That was probably the best advice in the end, but I hand selected about 15 CDs and randomly played them through the iPod.

They were treated to the likes of this:

And it seemed to go over well.

Booze was a little easier because I knew that the guys would want beer. My wine decisions were simplified to a crisp, ideally slightly fruity, white. I actually thought long and hard about this, seeing it as an opportunity to bargain shop for a few bottles of something I haven’t tried in the $12 per bottle range. I settled on this:

2010 Little Rebel Yarra Valley Sauvignon Blanc. This wine surprised me and is another nod to the Yarra as one of Australia’s great Sav Blanc regions. It’s the cheap & cheerful label to Punt Road (and Airlie Bank), where Kate Goodman has been making pretty fantastic Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Shiraz and other varieties for several years. I’m a fan of the premium range, but haven’t tried this range for quite a while.

I found this wine online for $99 per dozen and knowing the winery somewhat, took a punt…and was glad I did. It’s restrained, with obvious lemon/citrus characters mingling casually with some passionfruit sherbet. It finishes a little abruptly, although without bitterness or harshness. I’m not too sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of this stuff sat in some old barrels for a short time too, which I think would be a brilliant move for this kind of wine. There’s a bit of phenolic content and it feels slightly broad across the palate, but overall it’s pleasant and drinkable – which is exactly what you want in an $8 party bottle.

Sauvignon Blanc & Grunge: not a food match

I’m calling the 2010/2011 wine drinking season – that undefined time of year when we all start taking it easy on full bodied reds and look towards new release whites, Rosé and lighter bodied reds – The Year New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc Stops Being The White Wine Everybody Wants To Drink All The Time, or TYNZSBSBTWWEWTDATT. Email me for a t-shirt or bumper sticker.

I’d like to compare NZSB to Grunge.  Neither really came out of nowhere – they both had stable roots from which to grow – but somehow the planets aligned for each of these movements to experience a swift, dramatic and destructively massive growth.  Each came on to its respective scene as a “Great New Thing.”  NZSB was a pungent, intense Sauvignon Blanc with delectable gooseberry and intriguing grassiness and had a ‘middle palate’ that many claimed Aussie Sav Blanc lacked.  It was different, it was better and when there were only a couple dozen brands coming in to the country it was cool.  Grunge was a breath of fresh air to a stale and boring, post 80s music scene in America.  It was hippy, metal and slacker all rolled into one and during the early 90s it gave 20-somethings something to get excited about.

But nothing stays both popular and underground for long.  New Zealand was expanding rapidly in order to quench the world’s thirst as it became apparent that having Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc on the label was good enough (in many instances).  Quality, understandably, was sacrificed for quantity as container loads of NZSB left Kiwi ports in all directions.  Likewise, kids everywhere were putting on flannel shirts, Chuck Taylors and Levis and heading into garages around the country to make noise.  If Mudhoney could make a record for a major label using only an 8 channel console, then hell, so could anyone!  Every rock record label on the planet had to have it and before long (like the 70s punk rock movement a generation earlier) the dissent of Grunge had become commodified.

Then it just got annoying.  In Australia, winemakers, drinkers and the general cognoscenti watched in dismay as consumers fell for a style of NZSB that was light on depth & finesse and heavy on up front juiciness & sweetness.  Quality New Zealand winemakers were feeling the sting too as their wines were getting lost in the shuffle of supermarket brand $10 bottles of wine.  I spent a few days on the road in 2008 & 2009 with the viticulturalist for well regarded organic & biodynamic Marlborough producer and he was as concerned as anyone about the dilemma that his industry had created.   Social Media events such as The Rosé Revolution (#roserev) & The Summer of Riesling (#summerofriesling) have been taking pot-shots at Sav Blanc  (sometimes subtle, sometimes not so much    as a whole world of great dry white wines were being ignored in favour or Sauvignon Blanc. Likewise, bands like Bush became popular.

So here we are, right in the middle of the 2010/2011 drinking season and I notice some good things happening in Australia: alternative white varietals such as Arneis, Fiano, Albariño (or Savagnin if you happened to mistakenly plant it) and Vermentino are becoming hip; Pinot Gris and Grigio are becoming mainstream; and good old (but not old fashioned) Riesling and Chardonnay are cool again.  I think this is a good thing.  Well made, regional Sauvignon Blancs ought to rise above the plethora of homogenous brands as consumers are offered more choice in the crisp, dry white category.  At least this is what I hope happens.

Musically?  Well, I did try to warn you that I’m an aging hipster and I’m afraid, to me, that it’s not really going to get much better than this: