Our recent Landry’s/Mortons trip to Australia was full of surprises, great humor, brilliant wines, and vast landscapes. One of the best quotes of the trip which captured the feel of the trip came from winemaker Chester D’Arenburg on a torrentially rainy day in McLaren Vale: “The rain is not coming down sideways so we are going into the vinYAWD.” That, of course, meant there was a differentiation between rain pouring straight down and rain that’s coming at you sideways. So off we went umbrellas in tow amid a mix of suppressed laughter and a few grimaces.
Australia was also an unexpected delight. I say “unexpected” because I guess we are conditioned to think that places that speak the same language are less exotic than those that don’t, but that was not the case here. Huge skies, panoramic views, and truly unique wines abounded in Australia. We only had time for Melbourne’s Yarra Valley, McLaren Vale, and Barossa but each had knockout wines with special terroir features.
Yarra Valley was green and lush with rolling hills dotted with sheep and vibrant wines from Giant Steps, Levantine Hills, Fowles, Tahbilk, and De Bortoli. It was also home to the Healesville Sanctuary which was a fantastic opportunity to see animals indigenous to Australia. We got to pet and feed kangaroos, fawn over koalas, and see cartoon-inspired creatures like the Tasmanian Devil (which is quite small for all his big fame).
McLaren Vale offered nostalgic sunsets just miles from the Southern Ocean. Its wines are elegant and poised like the ones we sampled at Yangarra, Mitolo, and D’Arenburg. Molly Dooker, the famous cult winery with the catchy labels and powerhouse reds, was also fascinating with breathtaking vineyards and family-style hospitality. We also visited visit Shaw & Smith in the Adelaide Hills complete with wild kangaroos feeding on the outskirts of the tree-lined vineyard.
Barossa had sweeping beauty, rugged terrain, and big bold red wines with high alcohol to match but it was usually well integrated into the background. Here we visited Two Hands, Torbreck, Tait, and St. Hallett.
Due to the length of the trip and the many wineries we visited I’m going to split this blog into the above three regions in separate installations.
Starting off with Yarra Valley, this wine region is just an hour from Melbourne and one that is justifiably experiencing a huge boom in tourism. It’s an idyllic place with low rolling hills and wistful views. Being a cooler growing region, some of the predominant wines here are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and some sparkling wines but we also encountered elegant Syrah and brilliant Cabernet Sauvignon.
Giant Steps is a modern, charmingly chic yet slightly rustic winery and restaurant with freshly- made bread and pastries coming right off the wood fired grill. This winery is a truly enjoyable place to while away an afternoon with fresh pizzas sipping fantastic wines. I found a great freshness to the wines here with a backbone of minerality which seemed to thread through all of them. One of my favorites was the 2015 Giant Steps Tarraford Vineyard Syrah ($50) which had lilac, white pepper, and spice notes on a silky palate backed by judiciously smooth tannins. A less expensive but equally good option is the 2015 Giant Steps Yarra Valley Syrah ($35) which tasted of black raspberry, bay leaf, and sweet pepper. The 2015 Giant Steps Harry’s Monster ($55) was likely my favorite which is a Bordeaux blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Petit Verdot.
Levantine Hill has a cozy winery with sweeping vineyard views and knockout Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Shiraz, and sparkling wine. The 2013 Levantine Hill Syrah was very good with notes of tar, blackberry, violet and black pepper amid smooth tannins and a medium plus finish. My favorite here was the 2013 Yarra Valley Estate Cabernet Sauvignon which tasted of blackberry, black currant anise, purple flowers, and “leafiness”. “Leafiness” seems to be a term used in Australia for herbaceousness as I heard it a few times but is not to be confused with green or unripe fruit.
Fowles is located in the granite Strathbogie Ranges north of Yarra Valley. This is an enchanting boulder-strewn land with decomposed granite soils which play a key role in Fowles’ award-winning wines. Fowles also has a lamb farm and the estate has a lovely laid-back feel to it as any farm would. My favorite wine here was the 2012 Cabernet Merlot which was a great blend of both grapes’ best traits – blackberry, plum, mint, and cassis with lively tannins and medium bodied in nature.
This winery stood out not only for its wines and outstanding food but also for their “Ladies That Shoot Their Lunch” brand which they cleverly worked into a trap shooting event with Olympic Double Trap Gold Medalist Russell Mark. Russell was also accompanied by his wife, fellow Olympian Lauryn Mark, as well as James Willett and Laetitsha Scanlan (two other Olympians fresh off Rio). Getting to meet and be coached by actual Olympians in any sport was extremely cool. The actual shooting part was a lot harder than it looked and the gun itself was quite heavy with a serious recoil for those of us who don’t hold a gun often (or ever). They were all excellent coaches as evidenced by the fact that they got even me to hit a target three times.
Russell and Lauryn have their own company and do many corporate events like this which are quite popular in Australia. Ironically, Lauryn is from San Jose but after a few months training in Australia she fell in love with the country.
Tahbilk is the oldest winery in Victoria (one of 6 states in Australia) and has that old-world feel to it with dim cellars and 19th century architecture. This winery has outstanding Shiraz and Cabernet along with the largest stock of Marsanne (as well as some of the world’s oldest Marsanne vines) that I’ve come across. We actually did an entire flight of only Marsanne which most people have never heard of let alone tasted a full flight of. It was fascinating to see how this Northern Rhone variety, rarely seen on its own, evolves with time into rich complexity. This was evident in the 1996 vintage which was a golden amber color and viscous in body with nuts, marmalade, and honey. In contrast, the much younger 2016 Marsanne was a pale lemon color with lime, citrus, and tropical pineapple flavors in comparison. Note that Australia has already completed their 2016 harvest because they are half a season ahead of us so don’t be surprised if you see Aussie wines (or any other from the Southern hemisphere) already on the 2016 vintage.
De Bortoli is perched on a hill and a 90-year-old family-owned property well known for their excellent wines. They are possibly best known for their famous sweet wine, Noble One Botrytis Semillon, which is a Sauternes-like dessert wine rich in marmalade, dried apricot, and honey flavors. There was a lot to like here including the 2016 Villages Heathcote Grenache Rosé ($20), the 2015 Riorret Lustia Park Pinot Noir ($42), the 2015 Vinoque Pinot Blanc ($25), and the 2015 Vinoque Same Same (an intriguing blend of Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Gris).
The 2015 Vinoque Same Same tasted of fresh cranberry, raspberry, and savory spice and was medium bodied with a pleasant lingering finish. Whole-bunch pressing was used on 15-20% of the grapes in making this wine which means they were not destemmed at all. This old winemaking technique is somewhat of a new trend lately and we heard a lot of it being done in Australia. Whole-bunch pressing can create more complexity and freshness in the wine along with silkier tannins and perfume. Vinoque is De Bortoli’s “play” label where they test out new wines and see if the market responds to them. Once they do, they move under the mainstream De Bortoli labels.
The 2016 Villages Heathcote Grenache Rosé was made in a dry Provence style with a pale salmon color, strawberry and dried herb flavors, zippy acid, and a tingling mineral finish. Dry rosés are quite popular in Australia and this one was superb.
One of my favorite wines of the trip was the De Bortoli 2013 Melba Reserve Yarra Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($45) which I came home with a case of. Tasting of mulberry, black plum, and “leafiness”, this wine is from 25-year-old vines and truly exceptional quality especially for the price. I tasted it when it arrived at my house and it is one of those few wines that taste even better at home than it did in the idyllic site in which I found it. That’s always the true test of a good wine!
The last place we visited in the Yarra Valley was the historic Healesville Hotel with its Quince restaurant. It’s a must-see if you visit this area with its candle-filled rustic yet romantic dining room. We had a fascinating tasting of Bordeaux blends by Mac Forbes along with absolutely amazing beef filet. The Australian beef was some of the best I’ve had anywhere. We tried the 2015 EB17 Lovechild which was fantastic as well as the 2013 Hugh. Both wines went perfectly with the filet and it was hard to decide which was better although I think I swayed to the EB17 Lovechild.
Stay tuned for McLaren Vale coming next.