Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The Wine Rules: 4: Blowsy Aussies still have the power to blow you away

They say that when you fly to Australia from Europe you have to put your watch back. Twenty years.

If only that were true.

Because that would take us back to a time when Australia was famous - notorious might be the better word - for one of the world's most definitive wine styles. 

Big - I mean massive - bawdy, blowsy, blow-your-mind Chardonnay. 

You know what I'm talking about. 

100% Chardonnay grapes roasted on the vine under the burning Southern sky sun then pounded for fruit to the very inch of their leathery skins. Fermented in vast stainless steel tanks, steeped with resiny oak staves or oak chips and finally transferred into fat yellow green Burgundy bottles with synthetic stoppers, under every shade of green - olive, emerald, jade - or yellow plastic closures, from gold to sulphur to lemon.

But for all that variety what we were looking for in the contents of the bottle wasn't variety. It was sameness. Predictability. Reliability. We knew exactly what we wanted. 

We wanted to see that dense golden amber bright yellow shining liquid in a goblet - preferably one that took a third of a bottle or more. Its cloying stickiness should betray the weight of punchy alcohol on the sides of the glass. 

Take a mighty whiff of that ripe creamy butter-rich smell. And it is a smell. Not a bouquet or a fragrance. You'll find few hints or scents or subtle aromas here. This is wine foreplay Aussie style - Brace yourself Sheila

A blast of vanilla is the first thing that hits you. At 14% alcohol it won't be the last either.

It's not like vanilla from the pod or vanilla essence but like thick freezing milkshake vanilla-ice-cream chemical-vanilla. And that's how to serve it too: teeth-on-edge headache-inducing ice-cream cold like a tinny, but opening out as the sun moves across the sky and your glass is no longer under the sunshade.

Because it's not a cold weather drink this Aussie Chardonnay. It's meant for glugging under blue skies, from the cooler at picnics, Summer days on the river or on the beach,  impromptu barbecues, lazy wedding afternoons and early evenings when jackets are carried over shoulders and when straps fall off them.

Drink in its waxy malolactic weight, its heady pineapple taste, all that rich sumptuous buttery tropical fruit with added acid sharpness and long long alcoholic finish. WOW. Pour another (big) glass. 

After a couple of decades - some say Australia's first commercial Chardonnay appeared as late as 1973 - the preponderance of this style of over-oaked super powerful kick-in-the-head Aussie Chardonnay eventually gave way to the ABC brigade - the Anything But Chardonnay fashionistas who wanted to be seen to be drinking something different. Mostly they chose Pinot Grigio. Good luck to them.

But when you're faced with a choice of the perfect representation of Australia, think back to the Summer Olympics closing ceremony of 2000 in Sydney. 

We don't remember pop princess Kylie Minogue (bless 'er) covering Dancing Queen. We don't remember one-hit-wonders Men at Work with their one-hit-wonder Down Under. 

What we remember is the diminutive figure of 73-year-old country singer Slim Dusty standing trackside at Stadium Australia in his trademark 'old grey Farrell' hat, guitar slung over his shoulder, voice breaking as he began to sing,

Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong

Under the shade of a coolabah tree,

And he sang as he watched and waited 'til his billy boiled

"You'll come a-Waltzing Matilda, with me"

with a record-breaking stadium crowd of 114,714 roaring their approval through the chorus.

That's what I'm talking about. 

Sip on your ABC if you like, but while the the nation might have chosen Advance Australia Fair as its national anthem in 1984 and The Millennium Games were seen by much of the world as a coming-of-age for the country, the closing ceremony showed that Australia is at its best when it is big and bold and brash and puffed up and proud of what it has built. 

So if your preference is for a white wine that truly represents its human terroir, look no further than those that mirror the style of Australia in the 1990s when Chardonnay was the Sir Les Patterson of white wine - a proper drink for proper drinking - not a girl's name. 

Good onya. 

The Wine Rules: 4: Blowsy Aussies still have the power to blow you away.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

The Wine Rules: 3: Chile does Bordeaux varieties well, but nobody else does Carmenère

Take a look at a map of the World, better still pull out an Atlas and turn to the page for South America. Or best of all, take a turn round a globe - it's much more fun because it spins and you can play that game where you can whizz it around superfast and see if you can stop it with a single finger on a named country. 

Never played that? Shame. Give it a go and and find yourself Chile.

Chile is the long thin country that makes up the western land border of southern South America.

Chile has a coastline that stretches for over four thousand miles, some 6,435 kilometres, North to South. And vice versa.

Its major exports are copper, fish, fruit, paper and wood pulp, chemicals and wine. And in the world of wine, Chile is a big big player too. It's the fourth largest exporter to the USA.

They've been at it for a while too because within 17 years of the time of its discovery circa 1537 when the Spanish explorers, colonists, conquistadors - let's be honest, invaders - had brought their usual disregard for human life and dignity to bear on the indigenous people of the area, the Mapuche, they also brought their vitis vinifera with them - the winemaking grapevine. So, as with the Romans in Life of Brian, not all bad news for the locals. 

In fact modern day Chileans drink significant amounts of wine themselves and Chile is now ninth on the list of the world's major producers.

But what the Spaniards didn't bring with them, and what Chile is still missing to this day, is the phylloxera louse. Which is good news for its winemakers as it means the vines don't have to be grafted onto louse resistant rootstocks. 

Today the main benefits of this are twofold. Firstly, financial, in that the lack of need of expensive grafted vines makes Chilean vineyards cheaper to plant and to manage.

The second principal benefit is that the phylloxera epidemic in France in the mid nineteenth century led some leading French winemakers to up sticks and transfer their considerable talents and generations of learning and experience to the vineyards of Chile. 

Hence Chile has been able to establish itself as a leading world producer of wines based on three of Bordeaux's leading grapes; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.

What put the seal on the deal was the introduction of stainless steel fermentation tanks in the 1980s, which led to higher quality, greater volume and ever more aggressive pricing due to the resulting economies of scale.

Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc are typically well-made single varietals - that is, 100% one grape variety, rather than a blend as in Bordeaux of say Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot - that are competitively priced, of predictable style and quality and that between them make a match for many a meal. 

Not that there wasn't a hiccup along the way to being ranked five on the chart of the world's major wine exporters. In fact there was something of a burp, if not a significant belch, of disbelief when it discovered all was not as it seemed.

Because two of the three varieties were imposters. Those early Sauvignon Blanc vines turned out to be hybrids of the two great Bordeaux white wine vines, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. 

And what of the great red grape of the right bank of Bordeaux, the  Merlot of St Emilion and Pomerol fame? 

Much Chilean Merlot turned out to be even more remarkable because it was made from an entirely different grape that was thought to be extinct. Carmenère is one of the ancient grapes of Bordeaux, presumed wiped out by the phylloxera louse sometime between 1867 and 1892.

Since 1998 Carmenère has been identified as such by Chile's wine regulators.  

This deeply coloured crimson red wine, often high in alcohol, may come with violet scents on the nose, and is distinctively and immediately spicy or smoky on the palate with flavours ranging through green capsicums to cherry to chocolate.

And it's the wine Chile has literally made its own. Even if for years, for generations, it was sold as Merlot. 

Nowadays what it says on the label should accurately describe the contents, whether Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Carmenère.

So when you're looking for an everyday wine that will cover many eventualities, you can do a lot worse than plump for Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Sauvignon Blanc from Chile. They are reliably made, offer predictable styles and flavours and good value for money.

But if you're looking at a shelf sign that says Chile and wondering which bottle has what to offer - and what tales it can tell - you need look no further than Carmenère.

The Wine Rules: 3: Chile does Bordeaux varietals well, but nobody else does Carmenère

Sunday, 14 March 2010

The Wine Rules: 2: If you want to drink Italian, think Italian

The Italians choose to disagree. 

About everything. They disagree about how big - or small - Italy should be. 

They disagree about who should run the country - they've had 61 governments since 1945 - worth checking at the bottom of the page in case this has changed as I write* and they disagree about who should run the country -  they've had 39 prime ministers since 1945. Again, worth checking if that's changed too**.

They disagree about which is the best football team and who should play for it. They disagree about how much they should bribe the referee.

They disagree about whether a Ferrari is better than a Lamborghini is better than a Maserati. (I've owned two of the three, the former and the latter, and go with the Maserati. Or the Ferrari.)

They disagree on their favourite variety of pasta. And variety is the operative word. Pasta comes in 158 shapes. Or is it 159? They include Scialatelli of Scilatielli. Or is it Scilatielli of Scialatelli? And there's casonsèi. Or is it Casoncelli?

You get my point. And the same applies to grapes. In common with most Old World wine nations, and many New World countries, every Italian region has its own wine styles. But it goes further than that. 

They have their own grapes too. And it's not like France, where Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon dominate the red wines of Bordeaux, while Chardonnay dominates the white wines of Burgundy. 

In Italy, that would never do. So while they do have their own take on the great claret blends in their Super Tuscans and also produce the excellent Gaja and Antinori Chardonnays, these varieties are foreign to Italy.   

And many Italian varieties are probably foreign to you and I. 

We are familiar of course with the great red wine grape Nebbiolo - it has given us two of the greatest of Italian red wines in Barolo and Barberesco. 

Sangiovese too is a household - well a wine-drinking-household - name, giving us both Brunello de Montalcino and ever-popular and highly-variable Chianti. What of Corvina? The air-dried raisin at the very heart of Amarone? Primitivo is the grape, probably originally Croatian, that many people may know only as Zinfandel.

Who has ever heard of Ciliegolo, Gaglioppo, Lagrein, Pignolo, Refosco, Schiava or Teroldego? The Italian government has approved more than 350 grape varieties for use in winemaking, and a further 500 are thought to be growing on Italian soil.

These 850-plus grapes are as distinctively regional as Italian football teams, and they demand - and command - the same loyalty from their local fans. Sagrantino is Umbrian. Nero d'Avola is the wine of Sicily. Negroamaro comes from Puglia. 

It is the sheer extent of these regional variations that makes this country's red wines some the most original, intriguing and subtle of the Old World.

Among white wines, nowadays Pinot Grigio is the grape most commonly associated with Italy - but like Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay it's a stranger in these parts. 

While old-fashioned Italian whites such as Lambrusco may be most familiar - and that familiarity has certainly bred contempt - the likes of Verdicchio, Garganega as exemplified in the improving Soave, Ribolla and Greco di Tufo all deserve the attention of fans from beyond their regional catchment areas, beyond Italian borders, and beyond the continental shelf, in exactly the same way as AC Milan and Juventus have scarf-wearing, flag-waving, screaming-at-the-TV supporters across Australia, America and Japan.

That is where you will find the joy of Italian wines. Beyond the seas of Chianti and Pinot Grigio that lap at our shores are a whole raft of delicate and deserving regional varietals that reward greater exploration. 

But almost whatever the wine, whichever the region and whoever you ask, this is where the one rule comes in, upon which virtually everybody associated with Italian wine can agree:

Wine takes second place on the menu, behind the food. There, I've said it.

Italian reds can be almost crunchy with tannin, deep and powerful on the palate, or robustly flavoursome in style - Negroamaro is sometimes translated as 'black and bitter' - while some whites can come across as highly acidic, nutty, even funky and fusty. 

As a result they need accompaniment. Italian wines have historically always been created to be enjoyed alongside food. If an Italian is eating he must be drinking. If an Italian is drinking, she must be eating. 

Think of the food you most commonly associate with the country and you may think of pasta, pizza, risotto - meals heavy with carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates, that need balancing acid or tannin.

Rich flavours dominate meals. Sausages, cooked meats like Parma ham and salami, ragu sauces, strong hard cheeses like Grana Padano, Parmigiano; salty Tallegio and Pecorino, or powerful blues like Gorgonzola. 

That's the clue to choosing an Italian wine. What are you going to be eating? 

Because, if the answer is 'nothing' - then slide along a shelf or two to the wines of another country and avoid breaking Wine Rule Number 2: If you want to drink Italian, think Italian.

Or, to paraphrase St. Ambrose, When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

*No it hasn't.


© 2011 John Alexander