Sunday, 9 October 2011

Rugby World Cup Semi Final Wine: Australia vs New Zealand

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 white wines that truly represent their 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. 

New Zealand’s most celebrated wine couldn’t be more different.

New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc first hit the headlines in 1977 – ten years before the All-Blacks won the inaugural Rugby World Cup, a trophy that has since inexplicably eluded them.

Yet, as with rugby, New Zealand has taken something from the Old World and somehow made it better in every way. 

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is unarguably a modern classic – a brilliant evolution, revolution, of an Old World variety. Like New Zealand rugby it’s sharp and clean and consistent and its complex flavours are so overwhelming and powerful that at times you just don’t know what’s hit you.

Time was we couldn't get enough of the stuff, but as with so much in life, and as with Australian Chardonnay, familiarity breeds contempt. Not another NZSB. Not another haka. Not another brilliant outside half. Nicky Allen, Grant Fox, Dan Carter. Enough already.

Maybe we’ve had too much of a good thing. A few years back UK supermarkets would carry a single entry level Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc. Then there were two. We learned to look out for the Marlborough variety, and we usually found the original pioneer, Montana. Now we see three or four, not just labelled Marlborough but also Wairau Valley.  

There have been a couple of sniffy articles in the press. Even Cloudy Bay has not been immune. Soon the fashionistas will jump on this bandwagon too. The snobs that ganged up to form the ABC club will be circling round New Zealand's finest export – Dame Kiri Te Kenawa and Hayley Westernra not withstanding – with the same opportunistic glint in their eyes, looking for the chance to sneer, to be seen to be the champion of the next big thing.

My advice is to have nothing to do with it.

Oz Clarke, whose palate is the envy of many a Master of Wine, has suggested New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is the best in the world. It probably is.

Even everyday easy drinking examples can open up with fragrant herbaceous scents, offer weight on the palate and be fruit packed with zingy and zesty lemons and limes.

As you climb the premium ladder the flavours intensify with fresh green capsicums, elderflowers, rich gooseberries, guava, mango, and ripe, heady and pungent asparagus. It is delicious stuff.

New Zealand took something subtle and tricky and unpredictable and made it powerful and distinctive and unbeatable.

Now I can’t remember if I’m talking about the grape or the sport.

Australia lost to Ireland in their group game and no beaten team has ever won the Rugby World Cup.

A draw at full time. Say, Australia 23 New Zealand 23

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© 2011 John Alexander