Australian wines catch summertime in a bottle

VINTAGE POINT

January 11, 1995|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

Think warm thoughts, people keep telling you this time of year. Think warm thoughts, they say, as if that's going to help dig your car out of the snow.

Very well, here's a thought for wine drinkers: Let's blow this crummy Northern Hemisphere and head for Australia, even if only in our minds.

From frigid France to the frostbitten Finger Lakes, the vineyards of Europe and America are cold and barren. But in Australia, the vines are lush and green. Vineyard workers swelter under blue summer skies, repairing the fences that will keep the kangaroos from devouring the plump clusters of ripening grapes as vintage time draws near.

Relatively few American wine drinkers will get the chance to taste the delights of an actual Australian summer this winter. The rest of us will have to savor its warmth in liquid form. Fortunately, the Australians are generous with their exports.

Australia is justly well-regarded for its cabernet sauvignons and chardonnays, while connoisseurs rave about the country's exquisite fortified dessert wines. But the quintessential Australian wine varietal is shiraz, the country's most widely planted red wine grape.

In many ways, shiraz is to Australia what zinfandel is to California. Until the last decade or two, both were widely regarded as second-class wine varietals, living in the shadow of their aristocratic cousin Cabernet. They were the workhorse grapes of their respective regions, often playing an anonymous role in cheap jug wines.

There are also stylistic similarities. Both are capable of producing full-bodied, flavorful red wines with admirable structure and intensity. Both shiraz and zinfandel tend to produce plump, earthy wines that do not demand extensive cellaring to show their charms.

The biggest difference between the two is pedigree. Zinfandel was a foundling grape whose European origins remained murky for years before scientists brought Italy's primitivo grape up on a paternity rap. Shiraz, on the other hand, is a migrant aristocrat, known in France as the syrah grape of the Rhone Valley.

While syrah and shiraz -- a name drawn from the ancient capital of Persia -- are identical twins by nature, nurture has given them far different personalities. In the warmer climate of Australia, the grapes become riper and sweeter. The resulting wines are often less tannic but more rustic. The characteristic nuances of a great French syrah are raspberries and spice; a typical Australian shiraz is more likely to display flavors of blackberries and chocolate.

But Australian shiraz cannot be dismissed as just the ne'er-do-well brother of syrah. When properly cultivated, it can yield monumental wines. It is the predominant grape in Penfold's Grange, a rare and expensive (about $80) wine that is the peer of the finest chateaux in Bordeaux.

There's only one Grange, but many Australian producers are treating shiraz with just as much respect as they do cabernet. The result is a bevy of fine red wines, some dauntingly expensive but others priced quite reasonably.

Mitchelton, one of the greatest wineries in Australia, produces both. At the high end, about $25, it has produced a 1992 "Print Label" Victorian Shiraz of exceptional concentration and complexity. This wine, which draws on aboriginal art for its beautiful label, lives up to its packaging with intense, layers flavors of blackberry, chocolate and spices. It's excellent now, but should repay a decade or more of cellaring.

The 1992 Mitchelton III Rouge ($13), a blend made up of 93 percent shiraz and a dollop of grenache and mourvedre, is more in the style of Chateauneuf-du-Pape than your typical Australian shiraz. Its intense raspberry-blackberry flavors combine with nuances of coffee, chocolate and herbs to yield a complex wine that needs at least five years to open up. Supplies are limited.

Much easier to find is Mitchelton's basic $10 bottling of Southeastern Australian shiraz. A classic it's not, but this smooth, medium-bodied wine delivers excellent value.

If you were to pick one wine that most exuberantly proclaimed the spirit of Australian shiraz, it could well be the 1992 Peter Lehmann Barossa Valley Shiraz. For $9, this full, creamy-rich, chocolately wine delivers a ton of fruit. There's nothing subtle or chic about it -- just a blackberry bomb going off in your face.

For a radically different interpretation, adventurous tasters might want to try the 1990 Wolf Blass South Australian Shiraz ($16). This is a wine for people who adore the flavor of new oak barrels. It's a bit of a Johnny One-Note at this stage, but there's a wealth of sweet fruit that will ultimately subdue the wood and yield a complex, claret-like wine.

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