Wild Aussie wines hold pleasures for every palate


January 25, 1995|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Sun Staff Writer

Australian wines are for the adventurous. More than those of any major wine-producing country, they seem to lurch from gross to grand in the flicker of a wombat's eyelash.

It is especially so with dry white wines. Reds have their protective cloak of color and tannin, dessert wines can mask flaws with sugar and alcohol, but any vulgarity in white wine stands out like Ayre's Rock rising above the outback.

Take, for example, one recent encounter with an Australian chardonnay, in this case a single-vineyard 1993 from the well-known Lindemans winery.

With one whiff, my memory banks were thrown back to Napa Valley in the 1970s, when winemakers dueled to see who could make the biggest, most buttery, most outlandish chardonnay on the planet.

This throwback wine came disco-ing across my palate like a lumberjack in a tutu. Nothing was in proportion. There was too much oak, too much alcohol and too much fruit for its own good. It was neither good nor bad. It was funny wine -- not as in "tastes funny" but comical, as in a theoretical "Monty Python's Saturday Night Fever."

But now let's consider the other face of Australian white wine -- the 1993 Rosemount Estate Show Reserve Chardonnay from the Hunter Valley ($17).

Here we have a turbocharged Porsche of a chardonnay, no less ripe and forceful than the Lindemans but with sleek lines and perfect balance. The flavors are sweet oak, baked apple, nuts, butter -- essentially the same flavors as the earlier wine but woven together in perfect balance. It's a classic chardonnay, comparable to many wines at three times the price.

Most Australian white wines fall somewhere between the sublime and the ludicrous, of course. But whenever you try a strange Aussie blanc, you run a good chance of encountering one or the other.

Chardonnay is Australia's most important white wine grape, as it is in virtually every New World wine region from Chile to Long Island. Like California chardonnay, the Australian version tends to soak up lots of sun and develop a fruit basket full of flavor.

Another important varietal in Australia, playing a much more prominent role there than in California, is the semillon grape of Bordeaux. On its own, dry semillon can reach astonishing heights Down Under, but it also plays an important role in blends.Value-minded consumers should find Australian semillon especially intriguing.

Sauvignon blanc, semillon's traditional blending partner, can produce very fine wines in Australia, but it seldom rises to the level of the best semillons. Most should be drunk young and fresh, without elevated expectations. California has the edge here.

A sleeper in the Australian mix is marsanne, one of the finer white wine grapes of the Rhone Valley. An intensely aromatic and flavorful wine that stands up to spicy food well, it is a rising star among the world's grape varieties.

Australia also has a smattering of dry rieslings and gewurztraminers, but they aren't a big factor in the market economically or aesthetically. Any taster can comfortably stick to the big four.

There are some premium-priced Australian whites, but most of the action is in the $6-$12 range, and the number of fine values is impressive. By far the most important factor is not the varietal or the year, but the identity of the producer.

There are some that deserve special mention. Peter Lehmann is an astonishingly reliable producer. Mitchelton can soar to the heights, and is a strikingly innovative winery. Rosemount Estate often does a good job with its less-expensive wines.

The regional names on Australian whites are often meaningless. Most of the less-expensive wines carry a Southeastern Australia appellation, which includes the three states of Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales. That excuses only a tiny percentage of the nation's wines made in Western Australia and Tasmania, as well as a few stray plantings in subtropical Queensland.

Among the Australian whites in recent tastings, the Rosemount Estate Show Reserve was in a class by itself, but there was a formidable second tier.

The 1994 Wolf Blass South Australian Barrel Fermented Chardonnay ($12) is an exceptionally fresh, yeasty and apple-flavored wine with hints of butterscotch and well-integrated oak. It's a wine to be savored, but not for ages. Drink it up before 1997 dawns.

It's hard to pick a winner between the 1993 Victorian Chardonnay from Mitchelton and the 1993 Barossa Valley chardonnay Peter Lehmann.

The Lehmann is an exotic wine whose coconut, litchi and tropical fruit flavors resemble a viognier from the Rhone Valley or California except for the telltale oak. It's an exuberant wine that should match up with full-flavored foods.

The Mitchelton, on the other hand, is a paragon of restraint and nuance, with medium body and an intensity of flavor that outdoes its frame. This would be more appropriate with an unadorned salmon dish.

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