By Bill St. John, Special to Tribune Newspapers
January 30, 2013
We once lauded Australian wines for being what the English call "cheap and cheerful."
Behemoth winemakers assembled these wines, aiming at a preset style (genial, fruity, glug-able), from grapes grown in vineyards often miles apart. They printed little critters on the labels. We lapped up lakes' worth.
In recent years, that market failed, except at the cheapest and least cheerful end. What we want now from Australian wine is the same thing that we seek in wine from other countries: less style, more substance. We want wine that captures a sense of place; small places such as vineyards and appellations, not mammoth spaces such as "South Australia."
More and more Aussie wines come to us now labeled with growing districts such as Barossa or Clare Valley, and we've been learning and appreciating what each district can offer.
My own best lessons about Australian appellations have come by way of the wines of Two Hands, especially its Garden Series, six shiraz-based wines (each $60-$70 a bottle) from six distinct growing districts scattered throughout the southern portion of the continent. Each is idiosyncratic; each speaks in its vineyard's voice.
Even more helpful is to hear that same voice in other wineries' wines from the same area. Here's a quick tour of the six areas through their wines — a bit like hitting Florence, Rome and Venice in a week, but a fruitful trip nonetheless.
2010 Two Hands Shiraz Bella's Garden Barossa Valley:
Barossa is the Napa of Australia: Its red wines sport gobs of fruit upfront, followed by silky texture riding on fine tannin. Shiraz, then, is like syrah from the northern Rhone, dense but plush. For all the concentration, the final impression is surprisingly soft. Find the same polish in the 2010 Nine Stones Barossa Shiraz ($15); the same open-knit fruit in the 2011 Running with Bulls Barossa Tempranillo ($15).
2010 Two Hands Shiraz Samantha's Garden Clare Valley:
The Clare resembles California's Santa Barbara County; coastal vineyards face away from late daylight, so they are both sunny and cool. Red fruit rules, both in aromas and flavors, and Two Hands lets the prettiness shine by aging in used oak only. As a result, the shiraz is many layered, with a flickering, cooling note of menthol.
The cooling breezes of the Clare also give good boost to white grape varieties; the region is famed for its riesling. See that in the 2011 Angove Riesling Vineyard Select Clare Valley ($20) and its notable spine of acidity tightening up its fresh, citrusy verve.
2010 Two Hands Shiraz Harry and Edward's Garden Langhorne Creek:
Reds from here resemble those of eastern Washington state: honest, darkly pigmented, silky textured. The tannins are sweet; the fruit accented by vapors of eucalyptus and black pepper. Shiraz is above all superengaging to the nose, the kind of wine you "drink in" even more with your nostrils than your mouth.
2010 Two Hands Shiraz Lily's Garden McLaren Vale:
Here's Australia's Sonoma: cool coast, warmish interior. Reds sing with buoyant, even boisterous, fruit, in-your-face aromas and tastes of cherry and red currant flecked with whispers of mocha and chocolate. Tannins are sweet; finishes, long. Here, shiraz has movement and energy, something a wine can actually do from time to time.
See the same liveliness in the 2010 Nine Stones Shiraz McLaren Vale ($15) and the terrific 2009 Dandelion Shiraz-Riesling Lion's Tooth McLaren Vale ($25). These wines don't just taste delicious, they somehow act it.
2010 Two Hands Shiraz Sophie's Garden Padthaway:
A most interesting district for shiraz and other red grapes. A Jekyll-and-Hyde climate combines cool-climate red fruit "pop" in aroma — what the Australians call "lift" — and warm-climate flavors, texture and tannin. It's like smelling pinot noir and swallowing cabernet sauvignon. With shiraz, the density doesn't merely roll through the palate, it roils through it. Of all Two Hands' Garden shiraz wines, to me this has the most personality and character.
2010 Two Hands Max's Garden Heathcote:
Consider this growing region the Monterey of Australia, a sunny vineyard cooled by stiff breezes that wend their way over some of the oldest soils on the planet. As a result, red wines sport a lot of spark from (what's rare for a red wine) tangy acidity. Shiraz is fresh and vibrant, with more of that appreciated "lift" in the fruit, fine tannin and lengthy finish.
In Heathcote, you will find blueberry and pomegranate aromas overlaying an expected red fruit core of flavor. And that old dirt may indeed donate a certain minerally, crushed-rock afternote. This is a fresh, lively version of Australian shiraz, with a lot going on after the swallow.
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
Bill St. John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 30 years.
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