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Vines & Vittles: Vinous goodies from Down Under

Photo by John Brown
The Laughing Magpie, from Australian winemaker d’Arenberg, is a blend of shiraz and viognier — a white wine.

In the last few years, Australia has experienced a decrease in export wine sales due to, among other things, the recent worldwide recession, an oversupply of wines in the American marketplace and overproduction of wines from Down Under.

Yet, with all these difficulties, many Americans — including yours truly — still love the tremendous variety, value and quality of Australian wines.

As a young man a few decades back, I spent a week Down Under courtesy of the U.S. Army. What I remember of that R&R week in Sydney is a bit fuzzy, but one aspect of Australian life was crystal clear: Those folks liked their adult beverages!

While my beverage of choice that week was beer — which came in 10W-40-like cans or served in large draft mugs called “schooners” — years later I came to appreciate another consumable liquid ably produced by the Aussies: wine.

Over the last 25 years, I have seen the Australian wine market grow from a few recognizable quality brands like Penfolds, to hundreds of excellent wineries from several growing regions in that vast country.

The Barossa Valley, in southeastern Australia, is the most prestigious wine region and, meteorologically speaking, is very much like Northern California with vintages that are consistently good.

While Australia is known mainly for its shiraz (which the rest of the world calls syrah), Aussie winemakers also produce excellent cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, Riesling, semillon and grenache. I also like the Australian penchant for blending different varieties of grapes into wine.

I’ve often wondered if the cultural diversity of Australia has played a role in the ubiquitous practice by many of their winemakers to blend. Whatever the reason, I’m glad they continue to do so because the resulting wines are not only very good, they provide complex tasting experiences.

Just the other night I opened a bottle of d’Arenberg’s The Laughing Magpie 2002, a blend of shiraz with 10 percent viognier — a white wine. Adding the viognier gave the blend a more lively and refreshing mouth feel yet did not take detract from exceptional way the wine complemented the grilled strip steak with which it was paired.

In addition to The Laughing Magpie, which retails for about $30 a bottle, d’Arenberg has a whole stable of very good wines that go by some strange and humorous names, including The Lucky Lizard Chardonnay, Dead Arm Shiraz and The Hermit Crab Viognier, just to name a few.

Try the old-vine grenache from d’Arenberg called The Custodian. At under $20 a bottle, this wine is from ancient vines — some more than 100 years old — and yet it is soft, approachable and full of spicy blueberry flavors. It would be a wonderful accompaniment to grilled beef ribs in a tomato-based barbecue sauce.

The Hermit Crab ($15), which is a Rhônelike blend of viognier and marsanne, is well balanced and chock-full of ripe pear flavors with a pronounced minerality. It’s great as a porch-sipper or with lighter fish dishes such as flounder sauced with lemon and butter.

Another of my favorite shirazes is one produced by Torbreck called The Woodcutter’s Red ($25). This is a spicy, elegant wine with hints of blackberries that is pulled together by excellent balancing acidity. Grilled salmon with a Southwest seasoning would be a good choice with the Woodcutter’s.

In Australia, semillon (which sometimes is blended with chardonnay or sauvignon blanc) is made in a full-bodied and rich style, yet it has a mineral quality that allows it to go quite well with oysters on the half shell as well as pasta dishes, especially sauced with a basil pesto. Try the semillon from Simon Hackett, Rosemount and Peter Lehmann, all of which retail for under $25 a bottle.

Riesling also is a good choice from Down Under, and the following wines are very reasonably priced: Pikes Clare Valley Riesling, Wolf Blass Adelaide Gold and Grant Burge. Slightly sweet, these are great aperitif wines or good matches to lighter foods like seafood salads or brunch grub such as omelets.

So go Down Under for some seriously good wines.

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