Thursday, February 9, 2012

liking to go down (under)

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2009 Hunter's Pinot Noir | Marlborough

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2009 Wakefield Chardonnay | Clare Valley

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2011 Jim Barry The Lodge Hill Dry Riesling | Clare Valley

I don't care much for the down under. Australians (and their wines) have a certain reputation in North America. Yellowtail and other junk notwithstanding, you get the distinct sense talking to an Australian that no sky is bluer, no grass is greener, no place closer to paradise than being down under. They're great people, they're great people, but your country is a 24 hour flight from anywhere and 2/3 of your land is described as "useless".

Even though I have family there, I've never been to Australia, much less New Zealand. And as for Australia at least, I have no interest in visiting, not even for a look. My feelings for their wines maybe cloud my judgement, but really, if I'm going to subject myself to ~30 hours of travel, there better be a fucking pot of gold at the end of it. And kangaroos and sheep hardly get the pulse racing. NZ on the other hand, sounds absolutely amazing . . .

One of my favourite uncles is going to Australia very soon. I hope he enjoys himself. It's a relatively shorter flight from Shanghai to Melbourne - what they're going to be doing there for the next month or so is less certain. It's almost ironic, but I feel more of a foreigner going back to Mainland China than I do anywhere else. As long as I'm in a place where English is reasonably accepted. China, or rather, Shanghai is a problem because apparently, I can't speak Shanghainese in my city anymore. Everywhere I turn, I see some hick who barely speaks passable Mandarin, much less my language, claiming to be a local. It doesn't work like that. It's cool you like my city so much, it's cool you're the thas wassup, but no, being old Shanghai has to be in your blood. Anyways. My uncle's going to Australia. I wish him a lot of fun, and I hope he drinks a lot of wine.

I want to see New Zealand. First, for the wines, and second, to walk the LOTR trail to Mordor. Wild land, great seafood, fabulous wines . . . suddenly the long, long flight seems completely worthwhile. And not much more can be said about Jane Hunter's wines. An amazing story, and clearly an amazing woman who, in my opinion, consistently produces some of the most exciting wines out of Marlborough. I've drunk a few vintages of her pinot noirs, and each has been delicious. Distinctive, varietal wines that oddly, remind me of the best Niagara pinot noirs - lots of similarities in the character (and style) of the wines of both regions. The 2009 here is no different. Lean, but precise and defined. Pure fruit, some spice, really, really delicious. Cool climate pinot noir, but with beautiful fruit expression.

Everytime I drink a wine from Clare Valley, I'm reminded that I need to give Australian wines a serious look. Balanced wines that actually taste of the varietal, that offer true excitement. A world away from the clownish shit from the rest of the country. Clare Valley is one of the oldest wine producing regions in the country. Settled in the 1840s and named after County Clare in Ireland, Jesuit priests fleeing religious persecution in Silesia (now part of Poland) planted the first vines in 1851. Geographically, the region lies in the mid-north of South Australia, about 120 km north of Adelaide and an hour's drive west of the Barossa Valley. Clare Valley comprises five sub-regions; Sevenhill, Clare, Watervale, Polish Hill River, and Auburn. These sub-regions are reflective of the different interweaving valleys and creek-beds, and thus the differences in soil-type, altitude and climate. The west-facing, higher altitude vineyards are reputed to produce the finest wines. Along with a moderately continental climate, the higher altitude provides cool nights allowing the fruit to ripen more evenly and slowly.

Riesling is the dominant varietal here - truly world class in expression. They're long lived wines, with many demanding anywhere from 5 to 10 years of bottle age to fully open up. Towards the turn of the last century, a collaboration of local winemakers saw all Clare Valley Rieslings put under Stelvin screwcap seals to minimise any chances of defect.

Although much has been written about the climate of this region, in many ways it is difficult to reconcile with its wine styles. Its weather data point to a far warmer climate than is the case; cool afternoon breezes are the key and play a major role in slowing down the ripening process. Furthermore, altitude and position within the Valley as well as aspect all lead to considerable variations in individual site climate. Overall, however, the climate is moderately continental, with cool to cold nights and warm to hot summer days; average summer temperatures hover around 29°C, whereas the opposite is usual for winter. An average rainfall of 632mm and an average winter temperature of 13° mean that Clare Valley is one of mainland Australia's coolest wine regions. The soils vary, from red to brown grey in colour, and with significant limestone sub-soil content, particularly in the more southerly subregions. The harvest begins in early March and finishes, typically, with riesling coming in last in late April.

With this type of terroir, there's no reason why other varietals wouldn't be successful - chardonnay, cabernet, and my goodness, possibly a syrah (sorry, shiraz) out of Australia that actually tastes like syrah. The chardonnay here - wonderful. Instantly recognizable chardonnay, that creamy citrus fruit. Good amounts of ripeness, with just a kiss of oak. Balanced, with alcohol, acid, and fruit achieving great integration. Fabulous. And the Jim Barry riesling; OH MY GOD. Incredible. Lean and mineral, zippy citrus. High acid, with an almost perfect amount of dry extract on the palate. Long, and very ageworthy in style. True riesling, that perfect balance between traditional minerality and structure, and new world purity of fruit. A beauty.

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