Thursday, December 30, 2010

Back in Canberra

Blog services to resume shortly, having had a brief break for the season over in Adelaide. If ever a place glad to visit, chuffed to leave and ecstatic not to live there...

That said, there were some good finds on the trip, some Italian, some wine, some just good:
- Espresso Royale on Magill Road. By a flying mile the best coffee I've ever had in Adelaide. Roast, ground and made on site by people who know coffee. Drove there twice in two days before they closed down for three weeks.
- Around Espresso Royale is a bit of a Magill Road cluster of good businesses trading in organic produce, including a bunch of organic nonnas knocking out excellent handmade pasta, plus a good organic butcher. Double cut tbone for bistecca, and very fine ham.
- Cheese diversity & quality at the Central Markets is looking up. The Smelly Cheese Shop had crowds three deep for some excellent cheeses (candied cumquats also excellent). And a very good Assam laksa from the Malaysian stand.
- Melt restaurant looked like it still needed to settle into the Italian-Spanish mix/fusion thing, but the highlights (including some of the pizzas) were having me second-guess my expectation of Adelaide food disappointment.

On the way over to Adelaide, ducked in to Tahbilk at Nagambie and a brief stop in Heathcote. Aside from the strangeness of seeing the wetlands at Tahbilk very wet, their 2010 riesling was a real surprise and worth an on the spot six pack buy.

Heathcote was an even bigger surprise. My impressions had been of a red-wine and French-variety focussed (even obsessed) region - a lot of big reds carrying more heat than needed and in a fairly narrow stylistic vein. I now think I need to go back for a proper look. The Heathcote Cellar & Store, with an ex-Hardy's viti manager on the floor, is a good showcase for the region. The number and diversity of non-French vines and wines really surprised me, especially sangiovese, nebbiolo and tempranillo. And when the local showcase is confident enough to run a month featuring Spanish wines (mainly imports), and local winemakers (Sanguine Estate) drop in with wines left-over from a tasting, you know some things are working right for a region. A trip back after vintage is in order, I reckon.

And Australian wines from Italian varieties from the trip? Vermentino is starting to appear more in wine lists, including in Adelaide (such as the Serafino vermentino, which acquitted itself better than some fairly dire greek food on Rundell St). At dinner last night at Stefano's in Mildura, the 2009 Chalmers fiano went very well with a simple fried squid dish - gentle phenolics and a nut skin character on the finish adding interest to the wine.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Italian & Australian sparkling reds

While I think of sparkling reds, especially sparkling shiraz, as one of the distinctly-Australian gifts to wine, there are Italian red bubbles as well. This week, I did a tasting organised by the Canberra District Vigneron's Association of 16 sparkling reds, with an Italian in the mix.

Before the tasting, sparkling red winemaker Damien Cofield (Cofield Wines in Rutherglen) talked about the history, characteristics, techniques, challenges and diversity of the sparkling red category.

The tasting was done in three brackets, with the tasters knowing what wines were in each bracket but not which glass (single blind tasting). Small tasting glasses were used rather than flutes. Prices are what the organisers paid at retail. The alcohols should be read as highly questionable on many of the wines, or the products of some serious intervention. The notes are as I took them at the time.

Bracket one

1. Ulithorne Flamma sparkling shiraz NV, McLaren Vale, 13% alc., $29.95.

- Boot polish, clear bottle age, some leather, prickle of something wild/feral, earthy, mulchy smells. Cloves, purple fruits. Brett. Nice creamy bit of texture. Slightly sickly sweet but also dried out finish. Decent length.

2. Chandon sparkling pinot/shiraz NV, Victoria, 14% alc., $22.90.
- Pongy in pond style. Brett? Crisp fruits and acid. Creamy texture. Nice lingering finish. Colour showing some age. Evident tannin.

3. Lini 910 sparkling lambrusco rosso NV, Emilia-Romagna, 11%, $24.95.
- Interesting sweet red fruits. Italian? Aromatic. Looks cool climate. Crisp, dry palate. Real contrast to proceeding sweeter wines. Crunchy. Lots of interest here. Flavours of stalks, stems, pips, and a bit of green tannin. Charmat?

4. Ashton Hills 2002 sparkling shiraz, Clare Valley, 13%, $58.
- Subdued, dusty nose. Some red cherries, mulberry. Dullish at edge. Strange disjointed palate and line. Confected notes combine with olives. Leather through finish. Lightest colour of bracket. Medicinal notes.

5. Robert Stein, sparkling shiraz brut NV, Mudgee, 13%, $22.95.
- Herbal and tobacco smells. Most persistent mousse of bracket. Tastes like there is some cabernet/merlot in the base wine. Aged elements, but also some brisker, livelier notes. Not sure about the sweet finish.

Bracket two

6. Cofield sparkling shiraz 2006, Rutherglen, 14%, $28.

- Roughish bubbles, drying texture. Not sure about fruit stripping by brett. Oxidised. Not keen (but liked by group).

7. Quarry Hill 2006 sparkling shiraz, Canberra, 14.5%, $25.
- Nice to smell. Brisk and bright purple. Fine mousse with persistence. Dry. Good length. Has crust.

8. Rumball SB18 sparkling shiraz NV, Coonawarra, 12.5%, $19.50.
- Clove. Pepper. Mulchy. Light. Older. Brett. Leather. Too sweet. Lacks weight and intensity.

9. Moppity Vineyards Hilltops Reserve sparkling shiraz NV, 13.5%, $42.50.

- Crisp, red/purple fruits. Somewhat aggressive bubbles. Nice lift (viognier). Complexity and freshness. Length. Lip smacking. Nice wine.

10. Mount Langhi Ghiran Cliff Edge sparkling shiraz NV, Grampians, 14.5%, $35.
- Mouthfilling rush of bubbles. Drying, evident tannin. Almost burg-ish in being mid-weight but intense. Purple fruits, savoury notes. Bit of creamy texture.

11. Morris sparkling shiraz/durif NV, Rutherglen, 13.5%, $15.30.
- Lighter than #7 and #10 above. Bubbles and acid a bit rough. Young? Lighter, drying, tannic. Not sure has old bones. Good length.

Bracket three

12. E&E Black Pepper sparkling shiraz 2004, Barossa Valley, 14%, $53.50.

- Nice smells. Fruit, leather, cloves. Popcorn and tamales. Drying finish, good length. Nice ripe tannins. Big and sweet. Touch of sweet/sour going on, but some savoury (near salty) notes. Dried herb. E&E?

13. Primo Estate Joseph sparkling red NV, shiraz/cabernet/fortified, McLaren Vale, 13.5%, $61.20.
- Slightly smoky smells. Cherry, leather. Complex. Funk. Age. Joseph?

14. Leasingham Classic Clare sparkling shiraz 1996, Clare Valley, 14.5%, $50.
- Rush of peppery fruit. Classy. Grilled meats, game. Castagna? Jangled on second look a bit. Hints of grippy tannin not 100% ripe.

15. Craiglee sparkling shiraz NV?, Sunbury/Geelong, no details on alcohol or price.
- Good spice. Slightly dropping colour at the edge. Leasingham? Nice, direct nose. Complex, layered palate. Length, layers, great integration on finish. Bit too sweet.

16. Castagna sparkling genesis syrah viognier 2005, Beechworth, 13.5%, $110 ($75 ex winery).
- Great colour. Bright, vibrant purple. Fine bead. Persistent mousse. Classy. Smooth, creamy textures. Age and lees time? Maybe just too much bubbles at the moment. Has some confected, candy/jube notes, but not distractingly so. Craiglee?

So what did I get out of the tasting?

- There are some good sparkling reds out there, across a range of price points, including wines that are not over-sweet.
- The lambrusco was my favourite wine of the first bracket. It stood out from the others for its different profile of grape and gamey flavours. Most of the tasters did not like it at all.
- The category could really do with some more ethical transparency and better information for consumers. Labels should disclose accurate alcohols and residual sugar. NV wines should have a date of disgorgement to allow reviewers, stockists and consumers to identify batches.
- I was very pleasantly surprised to see how popular the 2006 Quarry Hill sparkling shiraz was with the tasters. This sounds a little silly, but I couldn't pick it blind because the wine I first thought it was looked too good to be ours (and it was ours).
- There were disappointments, such as the 2002 Ashton Hills and the Rumball, and wines I loved that most other tasters did not (the lambrusco, the Primo Estate Joseph). It made me wonder if the challenge of the category is that it is both a boundary-crosser and within it there are so many stylistic options that even interested consumers can trip up or have very different preferences.
- Brettanomyces is still an issue in the category, driven by both poor handling of old oak and the need to drop sulfur during the secondary ferment. Better barrel hygiene and more use of filtration could help, as would a willingness to let the wines see some younger oak.
- Too many of the wines lacked attractive, lifted aromatics. To me, this dimension of the style is often neglected, including at the point of making decisions about the expedition liqueur.

I enjoy, and buy, quite a bit of sparkling red. I suggest the category needs more focus (like rose, why make it as an afterthought, with lower quality or surplus fruit? Why not plan to make it, with dedicated fruit managed appropriately?). There is too much fear of tannin, of new oak character and of dryness. Wines are over-sweetened, with high dosage adding 1% or even 1.5% alcohol to base wines that are already north of 13.5% (unless intervened with through dilution or alcohol removal). Yes, chilling brings out oak and tannins, and some sweetness helps to balance, but more sugar does not make more balance.

But it is good to know there are decent sparkling reds out there for not just the Christmas season.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Under-rated things: fresh pasta, fresh pesto & Barossa semillon

Some nights, some dinners, are good reminders of how much pleasure there are in simple foods and under-rated wines. Fresh pasta is an easy and fast thing to make, once you have the hang of it. I work on 100g flour and one egg per person, whizzing the ball of dough together in the food processor, resting it in the fridge for 20 minutes, then putting through my simple pasta machine for kneading and cutting. This time, fettuccine (with some extra egg yolks snuck in). While the water for the pasta is coming up to the boil, make simple pesto: a bunch of basil, 75g or so of pinenuts, garlic all into the blender, whiz while adding olive oil, finish it off with grated parmesan and any salt you need.

Cook the fresh pasta quickly in the biggest pot you have (I use an 11 litre stock pot for most pasta), drain not quite completely and mix in the fresh pesto (off the heat - direct heat is pesto kryptonite). A bit more cheese if you wish, and some flaked salt are all you need for serving. Oh, and a glass of something similarly under-rated, like a 2006 Rockfords Growers Semillon (Barossa Valley). Still acid line to show, but age in the colour and palate weight, plus attractive lemon and butter smells. Goes well with the nuts and cheese in the sauce, with enough weight to match, yet acid to cut, freshen and agree with the light freshness of the home-made fettuccine.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Importer profile - Andrew Guard Wine Imports

This is the fifth in a series of profiles on importers of Italian wines into Australia. Today, Andrew Guard of Andrew Guard Wine Imports, is providing the answers. You can find their website here.

Q1 What is your business?
- I am an importer and wholesaler of fine wine.

Q2 How long have you been importing Italian wines into Australia?
- I have been importing Italian wines here for 1 year and French wines for three.

Q3 How did your interest in Italian wines start?
- Someone poured me a Boscarelli Vino Nobile a long time ago that I loved and I’ve been on a voyage of discovery since.

Q4 What kind of Italian wines do you focus on in your portfolio and why?
- At this stage Piedmont is the region that I have chosen to specialise in and purely because it produces the Italian wines that I love most.

Q5 What Italian wines sell well out of your portfolio at the moment?
- Dolcetto, Barbera and also Nebbiolo d’Alba – the market is still a little fragile for Barolo!

Q6 What Italian wines do you find hardest to sell in Australia?
- Within my little business I find Cru Barolo hardest but that is only due to price.

Q7 What do you think is the place of Italian wines in Australia, and is this changing?
- Due to the large Italian migrant population in Australia; Italian wine is ubiquitous and the many Italian restaurants we have proudly serve and promote them. I think there is a friendliness and a romance that surrounds the image of Italy that has helped Italian wines gain broad appeal and this will continue – the future is very bright.

Q8 Recent years have seen significant increases in the number and diversity of Australian wines made from Italian grape varieties. What are your thoughts on Australian wines made from Italian varieties?
- There have been some OK ones but on the whole I think the wrong varieties have been planted in the wrong area – the best yet to come.

Q9 Greatest Italian wine moment?
- Finding my first bottle of Trebbiano d’Abruzzo by Valentini and then drinking it with a good friend, smiles all round.

Q10 What Italian wines are you most likely to drink at home?
- I have always loved Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi and Vernaccia di San Gimignano for drinking around the house and with casual meals and for red wines I like high quality Barbera d’Alba and Valpolicella.

Australian wine, Italian food

A couple of worthwhile matches of Italian food and Australian wine from the past week:

1. Spaghetti with a sauce of speck, braised onion, rosemary, a little fresh tomato, and just-picked harvest of home-grown broad beans and peas. A 2009 Kay Brothers McLaren Vale grenache had an inky character that went well with the speck, onion and rosemary in the braise, and allowed the sweetness of the vegetables to come through.

2. 2005 Williams Crossing pinot noir (the Curly Flat second label) with double-peeled broad beans smashed up with olive oil, mint, salt and parmesan. Spread on grilled sourdough bread you have wiped over with a cut clove of fresh garlic. The sweet and salty in the food brought out the clean, refreshing acid of the wine, with the developed, just-mushroom characters doing well with the char on the bread.

Simple stuff, but reinforced to me the fit between honest Italian food and the diversity of Australian wine.