Top Shelf Wines from Down Under

Back in October 2002, Maureen and I attended the inaugural Vinexpo Americas trade show that was held in New York at the Javits Center on Manhattan's West Side. Vinexpo Americas was an offshoot of the massive Vinexpo Bordeaux show, which is held every two years in Bordeaux (the next Vinexpo show in Bordeaux will be held in June 2015). The decision to hold a Vinexpo show in New York was made before the tragic September 11 events of 2001, but the terrorist attacks strengthened the resolve of the show organizers to show support for the wine trade in New York and the Americas. The show was an unqualified success, attracting over 10,000 importers, distributors, retailers and other wine professionals, as well as 500 journalists, to meet and do business with 600 exhibiting wine producers from around the world.

For us, Vinexpo Americas provided a unique opportunity to taste exceptional wines from parts of the world we haven't visited (yet), with one of the most prominent being Australia.

Superb Shiraz from Penfolds

One of the tasting sessions I attended at Vinexpo Americas was ďPremium Shiraz from Australia,Ē sponsored by Australian wine giant Southcorp, which was acquired in 2005 by brewing giant Foster's Group. The tasting featured seven shiraz from Foster's stable of leading Australian wineries, including Rosemount Estate, Seppelt, Wynns Coonawarra Estate and the famous Penfolds. The tasting was led by the chief winemaker of Penfolds, Peter Gago, and provided an interesting overview of the different styles of shiraz produced in the many diverse wine regions of Australia.

Two wines from Rosemount Estate were included in the tasting: the 1999 Orange Vineyard Shiraz and the 1999 Balmoral Syrah, the only wine to use the French name for the grape. The Orange Vineyard Shiraz, from vineyards located in New South Wales territory about 150 miles from Sydney, was the most peppery of the wines tasted, reminding me of a spicy California Zinfandel. The Balmoral Syrah is one of Rosemountís premium wines, produced in the McLaren Vale region just south of Adelaide in South Australia territory, and is a velvety smooth wine aged in new American oak for two years. Like many of the wines in the tasting, the Balmoral Syrah would benefit from cellaring for up to 15 years.

The Seppelt winery was represented by the Seppelt Great Western Shiraz 1998, produced in the Great Western vineyards in western Victoria province. This wine had the highest alcohol content of all the wines tasted, 14.5%, and was also very smooth and chocolaty with hints of pepper.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate, located in the isolated Coonawarra wine region in the very southeastern tip of South Australia territory, was represented by the Wynns Michael Shiraz 1998. The Coonawarra region is known for its unique terra rosa soil and moderate climate similar to the Medoc region of Bordeaux. The Michael Shiraz is a best-of-vintage wine, only produced in the most exceptional vintage years and using just the top one percent of the wine in that year. According to winemaker Gago, this intensely flavored wine ďdemands cellaring.Ē

Peter Gago, chief winemaker of Penfolds

Three wines from the Penfolds winery were included, with the highlight of the tasting being the 1997 vintage of Penfolds Grange, the most famous of all Australian wines. The first Grange was produced in 1951 by legendary winemaker Max Schubert, who wanted to produce an Australian red that would improve with 20 years of aging and be comparable to the best wines in Bordeaux. Schubert succeeded in his mission and today one of the wine tradeís most highly awaited events each year is the unveiling of the latest vintage of Penfolds Grange in early May.

Penfolds Grange is produced mostly from vineyards in the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale regions of South Australia, and is always aged in new American oak. Unlike most of the other wines in the tasting, Grange is not made from 100% Shiraz grapes, but typically includes a small amount of Cabernet Sauvignon, which gives the wine added structure and balance. The only other wine in the tasting to include Cabernet Sauvignon was also a Penfolds, the St. Henri Shiraz 1998. A blend of Shiraz grapes from various regions in South Australia, the St. Henri is aged in old oak vats, producing a wine with more ripe fruity aromas and tastes. The third wine from Penfolds, the Penfolds RWT Shiraz 1999, is 100% Shiraz produced solely from vineyards in the Barossa Valley and is aged in a mix of old and new French oak barriques, resulting in a more distinctively plush mouthfeel.

For more information on Penfolds and Penfolds Grange wines click on

Celebrating Awards for Jacob's Creek

Another exhibitor from down under at Vinexpo Americas 2002 was Jacobís Creek, part of the Barossa Valley-based Orlando Wines, which since 1989 has been owned by the French spirits giant Pernod Ricard. With the financial and marketing muscle of Pernod Ricard behind it, Jacobís Creek has become Australiaís best selling wine label at home and one of its most successful exported wine labels.

Unlike the Shiraz from Penfolds, which are produced so they will improve with cellaring for long periods, Jacobís Creek has mostly followed a different winemaking philosophy, which in part is ďto produce wines of outstanding value that can be enjoyed without years of cellaring.Ē This philosophy is understandable given that most of the wines produced by Jacobís Creek are made in huge volumes. In the past 15 years, however, Jacobís Creek has extended its brand into the premium market with the production of the Orlando line of "ultra premium" wines and the Jacob's Creek Reserve wines that are designed to benefit from cellaring.

The architect behind the push by Jacobís Creek into the premium market is chief winemaker Phillip Laffer, who joined Jacobís Creek in 1992. Laffer had previously spent 27 years at rival wine producer Lindemanís (part of the Southcorp stable), rising to become chief winemaker. At Jacobís Creek, Laffer has steadily improved the quality of the labelís high volume wines and overseen the development of the Reserve and Limited Release wines.

2002 Australian Winemaker of the Year, Phillip Laffer of Jacob's Creek

As a result of Lafferís efforts, Jacobís Creek has won numerous awards in wine competitions around the world over the past 15 years. The winemaker himself was an award winner in 2002, receiving the prestigious Qantas/Australian Gourmet Traveller WINE Winemaker of the Year award. In conjunction with Vinexpo Americas 2002, Jacobís Creek hosted a festive dinner in Lafferís honor at New Yorkís Rainbow Room.

The dinner provided an opportunity for Maureen and me to taste the Jacobís Creek Reserve wines and two of the Limited Release wines, the 2000 Chardonnay and the 1997 Shiraz Cabernet. The Limited Release wines were made from the best fruit selected from Jacobís Creekís premium vineyards. The Chardonnay was made from grapes grown in the Padthaway wine region in South Australia territory, near Coonawarra. The 2000 vintage was aged in new and old oak barrels, but did not have the overpowering wood flavor present in most California Chardonnays. The 1997 Limited Release Shiraz Cabernet was a deliciously smooth, intensely fruity wine, made with 71% Shiraz grapes from the Barossa Valley and 29% Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra. The 1999 Reserve Shiraz was also excellent and was especially delicious paired with the main course of lamb.

Jacobís Creek Limited Release wines were originally released in 1997 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of winemaking in the Barossa Valley, which dates back to 1847 when Orlando Wyndham founder Johann Gramp settled in the area and planted cuttings from his native Bavaria. Jacobís Creek opened a $5 million visitors center in 2002 on the banks of the original creek, with tasting rooms and exhibits celebrating the storied history of winemaking in the region. The center was also designed to be environmentally friendly, particularly with regards to the use of water in the Barossa Valley, which is the driest state in Australia. Over 200,000 visitors from around the world visit the centre each year to learn about the wines and enjoy the full service restaurant.

For more info on the Jacobís Creek Visitorís Center, click here.

To learn more about Australian wine vintages, a great tool is the Australian Wine Vintages Gold Book, compiled annually by Australian wine writer Robin Bradley. For info on the Gold Book including how to order, click here.

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