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The Wizardly Wines of Oz

October 18, 2000|CHARLES E. OLKEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Australian wines in general, and Australian Chardonnays in particular, seem to be everywhere these days. Whether it's the last hangover of the Olympic Games or the result of the recent $1.5-billion purchase of three California wineries by Foster's Brewing Group is hard to say.

That's not entirely new, of course. For years we have had fairly good access to moderately priced Australian Chardonnays. What's different is the number of expensive Australian Chardonnays we're seeing now. Fortunately for wine lovers, the quality of those efforts has been quite promising as well.

With that thought in mind, we put together a tasting panel to sample a wide variety of Australian Chardonnays. The prices, to our amazement, ranged as high as $120 (a very nice wine, but not mentioned in the descriptions that follow, for obvious reasons).

I found the Australian Chardonnays fascinating, different from French and California readings of this grape. Notes of sweet citrus, rock candy and lemon custard (along with hints of tropical fruits that are occasionally part of the personalities of some wines from our Central Coast) gave the Aussie Chards their own special qualities. Although we found few wines that could challenge Kistler or Au Bon Climat for robustness, we were impressed by the lighter, zestier style often made Down Under.

Our blind tasting included three West Coast Chardonnays, two of which stood out unmistakably, and one that fooled most of the tasters, including the visiting Australian winemaker who sat in with us. Here are some notes from that tasting and others.

Australian Chardonnays

* 1997 Coldstream Hills "Reserve," Yarra Valley, $20. Winemaker-author James Halliday (his "Wine Atlas of Australia and New Zealand" is one of the definitive books on the subject and his "Wine Atlas of California" is also remarkably insightful) is the driving force behind this winery, which is in the cool Yarra Valley just 30 miles from Melbourne. The wine has a bright, brisk citrus and green apple character, not unlike wines from the Arroyo Grande and Edna valleys.

** 1997 Leeuwin Estate "Art Series," Margaret River, $65. The Leeuwin Estate comes from one of the most popular wine regions of Australia, in the southwest corner of the country. Margaret River Chardonnays are highly regarded, and this special bottling is close to California in richness and size. Its outgoing aromas of apples, honey, sweet lemons and spicy oak remind us of home as well. It finishes with a typically Australian flourish of acidity and betrays a slight unexpected alcoholic bite.

$* 1997 Greg Norman Estates, Yarra Valley, $14. Attractive aromas and flavors of tropical fruits, pear and sweet flowers are tinged with hints of vanilla. The label, bearing the name of the famous golfer, is also owned by Foster's Brewing.

** 1997 Penfold Yattarna, South Eastern Australia, $65. Yattarna is yet another wine that suggests California in weight but exceeds our local product in price tag. It is quite good at capturing Chardonnay's rich side while retaining the sweet citrus characteristics of its homeland. Its rich and satisfying flavors and aftertaste of limes, creme bru^lee and Meyer lemons are propelled by the wine's oily, glycerin texture. Its only drawback seems to be its price.

* 1998 Petaluma, Piccadilly Valley, $35. This attractive wine combines scents of apple, citrus and rock candy with hints of vanilla and roasted cream. Its medium-weighted, firm structure also carries some of Chardonnay's oily texture. There are suggestions of roasted grain in the flavor, and it ends with a clean, somewhat open, finish.

West Coast Chardonnays

$ 1998 Belvedere Vineyards, Sonoma County, $11. This straightforwardly varietal wine displays moderate apple and citrus flavors in a clean, never assertive, but very correct manner. If not so dramatic as the high-priced competition, it delivers plenty to like at the price.

$ ** 1998 Fisher Vineyards "Coach Insignia," Sonoma County, $18. Ripe apple, pear and slightly sweet citrus are filled out by rich, toasty notes in the generous aromas of this fairly full-bodied wine. Butter, roasted nut and mineral notes add to the youthfully energetic fruit in the mouth, and this complexity follows into the long, rich finish.

* 1998 Hess Collection, Napa Valley, $16. Creamy, slightly spicy aromas are layered with hints of flint and clearer notes of green apples in this wine. Its balanced, nicely fruity flavors follow with the same enjoyable mix of elements.

* 1997 King Estate "Reserve," Oregon, $18. This wine has the firm structure of some of the Aussie wines, but its fruit is much more geared to green apples and minerals than to anything we saw from Down Under. It is bright and brisk in approach with an inviting dollop of richness. Age will see it soften and round out a bit.

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