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But are they really better than us?

April 30, 2003|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

THE Australians aren't as good as they'd like to think they are.

We know that because we put them to the test here at the Los Angeles Times. We assembled a panel of experts for a blind tasting. And we tried some of the best wines Australia has to offer in the $6 to $10 range, including the spectacularly successful Yellow Tail Chardonnay. We asked merchants to recommend their most impressive Australian selections. And we included the bottles that wine drinkers love best -- the top-selling Australian wines in the United States.

And we're here to tell you that after considerable deliberation, California ought to take a deep breath. The wines here are still better.

Here's how the tasting went.

Last Tuesday morning, the panel gathered: Times restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, wine writers David Shaw and Rod Smith, and food columnist Russ Parsons. They sampled 20 wines, 10 each from Australia and California. Ten of the wines were whites and 10 reds. Each subcategory -- Australian whites, California whites, Australian reds and California reds -- consisted of three top-selling wines, all of them available on supermarket shelves, and two others recommended by reputable wine merchants as being of particularly good quality for the money.

The panel members tasted the wines without knowing their identities or origin. They were asked to rate the wines on a scale of 0 to 10, and the scores of all four tasters were added to produce a total score for each wine.

They sat, they sipped, they scored. And in the end, as a group, the Californians outscored the Australians, 161-128, and won in both the white (78-54) and red (83-74) categories.

It's clear by the scores, of course, that none of the wines sent the panel into raptures. Comments such as "inoffensive" and "bland" tended to dominate the tasters' scribbled notes. Still, most of the wines were cleanly made and perfectly drinkable -- and some were very good values for the price.

The highest score was an 8, which Smith gave to the Castle Rock 2001 Carneros Pinot Noir from California. He found it had "brilliant color; a clean aroma of ripe berries; a lively grape palate with a nice spiciness; dry, with a nice hit of raspberries at the end."

The two overall top finishers -- Kendall-Jackson 2001 Vintner's Reserve Sauvignon Blanc from California and Lindemans 2002 Bin 40 Merlot from Australia, both of which are big sellers -- each gathered 22 total points, for an average rating of a little more than 5.

Except for the Lindemans Merlot, which Virbila found "spicy on the nose" and "dry, very rustic," the five top-rated wines were from California.

The middle of the pack was split between Aussies and Californians, but the very bottom was the exclusive domain of Australians. Shaw described the next-to-last rated Yellow Tail 2002 Chardonnay as "excellent lighter fluid," and Parsons wrote that last-place Ryan 2000 Free Run Chardonnay smelled "like soy sauce."

Excluding the two first-place finishers, the top-selling wines, whether Australian or Californian, fell in the middle of the rankings, with only one exception -- the low-ranking Yellow Tail Chardonnay.

Curiously, three of the four "recommended" California wines (Castle Rock Pinot Noir, Hahn Estates 2001 Meritage and Cartlidge & Browne 2001 Chardonnay) placed just behind the two highest-scoring wines. The "recommended" Australians, however, occupied four of the five lowest positions.

When the tasting was over and the identities of the wines revealed, Smith remarked that all the wines seemed "made for the New World palate -- they're fruit-forward and the result of clean winemaking. You seldom find an outright flawed New World wine, and I didn't find a lot of flaws in these."

But all that fruit was distinctly unappealing to Virbila, who said the wines' aromas and flavors tended to be "overripe, and a lot of the whites were not very dry."

The Australian wine industry has worked feverishly to convince American consumers that its lower-priced wines are better than those made in California. But now the verdict from California is in.

Sorry, Australia.

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The face-off

Twenty Australian and California wines, 10 reds and 10 whites, were put to the test by an L.A. Times panel: restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, wine writers David Shaw and Rod Smith, and food columnist Russ Parsons. Each wine was rated on a scale of 0 to 10 (0 representing "undrinkable" and 10 "a terrific buy"). To avoid favoritism, the wines' identities were concealed until scores were submitted and tallied to arrive at the overall groupings below. Wines are listed in the order of preference.

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