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White-hot Australia

Reds get the attention, but Aussie Riesling, Semillon and Viognier are nervy originals.

May 09, 2007|Patrick Comiskey | Special to The Times

AMERICANS are developing a real taste for Australian red wines -- inky, fulsome Shirazes from the Barossa; dark, herb-scented Cabernets from Coonawarra; and stout-hearted blends from century-old vines in the McLaren Vale. But it's time to squirrel these away, along with your winter woolens, until Labor Day.

Instead, wake up your palate with whites from the same continent. Australia simply excels at certain varieties -- Riesling and Semillon in particular -- making wines that are every bit as distinctive as the famed whites of Germany, Austria and France. For every full-bodied tannic red, there is a light, nervy white with fresh, palate-cleansing acidity -- and springtime is a very good time to get acquainted.

Although Australia's white wines have lived in the shadow of their more substantial red counterparts, they have a long and storied history.

Like the western U.S., Australia boasts large and temperate wine-growing regions. Its warm, dry climate confers nominal success on nearly every variety grown. For whites, this includes California staples such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as a few interesting transplants, such as French Colombard and the Portuguese grape Verdelho. Blends, too, are worth checking out, if only for their names: Yard Dog, Shoofly and Broken Fishplate.

In Australia, as in grape-growing regions throughout the world, Chardonnay dominates the acreage. There are some nicely delineated Chardonnays from cooler regions, including the Yarra Valley and Margaret River, but much of the rest was fairly monochromatic until about 10 years ago, when un-wooded, steel tank "naked" Chardonnays emerged, such as the Trevor Jones "Virgin" and Plantagenet's "Omrah." These are wines with clean, unadorned fruit flavors and brisk, refreshing charm.

But Australia's most recent white success story has been Riesling.

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Clean, elegant Riesling

IF you were allowed only one word to characterize Australian Rieslings, it would have to be nerve. Well-made Rieslings the world over possess the acidity to give them poise and tension; in Australian versions, though, it's more like a racing pulse.

Their aromas are clean and lime-scented, sometimes with a hint of green apple or white peach, with exotic elements of ginger, minerals and a kind of crisp, rainwater freshness.

On the palate they can be thrillingly dry -- no consistently drier Rieslings are found in the world. Their uncompromising firmness lends that clean-lined, pulsating angularity of texture -- lovers of German Riesling might find them a bit shrill at first -- but to me it's like the difference between sitting in a La-Z-Boy and an Eames chair; both will give you support and comfort, but you'll marvel at the latter's elegance and taut, clean lines.

Fine Riesling is grown on several parts of the continent. In western Australia, for example, there are well-regarded Riesling vineyards in the Margaret River south of Perth, and in the area known as the "Great Southern" you find the important districts of Frankland River and Mount Barker.

But if this country has an ancestral home for Riesling, it's the state of South Australia, in the wine districts that flank the city of Adelaide. Originally settled by German immigrants of Silesian extraction, it's home to some of the country's most famous and important red wine regions, from Coonawarra and Padthaway to the McLaren Vale and Barossa Valley.

Barossa, of course, is renowned for powerful reds and a notoriously torrid climate, so it's odd to note that the region next door, the Eden Valley, produces some of the country's best Rieslings. This appellation climbs to more than 1,700 feet in elevation, well above its neighbors in Barossa, so heat accumulation there is relatively moderate during the growing season, making it ideal for aromatic whites.

The country's first Riesling vines were planted here, at Pewsey Vale in 1847; the winery was also the first in the world to experiment with screw caps, back in 1977. Ever since, Australian producers seem to have reached consensus that that screw cap closures best preserve Riesling's delicate aromatics. In fact, in the Clare Valley, about an hour's drive north of Barossa and Eden, there has been a regional mandate to make screw caps the obligatory closure for Riesling.

In every way, Clare Valley Rieslings are as well-regarded as those in the Eden Valley. Here the climate is less maritime and more continental and generally warmer. And yet, the Clare has bracingly cool nights, for a dramatic diurnal shift; few white wine regions produce more feathery, ethereal wines.

Perhaps the most famous Rieslings in the country come from Clare Valley winemaker Jeffrey Grosset, whose Polish Hill and Watervale bottlings are marvels of tension and stony intensity. Several other fine producers here are also worth pursuing, including Leasingham, Annie's Lane and Pike's.

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Aromatic Semillon

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