But it ended up being a ball (save for the Pavlovian stress to hurry up and move tables when the bell rang,) and it was a great way to get an incredible overview of Australia's quality wine.
Australia's First Families of Wine is comprised of twelve winemaking families that have been crafting wine all over Australia for generations. They believe that their legacy and high standards of winemaking should earn them the same respect and renown as the other standout wine regions of the world like Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Napa. But with one exception (Penfolds Grange Hermitage,) Australia is mostly associated with punch-you-in-the-jaw alcoholic Shirazes and oaky-butter-bomb Chardonnays, or cheap-and-cheerful "critter" wines (named for the animals that dot their labels,) not elegant and pedigreed world-class stunners.
And that is just plain WRONG.
Eleven of the twelve families were on hand recently in New York City to share some wines from their personal cellars—some current releases, many not—and I had the very atypical experience of loving almost every single wine poured. (Normally my notes are dotted with the occasional star, but I had to stop drawing my stars after I had done six in a row.)
So join me for a moment, won't you, as I share with you my "speed dating" journey, (without the $!#*@% ringing bell.)
WAKEFIELD — Clare Valley, South Australia (with its heralded Terra Rossa soil.)Self-described as "proudly New World winemakers but obsessed with Old World finesse."
2012 Wakefield St. Andrews Shiraz: Single vineyard. Spicy, smoky nose, with muddled cherry. Very silky and smooth. ~$65
2009 Wakefield The Visionary Cabernet Sauvignon: Great black currant, blackberry nose. Rich and tasty, some tartness at finish. Bright vibrant cherry fruit on palate with balancing acidity and soft tannins. ~$200
BROWN BROTHERS — NE Victoria, slopes of Australian Alps.
Ross Brown says the goal of the family is to make "fine and elegant" wines.
2010 Brown Brothers Patricia Chardonnay, Yarra Valley: Yellow apple and kiwi on the rich nose. Leaner in the mouth, minerally and citrus notes. Definitely trying to move away from the oaky/buttery style, Ross said, "we don't want oak to be a flavor. We want it to be a complexor." ~$40
2000 Brown Brothers Patricia Sauvignon, King Valley: Amazing nose, cassis, sweet cigar box, buttered toast, damp earth. Smooth, fine and elegant (see above, check!) Woody feel, herbs, and bright cherry to balance it out. ~$60
TYRRELL'S — Hunter Valley, New South Wales.
Another of Australia's prominent wine families, Tyrrell's has racked up numerous awards over the years.
2010 Tyrrell's Wines Vat 1 Semillon: Varietal nose of wax, lanolin, and sour cream. Lovely white peach in the mouth. Clean and crisp. Winemaker Bruce Tyrrell said, "What you see there is what came out of the vineyard." ~$50
2011 Tyrrell's Wines Vat 9 Shiraz: Light red fruits and aromatic violet and rose florals. Medium-bodied, with zingy acidity, and bright, almost underripe fruit. ~$50
CAMPBELLS — Rutherglen, Victoria.
Colin Campbell is the current patriarch of this family winery dating back 145 years.
2006 Campbell's The Barkly Durif, Rutherglen: sumptuous violets and dark cherry perfume. Rich and smooth with blue and black fruits on the palate and integrated tannins. ~$55
NV Campbells Rutherglen Muscat: Dark copper color, very dense. Sweet cigar leaf, tangerine peel. Forest floor balances out the sweetness. ~$20/375ml bt.
NV Campbells Merchant Prince Rare Muscat: almost opaque molasses color. Incredibly viscous. Just stunning! Herbs, burnt caramel, bit of balsamic, great acidity. WOW. ~$85/375 ml bt.
YALUMBA — Eden Valley/Barossa Valley, South Australia.
Founded in 1849, Yalumba is Australia's oldest family-owned wine company.
2012 Yalumba The Virgilius Eden Valley Viognier: Meyer lemon, green leaves, panna cotta, ginger, stone fruit, very spicy. Attractive. ~$32
2012 Yalumba The Signature: About 50/50 Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Very purpley, with loads of complex fruit. Warm and spicy, good acidity, soft, silky tannins. Rich and flavorful but finish lifts it. Doesn't smack you. Still a baby! Try again in 10, 20 (30?) years. ~$50
HENSCHKE — Eden Valley, South Australia.
Fifth-generation winemaker Stephen Henschke brought along some gems, the Cab named after his father, and a ten-year-old bottling of the iconic Hill of Grace.
2010 Cyril Henschke Cabernet Sauvignon: spicy, smoky nose, with plum, black pepper, violets, herbs, and cassis. Bright fruit, smooth mid-palate, components very well balanced, with a delicious and spicy finish. 84% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Cabernet Franc, 3% Merlot. ~$150
2005 Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz: Aromas of baked red fruits, very smoky, sage and black pepper notes. ("Very Eden Valley aromas," agreed Stephen.) Somewhat savory note, like a tomato/oregano sauce. Just amazing—elegant, with fine tannins. Everything blends together in a warm bath of deliciousness. YUM. (Not your "big, ripe, jammy" Shiraz.) More, please. ~$600
DE BORTOLI — Victoria and New South Wales.
The De Bortoli family immigrated to Australia from Northern Italy in 1928, and their wines combine Italian family values and Aussie terroir.
2014 De Bortoli Yarra Valley Estate Grown Pinot Noir: Verrrry berrrry nose. Full-bodied style, with very tasty complex fruit and soft tannins. Clean and delicious. Minerally finish with integrated acidity. Whole bunch fermentation. ~$25
2011 De Bortoli Noble One Botrytis Semillon: The Noble One wines were created in 1982, inspired by the 1975 Ch. Coutet Sauternes. Botrytis and caramel on the nose, nice acidity to balance, so a clean finish (not cloyingly sweet.) Kumquat, other citrus, bit of caramel. Lovely. ~$27/375 ml bt.
JIM BARRY WINES — Clare Valley, South Australia.
The late Jim Barry was an iconic figure in Australian winemaking. His son Pete Barry was on hand to share some of Clare Valley's star Rieslings.
2014 Jim Barry "The Lodge Hill" Dry Riesling: wild white flowers and lime zest on the nose, in the mouth, those flavors are balanced by minerality and a spicy finish. Very dry and clean. ~$17
1999 Jim Barry "The Lodge Hill" Dry Riesling: I can say I've never had a 16-year-old Clare Valley Riesling before... but now I want more! Medium-gold color, toasty, honey nose. Lanolin, petrol, with marmalade on finish. Still good acidic backbone. Wowzers. ~$30
D'ARENBERG — McLaren Vale, South Australia.
D'arenberg was founded by the Osborn family, and wins the Cheeky Award hands down. Winemaker Chester Osborn (who has a matching eclectic fashion sense) even brought props to help illustrate the way his wines get so creatively named.
2012 d'Arenberg The Money Spider Roussanne: Named for the tiny "money spiders" that mysteriously covered the first crop of the 2000 vintage (believed to bring good luck via money.) Green and herby nose, delish fruit mid-palate, lemon curd, straw, key lime pie. Slurp. ~$25
2006 d'Arenberg The Ironstone Pressings: 70% Grenache, 25% Shiraz, 5% Mourvedre. "Only foot-trod once... yeah, we pretty much left it alone," says Chester. Incredible licorice on the nose, with smoke and cigar ash. Kind of a dry-aged-beef-char thing. Juicy but not overripe. Long (oddly lip-numbing?!) finish. ~$65
MCWILLIAM'S — Tumbarumba/Hilltops, New South Wales.
This six-generation company makes a variety of well-regarded, diverse wines. Scott McWilliam brought a pair of wines at a great price point.
2013 McWilliam's Appellation Tumbarumba Chardonnay: Nose of lemon and fresh herbs, with a light toastiness on the very long finish. Minerally and finessed. ~$25
2012 McWilliam's Appellation Cabernet Sauvignon: Rose petals! on the nose. Very herby and green, with berries—somewhat zingy and fussy at the moment, but like a kid in the "Terrible Twos," I think it'll evolve nicely. ~$25
TAHBILK — Nagambie Lakes, Victoria.
The oldest family-owned winery in Victoria, Tahblik also boasts a unique microclimate. Alistair Purbrick brought us a pair of mind-blowing Marsannes (one of which made me break out my stars again.)
2008 Tahbilk Museum Release Marsanne: A totally "YUM" nose of butter, marzipan, toast, cream puff, and honeysuckle. Wow. This drinks like a warm summer's day feels. Excellent weight, good length. Wow. Stars all over the page. ~$22
2006 Tahbilk 1927 Vines Marsanne: Intense perfumey nose, white and yellow flowers, warm and rich, viscous, sour lemon. Yet seems a wee bit schitzo as it's beautifully fresh and clean on the palate. Even though this was two years older than the prior wine, it tasted younger (due to totally different winemaking styles.) ~$35
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Wineaux, I tell you that even writing this post made me revisit my bliss and across-the-board delight at what these families had to offer. (So much so that I just ordered half a case of the '08 Tahbilk Museum Marsanne so I could prolong my joy even further!) And while the delectable Hill of Grace is up there, most of these astonishing wines are relatively affordable. It certainly is worth it to give Australia's fine wines the chance to measure up with the rest of the world's.