On the Trail

Defining Aussie Excellence

David Driscoll

My good pal Ryan Woodhouse and I drove up to the K&L San Francisco store yesterday, parked our cars, and walked over to Minna St. for the Langton's Classification Seminar about Australian wine. While we've always been big believers in the category and Ryan's work as a buyer speaks for itself, we're always looking for unique and interesting ways to help spread the message that there's some serious winemaking happening down under. The tasting from Langton's was explicitly focused on shaping the public perception of quality by introducing a ranking system for Australian producers based somewhat upon Bordeaux's 1855 classification. The panel had selected twelve different wines from various regions across the country that in Langton's opinion epitomized excellence in Australian wine. While I knew I loved the wines that Ryan has been finding on behalf of K&L for the past two years, I didn't have much context as to where those wines stood against the country's great names. What are the gold standards for Australia? What do they taste like? Why are they considered great? That's exactly what the presentation was going to cover.

Inside our booklet was a handy-dandy map that pointed out the various wine-producing regions of Australia. As you can see, there's a whole lot of country and only a few small regions along the southern coasts of the continent. Despite the rather concentrated areas of production, the temperatures and growing conditions change drastically depending on where you go. Some regions are warm and dry like the California central valley, while others can be as cool and fussy as France's Côte d'Or. One thing that is important to understand, in my mind at least, is that Australia has been making wine since the late 1700s and they've had plenty of time to work out the kinks. Most importantly, the variety of what's available is unprecedented in terms of unique character and style. The first wine we tasted was a dry riesling from Grosset made from vines grown in blue slate soil said to be more than 500 million years old. It was as if I had just finished a daiquiri. My mouth was buzzing with fresh lime and zingy acidity. We moved from there to a ten year old semillon from Hunter Valley that was as fascinating and complex as any white wine from France. Of course, this was the point of the event: to choose some of the most amazing specimen from down under and show you the true depth of Aussie wines. By the time we had worked our way through to the Cullen Family cabernet blend—a wine that simply blew me away with its finesse and brooding complexity—I was truly taken aback. But that's when Ryan leaned over to me and said, "That wine's $110 a bottle. You could drink the Oakridge that we bring in for $30 and I think you'd be just as happy."

I always tell our customers: "You can't knock expensive wine until you've actually tried it and made the qualitative assessment for yourself." Having now tried a top-shelf line-up of high-end Australian wines, I was able to say with certainty that the wines were fantastic, yet I would find them difficult to sell at those prices seeing that so few people understand the rich heritage of the region. It's especially difficult when we have so many K&L direct imports that compare favorably for so much less. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the experience and it only deepened my passion for the work both Australia and Ryan are doing on behalf of my liver.

-David Driscoll