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Connect with fellow members and share your passion while discovering more about, or simply enjoying, wine. 
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December 2018

 

A Note from Christian

What does a Sommelier drink for Christmas?

If I had a bottle of Grange for each time I have been asked what my favourite wine is, I would be the happiest man on earth! The answer around this question is really relative to what kind of food will be served, what is the occasion, the company present, time of day that will all essentially determine my predisposition to a particular type of wine.

However, there is one wine that overrides all this and it is Champagne.

It is one of the most versatile drinks, I could have it any time and it has the ability to bring out the best in people while tasting uniquely of the region it is produced from. I am clearly not alone to state my affiliation to the king of wines as this country has always had a love affair with the bubbly blond drink for centuries. It is said that in the 1850’s more Champagne was consumed in Victoria than anywhere in the world. More recently according to the Champagne Bureau, Australia has just taken position number 7 in the world as the largest import market for Champagne.

So what makes Champagne so popular? It could be attributed to the fact that the purchasing price is now more attractive than but also Australian have become more knowledgeable about the product.

We tend to associate it more often with celebrations, birthdays, marriages, graduations or as an aperitif. In fact Champagne is perfectly at home at the dinner table. 

It has the ability to match almost any course. Try a 100% chardonnay style with seafood or a Pinot noir Rose with quail or duck then finish with a demi-sec and a fruity dessert, you can even start all over the next morning with breakfast!

However, there is another perennial favourite at Christmas. A style of wine that comes out periodically at this time of year and in timing with the red baubles taken out of their box to adorn the Christmas tree, red bubbles appear in Shiraz poured at the festive table. A definite Australian institution that might fly against the old-world Champagne sensibilities, but which makes total sense if we take in consideration the warmer climate and food served.

Nothing beats drinking a chilled big rich frothy red when the mercury is at its zenith and the turkey comes out of the oven.

Festive Cheers!

Christian Maier
Club and Resorts Sommelier

 

 

Past Notes

A Note from Christian

October 2018

If around 80% of all wine produced in Australia comes from larger corporations, it is at the smaller level of operators that we will find producers moving laterally from the masses, moving more freely and sometimes dwelling on fringes in terms of stylistic expression.

Australians tend to cultivate that sense of underdog, rustic-cool that comes with being perceived as small, but let's not fool ourselves that everything small is, in fact, better. Many larger producers are leading in terms of quality but are equally responsible for the sea of bland wines found discounted on your bottle floor stack.

However, if I put together a list of the most exciting wines I've tried in the past year, an overwhelming majority would be the work of producers with just a handful of hectares. Because they tend to have a more intimate relationship with their vines, small producers are more likely to get their wine to transmit that elusive quality that can only come from a particular place, often a conversation with a different dialogue, a sense of authenticity from a particular patch of dirt.

Not having to answer to the rigours of the quarterly sales report, smaller producers are more likely to take risks, whether it's seeking out unfashionable varieties, or trying out radical new wine-growing or wine techniques or even staying true to old-style winemaking. Many in Australia even take an anti-establishment stance making natural wines that defy the corporate attitude and philosophy of the giants' conglomerate producers.

Admittedly, happiness can be found in both camps, but it is at the smaller end that we will find an exploration and a renaissance in linking back with the hearth, humbly assisting nature in the vineyard and with a guiding hand in the winery to craft wines that express local typicity, a sense of place, a certain flavour that only comes from that specific site. Winemaker Marcus Satchell is one of them and has been in Gippsland for around a dozen years, having worked with many of the greats before courageously setting up on his own, well with two friends first who went later on doing other things. The Holgate Road vineyard has been in the baseline of Dirty Three's 'regular pinot noir' since 2012. There are now three single vineyard wines under the Dirty Three label, all accounting for a sense of exploration and the sharing of the local conversation between a winemaker and his vineyard.

Cheers!

Christian Maier
Club and Resorts Sommelier

Nice to Barcelona Club Tour

August 2018

A small group of members made their way from Nice through to the southern French Mediterranean coast via Avignon and Carcassonne then crossing over to Spain stopping at the best wine and food addresses. This tour was witness to one of the most diverse and picturesque landscapes, often flirting with the blue azure sea and inland hilltop villages surrounded by ancient vines. The wine styles tasted were wide and diverse as they ranged from sparkling Spanish Cava, fresh and citrusy whites from the Cassis seaside, robust and warm reds from Chateauneuf du Pape, through to fortified and naturally oxidised wines from the village of Banyule.

But one of the vinous highlights would have to be high up in the Spanish hills of Priorat, tasting wines produced by struggling, gnarled ancient vineyards in a winery monastery founded by the Carthusian monks and dating back to 1063! It was there that we encountered one of the most expressive terroir in the smallest wine region of Spain and where I witnessed members' faces and eyes light up tasting an old vine Grenache Cariano from an 800 metre-elevated vineyard that scored the highest marks in my tasting book.

Cheers!

Christian Maier
Club and Resorts Sommelier

Olympic Wine Tasting

June 2018

If you have ever wondered how the shiny medal stickers make their way unto wine bottles, you might be surprised to hear that a great deal of work and scrutiny goes into the process. Wine shows have been in existence in Australia since 1884 and have been about developing, supporting and promoting excellence in Australian wines and while the ideas of sipping many different wines over a day seem appealing to most, I can assure you that it can be far from that.

I have been casually involved with various wine shows over the years and just taken part in the International Cool Climate Wine Show where over 700 wines were present to be judged! There is little glory and lots of pain in assessing close to 200 wines per day on a benevolent basis as it is more like running a marathon than a stroll in the park.

Appraisal demands a great deal of concentration skill and effort and especially when maintained for the duration of a day. In order to minimise palate fatigue, classes of wines are usually kept below 40 and none of the wine is swallowed, as to do so would impair judgement. To have the most objective outcome and results, a number of judges are used from different backgrounds. Traditionally winemakers formed the jury panel but this has now changed to include other area of the wine industry such as wine writers, sommeliers and wine wholesaler retailers as this brings a less technical and more complete picture in the assessment of wine.

In the larger shows such as the Royal Melbourne Wine Show, one of Australia's most respected, there are about 20 judges and 12 associate judges assessing a gruelling 3200 entries. Each wine is scored out of a 100 points scale and as in Olympic fashion there are three types of medal awarded: Bronze, Silver and for outstanding quality: Gold. Each Gold medal in each class is eligible for a trophy after being re-assessed by the Judges. In some cases, each trophy can also compete for best in class and in turn, for wine of the show.

Since there are no absolutes in wine assessment, there is no such thing as the perfect appraisal of it - but with the current Australian Show system regarded as one of the best in the world, we are getting close to at least a clear and objective evaluation of what the wine is.

So next time you spot a shiny Gold sticker you might spare a thought for the hard work that has gone into sifting them out amongst hordes of more average wines.

Cheers!

Christian Maier
Club and Resorts Sommelier

Wine and Fashion

April 2018

While it is increasingly fashionable to be seen with a nice glass of wine in hand, wine itself has always been at the mercy of fashion. Not so distant in my memory is the fad of the over-oaked chardonnays that were often broad, flabby with oak stave flavours, which later gave ground to the unwooded version. I also recall the rise of Viognier, with its billboards advertising showing us how to pronounce it phonetically, which ended up being blended with red Shiraz rather than staying white. While Pinot Gris is still climbing the charts, Sauvignon Blanc has taken down the house consequently enjoying the golden spot on the sales graphs. We repeatedly have been told about a Riesling revival which seems to have taken place on wine columns rather than in real life and that Cabernet will one day or is indeed on its way back, or is it?

To add to this profusion of style we have the onslaught of natural and minimalist wines that are encroaching our local wine lists, often selling an ideological narrative above sensory enjoyment. Against this backdrop that can be seen as fleeting as last season's hemline we also have some perennial favourites such as Shiraz especially from the Barossa Valley or Heathcote regions and cool-climate Pinot Noir.

But wine doesn't necessarily have to ride along cultural fashions. In fact, wines move outside of fashion when it is redeeming a unique taste from a particular area, when it articulates a sense of place and style above a forced stylistic approach or a pure varietal focus. Australia is now starting to follow an 'old world' pattern where regions are associated with producing wines with a distinctive style that can be termed regionality. It is the whole wine region focusing on a specialty that suits the area, climate and variety best. So when choosing a Chardonnay, for example, we can move beyond the fact that it might be oaked or 'unoaked' and redeem a cooler crisp and lightly wooded example from the higher reaches of the Yarra Valley for its typicity, freshness, or a complex fresh and savoury example for the Margaret River or a Hunter Valley one for its own distinct regional characters. All Chardonnays but unique in their own way.

Cheers!

Christian Maier
Club and Resorts Sommelier

200-Year-Old Wine Tasted at the RACV Club!

February 2018

I have often been asked what is the most amazing or memorable wine I have ever tasted in my life. While this is in my view an unfair question and a difficult, alcohol challenged-memory task, there is however, one wine that will always stand out.

In 2002, a number of Sommeliers, wine writers and wine personalities had been invited to the RACV Club on Queen Street for a rather early morning tasting. I nearly declined the invitation but it promised to show a very ancient wine for tasting! The wine advertised was from Madeira which at the time was more known to me as a cooking wine rather than something you get up early for to taste!

Madeira is an island off the coast of Morocco that belongs to Portugal. Historically, it was a popular port of call for ships on the trade routes between Africa, Asia and the Americas and it is said that even Captain Cook stopped there to stock his ship. The original Madeira wines were made as a powerful white wine, however to protect them during transport they were fortified - alcohol is added before fermentation is complete, which stops the process and leaves residual sugar in the wine. Sea captains discovered that long ocean voyages actually improved casks of Madeira. Unlike other wines, heat and oxidation are essential to Madeira and so the wine is virtually indestructible and biologically stable.

James Halliday - Australia's most influential wine writer - cancelled a trip to WA in order to attend this wine tasting at the RACV Club, and the late Mark Schields said he would crawl from Ballarat over broken glass in order not to miss this opportunity. Channel Nine News was also present during this event, setting the scene with excitement and anticipation. Needless to say, it was the oldest wine anyone had ever seen or tasted and then I felt stupid for even considering giving it a miss!

The wine in question was a 1795 vintage Terantez Madeira from the house of Barbeito and I couldn't believe that it was sitting in the bottom of my glass.

When the news camera turned on me with their bright spotlight, I recall that I did everything to show my best and demonstrate the perfect swirl in the glass only to realise that sweat started to pour out of my forehead, surely a combination of stress and spotlight heat, ruining my rare television appearance opportunity.

What I gained, however, is access to a drink dating back before the invention of electricity, when the blood on Marie Antoinette's neck was still fresh and 17 years after the first fleet settled in Botany Bay.

It seems almost sacrilegious to even open such a bottle but I was rewarded with an ethereal display of an exotic bouquet evocative of toffee, molasses, roasted nuts, and honey, leading to a rich, chewy, but supremely elegant wine, with flavours that simply do not quit. Drinking a wine this old is humbling; the fact that it is so delicious and still full of life is mind-bending.

Only 4 bottles were imported, one was opened for tasting, one was bought by James Halliday, one by Ian Riggs and the last one by the importer himself - sorry, guys, nothing to see here!

Cheers!

Christian Maier
Club and Resorts Sommelier

Pyrenees Shiraz - Untapped Potential!

December 2017

Following our recent RACV Club wine, beer and food tour of Western Victoria, the fact was reinforced that The Pyrenees is one of the Victorian regions with the most exciting shirazes. We are quick to reference Heathcote as the best region for Victorian Shiraz production, and rightly so - but equally standing tall is another great wine region that in my books still has untapped potential and yet to gain wider recognition.

It might have been the early British explorer and surveyor Thomas Mitchell that had given the Victorian Pyrenees its name, as it apparently reminded him of the Pyrenees mountains in the South of France...Well, maybe a smaller version on a foggy day, but it was the French that helped recognising it as an outstanding wine producing region.

In the 1960s the French cognac house of Remy Martin, was then committed to discover the best areas for sparkling wines production and poured a sizeable investment into what is now known as Blue Pyrenees winery and estate. More recently Michel Chapoutier, one of the most successful and acclaimed Rhone Valley wine producer has recently acquired a couple of carefully chosen sites to express his love of Shiraz under the label of Tournon and Terlato & Chapoutier. Michel is a very charismatic and passionate winegrower that pays a great deal of attention to the eart or 'Terroir' in order to express a sense of place and identity in a wine.

According to Michel, the Pyrenees has everything to suit his winegrowing philosophy and extending his Rhone traditions. Ample sunshine that brings maturity to the grapes but it is the cool aspect of elevation and southerly ocean winds combined with distinctive soils types that helps retain the elegance, vibrancy, giving the region that little edge over many others.

My focus has been on this region for a while now as there seem to be an in-streaming of new talent gathering fresh acclaim such as Jamsheed headed by the talented and charismatic Gary Mills; Mitchell Harris is another great performer and tasted recently Chockstone and Hard Hill Road from the Grampians made by Adam Richardson, a dynamic winemaker that has had many overseas roles. All this new blood mixed with an already solid foundation of established producers such as Taltarni, iconic Mount Langhi Ghiran, and the premium wines of Dalwhinnie have contributed to the region's reputation.

With some of the oldest Shiraz vines in the state, a cooler aspect of viticulture helped by a ranging altitude from 200 metres to almost 800 metres in some parts and a soil profile that often includes red sandstone and a mixture of quartz which all contributes to the ability to produce fragrant and perfumed wines that under the right guidance have longer and slower maturity and an expression of finesse associated with gentle power.

There is definitely a general renewed interest in this region albeit slow but it has my attention firmly set on this corner of the state. Should I ever be in the fortunate position to invest in a patch of land to grow Shiraz wines, this is where it would be. Oh! And did I mention that it is a beautiful, picture-postcard place to visit?

Cheers!

Christian Maier
Club and Resorts Sommelier

The Italian Culture of Wine (L'Ambiente del Vino)

October 2017

Italy has always competed with France for the title of the largest national wine production with France taking the lead in 2014 but Italy topping the world chart four times in the last 5 years with a production of 50.9 million hectolitres, or 20% of the total world output, well enough to fill a lake so large that you wouldn't be able to swim across!

Where the Italian and the French meet is in the idea that both create wine that are naturally best enjoyed with food and carry a sense of place.

The French have the concept of Terroir to explain why the wines taste the way they do. Terroir is the matrix of elements and surroundings that relates to a vineyard and ultimately the way the wine expresses itself. The Italian have a different word they sometime use: Ambiente, meaning environment or 'habitat' but it also refers to ambience as in the feel of a place. When applied to wine, ambiente is not just the geology, topography and climate of a vineyard but the culture that surrounds it. The experience of drinking Italian wine is not complete without the food product that grows in the same soils and some sense of the culture that created it.

Italians think very carefully about what comes together on a table - which would make them all good Sommeliers - from the wine, the food, the people and the place, all has to fit together.

So how do we recreate this sense of ambiente? Knowing where the wine comes from would be a start!

The wine label is probably a good place to start. The basic idea is that the label carries a place's name above all else - for those that have been to France you would find many similarities - so is Chianti Classico a place with specific boundaries like the Medoc is in Bordeaux, or Sancerre is in the Loire...

Unfortunately reading a label (like in France) feels a bit like a geography test! Just where exactly is Brunello di Montalcino? And what does it mean!? The label doesn't necessarily give you enough information for you to draw practical conclusions. However, to make it 'easier' for consumers Italy has devised wine zones: the DOC system which was modelled on the French AOC system. The Italian had the same goal to classify regulate the production of wine from specific areas and develop commercial identities.

There are four official classifications of Italian wines ranking from VdT, (table wine) the most generic group to IGT, step up for regional expression - like the French Vin de Pay, DOC the bulk of the appellation numbering or 25% of classified wine and the premium DOCG - reserved for a handful of wines considered historical and of exceptional pedigree. So look out for the DOCG as the best expression of a place (well most of the time).

One of the most exciting things about Italian wines is their diversity (also contributing greatly to my learning frustration! The only other possibly hardest thing to learn is German wine labelling...). However there is definite vinous enjoyment to be had from ethereal Barolos and Barbarescos in Piedmont that could take on the best of Burgundy (yes, here I said it!), the ultimate cabernet blend in Bolgheri that would rival top Bordeaux and all the different permutation of Sangiovese in the hills of Tuscany, that is - well, without equivalent. And if that is not enough maybe you want to consider a Friulano from Friuli, Amarone from Veneto, Aglianico from Campania, Nero d'Avola from Sicily and these are only a handful amongst the hundreds of different appellations available.

Phew! I need a drink!

Cheers!

Christian Maier
Club and Resorts Sommelier

The Misunderstood Variety: Gewürztraminer!

August 2017

What goes with spicy food? If it is very hot, try a fire extinguisher with more moderate fare, try a gewürztraminer.

In my native easter French region of Alsace where fortified medieval villages, old hill-top castles and German names abound reflecting centuries of disputed territorial ownership, the grape variety gewürztraminer has been a specialty.

Indeed, its distinctive wines have a long and rich history though its name based on two words - the German 'gewurz' meaning spicy, and 'traminer', which is taken from the grape variety - may well be a barrier to the uncertain consumer, even based on its spelling.

This pink-skinned variety is 'very fussy' whose yields can fluctuate significantly. However, the long ripening season in the best protected sites in the foothills of the mountain range Vosges ensures wines of distinction. But gewürztraminer can be confronting. You either love the wines or hate them, there doesn't seem to be any middle ground.

They can be very heady, heavily perfumed oily, and exotic with Turkish delight-like characters. The leading styles will have richness of fruit and spicy characters and are ideal with Asian dishes because they can complement the spice and absorb a bit of heat.

If you want the optimum experience just refer back to Alsace and the individual vineyard sites that are classified Grand Cru with producers such as Zind-Humbrecht or Paul Blanck.

Gewürztraminer was adopted in Alsace as the official name in 1973. But its production history goes back to the Middle Ages, its spread encouraged from rich wines produced in Germany's Pfalz. However, the story really starts with the ancient Traminer variety that takes its name from the village of Tramin or Termeno in what is now the Italian Tyroll. Gewürztraminer is a much later mutation. 

For many regions in the new world, the challenge is that they are slightly too warm to produce wines from the variety with enough acidity unless the grapes are picked very early. Then they may have little varietal character. The bigger challenge is of course its lack of popularity and exposure on wine lists.

So for your next mildly spiced Thai or Vietnamese fare - think Gewürztraminer!

Cheers!

Christian Maier
Club and Resorts Sommelier

Australian Chardonnay: Fashion Victim or Leading the Trends?

June 2017

I believe that most consumers are still disoriented about where to stylistically place Chardonnay as it is a variety that has swung widely from one particular expression of style to another over the last few decades. Who remembers the super ripe examples of the late eighties and nineties, which were using tasting descriptors that have never been seen since such as butterscotch and vanilla peach! Many were caricatures of Chardonnay displaying broad and flabby flavours with acidity so low that they would fall over after only a few years in bottle.

We since have learned a lot about ripeness and vineyard management and most importantly about the importance of acidity to impart freshness and longevity. But these were not the only learning curves to overcome; the use of wood was another one. Winemakers were so enamoured with new oak barrels that tasting a Chardonnay a few decades back was like licking a stave of oak. If you asked a taster to describe the wine, the descriptors used were mostly relating to wood with very little reference to fruit. Most people had then little idea what true Chardonnay really tasted like. The market reaction to this overabundance of oak, supported by clever winemaker, was to avoid the use of oak altogether creating the unwooded Chardonnay style. We all know that there is nothing wrong with the use of oak in Chardonnay - the trick is just the amount of new oak used. In fact, the uses of barrel does much more than just contribute notes of vanilla, spice and wood to wine; it will also add complexity to the blend, structure and depth through the minute exchange of oxygen between the stave of the barrel and the wine.

Needless to say that unoaked or unwooded Chardonnay didn't really go far in the marketplace as a style and I believe the case for fashion victim has been made!

The subsequent trend in the last decade was the rise of the minimalist Chardonnays; wines with more tension, austerity and higher acidity but that were often mean and lean! I still remember hearing Yarra Valley winemakers competing between each other on who makes the most Chablis-like Chardonnay. The less favourable result of this tendency was to have wines that were harvested below the ripeness level required in order to keep high acidity with often high level of sulphur additions. The swinging pendulum effect had come around full swing.

Of course if you only started to drink Chardonnay in the last few years you are rightfully wondering what on earth am I talking about. The current examples of Chardonnay from leading producers are inspirational, with great elegance, texture and complexity accounting for some of the most exciting whites in Australia.

We are now at the best possible place for Chardonnay in any given time in Australia's short winemaking history. The oak is integrated (more often than not!) or kept to a minimum, ripeness is balanced and importantly, a good healthy acidity is present in order to impart freshness and drinkability.

On the popularity chart, Chardonnay has always done well and has weathered the onslaught of popular Sauvignon Blanc and the rapid surge of Pinot Gris/Grigio. The best expressions of white wines in cool climate Australia are often Chardonnay wines, setting benchmark for what is to be expected from a top white. 

An old-world perspective and point of view and certainly a Burgundian one would be to let the fruit shine forth with the specificity of the area it is grown in, thus creating a unique style directly linked to the area of production and so avoiding relying on passing and vanning stylistic trends. This is exactly what we are slowly seeing in the Yarra Valley, for example, with some producers now bottling different vineyards and parcels of Chardonnay individually under their range.

If history is anything to go by, I wonder where it is going to take us next, but I believe that we are finally reaching a level of maturity and understanding, leaving aside extreme experimentations in order to just savour the pure and simple result of the fruit in vineyard.

Cheers!

Christian Maier
Club and Resorts Sommelier

Minimalist and Naturalist Wine Producers

April 2017

One might say that 'minimalist' wines or 'natural' wines are going against the commercial trend of winemaking by a set recipe. However, the debate to define what is natural wine is pages long and I will certainly not enter it here. Often many of the better wines are made in a natural way without any references made anywhere. They are crafted without enzyme, cultured yeasts or any other additions of tannins or acid. They often are made in an organic way and are not fined or filtered in order to reflect best the place they come from and to abide by a philosophy that has more integrity and is more holistic than conventional viticulture.

For smaller producers it's often about passion for where you are and what you love, rather than chasing the marketer's impression about what should be made for a target market.

The danger in using the word natural wines is that it is often used to describe wines made with none to very little winemaking intervention leading to an oxidative style that can sometimes be confronting. They are certainly more and more around on wine lists in Melbourne's trendy restaurants. I am a bit weary of these wines as they shouldn't take over sensory pleasure with a good ideological narrative! The enjoyment of the wine is paramount and will lead to a positive and pleasant experience. I am all for pushing boundaries and moving outside the box as these are signs of an industry that's reaching a degree of maturity; however, just to keep the conversation grounded, as a friend of mine once said: "It's not the herbicide, fungicide or any chemical addition that's going to kill you, it's the alcohol in the wine that will!"

In the month of April we are looking at minimalist and natural wines in our Wine Circle masterclass, while Healesville will feature a vegan dinner highlighted by biodynamic wines. You almost have no excuse left not to indulge...

Cheers!

Christian Maier
Club and Resorts Sommelier

A Sommelier's Art: Food and Wine Pairing

February 2017

As much as a dating agency's success of a match will depend on partnering the right profiles together, while paying attention to suitability of personality traits, so is the job of a Sommelier when considering matching food and wine.

The core aspect of the role of a Sommelier is helping dinners to select the perfect wine to the chosen dish and to create a synergy between the two. Attributes of the wine such as fruitiness, acidity and structure will need to interact with the attribute of the food and vice versa, so to create almost like an exchange or a communication from one to the other. The best matches are often the simplest one with minimum uncluttered flavours leading to a clear communication or when the wine lets the food speak such as using wines with less body or alcohol. Matching food and wine is very subjective but shouldn't be difficult and when everything plays out the way it should, the wine will make the food taste better, and the experience becomes unforgettable. Unfortunately there is often very little attention paid to the food we are eating with the wine we are drinking. So how do we get there?

A guideline to success is to match the characteristics of the food with the characteristics of the wine, such as light food with lighter wines and complex flavours with more bodied wines. A marriage by contract can also be achieved, for example, using the acidity in wine to cut through fattiness in food. Attention must be paid to the sweetness in a dish as it should never exceed the sweetness of the wine, otherwise the wine will just end up tasting acidic. Texture is also an important element such as slow-cooked food that can be matched to an older and softer wine. Finally, intensity of flavours should be on a similar par in both the dish and the wine so to help create that conversation.

Successful food and wine marriages won't always happen but trying different things will help you understand the dynamics of it and like in life, a divorce can often be a reason to start again.

Cheers!

Christian Maier
Club and Resorts Sommelier