Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Neil McGuigan Interview and Australian WineTasting

-Tim Teichgraeber

A few weeks ago, my good friend Bethany Burke from Palm Bay Imports emailed me to let me know she would be passing through town with prominent Australian winemaker Neil McGuigan and his export manager David Lunn in tow, and of course I was happy to accept the invitation. I have a great appreciation for Australian wine on lots of levels, from their technical winemaking techniques and technology, to their general enthusiasm, spirit, and knowledge of the global wine market.

I suggested we might do something a bit different, and meet at Blind Tiger, a hip, newish Asian fusion restaurant in the NOKO / Uptown district of Oakland. Australia is in the middle of Asia, so Aussies tend to be pretty comfortable with Asian food and I figured they might be game for an edgier restaurant suggestion. I don't think anyone was disappointed the food was great, even if it was a bit spicy for wine. It also so happened that there was a Warriors v. Rockets playoff game going on, so the travelers got a good, loud taste of Oakland spirit.

The Hunter Valley-based McGuigan makes some really good value priced varietal wines, like "The Plan" Chardonnay, Cabernet, and Shiraz, as well as some fairly high end wines like the "Hand Made" Shiraz and the pricey "The Philosopher" series. A little bit like the Penfold's or Hardy's brands, McGuigan is happy to deliver wines at just about any price point.

"We (Australia) had great results in the U.S. in the 1980's and 1990's making really voluptuous, fruit driven wines," McGuigan told me. "There have been a lot of changes since then. Back in the day, you would have the Rat Pack drinking bourbon on stage, right?. Now, when you watch an American sitcom, they're drinking wine."

It's true - Australian wine had a great, and well-deserved run in the American wine market in the 1990's. It also pretty much fell right on its face in the 2000's, in part because of (in my opinion some really boneheaded executive business decisions that wound up with one gigantic company, Southcorp, owning WAY too many iconic wine brands. Here is one article about how all of this developed. Southcorp and Fosters wound up cornering the market on Australian wine, cannibalized its own sales, and ran a bunch of brands straight into the sand by competing with itself. It was an example of industry consolidation gone completely mad. Watching it happen as an industry insider, it was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. And I reckon it set the Australian wine business in the U.S. back about 10-15 years.

McGuigan was fortunately not part of that Southcorp face-plant. McGuigan continues to operate a pretty successful nationwide brand that has weathered the storm, making wines from about 25% vineyards that his company owns, 50% of vineyards under contract from other owners, and 25% grapes or juice bought on the bulk market. He sources fruit from a number of really good spots around Australia, including Hunter Valley, Langhorne Creek, McLaren Vale, Barossa, Clare Valley and more. In that way, he has a lot in common with some of those big brands that were at least at one point controlled by the Southcorp / Foster's conglomerate.

Neil McGuigan thinks the time is right again for Australian wines in the American market. He notes that the exchange rate is very favorable. The dollar is strong again, and that means the relative cost of production in Australia is low. Aussies are not slack on marketing skills or market research. They are consummate pros. "I can tell you what the Australian or UK or American consumer is looking for," He told me.

To start, he whips out McGuigan 2016 "The Plan" Chardonnay from South Eastern Australia. "It needs to be obvious," he says, quite frankly.

We're all talking above the crowd noise as the game tightens, and the warriors fall behind by a few points. Every three point shot or major foul draws more noise from the other patrons watching the game on a projected screen, many of them just having bar snacks and drinks and hardly focused on dinner.

The Chardonnay is plump and fruity, as advertised, with bold mango, papaya and spice flavors. McGuigan tells me that yes, he does use oak staves to make this $12 Chardonnay. Using French barriques would be too expensive to price it that well for export to the American market. It's a pretty good value, and very flavorful. I think he's probably right that it's a good fit for the market.

We do have a healthy exchange of opinions about the American market for Chardonnay. In my opinion there still is a very healthy market for 'obvious' Chardonnay. No doubt about it. But at the higher end, the star American producers are creating demand for a more subtle, restrained style of new world Chardonnay. But, in fairness, that's not where Aussie invaders are seeking their landing point in the $12 to $15 range.

McGuigan's "The Plan" Cabernet Sauvignon was also quite nice, varietally correct and smooth with juicy black fruit, hints of mint and very straightforward. It's a damn good value, fruit forward, but doesn't seem overly processed like some of the more crass, flavored wines you can find in the price range.

McGuigan is also candid about leaving a bit of residual sugar ("RS" is what we call it in the business) in red wines. "We have never shied away from using RS in red wines, and now we really have the know-how," he told me. Residual sugar, or off-dry red wines has certainly been a growing trend in American red wine. I'm not sure that I'm really ok with that trend, but it is what it is, and until American consumers are ready to resist sweetened, seasoned wines, that may be a fact of life. Aussies, very new world winemakers in every way, will use every trick in the book to tackle the vital American market.

I personally have mixed feelings about this residual sugar in red wines trend. A good part of me feels that sprinkling everything with sugar is cheating. Especially if you don't acknowledge that you are doing it. If you want to put it on your label, fine, but if you're leaving sugar in your wines, let people know that that's what they're tasting.

Maybe these semi-sweet wines bring in new consumers, and if that's true, I think that's great, but I also think that if you are going to Starbucks these days and you think you're buying coffee when you're really buying an ice cream sundae, you probably need to be corrected. And the people selling these things need to be corrected.

Now, the 'seasoning' of residual sugar that McGuigan is talking about is pretty subtle, but it's still a touchy subject for me.

Somewhere in here, as the Warriors mount a comeback, I tried to explain the shooting prowess of Steph Curry, the "Baby-faced Assassin," Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green. I don't think Neil was really listening. NBA basketball just isn't a big deal in Australia. In fairness, I could barely hear him and David, either. The tasting and the game went on. Everybody was digging the food, and the wine was damned good, too.

We tasted a few vintages of McGuigan Hand Made Shiraz (about $40). The 2008 was savory, with red and black berry fruit, and a nice dose of sanguine iron-and-blood flavor. It was holding up pretty well. The 2010 was fresher, with pretty violet, blueberry, iron, red currant, raspberry notes and had a velvety mouthfeel. A bit more acid wouldn't have hurt., but a lovely wine. The 2014 was fresh and peppery, also quite sanguine or bloody, as good Syrah / Shiraz should be, savory, salty and seemed to have a little more acid and freshness.

We also tasted the 2013 McGuigan "The Philosophy" Cabernet Sauvignon / Shriaz Blend that combines fruit from a number of sources around Australia, including the Seven Hills area in Auburn, Clare Valley. plus fruit from Eden Valley, Barossa, Langhorne Creek. Selling for $125, it shows mint aromas, complex spice notes, and is fermented in open concrete containers before maturing in new and one-year-old French barrels for 24 months and resting 2 years in bottle prior to release. It's a good wine. I don't generally spend that much for a bottle of wine, ever, but I do appreciate that cool-climate fruit in the mix, and that it's not just trying to be more bombastic.

And the Warriors won, so there's that, too. Three championships in four years. I hope my new Aussie friends appreciated the Oakland energy as much as I appreciated their wines.

Review: Migration Charles Heintz Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast ($56)

This superb, small production (200 cases produced), cool-climate Chardonnay comes from a vineyard planted at 900 ft. elevation  on the Sonoma Coast, close to the Pacific Ocean, in Green Valley is green-gold in color with apricot, saltwater and fresh tarragon aromas and white peach, lemon zest, and watermelon (!) flavors with just a hint of butteriness. The oak is quite subtle - it fits the wine like a glove. It's a great example of the beautiful cool-climate Chardonnays coming off the chilly north coast of California these days, and just a thrilling wine, period. It hasn't much in common with a  white Burgundy, but it is every bit as brilliant and inspirational. (95 points)
-Tim Teichgraeber

Monday, July 2, 2018

Review: Duckhorn 2015 Atlas Peak Merlot ($75)

If you're a fan of Merlot, you're probably a fan of Duckhorn, a Napa brand that has been a tireless advocate of the variety. I really appreciate that Duckhorn has several Merlot offerings from different parts of Napa Valley, including Three Palms vineyard in Calistoga (in the northern part of the valley), another one from cooler Carneros at the southern end of the valley, and this hillside gem from Atlas Peak in the southeastern quadrant of Napa Valley. This one is less concentrated than Three Palms, and really reflects the cooler climate of the mountain with fresh violet and dried rose notes, juicy plum, raspberry and stony, tarry mineral notes imparted by the thin hillside soils. Only 485 cases produced. (94 points) 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Review: Woodinville Whiskey Company Bourbon & Rye Whiskeys

Established in 2010 by Orlin Sorensen and Brett Carlile, this Washington State distillery is still in its infancy, but it has earned some accolades, and there is a former Maker's Mark distiller (David Pickerell) consulting on the project. Woodinville Whiskey Company works with grain from the Omlin family's own farm in Quincy, Washington.

This distillery's early efforts are quite good, so good, in fact, that the business has already been sold to Moet Hennesey USA in 2017, though the founders are still very much involved in production. Having grown up in Kentucky and being a great appreciator of quality Bourbon, I am seldom drawn to bourbons or other whiskeys made elsewhere in the U.S. by less experienced whiskey makers that usually sell for much higher prices because they are made in smaller batches at newer ventures.

That said, I know there are very good whiskeys produced, and small distilleries have popped up all over the country. Some will make it, and probably a lot will fail. It takes a long time to make great whiskey, so starting a company from scratch is a tough cash flow proposition. Most high quality Bourbon is aged at least 4 years in barrel, and the really good stuff is often 7 years old or older.

One thing that I like about Woodinville Whiskey Company, is that the product is all locally-sourced, from the corn to the barley, rye and water. That is always what gives a small distillery a chance to stand out from the crowd.

Woodinville Whiskey Company Straight Bourbon Whiskey ($40) This pot-distilled 90-proof straight Bourbon (straight means there is not added coloring or flavoring - always the hallmark of a serious whiskey) has decadent chocolate, butterscotch, and toffee aromas as well as some earthy and raspy, spicy notes from the barley and rye in the mashbill.

It is very well distilled, with a bit of lingering roundness on the palate and a bit of earthiness, that for me distinguishes fatter, pot-stilled whiskey or rum from slightly smoother continuous-stilled products. Maybe it's the pot still distillation in part, and maybe the limited production blending that displays some seams, but it comes across as an interesting, enjoyable, slightly rustic, and very worthwhile spirit.

 For a very young company, I'm impressed with this offering. It's interesting, has something unique to offer, and is well-made. I like it -- a very high quality non-Kentucky Bourbon that's well worth trying. (91 Points) 

Woodinville Whiskey Company Straight Rye Whiskey ($40) Rye-based whiskies tend to be a bit raspier and leaner than corn-based whiskies, which are generally relatively pretty round, plush, and fat, and then tend to derive their spicier notes and complexity from barrels.

I do appreciate rye whiskey, even if I don't often prefer it to Bourbon. There is something very genuine and working-class about rye. It's coarse, like a hand with callouses, it's no frills, honest, and hard-working. And Woodinville's is a very good one.

I really like the way this whiskey comes together. I think it's brilliantly constructed. This 100% Washington-grown rye whiskey smells like rye, then it blossoms and blooms in the mouth with added vanilla and spice notes, it blooms on the palate and then gently fades like the trailing edge of a firework. This is an extraordinary blend that's artfully put together and is nearly perfectly designed. Very impressive. (95 points)

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Review: Dry Creek Vineyard 2017 Sauvignon Blanc Dry Creek Valley ($20)

I'm bursting with excitement over this spring release from Dry Creek Vineyard! It's really just one more hit from a spectacularly good Sauvignon Blanc program, but this vintage is absolutely delicious and incredibly complex. The wine is made from several different Sauvignon Blanc clones, including some Musque clone, as well as a bit of Sauvignon Gris. The refreshing white is fermented mainly in steel, but some of it is matured in chestnut, acacia and French oak barrels. The result is a mouthwatering white with a bewildering spectrum of flavors, from lime and tangerine zest to melon, kiwi, pineapple, gooseberry and bitter almond. And priced at only $20 (on sale for as little as $15), it's a brilliant, state-of-the-art California Sauvignon Blanc worth tracking down. (94 points)
-Tim Teichgraeber

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Decoy Spring 2018 Releases

This value label from Duckhorn with prices mostly in the $20 to $30 range (I know they aren't inexpensive) has really impressed me lately - the wines seem to be consistently delicious and well-made across the board. Here are some notes on a few of the latest Decoy wines:

Decoy 2017 California Rose ($20) It has that pretty rose petal / 'oeil de perdrix' (eye of partridge) orange-pink hue that often bodes well in a rose. It's floral and fragrant, with a nice bit of California fruitiness on the palate with pretty apricot, citrus and strawberry flavors and just a hint of white pepper and green tea astringency on the finish that makes it very thirst-quenching. Very easy to drink, indeed. (90 points)

Decoy 2016 Pinot Noir Sonoma County ($25) A very nice wine that's immediately recognizeable as Pinot Noir and checks all of the boxes, as it were. I'd be tempted to say that it doesn't have a terribly strong sense of place, but when you put it next to the Oregon Pinot I was just sipping, it certainly has a northern California personality. Youthful, and just slightly grapey with pretty blueberry, raspberry and currant notes and not too much new oak to complicate things. It's very easy to drink, and all-in-all a good value. (90 points)

Decoy 2016 Zinfandel Sonoma County ($25) Well, Sonoma County is really home to the state's first class Zin vineyards, so I shouldn't be surprised that this is one of the best in the lineup. It's fresh and lush with pretty blueberry aromas, brambly raspberry fruit and a nice hint of black pepper that I associate with Dry Creek Valley fruit. It's supple, delicious, and just like the other wines here, it doesn't take a lot of effort to appreciate. (92 points)

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Review: Dutton Estate 2015 'Karmen Isabella' Dutton Ranch Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($46)

A blend of three Russian River Valley / Green Valley vineyards go into this very tasteful Pinot Noir blend. It's harmonious, not too heavy or overworked, and shows pleasing restraint - a professional effort from veteran growers and winemakers. There's pretty raspberry fruit, forest floor notes, and a whiff of smoke on the nose, balanced berry flavors in the mouth, a bit of Earl Grey tea, cherry, and it finishes silky with moderate alcohol and decent acidity. A terrific wine, easy to recommend, and fairly-priced. (93 Points)
-Tim Teichgraeber