Unearthing Australian Wine Brilliance
By Jeff Taylor
In the early summer of 2012 I was working as the head sommelier of Eleven Madison Park in New York City. At the time, it was a restaurant that was on its upward trajectory towards greatness: we had four stars from the New York Times, three Michelin stars, countless James Beard Awards and a Grand Award-winning wine list from Wine Spectator. The list had the best of the best in terms of Burgundy, Bordeaux, Champagne, Piedmont and California – however, it was a Grand Award wine list that did not have a SINGLE Australian wine on it.
Early that year I was asked to enroll in a Wine Australia course that would be a 12-week intensive study of the country and its numerous wine regions. The top two or three students in the class would then be invited to travel to Australia to experience firsthand the regions discussed. By whatever stroke of luck, I was one of the students selected to go on this two-week trip to the land of Oz.
Discovering Cool Climate Australian Wine
I must admit, at the time, I didn’t have high hopes of Australian wine making a lasting impression on me. I was a sommelier who had cut my teeth in the classic Old-World wine regions. I adored the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs of Burgundy and the Syrahs of the Northern Rhône. The thought of drinking a bunch of Shiraz from the Barossa Valley and Cabernet Sauvignons from Margaret River seemed more of a chore than a privilege.
We spent a day in Sydney and then flew to Adelaide and toured the Barossa and Clare Valley, from there we went across the country to Perth and tasted through Margaret River and traveled down to Great Southern. Yes, there were wines along the way that surprised me, wines that I thought were good, wines that I could see on a wine list doing very well, but I had not yet had that ‘A-ha!’ moment that I was looking for.
This was soon to change. The last leg of our trip took us to Melbourne – a charming and electric city – and we were given a masterclass in the wines from Victoria. One of our first visits was to Healesville, home of Giant Steps Winery. Here we got to meet the legend that is Phil Sexton; a man who has done a little bit of everything. Phil is so fanatical about quality of produce – from wine to coffee to food – that he has his own bakery, coffee roasting plant and restaurant attached to the winery. His chief winemaker is a bloke named Steve Flamsteed (aka “Flammo”) who in addition to being a very talented winemaker is a former cheesemaker and member of the vinous-friendly band, ‘The Yeastie Boys’. This guy has cool emanating from his pores. We spent the day with Flammo and Phil tasting through numerous bottlings of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and even a Syrah. Yes, a wine labeled ‘Syrah’ and not ‘Shiraz’. Here we tasted wines that were moderate in alcohol and food-friendly, wines that benefited from the cooler climate of the Yarra Valley, wines that reminded me of the wines I was enjoying from the Santa Barbara County area of California. In short, wines of balance.
My Australian Wine Eureka Moment
The last tasting of the trip was held at Hoddles Creek Winery in the Upper Yarra Valley with host, Franco D’anna. Franco was joined by fellow Victoria winemakers Timo Mayer of Timo Mayer Winery, Andrew Marks of Gembrook Hill, and Gary Mills of Jamsheed. Being a boutique winery, there was no fancy tasting room. Here we all were, standing in the middle of the cellar, with a hunk of cheese and some kangaroo sausage to nibble on, a winery dog sniffing around at our feet and just the small group of us tasting through countless wines, spitting into the drain on the floor. Eureka!
This tasting made the entire trip to Australia for me. Here I was in more comfortable surroundings – just winemakers and their wines, standing and tasting in a slightly chilly cellar, much like they do in Europe. All of the winemakers present that day had amazing and well-made wines that resonated with me. In particular, the Syrahs from Gary Mills proved to me that there could be a Southern Hemisphere counterpart to the great Syrah from the Northern Rhône.
When I got back to New York, I immediately went to Dustin Wilson MS, Eleven Madison Park’s then wine director, and told him about this revelation I had had in the Yarra Valley. I asked him if we could maybe put a few selections on the list. By chance, Dustin had been on a similar trip to Australia a few years before and my excitement about these wines helped to solidify what he already knew: there was a lot of good wine coming out of Australia, and Victoria in particular. He told me to go ahead and put a little list together of wines that I thought would work well for Eleven Madison Park.
I was introduced to an Aussie expat named Gordon Little, who had just started a small import company in NYC called Little Peacock. He turned me on to then little-known Victorian wineries like Punt Road and Moorooduc Estate. I bought a few of those wines together with some Giant Steps and waited for over a year to finally get Jamsheed imported into the U.S.
In the short span of a few months, I had added about twenty Australian selections to the list at EMP. Sure, twenty wines amounted to probably less than 1% of the total number of references on the list, but it was significant. We had put wines from the Southern Hemisphere on the list – we had made a humble statement by showing that these wines from Australia deserved to play in the same sandbox as their varietal counterparts from the Old World.
Jeff Taylor is the wine director at North End Grill in New York City