We were fortunate enough to get together on March 3, 1999 with Brian and his tasting gang at Indigo, a wine-friendly restaurant in the West Village, for a festive survey of some of the heavyweights from Down Under.

The first three (non-shiraz) wines were served as sort of a palate warmer-upper before the main event, which was a blind tasting of seven foil-wrapped and numbered marquee shirazes (with the Burgundy-bottle-shaped Astralis cunningly decanted into a decoy bottle to throw smartypantses like yours truly off the track). The idea of scoring wines isn't one I usually cotton to, but I went along with the group on this in the interest of being a good soldier.

Ultimately, the scoring degenerated somewhat into a simple democratic vote for your top three, with five points for first, three for second and one for third. It was fairly dimly lit, so my notes on color are fairly perfunctory--all of the big shirazes ended up looking fairly black and opaque, and I soon tired of holding a candle to them, attempting to distinguish between 'dark garnet' and 'very dark garnet'...

To wet our whistles we started off with the Leeuwin Hills Estate Chardonnay, Margaret River 1995: pale gingerale colored in the glass, smooth, buttery chardonnay nose with touches of pear & pineapple. Has a nice crispness, but definitely some chard fat around the edges. Smooth in the mouth, glyceriney feel, butterscotchy & tangy tropical fruit notes (like the juice from canned tropical fruit salad), fairly well-integrated combination of typical new-world butteriness and spicy fruity notes, with enough acidity to keep it from cloying. Very pleasant for those (like me) who like this style of wine-as-apertif.

Next were the two 'warmup' reds, first the Mt. Mary Quintet Yarra Valley 1995: medium garnet; slight ketchupy aromas on first whiff, a little green-bean stalkiness; pleasant dark muted fruit at first, touch of nice earthiness, but fruit fades quickly on the midpalate, leaving gritty tannins; and the Clarendon Hills Old Vine Grenache Kangarilla Vineyard 1996: again, medium garnet; very tight nose, doesn't give much, some dark candied cherry, some earthy notes; first taste-Tannins! Whoo-boy, this is tannic juice, gritty tannins just overwhelm the fruit and beat on the tongue till it squeaks. Frankly, I was ready to move on to other things, so I didn't give these two wines much of a chance.

So, the big shirazes enter the stage, carefully disguised:

Wine #1: Dark garnet (get used to that...); aromatically light, earth/plum/pepper/cranberry, but not very rich; on the palate it has a nice full mouthfeel, full-bodied, plummy & dark tarry notes that segue into a long finish with gritty tannins. 14 pts. (Jasper Hill, Georgia's Paddock Shiraz, Heathcote 1996).

Wine #2: Very dark garnet; Oh my oh my, this one has THE NOSE. I do a quick survey of the rest of my glasses, and this one has the killer nose, in a landslide. Is this the Grange? Rich, smooth, opulent nose of black cherry, smoky-meaty-barbeque, leather, pepper & oak just leaps out of the glass and salutes. On the palate it isn't quite as dense as I would have expected from the nose, but wonderfully smooth & polished. Full-bodied, rich & crisp, touch of cranberry tang in the mix with the black cherry/meaty flavors. Slightly sandy tannins; long, smooth finish. Very nice, very balanced and complete. Lovely. 19 pts. (Penfold's Grange, Bin 95, South Australia 1992-- Group #2, my #2, Lisa's #3).

Wine #3: A nice wine, but seems to pale in this company--light, cassis/cherry, earthy/peppery nose, touch of cranberry & tar on the midpalate; smooth & crisp, medium-bodied, pleasant, well-knit, but unexciting. 13 pts. (Grant Burge Meshach Shiraz 1990).

Wine #4: Darkest garnet yet; lighter on the nose; dark spicy, earthiness, hint of black cherry, maybe a touch of stewed tomato; on the palate YIKES this is a beast. Easily the densest wine of the night, just fierce & rich & seamless. Blackfruit monster, rich, smoky, blackberry, meaty flavors, meaty texture in the mouth, very firm tannins clamp down on the sweet finish. Too tannic? Well, probably not, with all that concentration... Really tasty & kind of exciting. Astralis? 19 pts. (Jim Barry 'The Armagh' Shiraz, Clare Valley 1995-- Group #3, my #1, Lisa's #1).

Wine #5: Another fairly light nose (is everything working up there?); light aromas of blackfruit & earthy/plumminess, with clear touches of oak; more interesting in the mouth, sweet, cinnamony very forward fruitiness (red hots?). Smooth, round & spicy--peppery, tangy, full-bodied & lush, more redfruity than some of the others. A friendly wine, and that cinnamon quality is quite beguiling... 18 pts. (Elderton Command Shiraz, Barossa Valley 1992 -- Group #1, my #3, Lisa's #2).

Wine #6: Light in the nose (*sigh*--next time I'll bring Riedels), pepper, redfruit; in the mouth sweet, forward fruit, bit of loose oakiness floating about, nice black tarry/licorice quality in the middle that hangs on through some rough tannins that kick in on the finish. Nothing to write home about, probably a fine wine, but pales in this company. 14 pts. (Clarendon Hills Astralis 1996).

Wine #7: Sweet cherry-red nose, hint of leather & pepper; concentrated & powerful but also smooth & contained--nice; in the mouth plum/black cherry/licorice, dark oaky notes, full acidity, smooth, clean tannins, silky finish. 15 pts. (Henschke Mt. Edelstone Old Vines Shiraz, Barossa Ranges 1994).

And to wrap things up while the votes were tallied, Petaluma Botrytis Riesling Essence 1985: Dark amber, bordering on brown-orange; orange marmalade is the first thing that strikes you on the nose, then mineral/wet stone notes with a slight metallic edge. On the palate sweet as all hell (45% residual sugar!), very dense & viscous--like syrup. Lovely tastes of caramel & vanilla & orange rind & that sort of boysenberry botrytis taste that I haven't pegged properly; there's enough acidity to make it not cloy, but just barely.

Well, once the votes were tallied the bottles were revealed, and the Elderton stood as the surprise winner, beating out the bigger names soundly. I thought what turned out to be the Grange and the Armagh were clearly the class of the field, with the Grange having the edge in the nose department, as well as just generally being a more complete package, and the Armagh taking the explosiveness award for the densest, most powerful juice around. Both were tied on my little score sheet, and asked to pick one for first place I went with the Armagh based on what I would rather have another glass of right then (ever the pragmatist), but the Elderton was my clear third place wine, and, I suppose, the best deal QPR-wise, if that term can apply here.

As to negatives, I guess I was a little surprised at the weak showing of the Astralis, based purely on reputation--I expected it to be more of a contender, but it received zero votes from anyone on this night and seemed well-made but undistinguished. It sure has gotten lots of great press, but that's one I won't be bringing home anytime soon, especially at the $165 price I've seen it at around town.

All in all, a lovely evening with good food, old & new friends, and great wine!

P.S. (six days later): Mt. Mary Quintet: Nose is much more open--light raisiny nose of honey, cedar & prunes--on the palate tangy forward blackberry, pruney fruit comes on strong, then kind of melts away, leaving wateriness & light tannins. Burge Meshach: dense purply-black, more nose in a decent glass--prune & sweet oak & pepper, touch of menthol. On the palate sweet blackfruit, licorice, prune & tar; dense & smooth, soft tannins; sweet, dark, smoky finish. Seems to have smoothed & integrated a bit. It does seem better on its own.

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