Drinking Down Under

I am writing this from a coffee shop in Sydney, Australia. I arrived yesterday and head to the Hunter Valley later this week and then Mudgee for the Wine Media Conference. So how coincidental was it that Wines of Australia brought its U.S. tour to my hometown of Chicago just a few weeks ago?! Perfect timing!

I had two huge take-aways from the Far from Ordinary tasting:

  1. Wines from Australia taste like nowhere else. Every single international varietal I tasted (Shiraz, Chardonnay, Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, et al) tasted completely distinctive. None of them tasted like they could possibly be from anywhere else – not France, not California or Oregon or Washington, or Chile or anywhere! It can only be about a million things — from climate, to soil types to farming practices to vinification methods and more – that set it apart, but I was fascinated with every wine I tasted!
  2. Australians might be the nicest on the planet. Sure, we think we Americans are friendly and warm, but man – I was really impressed with the people! Wine can be a somewhat snooty business sometimes, but not in Australia. In fact, when I met Helen Xu (above, left) of Helen & Joey Wines in Yarra Valley, she immediately invited me to come visit and offered to come fetch me in Melbourne (because I am trying to avoid driving on the opposite side of the road forever). I mean! Then she introduced me to Steve Flamsteed at Giant Steps, who said, “Yeah, you’ve got to come on by – we’d love to have you!” and then Sandra de Pury, owner of Yarra Valley’s oldest winery, Yeringberg (“Yering” being an old Aboriginal word for “scrubby” and “berg” meaning “hill”) extended the same warm welcome.  And my first 24 hours in Sydney have been stuffed with friendly, outgoing, helpful people.  Okay, let’s get to a little wine scoop, shall we?

Australia is best known in the U.S. for Shiraz (which is the same grape as Syrah – they just pronounce it differently in Australia and there are various stories as to why, and I trust none of them). Shiraz is the powerful red grape that is quite the celebrity in the Northern Rhône Valley of France and also a star in Châteauneuf du Pâpe. You could say it is one hard-working grape!

Now, I do adore Shiraz – especially with some lamb chops, grilled sausages or beef. It’s not a shy wine, erupting out of the glass with bold, black fruit, fresh herbs, floral notes like dried violets and dried rose petals and spices like black and/or white pepper, even cardamom and coriander. It’s a perfect option for so many foods as our weather turns cooler in the northern hemisphere, and I intend on pairing it with some good Australian lamb while I’m here, or maybe even a burger today at lunch!

IMG_2693But don’t stop there! No, friends – go find some Australian whites and other Australian reds! If you know me, you know I’m in a long-term relationship with Chardonnay (but not that blowsy-wowsy over-oaked, over-buttery crap that some Cali wineries make that plenty of people adore and I do not judge them for that – to each their own). I love Chardonnay from Burgundy, especially Chablis (yes, friends, Chablis is Chardonnay – it is part of Burgundy).  And you know what else I love? Freaking Margaret River Chardonnay, that’s what.

Oh, Margaret River. You are so far west (near Perth) that I can’t possibly visit you on this trip, but I am going to drink as much of your beautiful, crisp, bright and bouncy Chardonnay as I can while I am here.

IMG_2688Another highlight of the Far from Ordinary tasting was the chance to talk to Justine Henschke, a sixth-generation member of the famous Henschke family and winery of the same name. The winery was founded in 1841, and some of vines on their property date back to 1912! Justine’s grandfather made the first single vineyard wine in all of Australia (I hope I’m getting all this correct, from my quickly written notes, but their website has a brilliant timeline tracing the family’s accomplishments).

I first learned about this winery while watching The Wine Show (a fab British-made series that you can stream on Hulu), so it was really cool to be able to meet Justine and taste two of their wines. Henschke produces one of the most prestigious wines in all of Australia called Hill of Grace (which retails for, like, a lot … something like $575 U.S. per bottle), a Shiraz from Eden Valley’s Hill of Grace Vineyard. But you don’t have to have deep pockets to try a Henschke wine – plenty are available in the U.S. from $30 (and up).

So – my message to you is: go try some Aussie wines – ask around at your wine shop and favorite restaurants. And in the meantime, I’ll drink my way through Australia and report back! Cheers, mates!



  1. Hope you can also make it to Margaret River ( Cape Mentelle)in WA or the Yarra Valley north of my home city of Melbourne. Aussie wines are hard to beat.


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