The glass is always grüner in Sydney
by Thor Iverson
We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo, zoo
Sydney doesn’t exactly lack for roads, so it’s strange that we’re spending so little time on them. Instead, our conveyance of choice seems to be the ferries leaving from Circular Quay. Today’s trip isn’t a long one, though…just a five-minute sprint, straight across the water. We’ve come to Australia’s largest city after five weeks in the wilds of New Zealand, and for some reason we’re going to look at animals.
Come to Sydney. See the koalas. Doesn’t everybody?
The Taronga Zoo is quite impressive, as zoos (in contrast to nature parks) go, packing a lot of mammalian, reptilian, avian, and amphibian goodness into a fairly small area. There are the koalas, of course, with their dazed, altered consciousness. And there are the kangaroos and wallabies, which – as promised – really do look like giant, depressed rats. The lizards are as passive as the tumbleweed scrum of meerkats is frenetic, but we might be most impressed by the birds.
A Ridge too far
After a late start and a lot of Tarongan meandering, we’re ready for a different sort of exploration. Semi-expatriate American Mark Meyer, an old (online) wine acquaintance that we’re meeting in person for the first time, and his Aussie wife Nicole pick us up outside the zoo and take us on a brief driving tour that takes in some fine cross-water city views, before driving us to their beautiful home for dinner. And drinks. Many, many drinks.
We sit on the patio, noshing on a procession of appetizers (including Thai-scented prawns) and working our way though a few variably-serious sippers.
Huet 1999 Vouvray Brut (Loire) – Gentle. Light lime and quinine powdered with chalk and spiced aspirin. This is like smelling Loire-dust. Very long, with a fine crescendo. Lovely.
Loimer 1997 Langenloiser Spiegel Grüner Veltliner “Alte Reben” (Kamptal) – Ripe and fairly mature, with celery and sweet apricot. Is there botrytis in this wine? Cream-textured and rich, though perhaps lacking some length. Tasty.
The previous wine is served from the kitchen, with a smirk but without a label in evidence. There’s a reason for the deception; Theresa has long proclaimed that she despises grüner veltliner, and many a blind tasting has not served to fool her into believing otherwise. And yet here she is, happily imbibing this one without knowing what it is. The only conclusion that can be drawn is that to get Theresa to like grüner, one must serve it in its ancestral home of Sydney.
Cave des Vignerons de Saumur 2003 Cabernet d’Anjou “Réserve des Vignerons” (Loire) – Candied strawberry and red cherry. Juicy, light, and balanced. Pleasant, but not really more than that.
Back inside, we delve into a rich meal of veal chops and porcini risotto, with a succession of increasingly aged reds.
Olga Raffault 1995 Chinon Les Picasses (Loire) – Peaty earth and chalk dust with a light herbaceousness plus a dense (but not powerful) core of black cherry. Great acidity. Long and complex. While this is showing signs of its eventual maturity, it’s definitely not there yet.
Rockford 1993 Shiraz (Barossa Valley) – The spiced vanilla of American oak (at least, I assume) with milk chocolate liqueur, blackberry, blueberry, and black pepper. Juicy, chewy, and longish, but a bit hot. Fatuous. Yet, somehow, I don’t mind it. I wouldn’t want to drink it in quantity, though.
Ridge 1987 Geyserville (Sonoma County) – All of 13.7% alcohol. It hardly seems possible. Mixed pepper dusts fall upon sweet strawberries and light plumminess. There’s an earthy funk to it as well, plus a slight edge of drying apple-walnut bitterness on the finish; this is a wine that’s just past maturity and is starting to show signs of minor erosion, despite its still-considerable appeal. It’s often said that zinfandel ages into something akin to claret. Not so in this case; the antecedent I’d choose is Burgundy, or perhaps a light-minded Oregon pinot noir. A lovely old wine fading into its sunset, but still vibrant with deep, fruit-toned colors.
Ridge 1987 Zinfandel Lytton Springs (Sonoma County) – 13.4% alcohol. Does that even count as wine in California anymore? Sweaty, dark, and dusty. Minted plum with a hint of smoke. Lightly-tarred tannin. Very slightly volatile. Structured, long, and still quite intense. This is in the prime of its maturity, and absolutely delicious.
Mark and Nicole are fabulous hosts, and we’re indebted to their hospitality. As for our commute back? A beautiful one, the city sparkling under a beautifully clear sky.
Little do we know that it will be our last.
The next morning dawns in gloom and ominous overhang. It’s not particularly warm, either. After a late start, we spend some time wandering the city, zigzagging from sight to sight. We catch a decent bite of lunch at Quay Seafood Chinese (2 Albert St.), admiring the views of the Harbor Bridge and the now-plummeting rain that streams from overhead drains. My salt & pepper squid with prawn mince is excellent, but everything else is sort of…eh. Afterwards, the rain having abated for a while, we move on to more sightseeing.
Sandalford “Estate Reserve” 2003 Verdelho (Margaret River) – Fruit buds and crushed flower pollen with an anise-like herbality (fennel fronds, perhaps). Good acidity. There’s a nice, light, fresh quality to this wine, though it doesn’t lack flavor.
Amidst a pleasant break in the clouds, we explore The Rocks, Sydney’s oldest district. There are still some nice historical remnants and monuments, but in the main the area has been transformed in the way many such districts have been transformed: into a hive of hipster commerce. It’s a diminishment, and while I’m happy to have visited, there’s not really enough to sustain interest for more than a few hours…which seems odd, given the attention paid to the neighborhood in most guidebooks. Perhaps we’ve missed something, but we do give the area a fairly thorough exploration.
Theresa drops herself off at the apartment, while I set out in search of wine. (Haven’t I had enough already? Apparently not.) I pass before the architecturally lurid Darling Harbour commercial strip, aimed at a younger, more energetically partying demographic than that to which I belong, into what seems to be a largely Asian neighborhood. And here, I find Sydney’s ultimate wine shop.
Perhaps coincidentally, it’s called Ultimo.
It may be my imagination, but there appears to be more European than Australian wine on these shelves. There’s certainly a surplus of older vintages, both foreign and domestic. After some enraptured browsing, I pick up a few bottles for a dinner a few nights hence, another to repay Graeme & Judith’s vinous generosity, and even manage to find a few more worth squeezing into my own shipping container. The prices, despite hefty export costs and tariffs, really aren’t all that bad, though no one is going to call this a bargain outlet. And the exchange rate helps.
The quip & the dead
The reason I’ve space in my shipping container is that a few bottles are leaving it for tonight’s dinner. For the third night in a row we’re joining a gathering of wine geeks, this one assembled by Graeme from amongst the local oenophilistines, and at my behest. We “brave” the evening’s newest and most aggressive downpour by taking a door-to-door taxi, joining the growing mini-throng in Pazzo’s back room.
Did I say “room?” No, not quite right. Shed? Tent? Lean-to? Look, I’m aware that wine folk can occasionally be rowdy, table-hogging miscreants, and on more than one occasion I’ve been in a restaurant that’s banished us to the hinterlands (I remember one, somewhere north of Boston, that set up our table in the storage room), but I’m not even sure that the area in which we’re dining counts as a structure. One thing’s for sure: it’s deafening, thanks to the rain that pounds on the corrugated metal roof (yes, really)…and later, a few soaked-through bags, boxes, and jackets indicate the formation of a brackish pond beneath our feet.
Nonetheless, a little water won’t stop our festive drinking and socialization. What might stop us, or at least slow us down, is another rule that’s been imposed on the group. Apparently, this one is also my doing, though I remember the conversation that led to it somewhat differently. What I’d mentioned during the planning stages is that, wishing to avoid prejudging Australian wines that I’ve criticized in the past, it would be interesting to taste a few of them without knowing what they were. What’s actually happened is that every single wine – except mine – has arrived in a bag or a tight foil wrapper.
Well, this could be fun, too. Except that the Australians are keen to play a guessing game well known to them, called “options,” in which a series of either/ors are offered by whoever knows each wine’s identity, eliminating incorrect guessers along the way, until an identification is achieved. It’s a more educational way to learn about varietal, site, and producer signatures than the directionless blind guessing I’m used to, but of course I’m at a massive disadvantage when it comes to Australian wines, and so I mostly abstain from participation.
Charles Heidsieck 1990 Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs “Blanc des Millénaires” (Champagne) – Reggiano rinds, stale lemon, green olive, and slightly sweaty socks. As bad as the previous sounds, I actually kind of like the result. Later, a little zing of black cherry skin appears; unusually so, considering that this is a chardonnay-based sparkler. Very good, but I wouldn’t hold it much longer.
(Worth noting: the above is one of the few wines I guess with any success. I’m immediately certain it’s Champagne, and I get the vintage right within a +/- range of one year, but the black cherry leads me to the incorrect conclusion that there’s pinot noir in the mix.)
Peregrine 2003 Riesling (Central Otago) – Performing even better than at the winery. Dried apricot, deep black minerality, tarragon, and light residual sugar. Medium-bodied with preliminary bursts of complexity, terrific balance, and a long, drying finish. Very, very promising.
Stonecroft 2000 Gewürztraminer (Hawke’s Bay) – Dead cheese (not just rotten, but an actual corpse), celery, and stinky armpit. Blessedly short. A truly awful wine.
Tyrell’s 1992 Semillon “Vat 1” (Hunter Valley) – Lemon, apple, creamy tangerine. There’s a sweetish aspect, and some crystallization on the finish. Beeswax, as well? A little goofy, but decent enough. Perhaps it’s just not old enough? Too old? I can never tell with these wines.
Mount Mary 1997 “Quintet” (Yarra Valley) – Teeming-with-life earth, black cherry, cedar, and raw tobacco with a black pepper edge. More black fruit follows in dark waves, but then the wine transforms itself, turning crisper (specifically, more malic) along the way, until tannin clamps down hard on the finish. Starts brilliantly, finishes less so…perhaps just a stage. Or perhaps not.
Castagna 2001 “Genesis” Syrah (Beechworth) – Fetid and sweaty Worcestershire soda, blended with herbs and earth. Long, spicy, and black-peppery, with layers of drying tannin. Weird enough that I can’t decide whether or not I like it…except, of course, for the fact that I appreciate its very weirdness.
James Irvine 1994 “Grand” Merlot (Eden Valley) – Huge, structured, full-bodied, and yet balanced in a very New World, thermonuclear fruit device fashion. Blackberry, blueberry, and plums abound, but there’s also an appealing graphite texture and pretty fair acidity. The wine is just massive, which makes the fairly abrupt fade on the finish a little disappointing, if not entirely surprising. In its style, this is quite impressive.
Cullen 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot (Margaret River) – Dense and a little roasted, with razor-like tannin and a certain alcoholic weight (though there’s only a bit of heat). Coconut, blackberry, and…not much else; the center is hollow, there’s volatile acidity hanging about (and sure to get stronger), and the wine finishes with both feet and a large portion of its torso in the grave, though it’s still swinging its fists as it descends. A bit brutal to drink, honestly, and it appears to have suffered the fate so often predicted for modern-style wines (though what it was actually like young, I have no idea). Some at the table opine that it’s actually having a mid-life crisis, and while I concede their greater experience with the wine, I don’t see it based on what’s on display.
Veritas 1997 Shiraz Hanisch (Barossa Valley) – Black raspberry and black cherry, both coated with bitter chocolate. Then, there’s crème de cassis, licorice liqueur, bubblegum, and a significant spike of acetone. Texturally, the wine’s sticky to the point of being gummy, an absolute harlot with its fruit, and rather massive. All that said, there’s a certain insane balance to the wine, and those for whom “more” has no upper bound will probably love the geysering sluttishness of it. But it’s definitely not my thing.
We also take a second sip of the Seppelt 1939 “Para Liqueur”, and it has not changed a bit…an impressive performance for any ’39, fortified or not. As for my blind tasting record, I’m mostly in the ballpark in terms of varietal composition, but even more consistent in underestimating the age of the Australian wines, which I can only chalk up to the persistence of their more primary fruit characteristics. The Aussies acquit themselves well, with two of our dining companions incisively zeroing in on nearly every wine, which is quite impressive.
Aside from being relegated to Siberia, how’s the restaurant? It’s simple, straightforward Italian, and I start with a very nice plate of gnocchi with quail in a burnt butter sauce, which I follow with veal involtini that aren’t, as they so often are, overcooked to dryness. However, not everyone’s dishes are quite as successful, and the service seems to alternate between kind attentiveness and long gaps of indifference. Still, considering the circumstances, the experience is good enough, and they allow us to close down the restaurant without complaint. Though after we leave, they’ll need to squeegee the floor…
As anyone who’s dined with Australians will know, the quips come fast and furious all night. I try to scribble some down, but there’s just no keeping up with the torrent, and out of context they lose some of their punch…though “Barry Manilow is a huge sex symbol” sticks with one long after the initial wave of horror, and “your posts are real table-lifters” is similarly disconcerting.
However, the comment of the night is not verbal but scribbled, surreptitiously, on a piece of paper. I’m mid-declamation about where we will and won’t visit on this trip, having just mentioned the name of Australia’s capital city a few times in sequence, when a slip torn from the corner of a notebook is passed my way. I glance down. On the paper has been written, phonetically, “can-ber-a” with a big line through it and a dark “X” following. Just below, “can-bra” is followed by a friendly check mark. Seeing this attempt to stem the Yankee tide of excess syllables, I break into hysterical laughter in the middle of a sentence, and never do return to answering the question.
Come to Sydney. Learn a new language. It’s not what’s on the brochures, but it’ll do.
Copyright © Thor Iverson.