he Bogan. Bad Impersonator. For Love or Money.
These are some of my favorite souvenirs from a month-long trip to Australia earlier this year. They aren't B movies, soap operas or comic strips. They are wines. And they make me smile just to hear the names.
Australian wine country is like that. It's a new frontier of that last frontier country. Millions of gallons of Australian wines are pouring into the United States with cutesy animal-related names like yellowtail and the Little Penguin, but those are coined by big corporations to tickle the fancy of undiscerning American consumers.
Those conglomerates now control more than 90 percent of Australian wine production. About 1,600 small wineries bottle the rest. These smaller vintners consider themselves farmers who practice a bit of agricultural alchemy to produce nectars from little more than vines grown deep into the thin soil, which manage to flourish despite scant rain and sometimes harsh temperatures.
You have to have a sense of humor to tackle winegrowing under these conditions. And it's obvious in the names they give their wines -- usually backed up with a good story -- and in the unconditional welcome they offer anyone who travels down dusty roads to seek them out.
Late on a warm March day (fall in Australia), my husband, Gene, and I stood at the stone counter of Kaesler Wines in South Australia's Barossa Valley contemplating what a great name Old Bastard is for a premier wine (it's called that because it comes from a shiraz vineyard that has survived since 1893). The woman pouring samples brought out The Bogan, another plump, single vineyard shiraz. It too, she explained, is ripe with sweet revenge.
It seems "bogan" is Australian slang for a shabbily dressed child, and it's a name winemaker Reid Bosward was often called when he was a boy. He knew even at a young age that he wanted to be a winemaker, and he swore that someday he'd name his very best wine The Bogan. It's anything but shabby.
Bad Impersonator, a glorious shiraz by the upstart Two Hands, gets its name because its makers say it doesn't taste like a typical Barossa Valley shiraz. The bottle bears a photo of a very bad Groucho look-alike. Two Hands also makes For Love or Money, and one taste of this luscious late-harvest semillion explains it all: You'll give either or both for a bottle.
Besides their catchy names, these wines share another trait: They are virtually unattainable in the United States. Though a couple of hundred cases of Bad Impersonator are shipped to this country each year, The Bogan and For Love or Money -- like dozens of Australia's best wines -- are available only at the vineyards where they are made.
We didn't know any of this when we set off for Melbourne. And we hadn't really planned for our visit to turn into the great Australian winery expedition of 2004.
Gene and I went to Australia to visit our dear friends Bill and Alma, who recently retired there. While some people I know dream all their lives of visiting Australia -- or at least that's what they said when I mentioned our trip -- I admit I had never given it serious thought. I don't like hot weather. I don't trek. I'm allergic to almost everything outdoors. And while I am intrigued by kangaroos, koalas and penguins, I didn't feel compelled to go halfway around the world to see them.
I do know a bit about wine, and that the Barossa Valley near Adelaide is famed for its old-growth shiraz. It seemed that if we were going to be in Australia, we ought to take a trip to the country's most famous vineyards.
Our friends thought my plan to visit Adelaide was foolhardy. For one thing, the distance from Melbourne to Adelaide is more than 450 miles -- about the same as Washington to Greenville, S.C., but without interstate highways.
More important, they said, urbane, cosmopolitan Australians consider Adelaide inferior to the international elegance of Sydney and the culinary diversity of Melbourne. It's a railway stop on the way to Alice Springs and the Outback, or Perth on the western edge of the continent. They insisted we could get our fill of vineyards near Melbourne.
I held out for Adelaide, and we were richly rewarded with some of the best wines we have ever tasted.
A Lesson in Aussie
We thought we were primed when we headed Down Under. We had spent a year getting ready, reading travel guides, consulting wine magazines and trying dozens of Australian wines. Twenty-four hours in Melbourne turned our heads upside down.
At lunch, on the way in from the airport, we didn't recognize a single Australian producer on the restaurant's large wine list. Ditto for lunch and dinner the next day. When we mentioned some of the wines we'd been drinking in the United States, the reaction of our hosts -- and their friends and relatives -- bordered on ridicule. Mostly cheap exports, they cried.
I explained how I'd been fascinated by Penfolds since 1995, when Wine Spectator magazine named its 1990 Grange the wine of the year -- the first time the magazine had given such an accolade to a wine not French or American. Our friends sighed. It may be the country's best-known wine, they said, but the way it's made -- from a blend of grapes plucked from the best grown by myriad small producers -- flies in the face of the more traditional "taste of the earth" approach of boutique winemakers.
By the time we hit the road two days later, headed toward the Rutherglen wine region of northeastern Victoria about three hours away, we were remapping our plans and furiously cross-matching dozens of small wineries we had never heard of with the top-rated wines in the latest Penguin Good Australian Wine Guide. Even with a designated driver (usually Bill), we tried to limit visits each day to six or eight wineries, stopping just long enough to taste a representative sample of their wares, but leaving enough time to enjoy the sights along the way.
The first outing, for example, was by way of Glenrowan, the little town where Australia's most famous outlaw, Ned Kelly, was hunted down and captured in 1880.
Never heard of Kelly? He is Australia's biggest folk hero, kind of a combination Jesse James and Robin Hood. And Glenrowan is home to a strange little museum dedicated to the Australian equivalent of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Part stage set, part rudimentary robotic animation, all the proprietor's obsession with the Kelly tale (his grandfather made the crude metal bulletproof helmet for which Kelly was famous), it was a fitting introduction to Australian lore.
Back on the road, we tried to nail down Australian lingo. "Pokies" are electronic slot machines, a rage sweeping the continent -- to which wine-producing regions seem particularly averse. "No Pokies" signs abound.
We learned that "cellar door" is the Aussie (there is a national insistence on shortening every word and adding "ie") term for what we Americans call a tasting room. The wineries started out selling their products literally out the door of the cellar, and most of them still do; some sell all their wine that way. Not only are the prices better for consumers, but Australian postal rates for shipping wines are incredibly low -- about $14 U.S. to ship a case of wine from one end of the country to another. (It costs about $250 per case to ship to the United States.) Most vineyards are along the perimeter of the continent -- where most Australians live -- and visiting vineyards is a national pastime.
These days visitors are allowed inside the wineries -- into often spare, sometimes luxurious accommodations -- where the person doing the pouring is just as likely to be the vineyard owner or the winemaker or at least members of their families.
Pasties and Penguins
Since Bill and Alma had visited Rutherglen several times, they took us to their favorite, All Saints Estate, as an elegant introduction to the wine country. This is one of the region's original wineries, now owned by members of the Brown family, a founding dynasty of Australian winemaking. All Saints is housed in a castle, with lofty brick walls and hedges that resemble a moat. It's an aristocratic site that wouldn't be out of place in the Bordeaux area of France or along Highway 29, the main drag of California's Napa Valley. On the edge of the Australian bush, it appeared like an apparition.
The cellar door is a cavernous room, with a huge tearoom and restaurant in an adjoining conservatory. We were greeted like long-lost cousins. All Saints produces a staggering array of wines, including shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, Riesling, sparkling and fortified wines by the dozen. And we were welcome to sample as many as we wanted, without charge. We focused on the durif, a robust red that often has been mislabeled petite syrah in the United States. When we were finished sampling it and a half-dozen others, we tried out the breathalyzer by the front door as we left, a contraption that is a regular feature of Australia's wine-tasting circuit, an indication of the country's tough drunk-driving laws.
Back on the two-lane blacktop that serves as the main highway through town, we ducked down a rutted dirt road and stopped at a ramshackle shed that is home to some of the finest sweet wines in Australia. The old farmhand dressed in dusty work clothes and tending to a dog tied up outside turned out to be William "Sir Bill" Chambers, the owner of Chambers Rosewood Vineyard, who was awarded Australia's highest honor, the Medal of the Order of Australia, for his contributions to the nation's wine industry.
Chambers is the king of what Australians call "stickies," the fortified sweet wines most often served with desserts. Sample bottles were sitting out on a table, and we were invited to pour our own as Chambers, a fifth-generation winemaker in his early seventies, brushed aside compliments. "We just do it the way we always have," he said. To hear him tell it, anyone could plant some vines and turn out world-class wines. It was not unlike having the owner of France's famed Chateau d'Yquem talk you through a tasting.
The next morning we learned firsthand about another mainstay of Australian road trips: the bakery. A vestige of settlers' European roots, there are bakeries in every town and they serve as kind of bush country McDonald's. The bakeries aren't just all pastries and cakes but full-scale eateries serving sandwiches and pasties (meat turnovers) and a few hot meals such as shepherd's pie. The little town of Beechworth is home to one of the area's most famous, the Beechworth Bakery, a two-story place where tour buses schedule lunch. Over scones and coffee, we plotted our way through the Alpine and Yarra valley wine regions.
For the next week, we explored the wineries of Victoria, along the way sampling the artisan cheeses of Milawa and Red Hill, and dining in the sumptuous hall of Chateau Yering (Australia's only Relais and Chateaux hotel) and in the breezy elegance of Red Hill Estate, with sweeping views across the vineyards to the waters of Western Port and the Southern Ocean.
We spent an evening watching the nightly parade of fairy penguins on Phillip Island. These pint-size versions of the Antarctic penguin spend all day in the ocean and with great punctuality return each night at sundown to their burrows in the dunes. There are concrete grandstands to accommodate the crowds, and a boardwalk through the dunes so you can see the young waddling outside the burrows awaiting their parents' return with food. We explored nature parks and saw wombat, wallabies and kangaroos. In the wild, these animals are mainly nocturnal, and the only other kangaroos we saw were roadkill. We traveled along the Great Ocean Road southwest of Melbourne, which rivals French Riviera cornices, and saw the 12 Apostles -- amazing rock formations created by years of erosion.
Drink Up, Adelaide
When Gene and I ventured off alone to Adelaide, we asked for winery suggestions from every waiter and bartender we met, and they were always eager to offer their favorites, frequently places not listed in any of our books. A waiter at Jolley's Boathouse there recommended Rockford Wines, a tiny Barossa Valley winery that produces stellar wines using antique equipment and only sells at the cellar door. The owner of Adelaide's Universal Wine Bar, John Taylor, said, "Try some of this" as he poured us glasses of Tapestry shiraz. He suggested we visit this producer of such wines as Twelve Barrels, of which literally only 12 barrels were made.
He, too, suggested Rockford: "Your California stuff is nothing to sniff at, and God knows the French make luscious wines, but to my taste there is nothing like a deep, rich, red Barossa."
We set aside a day each to visit four separate wine regions surrounding Adelaide: Barossa, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills and Clare Valley. And we collected winemaking tales along the way. The cellar door manager at Wirra Wirra (an aboriginal name) directed us to Foggo Wines, a family-owned place that has some of the oldest cabernet sauvignons in Australia. There, owner Sandie Van De Wiel explained that some of their wines are produced in such small quantities that her children stomp the grapes. "Our wines are dry-grown, which means we don't irrigate and depend on moisture from the sea breezes to help temper the brutal summer temperatures," she said, noting that several years of recent drought had not changed their methods.
She and her husband, Herb, are second-generation wine producers. "He does it all by instinct," Van De Wiel said of her husband. "We have a university-trained winemaker who runs the numbers," determining things such as acidity.
On the day we visited Clare Valley, about an hour and a half north of Adelaide, there were dust storms so bad you could hardly see across the road. The winemakers apologized for the weather. But the storms didn't stop the revelry at Skillogalee Wines (named after the porridge of grass seed and water that sustained early settlers in the area), where a wedding party gathered on the veranda. And they didn't deter visitors to Sevenhill Cellars, where Jesuits make wine for churches throughout Australia (the giant barriques were labeled "sweet altar wine") and other varietals for public consumption.
I finally made it to Penfolds, in the Barossa Valley in a little town called Nuriootpa. It was the least interesting and most commercial of the 60 or so wineries we visited, and it wasn't offering samples of Grange. I finally tasted the nectar at the Magill Estate restaurant, a stunningly modern building on the site of Penfolds' original winery in the hills overlooking Adelaide.
It was just a sip from a small glass, the last of a bottle that had been opened for sales by the glass. The voluptuous flavors of the wine exploded in my mouth: blackberry, chocolate, plum. It lingered in the back of my throat.
Grange lacked the earthy character of Bad Impersonator, the concentrated sweetness of For Love or Money. But if I had only pursued Grange, I would have never found them.
Nancy Lewis is the food editor for The Post's Extra editions.