After we left the rarefied confines of the Special Double Secret Tutored Tasting Room at Penfolds in Nuriootpa, I spent a few minutes tasting some other, more ordinary Penfolds wines; the same guy poured them for us, which was cool 'cuz we'd talked about what we really liked in wines, so we were able to cut through the crap and just get down to the wines we would most likely want to purchase. Here they are:
2000 Adelaide Hills Semillon. After some convincing, I tried this. And, guess what? It's probably the best semillon I've had in Australia. Much more to my taste than the Hunter semillons; very smooth, elegant, and precise. I suppose it'd be wonderful if you aged it, but it's great right now. A$27. I still don't like semillon, though; it's just too vanilla for me.
2001 Eden Valley Reserve riesling, A$27. I liked this enough to buy a bottle. It's among the better rieslings I've tried, having a very floral nose, lots of acid, lots of fruit, lots of everything. Sadly, it's under cork. In retrospect, though, you can probably get better rieslings for less money; it's very good, but slightly too expensive.
1997 Clare Valley Reserve Aged Riesling, A$27. Hell, I bought one of these too. It's definitely getting the fusel oil thing going on, and I was warned that it'll get more like that the longer it goes without being drunk, but I like it that way. Very well integrated sugar/acid, beautiful nose, all in all an excellent example of aged riesling. I had a bottle of this in February, but as far as I can tell, that bottle must have been corked, because it was nowhere near as wonderful as this was.
1999 Cellar Reserve Sangiovese, A$35. Guess what? I bought this too. It's the kind of wine you almost never see done in Australia, and that made it all the more appealing. Great sangiovese flavor, coupled with searing acidity, although not too much. Dan actually liked it far more than I did. Impressive as all hell. Still probably a bit overpriced but I guess that's how things go at Penfolds.
Next stop on the list was Charlie Melton. Melton's about a mile east of the main drag, off in the hills; it's a nice country shack/barn/winery kind of place with a small lawn out front; you park in a dirt lot and traipse across the lawn to the tasting room, which is a wonderful little wood panelled room with a small fire, a big wooden table, a loaf of bread, and a haphazard assortment of bottles and glasses on the table. The two women running the place greeted us heartily, and when I asked where I could spit, they suggested I do it outside on the lawn, thus communing with Nature, or by using the spitoon on the table which I hadn't seen at that point. Here's what we tried:
2002 Rose of Virginia. I actually didn't try this, but dude, this is seriously good rosé if memory serves me correctly. Better than the Lehmann for only slightly more money.
2000 (?) pinot meunier. I was compelled to buy a bottle of this. It's the first time I'd ever actually tasted pinot meunier, which is a mutation of pinot noir so named because the leaves look like they've been dusted with flour (meunier is French for miller). It was... stunning. Definitely in the pinot room of the building, but just outside of it. I liked this an awful lot.
2000 (?) Kangaroo something or other syrah (not shiraz!). I gave the staff a hard time about the name, and they explained that Charlie just called it syrah for the hell of it, not to indicate that it was especially Rhône-ish or anything. And I'm fine with that. This was a lovely wine and great value for about A$18 if memory serves me correctly, with low key oak and a great length of flavor.
2000 (?) Grenache. Dan bought a bottle of this, and I couldn't even argue against it. Easily one of the best grenaches I've ever had, this was heavier than usual, with a good deep color and a very interesting depth of fruit flavors here. The best grenache yet.
2000 (?) cabernet sauvignon. Again, stunning stuff. This is so totally the kind of cabernet you read about but never actually get to drink - hats off to Charlie. I didn't buy any just 'cuz I already have too much cabernet at home.
2000 (?) Nine Popes. This is the wine for which Melton is best known, a Rhône blend of syrah-grenache with some mataro in there for good measure. Oddly enough, it really didn't grab me as much as I would have expected. It's no Cigare, and not significantly better than the Rosemount IMHO. A bit disappointing, especially given the A$42 price. Still, a good wine.
2000 (?) Shiraz. I bought this one as well, at A$40. This was, to my taste, the best Barossa shiraz I tried, with a great balance between French oak and heavy duty Aussie fruit. Others may have been slightly better (Penfolds, Lehmann), but this one gave me the biggest bang for the buck. Lovely and feminine, this is good stuff but perhaps not as mind-altering as the Plantagenet or Clonakilla. Still, what more could you ask for, really? I'm guessing this may approache the utterly sublime given ten years' age.
Melton were also kind enough to give us a handy one case box with special cardboard inserts to accomodate all sizes of bottles, which will come in handy. I guess we're about to fill a second case to go home in Dan's suitcase. Frankly, we've gone over the top at this point with wine purchases, but we're still under the A$1,000 mark, and therefore under budget.
So... last stop: Orlando, or Jacob's Creek. The brand spanking new tasting building opened in May, but was officially inaugurated only a week and a half ago. Given that I was kind of buzzed when I showed up (I hadn't spat out any of the expensive stuff at Penfolds, as you might expect), I decided that we should cool our heels in the restaurant and give the alcohol some time to work through my system. Now, I guess I was expecting a soulless corporate experience, but instead I had one of the three best meals I've had in Australia. Honest! I'm shocked that it was so fucking good. I started with a Caesar salad (A$9) that arrived in a huge white ceramic bowl, with wonderful fresh romaine lettuce, huge shavings of parmesan, and lots of bacon hidden among a delicate creamy dressing with some anchovy in there as well. I had a glass of the Orlando St. Helga riesling (A$4.50), which struck me as insanely good riesling at the time, nearly as good as the Grosset, Howard Park, or any of the other top end Aussie stuff. (And guess what? It only cost A$15.50 at the cellar door!) After that, I moved on to a grilled fillet of beef with parsnip and sweet potato (A$20) which was done to perfection - and a nice, healthy portion at that. I paired it with a Russet Ridge Bordeaux blend (A$4.50), which was about as perfect as you could get, and, again, amazing given the low cost. Finally, I shared a humongous cheese platter (A$12.50) with Dan, which has three slabs o' cheese: a blue, a cloth wrapped, and a hard Cheddar style cheese, along with some dried apricots and some partly raisined grapes. Mmmmmm. I had both a glass of Gramp's botrytis semillon and an Orlando port liqueur (each A$4.50) with the cheese, trading sips with Dan, both of which were stunning. At this point I was so incredibly happy at the good food and wine that I shamelessly kissed the supervisor's ass - she was obviously a bit harried and stressed and I figured it was time to let her know just what a wonderful job her restaurant was doing. She visibly brightened, stopped for a minute, and expressed her thanks... not the least of which by sending over two more glasses of the semillon at absolutely no extra charge. Talk about a bonus! After a cafe latte (A$2.50), I was ready to drive into Adelaide (barely legally) and have a nice long nap - but of course I had to snatch up a bottle of the botrytis semillon (A$15) before hitting the road.
So, how do I feel about Jacob's Creek? Well, admittedly, I didn't really have any of their wines (apart from a sip of Dan's JC reserve riesling, which was pretty nice). However, the wines I had were made by the same people in the same winery, and they were uniformly standouts in their class, although significantly less expensive than the competition. Most of all, though, I was floored by the food and tasting building itself, and I came away feeling mighty good indeed about JC and Orlando in general. Sure, the el cheapo chardonnay they do may be as interesting as donkey's piss to French critics, but 20 million fans can't be too terribly wrong.
All in all, it was an impressive, eye-opening day.