By Jamie Drummond

At the chilly, snowblown, tail end of January, Wine Australia hosted a truly remarkable tasting for a select group of New York City’s top Sommeliers, including GFR favourite, Terroir’s Paul Grieco

Also present were a covert elite unit of Toronto’s finest sniffers and slurpers: Maple Leaf Sport’s Jennifer Huether MS and Jonathan Gonsenhauser, Canoe and Jump’s William Predhomme, Langdon Hall’s Kathleen Moore, and The Granite Club’s Corey Ladouceur. A formidable tasting team if ever there were one…

Wine Australia Landmark Masterclass NYC 2011

The express purpose of this tasting was a particularly ambitious one; to redefine Australian wine in the minds of some of North America’s most influential tastemakers… no mean feat considering the manner in which Australian juice has fallen off the wine lists of so many dining establishments over the course of the last five or so years. Wine Australia is by certainly not taking this situation lying down, and this educational Landmark Australia Masterclass tasting series bears testament to their explicit understanding of where they are today, let’s call it a nadir, and more importantly where they need to be in the coming years.

Paul Henry, Director, WineHero Consulting

For an insight into the inception of these Landmark tastings we caught up with WineHero’s Paul Henry, one of the driving forces behind this much-needed redefinition of Australian wine:

Paul Henry, Director of WineHero Consultants:

I think the whole piece on Australia and whether or not it has a legitimate ‘narrative’ or not – Matt Kramer’s  blog of 01.02.11 posits this argument – can be viewed as either a failure or an opportunity…

Either way, it is both terrifying and galvanizing that a room full of serious tasters in New York can profess both delight and surprise at such relatively ‘mainstream’ propositions as regional specialties – Clare Valley Riesling; Yarra Valley Pinot – from Australia.

Oldest soils in the world; oldest vines in the world; 200 years of serious endeavour and we are still best known for cartoon flavours and/or a monolithic style favoured by one US critic, now currently divesting his writing portfolio…

Ideally, we could do 30 such tastings a year across 30 cities in North America –  trade and specialist media during the day, punters and social media in the evenings. I think it’s the only way to shift perceptions, and there will be no significant ‘moving of the needle’ until we accomplish that…

As the tasting wrapped up, Good Food Revolution harassed some of the Sommeliers present to record their personal opinions upon what they had experienced that day:

Will Predhomme, Senior Sommelier,
Canoe Restaurant and Bar/Jump Restaurant, Toronto:

Wines of Australia is doing what needs to be done. The focus is beginning to move from the ocean of yellow seen on the LCBO shelves, to diversification in its products, & recognizing there is a world outside over-extracted Shiraz & Cabernet Sauvignon. By investing in the promotion of small production, artisanal, & cool climate wines, we are seeing a more progressive side to what Australia has to offer, as well as investment in quality above quantity. With such a powerful trade organization & the some of the most influential wine figures leading the charge, there’s no reason why Australia can’t quickly rebrand its image & provide a broad variety of exciting wines once again.

Jennifer Huether MS, Head Sommelier, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., Toronto:

This was an insightful tasting into quality wines produced in Australia, with character, depth, and a sense of place. It was interesting to see how well the wines evolved over time (especially the Rieslings) and how well these wines matched with food. I will be stocking my cellar with Australian Riesling to enjoy now and over the next 15 years, and searching out those amazing Pinot Noirs.

Kathleen Moore, Sommelier/Beverage Director, Langdon Hall, Cambridge:

It was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity. It’s amazing to think that the tasting was only a sliver of the week long event that they hold in Australia every year. Having been in the industry for some time I can say that one of my biggest challenges is fighting preconceived notions. I am not going to lie, when setting out to NYC to sample Aussie Pinot Noir  and Rieslings I did not have high hopes.

Being a Burgundy hound I thought that Australia couldn’t possibly have the right terroir for pinot. I have been pleasantly surprised by a few Tasmanian Pinots but honestly I was not expecting what we came across at all. Pinots that had aged with finesse. A balance and concentration in the young Pinots that I did not expect. The stars of the show though were definitely the Rieslings. Two weeks later and I am still thinking about their bright acidy and lush round fruit. Still vibrant with hardly any petrol after 8 years of age. All together an experience that won’t be soon forgotten. Also one that has started the hunt for these elusive wines here in our market.

Paul Grieco Sommelier/Proprietor
Hearth Restaurant / Terroir EVil / Terroir Tribeca, New York City:

Never has a tasting done so much to renew faith in a region as this Master Class in Aussie grape juice. Finally, FINALLY we saw terroir in Australia and ageability…two things I did not expect to see and taste. If we give it another chance, Australia can certainly win our hearts, minds and souls back.

Corey Ladouceur, Sommelier/Restaurants Manager, Granite Club, Toronto:

Sharing some of the best Rieslings and Pinot Noirs being made in Australia, with Toronto’s finest Sommeliers and our American counterparts of recent in NYC, was truly a fantastic trip on many levels.  The wines themselves were outstanding in many respects.  Our tutored tastings with Tom Carson and Michael Hill Smith gave great insight to the individual regions and stylistic differences between the two grape varieties, touching on many aspects of their evolution and pristine clarity in the glass. It was rewarding for the education component and also to be surrounded by such esteemed colleagues in a casual, yet professional setting.

After an eye-opening morning (and part of an afternoon) tasting some of the very best that Australia can muster Riesling and Pinot-wise, the feeling in the room was unanimous. These wines were damn good, and a million miles removed from the vast majority of bottlings that we see so often on both North American shelves and wine lists. Some in the group felt that the pricing was perhaps a little prohibitive, with some of the Pinot Noirs running up to almost $100 US, but then again one has to take into consideration the fact that we had just been exposed to what were considered to be some of the very finest wines in all Australia.

On that cold morning in New York City, Wine Australia certainly achieved what they had set out to do, and with a considerable amount of panache. Paul Henry summed up the day’s proceeding rather succinctly:

Paul Henry, Director of WineHero Consultants:

All up – Australia needs to work harder to foster a legitimate respect for what it does best – regional wines of authentic interest and genuine sense of place – rather than what it does most – commercial wines of technical correctness and ubiquity.

Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… and that was an amazing couple of flights… both the Rieslings and the Pinots truly sang, particularly the older Rieslings.

This video is made possible through the kind support of Fortessa Canada/Schott Zwiesel