Can terroir be exported? Sometimes it sure looks like it.
I use the term figuratively, of course. It would be a nonsense question taken literally. Terroir derives from terre, French for land or soil. You can't move your front lawn, let alone a large vineyard, on a flatbed trailer (though I suspect a few Texas RV enthusiasts would want to try). More significantly, you can't transport the myriad other physical attributes that distinguish a vineyard and impact the flavour of grapes, such as prevailing temperatures, precipitation, humidity and wind, even the yeast strains and insects blowing around in the air.
How, then, to explain a wine like Domaine Tournon Mathilda Shiraz 2011? The flavour is textbook northern Rhône syrah, with pronounced characters of cracked pepper, licorice and smoked meat woven into the restrained fruit. I suspect many a trained taster would, without benefit of a peek at the label, peg the full-bodied red as fine, crisply tailored Crozes-Hermitage. If Australian shiraz (same grape as syrah, different name) is an AC/DC power chord of jam, this is more like a Messiaen composition. It's even made by M. Chapoutier, the Rhône négociant distinguished for quality syrah, including wines made from fruit grown on Hermitage hill, the syrah fanatic's Temple Mount.
But, yes, it's Australian. Michel Chapoutier began sussing out Australia's potential in the 1990s, working with the locals on joint projects and more recently setting up wholly owned Domaine Tournon in the Victorian Pyrenees. It's a budding wine region named, coincidentally, after the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain. I'm not entirely certain how Chapoutier manages to contain the fruit-bomb character so endemic to the sunny Australian continent, but he must be good at picking cool nooks and crannies in those Pyrenees that more closely resemble the climate of his native northern Rhône. Cool nights enable grapes to ripen slowly and evenly, without high sugar spikes that can produce high alcohol and overripe flavours that tend to mask those oh-so-French savoury nuances.
You can see the restraint merely by glancing at the Mathilda's label: 13-per cent alcohol. For an Australian red, that's tamer than a stuffed-toy kangaroo. Not coincidentally, the Mathilda is tied with another Chapoutier red for lowest alcohol level of 12 reds released today in Ontario Vintages stores as part of an Australian spotlight. Not that there's anything wrong with most of the other selections (available in various provinces where indicated). In fact, they'd pair just as well with red meat on the grill.
Domaine Tournon Mathilda Shiraz 2011 (Australia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95
At just 13-per-cent alcohol, timid for Australia, this full-bodied red nonetheless is ideally ripe. The texture's polished, carrying elegant, restrained fruit infused with savoury notes of licorice, cracked pepper, black olive tapenade, herbs and smoked meat. It's a bargain. $21.99 for the 2010 vintage in B.C., various prices in Alberta, $21.15 in Quebec, $23.99 in Newfoundland.
Trust Shiraz 2010 (Australia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $25.95
The brand name is a reference to dependability – as in being able to trust you'll enjoy the wines. The fruit in this cheerful 2010 shiraz is candy-store wine gum, in a good way, laced with chocolate and spice. Full-bodied, it stays bright and lively through the finish. Available in Ontario.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (Australia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $27.95
The price of this remarkably dependable and elegant cabernet sauvignon has crept up in recent years, but it remains a smart gambit for value-seeking collectors. This 2010 will continue improving for some time – 15 years, I'd say – and I've sampled Wynns cabs going back more than 50 years. Excellent structure here: rich cassis and dark chocolate laced with tobacco, black olive and mint set against dry, fine-grained and pleasantly sticky tannins. Various prices in Alberta, $22.99 in Manitoba.
Domaine Terlato & Chapoutier Lieu Dit Malakoff Shiraz 2011 (Australia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $55.95
This is the spawn of French négociant Michel Chapoutier's joint venture with his prominent U.S. importer, Anthony Terlato. As with Chapoutier's Domaine Tournon Mathilda from Australia, this tastes more like Rhône Valley syrah than the high-watt fruit of Down Under. Juicy berries and plum come together on a seamless texture with notes of white pepper, licorice and leather. Available in Ontario. (Older vintages available in Quebec.)
The Winner's Tank Shiraz 2012 (Australia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $17.95
There's a water tank in the vineyard. Each year the winning Australian Rules Football team from one of three neighbouring towns gets to paint the tank in its team's colours. Ever tried velvet dusted with cocoa powder? I'm sorry if that sounds like a chocoholic tailor's wet dream, but this full-bodied red is as much about texture as flavour (and sports team colours). Smooth would be the obvious word. It carries cocoa, vanilla, smoke and dried berries, but then it turns pleasantly sticky with dusty tannins. Available in Ontario.
Mitolo G.A.M. Shiraz 2010 (Australia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $39.95
Frank Mitolo named his first wine in 2000 after his children, Gemma, Alex and Marco. It was no lightweight tribute; this is a whopper. At 15.4-per-cent alcohol, the 2010 vintage is an explosion of plum jam and prune, a conspicuous display of what southern Australia's sunshine can deliver in the way of ripeness. The tannins are velvety and the acidity fresh, though there's a hint of alcoholic heat on the finish. $44.99 in B.C., $40.78 in Manitoba, $43.75 for the 2009 vintage in Quebec.
Shingleback Red Knot Shiraz 2012 (Australia)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $17.95
Chewy raspberry, smooth vanilla and peppery spice – this strikes a good balance between crowdpleasing sweet fruit and savoury gravitas. $19.99 in B.C., various prices in Alberta.
Zonte's Footstep Lake Doctor Shiraz 2012 (Australia)
SCORE: 86 PRICE: $16.95
I suspect most people would like this more than I do. On the plus side: It has intense berries, balanced acidity and attractively edgy spice and tannins. On the negative: It can seem monotonous and mass-produced. Available in Ontario.