2005: Savor Australia’s other staple: fine wine

By John Steinbreder

Rowland Flat, Australia

Australian touring pro Peter O’Malley had just finished playing the first round of the Jacob’s Creek Open at Kooyonga Golf Club in Adelaide, and even though he did not score particularly well, he had no intention of heading to the range. Rather, he and I began making our way to a pastoral haven about an hour’s drive to the northeast, where lush rows of Cabernet and Riesling grapes stretch across rolling, sun-drenched hills.

Our destination was the Barossa, a region that encompasses the Barossa and Eden valleys and is regarded as the wine center of Australia.

O’Malley has become something of an oenophile in recent years, building a cellar of approximately 1,000 bottles as he educated himself on different vintages and varieties. And there was a tasting dinner scheduled that evening at Jacob’s Creek Heritage Vineyard, where he and a dozen other guests tried some of the best the Barossa has to offer.

The session was held in the rustic stone structure that served as the original winery and cellar of the Orlando Wyndham Group, which sells wine throughout the world under six primary brand names, among them Jacob’s Creek. It was built approximately 150 years ago, when a Bavarian immigrant named Johann Gramp planted the area’s first vineyard, and stands as a testament to the rich history of the Barossa and the high quality of its wines.

It also represents the special experience visitors can enjoy in the charming wine towns that dot the Barossa, featuring fine restaurants, pleasing inns and sumptuous tastings. I found the area to be an enticing Down Under version of the Sonoma Valley in Northern California.

Alas, we had only an evening. But we made the most of it in the form of a tasting dinner, during which we sampled a dozen wines as well as several courses of Australian cuisine. I watched O’Malley take a glass of a reserve Chardonnay, and after swirling it for a bit, he held it up to the sunlight to admire its color and texture.

“I love coming up here, to see new places like this and learn more about wine,” he said. “And I’ve found that the more you learn about wine, the more you are inclined to buy.”

What we learned that evening, as we worked our way through different reds and whites, and noshed on everything from Tasmanian salmon to Australian lamb chops, is that the Barossa accounts for slightly more than 20 percent of all wines produced Down Under and is home to more than 600 growers of various sizes.

The flagship grape is Shiraz; they were among the first planted in the region by Bavarian and English settlers and are noted for being among the oldest of that variety in the world, a characteristic that gives wines made from them a high intensity of alcohol as well as rich, full-bodied tastes and intensely concentrated fruit flavors. And no wine is more celebrated than the Penfolds Grange, a brilliant red blended in the style of Bordeaux (only with Shiraz and not Cabernet as the base) that rightfully is regarded as the best Australia has to offer.

But a number of other varieties also flourish in the region, among them Chardonnay, Semillon, Grenache, Viogner and Merlot, and all produce very drinkable – and, in many cases, outstanding – wines.

It was hard to pick the best of the batch from our tasting thatevening, all of which carried the Jacob’s Creek name. But I favored the hearty 2001 Reserve Shiraz, which was bursting with the flavor of berries, and a Chardonnay/Pinot Noir sparkling wine that literally danced on the tongue.

We wined and dined fairly late into the night, comforted by the fact that O’Malley had an afternoon tee time the next day and we had hired a mini-bus – and driver – to take us back to the city. On our way out the door, I asked the golfer when he would return to the Barossa, and he flashed a wry smile.

“Let’s see how I do tomorrow,” he replied, the implication being that if he missed the cut (which he didn’t), he would head right back.

My first impulse was to ask him for a ride.

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