Cape Mentelle Margaret River Cabernet Merlot, 2005We’re fast approaching the end of 2012, and yet another crappy day! The sky was leaden throughout, with nothing on the horizon but drizzle or worse. A weekend to forget, or at least slog through to better times. But there is one quick solution to conditions outside: go inside! Retreat to the (hopefully) toasty interior of your apartment/house and pop some corks while eating lasagna/pork loin/another family oriented comfort food. And this is just what I did, all weekend. With January being Diet Month, there’s no better time than right now to indulge in favorite foods… and wines.

I like to keep my anti-social bad weather wines varied; keeps it interesting. So for this most recent departure from rainy reality, and in acknowledgment that New Year’s is right around the corner, I resolved to try something I would not normally try: a completely unfamiliar Australian red blend. Risky? Absolutely. Without good knowledge of vintages across regions, you can easily pick an Aussie red that falls flat on its face; these wines are very much at the mercy of the weather. But as with all good resolutions, this one paid off.

A little background on Australia’s Margaret River region: easily one of Australia’s premiere winemaking locales, this region is both extremely isolated and extremely good for grape vines. It is also very young. The first vines were planted in the mid-to-late 1960’s after Dr. John Gladstones wrote a book titled Viticulture and Environment outlining how ideal Margaret River’s climate and soils are for vineyards. Wines produced here tend to balance their typical Aussie big character and round, fleshy fruit with nice definition and poise. Unlike the Barossa Valley, which is renowned for its Shiraz, Margaret River produces especially fine Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc / Semillon blends. Cape Mentelle is one of the pioneer wineries in the region, and has vineyard blocks dating back to 1970.

With none of this in mind, I opened the 2005 Cape Mentelle Cabernet Merlot to pair with a variety of grilled sausages. And DANG. Deep purple in the glass, inky and slinky: liquefied desert flowers. The aromas were striking, too, with jammy blackcurrant fruit and touches of spice. Great silky mouthfeel, fine soft tannins throughout, round but not flabby; just enough acidity. More dark berry fruit and spices in the mouth, with notes of black pepper and cocoa. Great finish; my only complaint here is that the finish is shorter than I would like, considering the fruit. Well-balanced overall, and a steal at $15. Pair with spice-rubbed lamb rack, grilled sausages, or any other meaty comfort food.

Back to civilization! Back from the serene shores of Eagle Lake; back down from the Sierra Nevada Mountains. And what a vacation. Fantastic fishing, long hikes on old trails, camping in the icy cold. Gulping down delicious wines paired with grilled meats and outlandish fireside stories told by family I hadn’t seen for far too long…

Over the course of this past week, we drank many wonderful Napa and Sonoma wines, lush with their fruit and sometimes finesse. Such a wild trip, though, merits a wine of equal depth. Something grizzly, and potent, and strange. Full moon wine; celebratory wine. This crazy vacation made me crave my unabashedly favorite grape: Shiraz.

The only choice was the 2010 “Raw Power” Shiraz, produced by Dominique Torzi and Tim Freeland in the Adelaide Hills in South Australia. Punk rockers to the core, these guys work with small growers to get choice fruit at value, and roll out wines that showcase the intensity and rich fruit displayed by all good Shiraz. And, like a lot of things in life, its appearance is deceiving. “Raw Power” is a cheap plonk lookalike with real flavor and depth. Ideal for camping.

When I poured this wine into a glass, the color was a nice deep purple. Aromas of baked cherry pie, mushrooms and loam – serious earthiness here, all soft and mossy. More round berry fruit in the mouth, again that almost sensual texture, with hints of truffle, tobacco and cocoa. Supple tannins and just enough acidity to keep this fruit bomb from being flabby. Ridiculously good with barbecue, especially if you’re grilling over a wood fire in the mountains with family or friends. $13. Just buy a few cases and throw ’em in your Land Rover.

Once in a while I just want a red wine that makes me happy. Not too much to ask, right? On a day as fantastic as today, when life explodes with good fortune after a poor week, the one thing I ask from my wine is: make me grin. The ideal red grape would, for times of celebration, reliably demonstrate a few key qualities: Delicious dark fruit, emphasizing blackberry or plum. Some notes of earth, black pepper, and mocha. From Australia – specifically, Barossa.

Fine, a variety of red grapes do this all the time: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Sangiovese… but only Shiraz has that special mix of ebullient fruit and depth of flavor that keep me coming back for another whiff, another sip. Another bottle. Another case. Etc.

Chief contender this week would be the Australian winery, Yalumba. Yalumba has been making wine in the Barossa Valley since 1849. The word in Aboriginal means “all the land around,” and these winemakers really take advantage of Australian terroir. Great value all around, with numerous blends to satisfy a variety of palates and situations, especially if those situations involve a party.

The 2010 Yalumba Shiraz/Viognier blend, 80% Shiraz and 20% Viognier, captures the essence of what I enjoy in Australia wine. Lush, fruit-forward and bright without being brassy, this juice just sways in front of you. A near-purple red in the glass, with aromas of lychee, lavender and blackberry that land like cats into velvety plum and mocha cushions. Deliciously round, showing fine tannins and a firm structure, this Shiraz maintains a silky mouthfeel leading to a medium finish, hinting at oak. Buy a bottle and drink from a mason jar; pair with T-bone or braised short ribs. $12.

One thing I love about Australian wines is their consistent intensity, but the real essence of Australian wine goes deeper than that. Something about the terroir, the essence of the landscape and its climate, lends bold and blustering aspects of flavor to Australian wine, reds especially, which I find irresistible. And here is one reason why: The 2004 Fetish showcase, The Watcher. This is 100% Barossa Valley Shiraz, a proprietary brand by Joshua Tree Imports, with Rolf Binder as the winemaker. The wine has complex blue-black fruit and pepper aromas on the nose, with more jammy blueberries, violets, and plums on the palate. It has soft tannins and a long finish, featuring interesting cinnamon notes. A damn steal at $20 a bottle. Pair with any powerfully-seasoned grilled red meat.

The other Mollydooker I’ve encountered. Two Left Feet, like its companion The Boxer, is just packed with fruit; in fact, it has even more, primarily cherry and cassis, and has almost as much spice, about as much body, and almost overwhelms (in a good way) with the massive finish. A blend of Shiraz, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Serious oak character, showing as a deep smoky quality. It also has a definite cedary element. Don’t drink this alone. Be brave! $24. This needed decanting when I tried it, but by now should be drinking very well. Enjoy with rare peppered or seasoned steak.