I think it's fair to say that most Americans, when asked about Australian wine, still point to two things: big, jammy Shiraz and, regrettably, "that bottle with the kangaroo on it."
To be sure, we're seeing a lot more variety from Australia on our shelves, and we're coming around to the idea that Australian wine is more than fruit bombs that stain your teeth and tablecloth. Serious Cabernets from Margaret River and Coonawarra are regularly finding themselves on tables Stateside, and folks are increasingly unfazed by the notion that high-quality Riesling can be reliably produced just down the road from that famed Shiraz (we'll get into that more during a future exploration of all things Riesling).
One area that still flies perhaps a bit under the radar is the Mornington Peninsula in the state of Victoria. Roughly an hour outside Melbourne, the peninsula lies south of the city and helps frame Port Phillip Bay. Although the first forays into viticulture here happened in the 1880s, it wasn't until the 1970s that sustained efforts at wine-growing took hold. Intrepid souls recognized the Mornington's potential to produce Pinot noir and Chardonnay (among others) in this region's cool maritime climate -- it's surrounded on 3 sides by water, which results in a long and moderated growing season.
I was lucky enough to visit the Mornington Peninsula to check out some producers and sample their wines. The verdict? Pure, clean expressions of cool-climate wines that are sure to turn heads and satisfy any potential skeptics lurking out there. That said, being a region full of boutique producers does have real, obvious drawbacks: there simply ain't a lot of wine being made, and it can be hard to find on this side of the Pacific due to limited distribution. Oh, and another thing: these aren't your $10 bargain bottles by any stretch. But seek them out you should, and here are some of my favorites in case you happen to make the trip or score some at home:
This family-run operation was started in 1982 by Jill and Richard McIntyre. While the various Pinot noirs were certainly delicious (the Robinson and McIntyre are real treats), I was particularly impressed by their Chardonnays. Tasting a lineup of the 2013s, the Robinson Chardonnay stood out to me. Medium-bodied and full of citrus and pineapple notes, it's a food-friendly stunner that any Chardonnay-lover would immediately embrace.
Yabby Lake's delicious portfolio of wines can be enjoyed in a stylish cellar door atmosphere. It's friendly, relaxed, and beautiful -- which is pretty much how the Mornington can be described overall. The Pinot noirs are exemplary, and each of the Block 1, Block 2, and Block 6 Pinots has a distinct character, with Block 2's softness and restraint being especially pleasing. What really made an impression on me, however, was the Single Vineyard Syrah. It's no accident that they're calling it Syrah and not Shiraz; this is decidedly not your typical Australian expression of the grape. Rather, it's got the meaty spiciness and pepperiness you'd expect with a very fine structure to match. It's a textbook example of cool climate Syrah and worth hunting down if you can.
Ever heard of a "wine koala" before? Yeah, I hadn't either before dropping by Quealy Winemakers. You see, there's a koala living in a tree just outside the cellar. But as fascinating (and adorable) as that may be, what's happening inside the cellar is just as noteworthy. You'll find the usual suspects in Quealy's lineup (read: several Pinot noirs), but they're also well known for some of their Italian varietals. Pinot grigio is done right here, but their Amphora Friulano is my shining star of a wine. Richly textured and phenolic thanks to extended skin contact, the wine is complex and delicate -- think almonds and soft cheeses in terms of aromas and flavors. Unique and scrumptious stuff.
The fun doesn't stop there, though. Ten Minutes by Tractor, Port Phillip Estate (the views are spectacular, too), and Merricks Creek Winery are other notable producers to try. And I'd be remiss to not mention that many of these fabulous estates, including the aforementioned Ten Minutes by Tractor, also feature superlative restaurants. Other notables are Stillwater at Crittenden Estate, Foxeys Hangout, Paringa Estate, and Max's Restaurant at Red Hill Estate.
So give these wines a shot, yinz guys. Whether you're looking to make a day trip from Melbourne or simply want to recreate the rustic farm-to-table ambiance in Morningside, it's worth the effort to enjoy the fruit of Mornington's labor.