Good Morning-ton Peninsula

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).

Clouds keeping the Mornington Peninsula cozy in winter

Clouds keeping the Mornington Peninsula cozy in winter

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:

Moorooduc Estate

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. 

Warming up at Moorooduc Estate

Warming up at Moorooduc Estate

Yabby Lake Vineyard

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.

Tasting at Quealy Winemakers

Tasting at Quealy Winemakers

Quealy Winemakers

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.

Can you spot the wine koala?

Can you spot the wine koala?

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.

Thanksgiving Tipple: Wines to Help You Survive the Holiday

Thanksgiving rightfully deserves praise for being a food- and family-focused affair, but let’s not beat around the bush: it’s also a uniquely stressful holiday for, oh, I don’t know – everyone.

Whether you’re frantically running through O’Hare to catch your connecting flight, laboring over countless dishes in the kitchen, or listening to yet another uninformed political opinion from Uncle Jerry (who invited him, anyway?), your blood pressure is going to spike sometime before you settle into your inevitable food coma. And you’re certainly going to want something to help take the edge off. Aunt Barb’s Franzia might suffice in a pinch, but why punish yourself needlessly? Instead, show up with one or more of these stunners that taste great and pair exceptionally well with pretty much any Thanksgiving spread.

As an added bonus, they’ll also soften the blow of any jabs at your physical appearance and/or professional life that family members tend to throw while panicking about the doneness of the giant bird in the oven.

Winter in Australia's Mornington Peninsula

Winter in Australia's Mornington Peninsula

Schiava

While scouring the internet for Thanksgiving wine recs, you’ll undoubtedly see plenty of folks out there extolling the virtues of Gamay, the grape used in Beaujolais, as the perfect light-bodied red to accompany your turkey dinner. And here’s the thing: they’re not wrong, of course, but you don’t always want to go with the crowd, do you? Nah, you want something brilliant that simply hasn’t achieved notoriety just yet – you know, like that mixtape you were describing to your father. Enter Schiava, a grape you (probably) didn’t know you needed in your life until now.

Sometimes grown in Germany where it’s called Trollinger, I find that Schiava reaches its delicious apex way up high in Italy’s mountainous Alto Adige region near the Austrian border. Given that the area remained under Austrian control until 1918, it should come as no surprise that the grape also goes by the name Vernatsch in these parts – wine isn’t confusing at all, right? Whatever name you give it, the wines made from Schiava are feather-light in body and provide pretty aromas of strawberries and violets. While the nose might trick you into thinking the wine will be candy-sweet, you’ll find the flavors are restrained and delicate – meaning it’ll be just as great with your pre-meal prosciutto as with the main event.

Expect to shell out somewhere in the neighborhood of $12-18 for a good bottle of Schiava. The wines are best consumed young, and some producers to look for include Peter Zemmer, Kellerei Kaltern, and Tramin.

Pinot noir

Okay, so maybe you do prefer something more traditional. I get it, you don't want to rock the boat yet again at a family meal.

A good Pinot noir is pretty much guaranteed to make your Thanksgiving dinner a happy occasion one sip at a time. It won’t beat you over the head with its flavors; rather, it politely invites you to take another drink and figure out just what flavor – cherry? cranberry? mushroom? – you’re picking up in the glass.

Now, the key word in that last paragraph was “good.” Many inexpensive Pinots can be syrupy messes that taste a lot like flat cherry cola, which…isn’t a great look. This is one grape where spending a little more cash is usually worth it. We all know that Burgundy in France is where Pinot reaches its spellbinding peak, but what if you’re trying to keep it under $40 for a bottle of something interesting? Look for New World alternatives, naturally. Oregon’s Willamette Valley has earned its reputation as Pinot’s second home, and producers like Cristom, The Four Graces, and Shea Wine Cellars demonstrate why.

In the Southern Hemisphere, New Zealand has certainly made a name for itself by producing serious Pinots. The same is true of some cool-climate regions in Australia like the Mornington Peninsula and Tasmania. But what if I told you South Africa, of all places, was churning out Pinot noirs that could fool you into thinking they were French? Pick up a bottle from Hamilton Russell Vineyards, La Brune, or Creation Wines and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

Silky smooth and exquisitely perfumed, La Brune's Pinot noir will surprise and delight

Silky smooth and exquisitely perfumed, La Brune's Pinot noir will surprise and delight

Pinot gris

Sure, it’s the same grape they call Pinot grigio in Italy, but it’s all a matter of style. While Pinot grigio often has the personality of a beige wall, Pinot gris is an entirely different animal – fruitier, richer, and with enough muscle to stand up to that plate of food loaded with various flavors and textures. It's a white wine that offers heady aromas of yellow apples and pears to go along with citrusy notes, and it’s got a pleasing weight on the palate. If you want to learn more about this fascinating grape and its various styles, Wine Folly has a great explainer.

The best Pinot gris tend to come out of Alsace in France. As you’d expect, though, they can sometimes command hefty price tags as you climb the quality ladder all the way up to the Grand Crus. Fear not, my friends: you can still grab a delicious bottle for around $20-25. I’m a big fan of Hugel et fils’ “Classic” Pinot gris, which gives you hints of marzipan along with all of that yummy fruit.

If you’ve got relatives who still say things like “freedom fries,” consider instead a Pinot gris from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Ponzi Vineyards does a tasty Pinot gris with full flavors of ripe orchard fruits and a snappiness that recalls ginger. You could do a lot worse for around $17.

Bubbles

Is there anyone out there who seriously doesn’t like a nice glass of bubbly? If such a person exists, I certainly don’t know them, and you probably don’t either.

Champagne is likely the first sparkling wine that comes to mind, but there are plenty of affordable alternatives out there – including some from elsewhere in France. Look for bottles with Crémant on the label, which is an indication that the wine is made in the traditional (Champagne) method but is from another region in France. For a cool $20-25, you’ll find tasty ones from the Loire (my personal favorite), Alsace, Jura, and more. If you haven’t yet given one a try, this is the perfect opportunity.

You could always pick up a trusty bottle of Cava (Segura Viudas Brut Reserva Heredad, perhaps?) or Prosecco (Bisol Crede is my go-to), too. And if you’re feeling like venturing a little farther off the beaten path, Gruet Winery makes a series of crowd-pleasing sparklers from New Mexico, of all places, and Graham Beck delivers amazing value South African fizz for around $15/bottle – the Brut Rosé NV is particularly tasty.  

 

Pretty in pink: Graham Beck Brut Rosé NV looks as good as it tastes

Pretty in pink: Graham Beck Brut Rosé NV looks as good as it tastes

Of course, you might very well decide that straight Bourbon is the only way to cope with your frayed nerves, and I would never judge you for that. But if you do give one of these wines a try, I’m confident it’ll be received more positively than your cousin’s new and ill-advised tattoo.

 

Have other suggestions you think folks might like? Sound off in the comments and help make Thanksgiving go smoothly for everyone.