Fifteen sommeliers, five regions, four grape varieties: this year’s W&S Sommelier Scavenger Hunt teams investigated the length and breadth of the Australian continent, from Margaret River’s west coast chardonnay to the emerging cool-climate pinot noir of Tasmania and Yarra Valley and the laser-sharp semillons of Hunter Valley.
Yet when the votes were cast at the San Francisco Taste-Off, it was McLaren Vale grenache that garnered the strongest support. Team McLaren—Michael Madrigale of NYC’s Boulud Sud, Michelle Bisceglia of NYC’s Blue Hill and Josiah Baldivino of Bay Grape in Oakland, CA—proved victorious.
In 2014, the same threesome won the inaugural Sommelier Scavenger Hunt Taste-Off by focusing on a stalwart, Napa Valley cabernet, convincing a panel of wine professional that the region remained a source of cabernet with an indelible (and delicious) sense of place. This year, they took similar tack by choosing McLaren Vale, focusing on an historic region everyone thought they understood, and using the lens of grenache to present it as a place of unexpected diversity.
“We were amazed by the story of the McLaren Vale,” Madrigale told the Taste-Off audience gathered at SF’s Bluxome Street Winery. “Of how that region was planted with grenache in the 1800s to satisfy a fortified wine demand. In the 1980s, a lot of these old grenache vines were ripped up, because there was no more market for sweet wines. And the ones that lasted—it’s almost Darwinian—there still remain these amazing 100-plus-year-old vines.”
A mere gimmick, protested some of the other teams after the tasting, with mock-exasperation. But the wines themselves—from SC Pannell, Ochota Barrels, Jauma, Brash Higgins, Imprimata and Noon Winery—were anything but gimmicks.
The six wines gave what Madrigale described as “a 360-degree view” of McLaren Vale, from sandy soils, ironstone soils, sandy loam and clay, from flat land to high elevation, from 13 percent to 16 percent alcohol, from young vines and old.” The 2014 Jauma Alfred Grenache, hailing from a vineyard planted in 1997, showed the lighter side of McLaren Vale grenache in fruit that was bright red, snappy and mouth-watering yet elastic. The 2013 Noon Eclipse, made by Master of Wine Drew Noon from his family’s old vines, showed the other end of the spectrum in the warmth of its alcohol and its savory, iron-fisted structure.
After the McLaren Vale presentation, Geoff Kruth, director of operations for the Guild of Sommeliers, raised his hand with a comment: “I want to say how good I thought this flight was. I’ve gone to so many Australian seminars where they are like, ‘We’re not all about shiraz.’ But this was one of those flights were I thought, ‘Oh, shit, this is really good.’ People need to know about this.”
Not far at the heels of Team McLaren Vale, just a few votes shy of victory, was Team Hunter Valley, made up of Canadians John Szabo, MS, Brad Royale and Véronique Rivest.
At the beginning of their presentation, team leader Szabo walked to the front of the room and drew a horizontal line across a sheet of paper resting on an easel to illustrate the typical Hunter Valley semillon vineyard.
“Dead flat,” he said. “Totally unremarkable. Sandy soil. All of the things we get excited about as sommeliers, they’re not there. Yet we would argue that it’s the most unique white wine in the Southern Hemisphere.”
Team Hunter charmed the audience with a lineup of wines that included benchmarks like Tyrrell’s Vat 1, Mount Pleasant Lovedale and Brokenwood ILR, demonstrating the wine’s ageability with surprisingly youthful examples from the 2005 and 2007 vintages.
The Sommelier Scavenger Hunt is produced by Wine & Spirits Magazine, and run by project manager Keiko Takano. For further information, or to interview the participating sommeliers, please contact Caitlin Griffith at 212-695-4660 x34, firstname.lastname@example.org.
This is a W&S web exclusive feature.
photography by Kelly Puleio