Battle to the death

France vs. Australia
By LAYNE WITHERELL  |  September 6, 2006

The wineries of France and Australia have been at war for years now, their spent corks cluttering the countryside. The war between both commanding forces is more than one of pocketbook issues, it is of conflicting wine and cultural identities. Our image of French wines is that of a stylish dinner party, where the guest next to you asks that you pass the asparagus lifters. Your face turns purple: "what the hell is that?" Australian wines, on the other hand, conjure up visions of life on a La-Z-Boy looking for the channel-changer, with a glass of shiraz perched precariously on the arm. It took a while for the French to see over their trenches, but it was clear that the La-Z-Boy had flattened the asparagus lifter.

Understanding French wine has been more of a trudge through the mud than a walk in the park. It has always been about strictly obeying their rules. Australian wines literally burst onto the scene with the appearance of a stick-figure label likeness of a kangaroo: Yellow Tail arrived full blown. The wines required no special label-reading skills, geographical insights, or arcane wine and food knowledge; just pour and glug.

After just a few years into their battle-glory over French wine the Australians are discovering that the combined cuteness of their labels, the ease of understanding their wines, and their sheer drinkability (not to forget modest prices) aren’t enough. Sales are falling and they are facing a glut of grapes on too much acreage. The best way to determine the condition of these kinds of wines is by conducting the proverbial taste test.

YELLOWTAIL SHIRAZ, SOUTHEAST AUSTRALIA, 2005, $10 (also available in a 1.5 liter as well as a reserve Tail). Yellowtail smells and tastes like it was filtered through a burrito and could be drunk with a straw without the slightest bit of embarrassment to either drinker or audience. There is serious soda-fountain sweetness here. It is so hugely popular that it could be served from a soft drink dispensing machine. The marketing MBAs of the wine biz have referred to this as an “entry-level wine.” Actually, it is a style many wine drinkers enter and never leave.

GUIGAL COTES DU RHONE, 2003, $12 is the French equivalent: a hearty wine representative of the grower’s own Zip code. Marcel Guigal is French to the marrow, and he probably does own a few sets of asparagus lifters just for some special occasion. These grapes are on a completely different mission. The wine is smoky and peppery and makes you want to run into the kitchen and knock out the perfect cassoulet, not to mention a little side of asparagus. For twelve bucks this stuff is serious.

These two reds couldn’t be any more different in flavor, or intention. Both are well made and do what they set out to do. One embraces unwavering ancient traditions and the other saturated modern marketing. Take your pick.

Our two whites offer up more of a contrast in flavor. The LOUIS JADOT MACON VILLAGES, 2004, $11 makes your entire body think through the experience of drinking a French wine. It has the minerality equivalent of swallowing a dozen oysters. To really experience this you need to pile up a dozen oysters, type and origin of your choosing, and devour them along with a glass or two of the wine. Macon is the chardonnay of the sea. The vines are sunk deep into ancient limestone. Both the oyster and the Macon are nourished by this ancient environment.

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