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Great wines pour forth from Aussie pioneers
By John H. Isacs

IT'S quite chic in the wine world to favor small boutique wineries. In most wine-producing nations, this makes good sense as smaller family-owned wineries often make more interesting and distinguished wines.

Australia certainly boasts some of the world's most noteworthy small wineries, but some of the island continent's largest and most historic producers continue to make compelling wines.

Therefore, in this week's wine column I pay tribute to a few of the pioneering big fellows from Down Under.

Olden times

The first vine cuttings arrived in Australia with Captain Arthur Philip on the First Fleet in 1788. They came from the Cape of Good Hope and were planted at Sydney Cove in the Governor's Garden in what's now Macquarie Street in downtown Sydney. Unfortunately they failed, but they were an initial step in what is now one of the world's most important and successful wine industries.

Henry Lindeman first planted vines in 1843 in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. Seeking better terroir, the winery moved to Padthaway in South Australia. Just a year later in 1844, English doctor Christopher Rawson Penfold bought the 500-acre Magill Estate located east of Adelaide in South Australia. His goal was to make wines and use them as a tonic for his patients who suffered from anaemia. From this modest start Penfolds has grown into Australia's most famous wine brand.

Wolfgang Blass was a relative newcomer to the Aussie wine industry, establishing his winery in 1973. Prior to having his own winery, the German immigrant was the first independent winemaker in Australia. Since then his bold-style wines have made him one of the most popular pioneers of modern Australian winemaking.

Modern day

All the aforementioned pioneering wineries are still making wine today. Some are owned by the world's biggest pure wine company, Treasury Estates, while Brown Brother remains family owned. They all are true giants of the industry with sizable production and global reach. But most important, they continue to make some of Australia's best wines across a broad range of prices.

We'll start with Wolf Blass because I've had the pleasure to meet and dine with the founder Wolfgang Blass on several occasions and find him a most entertaining and interesting, if not always politically correct, gentleman.

Witness his often stated claim that his wines "make women weaker and men stronger." Wolf Blass has many ranges of wine. My picks in the various price ranges include the entry-level Red Label Chardonnay Pinot Noir Sparkling Wine, a generous, fruity wine with small if not tiny bubbles and good freshness.

In general I am not a big fan of low-cost sparklers, but this is one of the best affordable everyday bubble wine in China. The Yellow Label Riesling is another affordable wine that perhaps due to its German heritage outperforms most other similarly priced Rieslings with stimulating tart citrus flavors.

The reds in the Red and Yellow Ranges are a bit too direct and fruity for me, but they do hold appeal for many new drinkers in China looking for easy wines.

A step up in quality but still moderately priced are the President Selection, Gold and Grey Label Ranges that offer high-quality Chardonnay, Cabernet and Shiraz wines. At the top of the Wolf Blass pyramid are the Black and Platinum Ranges that admirably showcase the winery's best red wines.

In China, Penfolds is sometimes referred to as the Lafite of Australian wines. Their iconic Grange red wine was the first Australian wine to gain world acceptance as a truly great wine. If you have to ask the price, this wine is not for you. However, Penfolds also makes a host of more affordable wines in different price ranges, starting with the well-made Koonunga Hill whites and reds.

Slightly more expensive than the Rawson's Retreat wines, Koonunga Hill wines offer a more balanced and elegant drinking experience. The BIN Series of wines include Riesling, Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon as well as blended reds.

The Lindemans BIN range are all steady performers offering consistent quality at a low price with the BIN 65 Chardonnay standing out as one of the most consistently good budget whites. Referred to as the Coonawarra Trio, the premium level Pyrus, St Georges and Limestone reds are all well-made, luscious wines.

Brown Brothers is one of the few family-owned big wineries remaining in Australia. Their entry-level whites and reds are more than drinkable. Just slightly up the quality chain is the Limited Release Heathcote Shiraz and Patricia Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, affording Shanghai drinkers a rare affordable red wine luxury experience.

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