Wayne (Stehben’s) World
Not withstanding that it gave rise to “critter” wines and single-handedly made the colour yellow the bane of serious oeno-geeks worldwide, Australia can, and does, make some serious wines. Unfortunately, the former style eclipsed the latter, which was all well and good until the average Joe realized that off-dry, jammy, high-test red wines could be wrung out of Argentina for half the price. Lately the wine biz down under has taken a bit of a tailspin to the point where koala juice is becoming somewhat passé. However, all is not lost.
Wayne Stehbens, of the Coonawarra-based Katnook Estate, passed through Toronto recently to reaffirm Australia’s ability to craft noteworthy wine has not dwindled. Having helmed the winery’s production for 26 years, Stehbens knows a thing or two about crafting a decent glass of grape. A two-time winner of the Jimmy Watson Trophy (the Aussie wine equivalent of the Academy Award), Stehbens is a champion of Australian wine in general and those crafted from the parched soils of Coonawarra in particular. He’s also witty, entertaining, and a marvelous dinner companion and if we weren’t having to drive (and he not having an early morning), we’d no doubt have been watching the sun come up over a jug of beer.
Starting with the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, (“more Sancerre than New Zealand,” proclaimed Stehbens), we moved through a series of reds featuring Merlot (“a difficult variety to grow – very sensitive,” he noted. “But when you get it right…”), Cabernet Sauvignon (including the 2006 which, according to Stehbens, was “benchmark vintage” for Coonawarra) and Shiraz (the 2006 Prodigy, to be exact). What hit home with these wines was their elegance and complexity. The 1994 Katnook Estate Merlot, for example, was hardly the gushy pushover New World versions of this varietal can be. And the blueberry, leather-tinged Prodigy was at once dense, chewy and complex with hints of mocha, mint, black cherry and pepper.
Don’t expect to fill your wagon with Katnook Estate wines for a song. While the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc sells in the $20 range, the reds come in at around $30 with the Prodigy Shiraz and top-drawer Odyssey Cabernet Sauvignon fetching closer to $75. But as we all know, you get what you pay for.