Two keys to Australian wine quality are the continent's mostly hot and dry climate and its great number of technically proficient winemakers. Australia's wine regions are spread across the southern rim of the country, generally close to the sea, from the Hunter Valley, just above Sydney on the east coast, across to the Margaret River, south of Perth on the west coast-a distance of roughly 2,000 miles. (The generic appellation South Eastern Australia is used to describe blended wines from virtually anywhere but Western Australia.) Making blanket statements about Australia's weather in a given growing season would be almost like saying that Southern California and North Carolina experienced the same climatic conditions.
Even within fairly small areas conditions can vary dramatically according to ocean influence, altitude and type of soil. The often scorching hot Barossa Valley in South Australia, for example, can produce red Australian wines that approach vintage port in their dried-fruit flavors and alcoholic heft. But parts of the Clare Valley, less than 50 miles away, are significantly cooler. At the same time, though, Barossa benefits from a high percentage of old vines with deep root systems, which are more likely to be able to get water than younger vines in other regions, which rely heavily on irrigation and scarce water resources.
Dry white wines with pronounced minerality and zesty fruit flavors
The Northeast of Italy is the exception to the pattern established in the rest of the country; here, white wine grapes are the standouts, while reds, although often interesting, are the afterthoughts. For an example of this, look at the grape Tocai. Also traditionally known as Tocai Friuliano, for its native growing region Friuli, this grape is a member of the Sauvignon family. Like its more recognizable and well-traveled cousin, Sauvignon Blanc, Tocai produces dry white wines with pronounced minerality, acidity and gentle fruitiness.
Thanks to the vagaries of European Union naming conventions, the Italians have been searching for a new name for Tocai since 2006. In 1993, after Hungary joined the European Union, they gained the rights to the name "Tokaji," and all the variations in spelling (Tocai, Tokay, and several others). All this in spite of the fact that Hungarian Tokaji is a sweet dessert wine, with little in common with Tocai Friuliano apart from its color. Displeased with this outcome, winemakers in Friuli ardently protested the proposed changes, arguing that their Tocai vines were indigenous and transplanted to Hungary from Friuli in the twelfth century. The legal minds at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg were not swayed. Now, Friuli wine makers are still trying to settle on a new title. So far, "Bianco Friulano" and "Tai," Friulian for glass, have emerged as possibilities, but a real consensus has yet to emerge.
Adding to the confusion, Tocai Friuliano is the same grape that the French call Sauvignon Vert. Not just that: it's planted widely in South America, but incorrectly labeled Sauvignon Blanc. All this is good trivia, but wines from this grape only really become interesting in Friuli. Here, especially in the Collio region, producers are cutting yields and vinifying with great care. This results in zesty, mineral-rich wines marked by notes of pear. Tocai Friuliano forms wines that are especially food-friendly: seafood is a can't-miss partner. We especially like the offerings from Bastianich and Mario Schiopetto.