An Historical Perspective
Presented at the Wine Australia Tutorial
The inaugural Wine Australia Tutorial which was held recently in the Barossa Valley was a week-long immersion course attended by 12 influential fine wine opinion leaders from around the world, including three Masters of Wine, two Master Sommeliers and several wine journalists.
Jamie Goode, a scientist, author and winewriter from the UK said “the historical perspective on Australian wine, which included a 20-wine tasting, was among the most remarkable I've ever experienced. So exciting was the line-up that as we sat down to taste, the atmosphere was electrifying. The anticipation in the air was almost tangible - it was like the sense of buzziness you get at a great sporting occasion or just before commencement of play.”
The Tutorial was instigated by Paul Henry and Lucy Anderson of Wine Australia, the market development arm of the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation. Inspired by the annual Len Evans Tutorial in the Hunter Valley (mainly aspiring Australian wine show judges), the Tutorial comprised several master classes covering the extraordinary regional diversity and richness of the fine Australian wine experience.
Michael Hill Smith AM MW, recently voted by Decanter Magazine as the 38th most influential wine professional in the world and co-founder of Shaw and Smith Winery in the Adelaide Hills, Dr Tony Jordan, the quintessential wine boffin and founder of Domaine Chandon in the Yarra Valley and myself were appointed as resident tutors.
Guest tutors included the best and brightest of the Australian fine wine industry including James Halliday, Brian Croser AO, Ed Carr, Jeffrey Grosset, Vanya Cullen, Steve Pannell, James Godfrey, Robert Mann, Tom Carson, Louisa Rose and Max Allen. It was a profoundly successful week with the aim of creating a “meaningful forum for international trade and media influencers to discover, discuss and debate the voice of our top Australian wines.” Tutorial participant Essi Avellan MW of Finland said, “I predict this to become the most sought-after tutorial in the wine world. Being able to taste and discuss the best wines of Australia with a great number of its leading authorities and winemakers is a privilege. This Tutorial has opened my eyes to the direction where top Australian wine is going.”
One of the highlights of the week was "A historical perspective of Australian Wine” which was co-presented by James Halliday and myself at Barossa Valley Estate, adjacent to Seppeltsfield. The wines were donated or purchased through Langton’s over a period of six months leading up to the tutorial. Held on the second day, the tasting provided participants with a narrative of the evolution of fine Australian wine over half a century. The surprising drought of key vintages made it easier to fit the tasting in to a maximum of twenty wines. I was unable, for instance, to find a single bottle of legendary Maurice O’Shea wine; an obvious starting point. The Hunter Valley was the cradle of the modern Australian winemaking movement during the 1930s and 1940s.
1954 Seppelt Great Western Hermitage K72 Shiraz, Great Western, Grampians
As it turned out the 1954 Seppelt K72 Great Western Hermitage, a top show wine from the 1960s was a serendipitous beginning. It was made by the legendary Colin Preece who worked at Seppeltsfield in the 1930s after studying at Roseworthy College and who was married in Tanunda. The pristine but slightly ullaged bottle was donated by Ian Mckensie – former Seppelt Chief Winemaker, prominent wine judge and winemaking consultant.
The wine was regarded by Colin Preece as a Burgundy style although it was presented in a claret-type bottle. Although labelled Hermitage it was probably 50% Hermitage (Shiraz) and 50% Miller’s Burgundy (Pinot Meunier). The wine, although past its prime, was astonishingly fresh for its age; aromatic with aged mocha/ burnt chocolate/ leather aromas, but leanly flavoured with very fine lacy tannins. James Halliday suggested that this wine may have been blended with a previous vintage. Typically the wine may have been cut back with “rainwater” to bring the alcohol level to 12.5% v/v. Julia Harding MW – who works as an assistant to Jancis Robinson described it as “remarkable: although the nose was of a very old wine – plenty of furniture polish, leather and tar – it was still perfectly proportioned on the palate.”
1955 Penfolds Bin 95 Grange Hermitage, Multi-regional South Australia
1955 Grange (90% Shiraz/ 10% Cabernet Sauvignon) was chosen because it epitomises the ground breaking work of Penfolds Chief Winemaker Max Schubert and Penfolds scientist/chemist Ray Beckwith. This wine was certainly an important early waypoint that would have a profound effect on winemaking culture in Australia. Multi vineyard and regional sourcing, cross varietal blending (Shiraz & Cabernet), the practice of open fermenters with header boards and barrel fermentation in American oak continues today.
Many of the practices introduced by Max Schubert percolated through the Australian wine industry and contributed to a uniquely Australian fine wine voice. The 1955 was a multi-wine show winner and put Grange on the map. Beckwith’s profound discovery of the relationship between pH and wine stability had an enormous impact on wine quality throughout the world. Ian Hickinbotham – a veteran winemaker and leading figure in Australian wine – said “Let’s be blunt – there would have been no Grange without Beckwith’s brilliance. Possibly, Beckwith contributed more to Australian oenology than any other and he should be recognised in the same class as Louis Pasteur.”
The late George Fairbrother gave the 1955 Grange a Chairman’s gold at the Sydney Wine Show because a dissenting panel judge refused to budge form his miserly 13 points! The wine, donated by Peter Gago, Penfolds Chief Winemaker, was in really fabulous condition and showed the compelling and enduring winemaking philosophy that has underpinned Penfolds red wine reputation for almost six decades. It showed intense choco-berry/ mocha/ paneforte/ sandalwood aromas with plenty of sweet fruit flavours, mid palate richness and chocolaty tannins.
1955 Wynns Coonawarra Estate Michael Hermitage, Coonawarra
The 1955 Wynns Michael Hermitage (Shiraz), which was aged in mature second-hand fortified wine casks, is often described as a freak wine. It was selected because the wine it is still hugely regarded as one of the great Australian wines of the 1950s. Sue Hodder, the current chief winemaker at Wynns Coonawarra Estate donated the bottles.
From an historical perspective it also provided the narrative of winemaking politics and innovation during the late 1940s and 1950s. The 1955 Michael was named after David Wynn, one of the great wine merchants and entrepreneurs of the time. He purchased the Chateau Comaum winery and vineyards from Tony Nelson in 1951. The 1955 Michael irrevocably put Coonawarra on the fine map. Tony Nelson’s Woodley’s Treasure Chest Series (1949-1956) were all released around the same time and cemented the regions reputation and potential.
Coonawarra was extremely isolated during the 1950s with poor access to market, utilities (no 3 phase power) and labour. However the climate, Terra rossa soils and almost unlimited artesian water source were increasingly seen by the emerging fine wine industry as something special.
Dermot Nolan, MW, an Irish educator, described the 1955 Michael as “A gorgeous wine with a still tight structure and tasting more like cabernet than shiraz! Slightly leafy notes but a long savoury finish.” Interestingly old-timers like the late Max Lake would often say that Coonawarra Shiraz has an uncanny resemblance to Cabernet. The wine is probably nearing the end of its drinking life, perhaps exaggerating the fine grained and chalky tannin structure.
Wynns tried to emulate the wine in 1956 but completely failed. The current stable of Wynns Michael Shiraz, first release 1990, is made in a completely different style.
1962 Penfolds Bin 60A Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon Kalimna Shiraz
1962 Bin 60A was selected because it is regarded as one of the greatest of all Australian wines ever made. It has been nominated by Decanter Magazine as one of the top ten wines to try before you die along with European counterparts 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild and 1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc. I also chose it because the wine encapsulates the ambitions of winemakers during the early 1960s.
Bin 60A is very much a confluence of oenological, physical and philosophical achievement. Max Schubert was at first sceptical about the potential of Coonawarra. However he soon became a convert after visiting the region, seeing the wines and talking to locals, particularly Bill Redman. Penfolds purchased Coonawarra vineyards during the early 1960s, beginning a longstanding engagement with the region and the release of many great wines.
1962 Bin 60A is Penfolds most successful show wine winning 19 trophies and 33 gold medals. It is in many ways the quintessential cross regional wine blend; a mixture of Coonawarra Cabernet and Kalimna (Barossa) Shiraz. Max Schubert had at first wanted his Grange to be a Cabernet based wine. However the Kalimna Vineyard’s 19th Century Block 42 could not produce the consistency of fruit quality required. In many respects Coonawarra fulfilled his ambitions for Cabernet, although his beloved Grange was now on a tried and tested pathway.
The fame of 1962 Bin 60A reached distant shores. Andre Tchelistcheff (1901-1994), a direct contemporary of Max Schubert and regarded as the father of the modern Californian wine industry once said to a group of startled diners, "Gentlemen you will all stand in the presence of this wine!"
Len Evans (1930 – 2006) also wrote that it was “one of the great reds I cut my palate on.”
The wine for the tasting was donated by Peter Gago, Penfold’s Chief Winemaker. It was in brilliant condition. Dermot Nolan MW said “I think this is probably the greatest wine I've ever tasted. A complex nose of black fruits, slightly leafy, with back notes of mocha and brown fruits. The palate has a sweet, soft, ripe entry showing rounded shiraz fruit. Middle palate is rich, balanced and complex with an astonishingly clean finish of sweet prunes, raisins, figs and no drying tannins at all.”
The mid sixties saw the beginning of the boutique wine scene. The renowned Sydney hand-surgeon Dr Max Lake, inspired by a 1930 Dalwood Cabernet, established Lake’s Folly winery in 1966. He quickly established a big reputation among Australian wine collectors. The revival of the Yarra Valley, once the site of many 19th century vineyards began around the same time, many Cabernet Sauvignon vineyards were replanted on old vineyard sites. Margaret River was identified as a potential vineyard region.
By the mid 1960s new vineyards were being planted, harking the gathering-apace of the cool-climate scene during the 1970s and 1980s. The future of warm climate wines was considered precarious. The eminent viticulturist Dr Richard Smart predicted the demise of the Barossa Valley by 2000(!) and urban pressure saw the demolition of Adelaide’s important Auldana Vineyards and most of Magill Estate. For nearly two decades Cabernet would dominate the fine wine scene. However the continuing success of Penfolds Grange may have given an inkling of the market enthusiasms that would emerge during the 1980s and 1990s.
1971 Penfolds Grange Hermitage, Multi-region South Australia
1971 Grange was included because it is such an important Australian wine. Max Schubert said “If you had to point to a wine which fulfilled the ambitions of Grange it would have to be the 1971.” It beat the best Rhone Valley wines at the Gault-Millau Wine Olympiad in Paris in 1979 where it created a sensation. It was also for many years used as an ‘economic indicator’ by Access Economics a think tank organisation based in Canberra. Curiously the stated alcohol level at 11.5% is very low for any dry red wine. Recent analysis has revealed 12.3%, which is still much lower than average. The wine was in excellent condition and typically showed fresh dark chocolate/ mocha/ tobacco/ herb garden aromas, silky tannins and plenty of buoyancy of fruit. These bottles were sourced through auction. It is quite amazing how this wine continues to lie in suspended animation. It will continue to live for years.
I had hoped to find an older bottle of Virgin Hills to talk about the movement to cool-climate viticulture during the 1970s and early 1980s. The rejuvenation of the Victorian wine industry was in full swing. Yarra Yering and Mount Mary enjoyed considerable attention for their Cabernet based wines; both produced some pretty interesting Pinot Noirs, but really this genre would not achieve recognition and interest until the early 1990s. The Western Australian industry was also opening up. Moss Wood and Leeuwin Estate had won considerable fame by the early 1980s.
1982 Wynns Coonawarra Estate John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra
The 1982 John Riddoch was selected because it represents another turning point on Australia’s wine history. John Wade, who would go on to co-found Howard Park in Western Australia, introduced a new “essence of Coonawarra stye”; a highly concentrated and densely proportioned Grand Vin (selected parcels) aged in new French oak for over two years. It won best red wine in Australia at the Canberra Show and spawned a new direction in fine winemaking. Indeed it was a pre-cursor to the cult-wine scene that would become a feature of the fine wine market a decade later.
This 27 year-old wine is in remarkable condition. It was still showing primary blackcurrant aromas but mostly developing chocolate/ meaty/ capsicum characters, fine beautiful tannins and superb volume of fruit. This is still a superb wine and will no doubt continue to age for at least another two decades. The post John Wade John Riddoch’s have been very good, especially recognised vintages like 1986, 1990 and 1996. However under Sue Hodder the label is once again seen as the quintessential Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2004 is arguably one of the greatest Australian Cabernets of the last decade! Amazingly the present vineyard area in Coonawarra has increased ten-fold since the mid 1970s (1359 acres to 13590 acres).
1985 Wendouree Shiraz, Clare Valley
A dialogue of fine Australian wine could not omit the highly individual wines of Wendouree. Roly Birks, who sold the winery in the early 1970s, worked an astonishing sixty vintages. The vineyard comprises unique and original plantings from the 1890s. The Shiraz produces particularly small berries with thick skins and very high seed content. The winemaking harks back to the philosophies of the early 20th century.
Vinification takes place in the original open fermenters but recently stainless steel-lined to improve hygiene. During the 1970s and early 1980s, the wine would have been matured in mostly old barrels, but these days the Shiraz is now aged in about 1/3rd new oak. The Wendouree Shiraz is an extraordinary wine with a strong and individual identity. It can be spotted easily in wine tastings.
Technocrats often over look the wine, but wine collectors absolutely adore the style. It’s easy to call this wine an old fashioned style, but in many respects it is this type of wine that will lead fine Australian wine out of the wilderness; for it embodies individual thought, utterly unique resources and reflects a strong regional identity. Fruit power, concentration and weight are essential elements. Wendouree Shiraz is a very tightly knit and incredibly muscular/sinewy/ 'iron fist in velvet glove' style. The volume and buoyancy of fruit on the mid palate complements the toughness of the wine.
The 1985 Wendouree Shiraz was classically ferrous with violet/ dark olive/ rusty aromas with fine sinewy tannins and plenty of fruit richness. Dermot Nolan describes it as "fabulously complex with a nose of spice and chocolate; an amazing balancing act between rich, round, spicy chocolate fruit and still firm but well-structured tannins on the palate. It may be 24 years old but looks and tastes only 10 or so!”
These comments are hardly surprising; Wendouree Shiraz does have exceptional aging properties. They seem to have an everlasting quality and extraordinary voice of place.
1986 Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz, Eden Valley
1986 was definitely a 'coming of age' for Australian fine red wine. It was a universally outstanding vintage and many fabulous wines were made. This vintage had a seismic effect on the auction market in Australia. Secondary market wine performance shows a distinctive upward blip across several wines. The sheer quality of this vintage is renowned.
1986 Penfolds Grange, 1986 Yarra Yering Dry Red No 1, 1986 Wynns Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, 1986 Lindemans St George Cabernet Sauvignon and a multitude of other wines captured the imagination of the emerging Australian fine wine collector. Many of these wines are at the peak of their splendour. Many have decades to go!
The 1986 Henschke Hill of Grace epitomises one end of the spectrum and the arrival of the Barossa Valley as a dominant force in Australian wine. The Hill of Grace is the most famous Australian single vineyard wine located near Keyneton in the Eden Valley.
The ancient gene pool of 1860s “great grandfathers”, the heritage of site, percolation of winemaking philosophy, the remarkable viticulture/ winemaking partnership of Prue and Stephen Henschke, and overall fine wine market sentiment all conspired to create a momentous tipping point. The 1986 vintage marks the rise of Henschke Hill of Grace as an Australian super star. By 1994 it was so entrenched on the Australian secondary wine market it was classified by Langton’s as “Exceptional” alongside Penfolds Grange.
Over the course of the last twenty years there has been a direct auction price relationship between Grange and Hill of Grace; a push-pull effect that bathes each other in reflected glory. 1986 was in many respects the first great Hill of Grace vintage. It so profoundly speaks of place with its blackberry pastille/ sage aromas and choco-berry barrel fermentation/ American oak aromas. The palate was still showing wonderful sweetness of fruit and dry chocolaty/lacy tannins.
Nowadays the wine is matured in French oak, but the vineyard character seeps through. The 2002 and 2005 vintages are two outstandingly good contemporary examples.
1986 Brokenwood Hermitage Graveyard Vineyard Shiraz, Hunter Valley
This wine continues the theme of 'coming of age'. In my opinion this is one of the greatest wines of the 1986 vintage and without question the finest Hunter Valley Shiraz since the famous release of the 1965 Lindemans Bin 3100 Hunter River Hermitage.
The vineyard was planted in 1968 on land once earmarked as Pokolbin’s cemetery. This never eventuated. It was purchased by James Halliday, John Beeston and Tony Albert in 1978. The 1986 Graveyard is a colossus of the Hunter Valley Shiraz genre and shows how brilliant this region can perform when nature and nurture are in perfect alignment.
It is a hugely evocative wine. You can smell the heat and moisture of the volcanic landscape taste the sweetness of shiraz and feel the slinky tannins lace their way across the palate. It is a gorgeously scented wine with a compelling proportion and weight. The 1986 shows the promise of Hunter Valley, the percolation of ideas and the foot print of a top contemporary single vineyard.
Indeed it appears that the Hunter Valley is emerging once again as a producer of outstanding Shirazes. There are many young and (youngish) winemakers working hard to capture the spirit of place. Like Hill of Grace, the Graveyard Vineyard has moved profoundly to French oak although the latter still has an element of American oak (around 20%). The practice of partial barrel fermentation is an interesting link with Max Schubert’s wine making philosophies!
The 1986 Graveyard Shiraz is extremely rare these days. It was exciting having guest tutor Iain Riggs, the longstanding winemaker and Managing Director of Brokenwood, in attendance. His beguiling 1986 Graveyard was definitely one of the highlights of the tasting!
1990 Mount Mary Vineyard Lilydale Cabernets Quintet Cabernets, Yarra Valley
The cool-climate viticulture was gathering apace during the late 1980s and 1990s. It Pinot Noir was beginning to establish hold in the Melbourne Dress Circle, but Cabernet was still the preference of many fine wine drinkers during the early to mid 1990s.
Mount Mary was established by the late Dr John Middleton in 1972. Although he was onto the Pinot Noir thing, Mount Mary Cabernets (first vintage 1976) caused a sensation among Australian wine collectors during the early 1980s. They were considered the epitome of elegance and style with a Bordeaux-like quality and potential for age.
The wine was named Quintet to placate government authorities in the US, who would not accept Cabernets on the label. Quintet cleverly refers to the Bordeaux Five varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. The 1990 was an very important wine an quickly established a cult-like status in the secondary wine market. It was possibly the greatest wine made in the Yarra Valley since the 19th century.
The fruit was often picked a little earlier than elsewhere in the valley. Typically it was fermented in open and closed fermenters with careful temperature control and frequent pumping over. Maturation took place in French oak for around two years. The wine was released to an over-subscribed mailing list resulting in the usual opportunities on the secondary wine market. John Middleton was quite cranky with his clientele who resold his wines on the secondary wine market, but I think he realised that it was actually a good thing for the reputation of the wine.
The 1990 was looking so wonderful with a lovely blackcurrant pastille/ rose/herb garden aromas, lovely richness of fruit, beautifully resolved fine grained tannins and great flavour length. The freshness and vitality of this 19 year old wine was amazing. The wine was sourced through auction at Langton’s.
The 1996 vintage, well regarded in Australia, was reviewed some years later by Robert Parker Jr., the influential American critic. His sneering invective about Quintet was greeted with dismay among wine writers in Australia. Curiously it rallied his supporters; the secondary wine market didn’t miss a beat, but I would imagine it hurt John Middleton profoundly. The tutorial participants loved the 1990. The American wine scribe Tyler Coleman, also known in the blogger world as “Dr Vino”, described it as “a rewarding style of Cabernet that is showing very well with a secondary blackcurrant note, lovely delicacy and great precision with no greenness or herbaciousness”. And for the record, the 1996 is a wonderful wine!
1995 Cullen Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, Margaret River
The 1995 vintage was made by Di and Vanya Cullen, the formidable and longstanding mother and daughter wine making team at Cullen Winery located at Wilyabrup, the heartland of Margaret River. This wine (donated by Vanya Cullen) was selcted because it marks a profound change in winemaking outlook.
The movement towards organic viticulture and ecologically sustainable practices gathered apace during the mid 1990s. Margaret River, a haven for alternative living and creative thinking, was a centre of innovative vineyard and winery practices. David Hohnen, of Cape Mentelle, Keith Mugford of Moss Wood, Dennis Horgan of Leeuwin Estate, Dr Mike Peterkin of Pierro, and Vanya Cullen of Cullen etc. understood that individual identity and sub-regional definition were the future of the Margaret River.
The 1995 Cullen marks an important way point in the evolution of fine Australian wine. It illustrates technical brilliance, the growing understanding of tannin ripeness as a quality indicator, and the compelling nuances of vineyard site. This is a profoundly ethereal wine with perfumed plum/ cassis/ mocha aromas, underlying savoury oak, superb fruit density and fine grained/ lacy tannins. The wine still has plenty of cellaring potential. Since 2001 the wine was named Diana Madeline to honour Vanya’s mother. This wine and Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon are classified as Exceptional (Australian First Growths) illustrating the market dominance of Margaret River over Coonawarra Cabernet in the secondary wine market.
Interestingly some components of Cullen Diana Madeline Cabernet Merlot are partially barrel fermented; a derivative of Max Schubert’s winemaking practices!. Vanya Cullen is one of the early proponents of biodynamic viticulture to “achieve greater individuality of site through working with nature rather than against it.” When you drive along Caves Road and look across the vineyard it is brimming with life. Cullen are also early leaders in adopting screw cap technology and carbon neutral practices.
1996 Clarendon Hills Astralis Vineyard Syrah, McLaren Vale
It was actually Roman Bratasiuk 1994 Clarendon Hills that won spectacular success and put Astralis “pertaining to the stars” onto the fine wine map. Robert Parker Jr., through his Wine Advocate gave it 97 points and propelled it onto the international stage. The wine sparked controversy at home because many Wine Show judges felt it possessed characters that would not allow the wine to age very well. This is very much a perspectival thing as other commentators have enjoyed the 1994 in recent times.
Regardless of the debate, Astralis is a hugely important wine. During the mid 1990s it altered the landscape of Australian fine wine and inspired a whole generation of younger winemakers to build their own small businesses based on single vineyard Shiraz.
Astralis has weaved its way into the mainstream collectors market. The wine is based on 75 year old vines, laissez-faire winemaking and maturation in 100% French barriques for 18 months. Dermott Nolan described the 1996 as “A gorgeous wine showing menthol and pepper spice nose but with deep, rich sweet fruit on the palate, some gorgeous prune and chocolate flavours and a long finish.”
My own comments were quite similar; espresso/ mint chocolate aromas, plenty of sweet fruit on the palate, some earthy notes and fine sinewy tannins.” The wine was donated by Roman Bratasiuk.
1996 Penfolds Block 42 Kalimna Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Barossa Valley
1996 was a great Barossa vintage. During the 1990s Australia began to recognise the importance of its old vine heritage. Only a decade earlier a few old vines had been pulled out, but most were unproductive or on the wrong sites.
Contrary to some commentary, the vine pull scheme did not create a whole-sale demolition of great old 19th century vineyards. If anything urban pressure and compulsory acquisition of land around the Adelaide environs was more damaging. Auldana Vineyards and most of Magill Estate were lost to the housing Estates. Penfolds knew this would happen.
In 1945 it acquired the Kalimna Vineyard to ensure consistency of supply. Block 42 comprises the oldest cabernet plantings in the world. Max Schubert made a 1948 Kalimna Cabernet Sauvignon from this parcel of vineyard. These bottles appeared at auction in the late 1980s and were subsequently consumed at a Sydney Wine Show dinner (see Classic Wines of Australia Part 1 in the Archive).
Max Schubert originally hoped that this vineyard would support his Grange project. Indeed he made a 1952 and 1953 Grange Cabernet from Block 42 fruit. However the cabernet was not consistent. This wine was chosen because it epitomises the movement towards single vineyard site, trail wine making and the use of heritage as an important element of fine wine.
Robert O’Callaghan of Rockford was probably the person who really got this movement happening in the Barossa Valley. Rockford Basket Press Shiraz which is classified Exceptional by Langton’s goes a step further; it also embraces and celebrates the livelihoods of growers and the sub-regional nuances of the Barossa. (Peter Lehmann must not be forgotten either. He took huge risks to ensure the financial survival of Barossa families during the late 1970s and 1980s).
The 1996 vintage was also a universal Australian waypoint. Many top wines were produced. The 1996 Block 42 is made in the Penfolds method. Typically the wine is fermented in new American oak hogsheads for around 16 months maturation. The wine was showing cassis/ mocha aromas with underlying savoury oak, plenty of sweet fruit and chocolaty tannins. The wine has decades ahead of it.
1996 Best’s Wines Thomson Family Great Western Shiraz Great Western, Grampians
Great Western, Victoria was very important during the 1950s and 1960s. Maurice O’Shea used to source fruit from Colin Preece at Seppelt as blending material. The nearby Best’s Concongella Vineyards comprise 15 rows of dry grown Shiraz planted around 1866.
This winery, which celebrated its centenary in 1992 (with the release of this label), epitomises the growing stature of small winemakers, the heritage of old vines, established cool climate vineyard practices and the no compromise approach to quality.
This wine is only ever made in top vintages; the vines do not always perform to expectations. The 1996, sourced at auction, was one of the stars of the tasting. It showed lovely cool climate white pepper/ blackberry/ meaty aromas, plenty of fruit richness, fine velvety tannins and underlying oak. It finished firm but long and sweet. Proprietor and winemaker Viv Thomson believes that there are two types of wines, “...talking wines and drinking wines”.
This is definitely drinking very well but also something of a conversation wine! The Thomson Family Great Western is a Victorian classic and highly regarded on the secondary wine market.
1998 Petaluma Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, Coonawarra
A narrative of Australian fine wine must of course include Brian Croser, a key winemaking figure and leading member of the Australian wine intelligentsia. His contribution to the fine wine debate over the last forty years is extraordinary.
He was an early proponent of distinguished vineyard site and a leading promoter of Coonawarra. His winery Petaluma profoundly captured the imagination of the wine world across several genres including Adelaide Hills Chardonnay, Clare Valley Riesling. Within the context of this tasting, Petaluma Coonawarra Cabernet Merlot represents a foil against corporate winemaking.
His opinions are almost always barbed. He once described his Coonawarra vineyard as “hand pruned, canopy trained, crop moderated, handpicked and dry land managed amongst a sea of mechanised convenience managed vineyards." While vintage Croser it was also quite prescient; a decade later many of Coonawarra’s vineyards were in dire need of rehabilitation.
Petaluma Coonawarra was originally Cabernet Shiraz. By the mid 1980s Brian Croser ripped out his Shiraz vines and replanted with Merlot, a revolutionary move that many would follow. The wine derives form the Evans Vineyard planted in 1969 on Terra Rossa soils. However Petaluma’s relationship with Coonawarra was controversial reaching a tipping point with the Coonawarra Geographical Indication boundary. Nonetheless the wine, matured in French oak for 20 months, did much to define the character and potential of the region. T
he elegantly proportioned 1998 was showing lovely intense cassis/espresso/mint aromas and flavours, well-sustained concentrated fruit and fine grained chalky tannins. It’s definitely reaching its optimum, but really delicious to drink.
1999 Torbreck Run Rig Shiraz Viognier, Barossa Valley
Torbreck is one of Australia’s winemaking successes of the 1990s. It has grown from a small winery to a medium sized business over a decade. It was established by Dave Powell, a former lumberjack turned winemaker and who learned much of his craft at Rockford winery.
His Run Rig (first vintage 1995) dramatically challenged traditional thought and established a new Barossa genre based on Shiraz and the highly perfumed Viognier. The wine is based on mostly 80 to 125 year old dry grown vineyards located on the western ridge of the Barossa. Obviously the Viognier is younger material. The wine is batch vinified in open concrete fermenters. Initially many of the wine making philosophies were considered as offbeat, but with the increasing presence of biodynamic principles and open-mindedness generally, Torbreck has moved into the mainstream producing a bewildering range of wines reminiscent of Penfolds during the 1960s.
The Run Rig has been hugely successful. It has been one of Robert Parker Jr.'s favourite Barossa reds leading to enormous commercial success in the US and Asia. The 1999 epitomises the style with intense blackberry/ apricot/ mocha aromas, plenty of fruit richness and fine chocolaty tannins. The wine is typically matured in 40% new French coopered oak for up to 2.5 years.
Originally an Australian cult wine it has moved into the mainstream, much like Robert Parker’s crowning favourite Chris Ringland Shiraz; a wine that regularly commands the highest release price of any single Australian wine.
2001 Bass Phillip Reserve Pinot Noir, South Gippsland
While the cult wine scene rose to prominence during the mid to late 1990s, this was mainly an international phenomenon driven by the Robert Parker Jr. The highly concentrated, often high alcohol wines based mainly on Shiraz brought extraordinary focus on Australian fine wine.
In hindsight, however it completely skewed the impression about our wines to the detriment of our fine wine image in the United States particularly. In Australia, many collectors have been rather suspicious of cult type wines. Australians generally don’t enjoy super-charged Shirazes. Asian collectors on the other hand did much to bring the better examples into the mainstream.
The 2001 Bass Phillip Reserve Pinot Noir was selected because it is the most successful Pinot Noir on the secondary market. It is definitely not representative of the Australian Pinot Noir genre. However when Phillip Jones gets it right the wine is completely transcendent; it is an utterly unique Grand Cru type wine that evokes the madness and the pursuit of greatness in fine wine. Furthermore, Phillip Jones has brought a wonderful sense of purpose and meaning to a generation of young winemakers including Tim Kirk of Clonakilla fame.
2001 was a brilliant year for Bass Phillip. The vineyard was originally planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, but inspired by the wines of Henri Jayer Phillip Jones converted to Pinot Noir planting approximately 9000 vines to the hectare. A typical ultra-fine Australian vineyard at 2000 vines/hectare will yield around 2.5 kilograms per vine and a Grand Cru Burgundy vineyard at 10,000 vines/hectare will typically yield around 500 grams per vine. Bass Phillip yields roughly 270 grams per vine. Not surprisingly these are incredibly complex and sinuous wines.
The tutorial participants were impressed by the concentration and complexity, but bewildered, through their “European” experience, by its individual voice. Nonetheless it is an important example of the Australian vernacular and something to behold. Australian wine collectors love it.
The 2001 Reserve Pinot showed intense dried roses/ cherry/ herb garden aromas and flavours, lovely volume of fruit and fine slinky textures. Its probably near or at its peak, but it’s a really drinking well. Within the context of this tasting the wine probably did look like an ‘oddity’; it was the only non Cabernet/Shiraz in the narrative.
Bass Phillip is an icon of ultra-fine/Landmark Australian wine. Besides its “Exceptional” classification at Langton’s, it is followed with an almost religious fervour by sommeliers around the country. Incidentally, the 2007 vintage is spectacularly successful for Bass Phillip
2001 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier, Canberra District
Unblinkered by the constraints of a technical background and determined to “capture the wonder and beauty” of his own place, Tim Kirk has made an extraordinary contribution to the Australian Shiraz genre. The ethereal and evocative Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier has a profoundly crisp and clear voice that captures the contemporary thinking of Australian winemakers.
It has also created remarkable interest among collectors and the wine trade. The sheer consistency of style across vintages illustrates that the perfection of his vineyard and highly intuitive winemaking. Pre-fermentation macerations, varietal blending options, high fermentation temperatures, whole bunch fermentation, extended post fermentation soaking, partial barrel fermentation and new oak maturation all play an important art in the style. The wine is matured in one third new French oak to let “our cool climate profile fruit lead the wood.”
Tim Kirk cites Bailey Carrodus, of Yarra Yering fame and Phillip Jones of Bass Phillip as important mentors. James Halliday, a neighbour of Carrodus, recalled “an earnest Tim Kirk at Yarra Yering asking constant questions about winemaking. I wished I had paid more attention to him!”
This wine style has been hugely successful on the secondary wine market. Tyler Coleman (“Dr Vino”) said in a recent blog, “I wanted to particularly highlight the 2001 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier. Hailing from vineyards around the national capital of Canberra (and some joked that it’s the best thing to ever come out of Canberra), the wine is a beautiful blend of Shiraz with a touch of viognier. In this case it was about seven percent Viognier co-fermented with Shiraz but that has been declining in recent vintages. The hardest thing about adding Viognier, in my view, is to get Viognier that is as good as the Shiraz since Viognier can be a pretty rough and tumble category. But in this case, the Viognier gives the wine tremendous aromatic lift and this particular wine was singing.”
The wine showed typical scented violet/ pepper/ camomile/ apricot aromas and flavours, medium concentration, plenty of minerally notes, underlying savoury oak characters, loose knit lacy tannins and plenty of flavour length. The freshness and vibrancy of the wine nearing a decade old, was quite astonishing. A few other vintages were again shown in other forums. Each time the house/ regional characters shone through.
2002 Seppelt St Peters Great Western Shiraz, Great Western/ Grampians
The 2002 Seppelt St Peters Great Western Shiraz epitomises contemporary winemaking and to some extent the reinvigoration of regional definition. The Grampians has always been well thought of by generation s of winemakers. Mount Langi Ghiran, Best’s and Seppelt’s are probably the region’s best known producers. This was a multi-trophy winning wine. It is a brilliant foil against the Shirazes of McLaren Vale and the Barossa. It serves as an important connection between the past and the future. The wine derives from low yielding Shiraz planted on weathered volcanic soils.
The St Peter’s Vineyard and Imperial Vineyard were established in the 1930s. The Police and McKenzie Vineyards established in the late 1970s. This multi-vineyard but single regional blend shows a distinct stamp of place with its blackberry/herb/ pepper aromas, meaty complexity, redcurrant/ savoury oak nuances, powdery tannin structure and brilliant momentum across the palate.
2004 Balnaves of Coonawarra The Tally Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra
2004 is a important waypoint in Coonawarra’s history; many great cellaring wines were made. Precision viticulture/ winemaking and contemporary thinking (ie science and craft) have reached a zenith.
The Tally is only made in exceptional years and like John Riddoch is a selection of the best parcels. In the case of the 120 acre Balnaves vineyard, which also supplies fruit to other producers, this selection is made from an extraordinary array of options. Each block is managed according to soil profile, clonal selection and trellis system. The vines are mostly a d necessarily machine pruned and harvested. The wine is fermented in vinimatics and open-topped static fermenters. Some parcels are barrel fermented. Maturation takes place for 18-22 months in fine grained new and used French oak barriques and hogsheads.
Pete Bissell, arguably one of the greatest of Australia’s contemporary winemakers, says “Coonawarra reds are naturally very refined wines. Those elegant fine tannins are particularly associated with the local terra rossa and transitional soils. After 10 years, regardless of style, all Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignons show this common thread.”
The wine was showing superb cassis/ espresso aromas, plenty of savoury oak nuances, beautiful concentration and fine grained tannins. I chose the Tally because it neatly shows that the future of ultra-fine/ Landmark Australian wine is very exciting. The 2004 Tally will be seen by future generations as a great wine. It also shows that fine wine needs to be contrasted and compared. One wine does not define a region. Coonawarra, Margaret River and the Barossa etc. are classic wine regions of Australia because they show such compelling light and shade across vintages, across producers and through the decades.
“How truly and clearly we see depends on our perspective. And Landmark has given us a chance to gain an almost unparalleled perspective on the Australian fine wine dimension. It is a brilliantly devised and near-perfectly executed course in which we’ve been able to access the distilled wisdom of some of the industry greats, while at the same time trying benchmark wines that are rarely, if ever, brought together in this context. I’m profoundly grateful for the chance to participate in this thrilling exercise.” Jamie Goode, UK
A tasting presented by Andrew Caillard MW and James Halliday at the Wine Australia Tutorial, June 2009
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In the Tiger's Den - Bordeaux 2011
Semillon - Lovedale and Haut Brion Blanc
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2011 A review of Coonawarra
Penfolds Red Winemaking Overview 2011
Penfolds 2006 Grange Release
A history and description of famous 20th Century Australian wines -1973 Wolf Blass Bilyara Black
Classification V - Questions & Answers
A history and description of famous 20th Century Australian wines - 1973 Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvigno
Region Focus - Margaret River
A history and description of famous 20th Century Australian wines- Penfolds Grange 1971
Bordeaux 2009 Top Picks from the Great Solar Vintage
Overview of the Langtons Penfold's Sale
Languid Lunches and Goose-Fat
Bordeaux 2009 The Great Solar Vintage
Entering the Realm of First Growths
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A history and description of famous 20th Century Australian wines
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A history and description of famous 20th Century Australian wines
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GiantSteps - Winery Spotlight
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Kaesler Old Bastard Shiraz
2009 Penfolds Auction Overview
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Wine Australia - An Historical Tasting
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Forecasting the wine auction market 2009 (through a cumulonimbus).
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Penfolds and the Australian Secondary Wine Market