Robert Hill-Smith (pictured with Brian Walsh), the self effacing and highly articulate proprietor of Yalumba, has an ease and confidence that can charm and warm an audience. There is a heroic eccentricity which brews beneath that raffish surface. And probably a driven streak too. In the early 1980s Yalumba was an old fashioned business with a strong focus on fortified wine production. Hill-Smith restructured, modernized and reinvented Yalumba with great panache over the following two decades.
He has built a highly influential, quality-driven wine business and surrounded himself with an outstanding team of imaginative and loyal professionals. His courage, generosity and flair are hugely admired throughout the wine world. Indeed the 12th Yalumba Museum Tasting perhaps reflects the culture and remarkable character of the company. The rules for the tasting were these:
Where practical, we ask tasters to share glasses in teams of two or three persons to allow everyone to access the wines.
No heavy perfume, lipstick or aftershave
‘Le Mans’ start to avoid congestion
Wines to be poured by designated stewards only”
“To know where you are heading, it’s wise to reflect on where you’ve been,” says Robert Hill-Smith. While this rather sentimental truism gives a reason for such an extraordinary tasting, it also underlines what it takes to build something meaningful and resilient. It is a journey where time, structure and character conspire and confluence to achieve maturity and greatness.
The Yalumba Museum, originally known as ‘The Den’ by Walter Grandy Smith, Robert’s grandfather, was used as a blending and tasting room in the 1920s. Over the years ‘The Den’ filled up with wine show samples and reference stock. The Museum Collection is an eclectic wine cellar of fine Australian and imported wine built up through the accumulation of Show Reserve and Special Yalumba wines, donations, swapping and purchasing through the secondary market including Langton’s, Christie’s and Sotheby’s.
The 1934 Yalumba Bin C046 Eden Valley Riesling was an incredible wine with its fresh lime/honey aromas, lovely fine acidity, weight and balance. Still showing plenty of Riesling character, this wine really shows the exceptional aging potential of Eden Valley. The 1942 Yalumba Bin C059 Eden Valley Riesling was more developed with leafy aromas and biscuity flavours. While it still had some racy acidity, the wine was really well past its best, although very drinkable.
The fleshy and viscous 1968 Orlando Bin C100 Steingarten Riesling – recorked by Orlando in the mid 1970s – showed plenty of lemon curd/pine aromas and flavours. A core of acidity gave it some freshness. The 1979 Heggies Eden Valley Riesling, bottled under Stelvin cap, was a very complex, minerally wine with lime/slate characters and fine acid backbone still showed plenty of fruit sweetness. The 1984 Seppelt maturation release Riesling was simple in this company with pure lime aromas and flavours. Cellared at 15 degrees centigrade for 16 years before release, this wine showed plenty of crispness and freshness on the palate.
The 2003 Peter Lehmann Reserve Riesling was my top scoring wine in this bracket with its beautifully aromatic lemon curd/camomile aromas and fine mineral acidity. The 2003 Pewsey Vale ‘Contours’ Eden valley Riesling was a close second with lovely floral sweet aromas, fine steely acidity and amazing flavour length.
The 2003 Giaconda Aeolia Rousanne with its lovely floral/gardenia characters and beautifully handled savoury oak would have looked even better if served at a cooler temperature. The 2002 Yalumba Virgilius Viognier is an incredibly well made wine with highly aromatic camomile/apricot /peach aromas and superb richness and flavour length. This is Yalumba’s flagship white wine. While it may be early days – considering 1998 was the first release – Virgilius is already world class. Take a bow, Louisa Rose, Viognier Queen.
The 1997 Tahbilk Marsanne – made from vines planted in 1927 – is an old fashioned style with honey/lemon/marmalade fruit and high pitched acidity. Guigal’s 1997 La Doriane, made from a single 2 hectare vineyard, was a ‘floraligium’ of aroma and flavour and in many ways the benchmark wine in this tasting. The 1989 Condrieu from that great winemaker Yves Cuilleron should never have been entered in the tasting. It was meant to be consumed 10 years ago.
Egon Muller’s brilliant single vineyard 1983 Shartzhofberger Rieslings were the most exquisite wines in the entire tasting. They all had fragrant pearskin/camomile aromas, with varying sweetness and fine mineral acidities. If there was ever a case of never drinking water these wines would seal the argument. The 1981 Chateau d’Yquem and 1981 Chateau Coutet ‘Cuvee Madame’ were both excellent examples of top quality Sauternes with their marzipan/poached pear aromas, richness and lovely viscosity.
The 2000 Le Montrachet from Domaine de la Romanee Coniti was a very intense beautifully made wine with melon/peach/tropical fruit aromas, touches of lanolin and savoury oak. The palate was classically proportioned but did not sing in the way a AUD$1000 bottle should present itself. The ageing 1993 and 1979 vintages were a disappointing drinking experience although an interesting contrast. Le Montachet is considered as the ne plus ultra Chardonnay. The 8 hectare vineyard straddles the boundaries of Chassagne Montrachet and Puligny Montrachet. Production is ludicrously small. Only the rich and the famous get to drink the wine. I (most gratefully) enjoyed a thimble with two others.
The superb 1985 Richbourg from Domaine de La Romanee Conti eclipsed both the 1985 Romanee St Vivant and 1985 La Tache by a fair margin. It showed plenty of developed apricot/meaty aromas, viscosity, volume and fine slinky tannins. The other wines were disappointing and looked tired.
I have yet to see a truly outstanding Australian Merlot. Irvine Grand Merlot is the only Merlot which has any kind of track record on the Australian secondary wine market. Despite the accolades the wine receives abroad, it does not set my heart on fire, although the wines are always very competent. It was not represented at the tasting. Yalumba rather chose the 2000 Parker Coonawarra Estate Merlot – made by the highly intuitive and brilliant Coonawarra winemaker Peter Bissell.
This is a classically structured wine with beautifully intense smoky plum mocha aromas and flavours. Matured for 22 months in Dargaud and Jaegle barrels, the new oak does smother the fruit a touch resulting in a very good rather than superb wine. The 2000 Smith and Hopper Merlot from Wrattonbully – just up the road (by Australian standards) from Coonawarra showed plenty of plummy liquorice characters, fine grained tannins and some leafy nuances. A well concentrated but unconvincing Merlot.
The 2000 Duckhorn Napa Valley Merlot – not much better – showed contrived red cherry/sweet fruit aromas, some cedar notes and slinky tannin structure. I loved the classically proportioned and beautifully balanced 2000 Chateau Trotanoy with its plum chocolate cedar aromas, savoury oak and fine chocolaty tannins. The Merlot-based Tenute Dell Ornallaia Masseto was fantastic too with intense aniseed, dark cherry, almond aromas, superb concentration and bisquity oak. Many people at the tasting gave this wine line honours.
It is rare to find a bottle of Vega Sicilia ‘Unico Riserva’ these days. At the pinnacle of Spanish wine making for many decades this Tempranillo/Cabernet Sauvignon wine has inspired a whole generation of winemakers – much like Grange has done in Australia. The wine is matured in oak for a decade before release. The 1964 vintage was slightly overdeveloped and perhaps over advanced because of cellaring conditions. The 1974, however, was incredibly fresh and beautifully mature with meaty red cherry almost Burgundian fruit, fine looseknit tannins and superb concentration. The 1989 was a whisper behind with perfumed cherry tomato/cassis/mocha aromas and some leafy notes.
A swatch of Gaja Barbarescos from the 1961, 1971 and 1985 vintages illustrated an evolution from traditional winemaking to a highly distinctive and focused house style. The 1961 made by Giavanni Gaja is a rustic old fashioned wine with plenty of chestnut/walnut characters and sinewy tannins. The 1971 is in another spectrum completely with superb rose petal/meaty/bitumen complexity, plenty of fruit sweetness and grippy tannins. The 1985 is more supple and modern with pure plum characters and some leather spice nuances.
Chateau Mouton Rothschild is in many respects the ultimate wine experience. Certainly it carries an aura of high expectations. The very fragrant, beautifully balanced and classically structured 1982 vintage is maturing superbly with it cassis/dark cherry/cedar aromas, mocha complexity, fine grained tannins and underlying oak. This is certainly a great wine. The 1995, considered by many a very fine vintage, was still quite elemental and firm with blackcurrant aromas, cedary oak and fine grained tannins. I have never really liked the 1970 vintage. This example was quite earthy and underpowered with chunky tannins. The 1955 was mature with complex cedar/mushroom/cassis fruit, resolved tannins and excellent flavour length. The skeletal 1934 – a curio – was still holding together with some bitumen coffee fruit and fine chalky tannins.
The back straight began with a bracket of maturing Aussies. The highly concentrated and intense 1992 Yalumba The Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz is a Barossa Coonawarra blend with quite a track record on the UK wine show circuit. It looked superb on this day with its deep set plum/liquorice/blackberry aromas, cedar complexity and superb richness on the palate.
The 1986 Cape Mentelle looked really good too although perhaps a touch old fashioned with its leafy tannin structure. The 1978 Henschke Hill of Grace – a single vineyard wine and Stephen Henschke’s first vintage – was a superb bottle with developed sweet leatherwood/plum/cherry fruit, soft fleshy palate and fine tannins. Indeed this vintage must mark the point when Hill of Grace began it inexorable rise to iconic fame.
The bracket finished off with the legendary 1962 Penfolds Bin 60A Coonawarra Cabernet Kalimna Shiraz. I had already tasted three examples that day by virtue of the Penfolds Red Wine Clinics. This wine rarely disappoints. The second bottle was an excellent example with its complex choco-berry/mocha/paneforte fruit, meaty complexity and superb flavour length.
A collection of curios comprised a fresh and mature 1958 Seaview Claret and a very firm and sinewy 1955 Yalumba Galway Claret. The 1944 Mount Pleasant Henry Claret Light Dry Red, while past its prime, was a lovely old wine with walnutty characters, some fruit sweetness and chalky tannins. Maurice O’Shea, who made the wine, was one of the father’s of the modern Australian wine industry. Not much great red wine comes from the Hunter these days with the notable exceptions of Brokenwood Graveyard Vineyard, Tyrell’s Vat 9 and appropriately (and more recently) Mount Pleasant Maurice O’Shea Shiraz. I have often wondered why this is the case? I can only think of the tightly held 1986 Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz as coming anywhere near the legendary 1959 Lindemans Bin 1590 and 1965 Lindemans Bin 3100 (and 3110) Shirazes. Inevitably the 1937 Caldwell’s Claret – believed to have been made by Dan Tyrrell – was just an interesting old curio.
The last bracket comprised 1970 Fonseca and Warres Vintage Port. The Warres on this occasion with its tremendous molasses/coffee flavours and fruit power outshone the more refined and spirituous Fonseca. Although the 1860 Sercial Madiera, which was drying out like old parchment was interesting, the unctuous and richly concentrated 1908 Yalumba Muscadelle completely stole the show. I didn’t bother spitting the wine out.
Journey’s end was a soupcon of 1914 Pol Roger Champagne brought out by Christian Pol Roger. Disgorged in 1944 and recorked in 1995, it was surprisingly fresh and lively with a wonderful yeasty/nutty/minerally complexity.
“Almost every wine contains a story of some significance – of the maker, the season, the region, the style or the variety. A story of firsts, benchmarks, breakthroughs, triumphs and luck,” writes Robert Hill-Smith. Certainly this tasting, covering every decade of the 20th century, was a fascinating pastiche of light and shade through time.
Andrew Caillard MW
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