Sunday, 12 October 2008

Australia – have the wines changed that much…. Or is it me?

Like many people who got seriously into wine in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, I was heavily influenced by the emergence of quality Australian wines. Indeed, Aussie wines figured very prominently in my list of favourites. The likes of Penfolds, Wynns, Lindemans (which were all independent, at that time) Mitchelton and so on were regular favourites, along with a whole host of (at the time) less well-known wines from the Australian Wine Centre.

I’m not sure whether it happened suddenly or over a period of time, but as I began to discover what the rest of the world really had to offer, my interest in Australian wines eventually waned to the extent that I stopped buying them completely. I’m pretty sure that Musar was one of the main catalysts (it could be had for a fiver, back then!) but more traditional wines from the likes of Spain, Italy and of course France eventually took over. And I never really looked back, save for the occasional Aussie wine that might crop up at Offlines and Wine Circle tastings.

So this week’s Wine Circle tasting of 14 medium and top-end Cabernet and Shiraz-based Aussie wines was a good chance to revisit an old haunt and see what all the fuss is (or was) all about. It would also be my first ever opportunity to taste a Penfolds Grange, which is one Aussie wine I have always wanted to try, but never got around to.

Our presenter was Wine Circle stalwart and experienced WSET tutor Ralph Northwood, who began the tasting by asking us to remember that he was only presenting the wines – he “didn’t make them”!

My notes are patchy, to say the least, but such was the nature of the tasting. We began with five wines based on Cabernet Sauvignon;

Thorn Clarke Shotfire Ridge Quartage 2002 Barossa Nice notes of mint and eucalyptus and cedar. Turns jammy after a short time in the glass. Big fruit, but very simple and in your face. OK, if unexciting.

Houghton Jack Mann 1998 Western Australia Cabernet with about 20% Malbec. Minty, good depth of red and black fruits with loads of acidity and a fair amount of interest.Much better than the preceding wine. Touch of brett and VA. Very Bordeaux in style. Nicely made wine.

Wynns John Riddoch 1998 Coonawarra Smells very jammy and one-dimensional. Palate seems a touch dried out with noticeable VA and very drying tannins. Dumb or shot? Who knows, but not great.

Wynns John Riddoch 1994 Coonawarra This is much more like it. Still dry, with prominent tannins, but very much alive and quite youthful, with a big core of succulent fruit, though with a touch of brett. Manages to be typically Australian, but with Bordeaux-like elegance. I liked it a lot.

Penfolds Bin 707 1992 South Australia This is lovely stuff. A holy grail Cabernet? Well, for me, it comes close. I would liken it to a warm vintage semi-mature classed growth Bordeaux – with bells on! Concentrated, full of fruit, floral (violets?) notes on the nose and the palate – most unusual, and very elegant. Absolutely lovely wine.

Then we moved onto nine wines based on Shiraz;

Thorn Clarke William Randell 2001 Barossa My goodness, this is horrible! Smells like a cheap Port and does indeed taste like a cheap red dessert wine. Huge. Fruit, figs, coffee, chocolate, but 15% (was that all?) and a huge dollop of residual sugar marks this out as a wine completely devoid of enjoyment – especially as a dry table wine. Do not put in mouth.

Katnook Estate Prodigy 2002 Coonawarra Mint and eucalyptus, chocolate and dark fruitcake.Reasonably balanced, but will the acidity last as long as the sweetness? Too alcoholic again, though it might age and mellow a bit. I can see how this would be very popular with Aussie wine aficionados, but it doesn’t do a lot for me.

Peter Lehmann Stonewell 1999 Barossa Fruit, mint and eucalyptus nose. Lighter and somewhat more elegant – for me, at least, though some others are scathing. Herby, nice level of acidity and easier to drink. Quite nice.

Noon Eclipse 2000 Barossa My word, this is disgusting. Smells like another cheap Port or fortified wine, which would be fine, if this was a cheap fortified wine. But it isn’t – it is an expensive table wine. The palate is totally weird and utterly disgusting. This is neck and neck with the Thorn Clarke in the “most disgusting wine I’ve drunk in ages” stakes. Although, to be fair, the Thorn Clark might actually be just about palatable, if served as a blind after dinner wine. This one wouldn’t. Awful stuff.

Wynns Michael 1997 Coonawarra Correct, but ultimately one-dimensional. A decent enough wine, which does exactly what it says on the tin (i.e. a typical Aussie Shiraz) but, for a supposedly iconic wine, lacks interest or complexity.

Rosemount Estate Balmoral 1996 McLaren Vale 12 years old and no sign of age or development. But it does, in fact, show a degree of elegance. Easy on the coffee and chocolate, prunes and raisins and more in the way of fresh fruit. More correct and, indeed, more interesting. Along with the 94 Riddoch and the 92 Bin 707, this is one of the few wines so far that I would actually choose to drink. A very nice wine.

Basedow Johannes 1996 Barossa Another classic Aussie Shiraz, with lovely balance and a good degree of elegance. In fact, by far the best Shiraz so far. Lovely wine – if only Australia could do more wines like this. VGI/Excellent.

Yalumba Octavius 1996 Barossa There is a great deal of elegant fruit lurking here, in what is essentially a lighter style of wine - but why smother it with so much oak? It is actually very good indeed now, despite the oak, but I feel it has the structure to turn into a super wine – possibly even a great one, with another 10 to 15 years of age.

Penfolds Bin 95 Grange 1981 South Australia If served blind, I would actually guess that this was a Cabernet, both on the nose and the palate, though the Shiraz character does begin to show more of itself as the wine opens out. Considerably complex and very drinkable and ultimately an excellent wine, in this line-up at least. But was it memorable? Well, no, not really. Is it worth 25 quid? Probably. Is it worth £150? Certainly not! Am I being unfair? Possibly. But I expected so much more from this wine, so it was ultimately a bit of a letdown. I much preferred the 707 actually. In fact, I thought that the Cabernet wines showed much better than the Shiraz, on the whole, although things did improve drastically with the final few wines.

My verdict, overall? Well, for somebody who learned to love wine by drinking so many Aussie wines in my “formative” years, I was left wondering what happened. Have Australian wines changed that much over the years, or has my palate changed? I think possibly a little of the former, but predominantly the latter. Perhaps Australia was simply a place I needed to pass through on my way to somewhere completely different. And I really did enjoy the journey….. but there really is no going back.
Leon Stolarski