There are few words that bring joy to a winelover’s ears as much as “fine wine sale”. Below are some of the Kiwi and Aussie wines included in Irish chain O’Briens’ fine wine sale that I have tried and enjoyed this year. I will leave the discussion on what constitutes “fine wine” for another day!
Note: links now added as O’Briens have also taken the fine wine sale online.
Cloudy Bay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2017 (13.1%, €33.95 down to €26.95 at O’Briens)
The one Savvy to rule them all – Cloudy Bay brought Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc to international attention and acclaim, for a while it sat alone at the top of the tree. Nowadays it has company – not least Greywacke, made by Cloudy Bay’s founding winemaker Kevin Judd, and Dog Point, also made by former CB winemakers.
But it’s in difficult vintages such as 2017 where the premium labels really earned their stripes; lots of grey rot was present in the grapes of bulk producers – a byproduct of being paid for quantity over quality – so the careful selection and sorting of upmarket producers like Cloudy Bay made a huge difference to the finished wine. This is so much smoother and less aggressive than everyday Marlborough Sauvignon that it’s almost like a different wine!
Man O’War Dreadnought Waiheke Island Syrah 2014 (14.6%, €35.45 down to €26.95 at O’Briens)
Man O’War’s nautically named Flagship range always go down a treat chez moi – and they are indeed a treat, especially the Valhalla Chardonnay. Here we have their Dreadnought Syrah, perhaps a little riper and fuller-bodied than the Syrahs of Hawke’s Bay, but still recognisably Kiwi. Black fruit and blueberries are framed by oak (though now integrating well) and tannins (present but ripe). A fantastic wine!
St Hallett Old Block Barossa Shiraz 2014 (13.7%, €60.00 down to €48.00 at O’Briens)
Whereas the Dreadnought above is unmistakably Kiwi, this is unmistakably Barossa. In fact the fruit is sourced from two sub-regions of the Barossa Zone, the Barossa Valley proper (62%) and the slightly cooler Eden Valley (38%) just to the east (note the ABV is a fairly moderate 13.7%.) And “Old Block”? That means OLD, with a minimum vine age for the 2014 of 80 years. The result is a fabulous, concentrated wine with vibrant red and black berry fruit and fine tannins.
d’Arenberg Dead Arm McLaren Vale Shiraz 2015 (14.5%, €54.95 down to €43.95 at O’Briens)
Another iconic Aussie Shiraz, this time from McLaren Vale which is a short way south of Adelaide and a few clicks inland from the sea. Cheeky chappie Chester Osbourne is still the head winemaker of this family firm, but despite the loud shirts and outgoing personality he really knows his stuff (the 2002 Coppermine Road Cabernet Sauvignon was my top red of 2017.) Intense red, purple and black fruit dominate the palate – this will be at its best in the years to come, but drinkable now, especially if decanted.
DNS Wine Club were recently treated to a sneak peak of the sweet wines shown to the Irish press. The trio below were the standouts, but please remember – sweet wines are not just for dessert!
Château Rieussec Sauternes 2014 (14.0%, RRP €50.00 (375ml) at O’Briens)
We start with the smallest bottle and lowest abv yet highest price – and all these facts are related. Sauternes is an expensive wine to produce, as botrytised grapes (shrivelled by noble rot) contain less juice than normal grapes, and picking them at optimum levels often requires several passes in the vineyard.
Château Rieussec is one of 11 Premiers Crus (just below the sole Premier Cru Supérieur of Château d’Yquem) established by the 1855 Classification. It was bought by the Lafite branch of the Rothschilds in 1984 and benefitted from their marketing and distribution efforts, though (thankfully) pricing is still a fraction of Lafite-Rothschild’s Grand Vin. A second sweet wine (Carmes de Rieussec) and a dry white (R de Rieussec) complete the range.
This 2014 is made from the traditional Sauternes blend of Sémillon (93%), Sauvignon Blanc (5%) and Muscadelle (2%) and is an exuberant delight for the senses. Still very young, it has a highly perfumed nose of stone fruit, whisky marmalade and ginger. The spice is somewhat muted on the palate at present, as apricot, peach and citrus dominate, wrapped in an envelope of sweetness that is cosseting but not cloying. As one DNS member put it “this tastes of money” – it’s a fabulous, beautiful wine.
Gérard Bertrand Banyuls 2011 (16.0%, RRP €23.95 (750ml) at O’Briens)
Along with Maury and Rivesaltes, Banyuls is one of the three Vin Doux Naturelproducing areas in Roussillon, French Catalonia. As with the VDNs produced throughout France, grape spirit is added early on during fermentation to kill the yeast, leaving plenty of sugar left in the juice – and plenty of alcohol too! This is the same method as used in Porto, so the end result is not unlike Port.
Grenache is the king in these parts, not least because of the grape’s ability to produce high sugar levels and moderate tannin levels. Bottling is relatively quick after mutage as Grenache is susceptible to unwanted oxidation if left in oak, but once under cork the wine can last for decades.
At 16.0% Gérard Bertrand’s Banyuls comes in at around the same as some Californian and Italian wines – and tastes lighter than the vintage Port it was tried against. Grenache Gris supports the mainstay Grenache Noir and adds elegance. Fruit is the key here, both dried and fresh, with a little tannin and acidity supporting the show. This would be superb with some fruit cake but perfect for contemplation on its own.
Bethany Old Quarry Tawny NV (19.0%, €24.95 (750ml) at O’Briens)
Most of us don’t associate fortified wines with Australia, but for the majority of the twentieth century locally produced “port” and “sherry” dominated the market. Once dry table wines had taken off, the Grenache and Shiraz vines that were the source of grapes for fortifieds were still used to some extent, but as varieties they fell behind Cabernet Sauvignon in the fashion stakes, so many older vines were sadly ripped up and replaced. Thankfully, some still survive and make brilliant port style wines – though of course they can’t be labelled as such in the EU – and are the highlight of many winelovers’ discoveries on visiting Australian cellar doors.
This is a rare example which is available up here – in Ireland at least. Produced by the ever-excellent Geoff Schrapel at Bethany in the Barossa, it is a blend of late harvested Grenache and Shiraz, aged together in old oak casks for an average of ten years before bottling. As with tawny Port, this gives a lighter – almost brown – colour to the wine, with dried fruit and nutty flavours. This is a delightful drink, especially in the coming darker months, and has more flavour than most Ports at this price.
While very privileged to regularly taste new wines that expand the boundaries of my wine knowledge, it’s also nice once in a while to pop the cork on an old favourite; pleasure can come from familiarity as well as discovery. Here are two old friends of mine:
Loosen Dr L Riesling 2015 (8.5%, €14.00 at Morton’s Ranelagh, Jus de Vine Portmarknock, Nolan’s Clontarf)
Ernst Loosen is one of the bigger producers in Germany’s Mosel, a strong candidate for the best place in the world to make Riesling. He makes a wide range of wines from different vineyards, up to and including Grosses Gëwachs. The Dr L wines are blends from different sites designed to make an approachable, everyday style. There is a dry version but this is the off-dry to medium one with only 8.5% and a fair bit of residual sugar (43.2 g/L). Of course there’s plenty of acidity in the wine’s backbone so the sweetness enhances the racy lime and lemon fruit rather than being just sugary. The perfect introduction to Mosel Riesling!
Peter Lehmann Clancy’s Barossa Red Blend 2013 (14.5%, €12.99 at Londis Malahide, Morton’s Ranelagh, O’ Donoghues O/L Cork, The Drink Store Manor Street, Nolan’s Clontarf)
I’m a long-time admirer of Peter Lehmann wines as their varietal Barossa range were a treat for me when I got into Aussie wine in the mid to late 90s. More recently I’ve been lucky to taste the premium wines in the range, but this entry level red blend is still an enjoyable pour. The wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Merlot – all from the Barossa Valley, and the relative proportions I’m sure change depending on the vintage.
While Cabernet is a slight favourite of mine ahead of Shiraz, the later does a good job of filling the hole in the mid palate which Cab can sometimes have (it’s not called the “doughnut grape” for nothing!) There’s lots of juicy blackcurrant and blackberry with spice and a mocha finish. This is a very appealing wine with a price that means you wouldn’t mind sharing it with “red wine drinkers” (people who say they love red wine but can’t name more than a handful!)
Ranging from €14 to €49, here are some of my favourite reds from the recent O’Briens Wine Fair:
Viña Chocálan Reserva Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 (14.5%, €13.95 at O’Briens)
Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon is usually pretty good, even when inexpensive, as Chile has enough sunshine to fully ripen the fruit but the temperatures aren’t so high that it becomes jammy and unbalanced. This is full of juicy blackcurrant but also has a little bit of cedar wood and graphite which adds interest.
Sierra Cantabria Rioja Crianza 2013 (14.0%, €17.95 down to €15.95 for May at O’Briens)
Particularly at Crianza level, Rioja is known for red fruit flavours (strawberry, raspberry, redcurrant, red cherry) with a good helping of vanilla from American oak. Sierra Cantabria doesn’t follow this plan at all – it’s all about black fruit and intensity of flavour, much more akin to a good Ribera del Duero than most Riojas. Why not try it back to back with the Reserva?
Urlar Gladstone Pinot Noir 2014 (14.5%, €23.95 at O’Briens)
At the bottom of New Zealand’s North Island is the Wairarapawine region (not to be confused with Waipara near Christchurch). The oldest part is probably Martinborough(not to be confused with Marlborough at the top of the South Island) but there are other notable areas within the Wairarapa such as Gladstone. Urlar(from the Gaelic for “Earth”) is an organic and practicing biodynamic producer which makes fantastic Pinot Noir. While full of fruit it has a savoury, umami edge, and will undoubtedly continue to develop complexity over the coming years.
Viña Chocálan Vitrum Blend 2013 (14.5%, €24.95 down to €22.95 for May at O’Briens)
Sitting just below their icon wine Alexia, Vitrum is Chocalan’s premium range, so named as the owners Toro family have been in the glass bottle making business for over 80 years. As stated it this wine is a blend, and the grapes aren’t named on the front label as there are so many of them! (for reference the 2013 is: 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Syrah, 8% Cabernet Franc, 8% Malbec, 4% Carmenère, 2% Petit Verdot). All these different varieties make for an interesting wine – quite full bodied and with considerable structure, but balanced and drinkable.
Domaine Olivier Santenay Temps des C(e)rises 2014 (13.0%, €28.95 down to €23.16 for May at O’Briens)
If you don’t speak French then you’d be forgiven for missing the jeu de mot in the name of this wine: temps des crises is the time of crises and temps des cerises is the time of cherries – and also the name of a famous French revolutionary song. Anyway, on to the wine itself: this is a mid weight Pinot Noir from Santenay in Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune. It has delightful red currant and red cherry with a touch of smokinessfrom barrel ageing. It’s a food friendly wine which could also be drunk on its own. While ready to drink now I would (try to!) keep this for a few more years before drinking. Great Burgundy for the €€!
Château Fourcas Hosten Listrac-Médoc 2009 (13.0%, €29.95 down to €23.95 for May at O’Briens)
Listracis one of the two villages (with Moulis) in Bordeaux’s Médoc peninsula outside of the famous four that have their name on an appellation, but is rarely seen in Ireland. Château Fourcas Hosten was bought by the family behind the Hermès luxury goods group around a decade ago and they have invested significantly in quality since then. As 2009 was an excellent vintage in Bordeaux this is a fairly ripe and accessible wine.
Unusually for a warm vintage it has quite a bias towards Merlot (65%) versus Cabernet Sauvignon (35%), even though they make up 45% each of the vineyard area (and Cabernet Franc being the final 10%). This wine shows fresh and dried black fruit with some pencil shavings and tobacco – classy, accessible Bordeaux!
Cambria “Julia’s Vineyard” Pinot Noir 2012 (13.5%, €29.95 at O’Briens)
The spotlight on US Pinot Noir mainly falls on Oregon and its Willamette Valley, but California shouldn’t be ignored – especially Santa Barbara County, which was of course the setting for Sideways. The cool climate here, especially in Santa Mary Valley, helps Pinot Noir develop fully, keeping acidityand light to medium tannins to frame the fresh red fruit. One of my favourite American Pinots!
Man O’War Waiheke Island Ironclad 2012 (14.5%, €34.45 at O’Briens)
I’m a big fan of Man O’War’s premium range, all nautically namedand great examples of their type (I’m just gutted that demand for their Juliasparkling wine at their winery restaurant means that it won’t be exported anymore). Ironclad is the Bordeaux blend; the blend changes from year to year depending on how each variety fared, with any fruit that doesn’t make the grade being declassified into the next tier down.
The current release is the 2012which is 45% Cabernet Franc, 20% Merlot, 14% Petit Verdot, 13% Malbec and 8% Cabernet Sauvignon – only Carménèremisses out from Bordeaux’s black grapes, and hardly anyone grows that in Bordeaux nowadays anyway. It’s full of ripe blackberry, blackcurrant and blueberry fruit with some graphite. It would pair well with red meat, but being a bit riper in style than most Bordeaux means it drinks well on its own.
Frank Phélan 2012 (13.0%, €34.95 down to €27.95 for May at O’Briens)
Back to Bordeaux proper again with the second wine of Château Phélan Ségur, named after the son of the original Irish founder Bernard Phelan. As a second wine it mainly uses younger fruit than the Grand Vin, a shorter time in barrel and a higher proportion of Merlot (this is 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon). All these lead to it being a more supple wine, and more approachable in its youth. For me this was quite similar to the Fourcas Hosten – dark black fruit in particular – but younger and with a little more tannin and graphite notes. Steak anyone?
Torbreck The Struie 2014 (14.5%, €49.00 down to €42 for May at O’Briens)
It’s fair to say that Barossa Shiraz is one of Australia’s most well-recognised wine styles, but there are actually significant differences within the Barossa. The most notable difference is that there are actually two distinct valleys – the Barossa Valley itself and the Eden Valley which is at a higher altitude and hence has a cooler climate (there’s some great Riesling grown in the latter but very little in the former!)
The Struie is a blend of fruit from both valleys: 77% Barossa (for power and richness) and 23% Eden (for acidity and elegance), all aged in a mix of old and new French oak barrels. There’s intense blackberry and plum fruit with a twist of spice.
This is a fairly monumental wine which actually deserves a bit more time before drinking, so buy a few and lay them down…but if you can’t wait, decant!
Hunter Valley Semillon is rightly regarded as an “Australian Original”, with magnificent examples coming from Tyrrell’s, McWilliam’s and the like. Picked early in the harvest season it is generally light and fairly modest in alcohol – and, it has to be said, somewhat simple in flavour when young. However, over time it grows in complexity with layers of honey and toastiness added to the primary citrus. It often tastes oaked when it has been nowhere near an oak barrel.
Barossa Semillon, made around a thousand miles to the west, is a different beast entirely. The grapes are usually picked when fully ripe and maturation in oak barrels is common for Semillon, just as for Shiraz, Cabernet and Chardonnay.
The Barossa Valley is based around the small towns of Tanunda, Nuriootpa and Angaston, north east of Adelaide in the state of South Australia. It’s a very picturesque area – well yes, most wine regions are – but in particular shows the rich Germanic heritage of the area. The small village of Bethany is the home of Bethany Wines. It was the first part of the Barossa to be settled, with the Schrapel family planting their first vines in 1852. The family firm is now run by brothers Geoff and Robert Schrapel from the 5th generation and some of their children now forming the 6th generation.
Among the Bethany portfolio is this delicious Semillon. The alcohol is not that high at 12.5% but is a few pips higher than a traditional Hunter Valley Sem. During maturation it spent some time in French hogsheads which is definitely discernible, though not at all overdone. In both aromas and flavours there’s a blend of fresh citrus and mellow honey – and it’s totally delicious!
It’s sort of like drinking a dry Sauternes – which might sound funny, but actually makes a bit of sense when you consider that Semillon is one of the main grapes in Sauternes and is often barrel aged. And the G6 monicker? That refers to the 6th generation of the Schrapel family of course!
It was nearly impossible to reduce this list down to 10 reds so there are lots of magnificent wines that didn’t make the cut – some fine Chilean Pinots in particular. Pinot is well represented from numbers 10 to 8…
Very few quality American wines make it to Irish shores, and so discovering Cline Cellars Pinot Noir at the Big Ely Tasting was a revelation. After tasting it again with Fred and Nancy Cline at the James Nicholson Tasting (and some of their other wines) I was definitely a firm fan.
You’d never mistake it for Burgundy, but to be honest it knocks spots off most red Burgundy under €30. It’s on the big side for Pinot but it has poise and balance so that all its components remain in harmony.
9. Ata Rangi Martinborough Pinot Noir 2011
This stood out as my favourite Pinot of the whole Annual New Zealand Trade Tasting in Dublin. While Marlborough wineries are still working out how to get the best out of Pinot Noir, their Wairarapa counterparts across the Cook Strait can already be considered masters of the grape.
One of the top few producers in New Zealand, Ata Rangi is one of the well established Martinborough vineyards making outstanding Chardonnay and Pinot Gris in addition to Pinot Noir. This has fruit and power, but is soooo smooth that a bottle can disappear in a frighteningly short time!
8. Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rosé 2002
Yes, I’ve included a Champagne among my reds of the year! But I have my reasons…
Like many rosé Champagnes, particularly those with some age on them, this was actually closer to a still Pinot Noir than a young white Champagne. And for good reason when you look how it’s made. 70% of the blend is Pinot Noir from Grand Cru villages, of which around 13% from Bouzy is added as red wine. This is then topped off with 30% Chardonnay from the Grand Cru villages of Avize, Le Mesnil sur Oger, Oger and Chouilly.
I opened this on the day we celebrated my wife’s birthday – something to enjoy while we got ready to go out. My wife wasn’t that impressed by it, but that just meant more for me! The texture is the key for me – it wasn’t that fizzy or zippy, but it had an amazing Pinot nose and soft red fruit on the palate. I don’t tend to drink much rosé but this shows what it can do.
7. Peter Lehmann Stonewell Shiraz 2009
The so-called Baron Of The Barossa, who sadly passed away in 2013, Peter Lehmann was the maker of several ranges of Barossa gems. They started above the level of everyday wines but went right up to this flagship – more expensive than most people would spend on a regular basis but nowhere near the price of other Aussie icons such as Hill Of Grace or Grange.
At the Comans silent tasting, the 2009 showed that it’s still young and would reward patient cellaring, but it’s so drinkable now that it’s hard to resist. It’s made in a rich, concentrated old-vine style which is defiantly and definitively Barossa, but there are layers and layers of complexity. It packs a punch but also makes you think.
6. Château Pesquié Ventoux Artemia
I was lucky enough to taste three different vintages of this southern Rhône superstar during the year – the 2012 from bottle and the 2006 from magnum at the Big Rhône Tasting at Ely, and then the 2005 from magnum at a jaw-droppingly excellent food and wine dinner at Belleek Castle (more to come on that!)
Although its home of Ventoux is situated in the southerly reaches of the Rhône, the cool winds coming off the Mont de Ventoux and Valcluse mountains help maintain acidity and freshness. Artemia is Château Pesquié’s premium bottling made of equal parts of Grenache and Syrah, both from low-yielding sites
The wines are rich and unctuous, with dark black fruit and spice competing for your attention. But it’s not all about big fruit, there’s also acidity and minerality there. I’m trying to see if I can get my hands on a few magnums for myself!
5. Antinori Badia a Passignano Chianti Classico Riserva 2008
Forget Galaxy Chocolate, this is possibly the smoothest thing known to man – pretty unusual for a Chianti!
The biggest producer in Italy, family owned and run Antinoribought the estate in 1987 and set out to create the ultimate expression of Tuscan Sangiovese. Clones were specially selected to give velvet and acidity – hence the smoothness.
It has an amazing nose of red and black fruit, but these are joined on the palate by rich dark chocolate. It has an international sensibility but is unmistakably Chianti Classico. By some distance it’s the best Chianti I have tasted to date!
4. Torres Mas La Plana 2005
When wines are this good, choosing between different vintages much be like choosing between different children, but if a choice has to be made of all the different vintages tasted of Torres’ Cabernet flagship Mas La Plana then 2005 was the chosen one.
Although regarded as an interloper by many in Spain, Cabernet Sauvignon can actually thrive in the right settings. As it’s my favourite black grape I say boo to tradition and enjoy this blackcurrant beauty! Compared to an excellent Rioja there are quite noticeable differences – primarily black fruit rather than Tempranillo’s red strawberries and smokey French oak rather than big vanilla from American oak.
The 2005 still has loads of primary fruit, but has already developed some interesting cedar and tobacco notes. It’s in full bloom but has the structure to last until the end of this decade at least.
3. Gérard Bertrand AOC Rivesaltes 1989
I didn’t taste enough sweet wines this year for them to deserve their own category, but this fortified Grenache muscled its way into the Reds list. A Vin Doux Naturel from the Roussillon in South West France, this is similar-ish to Rasteau from the Rhône and Maury close by in Roussillon – and not a million miles away from Port.
Unexpectedly this was my favourite wine from the O’Briens Autumn Press Tasting – Age has taken away with one hand – colour has faded significantly – and given back with the other – complexity writ large. It’s definitely a wine for the winter season but it’s something to look forward to. Class in a glass.
This was technically drunk in 2015 as it was popped after midnight on New Year’s Eve, but I love it so much I have to include it. A long time favourite producer since my visit to Coonawarra in 2000, and undoubtedly one of the standout in terms of consistent quality, Katnook Estate makes big cabs that are to die for.
This young example had fresh blackcurrants – so fresh and intense that you would swear you were actually chewing on them – with Coonawarra’s trademark eucalyptus providing additional interest. It’s my go-to red for good reason!
1. Penfolds Grange 2008
I am an unbashed fan of Australia’s first world class wine, and included some older vintages of Grange in my best wines of 2013. Without the 2008 for reference I’m pretty sure I would have picked the 2009 for the top spot this year – the 2009 was very nice indeed – but the 2008 was on another level altogether. Apparently it was awarded the full monty 100 points by both the Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator
Only a couple of years after release, it is still an absolute baby of course, but is actually drinkable now. It has tremendous concentration, and although you can find the American oak if you search for it, fruit dominates the nose and palate. Blackberry, blackcurrant and damson are tinged with choca-mocha and liquorice.
It’s an immense wine without being intimidating – At 14.5% the alcohol is fairly middling for an Aussie Shiraz, perhaps tempered by 9% fruit from the cooler Clare Valley. It’s made to last for decades, but unlike some flagship wines I tasted this year its elements are already harmonious.
As a “collectible” wine that has become bought more and more by investors, Grange has now moved firmly out of my price range. I am still tempted nevertheless!!
Following on from my review of the sparkling and white wines in part one, here are the red and sweet wines which impressed me at the O’Briens Wines Autumn Press Tasting:
Señorio de Aldaz Tinto DO Navarra 2012 (€10.99)
Navarra (or Navarre in English) is a wine region in the north of Spain close to the more famous Rioja. It used to be well-known for its rosados but now produces plenty of quality reds and whites, from both indigenous and international grape varieties. In fact, the old Garnacha vineyards previously used for simple rosés are now being put to a more noble use in reds such as this one. The other grapes in the blend are the local Tempranillo and the international Merlot.
It’s unmistakably Spanish, with bold red and black fruit cossetted in a basket of vanilla. This is smooth and very easy to drink on it’s own, but would stand up to beef or lamb with aplomb. Great value for money.
Luzon Crianza DO Jumilla 2011 (€15.99)
The Spanish speakers among you may have spotted from the label that this was matured in oak for 12 months, and thereby qualifies for the Crianzadesignation. The oak used was mainly French (80%) with the balance American.
Jumilla is a region on the rise, as modern viticultural and vinification techniques are applied to some old bush vine vineyards. Monastrell (the Rhône’s Mourvèdre) dominates the blend here with beefiness and spice, augmented by Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo and a little Merlot. The fruit is black rather than red – and it almost explodes out of the bottle.
Longview The Piece Shiraz 2009 (€42.00)
Longview are based in the Adelaide Hills region of South Australia, just into the hills above….err…Adelaide! Known as a cool(er) climate region, it can produce sublime Chardonnays and is now getting a serious reputation for Shiraz: Shaw + Smith excel at both. “The Piece” is their top wine with all grapes handpicked, sorted and fermented in four separate one tonne open fermenters. It was aged for 24 months in new and old 300 litre French oak hogsheads.
At five years of age the wine has now settled down and is beginning to unfurl its petals. It has sweet black fruit with soft integrated oak. Medium acidity and silky tannins provide the structure for balance and additional ageing if you can resist drinking it now.
Château La Tour Blanche AOC Sauternes 2007 (€75.00, €67.00 in Nov/Dec)
How much? you might ask. Yes, it’s an expensive bottle, but it’s a high end wine, and if you feel like splashing out for Christmas this would be perfect. 2007 was a good year for Bordeaux’s southerly Sauternes subregion so it should last for at least a decade from now.
On opening the wine has a divine, honey and apricot nose that you just want to inhale all day. This follows through onto the palate, and while it’s definitely a dessert wine, there’s enough acidity to provide balance and stop it being cloying.
If you are a fan of foie gras then a glass of this would be a sublime match.
Gérard Bertrand AOC Rivesaltes 1989 (€27.99)
For me this was the standout wine of the tasting. For those not familiar with the term, a Vin Doux Naturel is a fortified sweet wine where grape spirit is added early in the fermentation process to kill off the yeast, stopping fermentation and leaving some of the natural sugars from the grapes. The Muscat grape is a staple for this job, especially around the Mediterranean, but Grenache offers an alternative style in several appellations.
The Rivesaltes appellation takes its name from the town of the same name in the Roussillon area, which means “High Banks” in Catalan.
The Muscat versions are often sweet, simple and grapey, nice but nothing to write home about. This 25 year old Rivesaltes demands you buy a big book of stamps!
Time has caused the colour to fade from the wine – Grenache doesn’t tend to hold on to its colour that well anyway – but in return there are layers upon layers of complexity. You could lose yourself for an hour just smelling the aromas, before diving into the heavenly Christmas pudding palate. Spice up your wine selection here!
Bethany Old Quarry Tawny (€23.99)
The obvious word missing from the name of this wine is “Port”, and that’s because it’s from Australia not Porto. Most people are very familiar with Australian table wine but aren’t aware that fortified wines were the majority of the industry’s output until the 1970s. Port and Sherry imitations dominated the domestic market but were never able to compete with the real deal overseas. Nowadays the proportion of production devoted to fortifieds is small with virtually nil exported.
Happily this is one of the bottles in that small rounding error, made from the traditional Barossa fortifieds grapes of Grenache and Shiraz. Barrel ageing has given it some wonderfully intense raisin and nutty “rancio” characters.
What’s a “Silent Tasting”? you may ask…one where talking isn’t allowed? But hand gestures encouraged? The mind may indeed boggle.
But no, a Silent Tasting is one where the tasters pour for themselves without the producer or importer giving them the background behind the wine. The upside is that the taster can consider the wine purely on its merits, according to his/her palate, without any distractions. The downside is that there’s no one to tell the story behind the wine, if it’s interesting, so it’s always good to have comprehensive notes provided in advance, as was the case here.
Taste In Music, Taste In Wine
Now I’m striking out on an apparent detour here when I mention some similarities between taste in music and taste in wine. I’m not talking about music affecting how wine tastes (see this Wired article, for example). Instead, I’m talking about the fact that, over the years, our taste in music changes and evolves, particularly as new sounds, movements and fashions come along.
The exact same could be said of the wine world – Chardonnay was the “in-thing” in mid 90s, only to usurped by Marlborough Sauvignon and Pinot Grigio. In the 70s there was Blue Nun, Liebfraumilch, Black Tower and Mateus Rosé Now it’s all about Picpoul, Albariño and Sherry.
Some people like being at the leading edge of fandom, and quickly disown anything which has fallen out of fashion.
I’m not one of them.
I still like Queen, Dire Straits and the Pet Shop Boys that I started liking in the 80s, though I love discovering new music. I still like Aussie Chardonnay and Shiraz (as long as they are good examples), though I love Godello and Furmint (and yes, they have to be good examples too).
So what is the relevance of this detour? The wines tasted from the Coman’s portfolio are fairly familiar – in fact many are personal old favourites of mine. Of course, the wines will have evolved a little over the years, but they remain fairly modern classics in my eyes. They aren’t all at the cutting edge of wine fashion, but they taste good and people still want to drink them.
Back when I started exploring Australian wine in the early to mid 90s, the big sellers on the supermarket shelves were Jacob’s Creek and Hardy’s Nottage Hill & Stamp Series. A step above that was Rosemount Estate (especially the purple diamond label Shiraz-Cabernet and black label straight Shiraz). A step still higher was Peter Lehmann’s Barossa series – the Shiraz was great, but I actually preferred the Cabernet Sauvignon.
That preference still remains when tasting the 2011s, but it’s a very close call.
Like many in the Barossa, Peter Lehmann was of German ancestry. In 1977, while working for Saltram, he was told to buy less grapes in from Barossagrowers, but refused as he had given his word to them. As a compromise he was allowed to start up his own company to buy and process the additional grapes. When Saltram was sold to Seagram two years later he was forbidden from having a foot in both camps so he left and went full time on his own. His loyalty to local growers and innovative methods gave rise to his sobriquet “The Baron of the Barossa”. Although ownership of the company left family hands in 2003 (shortly after my visit!), the standard of the wines remained high. Peter sadly passed away on 28 June 2013.
As well as the standard Barossa range above (too good to be called “entry level”!), there are other – increasingly serious – Shirazes. The first is the Futures Shiraz 2009, named after the first wine Peter Lehmann sold under a “pay now, pick up in 2 years” future contract arrangement which helped generate cashflow for the fledgling business. This particular example is co-fermented with a small portion of Muscadelle, Bordeaux’s third white grape and previously known as Tokay in Australia. This serves to balance the powerful Shiraz, just as Viognier is used by some producers in Côte Rôtie, Mclaren Vale and Stellenbosch. Furthermore, it adds complexity to the wine’s aromas… Next up is the Eight Songs Shiraz 2008 which takes a different approach from the norm for the Barossa. The fruit is from vineyards over a century old, meaning fantastic intensity of flavour from low-yielding vines. The wine is matured in 100% new 300 litre French oak barrels, so it’s a wine for the long haul – though being Australian, it’s approachable in its youth. As any serious Aussie wine fan knows, 2008 was an amazing year down under – see how much of a premium the 2008 vintage of Penfold’s Grange trades as compared to other years – so this is definitely a wine to stock up on and drink over the next couple of decades.
And so to the flagship, Stonewell Shiraz, named after one of the oldest areas of the Barossa. When tasting this 2009 I was reminded that I bought my cousin Stuart a case of the 1995 vintage as a wedding present back in 2001. I wonder how long they lasted?..I thought to myself. The answer came out of the blue the next day in the form of a photo of some wine that my Aunt was clearing out from her late husband (RIP) Tony’s cellar. Lo and behold some very nice Stonewell 1995! This 2009 is still a baby and needs lots of time to develop and open up, but my bet is that it will be spectacular . The final Lehmann delight was the 2011 Botrytis Semillon. As the name suggests this is a noble rot-affected dessert wine, with luscious sweetness and huge depth of flavour – and more to come as this will continue to improve with age.
To be continued with some Spanish and Chilean beauties in Part Two and some savvy Sauvignons in Part Three.