Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Cerebral Hedonist

Pleasure is the only thing to live for. Nothing ages like happiness.
~ Oscar Wilde

What takes your fancy? That which is cerebral, or that which washes over you in waves of hedonistic pleasure? This could be a more general question about your attitude to life, but is also a relevant question with wine.

For anyone who drinks wine, from the casual drinker to a devoted tragic like myself, the concept of a hedonistic wine is probably pretty self-evident and something most of us have experienced. In a very broad sense, it will be a flavoursome wine whose charms will be immediately apparent.

That being the case, what is a cerebral wine? This is perhaps less evident. When someone talks or writes about a wine being “cerebral”, to me it signifies that it is first and foremost a wine of structure. A cerebral wine might seemingly lack flavour in comparison, but rather has you thinking about things like its shape, its fine line of acidity, its powdery tannins, its sense of texture. For the more casual wine drinker, these concepts might seem a bit abstract. Moreover, if you’re drinking a “cerebral” wine, especially in its youth, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about and why it warrants a $60 price tag. Conversely there is many a wine lover who go a bit gaga over this type of wine, as something worthy of contemplation and potential future greatness.

Of course, it’s not an either or proposition. While a wine might have a bias towards one of these broad traits, it will very often have a reasonable amount of the other characteristic as well. And indeed there are good wines that really don’t exhibit either trait, and fit into a more luncheon claret type mould. However, arguably the greatest wines are both cerebral and hedonistic. In the same way that great classical music stirs both the purist and the public, and some great films can not only be enjoyed, but also appreciated, a great wine for me sits on a bedrock of structure worthy of contemplation while also enabling you to sit back and savour its layers of flavour. It delivers the best of both worlds.

The interesting thing for me are those wines that have a predominance of one trait in youth, and then engender the question as to whether they will ever exhibit enough of the other trait to become a great wine. An ageworthy and complex wine. For a wine that might be described as hedonistic in youth, there is always the question as to whether it has enough balance and structure to really develop and improve with time. Barossa Valley Shiraz is perhaps the most obvious example in Australia of a style of wine that has typically sat on the hedonistic side of the fence. When drinking a young Shiraz from this region, more often than not its charms are immediately evident, and there’s generally no shortage in pleasure that this style of wine brings to the table. What is less evident is whether leaving a bottle of Barossa Shiraz in the cellar for 10 years or more will see it much improved. Will the structure of the wine enable it to age well, and indeed is there enough inherent complexity there to warrant ageing it for that long. For the very best Barossa Valley Shiraz the answer is absolutely yes, but for the majority I would argue that it is debatable, and that the greatest amount of drinking enjoyment is to be had in the first 5 years. The question for which there is often a fluid answer, is how to tell which of these wines will be the former, and which will be the latter.

Conversely, there are wines that seemingly have the structure of a great wine, but in their first few years of existence you are forced to question whether they will ever generate enough flesh or flavour to provide real drinking pleasure. They are wines whose grapes might well be picked on the under-ripe side of ripe, and whose acidity is rather prominent. They are wines that will often be treated in a rather gentle way in the winery, with for example a lesser percentage of new oak (or no new oak at all). They are often challenging wines that require thought as to where they are heading given time. The new vogue of lean Australian Chardonnays in many instances fall into this category. I’ve reviewed a number of Chardonnays on this site, where I’ve appreciated the structure of the wine, but have nevertheless questioned whether they will ever build enough flavour and generosity for my tastes. Lets hope they do, as it’s arguably one of the most enjoyable things in wine appreciation to see a wine go from one of structure and promise in its youth, through to something complex and enjoyable over 5, 10, or 15 years.

In my cellar I have wines that cover all these permutations. Wines that give great drinking pleasure now, but that I have an inkling may also go the distance. Wines that are somewhat austere and unyielding, wines of structure, but that I believe will blossom with time. And finally wines that would seemingly enable you have your cake and eat it to, drinking well now but with everything in place to age with confidence. Only time will tell how these different styles of wines ultimately age and develop. My hope is that they will all age well and help me embrace my inner cerebral hedonist . . .


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

2009 Kirrihill Single Vineyard Tullymore Vineyard cab Cabernet Sauvignon – Clare Valley

I was a fan of the 2008 edition of this so was keen to try the 2009. Tasting it upon opening, it smelled and largely tasted of blackcurrants, blackberries, menthol, mint and freshly turned soils/earth. On the palate the tannins stood out – they were grippy, a bit bitter and dominated the wine in the middle and back palate (even for a tannin fan like me). On the finish there was considerable cedery oak.
On the second and third days the fruit was more prominent, a bit of black plum was present and generally more fruit sweetness, and less intense dustyness and tannins.

One to cellar for a few years to allow the tannins to soften, not as good as the 08 edition, but pretty nice value for the price- a considerable step up in terms of complexity and structure from the entry level Kirihill Cabernet as well as many other Australian Cabernets in the $13-17 range.
/ 89pts + ('+' for being a cheap single vineyard wine that will get better in the cellar).

Price: $16.95
ABV: 14.5%
Website: and

Monday, May 23, 2011

2004 Bodega Catena Zapata - D.V Catena Cabernet

One of the (many) wines tasted during my relaxing holiday in Argentina. :-)

Faded crimson in colour, with brickish red on the rim, a nose of menthol, salted liquorice, cassis and x factor pong I can only put down to site/ bottle age.
The wine is ripe- varietal without knocking you over. Cassis on the nose follows through on the palate, the texture is velvety in an almost warm climate Australian Cabernet way. Tannins are fine and understated, and French oak (80% new) has been largely absorbed.

Reasonably intense and fruity at the start, it drops away quite quickly in a classic doughnut cabernet way, and though it does not finish with a whimper, there is minimal length. On the finish is a herbal, leafy bitterness that adds a bit of interest and steers this away from sweet fruit bomb territory, though there is some acidity on the finish that is a bit harsh (especially if you are sensitive to it). The longer it was opened the more the acidity stood out as not being properly integrated or prominent, possibly as a result of the wine being in the process of falling over.

While not a bad wine, there are superior Australian and New Zealand Cabernets to be had locally at the same price. Furthermore, if you were buying an Argentinean red, Malbec would definitely be my preference based on what was tasted in-country.

 / 88*  possibly 2 years past its best.

ABV: 13.5%
RRP: $30 (retail in Argentina)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Odds & Sods . . .

Some random tasting notes from wines I’ve had over the past few weeks

Dal Zotto Prosecco Pucino NV – $19 - King Valley - This is not far off challenging Brown Brothers NV as my go to inexpensive sparkling. Plenty of generosity in the apple and citrus flavours along with a lovely creaminess here, but this is nicely balanced by savoury notes and a nice acidity. Very enjoyable drinking and you could do worse than to have the Dal Zotto as your house sparkling. 3.5 Stars

2009 Cono Sur Pinot Noir – $9 - Chile - This wine delivers everything you could realistically hope for from a $9 Pinot. Its varietal and provides good, easy drinking. It smells of cherry and raspberry, while also having a hint game meat. On the palate it tends more towards sour cherry with some nice spice in support. Used about a third of the bottle for duck dish I was cooking, and then drank the rest with the meal. Simple pleasures. 3 stars

2009 Kangarilla Sangiovese – $20 - Mclaren Vale - This is a wine that is both true to its region, while also being varietally correct. It tastes like both the grape variety and the terroir have had an equal input into the end result. It’s got the cherry, acidity, and drying tannin bit (Sangiovese), while also having the rich, ripe, chocolate bit (Mclaren Vale). Enjoyed drinking this, and reckon it would be a real crowd pleaser to. 3.5 Stars.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

2010 Tim Adams Riesling (Clare Valley)

I’ve not been a huge fan of a number of 2010 Rieslings from the Clare Valley. They’ve tended to be a bit broad and tropical for my tastes. Happily, the Tim Adams mostly avoids these traits.

To smell it has that classic floral bouquet with aromas of citrus, apples, and slate. The same flavours flow through onto the palate along with some lovely spice. There is some generosity of fruit, but this wine is largely defined by its refined acidity. While I’ve always been quite partial to a battery acid-like young riesling, I’m increasingly appreciating Rieslings whose acidity is less overt, while being no less insistent. This is one of those wines. Excellent length of finish as well.

It should age a treat over the next 10 years, and under screwcap, for possibly a lot longer.


RRP: $20
ABV: 11.5%


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

2008 PHI Pinot Noir (Yarra Valley)

I’ve read on a few occasions that Lusatia Park Vineyard, in the upper Yarra Valley, is a site of “Grand Cru” potential. The 2006 of this wine was possibly the best Australian Pinot Noir I’ve had and at least in that instance seemed to justify the hype (

The 2008 is a Pinot of complexity and potential, but coming from a less than perfect vintage, I’m not sure it will quite scale the heights of the 06.

As with the 06, the 08 performs a lovely dance between sweet and savoury. It’s seductive and complex. Cherry, liquorice, sap, spice, orange peel, smokiness, and truffle all reveal themselves over time. There’s a hint of appealing bitterness and a lovely sense of minerality as well.

There’s great mid-palate intensity and drive, but over the two nights I tasted it, it never quite finished as convincingly as I would have liked. It’s a very good wine, and if a few more years in the cellar can see it better integrated and longer, then it may well fulfil the potential that this special vineyard offers.


RRP: $60
ABV: 13.0%


Sunday, May 8, 2011

Some Sexy Italians . . .

The old and the new are both exciting in Italian wine at present. Iconic regions of pedigree like Barolo are seemingly producing as wonderful wines as ever, while numerous less well known regions, like Mt Etna in Italy, are just starting to gain cachet in the world of wine. Below are two wines that I’ve really enjoyed while out and about of late.

2001 Gastaldi Barolo – Retail RRP - $90 – Consumed at 121 BC, a wine bar in Sydney. Of the classic tar and roses flavour profile for Nebbiolo, this is very much tar dominant. It’s from the Serralunga d'Alba commune and accordingly is a powerful and tannic rendition of Barolo, even at 10 years of age. It opened up nicely over 2 hours, revealing increasing savoury complexity with time. Tremendous length on the finish. I’d love to see this wine in another 10 years.

2006 Benanti Rosso di Verzella Etna – Retail RRP - approx $45 – Consumed at Rockpool Bar & Grill in Sydney for our anniversary dinner ($88). Mt Etna. As both a volcano I’ve been reading about since high school Ancient History, and a volcano that is also still very active, it is a fascinating place to be growing wine (a random lava flow at vintage must pose the odd difficulty). That it is a high altitude, cooler climate site in Sicily, making wines from unfamiliar grapes like Nerello Mascalese just adds further interest. This wine is a blend of 80% Nerello Mascalese, and 20% Nerello Capuccio.

When I try a new varietal or style of wine for the first time, I find it natural to try and reference it against wines I’m more familiar with. My initial assessment is that this wine was something akin to a cross between a Cabernet Franc and a Nebbiolo. The reality though is that it was none of these things and was both complex and unique. It had a sense of weight but was light on its feet. Good acidity with a nice touch of grip, all lead to a lovely sense of texture. Flavours included cherry and plum, earth, tar, and a touch of barnyard funk, and finally an appealing herbal grassy note. A great food wine and the seal of approval from the Missus. My first Etna and it certainly won’t be my last.


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

2009 Teusner The Riebke Shiraz

The Riebke is Teusners entry-level Shiraz and comes from grapes grown in the Ebenezer sub-region in the northern Barossa. In the last 4 or so years it has been a wine that has been good value for money(and has been a RedtoBrown favourite for several years).

When tasted in late April 2011, the 2009 Riebke was more developed than on previous tastings. The wine still had the spicy blackberry and plum, though there were some stewed fruit, blackberry cordial and fruitcake flavours present that were not as prominent/I didn’t notice in the past.

The Riebke is juicy and accessible and made in a popular (though not a sell-out) style –the tannins are understated and silky/slithery and oak is a silent partner in the business. The finish is sweet, but still relatively restrained – importantly, it does not exhibit cloying sweetness or dried prune/dead fruit characteristics that can sometimes befall Barossa Shiraz from warmer/heatwave vintages.

If I had a criticism I would say it lacked the vibrancy that existed with examples tasted nearer to release and those from previous vintages of the wine.

Overall, the 2009 Riebke Shiraz is a good value proposition for those who like their Shiraz ripe, juicy and accessible, though drink up soon as I fear the stewed, fruitcake flavours might become more prominent.


/ 89pts

ABV: 14.5%
RRP: $18-20

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sydney's Wine Bar Awakening

The wine bar scene in Sydney has taken off in the past couple of years. There seems to be a new exciting bar of vinous intent opening every other month, and as such it’s a great time to be a wine lover in this town.

Of course this wasn’t the case for a long time. Up until a few years back Sydney’s bar scene was largely devoid of interesting, intimate places to go for a drink. Prohibitive licensing costs meant that for a bar to be economically viable it had to be bringing in a reasonable volume of patrons. The result was an array of uninspiring drinking barns. In Sydney we were forced to look in envy at the fantastic bar scene in Melbourne. There during the mid 90s, licensing and planning laws had been brought in that encouraged the development of a vibrant small bar scene in the CBD. Visiting Melbourne at any point in the last decade, especially if you had a local to show you around, was to be able to immerse yourself in those interesting, intimate watering holes that Sydney lacked.

The turning point in Sydney, however, was the change in licensing laws in NSW in 2008, which saw the introduction of a $500 small bar licence for venues that seat 120 people or less. Since then there has been an ever expanding number of small bars opening up in and around the CBD. Many of these small bars are wine bars or wine focused. Ash St Cellars, De Vine, Love Tilly Devine, Time to Vino, and Wine Library, are all examples of interesting wine bars that have opened up since 2008.

Perhaps my favourite amongst this ever expanding and eclectic group, however, is 121 BC, a wine bar and cellar that has recently opened in Surry Hills. Entry is a from side street and what greets you is a small, longish room, with a simple, yet sleek design. The point of differentiation though, is the cellar off to the side. This cellar is a long, narrow room with a wall of Italian wine. There is a wonderful range from all over Italy, at multiple price points, including plenty of wine in the value range. There’s no wine list as such (although there are wines by the glass on a blackboard), and the idea is that you can wander into this room, peruse the shelves (take your time, I know I do each time I go in there), and choose a bottle to consume. If you want to take the bottle home you can, though if you want to drink it at the bar there is a $15 corkage.

Given the initial prices are more than reasonable, it’s very well priced all things considered. Moreover, the more expensive the wine you are having the better value it becomes in relative terms with that corkage staying the same. As a lover of Barolo, it’s great to see a number of sub $100 Barolo available (a rarity with any wine retailer in Australia), but what’s even more amazing is that you then only have to pay an extra $15 to consume it in a bar setting. While you may be thinking that paying $100 for any wine in any setting is expensive, it is nevertheless rare to see a bottle of Barolo in a bar or restaurant in Australia for anything less than $150, and as such 121 BC delivers some wonderful value. Whether I’m wanting to scratch a Piemonte itch, or explore wines from an Italian region that I’m less familiar, this wine bar has plenty to offer.

The running of the bar and cellar is all overseen by Giorgio De Maria, a Piemonte native, and a genuine and engaging host. Despite that fact he’s inevitably busy running the bar, he loves chatting all things wine, and last time I was there he even took time to draw a map of Piemonte and we got talking all things soils and sub-regions. A fascinating conversation for a wine tragic like myself.

While I’ve chosen to focus on 121 BC, a similar type of review could be written for many of the other bars mentioned above, with each having a point of difference, generally some delicious food, and most importantly, interesting and eclectic wine lists.

While there are perhaps other factors at play that have also encouraged this growth in small bars, it’s amazing to think what a difference a simple law change has brought about in the space of a couple of years. In reducing the barriers to entry, Sydney is now reaping the benefits with an increasingly vibrant wine bar scene. What was fairly bleak a few years back is now flourishing. Long may it be so.

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