Saturday, June 25, 2011

2010 Head Old Vine Grenache (Barossa Valley)

This is the best Grenache I have had.

Admittedly, I’ve not yet had the pleasure of a Chateau Rayas, or some of the other European benchmark Grenache. But of my own experience across Spanish Garnacha, Southern Rhone Grenache, and our own home-grown Grenache, this 2010 offering from Alex Head stands tall. It comes off an 80 year old vineyard from the Greenock sub-region in the Barossa.

This is a wine that needs plenty of air and time. It had a stalky bitterness on day one that I found a touch distracting, but by days two and three it had integrated and become part of the complex whole that is this fantastic wine. It smells beautiful. It’s perfumed and floral, with lovely berry fruit and spice. To drink it is perfectly ripe and balanced. Lovely sweet berry fruit on entry before turning more savoury the further it moves along the palate. Texture, intensity and weight all give the wine a sense of gravitas, and yet it retains a lightness of touch throughout. Fine, yet persistent acidity and tannins are evident, but not obtrusive, making it a wonderful food wine. A long finish tops it all off. To do the wine justice it needs to be left alone for at least a few years, and everything is there to suggest this is a Grenache for the long haul.

Apparently it’s all sold out now, but if you manage to find it around the traps, it’s worth paying above its RRP for. My score kept going up over the 3 days. 4.5 Stars.


RRP: $35
ABV: 14.5%


Monday, June 20, 2011

A bottle or two in Beechworth . . .

Artisan is a word that gets bandied about with regards wineries and wine regions, but if ever there was a wine region in Australia where it is apt, then it would be Beechworth. It’s dominated by family owned wineries and vineyards. Of the 20 or so wineries, only 4 have a cellar door, and to a large degree each one follows it own tune. It represents a quite different experience to that which one might experience in the Yarra, Barossa, or Hunter Valleys. I spent a couple of very enjoyable days in Beechworth last week, and as I’d hoped, it reinforced the positive impression I have of the region’s wines (it also happens to be a beautiful place with some fantastic food).

Beechworth sits at the very beginning of the westerly approach to the high country on the Victorian side of the border. Most vineyards sit between 300-550 metres in elevation and on a granite soil. It’s broadly a cool climate region, though there are quite significant differences depending on elevation and site. The sum of this terroir are some pretty special wines. The majority of vineyards are along a few kilometre stretch to the west of the town itself, and include Giaconda, Castagna, Savaterre, and the Warner Vineyard, representing an amazing concentration of quality wine. Like a number of other wine regions in Australia, it had a history of wine production in the 1800’s, which then gradually died out during the 1900’s. The modern revival of Beechworth, however, started with Smith’s Vineyard in 1978 and then Giaconda in 1980. Sorrenberg planted in 1985 and then the revival gathered pace during the 90s with the establishment of wineries like Savaterre, Golden Ball, Castagna, and Battely.

If this emergence of Beechworth in the past couple of decades has an identity, then it centres on Chardonnay, and within that identity the focus is on Giaconda, who produce a Chardonnay that has generally been considered a benchmark wine in Australia over the past couple of decades. It’s the wine more than any other that brought Beechworth to the attention of wine lovers in Australia. Beyond Giaconda however, there are also fantastic Chardonnays from the likes of Sorrenberg, Smith’s Vineyard, and Savaterre. Importantly, this identity is more than just the grape variety, and is as much a style of Chardonnay as well. It might be an overused term but this style could be said to be Burgundian. Beechworth have eschewed the trend over the past 5 years towards lean and taut Chardonnays in Australia, and all four Chardonnays mentioned above go through 100% malolactic fermentation (or near enough) and generally extended lees contact. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t steeliness and tension to these Beechworth Chardonnays, for there definitely is, but there is also a generosity and creaminess that results in a style of Chardonnay that I personally love. While there, I tasted the 08 Savaterre, 09 Sorrenberg, and ’10 Smith’s Vineyard out of barrel (which is actually being made by Golden Ball as sadly Smith’s have closed their winery). All three were very smart wines, and across 3 quite different vintages, served to highlight the quality of Beechworth Chardonnay.

Now while Beechworth Chardonnay might have a clear identity and style, the same cannot be said for their red wines. The red wines are of undoubted quality, and some are arguably benchmarks in Australia for their style, but there is nevertheless a surprising diversity of varieties within a small area. Within a few kilometres of one another you have the Giaconda Warner Shiraz, Castagna Sangiovese, Savaterre Pinot Noir, and the Golden Ball Cabernet Blend. I’m not sure I can think of anywhere else that is producing excellent examples of four such different varieties within such a small area. Elevation and site location certainly play their part in the decision by winemakers to focus on different varieties. Savaterre’s Pinot is planted at over 500M on a southwest slope, while Golden Ball’s Cabernet is on a warmer site at 350M and facing north west. I got to taste both wines while there and was equally impressed. At the other end of Beechworth there is also the impressive Sorrenberg Gamay, and there’s even an exploration of Nebbiolo occurring at present, with Giaconda recently releasing a 2008 Nebbiolo, and Golden Ball looking at planting Nebbiolo as well. I guess this highlights the artisan nature of the region, in the sense that everyone is doing their own thing.

A part of me would like to see Beechworth focus on one or two varieties/styles of red wine and strive towards producing a recognisable world class style. However, given many of the sites have only been planted for a decade or two, and that there a number of micro-climates, it’s perhaps not surprising that there is this diversity and still plenty of trial and experimentation. Terroir is broadly speaking the one common denominator, with most sites on a granite soil that delivers a five-spice note that comes through on many of these red wines. Beyond this there is not really a discernible style or variety that dominates when it comes to Beechworth reds. It’s a smorgasbord, but a quality one at that.

Further to this theme, you get the sense that the best is yet to come from Beechworth. Vineyards are being refined, new sites of high potential have been planted of late, different varieties are being tried, and most producers have moved to some form of organic/biodynamic management of their vineyard. Moreover, most vineyards still have plenty of maturing to do. There are some fantastic wines being made at present, but it’s easy to conceive of many of these wines going up another notch again with another decade of knowledge and vine maturity.

One final thing that really struck me during my visit is that Beechworth seems to be the last bastion of cork in Australia. If screwcap vs cork was a war, and you viewed a battlefield map of Australia, Beechworth would be the final stronghold of cork, surrounded by a sea of screwcaps. The majority of wines I tried while there came from cork sealed bottles. I’m not sure why Beechworth producers have generally eschewed the more reliable closure, though in Australia there is still a tendancy to place your most premium wine under cork (something that is counterintuitive to my mind), and many Beechworth wineries only really do premium wines, without having your standard entry level offering. If you are someone who still prefers cork then Beechworth has plenty to offer.

Beechworth is well worth the visit. Even if you’re not as into your wines, the Ned Kelly pies and lamingtons from the Beechworth Bakery make it well worthwhile. But if you are then you’re in for another treat altogether. I’ll be reviewing a number of these wines in the next few weeks.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

2009 Yelland & Papps Devote Greenock Shiraz (Barossa Shiraz)

While 2009 was not a perfect vintage in the Barossa, given that early heatwave, it ended up being a lot better than initial reports suggested. This wine more or less reflects this, having a touch of warmth, but otherwise being a damn good Shiraz.

It has an expressive nose of berries, musk, oak, and spice. It smells fresh. It tastes pretty fresh as well with some beautiful berry fruit on the front palate. There’s some reasonable focus here to with a nice line and length, never letting it get too broad. Some lovely spice and malt. Plenty of yum factor and on a cold winter’s night with a T-bone steak this was the perfect match. That touch of warmth would make me question its long-term potential, but right now it’s drinking beautifully and should do so for the next few years. A step-up from the 2008.


RRP: $32
ABV: 14.5%


Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Amateur Wine Blogging Community - The Big Karoake Bar in the Virtual Sky?

It is becoming quite common to find an internet post or twitter comment that is critical of the emergence of wine blogs. The increase in the number of wine blogs is analysed by critics and defenders alike. This analysis leads to sometimes repetitious, sometimes unique and original debates on the positives and negatives of this form of wine communication (noting many would disagree wine blogs represent such a thing).

Generally I am interested, and at times amused by the discourse, and I hope this has been conveyed to some extent in the non-wine review posts on RedtoBrown (by both Red and I). If you want to read a constructive, well-written article on this topic, particularly from the perspective of what I would term a 'professional-standard' wine blogger, I would strongly recommend "Should Blogging Get a Flogging" by Patrick Haddock (aka WiningPom’ on Twitter). The post below is a slightly abstract ‘interpretation’ of the discourse mentioned above with an intentional focus on the amateur, or "amateur but hoping, wishing for professional status" wine blogs.

The Amateur Wine Blogging Community - The Big Karoake Bar in the Virtual Sky?

On many levels, writing about wine online is a bit like singing at a Karaoke bar. It is easier to sing the songs when everyone else is joining in on the action, but when you are forced to sing solo, some songbirds fly the coop. This is often the case if you are in a room of close friends or complete strangers. For one reason or another not everyone is prepared to sing at the top of their lungs in this situation out of embarrassment or a desire to avoid being ridiculed.

Like singing in the group karaoke song, commenting on a wine in the comments section of a wine website can reduce the embarrassment or focus on your opinions. One can comment on a wine and have their voice heard to a point, but the comments are in the context of a review and other people’s opinions and comments – not a solo statement that puts your opinion front and centre. Not every lover of wine feels the need to comment on wine online. Those that do tend to express themselves in the form of a personal wine blog.
"Islands in the stream, that is what we are"

For the karaoke singers and wine wine writers who are confident enough to belt out a solo rendition of ‘Sweet Caroline’ or post articles about wine in a blog like the one you are (hopefully) still reading, there is no guarantee the quality of both will even be of a tolerable standard. Alas, with both forms of expression (dare I call it ‘entertainment’) there are many who feel they are producing ‘art’ of a professional standard that should be shared far and wide (well -beyond the walls of the RSL or the confines of a sporadically visited wine blog).

Only the most deluded of both groups would maintain their output is first class every time– and if it is, they are in the minority. For many, many more people, wine blogs range from being a fleeting hobby to a  long term (if part-time) passion to which considerable spare moments are allocated.  At both extremes, only the most desperate or deluded are thinking they ‘coulda been contenders’ On the Waterfront style if they havent taken concrete steps to leap into the wine writing world in a serious way yet write as if they expect to receive the same kudos as wine writers (paid and unpaid) who have.

In many ways, the contestants on Masterchef mirror this point: if they were serious about cooking they would have undertaken an apprenticeship years ago instead of trying to break into the food industry soley off the back of Masterchef. The same applies to the wine blogger who makes no moves to work at vintage or gain wine qualifications yet still harbours the desire to break into the wine world.

"I coulda been a contender, I coulda been a paid wine writer.
I coulda produced wine promo vids like James Suckling.
Now I am a wine blogging nobody, a bum.
Do you have a dime? I need to pay my monthly internet bill"

Unlike Karaoke, wine writers and commentators are not forced to read an amateur wine blog. If you are stuck in the bistro of the local RSL or inner city pub and the Karaoke competition fires up, said punter can leave the venue or willingly endure the noise until you finish your chicken parmigiana. With a wine blog, if you are a wine connoisseur, a Master of Wine, a paid wine writer etc and accidently stumble on a poorly written example, you are one click away from safety. I cannot stress this point enough - it seems in many cases, the critics of wine blogs rarely read them (for clearly stated reasons based on the perceived quality of the content) yet also seemingly do not want them to exist in the first place either.
Kenny sings on Wine Blogging: "You gotta know when to hold'em,
know when to fold'em, know when to walk away, and know when to click that mouse and
switch to a paid wine website instead".

The motivations for this form of ‘wine writing consolidation advocacy’ are varied, but part of me cannot help but think it is due to the inexorable dilution of the paid wine writers craft – not the democratisation of wine writing per se, but the dilution and diversification of wine writing, wine communication and wine expression that is paradoxically both bad and good for the wine industry.

Just as a pitch-perfect rendition of ‘My heart will go on’ during a Karaoke night will not change the music world one iota (though it might make the night of the Newtown RSL Bingo crew), the writings of an amateur wine blogger will rarely affect the wine industry. The inference that people are starting up wine blogs to match the quality of printed wine publications, receive thousands of free wine samples, make money and make an impact seems to be an assumption made more by the critics than the advocates. A fraction of these outcomes would be ample reward for most wine bloggers who are doing what they do out of a personal passion, not an alterior commercial or narcissistic motive.

"Aww Hans Blix! How many times do I have to tell you:
My amateur wine blog will not eat into your Wine Spectator circulation figures!"

In conclusion, will wine blogs take over the wine writing world? Highly unlikely. Will they form an at-times interesting and engaging niche in the wine communication and wine appreciation discourse? They already have, and this is an upwards trend. Will they ever represent the wine equivalent of Gwyneth Paltrow in the movie Duets? If they do, I will not linger long on that wine blog!

Post intended for debate/pondering/instant closing of the Explorer Tab. Thoughts and comments welcome.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

2008 Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon (Margaret River)

I loved the 2007 of this. I think the 2008 is of the same quality but not at quite the same level of enjoyment at this early stage. These two wines are a good microcosm of these two excellent Margaret River vintages, both being excellent but with the 07s being the more approachable at this stage.

On the nose there is more leaf and less gravel than the 07, along with some lovely aromas of violets, blackcurrant, and chocolate oak. The overall impression is one of savouriness on the palate, and the good acidity and grippy tannins give the wine an excellent texture. Chocolate oak is there again in support. A great food Cabernet that is going to age a treat. I’m looking forward to lining up this wine next to the 07, when they’ve both got a decade under their belts.


ABV: 14.5%
RRP: $35


Sunday, June 5, 2011

2009 Moppity Vineyards Shiraz

One of a few wines I tried while flying to Argentina on holiday. This was served blind with me only knowing it was an Australian Shiraz. In the relaxed, high altitude holiday atmosphere it smelt like it could have been a Barossa or South Australian wine. Rich blue and black fruits and vanilla and spice on the nose, ripe blue, black spicy fruit with sweet oak, and resultant grippy ripe tannins on the palate.
While not all over the shop, the wine finished in a flavoursome flurry. When playing my own in flight guessing game, I decided this was either a relatively restrained Barossa Valley/Eden Valley Shiraz with some non-pepper spices or a ripe Canberran (because of the clove spice).

When the big reveal occurred (me discretely peeking at the wines on the trolley!) I was not surprised when it was outed as a Hilltops – in hindsight (a glorious thing for many wine writers) it had a similar ripeness and juiciness as the 2009 Clonakilla Hilltops Shiraz I had tried a few months previously. All in all, a ripe wine that will please many, though may not be to the liking of those seeking a cool climate/delicate ‘syrah’.

Rating: Not Rated (on holidays!)
ABV: 13.9%
RRP: $24-25

Thursday, June 2, 2011

2004 Allandale Semillon (Hunter Valley)

This is a Hunter Semillon that at 7 years of age is drinking beautifully, and will only get better over the next 5 years, and under screwcap, possibly a lot longer.

All the elements of a good young Semillon are still evident with citrus flavours, good acidity, and also a lovely minerality. The elements of an aged Semillon also have really started to emerge with some rich honey and toast notes coming to the fore, giving the wine body and weight. It finishes long with a lovely sense of texture. Textbook Hunter Semillon. Loved it.


RRP: $30
ABV: 11.5%

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