Friday, December 31, 2010

James Suckling and R Kelly – Searching for (unintentional) satirical perfection

"I'm here with Red to Brown"
 If you have a passing interest in wine and how it is covered on the internet and social media, you may have noticed the promo videos put out by wine critic James Suckling for his new website.

For those not familiar with James Suckling, he is the former Senior Editor and European Bureau Chief of Wine Spectator Magazine. Suckling recently gave up this dream role to strike out on his own and try to shake up the wine world, with a newly created subscription wine website the first step in that process. Unfortunately for James, the wine video ‘teasers’ released prior to the site going live have been panned by a few people on the internet, generating considerable comment and critique in the process.

The critiques range from the relatively civilised and considered to the rather crude and fully anonymous.  For a pretty broad overview of the new media critique on James, the following link is a useful backgrounder: (Link)

To momentarily get serious, this post is not a defence of James Suckling. However, I must say that he has probably been given a bad rap – the talk of him being evil, exploitative and a douche are going too far, and arguably highlights the wine snob tendencies of some critics. His promo clips are objectively pretty bad, and I will not subscribe to his website (for financial reasons and the fact I can get better wine advice from other subscription sites). Though he is a well respected wine critic and has every right to try and make money with his wine website and pitch it to a certain type of wine buyer if he wants to. If you don’t like his approach, try to create something positive to compete with it (free, subscription, whatever). A topic for another post, and not the primary focus of this post, though I feel it needed to be said.

What amuses me about the subjectively awful promo ‘teaser’ videos is that they are so bad they are actually good. Furthermore, they remind me of a legendary set of video clips/songs by an artist from a different genre: R Kelly and his HipHopra opus: Trapped in the Closet Episodes 1-12.

Of the several Suckling promo teasers, two stick out - the “Searching for Perfection” video (or ‘I’m XY points on that’) and the “Im Here with” teaser.
The by-line from the first video has already been appropriated as a favoured term/meme on various social media forums – eg: “mocking the James Suckling promo videos? – I’m 92 points on that”. As if this gem wasn’t enough, I would personally argue that his ‘I’m here with’ teaser takes it to another level with his subtle and mysterious “I’m here....” closing line. James – what are you here for? Some more wine reviews at an elite winery?, some subtle seduction? Where is here? Bordeaux?, Burgundy? Piedmont?, the Cessnock Pub?

Both clips in my wine nerd /wanker view are pieces of unintentional satirical comedic genius. That might be taking it a bit too far, but I must say that the clips grow on me over time and become more funny than they are pretentious or condescending.

I find the James Suckling promo videos amusing as wine satire to the point it is still hard to believe he produced these videos as serious vehicles to generate hype for his website. If Suckling came out tomorrow and said “it was all a viral ploy to generate a bit of hype for the website, but primarily to poke fun at wine critics from the inside out” I would applaud him. As of the time of writing, the joke has not been called, so we must assume the Suckling teaser videos are serous and sincere.

To add to my enjoyment of the suckling clips, the teaser videos remind me of R Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet series of songs/video clips. (If you are yet to be introduced to the best example of “so bad it is good’ pop culture, go here for a taste).

"Don't make me pull out the wine equivalent of my Beretta"
 In terms of similarities, both were released in regular instalments (episodes 1-5 of Trapped...) over a number of weeks, presumably to let the suspense build. Self evidently, they are both so bad, that for me they are actually quite good. Thirdly, there is ambiguity regarding whether both sets of clips were intentionally or unintentionally funny, adding to the intrigue and enjoyment (unintentionally creating satire is a feat to be admired, even if the creator tries to defend or distance themselves from the end product).

R Kelly has argued that Trapped in the Closet 1-12 was intentionally tongue in cheek, and that his initial claims to have invented a new genre of music (hiphopra) were part of the gag. His less impressive (or less amusingly cringe worthy) follow-up ‘Trapped in the Closet 13-22 was arguably an attempt to further paint Trapped... as a joke and not a serious piece of art so poor it was assumed by most to actually be a joke.

Noting that Suckling does not look like coming out like R Kelly and admitting his clips are a joke, part of me would love to see Suckling go loco and really shake things up – eg: move into avant garde wine clip territory and release a teaser clip that is the wine equivalent of a Zaireeka era Flaming Lips song. Based on his ‘serious’ wine teasers, such a clip would make a 100pt Robert Parker Jr wine review or a Gary Vaynerchuck ‘sniffy sniff’ Wine Library TV review seem even more passé, smallfry and decidedly conventional (even if delivered from a helicopter).

Wine nerds/wankers like me can only dream of such an outcome in the wine entertainment world, but for now I will have to settle on James Suckling searching for perfection in one of the many locations of the world he is visiting and monitoring the at-times amusing backlash against the promotion for his website. Go easy on him:  it may turn out to be serious, or a joke, but it is entertaining regardles. For that, James Suckling should be sincerely commended.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Importance of Vintage in Australia: the failure of overseas commentators and publications

Once you have the wine bug, the vintage bug follows shortly after. This bug is the obsession with all the vagaries and variances that each different season brings to a wine. You want to find out what are considered the historic vintages from different regions both within Australia and overseas, and then if you can, pick up some wines from these vintages. You want to know how the latest vintage of your favourite wine region is shaping up. You start to become aware that warmer vintages often produce wines that show well in youth but are not necessarily great long-termers, while on the other hand the relatively cooler vintages often produce the wines that are built to age. You look for those winemakers who can produce gems from a tough vintage.

All this focus on vintage is not just an academic interest, but rather because it’s a key determinant in the quality of a wine. Classic cases in point are the vintages of 2007 and 2008 in the Hunter Valley. 2007 is one of the best vintages in recent memory in the Hunter, particularly for Shiraz. I’ve put/will put plenty of 07 Hunter Shiraz in the cellar. Conversely 2008 was more or less a write off for Hunter Shiraz because of rain. If you do see an 08 Hunter Shiraz in a bottle shop (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one actually), move on and buy something else.

All this leads to a big gripe of mine and the main focus of this post, and that is the laziness and/or ignorance of many overseas wine commentators and publications when it comes to vintage assessment in Australia. It is actually the exception rather than the rule that you will read anything useful from an overseas commentator or publication on the quality of different vintages. The problems tend to fall into two main categories –

1. Giving the whole of Australia a vintage rating – in numerous world wine guides and publications, such as Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Guide as an example, Australia as a whole is given a vintage rating. There’s no breakdown by region or even by state. To produce one vintage rating for Australia is either the result of ignorance, borne of the belief that an entire continent is just one flat plain subject to the same weather patterns. Alternatively it’s the result of trying to condense a vintage chart that includes all the world’s major wine producing countries. I appreciate that this wouldn’t be an easy exercise, but if you can’t do something well, why do it at all? A cursory glance at any recent vintage in Australia will give one a sense of the meaninglessness of a single vintage rating for Australia -

- 2006 – Barossa Valley – very good, Yarra Valley – very good, Hunter Valley– average-good, Margaret River – poor-average

- 2007 – Barossa Valley – poor-average, Yarra Valley – poor, Hunter Valley – very good, Margaret River – very good

- 2008 – Barossa Valley – poor, Yarra Valley – average-good, Hunter Valley – write-off, Margaret River – very good

Even that summation above is pretty crude (and I’m sure debatable), and in reality the picture is more nuanced. I’ve labelled 06 in the Margaret River as poor-average, but this is largely based on red wines. If you were looking at the whites, however, it’s actually a pretty good vintage. In any case the big picture is that for each year that I’ve listed one of Australia’s main wine regions has had an excellent vintage while at least one has had a very poor vintage. To give Australia one single rating, good or bad, would completely miss the mark for one of Australia’s most significant wine regions. Moreover, giving half a thought to the size of Australia, and the fact that the Hunter Valley and Margaret River are about 4000kms apart, which is further than any two individual European wine regions, this should be blindingly obvious. Sicily is a relatively paltry 1500kms from Champagne and yet I doubt anyone would ever be silly enough to include these two wine regions in one single vintage rating.

2. Vintage Assessments that are at odds with all local assessments – Now there are of course overseas commentators who do distinguish between regions in Australia when discussing vintages, but unfortunately I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read or heard an assessment of a vintage that is completely at odds with both local assessment and my own personal experience. Of course, vintage assessment is not a purely objective exercise. People who more or less drink the same wines often come to somewhat different conclusions as to the quality of a vintage. However, what I am talking about are glaring differences that to my mind bear no resemblance to the wines that came out of that specific vintage. An example of this is Wine Spectator – – whose vintage chart has the Barossa and McLaren Vale rated a 96 for the 2005 vintage, while 2006 is rated an 88! This is in marked contrast to the assessment of James Halliday who rated 2005 in the Barossa a 7 out of 10, and 2006 a 10 out of 10. While I’m not sure that I would consider 2006 a 10 out of 10 vintage, I nevertheless concur with the proposition that 2006 was a very good vintage, and definitely a better vintage than 2005, which to my mind was decidedly more mixed.

Another example is from Robert Parker, the world’s most influential wine critic over the past couple of decades. In his vintage chart he rates the 2006 vintage in Western Australia an 89, while the 2007 vintage is rated an 86. Anyone who has consumed a reasonable number of wines from Western Australia from both vintages would find it very hard to come to the conclusion that 2006 is the better vintage. In 2006 red varieties struggled to ripen, enduring the coldest summer in a number of decades, and indeed a number of wineries didn’t produce their “Premium” red wines from the vintage. 2007, on the other hand is an excellent vintage, and to me is clearly the better vintage in Western Australia taken as a whole, and that has been the consensus from all local points of view that I have read or heard.

What’s the effect of this combination of laziness and/or ignorance when it comes to assessment of vintages in Australia? Well at a time when the image of Australian wine overseas has taken a bit of a beating, it certainly doesn’t help our cause that commentators in countries like the US and UK can’t produce useful guides to vintage. It’s far from being the main source of our image problem overseas, but is one of those things that undoubtedly has a cumulative effect. Has an American consumer who had heard good things about Margaret River Cabernet made a decision to buy an 06 instead of an 07 off the back of Robert Parker’s vintage ratings? With the purchase of an 06 they could well be wondering what all those Aussies were raving about when it came to Margaret River Cabernet. Had they been guided towards an 07 they would more than likely see what the fuss is about.

There are plenty of efforts at present on the part of people involved in Australian wine to improve our image overseas, and in particular to highlight the diverse range of wine regions in this country. Part of this work is undoubtedly an effort to highlight the many different terroirs and climactic conditions that exist in Australia. A sign that these efforts have really had an effect would be when we get some more accurate and detailed Australian vintage charts from overseas commentators and publications.


Saturday, December 18, 2010

2009 Whicher Ridge Sauvignon Blanc (Geographe, Sample)

(Mike Hussey hitting a cover drive for four against Graeme Swann in Perth)

A quick look through our archive of posts reveals that we’ve only done one Sauvignon Blanc review, and that was in fact Brown’s review of the Rosemount Botanicals Sav Blanc ( The lack of Sav Blanc reviews reflects our general dislike for the variety. I’m possibly a bit more equivocal than Brown, but nevertheless it’s a varietal I virtually never buy of my own accord.

The reasons? First and foremost the flavour profile generally does little for me. In far too many examples I get cat’s pee (or an ammonia like smell), grassiness and passionfruit. The second reason is its general lack of complexity and cellarability as a varietal. Of course this criticism I have of Sav Blanc largely refers to Kiwi and Aussie examples. If you taste Sav Blancs from the Loire Valley in France, however, I generally find the flavours more appealing, without necessarily being enamoured with them, and there is a sense of complexity to these wines.

Which leads me, by way of a long introduction, to the 2009 Whicher Ridge Sauvignon Blanc. This is an Australian Sav Blanc from the Geographe region in Western Australia that nods its head to the wines of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume.

It has a pleasant nose of citrus, just a touch of varietal pungency, and a bit of what I can only refer to as fly-spray. I know that final descriptor sounds both strange and unappealing, but I get it in quite a lot of wines and in a small dose (as in this wine) I actually quite like it.

On the palate this wine shines. It’s long and poised, and has a lovely balance between its acidity and minerality on the one hand, and a nice touch of oiliness on the other. All of which leads to the wine having a fantastic sense of texture. Jeremy Pringle writes about this in his review of the wine ( and I very much agree. Texture and persistence are the lasting impressions with this wine, and as such mark it out as one of the most impressive, if not the most impressive Australian Sauvignon Blanc I have tried.


RRP: $22
ABV: 12.9%


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

2010 Wickhams Road Gippsland Pinot Noir

I tasted this out of barrel when I visited Hoddles Creek Estate back in June ( . At the time it was the highlight of the Wickhams range of Pinots (Yarra, Mornington, Gippsland), with its beautifully fragrant nose. Now in bottle, its living up to the potential it showed back then.

Indeed, if you are looking for a cheap Pinot to drink over the next couple of years then you need look no further. At $16 a bottle, it’s about as cheap as Pinot of any quality gets, and yet it’s a step up from many similar priced wines. The colour of this wine is very inviting with its beautiful clear crimson hue. Moving from a beautiful colour you’re straight into a fragrant and floral nose. Strawberries and cherries are evident along with a positive contribution from the oak. The beautiful fruit that is apparent from the colour and nose is confirmed by the palate. Light and supple to drink, there’s a nice touch of sapiness and spice. The floral component that was there on the nose is also there through the mid-palate and in some ways reminds me of a Cru Beaujolais. Finally, sour cherry comes through in the long finish. All of which is supported by fine tannins and a gentle acidity.

With some air it’s drinking remarkably well now for such a young wine, though it will also undoubtedly be better with another year or so in the bottle. 3.5 Stars for now and a “+” for another year or two in the bottle.

Ripper of a Pinot for the price.


RRP: $16
ABV: 12.5%


Sunday, December 12, 2010

2008 Yelland and Papps Divine Shiraz (Sample)

The Yelland and Papps Divine Shiraz is an ambitious wine. Gorgeously packaged with a smart label and a weighty, impressive bottle, Susan Yelland and Michael Papps have bravely chosen the ‘difficult’ 2008 vintage to launch their premier and limited release Divine series. The Divine sits above the Devote and Delight Series, and only 700 bottles have been produced.

Like most of the Yelland and Papps range, the 2008 Divine Shiraz uses grapes sourced from the Greenock sub-region of the Barossa Valley (in this instance off vines planted in the mid 1980s). It has been basket pressed, given 3 months lees stirring and was aged for 10 months in 50% new American and French oak.

The Divine Shiraz is a powerful wine that may polarise opinion between the powerful flavoursome warm climate posse and the cool climate peppery Shiraz crew. It has a nose of toasty, coffee/vanilla oak and ripe raspberry and mulberry fruit. On the palate the wine has powerful, concentrated, supple blackberry and black plum fruit with lashings of toasty oak, salty liquorice and Lindt dark chocolate, especially on the back palate/finish.

The fruit shows some of the stress of the 2008 vintage, though the small production volume has led to careful selection (in a single site), avoiding the ‘dead fruit’ characteristics and overly harsh tannins that the 2008 vintage has thrown up all too often in South Australia. The tannins have an emery board grip to them that puts some brakes on the fruit in the mid palate, complementing the dark chocolate and liquorice finish. The alcohol is listed as 15%, and given the vintage may actually be higher than this. Luckily, it is sufficiently integrated into the wine to provide some pleasant warmth, yet does not throw out the overall balance – it is a balancing act, but given the vintage, an impressive feat. The American and French oak is quite prominent, though at only 50% new it doesn’t overpower the fruit, nor do the Yanks overwhelm the French as much as you would assume. Most pleasingly, the Divine finishes surprisingly savoury, relative to the style and black fruit and chocolate flavour profile.

As noted, this is an ambitious wine with a (relative) price to match. Given how tough the 08 vintage was, this is a promising first up premium result from Yelland and Papps, and yet another endorsement for the north/north-west sub-regions of the Barossa Valley (Greenock, Moppa, Ebenezer, etc). It is a statement of intent by the winery, and I look forward to seeing more of the Divine range from the superior 2009 and 2010 Barossa Valley vintages.


RRP: $65
ABV: 15%

Thursday, December 9, 2010

2008 Fire Gully Chardonnay (Margaret River, Sample)

This is a wine that definitely benefits from a good bit of air. The first day i tried it seemed a bit disjointed, but by the second day it came together quite nicely.

It has a varietal yet somewhat sweet chardonnay nose of grapefruit, pineapple and oak. That sense of sweetness carries through onto the palate, though is certainly not unpleasant or over the top. It drinks smoothly, with decent structure and length, along with a nice bit of butteriness. Oak is evident throughout.

My final assessment ended up being that this Chardonnay works really well as a nice quaffer. It’s never going to reach any great heights but for the next couple of years will drink very well as a casual glass of Chardonnay.


RRP: $25
ABV: 14.5%


Sunday, December 5, 2010

Red's Top 5 - 2010

It’s that time of year isn’t it. There are plenty of ‘best of’ lists for 2010 popping up, so I thought I’d do a little list of my own.

To clarify, my Top 5 consists only of wines that I have sat down and consumed over a couple of hours and sometimes over a couple of days, more often than not with food. I have tasted many wonderful wines at tastings this year, not least of which was the Langton’s Classification V tasting. However, I find mass tastings, or tastings where you only have a short period to assess the wine, an inherently fraught process, with the distinct possibility of overrating or underrating a wine. As such, wines tasted at wine tastings have not been considered.

So on to my Top 5. These are not necessarily my 5 highest rated wines (though they all have scored well), but more importantly they are wines that were genuinely memorable and enjoyable. In alphabetical order they are –

2007 Juniper Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Margaret River) – 4.5 Stars – A beautifully complex Cabernet of impeccable structure that demands 10 years in the cellar. The 2008 should be one to look out for as well.

2005 Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz (South Australia) – 4.5 Stars – This is a wine that ticks all the wrong boxes for some wine cognoscenti in that it’s

- a multi-regional blend
- from warm climate regions in South Australia
- made by Penfolds, who are owned by Fosters

For me however, it ticked all the right boxes in that it just tasted so good. Wonderful intensity on the palate and the best 389 I have tried from the noughties.

2006 PHI Pinot Noir (Yarra Valley) – 4.5 Stars – I’ve had plenty of very good Pinot this year, but this one brought home the bacon. Wonderful complexity with its lovely balance between sweet and savoury flavours. I'm looking forward to seeing how this wine shapes up from the brilliant 2010 vintage in the Yarra.

2007 SC Pannell Nebbiolo (Adelaide Hills) – 4 Stars + – One of my most passionate wine hopes is that Australia will discover regions and sites that consistently produce world-class Nebbiolo. This wine has me very optimistic that we are well on the way to doing this. If you haven't had much Nebbiolo, or find Barolo in Australia too expensive, then this wine is highly recommended.

2009 Teusner the Dog Strangler Mataro (Barossa Valley) – 4 Stars – The relative cheapie in this top 5 was beautiful to drink with its complex spice, and as a single variety Mataro provides interest to boot.

All in all, five quite different wines but all wines that at some point provided that moment of true sensory pleasure that is all encompassing and is what drinking wine is ultimately about.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

2007 Te Mata Estate Awatea Cabernet/Merlot (Retail)

Based on some of the press coming from New Zealand, the Hawkes Bay wine region has aspirations of matching Bordeaux in terms of the quality of the Cabernet blends they produce. Aim for the stars to clear the trees I say. RedtoBrown have been impressed with the wines we have tried from Hawkes Bay in the past, and at the entry-level, the Awatea is one of them. What stands out primarily with the Awatea (and also its TeMata big brother, the Coleraine) is its relative 'New World' austerity and restraint. There is sometimes balancing act between restraint and lack of fruit flavour/diluteness, though that is not an issue for this wine.

The Awatea (40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot) has a slightly herbaceous nose with capsicum and tobacco, though a pretty blueberry scent dominates. It is medium bodied, no more, and savoury.
An understated entry gives way to blackcurrants and medicinal herbs on the mid palate. Some more tobacco pops up on the finish, along with a prominent herbaceous bitterness (which may divide opinion, but I was a fan). Tannins are very fine and chalky, and the oak is subsiding a bit from when I first tasted it (yet not overpowering the fruit).

In summary, an elegant, restrained wine that may lack the oomph of some of the Aussie versions I know and love, though has enough weight to support its fine boned structure. I would like to try this wine with 5-10 more years of bottle age.


RRP: $45
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