|As wine magpies go, I can safely claim premiership status. I save all sorts of bottles to be enjoyed at some point in the future, only occasionally tripping myself up when I open a wine that has been kept too long. Recently, I did a ‘cellar raid’ and invited some friends to join me for this ‘Aussie Half-Dozen’. All were lovely and none were past it. Indeed, some still have time on their side.
Prior to my first visit to Australia I had a severely limited impression of her wines: bold and brash; tending to holler, not whisper; suffused with fruit and oak. In short, they all suffered from a subtlety bypass. How wrong I was! Twenty-four hours after landing into Sydney and with the jet lag still clinging, I arrived in the Hunter Valley, of which I wrote more recently: ‘It is the historical cradle of Australian wine but only flourished because of its proximity to Sydney. Yet from these shaky origins emerged Hunter Valley Semillon, a wine with a cut-crystal flavour, announced by a lightning flash of acidity and not a whisper of oak. In youth, that is. For, carried within that monochrome flavour is a potential to develop and improve that few Chardonnay flavour bombs possess.’ I have been a fan ever since, buying many cases from different producers while – crucially – never having to break the bank to do so.
By contrast, my Shiraz ‘journey’ started with some heavy hitters from the Barossa Valley that swamped the palate, and I only came gradually to the realization that brashness could have a certain beauty, when crafted by a dextrous hand. The three wines below fall into that category, while also showing that Aussie Shiraz is far from being the one-trick pony of stereotype.
Tyrrell’s, Vat 1 Semillon, Hunter Valley 2000 11%
Vat 1 is generally regarded as the standard bearer for Hunter Semillon and it is not hard to see why. In the best vintages it is virtually ageless, developing at a welcome, glacial pace into toasty-rich splendour. Even at 20-plus years this was showing no age. The colour was a remarkable pale lime-yellow. On the palate there was grapefruit pith and penetrating acidity in a markedly one-dimensional, package. Will it ever blossom and expand into toasty richness? There are still a few bottles in the cellar from a case bought many years ago, and they will remain there for a few more years before another is sampled.
Mount Pleasant, Single Vineyard Lovedale Semillon, Hunter Valley 2005 11.5%
Delicate yet intense. Showing some development by way of rich, succulent notes in amongst the lively fruit but still remarkably youthful. Not a hard edge in sight as it crossed the palate before departing in a clean, fresh, lingering finish. Complete and exemplary, hard to fault. Delivered a masterclass in a glass.
Peter Lehmann, Reserve Semillon, Barossa Valley 1998 13%
The Hunter Valley may well be Australia’s ‘Semillon Central’ but some fine wines can be found elsewhere and for many years this has been my favourite non-Hunter example. Peter Lehmann revelled in the well-deserved sobriquet ‘Baron of the Barossa’ and, while he was well known for stentorian Shiraz, he could also turn his hand to delicate Rieslings and incisive Semillons.
This one began slowly, not giving much on the nose, while the palate seemed muted, closed in on itself. Only after an hour or so in the glass did it start to sing and then it simply got better and better, unfolding to reveal glorious layers of sweet, caramelized fruit, enlivened by mild nutty notes before departing in a reverberating finish.
Samuel’s Gorge, Shiraz, McLaren Vale 2006 14.5%
My visit to Samuel’s Gorge, where I was hosted by winemaker Justin McNamee, remains vivid in the memory. Not for McNamee the standard corporate-speak favoured by the big players in the Australian wine industry, and their counterparts world-wide. Vanilla opinions expressed in anodyne phrases find no place in McNamee’s lexicon.
Just as the Hunter does not have proprietary rights over Semillon so too does the Barossa not have similar rights over Shiraz. This beauty from ‘The Vale’ south of Adelaide was suffused with sweet spice and plump fruit, with a whiff of tobacco to add complexity. Standard bearers don’t come much better.
Rockford, Basket Press Shiraz, Barossa Valley 2006 14.5%
Most back labels are long on hyperbole and short on straight talk, but these words penned by winemaker-proprietor Robert O’Callaghan strike a more enthusiastic and less crafted tone: ‘Black Shiraz is the sort of stuff I was weaned on. Uniquely Australian, it’s loaded with rich ripe fruit flavour and very fine tannin – it’s a big old-fashioned red that will put a smile on the faces of all those who drink it – but the biggest smiles will belong to those who are patient enough to put it away in the cellar for 10 years.’
He was right about the patience, so I gave this bottle another half-decade or so beyond the recommended 10 years and even then, while showing the benefit of maturity, there was no hint of aged frailty. A Stygian depth of colour presaged a wine of remarkable structure and concentration that at the same time managed not to be overbearingly heavy. Dark, plummy fruit laced with notes of tar and tobacco enchanted the palate before resolving into a surprisingly fresh finish.
Penfolds, Single Vineyard Magill Estate Shiraz 1999 13.5%
Penfolds are the kings of cross-regional blending, though this is an exception and is the only single vineyard wine that they produce. In all the razzmatazz about Grange and, more recently, some ludicrously priced and hyped luxury releases, wines such as this and the lovely St Henri tend to get overlooked. Yet among aficionados they are highly regarded because they deliver again and again without a surfeit of bluster. Approaching its quarter-century this one didn’t disappoint. It was the most reserved of the trio, the flavours subtle and balanced – and not in any way ‘shouty’. From beginning to end harmony was its hallmark. Oh, to have a few more bottles in the cellar.