Lovely old gems uncorked in Canberra

Little wonder Australia’s wines are so good! Our leading winemakers and judges burn with ardour for the product they make. In Canberra this week for the Qantas/ACI Wine Show, sheer enthusiasm conquered tedium: after tasting hundreds of wines by day judges headed off into nights of wine exploration.

It was amazing to see James Halliday in action at the judges’ dinner last Tuesday. Here’s a man, so enthused by wine, he threw in a law career to follow his dream. Even before retiring from the law he was an accomplished winemaker with several vintages behind him at Brokenwood Winery in the Hunter and Coldstream Hills established in the Yarra Valley. By that time, too, he’d published books as well as writing a weekly column, first for the National Times and then The Weekend Australian.

At Cafe Barocca on Tuesday evening, Halliday took control of the 26 mainly old wines brought along by judges. He organised the serving order then regularly nudged Alby Sedaitis and staff aside to pour wines…keen to see 22 judges, associate-judges and guests get their portion of each bottle (ever squeezed 22 glasses from a bottle?)

What we saw, then, was a progression of wonderful wines, many of them classics and an inspiration to winemakers, crossing a broad, international spectrum of styles. For casual wine drinkers there was good news, too. For several outstanding old wines opened were humbly priced.

Of three sparkling wines served, Dom Perignon Rose 1982 showed the sheer brilliance of that vintage in Champagne and just how far our own winemakers have yet to travel. And our winemakers’ reaction was not one of jealousy but to see a model, a standard to strive towards. Jansz 1990 (Tasmania) with its taut, austere, acidic structure was the perfect foil to antipasto, and a cellar-aged magnum of Lanson Rose NV Champagne, a gentle, fruity, refreshing but simple aperitif.

Chairman of judges, Ian McKenzie, produced a soft, quite delicious 1972 Berri-Renmano Rhine Riesling. Here, from the much-reviled Riverland, was a twenty-year-old white that probably sold for $1.50 in its day. Australian rhine riesling is vastly under-appreciated.

From the Rhone Valley George Vernay’s Condrieu 1990 introduced a novel spectrum of flavours. Some called it violets, Dr Edgar Riek called it winter Jasmine. Having seen a 1981 vintage from Vernay’s neighbour, Marcel Guigal, two days earlier, I believe viognier, the grape variety of Condrieu, deserves a place in Australian winemaking.

Pinot Noir has little popularity in Australia, partly because we’ve seen so few good ones and also because we’re attuned more to robustness than delicacy in our reds. Halliday is perhaps its leading proponent in Australia. I got the feeling we were glimpsing James’ aspirations in drinking his magnificent French pinot, Clos Vougeot 1989 (Domaine Meo Camuzet). It tasted infinitely more complex than a 1991 Heemskerk (Tasmania). Another French wine, Chambertin (Domaine Armand Rousseau) 1982 showed us the combination of rich gamey flavours and delicacy, to be found in mature Burgundy. If Burgundy at $150 a pop is out of reach, try Halliday’s Coldstream Hills Reserve Pinot Noir 1991 for a glimpse of the variety’s charm.

There were absolute gems amongst shirazes from France and Australia. Two sublime oak matured French wines got full marks for cellaring potential: Guigal’s Northern Rhone wines from Cote Rotie: La Mouline 1986 and La Turque 1986. The only comparable Australian wine, Grange Hermitage, was not present but we did see a few quite old, venerable vintages.

McWilliams Hunter Valley Richard Hermitage 1954 had a rich, sweet, gamey old aroma and gorgeous old, sweet, flavours. Wynns ovens Valley Burgundy 1956 opened brilliantly with rich, maturing fruit flavours and alcoholic sweetness making it look far from finished. Note, the current vintage sells for around $8 a bottle…a bargain for the cellar.

Visiting Italian judge, Piero Antinori, stunned us with his Tuscan showpiece, Solaia 1978, a remarkably Bordeaux-like Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc blend.

Reynella Commemoration Cabernet 1963 had a lovely, old, full, chocolaty richness perhaps a bit past its best; Hardy’s Tintara Cabernet Bin C407 1962 showed a leaner, tauter structure and seemed fresher than the Reynella. Both were overshadowed, however, by a Max Schubert classic, Penfolds Bin 61 Kalimna Cabernet Eden Valley Shiraz 1963 with its overwhelming depth, power and comparative freshness.

The French had the last say, however with the magnificent 1961 Chateau Beycheville (Bordeaux) and an Alsacian white, Hugel Riesling Vendange Tardive 1976. In a star-studded line-up it had to be the wine of the night for freshness and depth of flavour. With such inspiration and a cheerful competitiveness, our winemakers forge onwards.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007