Yalumba held its annual museum tasting in Sydney last Monday. For the seventeenth consecutive year, proprietor Robert Hill-Smith laid on for members of the trade and press thirty-eight venerable vintages from his wine museum in the Barossa Valley.
The tasting showed that some humble Australian wines scrub up extraordinarily well with prolonged cellaring. It also showed that with one grape variety, shiraz, we are as good as anyone in the world.
But with sweet whites, sparkling wines, fortifieds, pinot noir, cabernet, and chardonnay we’ve still a long way to go to equal the best European wines on which ours are modeled. Above all it was great pleasure to drink such well-cellared classics, especially with Sydney Harbour as a backdrop.
Yalumba’s 1986 ‘D’, the third of its line and disgorged only last month, smelled and tasted fresh but was simply outclassed by the incredibly powerful but fine Bollinger ‘Vieilles Vignes ‘(old vines) Champagne 1982 and the aged but mouthwateringly-fresh Veuve Clicquot Champagne 1962, a perfect example of aged Champagne.
Bollinger ‘old vines’ is something of a curio being 100 per cent pinot noir from quite old pre-phylloxera vines surviving in the courtyard of the winery in Ay and another small plot at nearby Bouzy.
The brilliant Veuve Clicquot, a more traditional blend of two thirds pinot noir (62 per cent) and pinot meunier (5 per cent) with one third chardonnay, came from some of the greatest vineyards of the Champagne district and owed at least some of its freshness to being cellared in magnums.
In a mixed group of whites, Rothbury Estate’s Shareholders Reserve Semillon 1976 showed a delicious depth of distinctive, aged regional flavours.. Given its modest price, it more than held its own against an oak-matured semillon-sauvignon blanc blend from Chateau Laville Haut Brion from Graves and the beautifully structured Jean-Pierre Perrin Rousanne Vielles Vignes 1988.
Four sweet whites were all from Sauternes or Barsac in France. Of these, Chateau d’Yquem 1983 dominated, in the words of Len Evans “it epitomises the ultimate character of Sauternes.”
Amongst four chardonnays a French wine, Bienvenues Batard-Montrachet (Domaine Leflaive) 1983, like the Chateau d’Yquem in the Sauternes class, was a perfect wine, in this case a textbook white Burgundy of the rare kind that inspired Australian wine makers to make chardonnay in the first place.
But both Tyrrells Vat 47 Chardonnay 1987 and Leeuwin Estate Chardonnay 1985 paled next to M. Leflaive’s wine, but were excellent, nevertheless. Tyrrells was one of those big, rich, round, old-fashioned Hunter styles, while the Leeuwin showed a greater sophistication with the added complexity of flavour added by malolactic fermentation.
Similarly amongst the pinot noirs, a very good Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir Reserve 1988 (Caneros and Napa Valley, USA) looked pretty good on its own. But a Romanee Conti (Domaine de la Romanee Conti) 1985 showed such brooding power and depth, there could be no doubting Burgundy is not yet under threat from the new world.
In two separate groupings we tasted three shiraz and grenache based Rhone Valley reds and six shiraz and cabernet based Australian reds.
Here there was no French domination. Its top wine, Cote Rotie La Turque (Guigal) 1988 while enormously concentrated, and seen as one of the Rhone’s top wines, may be on a par with our own Grange Hermitage, but is not to my taste any better.
Amongst the older Australian reds, Grange 1955 was still a delight to drink though it hasn’t the power and intensity I recall from several tastings in the late seventies and early eighties; Maurice O’Shea’s Mount Pleasant Claret Henry II 1945 still showed some richness of a hot Hunter vintage; a 1919 Reynella Claret tasted ‘chocolaty’ (Evans thought it was perhaps from ageing in old port barrels); and a 1919 Barossa Valley Claret was fragile, delicate and still drinkable.
Bordeaux, and therefore cabernet, was represented by three vintages of Chateau Margaux, 1982, 1966, and 1995. Lovely as it was to drink the old wines, 1982 showed all the inimitable perfume, supple sweetness, enormous depth and firm drying astringency of a First Growth Claret. Perfection.
From a group of fortifieds there was simple pleasure in a 1926 Yalumba Tokay; more complexity and richness in a 1922 Yalumba Port; sublime satisfaction in Warre’s Vintage Port 1945 (one of Portugal’s greatest vintages); glorious drinking in a Stonyfell Vintage Port 1945, made by Jack Kilgour; and ethereal richness and an overwhelming feeling of timelessness in Cossart and Gordon’s Bual Centenary Madeira 1845.
In summing up the wines over lunch Len Evans remarked on the need to have fun even with profound wines like these. We did.