Tahbilk — retrosective tasting higlights unique wine style

Part 1
28 August 2005

Amongst Australia’s two thousand wineries, mostly comparatively new wineries, significant numbers date from the mid to late 19th century. Some — like Penfolds (established 1844) – now belong to larger companies. Others, like Tyrrell’s, Drayton’s, Yalumba and Bleasdale remain in the hands of their founding families.

Amongst these family-owned veterans, Tahbilk, occupies a special niche for the unique styles of its wines, the wonderful heritage buildings, the ‘old’ and ‘new’ underground cellars — constructed in 1860 and 1875 – and for the fact that it became so widely known largely through success with the obscure Rhone Valley white variety, marsanne, of which it has perhaps the largest single planting in the world.

Like shiraz, marsanne arrived here from France’s northern Rhone Valley last century. Unlike shiraz, marsanne is not widely grown outside of the Rhone, nor does it enjoy the same reputation as a premium wine grape.

Damned by faint praise might be a summary of what the critics say. Jancis Robinson, in ‘Vines, Grapes and Wine’ (Mitchell Beazley, London, 1986) writes, “The vigorous Marsanne vine produces substantial quantities of deep-coloured, almost brown-tinged wine high in extract and alcohol with a very definite smell, slight but not unpleasantly reminiscent of glue of the same sort of hue. It is simply too heavy to produce a wine capable of ageing unless it is picked very early as in some Australian examples.”

In ‘Rhone Renaissance’ (Mitchell Beazley, London, 1996) Remington Norman admits its potential — ‘… Fully mature, it has an attractive, complex bouquet, often reminiscent of acacia honey and jasmine or honeysuckle; young, it is marked by a flinty tang which disappears with maturation…’, but then sinks the boot in, ‘…It needs lowish yields and thoughtful vinification, otherwise it becomes neutral and, frankly, boring.”

Hardly sounds like the stuff of dreams does it? Yet Tahbilk, under Alister Purbrick, turned marsanne into both a cash cow and a much loved, refreshing, long-lived dry white – a wine that’s become increasingly fine and approachable in recent vintages.

Alister believes Tahbilk’s 49-hectare marsanne vineyard to be the largest in the world and contains the oldest vines – 6.5 hectares planted in 1927 by his grandfather, Eric. He says that well-known Rhone Valley wine makers Guigal and Chapoutier visited Australia in 1995 and to their knowledge the oldest marsanne in the northern Rhone was planted in the 1930s.

However, as fans of Tahbilk know, there’s more to this lovely estate than marsanne. The 1200-hectare property sits on a lovely anabranch of the Goulburn River, just outside Nagambie, Central Victoria.

Vines occupy just 182 hectares of this mixed farm. And today there’s a wetland and wildlife reserve, too.
Those other vines include a patch of shiraz from the original 1860s plantings – the sole survivors of the late nineteenth century phylloxera devastation.

These vines produce tiny quantities of an elegant and refined shiraz that’s sufficiently sought after in auction markets to have been included in the recent Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine.

As well, Tahbilk produces shiraz and cabernet in standard and ‘reserve’ versions. These distinctive, elegant wines, too, enjoy a strong following.

To mark Tahbilk’s upcoming 145th anniversary, Alister’s hosting vertical tastings back to 1962 vintage of the 1860s vines shiraz and the reserve shiraz and cabernet sauvignons. I’ll report back on these next Sunday

Part 2
4 September 2005

Tahbilk – a 1200-hectare property in Victoria’s Nagambie Lakes region — is a rare gem in the Australian wine landscape, having operated continuously since 1860 and under the stewardship of the Purbrick family since 1925.

You can read its interesting history at www.tahbilk.com.au, But the pertinent point for wine drinkers was the revival of the property’s wine fortunes and creation of the styles we enjoy today under Eric Purbrick.
Eric arrived at Tahbilk fresh from law studies at Cambridge in 1931, smack in the middle of a depression and with no experience in viticulture, winemaking or general farming.

But he persisted, despite depression and war, and by the time grandson Alister Purbrick joined him as Tahbilk’s first qualified winemaker in 1979, Tahbilk’s wines enjoyed an international reputation.

To mark Tahbilk’s 145th anniversary last weekend, the Purbrick family hosted vertical tastings of its wine spanning both the Eric Purbrick and Alister Purbrick years: Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1959 to 2002; 1860 Vines Shiraz 1981 to 2002; Reserve Shiraz 1971 to 2002; Marsanne 1974 to 2005; Riesling 1982 to 2005; Viognier 2000 to 2005; Shiraz 1961 to 2003; and Cabernet Sauvignon 1962 to 2003.

Unquestionably the medium bodied reds are the main game and appeal because they offer character, strength and longevity but not the oaky, alcoholic heaviness seen in so many Australian wines.

While the reds continue in the traditional style established by Eric, a run of warm vintages in recent years sees a little more fruit weight and, as well, better hygiene during oak maturation, the judicious use of a small proportion of new oak in the Reserve wines and a short period of cold-soaking on skins prior to fermentation means slightly brighter, softer wines – but still thoroughly in the Tahbilk medium-bodied, savoury, firm mould.

The standard cabernet sauvignon and shiraz, which often retail at around $15, offer tremendous value for estate-grown-and-made wines – provided you enjoy the medium bodied style, of course.

While the old wines hold well and some – like the 1965 — drink beautifully, the tannins do poke through a little giving a slightly tough finish. That’s something Alister’s team’s been working on and it has been ameliorated in recent vintages. Clearly the more intensely fruity years like 2002 balance these tannins better.

In the pricier 1860s Vines Shiraz, Reserve Shiraz and Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, made from select fruit parcels, the naturally more intense fruit flavours provide a sweeter, fleshier mid palate to balance the strong tannins.

In these wines prolonged ageing is mandatory and rewarding and, for this reason, they’re released at five years of age. The about to be released 2000 vintages, for example, all show a lovely core of sweet fruit and are enjoyable but really need another five years. Despite the extra fruit weight, these ‘Reserve’ wines remain medium bodied and elegant.

Of the whites tasted, Marsanne, a Tahbilk specialty, stood out for longevity, vintage-driven style variation, and the richness and slurpability of two young vintages — 2002 and 2005 – and the honeyed opulence of several of the older wines, especially the 1982.

Riesling seems to stand the test of time less well. While wines back to 1982 remain drinkable, they don’t to me have the appeal of the outstanding 2005 or lovely 2004 and 2002.

Viognier, a comparative newcomer at Tahbilk shows a juicy, apricot lusciousness in the 2005 vintage, but every year’s bottle age seems to strip away this appeal, judging by the progressive fading of the 2004 to 2000 vintages.

Tahbilk Nagambie Lakes Marsanne 2005 $11-$14
This is surely a contender – along with a few Clare Rieslings – for Australia’s best-value-white title. Not only does it drink well as a young wine but as the last weekend’s tasting at the winery demonstrated, it takes on a golden, honeyed richness with age — the 1974, 1982, 1992 and 1996 being my highlights amongst the older wines. And the introduction of a screw cap from 2002 and a brightening of the fruit character in recent years makes it an even safer cellaring bet than ever. The just-released 2005, though, was my top wine of the tasting as it simply explodes with succulent fruit flavour.

Tahbilk Nagambie Lakes Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 & Shiraz 2002 $15 to $19
The distinctive reds of Tahbilk are grown and made on the property and offer great consistency of style, albeit with considerable vintage variation and a notable brightening of fruit character in recent vintages. Despite fine-tuning, though, the wines remain limpid and medium bodied with a savoury edge and firm, sometimes slightly hard tannin structure. The about to be released 2002’s are absolutely stunning at the price and, of the older wines, the 1965 Shiraz and 1971 Cabernets still drink beautifully – indicating the strength behind what are, in the Australian context, lighter bodied wines.

Tahbilk 1860s Vines Shiraz 2000 $110, Reserve Shiraz 2000 & Reserve Cabernet 2000 $61
These medium bodied, firmly structured reds come from the choice, older vines of Tahbilk and deliver a greater fruit intensity and sweetness to counter the strong tannin structure. The 1860’s Vines shiraz comes from the sole surviving original plantings and both the current and coming releases — 1999 and 2000 – showed well, with the 1982 being a standout of the older wines. The Reserve Shiraz, from mature vines planted in 1933, 1927 and 1936 is a little weightier, but still in the elegant, firm Tahbilk mould. And the Reserve Cabernet comes from vines planted in 1948, the 1960s and1980s. The 1959 and 1964 are still wonderful. All of these young wines will benefit from extended cellaring

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2005 & 2007