There’s gold in them thar liquor stores

There’s never been a better time to buy wine. Equally, there’s never been a more confusing time for wine drinkers. For the very glut of producers and labels currently forcing prices down forms an intimidating wall of brands that confounds even professional wine judges.

The diversity of choice and competition-driven low pricing is good, of course. But confusion comes because on any one day at any price you’ll find wines that were made to sell at that price and offer fair value (or, sometimes, poor value) and wines that were made to sell at a much higher price but are now reduced and offer superior quality.

Take, for example the just-released Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz 2004 (reviewed below). It really does sell for $21 or $22 when not on special. And given its quality, fifty-year pedigree and cellaring ability, that’s a fair price.

Well, it is until you see 1st Choice, Philip, advertising it at $11.40 by the dozen. At that price none of the brands made to sell at $11-$12 a bottle – and found on the shelves away from the red-hot specials — can hold a candle to it.

Unfortunately, Wynns at $11.40 has been and gone between deadlines for this column. But the fact that it happened, and that the market remains tough for producers, almost certainly means that it’ll be back somewhere in the competitive Canberra retail landscape. So, watch for the second coming.

Similarly, really good $17-ish reds – Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet 2003 and Hardys Oomoo McLaren Vale Shiraz 2004 – have popped up in several retail outlets in recent months at $8.90 a bottle by the dozen.

The former, a multi-region blend, and latter, a straight regional varietal, simply blow the purpose built $9 reds away. These are perennial favourites with retailers, so pile in whenever the numbers come up.

The list of white, red and bubbly bargain goes on. More than ever the astute buyer, cherry picking the best specials, drinks appreciably better wine than the casual or confused buyer grabbing a bottle on the way to dinner or believing that a high price tag is necessarily the best cue to quality.

But what consumer research has consistently shown is that really knowledgeable buyers make up a tiny minority of the wine drinking population and that, faced with such wide choice, most drinkers don’t know where to start.

So how do you identify the gold dust?

If you’re not immersed in wine lore, it’ll take some effort. But it’s possible if you seek advice from wine reviews or a couple of good reference books – and crosscheck these with the weekly press and Internet specials. The effort will be rewarded as it will give you the choice of drinking the quality you’re used to at a lower price or stepping up the quality ladder without paying more.

While favourable reviews from trusted critics make a reliable guide, they’re not always at hand may not cover all of the styles you’re interested in.

It’s therefore useful to invest in two reference books, both of which are updated each year: James Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion 2006 ($29.95) and The Penguin Good Wine Guide ($??) by Huon Hooke and Ralph Kyte-Powell.

You could use one or the other. But the combination gives you Halliday’s form guide to 2001 wineries plus Hooke and Kyte-Powell’s wine-by-wine ratings. Armed with these and a list of specials you’ll be on the money.


Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz 2004 $11.40 to $22
Wynns is a magnificent, cellaring red prone to bouts of discounting. Hopefully the $11.40 price offered by 1st Choice last week will come around again somewhere in Canberra. Made by Sue Hodder, the 2004 — benefiting from vineyard rejuvenation and a shortening of time in oak — is fragrant, medium bodied and oozing juicy, Coonawarra berry flavours. Shame on Wynns marketers, though, for lacking the courage to roll it out in screw cap. Hiding behind a ‘test the market’ screen, they’ve limited screw-cap stock to Vintage Cellars. That was fine five years ago as the technology emerged. But it’s now both proven and accepted. Restricting distribution merely deprives many drinkers of the best stock available.

Champagne Taittinger Brut Resérve NV $74.95
With a little more chardonnay in the blend than most NV’s (40 per cent versus about 33 – the remainder pinot noir and pinot meunier), good old Taitts is on the light and cheery side of Champagne, albeit with a rich and creamy mid-palate. Served recently at Chateau Shanahan after a bottle of the intense, pinot-driven Lanson 1996, the guest smile-gauge spun crazily. It could’ve been the second bottle phenomenon. But, no, a sober sip says this is a lovely, delicate aperitif style with the lightness of chardonnay and yummy brioche-like nuances of pinot meunier, the lesser of the two pinots, but indispensable nevertheless.

d’Arenberg McLaren Vale d’Arry’s Original Shiraz Grenache 2003 $15 to $20
d’Arry Osborn, father of present d’Arenberg winemaker, Chester, bottled the first of the famous ‘red stripe’ labels in 1959 and in the following two decades made d’Arenberg ‘Burgundy’ an Aussie favourite. The mellow, soft style appealed when young but also aged well for decades – attributes it retained after dropping the French place name, Burgundy, in favour of varietal labelling. The new release is a robust expression of the style with an appealing earthy richness and smoothness plus, being a year older than many new releases, a satisfying red-wine character that comes only with time. The fruit is so delicious that it carries 15 per cent alcohol with ease.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2005 & 2007