Sipping from the top shelf — Aussie wines that came our way

We recently lined up a dozen top-shelf Aussie reds in a Chateau Shanahan masked tasting. There were just two of us at the bench – forming our judgments without discussion, then, at the end of each bracket comparing our impressions, and later unmasking the bottles.

In the few days following the sip-and-spit tasting, we consumed the bottles over various meals to see how they held up in real life. We include these impressions in the notes below.

We don’t pretend that the wines in the tasting are a true cross section of top-end Australia. They were just samples of new-release wines that’d come our way in the week or two before the tasting – and include old favourites as well as two new faces.

Eden Road Two Trees Grenache Shiraz 2006 $75 (screw cap)
A 50:50 blend of grenache and shiraz, 89 per cent from the Eden Valley with a small amount of grenache from the Clare Valley and shiraz from Colbinabbin, Heathcote. 300 dozen produced.

Along with the Eden Road V06 shiraz below, this is a first release from Canberra based Cooper Coffman Wine Company. It’s based on very low yielding, very old vines, lending some credibility to the hefty price tag. It’s a juicy, opulent wine showing distinctive jube-like grenache flavour mingling with liquorice-like character of Eden Valley shiraz. There’s a touch of porty ripeness and alcoholic warmth. But it’s balanced and easily passed the ‘bottle test’ – the leftovers from the masked tasting drank beautifully to the last drop a few days after the tasting.

Eden Road V06 Shiraz 2006 $220 (screw cap)
Sourced from a block of shiraz vines, planted in the 1890s, on Cooper Coffman’s Eden Valley vineyard. The vines yielded just 1.2 tonnes to the hectare in 2006 from which Martin Cooper made 300 dozen of.
Putting the price aside for a moment, this is a buoyant and fragrant, supple and generous, soft and elegant, pure shiraz of a very high calibre. Martin Cooper says most of the small production is to be hand sold in export markets, so discussion of the $220 price tag may prove academic.

Jacob’s Creek Centenary Hill Barossa Valley Shiraz 2003 $42 (cork)
Produced from the Willandra Vineyard and other old sites along Jacob’s Creek, Southern Barossa Valley.
There’s some terrific fruit at the heart of this wine from the difficult 2003 vintage. But there seemed to be a battle between the fruit and the oak – and the oak won. We tried to like it, but even at a post-tasting meal we couldn’t get past the intrusive oak.

Penfolds Magill Estate Shiraz 2005 $100 (cork)
Sourced from blocks 1, 2 and 3 of the Penfolds Magill Vineyard, Adelaide.
This is the wine that saved the historic Magill site from sale and subdivision. On 9 October 1982 retired Grange creator, Max Schubert, hand wrote for the Adsteam board (then owners of Penfolds) a six foolscap page proposal (never published) of what the wine should be like, how to make it and the economics of doing so. Max’s proposal began with this description of the wine that he envisage: ‘To make a French Chateau style red wine, distinctly different to the Grange Hermitage style, in that body weight and colour would be approximately half that of Grange, whilst aroma, flavour and character would be individual and pronounced’.

The board endorsed Max’s proposal and Penfolds made the first Magill Estate wine in 1983. Over the years Magill developed a bit more weight than Max had originally envisaged. This was essential fine-tuning of the style as the early vintages proved to be a little too lean. But it remains distinctive and has an elegance that I’m sure would’ve pleased Max.

In our tasting the 2005 showed ripe but spicy varietal character that we associate more with cool areas, not sunbaked suburban Adelaide. The ripe, spicy fruit interplayed beautifully with spicy oak, creating one of the most enjoyable wines of the tasting – one that slipped down pleasurably over the next few days.

Grant Burge Meshach 2003 $120 (cork)
Sourced principally from old vines on Grant Burge’s Filsell vineyard, located between Lyndoch and Williamstown, southern Barossa Valley, supplemented with fruit from other 100-plus-year-old vines.
Reflecting the warm year and the region, this is a big, ripe and porty wine. But like it’s southern Barossa neighbour, Centenary Hill Shiraz above, the oak outweighed the fruit. Remarkably, the wine looks better now, three days after opening – suggesting that it’ll age for many years. But it’s not, to my taste, one of the better vintages of Meshach.

Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2004 $90 (cork)
Sourced from the Barossa Valley, Langhorne Creek and the Adelaide Hills. Unlike the other Penfolds reds, matured in large old oak vats – no new oak, no small barrels.

For a while St Henri hid behind the comparatively oaky wines in the tasting. But its appeal grew with each sip. It’s all about ripe, dense, round, soft pure shiraz. From experience St Henri’s at its best beyond ten years of age – and therein lies my caveat. Why, oh why, dear Penfolds winemakers when you bottled it, in the age of the screw cap, did you put such a crappy little cork in it? St Henri and your customers deserve better than this.

Penfolds RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz 2005 $160 (cork)
Made from Barossa shiraz selected for opulence and fleshiness.
The first vintage in 1997 was lovely, the second in 1998 remains the best Barossa shiraz I’ve tasted. And the 2005 isn’t far behind. It’s fragrant, generous and fleshy with bright, varietal fruit flavours that mesh perfectly with the high quality French oak. This is a superior wine.

Brown Brothers Patricia Shiraz 2004 $54 (cork)
Fruit sources: 33 per cent Brown Brothers’ Heathcote vineyard; 33 per cent Dinning’s Vineyard, King Valley; 34 per cent Glenkara vineyard, Western Victoria.

I suspect a poor cork might’ve let Patricia down, muting the fruit and allowing oak and tannin to take over and dry the wine out. We’ll try another bottle some time.

Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 $175 (screw cap)
Fruit source: Barossa Valley (including Kalimna Vineyard Block 42), Coonawarra and Padthaway.
They call it ‘Grange cabernet’ and there’s a strong family resemblance in the dense colour and combined flavour of sweet American oak and powerful fruit. Of course, the flavour and structure is cabernet, not shiraz. It gets a bit of stick from other winemakers these days because of the American oak. But to me it works and gives the wine its distinctive thumbprint. Like Grange, it begins to hit its straps at about fifteen years of age. By then its showing cabernet’s elegance and fragrance with deep, sweet, underlying fruit. The elements are all there now in the outstanding 2005. But it really isn’t meant for current drinking. Its cellaring record makes it a great long-term ‘memento’ wine.

Jacob’s Creek St Hugo Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 $42 (cork)
Source: Coonawarra, principally the northern end.
This was our value-for-money pick of the tasting. It’s classic Coonawarra cabernet, featuring power with elegance and textbook cabernet flavour (ripe berries with a leafy edge) and structure (firm but not hard). Its perfume and flavour blossomed during the tasting and the bottle drank well three days later. Unlike the Bin 707, St Hugo provides outstanding drinking now. It will probably evolve well for another five or six years at least.

Grant Burge Shadrach Barossa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 $55 (cork)
Fruit source: Grant Burge’s Corryton Park Vineyard, on the slopes of Mount Crawford, Eden Valley, plus very rich fruit from several smaller Barossa Vineyards.

First impressions were of a simpler wine, with ripe, varietal aroma and a brisk but earthy, chocolate-rich palate. While it lacked the immediate appeal of the St Hugo, the flavours built over time. It’s a solid, complex cabernet with its best drinking four or five years away.

Cape Mentelle Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 $85 (cork)
Fruit source: Cape Mentelle’s Wallcliffe Vineyard, Margaret River.
It’s a wine with a big reputation but I suspect a dodgy cork took the edge off our sample. It wasn’t corked, but there was a dusty smelling hint and then a very dry finish that didn’t fit with the otherwise beautiful fruit. We’ll hold judgement until we try another bottle.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008