Wines with individuality

Wine’s not a living thing but it can have personality. Clearly the more idiosyncratic a wine is, the more likely it is to stand out and be recognisable, even in a masked tasting. At times highly distinctive wines challenge our senses, or simply need time, sometimes decades, to reveal their best.

As drinkers it might take decades for the penny to drop. Or we might be lucky enough to taste, over a comparatively short period of time, various vintages of a distinguished wine – in youth, adolescence, early maturity and fragile old age. With that sort of experience, we might look at a gangly young red, or austere young white and feel comfortable about where it’s headed in the future.

This tends to become increasingly true as we move up the wine quality ladder. Look, for example, at the 17 wines classed as “Exceptional” (based on long-term auction volume and value) in Langton’s 2010 classification of Australian wine. These are wines with distinctive personalities.

The distinguishing features can be subtle, as in the finesse and elegance of Mount Mary Yarra Valley Quintets Cabernet Blend or strident, as in the sheer power of Grange or yeast-lees-based funkiness of Giaconda Beechworth Chardonnay.

If we lined up unmarked glasses of the 17 wines, anyone with a reasonably experienced palate and a brief of what to look for could identify most, if not all, of them – and have a bit of fun.

With only three whites in the line up, it’d be easy to separate the pristine, comparatively austere Grosset Polish Hill Riesling from the two opulent chardonnays; and to separate the svelte, seamless Leeuwin Estate Margaret River Chardonnay from the funky, minerally Giaconda Beechworth version.

That would leave standing 14 reds – one pinot noir, four cabernets, and nine shirazes. It’d be reasonably simple from here to sniff out the pinot noir – Bass Phillip Reserve from South Gippsland, Victoria. This is towering pinot, penetratingly aromatic with varietal red fruits, gaminess, savouriness, fleshiness, luxurious depth and authoritative tannin and acid structure. Oh, boy this is a long way from the average, soft Australian pinot noir – and it needs time to flourish.

We could now separate the shirazes from the cabernets by aroma alone; wines of this quality make the task straightforward. Then the individual cabernets might fall out. First, Penfolds Bin 707 on its inky deep colour and distinctive red-black hue – its identity confirmed by a sniff of generous ripeness, meshed with distinctive American oak.

Next, we’d probably spot Moss Wood Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon, principally because it reveals more varietal cabernet character than the other two remaining wines, even though the blend includes the related varieties, cabernet franc and petit verdot.

It might be more difficult to separate the two remaining elegant blends – Cullen Diana Madeline Margaret River Cabernet Merlot and Mount Mary Quintet. These are both multi-variety blends – two or three in Cullens, depending on vintage, and five, in varying proportions according to vintage, in Mount Mary.

Typically, Cullens might have more assertive tannins than the ultra-refined Mount Mary. But the Cullen 2008 tends to greater delicacy than earlier wines, so distinguishing the two may prove challenging.

Now, we’re down to nine shirazes, dominated by robust warm-climate styles. Here the sole cool-climate style would stand out like a ballerina in a rugby pack – the aromatic, refined, medium-bodied Clonakilla Canberra District (Murrumbateman) Shiraz Viognier. We’d spot it with one sniff. But who could resist a little dalliance with its seductive, silkiness?

We’d probably sniff out another two relatively easily. Brokenwood Graveyard Vineyard Hunter Valley Shiraz, ought to stand out with early hints of regional earth and leather. And Penfolds Grange usually struts its combination of powerful fruit, American oak and lift of volatility.

For the remaining six shirazes me may need to back our noses with a sip or two. Henschke Hill of Grace Eden Valley Shiraz might be the next one we identify as it’s usually very fragrant and medium bodied, rather than robust like the last five.

We’d then have Wendouree Clare Valley Shiraz in our sights. Though it comes from the warm Clare Valley, it’s powerful, without being a block buster; and instead of the fleshy fruit we might expect, we’d find solid tannins clamped around a lovely core of sweet fruit, held below the surface to emerge after ten years or more in the cellar.

How do we now distinguish between four big shirazes – Chris Ringland Barossa, Clarendon Hills McLaren Vale Astralis, Rockford Barossa Valley Basket Press and Torbreck Barossa Valley Run Rig? With a bit of luck, the McLaren Vale wine might show more savouriness and be a little firmer than the Barossa line up. These are typically big, but with soft, sometimes tender tannins.

We could also call in a brains trust – for example, someone with recent experience tasting the wines to describe their characteristics. Certainly we’d perceive differences among the last three, even if we couldn’t identify them individually. I used the brains-trust approach years ago when Lindemans put its new-vintage Coonawarra trio – St George Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, Limestone Ridge Vineyard Shiraz Cabernet and Pyrus cabernet blend – in a masked tasting with the five Bordeaux First Growths: Chateaus Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, Margaux, Latour and Haut Brion.

I knew the Lindeman wines intimately, but having tasted the Bordeaux wines only occasionally, called on winemaker Brian Croser on the way to the Adelaide tasting. Brian has a knack for describing wine styles clearly and succinctly and did so on this occasion.

The Lindeman winemakers, led by Phil Laffer and Philip John, wanted to compare their own three distinctive styles with the Bordeaux classics. To maintain some objectivity the eight wines were served masked, even though we knew their identities.

The exercise was more about describing the personality and style of each wine than ranking them in order of merit – though tasters inevitably do this. By focusing on each wine, describing its aroma, flavour and textural characteristics and then comparing the descriptions with the notes from our brains trust, and our own past experience, it was no great chore to correctly identify every wine correctly.

This simply confirmed that really good wines have distinctive personalities – even in the comparatively narrow confines of a single region. In this instance the Australian wines quickly fell out as a group; and the Bordeaux classics grew further apart from each other stylistically as we sipped our way through them.

This is all part of the great mystique of wine that sets it apart from any other beverage.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010