Tasting John’s Blend 1990 to 2006

In 1967 Wolf Blass winemaker, John Glaetzer, received a load of “beautiful, concentrated” cabernet sauvignon from Bill Potts’ vineyard, Langhorne Creek. Glaetzer turned those grapes into the first Wolf Blass Grey Label Cabernet Sauvignon.

Seven years later, inspired by those beautiful grapes, Glaetzer (still working for Blass) made John’s Blend No. 1 Langhorne Creek Cabernet Sauvignon, using fruit from Bill Potts’ vineyard.

Glaetzer’s small-production wine developed a loyal following, its reputation spread mainly by word-of-mouth. And in Canberra, the word spread mainly through wine merchant Jim Murphy, a long-term supporter of Wolf Blass and John Glaetzer.

A couple of weeks back, a disparate group of 11 Canberra followers – led by Charlotte Galloway, an ANU lecturer in Art History and Curatorship – raided their cellars to hold a John’s Blend vertical tasting: all the vintages, bar 1992, from 1990 to 2006.

No, not a sniff and spit tasting, but a leisurely stroll through the sequence over lunch on a crisp, sunny autumn day – hosted by Warwick McKibbin and fiancée, Renee Fry, and attended by Galloway, Jac and Kathy Cousin, Jenny and Peter Gibson, James Horne, Heather Smith, Martin Parkinson and yours truly.

A confession here: Chateau Shanahan contributed the 2002 and 2003 vintages, but John Glaetzer had given these to us some years back – we’d seldom tasted John’s Blend, so entered the tasting with few preconceptions.

We tasted the wines in pairs from oldest to youngest, therefore starting with the 1990 and 1991 and finishing at 2006. It’s an effective tasting method as there’s no rush, no palate overload and a natural pairing of wine with food.

We found wonderful consistency of style across the vintages – the thread linking all of the wines being a distinctive mint-eucalypt note associated with cabernet sauvignon from Langhorne Creek.

The wines go through an interesting transition from oakiness to fruitiness as they age. In the fully mature wines, oak seems barely detectable; and in the young vintages it’s an oak-fruit arm wrestle – a style that’s not in vogue today.

In this regard, the wines reminded me of a tasting, with Wolf Blass and John Glaetzer, of all the Wolf Blass Black Label wines a few years back. The veteran tasters, remembering the dark, oaky young Black Labels of the mid seventies, wondered where the oak had gone. All we could taste now were supple, mellow old wines with fruit to the fore.

Similarly, John’s Blend reminds us that it’s all a matter of balance – powerful fruit’s capable of gobbling up lots of oak over time, and the symbiotic combination produces complex long-lived wines.

John Glaetzer says there’s been no significant change to his winemaking technique or oak-maturation regime over the years. He ferments the wine a little cooler than industry standard, to preserve vibrant fruit flavours. He believes warm temperatures “boil off the fruit”.

And in a technique picked up from Wolf Blass (in turn learned by Blass from Grange creator, Max Schubert) Glaetzer finishes the ferments off in oak barrels.

Glaetzer continues to source fruit from Bill Potts’ Langhorne Creek Vineyard. However, in 1992 and 1993 he and Potts established the 32-hectare Pasquin vineyard nearby. In recent years, says Glaetzer, John’s Blend comes about 50:50 from the two vineyards. He makes only 1,000 cases of John’s Blend each year – but made none in 2011 for lack of suitable fruit.

Langhorne Creek, near Lake Alexandrina (south east of McLaren Vale), is one of Australia’s largest premium wine grape regions. A massive expansion there in the late nineties saw most of its fruit blended anonymously into multi-region blends. Blass reputedly called the region, “Australia’s middle palate”.

The Potts family pioneered the area from 1850 and remain in control today of Bleasdale Winery and vineyards. Bill Potts, one of the family, supplies Glaetzer from his own vineyard.

One of the most enduring reds from the area is Stonyfell Metala Shiraz Cabernet. It was made from 1932 by Jack Kilgour, and marketed originally as Stonyfell Private Bin Claret. Kilgour’s successor, Bryan Dolan, put the vineyard name, Metala, on the label. Dolan won the inaugural Jimmy Watson Trophy in 1962 with the 1961 Metala, the first vintage to bear the new label.

Langhorne Creek triumphed again in 1974, 1975 and 1976 with Wolf Blass’s historic Jimmy Watson trophy hat trick. But Blass’s powerful branding of his Black Label overshadowed the regional credentials.

In John’s Blend, Langhorne Creek cabernet sauvignon reveals its idiosyncratic charm consistently across the decades, with little peaks and troughs driven by vintage variations. With so much focus now on regional specialties, Glaetzer’s 37-year-old brand (like Kilgour’s 1932 Stonyfell Private Bin Claret) reminds us that this is not a new idea at all, but the perennial wine theme.

The current-release 2007 vintage John’s Blend (not in the tasting) is available at Jim Murphy’s for $29.95 and Kemeny’s of Sydney offer the 2006 at $29.99. Few wines at this price offers such a pedigree and proven long-term cellaring potential.

John’s Blend No 17 Langhorne Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 1990
A perfect start to the tasting with this mature but still lively, sweet-fruited vintage with distinctive Langhorne Creek minty-eucalypt cabernet sauvignon to the fore. Has years ahead of it.

John’s Blend No 18 Langhorne Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 1991
Looked, smelled and tasted older than the vibrant 1990 to its left, but nevertheless an appealing, if fading, old wine.

John’s Blend No 20 Langhorne Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 1993
Tasted at the end of the lunch when our host, Warwick McKibbin, generously retrieved a magnum from the cellar. 1993 was a wet, disease-ridden vintage, comparable to 2011. But the wine defied the vintage stereotype, with its complex aroma and lean, taut palate still revealing mint-eucalyptus varietal flavour. Drying out a bit but still thoroughly enjoyable.

John’s Blend No 21 Langhorne Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 1994
One of the standout vintages, seventeen years old but still red rather than brown with vibrant mint-eucalypt cabernet aroma and a juicy, elegant palate, finely-sculpted palate. Many years left.

John’s Blend No 22 Langhorne Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 1995
One of the most talked about wines, championed by Charlotte Galloway and notable for its strident, chunky style, flanked on either side by the elegant 1994 and 1996 vintages. The mint-eucalypt character seemed particularly strong in this wine, matched by a firmer tannin structure.

John’s Blend No 23 Langhorne Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 1996
My favourite drinking wine on the day, a particularly elegant, ethereal expression of its style – all sweet fruit, grace and suppleness. Long and delicious finish, many years of life ahead, but right now showing both youth and maturity.

John’s Blend No 24 Langhorne Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 1997
A lesser vintage but in terrific condition, its lively palate notably leaner than the 1996 before it, but still sweet and supple.

John’s Blend No 25 Langhorne Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 1998
Generally considered a great vintage but our first bottle seriously cork tainted and the second bottle showing a strange vegetal character and hollow palate. John Glaetzer reckons we struck two dud corks. He regards it as one of the greats. Down with cork.

John’s Blend No 26 Langhorne Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 1999
A beautiful wine with a limpid, youthful colour, seductive ripe blackcurrant aroma pushing through the by now familiar mint-eucalypt. Despite the generous nose, the fruit on the palate comes teasingly wrapped in firm tannins – a delicious and elegant combination, suggesting heaps more drinking pleasure in the years to come.

John’s Blend No 27 Langhorne Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2000
Looks, smells and tastes older than the exceptional 1999. Aged, autumn-leaf aromas join the mint-eucalypt notes and the palate seems old and tiring – a lesser vintage, remarkable that it’s still going after 11 years.

John’s Blend No 28 Langhorne Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2001
A bit of a closed shop this one, some chocolate joining the mint-eucalypt theme on a full but tight, tannic palate ­– though there’s fruit peeking through and probably a long life ahead of it. Seems to be neither young nor mature, so best left for a few more years.

John’s Blend No 29 Langhorne Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2002
First bottle cork tainted. Second bottle in good condition and just a baby – the first wine to show obvious oak aroma and flavour (the older wines had simply gobbled up all the oak, leaving fruit to star). A lovely aroma combining mint-eucalypt with cedary oak – these characters come through, too, on the tightly-bound palate. One of the greats but best left to mature for a few more years.

John’s Blend No 30 Langhorne Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2003
We’re now squarely among the young, oaky wines. Ripe mint-eucalypt-chocolate-blackcurrant fruit joins the oak but there’s not the length of flavour. It needs more time but probably won’t rate among the best.

John’s Blend No 31 Langhorne Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2004
Well, yum yum, this one’s saturated with fruit – and oak, too, after three years in new French and American barrels. But as the old wines demonstrate, the oak will fade over time as the wine becomes finer and the fruit steps to the front. A very good vintage.

John’s Blend No 32 Langhorne Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
A big, ripe, crimson-rimmed wine: juicy, vibrant summer-berry flavours mingle with the regional mint-eucalypt. Big and chocolate-rich on the palate in an oak-fruit arm wrestle – but we know the winner in the long run, don’t we.

John’s Blend No 33 Langhorne Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2006
A magnificent, deeply coloured, crimson-rimmed wine to finish. Enough oak to build a weekender, but in a complex matrix with deep, ripe varietal fruit (yes, tinted with mint-eucalypt). There’s great depth to the supple fruit and despite the wine’s youth and power, the structure’s poised and elegant. One of the greats.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011