See my list of a dozen Aussies worth laying down, so to speak, below. Purple pagers should also see Coonawarra reds and other classics and Australian Rieslings back to 1973 in tasting notes.
It is often said that the average length of time a bottle of Australian wine is cellared between purchase and consumption can be measured in hours if not minutes rather than years. This may be a good thing for typical, commercial Australian wine brands but, unknown by many a connoisseur, Australia also produces wines that benefit immeasurably from slow ageing in bottle.
One of the most impressive white wines of hundreds tasted last month was a 1973 Riesling, the Leo Buring Show Reserve DWC 14 from the famous Florita vineyard in Watervale, ClareValley in South Australia. I simply could not imagine any other wine of any colour made in 1973 anywhere in the world that would still be so full of life. This one still smelt of honey and minerals and had more than a whiff of thick-cut lime marmalade. It was so vigorous it tasted like a health drink and, unlike so many of today’s monster wines, it is just 11 per cent alcohol.
Another high point in a hectic month of wine tastings (on one, far from exceptional, day last week I was invited to five different events in London, at each of which well over 100 wines were shown) was a tasting of reds from Coonawarra. Coonawarra sounds like a joke, and seen from the air it is rather: a ribbon of vineyards just a few miles long planted on a rogue seam of particularly propitious red earth so far south of Adelaide in the far south east corner of South Australia that the settlement (Coonawarra is barely a village) is on the same latitude as drizzly Melbourne. This extends the vines’ growing season so that the wines are seriously intense and long-lived.
All the recent fuss about Shiraz from the much hotter climes of Barossa and McLaren Vale to the north has tended to obscure the extraordinary track record of Coonawarra Cabernet, the first combination of place and grape variety to have established its reputation in Australia, from the 1950s onwards with wines such as Mildara’s 1963 Cabernet, nicknamed Peppermint Pattie. Coonawarra’s image has been further clouded by recent disputes over its precise boundary and some dubious vineyard practices attempted by the big companies in an effort to overcome the region’s acute shortage of labour.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate is on the site of the original Coonawarra pioneer John Riddoch’s property. Although it was British-owned in the 1970s, it has effectively been part of Southcorp, Australian wine’s struggling behemoth, since 1985. Coonawarra’s distance from any corporate headquarters has always allowed its wineries a certain degree of autonomy. The first Wynns bottling of a special Cabernet selection named after John Riddoch, based on the 1982 vintage, was tasting beautifully earlier this year. From its colour you would have taken it for a wine almost 20 years younger thanks to the perennial high-acid, low-pH grape musts produced on this terra rossa in a cool climate. The wine was beautifully round and gentle with fully evolved, slightly minty fruit – though nothing as vulgar as a peppermint pattie.
Wynns Coonawarra Estate bottlings of 1967 and 1959 tasted at the same time were an equally impressive crimson with very little browning and had much more fruit than most 1967 red bordeaux. The 1959 was definitely old – as well it might be – but still vibrant. Not as sumptuous as Château Latour 1959, but a fraction of the price. The 2000 version seems seriously underpriced to me.
What made the recent Coonawarra tasting so special was that it was convened by four of the finest family firms operating there - Balnaves, Bowens, Hollicks and Rymill - whose owners were all on their way to a week together at Anne Willan’s château in Burgundy so a holiday rather than commercial atmosphere prevailed. But it was the wines themselves that shone most brightly – especially those from the stunning 2000 vintage (great in Coonawarra, much less so in Barossa). Good quality Coonawarra Cabernet sings out with all the confidence of a wine made from vines grown in just the right place for them.
The wines seemed so different from the ubiquitous Australian brands. There was a real core of fruit and interest, no excess ripeness or sweetness, and such acidity and tannin as there was seemed well integrated, although all of them would have had some extra acid added to the fermentation vat and probably about half of them would also have had their natural tannin content boosted by added tannin (for anti-oxidant as well as structural reasons). Doug Bowen told me that from the cool 2002 vintage onwards he was dispensing with the first, softest 10 per cent of juice from the mechanically harvested fruit and that this practice seems more effective than adding tannin.
So underpopulated is Coonawarra that mechanical pruning as well as mechanical harvesting is the norm and the Bowens boast “all vines are individually hand pruned”. Brian Croser of Petaluma goes one better. Both his vineyards, the Evans Family vineyard in the heart of the terra rossa strip and the hotly contested Sharefarmers planting on the northern fringe of Coonawarra are not just hand pruned but hand picked. There’s posh.
His Petaluma Coonawarra 1990, tasted last July, still has a long way to go but Bowen’s 1993 Shiraz was looking lovely last month – much more vital and fresh than many a Shiraz from a hotter climate. A range of Jim Barry’s The Armagh, this Clare Valley family company’s top bottling of Shiraz, back to 1985, also shown recently in London, was pretty impressive however, with the 1990 so complex and beguiling it was virtually impossible to spit out.
But perhaps the most eloquent testament to bottle ageing Australian wine in evidence in London last month was a range of wines from Best’s in that cool part of Victoria known traditionally as Great Western, and now called Grampians for some reason. Viv Thompson of Best’s was persuaded to clear a little cellar space by putting some of his mature vintages on the market. Best’s Great Western Bin O Shiraz 1981 is, amazingly, not yet mature but is absolutely delicious with its skein of excitingly rich fruit, and the 1983 with its thick, exotic licorice character is a marvel too. Cachet Wines of Hull are currently selling them to the trade and expect to see them in the likes of Harvey Nichols, Handford and Robersons wine stores in London for about £65 a bottle by December. Best’s Great Western Chardonnay 1991 was another wonder, subtle and savoury, with very much more life in it than most 1991 white burgundies. The expected retail price for this is £35 and I am thinking of buying it for a daughter born in that year who is, like others of her vintage, rather short of drinkable souvenirs of 1991 from Europe.
Next time you reach for a £4.99 Chardonnay labelled South Eastern Australia, be sure you realise that it is Australia’s Piat d’Or, and that Australia does produce the odd classed growth claret too.
A dozen Australians worth cellaring
Balgownie Estate Shiraz 2001 Bendigo
£12 Wineracks, D Byrne, Raeburn, Constantine Stores
Bowen Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2001 Coonawarra
£13.99 from The Australian Wine Club 0800 856 2004 (2000 sold out)
Brokenwood, Forest Edge Chardonnay 2002 Orange
£13-£15 Moriarty Vintners, Noel Young Wines, Liberty Wines
Clarendon Hills Brookman Syrah 2001 McLaren Vale
£55 House of Townend of Hull 01482 586582, The Vineyard of Dorking 01306 876828, Cellar Door of Overton 01256 770397, Peake Wine Associates of Fareham 01329 822733
Clonakilla Shiraz/Viognier 2003 Canberra District
£30-32 Bennetts Fine Wines, Noel Young Wines, Liberty Wines
Cullen, Mangan Malbec/Petit Verdot/Malbec 2003 MargaretRiver
£18-£20 Bennetts Fine Wines, Noel Young Wines, Liberty Wines
Cullen, Diana Madeline Cabernet/Merlot 2001 MargaretRiver
£30-£32 Andrew Chapman Fine Wines, Bennetts Fine Wines, Moriarty Vintners, Noel Young Wines, Liberty Wines, Villeneuve Wines
D’Arenberg, The Derelict Vineyard 2002 McLaren Vale
£12 Bibendum of London NW1
Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 2003 ClareValley
£15 Harvey Nichols, Lay & Wheeler, Reid Wines, Handford Wine, Oz Wines, Vin du Van, Bennetts Fine Wines, Fortnum & Mason, D Byrne, Veritas Wines, Nidderdale Fine Wine,
Philglas & Swiggot, TurvilleValley Wines
Hollick Ravenswood Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 Coonawarra
£10-£11 Abbey Wines of Scotland 01896 823224, Averys of Bristol 01275 811100, Bacchus Fine Wines of Olney 01234 711140, Great Grog, of Edinburgh 0131 662 4777, Independent Wines of Guernsey 01481 234440, Kevin Parsons Wines of Cork 00353 21 437 3237, Buy the Case of Norwich 08701 240075,
Edward Sheldon, of Shipston on Stour 01608 661409, Wimbledon Wine Cellars 020 8540 9979
Mitolo, Serpico Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 McLaren Vale
£28-30 Liberty Wines
Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 Coonawarra
£10.29 Majestic, Oddbins, Sainsbury’s