Rebirth of the Australian super-blend


This has been the year of Australian super-blends: new, high-profile, high-priced reds that hark back to an older period in this country’s vinous history rather than embracing modern trends. 

The first of these new wines, unveiled in May by venerable South Australian wine company Yalumba, was The Caley, a 2012 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz from various vineyards in the Barossa and Coonawarra. 

Yalumba already have a few well-regarded Cabernet/Shiraz blends in their portfolio – not least The Signature (AU$65/£37/US$50), a reliably superb, cellarworthy red wine first produced back in 1962 – but with The Caley, priced ambitiously at AU$350 a bottle, the company is making a bold statement about the status of the multi-region, multi-varietal Australian red blend.

Next out of the blocks was the Tom Cullity, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot from Vasse Felix in Margaret River, named after the Irish doctor from Perth who helped pioneer winemaking in the region when he planted the first commercial vineyard at Vasse Felix in 1967 (pictured below), and whose earliest reds were Cabernet/Malbec blends.

The 2013 Tom Cullity is sourced both from the original vines and from other sites across Vasse Felix’s estate vineyards, and while it’s hardly an unconventional blend, it does buck the current trend in Margaret River for limited-production, high-price reds, which tend to be single-site and mono-varietal – wines such as Vanya Cullen’s The Vanya Cabernet Sauvignon (AU$350), and Will Berliner’s Cloudburst Cabernet Sauvignon (AU$300).

And the third of these Australian super-reds …? All will be revealed in a couple of weeks, when one of the country’s leading producers launches a new hush-hush high-end wine that takes the idea of blending to an unusual extreme. (See Penfolds' new $3,000 baby.)

On one hand, these super-blends do seem a little incongruous.

Most producers at the pointy end of the Australian wine industry today consider single-varietal wines from single vineyards as the pinnacle of the vintner’s art – terroir-driven wines such as Oakridge’s precise and focused 864 Funder & Diamond Drive Block Chardonnay (AU$75) from a small patch of vines in a specific vineyard in a subregion of the Yarra Valley; or Steve Pannell’s DC Block Shiraz (AU$110) from 80-year-old vines at the heart of his Koomilya vineyard in McLaren Vale; or the Margaret River Cabernets mentioned above.

But on the other hand, the new super-blends are reviving – and revelling in – solid old Australian traditions. Indeed, you could argue that, historically at least, the blended wine is more authentically 'Australian' than a wine of place.

In the 1950s, when Max Schubert famously created Grange at Penfolds, it was common practice for winemakers to produce generic styles of red wine – called ‘Burgundy’, ‘Claret’ and ‘Hermitage’ – by blending grape varieties, regions and even vintages if they thought it would produce a better, more distinctive, more consistent result. That tradition lives on at Penfolds, of course (think Bin 389 Cabernet/Shiraz), and at other old wine companies such as Hardys.

Coincidentally, as I was putting this story together, winemaker Paul Lapsley of Accolade Wines (which owns a number of Australian brands including Hardys, Arras, Stonier and Houghton) sent me some photos of pages from a 1950s blend book he’d come across in the Hardys archive (top right). In it are details of just how multi-faceted these blends could be: the 1958 St Thomas Burgundy, for example, was an amalgam of ‘Claret’, ‘Hermitage’ and ‘Burgundy’ from as far afield as Stanley in the Clare Valley, Reynella on the outskirts of Adelaide, and Tulloch in the Hunter Valley – and the 6,000-gallon blend even included 1,000 gallons of Hunter ‘Dry Red’ from the previous vintage, 1957.

Well-cellared examples of these classic old blended wines are swooned over by Australian wine-lovers today – including, somewhat ironically, those wine-lovers who are the biggest champions of single-site and single varietal.

At one of the tastings held to launch The Caley in the Barossa earlier this year, Yalumba opened a rare bottle of their 1939 Claret. It was a blend of Cabernet and Shiraz grapes harvested before the start of the Second World War. And it was so ethereal and soulful that it almost brought a tear to the eye.

These new wines will also provide much drinking pleasure over many decades.

Yalumba, The Caley 2012 Barossa and Coonawarra
A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz from Yalumba’s top vineyards in Coonawarra and the Barossa.
Although it’s harmonious and seamless, it’s hard not to ‘see’ the Coonawarra component in the wine’s intense blackcurrant perfume and the Barossa component in its generosity of flavour and dark richness.
AU$350 / US$350 / NZ$350 / DKK2799 / €295

Vasse Felix, Tom Cullity 2013 Margaret River
Three-quarters of the blend is Cabernet Sauvignon with the rest made up of Malbec and a splash of Petit Verdot.
It’s a supremely elegant red wine, smelling of dusty bush track and tasting of little pippy forest berries, but the elegance is deceptive: there’s also plenty of fine, firm tannin bound up in here, ensuring that the wine will unfurl beautifully over time.
AU$165 / £95

Jancis writes I will be adding my tasting notes on these splendidly ambitious new wines before too long.