Napa Family Vineyards Napa Valley Finest Selection Reserve Merlot 2004

Pencil shavings, olive, and strawberries dominate the nose of this wine; it’s not too shabby, but it never really seems to evolve much beyond fruitiness with an oak undertone. It’s kind of like Kool-Aid mixed with wood chips.

In the mouth, this wine seems frankly way too sweet for a Napa merlot – and it’s not sucrosité, but residual sugar I think I’m tasting here. Ewww, gross – there’s barely any acidity here at all, and the overall effect is thoroughly unpleasant. However, the tannins are fairly interesting: finely grained and almost Australian in style, they seem flown in from a much better wine. Sadly, though, the bulk of the wine just hangs there limply in the mouth, waiting for you to swallow so that you can move on to something else. In terms of flavor, there’s some indeterminate milk chocolate but that’s about it, and there’s not much in the way of length here either: once the wine’s gone, the flavor’s gone. It’s all very disappointing. I imagine this is precisely the wine Miles was talking about in Sideways – and I probably should have heeded his advice.

Napa Family Vineyards [but really fresh&easy]
Price: US $10.99
Closure: Diam
Date tasted: November 2007

Panarroz 2005

Pine-Sol, turpentine, and shoe leather came to mind when I first smelled this wine, but then I realized that no one wants to drink anything that smells like the toilets at summer camp. Therefore, let me revise that to pine needles, dirt, rich Corinthian leather, and dark red raspberries. There’s also a whiff of smoke, tar, and black cherry there as well – it’s a fairly complex nose for a wine this cheap. With some air, it started to tend towards cedar shavings (hamster cage?) and blueberry – very impressive, really.

In the mouth, it’s rich, meaty, and chunky, with a prominent streak of savory acidity at the back of it all. What does it taste like? Well, that’s hard to say: it’s a little bit like lavender and meatloaf, somehow. On the finish, you’re treated to firm, drying tannins and then a soft, gentle trail-off of sweet bacon and chocolate. It’s all very appetizing and thank God it’s Friday night because I’m probably just going to stay at home and polish off the bottle with the neighbors.

Price: US $6.99
Closure: Cheesy plastic cork
Date tasted: November 2007

Marc Brédif Vouvray 2005

The nose is best described as elusive, but tantalisingly so. Flavours of powder, flint, light tropical fruit, herbs and musk seem to emerge from the glass with unexpected intensity and then disappear again just as suddenly; the overall effect is quite beguiling.

The entry is not flavourful so much as textural. It’s slippery and surprisingly viscous and leads to a medium bodied palate that is again surprisingly intense. There are herbal edges to the same light tropical fruits that showed on the nose, plus a whack of acidity that introduces a mineral aspect to the flavour profile. It also counterbalances the residual sugar that emerges on the middle palate. Really nicely judged in this respect. Flavour density builds towards the after palate, and the wine’s finish shows very clean, lingeringly sweet fruit and minerality in equal measure.

I’m actually having this wine as an aperitif, and regret that I don’t have something like a nice liver pate to go with it. This is a lovely wine for those who enjoy a more subtle white wine experience – perhaps those who can appreciate a younger Hunter Semillon might enjoy this wine. To me, there’s a sophistication in this wine’s reticence and elusiveness. Balance and complexity in spades. Very nice indeed.

Marc Brédif
Price: $A30
Closure: Cork
Date tasted: November 2007

Boro Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2007

In the glass, this wine seems nearly as clear as water – it’s very, very pale, almost the color of weak chamomile tea. On the nose, there’s lots of passionfruit that revealed itself after warming up some in the glass; colder, it smelled more steely, minerally. It’s uncannily liked canned lilikoi iced tea from Hawaii, and I mean that in the best possible way: it gets you salivating just be smelling it. There’s also a sort of chalky undertone to the smell, which is most appealing.

In the mouth, the wine isn’t at all thin – it shows good, albeit slightly soft acidity with the all important US-palate pleasing slight residual sugar that takes the edge off just a bit. Texturally, it’s reasonably fat with a nice sense of viscosity – it feels rich and full. Smelling it again, there’s a faint smokiness there as well.

The finish is pleasant, if perhaps slightly simple: a rich fruitiness, a hint of smoke, and then it’s gone after persisting on the tongue for just a bit. Lovely stuff, and excellent value. Think Cloudy Bay at a third the price (and slightly less huge). On the other hand, the instant this warmed up, it tasted terrible, unlike Cloudy Bay – if you do buy this, make sure to chill it down beforehand.

Boro Hills [but really fresh&easy]
Price: US $9.99
Closure: Stelvin
Date tasted: November 2007

Stoneleigh Sauvignon Blanc 2007

As blatant as they can sometimes be, I do rather like a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc now and then. It’s like blue cheese or test cricket — if you’re in the mood, nothing else will do. This one popped up at the lunch table the other day and, as it was a hot day, I dived in.

Whether you like this wine will depend on how you like your Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Some lean quite far towards the piercingly aromatic end of the spectrum, whereas others exist in a more easygoing space, more tropical fruit and less cat’s piss. This one definitely sits at the the easygoing end, with obvious and slightly cloying aromas of tropical fruit, passionfruit, etc. Pretty typical in style, although not showing much of the minerality that can add extra complexity to these wines.

The palate continues the same theme, with softer acidity than some, and a sweetness to the fruit that you will either enjoy or find just vulgar (alas, I fall into the latter camp). The sweetness is such that I wondered whether there’s a degree of residual sugar hanging about. As well made as it is, I found this wine a bit cloying on the palate in particular, a factor amplified by this wine’s length (it does linger). On the plus side, it’s pretty crowd pleasing and is full of flavour.

Maybe I wasn’t in the mood after all.

Price: $A13
Closure: Stelvin
Date tasted: November 2007

Picardy Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon Cabernet Franc 2005

53% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Cabernet Franc. Australian Merlots are a curious beast – perhaps a little like Shiraz, they can tend to be chameleon-like, morphing with region and idea of style. This one is from Pemberton in Western Australia.

The nose immediately establishes the wine’s savoury flavour profile. Genuine complexity draws one back to smell repeatedly, with savoury black fruits, leafiness and cigar box oak flavours intermingling and constantly shifting around. The linear entry opens out to a palate of medium to full body, with full yet not terribly sweet black fruit sitting alongside the same mix of leafy/green olive notes and relatively prominent oak as seen on the nose. Flavours are quite dense and of reasonable intensity. The wine’s structure at this stage is assertive, both from an acid and tannin perspective. The tannins are quite interesting in character, being relatively abundant, ripe, and moderately (but not overly) fine. They have a nice rustic edge, in fact. The wine shows a nice line with no dips through the palate, and finishes with good length.

The wine responded extremely well to a strongly flavoured pasta dish, the structure calming a little and the power of the fruit shining through. This is a very good wine with, I think, good potential for improvement through bottle age. Blindingly good value.

Price: $A20
Closure: Cork
Date tasted: November 2007

Cape Barren Native Goose McLaren Vale Shiraz 2005

A slightly dicey restaurant wine list last night led to the selection of this wine, its merit being primarily that we hadn’t tasted it before. McLaren Vale, Shiraz, 2005: so far so good.

Fruit-forward, slightly thin aromas greet the nose with enthusiasm, but there’s something a bit icky and confected about the red fruit. I would describe it as an easy, commercial style. Not much oak influence. The palate is medium bodied and quite linear, introducing more confected, bright red fruits to the middle palate and, less successfully, some rather harsh, disjointed acid. This continues on through the after palate to a finish that is marked by a few, slightly coarse and uneven tannins.

We had this wine with pizza and it went quite well, although the acidity remained a bit rough and ready despite the food. It’s just not a very interesting wine, frankly, although there’s nothing especially wrong with it either. I can’t detect much regionality in its flavour profile, which for me is a particular shame as I’m fond of the dark chocolate and earth overtones often found in McLaren Vale Shiraz. Drink if you don’t want to be challenged.

Cape Barren
Price: $A20
Closure: Stelvin
Date tasted: November 2007

Chambers Rosewood Vineyard Grand Muscat NV

I love our fortified wines — in particular, Muscats and Tokays from North-Eastern Victoria. So when I saw this on offer, it was hard to resist. Material in this wine dates back to the 1950s. Consumed in lieu of dessert.

A brilliant deep brown, sparkling yet dense and rich-looking. The nose captured my attention for several minutes before I moved on to tasting this wine, so surprising is its mix of aged characters and fresh vitality. It’s one of the ironies of this type of wine that these older, concentrated versions simultaneously present a greater degree of both aged complexity and freshness than their younger, simpler and often more cloying siblings. In the case of the Chambers, a lovely floral note, slightly tea-like, but more exotically fragrant, sat prominently alongside intense aromas of dried fruits, plum pudding, etc. So balanced, such elegance and singularity.

In the mouth, the first thing that strikes one is the mouthfeel. The wine is so viscous that it doesn’t immediately unfold in the mouth upon entry. Instead, the wine seems to exist as a bubble for a moment or two, before collapsing and flooding the middle palate with flavour. The first sip I had of this wine shocked my palate with its concentrated flavour, and had the effect of drawing saliva from my mouth, in the manner of eating something tasty when very hungry. Amazingly, and as with the nose, the wine shows a floral dimension that adds lightness to the palate. This is aided by a surprisingly firm acid backbone which drives the wine’s line and helps it to be, ultimately, quite cleansing. The finish just goes on and on.

This is probably one of the best fortifieds I’ve ever tasted and, although it’s not cheap, it’s one of the best value wines I can think of. If you wanted to finish off a special dinner party in style, you could do a lot worse than pull out a bottle of this.

Price: $A60 (375ml)
Closure: Cork
Date tasted: November 2007

Tyrrell's Vat 9 Shiraz 2006

I loved the previous vintage of this wine, so it was with some anticipation that I opened this bottle, the current vintage.

Tyrrell’s has really been hitting its straps on the red wine front of late, with some sensational ’03s, ’05s and even some good ones from the problematic 2004 vintage (I really enjoyed the 2004 Vat 5 NVC Shiraz). This wine struck me as rather different to the 2005. Whilst my last bottle of ’05 was extravagantly fragrant, this one was a little more reserved.

Actually, on opening, it was a bit stinky (sulfur?), and it took a few minutes of swirling to help this blow off and reveal clean, slightly stewy red, plum-like fruit with savoury spices. The wine’s entry promises greater things, with its smooth and elegant delivery of the wine’s middle palate. It is here that the wine finally starts to sing, the same slightly odd plummy fruit gaining in intensity and sweetness. The palate is medium bodied and quite dense in flavour, mouthfilling without being heavy at all. The wine’s acidity also contributes some freshness in the mouth and a nice sourness to the flavour. For my taste, the acidity is a bit too relaxed in character, even though it’s quite “present” in quantity. Tannins are fine and not especially dominant, so it is primarily acid that is left to carry the wine through an after palate and finish of satisfying length.

This is a lovely wine of elegant structure and generous flavour, but for me there’s a slight question mark over the stewed character of the fruit. I prefer the 2005 on the basis of this bottle. I will, however, follow the evolution of this wine with interest. I note it continued to gain in intensity and complexity as we worked our way through the bottle, and went very well with our dinner of steak and vegetables.

Price: $A32 (early release, cellar door)
Closure: Cork
Date tasted: November 2007

clos Clare Riesling 2002

First of all, this wine should definitely not be served straight from the refrigerator. Give it half an hour to warm up, and only then give it a try.

This is one of the most elusive wines I’ve ever tasted: the nose had all kinds of things to smell, and almost none of them are anything I could name off of the top of my head. At first I figured I’d just cheat and say it smelled of kerosene or petrol or diesel or whatever, but it really didn’t: it briefly smelled like a fresh peach, and then suddenly like dulce de membrillo, and then it smelled like some unidentifiable white flowers, and then it moved on to something vaguely like what mesquite smells like after the rain in the Sonoran desert… but by then it had skipped along to something else vaguely like stale oregano. Who knows? Let’s just say that there was a lot going on in there, and without a gas spectrometer or an afternoon with Le nez du vin, this is the best I can offer you.

I was hoping it would settle down some in the mouth to give my powers of association a rest, but alas, no such luck. First off: the mouthfeel is sublime. There’s a lovely fatness to it that isn’t built on sugar; there’s also striking acidity that nicely balances everything. Is there any residual sugar? If there is, there’s very little: this is a classic Australian style. Upon reflection, the usual hints of lime peel offered themselves up as well, and the finish was sleek and simultaneously angular as they come, all sophistication and elegance. This is definitely what you Aussies would call moreish: my partner and I found ourselves in a competition to see who could get more of the wine more quickly before the bottle was finished (never an easy task, that fine balance between enjoying it leisurely while also peering over to the other side of the couch just in case their glass starts emptying itself before you have a chance to refill your own).

Overall, wines like these just don’t come around very often. Nearly six years after harvest, it still seems relatively fresh and I’d venture to guess it’s got a few useful years left, although I’ll probably leave one bottle to try again in 2022 just for the hell of it.

clos Clare
Price: US $14 (current vintage is 2006 at US $18)
Closure: Stelvin
Date tasted: November 2007

I’ve never been to find reliable information about who makes these wines, but my best guess is Jeffrey Grosset may have prior to 2006, and now it’s someone by the name of O’Leary Walker.

One additional thing I’ve been thinking about this evening harks back to an interesting series of confrontations in wine school – the professor had been educated in Burgundy, although the school (and nearly all the students) was very much located in Washington state. I was docked a point or two on an examination for suggesting that one could enjoy a glass of sherry before dinner, and a few weeks prior to that I had been told that I was quite wrong to suggest that a Clare riesling could perhaps age successfully for five or maybe even eight years; her French education had apparently insisted that dry Riesling must inevitably be consumed within a year or two lest it fall apart, especially with the high acidity Clare rieslings tend to display. Both times I wanted simply to say “well, you know, I’ve had a few dinners in Spain and very much enjoyed a copita before my meal, and I’ve had a few bottles of aged Clare riesling (a fairly old Taylors St Andrews came to mind immediately) and loved it – so why are you privileging your French university education over my personal experience and other nations’ traditions?” Of course I didn’t, which is how I probably escaped without failing the course. It’s still frustrating, though.