Clonakilla Hilltops Shiraz 2003

Around six and a half years ago, I was preparing to leave for Australia. Me, I’m Californian, but I’d always wanted to visit; after many years of planning and saving, my partner and I decided to leave for Sydney in February 2001.A few weeks before we did, I met Julian for the first time: we had mutual friends in Sydney, and it was clear that we were both, well, obsessed with wine to a certain extent. I brought a couple of bottles of wine to Australia with me – Bonny Doon pinot gris, I believe – but schedules didn’t work out and we didn’t get a chance to meet in person, unfortunately.Six weeks later, I found myself in Melbourne. I’d already begun having a look around Australia’s wine regions – most memorable were Moorilla Estate (for verging on the ludicrous – think tacky art museum with an utterly trashed tasting room with no actual wine available to taste) as well as Golders Vineyard (probably the first pinot noir I’d ever had that verged on the transcendent). In the meantime, I’d arranged to get together with Julian the next week in Sydney, but of course I wanted to find some wine from my home state. You know, the usual home town pride, nothing special.According to Bonny Doon’s importer, there was one small shop in Melbourne that carried Le Cigare Volant, which was just about the only Californian wine I was able to find in town. Strangely enough, a wine sales rep noticed I was buying it and started to gossip about how Bonny Doon winemaker Randall Grahm had just been in town for some kind of international Shiraz symposium. He’d basically trashed the entire Australian wine industry for producing nothing but “raspberry motor oil” – but did concede that there was one winery in the entire country worth its while: Clonakilla.As luck would have it, Clonakilla isn’t far from the Hume Highway (that’s the road from Melbourne to Sydney for your Americans). It’s just a short detour of about half an hour and besides, I’d never really seen Canberra.I made the detour.An hour later, I realized that I’d probably just had one of the key experiences of my life. Clonakilla winemaker Tim Kirk heard our ridiculous Californian accents in their small tasting room and decided to come check it out; we wound up being invited to taste barrel samples, which had never happened before. I was incredibly grateful and embarrassed, really – it’s unusual for anyone to be that generous in my personal cultural experience, so I didn’t know how to comport myself. To thank Tim, I gave him the bottle of Le Cigare Volant that I’d bought in Melbourne; he gave me a bottle of port in return.The next morning, after breakfast, I bought the most expensive bottle of wine I’d ever bought in my life: a bottle of the Clonakilla shiraz viognier. It had been sold out at the winery, but one shop in Clonakilla still had some. It cost me US $28, which was unspeakably expensive. (It now sells for US $65, assuming anyone has any in stock, just six years later). Julian and I drank that bottle together; it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship (what can I say? As a Californian, I’m prone to inane movie quotes from time to time).Today’s a typical San Diego June day. It’s cool, mostly sunny. I headed into our tiny 1940s garage and grabbed the first thing I could find, and it was a Clonakilla wine. If there was ever proof that a winery’s generosity to a total stranger can pay dividends, it’s the simple fact that I’ve been a loyal customer ever since.In the glass, the wine is behaving French, not Australian. There are tiny particles clinging to the side of the glass; the color is noticeably young – surprising for a five year old wine – all crimson blacks and vibrancy. The nose is unspeakable; by that I meant that it shuts even the most loquacious wino up faster than anything short of La T√Ęche. It could be meatloaf. It could be an old leather bound book that fell behind your carrel in the library basement. It could be sheets that have been in the closet too long. It could be fresh blackberry jam with demerara sugar. It could be any number of things. It is, at any rate, fascinating.It appears to be a very young wine at times; at other times, aged notes sneak in. They don’t detract from the wine, not at all; instead, they serve as a gentle reminder that this wine, too, will fade at one point, so you’d best drink it now. There’s bright acidity, yet not too much; the initial attack fades quickly and you’re left with a sweetness supported by nicely resolved tannins, a certain smoothness, and a gentle finish that reminds me of croutons and pancetta. At other times, there are decidedly smoky notes, bacon fat, water crackers, and possibly even something like roses. I’ll stop now; I’m sure you get the drift.In my room, it’s 2002 again and I’m standing outside in the Australian sun wondering how the hell this stuff exists. It’s a religious moment as I’ll ever have. I’m grateful to have a glass of this in front of me, I really am.ClonakillaPrice: US $17.99Closure: CorkDate tasted: June 2008

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