The University of California at Davis, thanks to Professor Carole Meredith’s work with DNA research, figured out where Zinfandel comes from a few years ago. Given that Zinfandel is very much our national grape, there’s been quite a lot of work done here to better understand the plant material that we have in the state. Given that the grape itself is so incredibly obscure (there are a few dozen vines in Croatia that presumably gave birth to all that we have here), vintners ganged up a decade or two ago to gather all of the different sorts of Zinfandel that were planted around the state in hopes of better understanding if certain sports or clones have better characteristics than other. That’s where this wine comes into play: this wine was made from the selection of different Zinfandel vines from all over California that are planted at a UC research station in the Napa Valley (more information is available over at ZAP).Every year, a different winemaker takes the harvested grapes and makes wine from them. It’s an interesting conceit, and I don’t know of anything else like this in the state. 2003 was Paul Draper’s year, so this is in essence a Ridge wine made from Heritage Vineyard grapes.Five years on from harvest, it’s still deep purple and strictly jammy in appearance. The nose is striking, with a very typically Californian Zinfandel outrageously fruity nose, surprisingly undershot with a sort of dusty, musty note. Together, what you get is – to me, at least – what a Californian red table wine should smell like: a distinctly odd mix of the Californian sun mixed with the restraint of traditional French winemaking. You could not possibly mistake this for a Bordeaux: this is Zin.Strangely, the first thing you notice when you take a sip are the tannins: they’re surprisingly strong, anchoring the sense of the wine with fair seriousness. There’s a nearly green sourness that sneaks in towards the finish, which is fairly lengthy and peters out in a brambly black cherry orchard somewhere on the coast, with a faint hint of iodine and salt air. It’s peculiar, definitely not a Ridge wine proper, but there’s still that same familiar sense of restraint in letting the fruit speak for itself here. There’s also very much a dark chocolate, bittered oaky note which I’m assuming isn’t actually (American?) oak, but who knows?This one acre of vines were gathered from fifteen California counties; this is the Grand Unification Zinfandel of my homeland.Heritage Vineyard Project with Paul Draper
Splashing into the glass, this is purple beyond belief. It’s as if Harold of purple crayon fame (or any toddler) imagined a glass of wine and drew it with the brightest crayon in the box.It smells like a caricature of “fine wine” as well, having much more in common with Bohemian college dreams of sneaking into an Tuscan hayloft with the farmer’s daughter (or the strapping young man who drives the tractor, your tastes depending). It’s a lush, ripe sort of thing; you think of flowers heavy with nectar delivered days earlier, drooping on your sideboard. And yet it’s also fresh, vibrant, filled with the smell of a verdant California spring.The fullness took me aback, followed by a full city roast coffee finish with extremely subdued tannins. The flavors are fairly straightforward, sure, but a lot of delicious foods are beautiful in their simplicity. To drink this wine is to throw your mind back to the harvest, when the earth’s fullness and abundance gave itself up just as leaves began falling dead to the ground; it’s a quick, jolting reminder to enjoy what you have before the frost.Drink this with your mistress, preferably with black Moroccan olives and just-baked bread.Ridge
There’s a lot of energy in some quarters around “emerging” grape varieties. At first glance, this is intriguing because it gives us a view into what happens when you combine, say, Sangiovese with, say, the McLaren Vale. But how to judge the result? One’s expectations of character and potential quality from Sangiovese-based wines will in most cases have been formed by Italian examples. This might cloud one’s view not only of an individual wine’s quality, but of the potential for this combination and variety and region.
If we can break from the dictates of established styles, though, experimentation with different varieties could hold the key to understanding our potential as a wine producing nation. Indeed, it may expose combinations of region and variety that we’re simply not aware of today, and so illuminate a potential level of quality that surpasses our current achievements. And yet, for all this unexplored territory, I think a view of wine in terms of grape variety is fundamentally limiting. I’m aware that much of the conversation in Australia for a while now has been around varietal definition and, in the context of raising the quality bar across the industry, something like varietal correctness isn’t a bad lever to pull. But once you have a Cabernet that, we all agree, tastes broadly like Cabernet, then what?
I’ve seen the concept of field blends enter the marketing literature of late. Although field blends have been around for a very long time, it’s interesting to consider why, all of a sudden, they are gaining a perceived currency both here and abroad (especially in the USA) with wine consumers. My take is they form part of a broader trend towards “hands off” winemaking, where terroir is perceived to drive the character and quality of a wine, not the winemaker (of course this is a gross simplification). In the context of this conversation, though, field blends are especially relevant because, by their nature, they emphasise the vineyard above varietal composition. Even if it were possible to calculate the percentage of each variety in a true field blend, it would be quite beside the point. Wine is a product of its vineyard, full stop.
There are local precedents. The Lake’s Folly Cabernet, a long-established Hunter Valley label, eschews a purist view of varietal definition in the pursuit of a clearly defined regional style. This wine is a veritable fruit salad of grapes, yet year after year tastes resolutely of the Hunter Valley and, crucially, of itself. It is also a wine of the highest quality. That it tends to divide drinkers only adds, in my view, to its worth. Real personality, after all, always provokes a reaction.
The Unison Selection from the Gimblett Gravels sub-region of Hawkes Bay is a contemporary Kiwi example of terroir-driven style at its most distinctive. Deliberately reticent about its precise varietal composition, its makers prefer to emphasise their flagship wine’s integrated flavour profile above its constituent components. Here’s a wine that blends several varieties found in Hawkes Bay to achieve something that tastes purer than any single variety might.
And rightly so; varietal “correctness” can be the great leveller, but it can also detract from an inherently unique regional influence. Who, really, cares the exact percentage of each variety that goes into a favourite Bordeaux or Châteauneuf-du-Pape? The enduring character in these wines doesn’t come from rigid ideas around varietal blending (which, indeed, continue to change over time) but from broadly understood notions of style. I love the Unison Selection and Lake’s Folly Cabernet because they, first and foremost, identify with their respective regions, and use whatever mix of grapes is required to achieve their stylistic goals.
Interestingly, this domaine is owned and run by an American, Blair Pethel. According to Ross Duke’s catalogue notes, Mr Pethel was formerly a journalist before turning his passion for wine into a career. None of this has anything to do with his wine (although it may explain the Stelvin cap); still, it’s always nice see someone follow their dreams.
Frankly, the nose on this puppy is generic. It smells like, well, a standard issue Washington state red wine – that is, tending towards mentholated cassis, fairly bright, fairly rich, and inviting. It’s almost as if the ghost of the now-pulled Welch’s grape juice vineyards are hiding on the periphery; it’s unchallenging but delicious.In the mouth, it’s more interesting than you’d expect. Typically Washingtonian high and tight acidity predominates at first, falling away to reveal a rich, plummy core of bright black olives and blackcurrant fruitiness. The supporting oak is tastefully done, giving a solid, unexceptional tannic base that sets the wine off nicely; it’s all somehow reminiscent of a McVitie’s dark chocolate covered digestive biscuit. As Borat would say: I LIKE!!!Serve this wine with something huge and meaty – venison stew would work wonders. It’s also probably fantastic with Stilton or pecan pie.Sagelands
“Wine producers of the Old World have had hundreds of years to figure out how each variety best expresses itself. Therefore, we should look to these wines and to Old World approaches for stylistic inspiration in our local product.”
“Australia as a wine producing nation is definitively New World. We should focus on authentically Australian wines that aren’t afraid to violate Old World notions of regionality and style.”
Not direct quotes, mind you, but distillations of two especially interesting threads in the ongoing local wine conversation. Given they represent somewhat contradictory directions, it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider them in more detail.
The spectre of our cultural cringe hovers over both trains of thought. Just as we imbue the phrase “European-designed” with positive associations, I see a tendency to benchmark Old World wines and (tacitly) position them as inherently superior to local wines. For example, it’s quite common to see a wine described in terms of its similarity to an Old World style. Ostensibly, this comparison indicates a stylistic similarity, and can be quite useful. What’s perhaps less overt in these comparisons, but I would argue very much present nonetheless, is an implicit mark of quality by association conferred on the local wine. When one reads “Burgundy-like,” this suggests not only a general style but in many cases a level of quality too.
So, if we believe best wines are, say, French, then surely we should aim to emulate them? As a consumer, I’ll never argue with a drive to higher quality. What’s less clear to me is whether the quality equation implies a stylistic relationship between Australian wines and those from the Old World. Do we align ourselves with the first conversation, which suggests a single path to ultimate quality? My instinct tells me this approach introduces constraints that are fundamentally artificial to our wines. I just don’t see the point in Australian wine trying to be something it’s not. And yet, when I consider the second conversation, I can’t believe lessons learned over hundreds of years deserve to be branded irrelevant. So I find myself sitting, somewhat ambivalently, between these two positions.
With your indulgence, I’d like to post a series of loosely connected thoughts on this topic over the next little while. Feedback and (dis)agreement encouraged. To be clear, my perspective is that of an inquisitive enthusiast, not someone with deep technical expertise or even especially close industry ties. I write from a position of personal taste and limited means.
As I worked to open the bottle – unsurprisingly, the cork was a little bit soft and broke in two – my partner mentioned that not only was I a high school freshman when this wine was made, but that Nelson Mandela was still in prison as well. Yeah, that’s pretty old. The nose is fairly delicate, definitely old, and not one hundred percent attractive; it smells a bit too musty, and there’s a hint of horehound, or medicinal camphor, or something along those lines; I can’t say for sure. To be honest, it smells like a Tandy leather crafts shop from the 1970s; it reminds me of making leather wallets at summer camp ages ago. In terms of color it’s rather faded, but still fairly dark.In the mouth, it seemed corked for just a moment, but it’s more along the lines of unaired hatboxes than true TCA taint. Still, the fruit is still good, there’s some sweetness left hanging in there, and a lovely savor to the finish. There are very, very fine tannins here as well, giving it a lovely polish. In terms of what it tastes like I’m at a loss: I suppose that this is what a fine aged claret tastes like, and I’m afraid I may not be quite British enough to know how to describe this. There’s a lovely acidity supporting gentle red fruits awash in mellow tannin, and the experience is almost more of a sensual one than a tast-centered one. It’s plush, surprisingly so.At nearly a quarter century old, this wine is in remarkably good shape. It’s also fantastic value.Meerlust
This, along with its Springvale sibling, is a lesson in terroir, Australian-style. There’s never any mistaking one wine for the other, with the Polish Hill often considered a more appropriate ageing style (and, perhaps by implication, the “better” wine).
It’s been over a year since I moved to San Diego, and the pile of wine bottles in the bedroom doesn’t seem to be getting any smaller, even though I’ve done my best to drink, drain, or distribute it. Ah well. This bottle was set aside long ago for a charity event called Have a Cigare that never materialized: a vertical tasting of Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant and related wines for the Microsoft employee charity auction; sadly, no one bid on the opportunity to taste a dozen Cigares, so it wound up gathering dust under my bed for a year. Anyhow!Still fairly youthful in the glass – visually, it looks like a medium-weight Zinfandel – this has a decidedly aged nose, the tell-tale stink of time overriding much of anything else. To be honest, it smells an awful lot like a greasy hamburger (and I don’t mean that pejoratively): very meaty, a little bit smoky, and kind of fatty. It’s kind of like a cherry cough drop that fell into the bacon fat jar next to your grandmother’s stove, actually.Once you drink some, there’s an immediate hit of cherry followed by fairly thick, dusty tannins with high, nearly Italianate acidity. The complexity is surprising, tending towards bright red fruits with a supporting hint of porty chocolate; all in all, it strikes me as weirdly Italian (I know, I know).God only knows what’s in this or how much it cost; I suppose I’d have to go find the packing slip from the wine club shipment to find out, but right now all I want to do is finish this bottle and order a pizza.Bonny Doon
There’s a good vibe around 2008 Clare Rieslings. Indeed, the Grosset newsletter suggests this is the best Watervale since 2002, which is music to my ears.