I sometimes become intellectually lazy if immersed in something for too long. Perhaps it’s a universal experience or simply a personal failing; in any case, one of the great pleasures of any long term endeavour is to reach a tipping point of challenge and stimulation where jaded complacency gives way to renewed enthusiasm.
I mention this not simply in passing; this afternoon, I spent several wonderful hours tasting wines with Simon Clayfield. The wines were his current (and some previous) releases under the Clayfield Wines label. I’ve written about Clayfield Wines before and confess to have enjoyed them beyond reasonable measure; to me, these are wines of immense integrity and appeal.
The process of tasting them at length with their maker was in some respects daunting. Clearly — and unsurprisingly, given I am but an enthusiastic amateur — the sophistication of his palate far surpasses my own, so it was as much a learning experience as anything else. What was fascinating, though, was to understand the common thread that holds these wines together, and how this might relate to a certain philosophy of wine.
What they are not is superficially uniform. Variation between vintages and labels is striking, so much so that it was a challenge, at first, to relate the wines to one another in a meaningful way. They do in fact relate, and quite profoundly, but there isn’t anything so obvious as, say, showy oak or a put-upon style on which to hang one’s tasting hat. What unifies this portfolio, and perhaps Mr Clayfield’s approach in general, is a pragmatic response to vintage variation and site character combined with an uncompromising attitude towards balance.
These overriding principles make sense of a portfolio of Grampians Shiraz wines whose alcohol levels range from about 13% to 15.8% abv (in the case of the 2008 Thomas Wills Shiraz) and whose styles move from elegantly spicy and medium bodied to full-throttle, dense and quite tannic. Indeed, once finished tasting, I felt as if I’d had a glimpse into the region’s full potential, which is an impressive achievement within a single portfolio of wines.
The 2005 Black Label wine prompted me to suggest perceptible alcohol isn’t necessarily a fault. This is certainly out of step with the current vogue for elegant, medium bodied styles, but I reiterate my feelings here and provide the 2008 Massif and 2008 Thomas Wills wines as ample evidence in support of this position. Both show some alcohol on the nose and palate (keeping in mind our tasting conditions included a 42 degree Summer’s day), yet remain coherent expressions of Shiraz that are refreshing and food-friendly. Most importantly, these wines show balance, in the sense that no one element stands out to the detriment of the others.
The 2008 Massif Shiraz ($A25) changed enormously in the glass. Starting quite big, with some port-like aromas, I found it initially challenging, as I rarely enjoy a fortified character in red table wines. As it cooled a little, the wine freshened considerably, evolving its aromas through several stages to end at ripe plum, cherry pips and olive. The palate is luscious and rich, not at all overripe, with fabulously smooth tannins and a sense of expressive, accessible fun. This is the closest Clayfield Wines comes to an early drinking wine, in the sense that it is open and generous, though showing a sense of complexity that other wines at this price point would do well to emulate.
The 2008 Thomas Wills ($A35) is a curious wine, conceptually. The intent here is to reference an outmoded red wine style of the sort that might have been drunk a hundred years ago, perhaps before striding out to face a renowned fast bowler in a game of cricket. I described it while tasting as an “anti-fashion” wine, and it stands alongside wines such as those from Wendouree in terms of its independence from the prevailing vinous norms.
To the wine itself, this is altogether tighter than the Massif, showing more complex aromas of rich aniseed and almonds alongside robust dark fruits. As with all the wines I tasted, mouthfeel is striking, here showing a round, textured presence through the middle palate and beautifully fine, silt-like tannins that melt onto the back of the tongue. This is a beautiful wine, coiled and tight for now, with a depth of fruit and power only hinted at. The alcohol is absolutely in balance within the context of this style, seeming to enhance flavours on both nose and palate, similarly to how salt might bring out the inherent flavours in a particular dish.
Oak handling on both these wines is quite different, yet very sympathetically done in both cases. This positive oak treatment is in line with my notes for previous Clayfield wines and clearly a strong point for this maker.
The 2006 Black Label Shiraz ($A45), which is the premium label, is all potential at the moment. It’s very aromatic, with almonds and other high toned aromas sitting atop powerful, but restive, spice and plum fruit. The dots may not be connected right now, but they are all there and it seems what is needed is simply time. The palate shows a remarkably elegant flavour profile, with the sort of seamlessness one always finds in the best wines. Classic Grampians concentrated plum fruit and spice, shored up by an abundance of chalk-like tannins. This will be fabulous.
According to the most recent newsletter, the 2004 Massif Shiraz is currently available as a museum release at $A40. A riotously expressive nose, with brown spices (cardamom-like), a good whiff of iodine, subtle but glossy cedar oak and some char siu, all atop regional fruit in the fresh plum spectrum. We spent some time discussing the iodine character, which is really distinctive and reminiscent of the seaside and Betadine swabs in turn. The palate is light to medium bodied and, structurally, there’s still a lot here. Definitely one for those who enjoy classically styled, lighter wines, it shows a sense of balance that is quite different from, say, the 2008 Massif.
The 2004 Massif comes from a single (non-Estate) vineyard on an East-facing slope, which is shaded in the afternoon and, hence, develops quite different flavour characteristics from sites that receive more sunlight late in the day. This is strikingly, almost blatantly, obvious in the wine. There’s a sense of honesty here; a transparent view into the fruit that isn’t so much about “minimal intervention” (whatever that means) but which is all about understanding the best expression of a particular site in a particular vintage, and working to highlight this character above all else. I feel with this wine I am tasting the vineyard and year, which is, after all, the point of great wine.
The 2001 Black Label Shiraz was a real treat for me, as it’s the first Clayfield wine I’ve tasted with evident age. On the strength of this, I’ll be ensuring I always leave a few aside each vintage. Initially, a big hit of ripe banana, which is apparently related to the particular yeast used. This blew off after a while, revealing the most floral aroma profile of all the wines tasted. It smells of classic Grampians Shiraz but also, lightly, of juicy green flowers and honeydew melon. It’s the freshness of watermelon skin and aloe vera, and it adds a fascinating dimension to this wine. A small percentage of Chardonnay may be a contributor here.
On the palate, there are some deliciously leathery aged characters just beginning to peep out alongside a structure showing hints of that wonderfully limpid quality of older red wines. It’s far from old, though, with masses of primary fruit and interest. The whole is very clean, and shows a sense of relaxation and ease that is quite beguiling. It reminded me a bit of the 2005 Black Label in its round, luxurious mouthfeel. This is a wine to make you feel smart if you drink it with dinner; casual elegance, effortless sophistication.
I felt humbled and somewhat demolished after tasting through the range. They are without exception excellent wines, all of which I would be happy (indeed fortunate) to have on my table. Yet their differences challenged me at first. I suppose that’s what happens when you begin to understand something more deeply. My experience of the Grampians until now has been mediated by some flagship wines that are distinctive and beautiful in their own right (Seppelt St Peters, Bests Bin 0, Langi, Clayfield Black Label), plus a smattering of lower priced labels with a similar, less amplified, regional character.
What the Clayfield wines gave me is a view into the fabric of the region, full of site and vintage variation, leading to wines of uniformly high interest but wonderfully diverse character and style. I felt I had zoomed in for a closer look, and the closer I came, the more there was to see. That’s a deeply exciting thing for a wine lover to feel, as it promises exploration and inexhaustible interest.
How nice, then, to have a guide like Simon Clayfield, who, quite apart from being a technically accomplished winemaker, imparts a sense of appropriateness to all the wines he touches. His is a different approach from the winemaker who imposes a certain character irrespective of what the season might be saying. There’s a celebration of diversity in the Clayfield portfolio, of responding to nature and a particular moment in time, seeking to bring out the best in each opportunity to make wine.