De Iuliis Steven Vineyard Shiraz 2009

This has to be one of the best 2009 Hunter Valley Shirazes I’ve tasted so far.

It’s a charming vintage, incidentally, bringing to a close ten dramatic years in the Hunter. There have been several memorable vintages for reds – 2003 for its drought-driven concentration, 2005 and 2007 for their balanced power, and now 2009, which seems to exemplify the sort of medium bodied, supple elegance that I associate with the region’s Shiraz style in its most classical form.

The nose is complex and clean, hitting notes as varied as cranberries, grilled meat, sweet earth, and soft oak. While it’s absolutely typical of the region, what separates it from a merely correct wine is a sense of depth and detail, combined with a distinctiveness to the fruit character. It’s a nose to dive into and explore, providing new perspectives the longer one stays with it.

The palate really takes things up a notch, again absolutely striking and crystal clear. What’s quite sensational here is the articulation of flavours on the palate; each component lands cleanly on the tongue and transitions to the next without any jarring breaks or unseemly peaks and troughs. Dense red fruit with a crisp edge, a sort of green juiciness that’s hard to place but remarkably fresh, black pepper, subtle oak. Structure is firm, as one would expect of a young wine like this, sparkling acid adding freshness and abundant tannins providing plenty of textural interest.

Of all the fine qualities of this wine, what has stayed with me most since tasting it is the character of the fruit. It has the sort of subtle distinctiveness that some producers might be tempted to obscure in a blend but which, here, stands out for its beautiful imperfection. It’s clearly the product of a single site, for better or worse, and we should thank De Iuliis for letting it shine alone.

De Iuliis
Price: $A40
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Irvine Grand Merlot 1996

This smells nothing like a fifteen year old Eden Valley Merlot. The absurdity of that statement will, of course, be evident to those with a knowledge of this wine’s place in the Australian wine canon – it’s probably the only Eden Valley Merlot you’d think about cellaring for anywhere near this long, so it in fact tastes exactly like what it is – an exceptionally good fifteen year old Eden Valley Merlot. And, on the basis of this tasting, it’s a shame there are so few such wines.

When there’s a level of quality present, as there is with this wine, one’s experience of drinking it is as much a matter of timing as anything else. So the question becomes: are the elements ideally balanced right now? There’s a gorgeous smack of sweet primary fruit of a red berry character, a firm overlay of tertiary aromas and a dark framework of firm, coffee-tinged oak. So far, so good.

The palate makes my own answer to the question clear; this is surely drinking at its peak. As fascinating and beautiful as fully resolved old red wines can be, I usually prefer them in a state of maximum complexity, displaying a mixture of old and young wine characters. This retains an abundance of primary fruit, sweet and luscious, alongside the old leather and mushroom notes that accumulate only through an extended afternoon nap in bottle. Though, structurally, this has enough grunt to go even further, I like that its tannins remain slightly aggressive and primary, because they provide a link to its origins, allowing me to experience several moments in time all at once. The wine is simultaneously young, middle aged and old, jumping between all of its dimensions with elegance and poise, accumulating pleasures with each leap.

Ultimately, what is most astonishing about this wine is its freshness, and how that freshness is utterly transportive. I see in this wine its formative moments — vigorous green vines collecting energy to fill the beautiful berries that in turn filled this bottle — and through it my own life and the sense of discovery that characterises adolescence but which fades into rarity as one grows older. Thank goodness for those things that help me to remember.

Price: $NA
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Waipara Hills Central Otago Pinot Noir 2009

How quickly some things change. Only a very few years ago, to buy decent Central Otago Pinot Noir would almost inevitably put a serious dent into one’s wallet. Last time I visited the region, a couple of years ago now, I was heartened to see a lot more reasonably priced wines, still genuine expressions of the style. This wine isn’t exactly bargain basement, but at under $30 retail it sits comfortably in the mid-price bracket.

And, quality-wise, it fits solidly in this bracket too. There’s nothing remarkable about this wine at all and, though that may sound like a put-down, it’s simply a reflection of what it is: an accessible expression of Central Otago Pinot. To the last point first, the wine is true to type. The nose has a characteristic density of fruit that I associate with the region, along with a slightly dirty texture that roughens the aroma profile and lends it an edge. Thyme, dark biscuitty oak, hints of spice. It’s all there in a glossy, slick package.

The palate is similarly slick, structure in particular well-judged. In the earlier days, the region’s Pinots were often criticised for a coarseness of structure and an excess of extract; while this does taste fairly extracted, I’m not seeing an unbalanced structure, acid and tannin being present but not terribly intrusive. This, combined with a full-flavoured fruit profile, creates a lazy plushness that is alternately seductive and bland. This is so easygoing that, at times, I wish for more angularity, more edge. The reality is, though, that one probably needs to step up a rung to get the kind of character this wine suggests but never quite delivers on. As it is, a genuine taste of the region for, in historical terms, not very much money.

Waipara Hills
Price: $A29.90
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Margan White Label Shiraz Mourvèdre 2009

The concept of a Hunter Valley Shiraz Mourvèdre is a bit tantalising; though classic partners in several regions both here and abroad, Shiraz of the Hunter persuasion, often characterised by earthiness, should be especially well-matched to the savouriness Mourvèdre can bring. Margan’s version is the only one I’m aware of, though, so clearly not a wine that sits in the mainstream.

And that’s a shame, because on the basis of this wine, the combination has more than conceptual merit. This is just all about meaty, earthy, sinewy ropes of dark flavour. The nose kicks off with an uncompromising aroma profile of Morello cherries, on which is piled a good helping of oak, sweet earth and cured meats. It’s a very compact aroma, fully expressive and quite complex, always remaining rather streamlined and to-the-point. Serious, even.

The palate is, in its own way, just as direct. Good impact on entry, a sharp hit of savoury red and black fruits registering first, followed on the middle palate by a slightly broader spread of glossy oak and textured dirt. Good intensity and, within the confines of a narrow line, impressive density. Structurally, this is still pretty raw, the acid in particular cutting a rough line through the palate; this should soften with time. I’ll also be interested to see if a hint of bitterness through the after palate also softens; the wine would improve if it did. A good lilt to the decently long finish.

Although this isn’t a wine of enormous scale, to my mind it’s a real statement of style and intent. I like it.

Price: $A35
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Mistletoe Reserve Chardonnay 2009

A $A40 Hunter Valley Chardonnay seeks impressive company – the Lake’s Folly and Tyrrell’s Vat 47 for starters. This, in the context of a wine region that, although it can claim an important place in the history of Australian Chardonnay, is hardly at the vanguard of fashion with the variety. I shouldn’t worry about such things, of course, as it’s all about the juice, right? Sure, but expectations have nonetheless been set.

First impressions are striking in that the nose and, in particular, palate seem very Semillon-ish. I know Semillon has been added to Hunter Chardonnay in years past and one might consider it a legitimate component of the regional style. Whether or not it’s been done here, I don’t know, but there’s a racy streak of textural acidity and the kind of strident citrus that are typical of Hunter Semillon. Once past this, the nose settles to a typically rich, peachy expression of Chardonnay, focus very much on fruit rather than the sort of oaky butterscotch that destroyed Chardonnay’s reputation back in the day. Still, this is hardly a delicate aroma profile, all ripe fruit and pungent, fresh herbs.

The palate is, if anything, even more fruit forward, flopping a big bowl of tinned peaches onto the tongue with a nice dollop of vanilla cream, all supported by a strong streak of acid. This is all rather boisterous and rather less delicate, and may be as polarising to drinkers as the ultra lean, Chablis-esque wines being produced further South. It’s not purely a stylistic question, though; while this is full of flavour, it does lack the sort of cohesion and controlled expression that the aforementioned regional icons usually display. It bounces between its buxom components with a wildness that isn’t entirely convincing.

A very big mouthful of Hunter Chardonnay.

Price: $A40
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Mud House The Woolshed Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2010

A single vineyard wine and, at $A29, occupying the upper end of the price range for this style. As single vineyard and smaller production Marlborough Sauvignon Blancs become more visible, it interests me to see what makers consider to be worth highlighting in terms of varietal character. Here, Mud House has gone for a fairly extreme end of the style, full of spiky passionfruit, nettles and aggression.

It’s not all harshness, though; far from it. The fruit character here is actually quite complex (once you get past the overt aromatics), with some nectarine flesh and citrus in amongst the more tropical notes. The edginess, too, is detailed and relatively complex, though one might argue these qualities don’t make up for what is a slightly unbalanced overall profile. There’s no mistaking this for any other style.

In the mouth, one’s first impression is of chalky, textured acid, rather breathtaking really, followed by a cascade of bright fruit notes and an edge of leaf. Interestingly, it’s not thin-tasting; there’s a bit of flesh to the flavours, round enough to combat the wine’s structural tendencies. Typically, it dies a bit on the after palate and finish. For my taste, this is de trop, pushing the harsher side of the style too far to the fore. Having said that, those looking for a vibrant, somewhat explosive wine will find it here in spades.

Mud House
Price: $A29
Closure: Cork
Source: Sample

Yelland & Papps Devote Greenock Shiraz 2009

This has been open a good couple of days and is just starting to sing. There was something fuzzy about it on opening, the clarity of its fruit obscured by structural static. Much better now, though.

On the nose, a spiced, clove-laced aroma of crushed blood plums and cedar, pine needles and marzipan. Opulent is going too far; mellifluous a better description for what is an easy, conversational aroma profile. I like the oak character in particular; it’s a mixture of nougat and nuts with hints of dark spice. Despite being more accessible after a couple of days, this remains a rustic nose, roughed up with dark notes and graced with a character of fruit that’s more tart-baked than freshly picked.

The palate is generous and solidly structured, with a level of density that remains high right down the line. That said, it’s not the most highly defined wine, flavours blurring into one another with pleasant casualness. So the overall impression is one of large scale ease, which is tremendously appealing if you set aside the sort of hard-edged detail that some wines pursue in the name of quality. No, this is old school Barossa, full of plum and fruit cake spice, well-balanced acid and soft tannins. The fruit may lack an ounce of freshness, but it’s barely a mark on the drinkability here.

A very good wine in its style.

Yelland & Papps
Price: $A32
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

2009 Scholium Project Midan al-Tahrir

Let’s start with the finish, shall we?

The thing is it has to be the truth to really go over, here. It can’t be a calculated crowd-pleaser, and it has to be the truth unslanted, unfortified. And maximally unironic.

– David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

If the experience of drinking a sip of this wine somehow included an involuntary oblivion, slyly eliding the first four-fifths of the line, it would have been enough. Heck, it would have been more than enough; the final, sneaking outro, the slouching into the past on little cat feet, soft scratch of nails against slate and clay, that alone’s far more interesting than most wines manage.

Let’s start with what this wine is not: it’s not identifiably varietal, it’s not faithful to a style (and in that sense is assuredly not a vin d’effort, it’s immoderately alcoholic, and it may well be de trop in terms of food pairings (although it might work wonders where pale, cool sherries would).

In the glass, the color’s nothing; it’s undifferentiated white wine product, visually unexceptional… but don’t be fooled. The nose is as subtly differentiated as a Rothko painting; subtle variations unfold towards the margins. The effect is akin to watching an Apichatpong Weerasethakul movie: in the center of the frame, a water buffalo escapes its post, slowly, leaving you to experience the beauty of the moment. This wine requires patience.

There are peaches, simple canned peaches, with a hint of the fresh linens worn by the cafeteria ladies who served you those peaches when you were in fourth grade. There are spices, refreshing and clean. They smell like Mom. There’s a wonderful, nutty oxidation, like a steel-green Chardonnay. The closest thing I’ve ever smelled to this was a sparkling Scheurebe from Saxony, all fresh bright fruits with a subversive edge of fresh sugar snap peas. If you’ve ever taken the time to watch – and I do mean really watch – a simple Dan Flavin sculpture of fluorescent tubes shimmering bright white light against a smooth concrete wall, you might have experienced something like the calm, hazy torpor this wine induces.

Alcohol, of which there is plenty, lends a fat happiness here, but thankfully relatively little heat. Not sweet, you can choose your own adventure here if you’re so inclined: this could be slightly oxidized Chardonnay, this could be from Franconia, this could be very fresh and clean. Peaches and cream, spice and almonds seem to be the main themes here; however, it’s only when it goes quiet that it really sings.

After the wine is gone – and I have no idea how the gods have arranged this – there’s that final, languid pause before unseen pleasures surprise you. If you’ve ever heard Evelyn Glennie play a note that she didn’t actually play, it’s something like that. This wine tastes like memory feels.

Scholium Project
Price: $24
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Thomas Sweetwater Shiraz 2009

One of the more unusual wine marketing campaigns of late is surely New Generation Hunter Valley. If its central image reminds one why mixing metaphors is generally a bad idea, I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment behind the campaign. The Hunter Valley, though often a favourite of wine writers (myself included), seems to suffer an image problem, especially outside of its core Sydney market. So any attempt at reinvigoration is welcome, because I suspect history will show we are in a very exciting period for the region, several producers doing great work with its classic Shiraz and Semillon styles, driven by a desire to see more deeply into vineyard and site. Of course, being such a fan of the region, I completely missed the recent New Generation tasting here in Brisbane, much to my disappointment. Thankfully, I have been able to obtain some samples that, I hope, will provide a good snapshot of the more interesting current releases.

First up, the Thomas Wines Sweetwater Shiraz.Thomas Wines is a producer whose wines I have enjoyed on many occasions, though I’ve never before tasted this label. Diving right in, the nose is strongly influenced by fresh red dirt and textured oak, notes that combine to create an impression of sharp savouriness. This isn’t a nose that seduces through plushness or promises of rich fruit flavour. Rather, it’s a wiry, angular aroma profile, suggestive of a hard-earned, lean muscularity. Fruit notes, such as they are present, are firmly in the red spectrum.

The palate is a burst of savoury freshness, acid playing the dominant structural role. On entry, a real tingle of fresh red berries, sliding sharply to a middle palate that introduces the nose’s dominant notes – earth and oak. Though oak is quite prominent, its character is terribly well judged, seeming both old and slick at the same time. Though the wine is light to medium bodied, intensity is very impressive, helped along in terms of impact by all that acid. The finish settles to a surprisingly soft, almost plush, flavour, expressed within a still-nervy framework of textural acid and loose-knit, coarse tannin. This might be really challenging to someone with a taste for Barossa Shiraz, but that’s precisely what I love about it.

This is all Hunter, a no compromise style that confidently expresses the region’s charms. Take it (preferably with a bit of bottle age) or leave it.

Thomas Wines
Price: $A35
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Chapel Hill The Chosen Home Block Shiraz 2009

Three 2009 Shirazes in one sitting – this, the same producer’s Road Block and the Tyrrell’s Old Block. Each wine completely different from the next, though with both Chapel Hill wines showing a distinct regional relationship, as one would hope.

Increasingly, I’m enjoying what I see as the nascent influence of Burgundy on Australian Shiraz, not of technique, but of philosophy. There are such marked differences between regional Shiraz styles, and indeed within regions and sub-regions, yet to my mind this remains territory that is barely mapped, and wines like this are a step along the path towards a deeper, finer, Burgundian understanding of how Australia does Shiraz. None of which would matter if the wines weren’t much good, so I’m pleased to note this is an excellent McLaren Vale Shiraz, in my opinion superior to the Road Block, though very different from it too. The vines here are a lot older, and without wanting to dive into that conversation, I will innocently note that this wine seems more resolved and complex, less brutal in flavour profile than the Road Block.

The nose is quite settled and full of adult savouriness; dusted cocoa powder, cherries, raspberries, complexity, medicine, comfort, dusty beauty. Who doesn’t love a farmer? This smells so genuine it completely bypasses a conversation about what it is and just exists in its vibrant, deeply understood way.

The palate is of medium weight and seamless complexity. There are coffee grounds and red fruits, expressed with significant intensity of flavour. What’s really nice here is the wine’s sense of quiet vitality; it just sings in the mouth with calm and a sense of reserve, never jumping around, nor sticking at any stage, nor cloying the palate. Modern McLaren Vale Shiraz can be bruising in style, but this wine’s weight and balance highlight what I love about an old school expression of the style: sheer drinkability.

These are wines that, in a sense, teach us all over again what wine is — a conduit for one of the most intense yet least scrutable forms of aesthetic delight.

Chapel Hill
Price: $A55
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Gift