Sandstone Cellars III

First off, allow me to note that I did not pay full retail for this wine. A couple of years ago, I had to travel to San Angelo, Texas to do some work at a local hospital. It was cheaper to fly to Austin and drive, so I did; I passed Sandstone Cellars on the way over to San Angelo, thought it looked kinda interesting, got my work done there, and stopped in on the way back. I thought the wine was damned good and bought a bottle; leaving Mason, the town where the winery’s located, I checked my email and saw that they’d sent an email a few hours earlier, so I made a U-turn and headed back to the winery to chat a bit more. They offered the bottle at half price; I met them half way, and that’s the story here. So: I paid $30, which – now that I’ve finally opened the bottle – feels like I ripped them off for $10.

Right. First time I’ve had this wine, second Sandstone Cellars wine I’ve ever tasted. What’s it like?The first impression I get is of whatever you call the tea leaf equivalent of coffee grounds. If you make a pot of tea – and I’m thinking something malty like, say, Assam – and leave the used tea leaves aside, they tend to smell like this, especially if (say) someone’s made lavender Earl Grey out of them; think vanilla, orange blossoms, just a touch of smoke and cedary wood. It’s lovely, and it doesn’t remind me of anywhere else I can think of. Nice to see that the second bottle I’ve had from Mason County is as idiosyncratic as the first: both have been of uniformly high quality, and it seems that Don Pullum, the winemaker (do check out his Twitter feed if you haven’t), is definitely onto something here.

And how does it taste? First off, it’s tannic (still). Firm, dusty, blocky tannins a go go. It’s also nicely acidic; the overall mouthfeel doesn’t approach the silky smooth California profile I’m used to (think higher alcohol and a bit of residual sugar). Fruit’s here too, thankfully: more than anything, I taste Zinfandel, but the label tells me we’re mostly working with Mataro here; I don’t sense the Mataro particularly save for the smoky-floral notes on the nose. To me, this wine shows a real tension between the fruit, tannin, and acidity; although there’s plenty to love about the vanillin, cherry-blackberry fruit, it’s slightly attenuated by the acidity (think food wine). That being said, part of what makes this wine such a pleasure is its tension: it’s the vinuous equivalent of a tritone.

The finish… yes, Dorothy, there is a finish, and it’s very Bach: four part harmony all the way down. Sweet fruit, nervy acidity, lingering tannins, and spice, not staying in any one key too long before nervously jumping to the next.Sitting here thinking about this wine (and the people that made it), I find myself wondering if there’s a place in most folks’ wine cellars for this kind of thing. Looking at CellarTracker, for example, I see that there’s less than a dozen bottles of every wine they make represented on the Internet. They don’t ship to California, I couldn’t find a bottle in Dallas to save my life last year, and this kinda bothers me. Look, I know I’m something of a hipster when it comes to wine: I prefer the experimental over the tried-and-true, I’m always up for things I haven’t heard of from places I can’t pronounce, and novelty is more interesting to me than safety. Part of this is of course financial: unlike my Dad, I grew up in a world where first growth Bordeaux costs as much as a month’s rent. Much of my drinking has necessarily been local or obscure: if you can’t afford Pingus, might as well make the best of Bierzo.

Even more: as a Californian, I’ve always been especially open to things that are (strictly speaking) unique to my region and my cultural traditions. Field blends (‘mixed blacks’) for example: drinking something like that is a tangible link to the past I share with everyone else in this state, and I honestly believe that’s there no reason why that shouldn’t stand tall compared to other countries’ traditions (be it Hunter semillon or autochtonous Georgian grapes fermented in clay amphorae). And when I come across something like this wine, I really do get excited at the possibility that someone, a pioneer, may be discovering (crafting?) something new, something specifically Texan, something that a hundred years from now will be as well known as, say, California Zinfandel, something that’s universally recognized as Texan.If so, this a damn good start.

Sandstone Cellars
Price: $40
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Mike Press Shiraz 2010

The story of Mike Press Wines is atypical in many respects. After bursting onto the scene a few years ago with some great show results and a price point totally at odds with the quality of its wines, Mike Press has done what few wines lovers, in our collective cynicism, probably didn’t expect: he improved things even further. In my view, the last five years has seen a consistent refinement of the reds in particular, honing oak character while retaining excellent expression of fruit. Denoting a wine as “single vineyard” may seem pretentious at this price point, but it’s entirely justified, and one approaches these wines best by being thankful for their affordability and then forgetting cost altogether.

This wine has a balance of fruit and oak that wasn’t quite achieved a few years ago, but which now prompts a dense, concentrated aroma of brambles, brown spice, subtle vegetal notes and squished berries to waft from the glass. Inevitably in such a young wine, a couple of the elements aren’t fully integrated, but it’s impressively coherent nonetheless, especially in terms of the way the oak’s influence weaves into the fabric of the fruit, supporting and spicing it well.

The palate comes across as rich and full, quite fruit driven, but with a decent structural framework and a consequent sense of orderliness underlying the whole. Quite plush on entry, a tumble of very ripe plums and blackberries moves through to the middle palate. I like how clean the fruit is here, without being simple or in any way confected. On the after palate, well balanced acid and velvety tannins start to take over, adding texture to the mouthfeel and some welcome nerviness to the vibe. A decent finish, full of sweet tannins and vanilla oak flavours.

A really nice release of this wine, showing a fullness of fruit in particular that should be utterly crowd pleasing.

Mike Press
Price: $13-14
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Mitchell Harris Shiraz 2009

Unlike the unusual Sangiovese just reviewed, this wine represents a classic Pyrenees style and one that drinkers will approach with justifiably high expectations. As with all regions in the Western Victoria Zone, the Pyrenees seems to be both highly regarded and perennially underrated, the kind of place wine nerds go nuts over but one that seems to lack the profile of many other Australian regions, large and small. This is certainly a true example of the style, the aroma throwing typically rich, dark fruit and the characteristic note of eucalypt that polarises some. For me, it adds a rustic, slightly hard edge to the aroma profile that is neither positive nor particularly negative; it’s just regional. Here, it is augmented by some evident whole bunch fermentation, which meshes well with the greener aspects of the aroma. There’s a prickliness too that adds complexity and dimension, leading further down through more clean, liquid fruit to a base of well-balanced, straightforward oak. A dash of Viognier makes itself felt through a pretty lift of florals, not enough to corrupt the character of the wine but certainly noticeable.The palate is generous without being in any way outsize. Entry is superbly clean, a lovely dash of savoury berry fruit flooding the mouth and gaining complexity along the way. Sexy oak, eucalyptus, stalk, vanilla; it’s all very easy to drink without being simple or confected. The palate structure is relatively easygoing, cruising along nicely until late in the after palate, where a firmer skeleton of tannin finally emerges, lightly drying the mouth and adding textural interest. The finish is a tad hard right now, with what seems like stalk contributing a rawness to the mouthfeel.  This might benefit from a short rest in bottle — perhaps a year or two — to settle and lose its edge. Rather delicious wine. Mitchell Harris
Price: $A29.95
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Mitchell Harris Sangiovese 2010

Sangiovese is an interesting varietal in the Australian context. Early attempts tended towards Shirazification in style; whether this is a good or a bad thing probably depends on whether you feel adherence to Old World stylistic models represents the path to quality. As I back away from that particular can of worms, I will note that I have enjoyed the robust tannin structure and bright fruit character of many a Chianti, and wouldn’t say no to a few Australian Sangioveses that had these elements alongside whatever our local conditions might add.

Happily, this wine fits broadly within these ideas of style. The nose shows very bright red fruit, somewhat confected perhaps, but clean and varietal. There are some lightly reductive notes around the edges that, in my view, contribute positive complexity to the aroma profile, which would be otherwise a little simple. Oak, old-smelling and nougat-like in character, flits around the edges without ever intruding on a core of cherry fruit notes.

The palate is where this wine comes alive, quickly showcasing a tannin-driven structure that is pleasingly firm. Fruit first, though, which lands fast on entry and moves quickly through to the middle palate, all brightness and crunch. Structurally, this is where acid has a primary role, and it’s certainly bright, though not so much as to compete with tannin later in the line. Again, the fruit is a bit confected, creating a sense of simplicity of flavour. Body is light to medium, movement brisk, all befitting a wine that should be drunk with food rather than on its own.

I can imagine this going down a treat at lunchtime on the weekend, it’s that sort of casual, “throw it back” style. If some work were done to the fruit character of this wine to tame its brighter, simpler side, this would be even better.

Mitchell Harris
Price: $A24.95
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Wynns Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 2003

Trawling back through the Full Pour archives, I see I never wrote this up on release, which was rather remiss of me. This wine brought me back to Wynns Black Label, and I remember enjoying its generosity and correctness at the time. Tasting it again now, the impression remains one of correctness and regional character.

The nose is immediately varietal, showing oodles of the (to me) deliciously leafy side of Coonawarra Cabernet, if also a tad too much oak to be considered totally balanced at this point. Beyond this, a surge of clean cassis emerges through the aroma profile along with an edge of blackberries, edging past fully ripe into jammy territory. Not distractingly so, though; just enough to suggest a fairly generous interpretation of this regional style.

The palate resists outsize scale, instead remaining fairly linear. Flavour registers early on entry, dark fruits cascading over the tongue towards a mellifluous middle palate that sings briefly before fine, chalky tannins assert themselves. This isn’t even close to being a fully resolved wine, which befits the style but also means tannin freaks, like me, will still find plenty to enjoy here, even after several years of bottle age. The after palate continues in this structured vein, fruit compressed somewhat as a result, before a lengthy, oak-driven finish rounds off the line. Clean, sinewy, restrained; this is Cabernet very much in the classic mould, a hint of extra-ripe fruit the only question mark over its form.

Very, very good.

Price: $A30
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Lake's Folly Chardonnay 2010

I’m a huge fan of Hunter Chardonnay, enjoying the warm climate vibe the style brings while perversely getting off on how old fashioned they often are. Lake’s Folly Chardonnay must surely represent, along with Tyrrell’s Vat 47, the pinnacle of the style, so it’s with great anticipation that I approach the nouveau Lake’s Folly each year. Today’s the day for this one. Onwards with the tasting.

White and yellow peaches on the nose, returning to fuller form after the lean profile of the 2009. Some struck match around the edges, some minerality, all of which frames a buxom core of stonefruit flavour. What’s interesting is that, despite the fruit’s profile, there’s nothing excessive about the wine’s aroma. Rather, the impression is of power and substance, and moreover of sophistication. It’s complex, this one, a range of nutty, savoury aromas swarming around all that fruit. This is a Chardonnay that is stylistically sure of itself, and which seeks to maximise the potential of the style rather than give up to its more obvious side.

In the mouth, the style of it is fully justified by a cascade of fruit, power and complexity, with as many savoury dimensions as there are sweet. Weight is the first thing to register, a pleasing mouthful of taut, quite muscular flavour moving into the mouth on entry and opening the middle palate right up. Structure is firm and fine, already well integrated and matched to the wine’s weighty dimensions. An intense hit of brown spice lands on the after palate, before a strikingly clean, fruit-driven finish brings lengthy satisfaction.

I love the style of this wine, and this is an especially fine example in the fuller mode.

Lake’s Folly
Price: $A55
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Retail

Clonakilla Riesling 2002

The observant amongst you will have realised that I’ve been tasting a fair few wines from my cellar of late. I retrieved four dozen wines a few weeks ago, mostly things that are either not worth cellaring or that are due to be retasted. As an aside, I do love getting wine out of storage. There’s a whole ritual to it: browsing my little collection, constructing a cart, waiting for the delivery to arrive. Good friends have told me I need to get out more.

I last tasted this in 2008 and found it interesting but somewhat incoherent, as if going through an unfortunate stage in its development. The bottle I’m tasting tonight, by contrast, is quite well developed, expressing what seems to be the full extent of its potential as an aged wine. I was a little worried on pulling the cork, as I’ve seen stoppers in better condition, but the nose doesn’t seem excessively oxidised or otherwise compromised. It does, however, show a wide range of aromas, from honey and grilled nuts to biscuit and a bit of lemon curd. A small kerosene note quickly blows off, leaving the residual aroma clean and correct.

The palate really shows how developed this wine is. At its core, a thrust of full throttle tertiary sweetness runs right down the line, colouring the entire flavour profile with fullness and attack. There’s a multitude of other notes, most centred on nuts, butter and sweet lemon curd components. Acid remains a tad coarse, something this wine may never escape, but the structure is well integrated and supportive of the wine’s flow, while being prominent enough to keep the whole fresh and lively.

This, for me, is drinking at an ideal point as far as aged Riesling is concerned. It is showing a full spectrum of aged notes while retaining a firmness of structure and significant primary fruit. Maximum complexity, good bones, lots going on. If this bottle is representative, I’d say this wine is right in the zone.

Price: $A25
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Seppelt Jaluka Chardonnay 2005

Another chapter in my ongoing mini-fascination with this wine, which on release seemed so full of potential yet reluctant to convey pleasure. Two years ago, it had begun to show signs of relaxation, and in August 2011 it continues to slowly unwind, release its secrets and allow me in.

Tertiary characters haven’t advanced markedly in the intervening time, a light caramel note remaining the key indicator of age. What has changed, though, is the grip this wine exerts on its sensual dimensions. From an uncoercible stranglehold to more expressive muscularity, this is finally starting to celebrate its gorgeous primary fruit: grapefruit, white peach and fresh herbs.

The palate simply explodes with intense fruit flavour, remarkably fresh in character and precise in expression. It amazes me that a mid-priced Australian Chardonnay could taste so new at five years of age; this has a vibrancy many wines would covet on release. It’s the crispness of iced drinks in summer, cool beads of condensation on a glass, the tingle of salt and lime taken together. Indeed, it feels odd to be drinking this wine on a Saturday evening. In its current state, this would ideally be enjoyed well chilled in the pursuit of staying cool on a hot day. Except that framing it as pure refreshment is hopelessly reductive; it has qualities that point clearly towards the high end. The palate is now quite full without losing focus, oak is well integrated (though still abundant), the finish long and pure.

This is just getting started.

Price: $A30
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Retail

Clonakilla Hilltops Shiraz 2002

The lottery of old wine. Chris tasted this a couple of years ago and, it appears, was unlucky enough to encounter a Brett-affected bottle. I can see a very low level of the taint here too, but I’m not finding it in any way distracting, which leaves all the beautiful, interesting aspects of the wine noted by Chris firmly intact. This is a fascinating wine.

Despite being a $20 wine that’s coming up for ten years of age, and one that was pretty approachable on release as well, this doesn’t strike me as overly developed. It’s showing bottle age, for sure, but the nose remains thick with dark, savoury fruit in addition to rich spice and cedar oak. It’s such a dense aroma, luxurious and almost tactile in its detail and texture.

The palate’s most impressive dimension is definitely its mouthful and structure, which Chris describes well in his note and which strikes me as hitting an ideal balance between shape and flow. Some wines articulate cleanly but tend towards nerviness, others sacrifice precision for easy movement; this just gets it right. Flavours are dark and full, combining black berry fruits with tobacco, brown spice, quite glossy oak and a range of aged notes that bubble to the surface on the middle and after palates. The finish resonates with spice and oak, and goes on for a good long time.

Excellent drinking.

Price: $NA
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail