Clayfield Black Label Shiraz 2002

“Go to town on this one.”

So said Simon Clayfield as he gave me this bottle during a recent visit to the Grampians. We had just finished tasting through his range and, of the 2006 Shiraz, he remarked the spice had receded, but would be back. As an example of what it might become, he suggested I try the 2002 wine, noting it is drinking well and showing plenty of spice character.

He wasn’t wrong. This is essential Grampians Shiraz, a regional style that appeals to me very much. Of course, quality matters even in the context of an attractive style, though it can be more difficult to sort through. Spotting a diamond in the rough is easy; sifting through wines that you like right off the bat for their collective flavour profile necessitates a closer look to stratify quality.

This wine, in any case, is top shelf. The spice notes here — in fact the aroma profile in general — is both regional and quite transcendent of its origins, being utterly integrated and complex in its intense exoticism. There’s an enveloping blanket of spice and pepper, akin to a fine curry of the highest order, a multitude of ingredients fusing into a single wall of finely detailed fragrance. Great wines taste of themselves first and foremost.

Notable is the oak character, which is perfectly matched in character to the aroma profile, bringing a cedar influence up to, but stopping some way short of, the spicy fruit.

In the mouth, what’s immediately striking is a burst of fresh plum fruit atop what devolves into a cascade of aged, sweet leather, more spice and a well integrated structure. The high toned flavours are almost overwhelming in their intensity and persistence, and might threaten to unbalance the wine were it not for a firm line of plum underlining the whole. While the mid-palate shows the greatest concentration of spice, the after palate reveals a liquerous expression of plum-like fruit, bringing a sense of harmony to the flavour components and a curiously fresh resolution to the overall profile.

This wine was an interesting counterpoint to the 05 Castagna Un Segreto tasted immediately prior to it. I’d characterise the Castagna as in many ways a baroque wine; sinewy, complex, full of intertwining themes that echo and complement each other, but with a slightly hard aesthetic that tilts away from sensuality at times. This, by contrast, is like a Debussy tone poem; its face is atmospheric, its mood emotional, its construction crystalline. Fucking beautiful.

Clayfield Wines
Price: $NA
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Clayfield Wines

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.

Grampians Estate Rutherford Sparkling Shiraz 2005

I shared this with colleagues over dinner on Monday evening, so my recollections of the moment are as much social as vinous. Still, this wine went down easily and accompanied our Indian meal rather well. 

An extremely vigorous mousse, almost as aggressive as Diet Coke when poured into a fresh glass. As an aside, are there any more wonderful sights in wine than sparkling Shiraz as it fizzes and foams on pouring? There’s something gloriously vulgar about the purple mousse, profoundly unnatural yet appealing. It reminds me of Christmas, somehow. But back to the wine; a nose that seems even-tempered, recalling a still wine more than a sparkling one. It’s blackberried and plummed in equal measure, all sprinkled with dark spice.
The palate shows me why some of the best sparkling Shiraz wines come from the Grampians, home of the style and long renowned for its elegant, medium bodied Shiraz-based table wines. Sparkling red wines, especially at the low end, can tend towards too much sweetness, with a rough structure and obvious fruit. This, by contrast, showcases its moderate body and relatively subtle effervescence, creating an impression of elegance and style rather than skirt-raising good times. A nice, lively spritz on entry, followed by a middle palate that shows great balance between savoury spice and fruit sweetness, between spritz and linearity. It’s all quite restrained, really, almost quiet, which only serves to highlight the tasty, if simple, flavour profile. The whisper of a middle palate surges again through the after palate and finish.
I wouldn’t call it a great wine, but the elegance of its palate weight and structure really impresses, and turns what can be a neon style into something subtle and alluring.

Grampians Estate
Price: $A45
Closure: Crown seal
Source: Retail

Seppelt Grampians Chardonnay 2008

Moyston, in the Grampians GI, is renowned as the birthplace of Aussie Rules, so it seems fitting on this Grand Final evening, as Cats supporters all over the country (including my family in Melbourne – hi Trav!) celebrate a hard fought win, that I open something with a connection — albeit a ridiculously tenuous one — to the game. 

Interesting wine this one – there’s no great intensity on the nose or palate, but it’s made within a style that seems pitched above its station, and that makes it worthy of closer attention. It’s tight and controlled, with delicate white stonefruit and a funky, cottage-cheese astringency on the nose. Some prickly minerality too; indeed, there’s no shortage of things to note in the aroma profile, even if the whole feels like it’s underachieving. This reminds me a little of Seppelt’s Jaluka Chardonnay without the same level of fruit impact and certainly with less oak (not a bad thing). 
The palate shows more prickly minerality, and I wonder whether there isn’t a bit of sulphur in there too, contributing a savoury note and some pleasant funkiness. The fruit itself seems delicate, floral, a bit dilute perhaps. The after palate has the greatest presence, with a peak of fruit flavour and an appealing roundness of mouthfeel. A soft, gently fading finish that is deceptively long.
If the style is a bit aspirational with respect to the fruit, at least it makes for a thought-provoking experience. It’s not a great wine in any respect, yet it has held my attention through the evening and continues to deliver interest with each sip. An artist in the making, perhaps. Good value.

Price: $A18
Closure: Stelvin

Mount Langi Ghiran Cliff Edge Pinot Gris 2007

I can’t find a region marked on the label, but the Mount Langi Ghiran website suggests grapes for the 2008 version are Grampians in origin, so I’ll presume the same applies here. If I’m right, this is the first Pinot Gris from the Grampians I have tried. And hey, it’s bloody good, better than a swag of local (and imported) expressions of this grape I’ve tasted in the past. 

There’s some definite age on the nose, very attractive in fact, with a sense of delicate caramel overlaying still-vibrant pear fruit. There are some savoury complexities too, a little funky and certainly very interesting. Overall, expressive, flavoursome and shapely, which is not always the case with the variety, and certainly welcome news to this taster.
Oh, I should stop writing as if I’m drinking this Gris under duress, as if somehow the only value it has is its defiance of the plebeian tendencies of the variety — quite simply, this is a very tasty wine, and one I’m very pleased to be consuming right now. On the palate, a sophisticated mouthfeel that is equal parts zingy acid, phenolic texture and luxurious slipperiness. Really well judged. Flavours are of more caramel, pear, perhaps peachier stonefruit too, plus attractive dessert-like spice. Quite complex, akin to a reasonably worked Chardonnay in this respect, yet quaffable too. Dies a bit on the after palate and finish, but that just serves to prompt another mouthful, so all is forgiven.
A very convincing expression of this variety. 

Mount Langi Ghiran
Price: $A21.85
Closure: Stelvin

Mount Langi Ghiran Langi Shiraz 1999

I’ve been really impressed with the various Grampians Shirazes tasted of late – consistency of style, distinctiveness of character, at all price points. No wonder it is such a renowned region for this variety, though arguably lower in profile than it deserves. Swings and roundabouts, though; as attention shifts to cooler climate expressions of Shiraz, the role of regions like the Grampians may end up being disproportionately significant.

There’s more than a hint of Gimblett Gravels Syrah in this wine’s nose, though here the aroma is not so aggressively spiced/floral as some from Hawkes Bay. Still, there’s definitely a shake of potpourri within this complex aroma profile of pepper, blueberries and mushroom. Although it’s almost ten years old, it remains strikingly primary, with only some mushroom or leather notes to betray almost ten years of bottle age. I can only imagine it as a young wine. Overall, very aromatic, rich and exotic. 
In the mouth, an intense punch of fruit flavour. Again surprisingly primary, this wine is resolutely alive on the tongue, an impression to which all its elements contribute. The fruit is dark and concentrated, and frankly inseparable from the array of spice notes also present. The acid is quite firm, though certainly not dominant, ditto the tannins; there’s some of the clean flow of an older red wine, but it’s early days. What I like most here is an easygoing, almost casual, elegance. This isn’t some obsessive study in high style (though it’s extremely stylish). Rather, it drapes effortlessly and hence gives off a vibe of natural vitality. All of which adds up to a wine that is all quality but that is so easy to drink it’s almost quaffable. The finish is especially long and fine, laden with spice and hints of cedar oak. 
A delicious, benchmark Shiraz that is just starting to show some positive signs of age. Along with the 2004 Clayfield, this would be my favourite amongst recently tasted Grampians Shiraz wines.

Mount Langi Ghiran
Price: $A61.75
Closure: Cork

Best's Great Western Bin No 0 Shiraz 2004

This is building really well in the glass. It started simple and lacking in depth, but a very few minutes’ swirling yields excellent development of the aroma. Juicy yellow plum flesh, vibrant spice and a note that is half way to turned earth; that’s quite a reductive description, though, because it smells very coherent with good complexity, not easily separable into individual notes. It is perhaps brighter than some of the other Grampians Shiraz wines I have been drinking lately. 

In the mouth, the fruit becomes deeper in profile, with a rich dark plum note the centre around which spice, earth, coffee and other goodies revolve. Good impact on entry, with a strong burst of texture hitting the tongue along with intense fruit flavour that builds nicely. Assertive tannins take over somewhat on the middle palate, and mask to an extent the fruit, which becomes increasingly savoury as the wine sits in the glass. They are the kind of tannins that start off luxuriously chocolatey and rich, before crossing the line to become aggressively dry. Very fine and flavoursome, though. Really good drive through the after palate to a finish that struggles a bit against all the tannins. The whole is medium bodied and, at times, I thought I could detect some alcohol heat, but this was a fleeting rather than consistent impression.
This is flavoursome and impressive, though in the mouth there isn’t elegance so much as the tangle of limbs associated with a fashion model in training. Should fill out, soften and gain ease in time but, as it is, not ready for its close up.

Best’s Wines
Price: $A55.09
Closure: Cork

Best's Great Western Cabernet Sauvignon 2000

Wines that prompt me to respond on a level other than the blandly objective are what I hope for each time I open a bottle. This anticipation is always heightened when I taste an older wine. After all, we cellar wines in the hope they will improve and reach the point of maximum pleasure. When writing about such wines, and to paraphrase (or perhaps misuse) Edward Said, I think it’s appropriate to communicate a “sense of the pleasure taken in having tried at least to meet the [wine] on some other level than the ruthlessly evaluative or the flatteringly appreciative.”

What of this bottle, then? It’s an old wine in all the best ways, though it does remind me of why they are such an acquired taste. There are very few hooks here, nothing obvious on which to hang one’s discernment. Indeed, the nose is delicate and hushed, lightweight really, smelling as much like an abandoned hope chest as a Cabernet. Everything is hinted at; old cedar wood, a wisp of vanilla, watercolour red fruit and light spice. It’s an aroma that only makes sense when you step back and understand its subtle flirtatiousness. Incredibly elegant, if not massively complex.

The palate does not speak in quite such muted tones. At first, an impression of some youth, mostly due to drying tannins that fade a little as the wine gets some air. What they leave behind is a rather beguiling flavour profile whose delicacy reminds me of a good Pinot Noir. It’s quite seamless: red fruits and vanilla ice cream at first, turning slowly to a more savoury expression reminiscent of orange peel as much as berries, moving then to a cedar-centred finish with just a twinge of “old wine” sweetness right at the back of the mouth. A strange set of descriptors perhaps, but totally convincing to me. There’s still a bit of velvet texture on the after palate, so it’s not yet at the stage where it flows in the crystalline manner of fresh water, but it’s not far off.

There’s nothing outstanding about this wine in conventional terms. It’s not ultra intense, nor dense, nor complex. But it’s absolutely worthwhile as a balanced expression of aged Great Western Cabernet Sauvignon, no more nor less. I’m enjoying it a great deal.

Best’s Wines
Price: $A35.15
Closure: Cork

Best's Great Western Riesling 2007

A nose that shows some development, with typically honeyed, toasty, almost kerosene-like aromas. There’s also a thrust of powdery minerality, savoury and strident, perhaps slightly sulphurous, pushing up from below. What little citrus fruit there is sits delicately within this mix, more floral than fleshy in character. As an overall aroma profile, I found it initially cumbersome and loud, but have warmed considerably to its charms through the evening.

The palate is totally consistent with the nose, with some bottle age sitting alongside assertive bath salt-like flavours. On entry, rough acidity makes a rambunctious first impression, before fruit and mineral flavours take over. The fruit is quite full, edging towards an interesting rockmelon note, all the while maintaining satisfying generosity and good focus. I thought at first there was some residual sugar here, but it seems dry, just ripe and buxom. The aged flavours are, to me, most interesting. Sweet honey is slinking its way across the palate in a subtle, elegant way, and there’s enough softening of acidity on the after palate to suggest a happy transformation may well be in store.
Funny wine, this one. It presents a noisy flavour profile, full of elements that are close to clashing with each other, yet the whole comes together and is deliciously drinkable. I know that’s a highly subjective judgement, and I should note the other half did not like this at all. But it ticks a lot of boxes for me: distinctiveness, magnetism, food-friendliness (it stood up to roast pork quite well). To be sure, it’s not an elegant wine, but it’s very fun and, noting the manner in which it is developing now, I suspect it will be quite sensational in five years’ time.

Best’s Wines
Price: $A20.89
Closure: Stelvin

Best's Great Western Bin No 1 Shiraz 2006

Jeremy over at Wine Will Eat Itself recently blogged about terroir and (amongst other things) its relationship to quality. I’m inclined to think that a sense of place contributes interest quite apart from objective notions of quality and that, indeed, the two can be quite separate. This wine is a real live example, albeit on a regional scale. 

Utterly regional on the nose, with exotic spices overlaying darkly-fruited aromas and some vanilla oak. It’s quite straightforward and lacks the complexity that might elevate it beyond simply being correct. However, if you like Great Western Shiraz, it will be like coming home.
Very much more of the same in the mouth. Lots of flavour from the word go, with ripe plums and blackberries the key fruit characters, along with tantalising spice and balanced oak. Medium bodied, the middle palate is especially luscious, showing the greatest level of flavour density and a velvet texture. The acid and tannin seem very well balanced and provide a nice framework within which flavours can move over the tongue. For all that, there’s a blocky or blurry character  that prevents it from feeling truly sophisticated. And, despite the rich flavour profile, it’s not the last word in intensity, which leaves me wanting more.
Impressive typicité, then, without rising to an exalted level of quality.

Best’s Wines
Price: $A22.80
Closure: Stelvin