Ramblings: wines for sad times

We drink wine for all sorts of reasons. Sometimes, we drink to celebrate life. Champagne, usually. Other times, we share a special wine — perhaps a Cabernet that has been patiently cellared — to mark the reunion of great friends. A rarity, ideally unpronounceable, would nicely convene a gathering of wine wankers eager for novelty and each other’s fevered impressions. Indeed, I can think of a wine for most occasions, which is part of the drink’s pleasure.

Wines to accompany sadness, though, are in short supply. In such times, one might hit the bottle for its function rather than aesthetic. And fair enough; we’ve all done it. Haul out a fortified, then, for its unctuous caress and spirited comfort. Or swig an obscenely overripe red whose stressed flavours echo the self-destructive desperation with which one, in more private moments, might reach for a corkscrew.

Ah yes, now we’re getting somewhere! Dulling the senses, however, seems to me a missed opportunity. Surely my intrepid journey into the aesthetics of wine would be incomplete without at least trying to find a true depression wine match, ideally as satisfying in its own way as manzanilla sherry with sardines, or Cabernet with rump steak.

So last night, finding myself in a suitable mood for such exploration, I cast my eye around the study in a frantic yet stylish search for candidates. A young, unoaked Cabernet briefly looked promising, more as a competitor to my sadness than as a true companion. In a similar vein, my fucked-up student wine called out, and for a moment I wondered if its myriad technical faults have reached the point where they are now cancelling each other out.

Everywhere I looked, wines leapt forward only to quickly fall back into the reject pile. Giaconda Ergo Sum Shiraz? Tempting, but I couldn’t possibly have done it justice and, as a gift from Chris, I’d have felt worse the morning after for wasting it on my own self-indulgence. A sharp, sculpted Riesling usually hits the spot and seemed the responsible choice. After all, no-one actually gets hammered on Riesling. There’s something about such precision, though, that can steamroll we of a more obviously flawed humanity. Next! Bottle after bottle, I went through everything in my makeshift cellar and found nothing I could bear to open. I would have ruined the good wines, and the bad wines would have ruined me.

So I went to bed without so much as a sip of anything, and woke up the next day — today — with a clear head. Perhaps I found a suitable match after all.

Mount Langi Ghiran Nowhere Creek Vineyard Shiraz 2005

This producer seems to take a view of Grampians Shiraz that is, stylistically, larger in scale than most, much to the consternation of some of my wine writing colleagues (who shall remain nameless :)). I’ve tasted some delicious Langi wines that have aged a treat, and others that have fallen apart and lost their fruit after a relatively short time. Hard to generalise, then, about the effect of this stylistic intent. What’s certain is these wines can have great impact.

This wine is a good case in point. It’s a luscious, ripened style that is highly satisfying in its way. As I sip, though, I wonder whether there’s a suppression of regional character at play. I’m not familiar with this site’s wines, so it may well be a terroir thing as much as anything else. The nose is more cherry liqueur than fine plum, and there’s a hint of the alcoholic headiness that goes along with my liquerous descriptor. A hint of bottle age completes the dense, slightly blunt aroma profile.

The palate is where this wine’s compromises, as well as its strengths, play out most obviously. There’s no questioning the amount of flavour here; this is the sort of soft, generous red wine, full of chewy fruit and rich oak, that causes some drinkers to slump with pleasure. The middle palate is especially full, as the structure is relaxed enough to encourage spillage of the wine’s fruit across the tongue. There’s some bitterness on the after palate, though, and some heat intruding on the finish too. There’s also a stressed dimension to the minor spice notes in the flavour profile. It’s almost the flip side of all that richness, as if the fruit couldn’t quite be coaxed into such a full expression without rebelling in some way and losing the sense of elegance for which this region’s Shiraz is famed.

Not a bad wine by any means, but a polarising style for lovers of Western Victorian Shiraz.

Mount Langi Ghiran
Price: $A25
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Scarborough Blue Label Chardonnay 2009

Though just as generously flavoursome as its Yellow Label sibling, this wine is made in quite a different style, more aligned to the contemporary idiom. There’s no new oak, its fruit is crisp and fresh, its complexity apparently lees-derived with only partial malolactic fermentation.

The nose is crisp, flinty aromas overlaying white nectarine and some funk, possibly sulfurous in nature. Its impact is savoury and rather chiselled; this doesn’t present as an especially buxom style. But there’s a nice depth to the aroma that prevents it from being an exclusively high toned aroma profile.

The palate shows some richer fruit alongside a continuation of the nose’s savouriness. Entry is very flavoursome, an initially crisp mouthfeel becoming glossier and fuller towards the middle palate. A nice array of fruit flavours fans out here; there’s citrus and peach in equal measure, with just a hint of butterscotch. Mouthfeel is especially interesting, showing good texture and detail in a contradictorily soft package. A fresh herbal twang asserts through the after palate. The finish is sharp and lengthy.

An attractive style, well executed and priced.

Price: $A19
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Mike Press Shiraz 2009

It feels a while since I last tasted some of Mike Press’s wines. A quick search of Full Pour tells me I tasted the 2008 Shiraz in February of this year, but earlier vintages are more prominent in my deteriorating memory banks. I remember the splash made by the 2005 vintage wines, and bought a few myself. I’ve always been impressed by the easy styling of the red wines; at their best they convey a sense of sophistication that sits well outside their price points. Oak handling has historically been a slight sticking point for me, though I am pleased to see the oak flavours in this 2009 wine are much more to my taste.

Initially, there are some bright aromas that seem like left-overs from fermentation. These quickly blow off to show quite luscious red and black berry fruit, some sharp pepper and spice, plus lightly malty oak. The aroma profile tilts firmly towards liqueurous fruit, but there’s enough complexity to suggest some seriousness of intent. I suspect a few months in bottle will calm the slight edge here and bring each component together more naturally.

After a flavoursome entry, the palate is pleasingly savoury, taming any suggestion of fruity excess from the nose and placing dense berry flavours in a framework of spice, bright acid and powdery tannin. Don’t misunderstand me; there’s plenty of fruit, which fills the middle palate with satisfying generosity. It’s the structure that elevates this wine well beyond a quaffing style. I’d go so far as to say the structure places this wine in opposition to a quaffing style; I don’t feel this is ready to drink, and when it is, will show considerable elegance. For now, good texture  and a hint of minerality on the after palate, through to a nice finish that is nevertheless a bit compressed by tannin.

Ridiculously cheap for this level of quality.

Mike Press Wines
Price: $A12.50
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Gift

Ramblings: Western Victoria

Recently, I enjoyed a quick trip with fellow wine writer Andrew Graham through Western Victoria, focusing on two of the three wine regions therein. One day was spent in the Grampians and one in the Pyrenees. Henty will have to wait.

I’ve been mulling over this piece for a while and, in the meantime, Andrew has published a typically passionate account of the Grampians portion of our visit on his Australian Wine Review site. My own take centres on ideas of regional identity, both in terms of wine style and something less tangible – the feel of a region.

By feel I mean the human experience of being in that region, seeing vineyards, visiting producers and of course tasting wines. I suggest these things can be a part of a wine as much as the food one selects to accompany it, or the friends with whom one chooses to share it. Hence, understanding a vineyard or region can powerfully alter the way in which one sees the resultant wines. Not that these insights can ever make up for bad wine, but they fill in gaps – of intent, or circumstance, or personality. And that’s worth something.


We visited three very different producers in the Grampians: Mount Langi Ghiran, Clayfield Wines, and Best’s Wines.

Langi’s cellar door is the flashiest in the region, and this feels right given the unique site the vineyard occupies. The whole experience of driving to Langi is worth the visit, in fact, as it feels completely unlikely. I’ve long held there’s much beauty in the marginal, and this is a good example of what I mean.

The wines themselves, especially the reds, seem styled to reject the isolation of their provenance, and are ripe and robust. There’s also an interesting range of varietals, with quite a few Italians having been planted at the Nowhere Creek vineyard around the corner from the primary site. I thought the 2005 Langi Cabernet the most successful of the reds on tasting, and was especially impressed by the powerful, clean fruit running right down the core of the wine’s palate. The whites appealed to me more, though, especially the 2008 Cliff Edge Pinot Gris. Nice texture and generous flavour for the varietal.

It’s a shame the premiums weren’t on tasting. One doesn’t exactly end up there by accident, so it would have been nice to have had an opportunity to experience the full range.

Simon Clayfield’s operation is in many ways the opposite of Langi Ghiran, being boutique in scale and focused in range. I like Simon very much, so perhaps my view of his wines is shaped by my view of him as an engaging, highly opinionated vigneron. Certainly, his wines show a uniqueness that fascinates me because they are both strongly regional and quite different from those of many other producers in the region. Though consistently well made, with exceptional oak handling, his wines revel in vintage variation, moving from full-throttle styles like his 2008 Massif and Thomas Wills Shirazes to ultra-elegant interpretations like his 2006 Black Label, all of which we tasted at cellar door. I’m glad to report the 2005 Black Label continues to drink well, the spice having moved up a few notches since I last tried it. Simon also pulled out the 1999 Black Label for us to taste. This vintage was the first made under the Clayfield Wines label and is currently drinking at what surely must be its peak. Full of flavour, with plenty of decaying bottled aged complexity, and an array of spice notes that will be heaven to lovers of Western Victorian Shiraz. Just beautiful.

Best’s Wines was up next and turned out to be another special visit. Aside from tasting a rather large range of wines, we had the opportunity, thanks to the generosity of Jonathan Mogg, to take an extensive tour through the cellars and vineyards. I’m surely not the only wine nerd who feels a shiver when faced with very old vines, and Best’s, more than many other producers, offers a catalogue of such moments. I’ve already written up the 2006 Thomson’s Family Shiraz tasted on this visit, but the most special wine for me was a 1976 Pinot Meunier, in fabulous condition and drinking well. Amazingly, this wine developed over the course of a good couple of hours, gaining weight and fruit presence, while never losing the old red poise only bottle age can bring. Spectacular, and made more special by just having spent time amongst the very old vines that gave us this wine back in ’76.


I had never visited this region before, so was taking it all in as we drove and tasted our way through. Considering it’s adjacent to the Grampians, I was struck by how different the region feels. This is due in part to the wines, which are quite distinct in style.

Our first visit was to Dalwhinnie, which was a fairly traditional cellar door session, albeit with a backdrop that is one of the more beautiful, secluded vineyard views in the country. The wines are very impressive, the flagship Shiraz wines being predictably fantastic; I enjoyed the 2008 Cabernet most, though, for its power and elegance. It reminded me of a good Coonawarra Cabernet in a strange way, not in terms of flavour profile but more structurally, in the way it unfolds in the mouth. In any case, a lovely wine.

Our next visits were less about tasting finished wines and more about barrel samples. Aside from hurrying my next appointment with the dentist, what I took away from these experiences was a renewed sense of the passion and experimentation that is part of making worthwhile wines.

John Harris from Mount Avoca and Mitchell Harris was exceptionally generous with his time (and pipette) and showed us through a bewildering array of barrel samples. Though it’s a little meaningless to try and give a sense of the wines in this tasting context, I was impressed by the range of components John is shepherding through to completion. There’s an energy he is bringing to both the Mount Avoca and Mitchell Harris ranges that suggests both labels are ones to watch over the coming years.

Interestingly, I was especially taken by the Cabernets we tried, again impressed by the clarity of fruit flavours and classical structure in the context of what are quite full throttle styles. Shiraz remains the region’s standard bearer varietal, but I’ll be making a point of exploring more Cabernet Sauvignon from the Pyrenees in future.

John suggested we visit the Dog Rock winery, located on its own near the border of the Pyrenees and Grampians regions. Indeed, vigneron Allen Hart proposed its spectacular site has more to do with the Grampians, which might be disconcerting if the styles sought were conventional. But there’s nothing ordinary about this range, and my suggestion that many of the wines seemed designed to provoke was greeted with nods of agreement. I’m not aware of too many other producers in the region with a Shiraz/Tempranillo sparkling red, or a premium wine that is Grenache-based. Whether iconoclastic or eccentric, there’s no doubt the wines overflow with intent and rigour, and for that I value them very highly. Wines to seek out and react to.


Here are some random impressions to close:

  • For regions that possess a relatively large number of iconic wines, the Grampians and the Pyrenees have an embarrassingly low profile. Visiting in person, and talking with a range of high profile producers, I get the impression there is perhaps a lack of depth at present. So, unlike the Barossa where one can easily visit one great producer after another, these regions may be more hit and miss, which would create a less consistent experience for visitors and less popular momentum as a result.
  • Regional identity is still sorting itself out. I look to places like Central Otago for models of a well identified and marketed regional identity. Western Victoria has history on its side, but it seems there’s a mixture of slackness and confusion when it comes to clearly communicating what each region does best. The push Best’s is making towards solidifying the Great Western identity is symptomatic of what I mean.
  • Grampians Shiraz, when done well, is unquestionably amongst the best and most distinctive in the country. Although I need to get more exposure to Pyrenees wines, nothing I tasted from that region leads me to believe it is any different in quality terms.

I came away from this visit feeling excited and stimulated by what I had seen. These regions are vastly undervalued at present, showing wine styles that retain an authentic connection with the past without feeling stale. Indeed, the difficulty of making wine in such a remote area, in relatively unfashionable styles, amongst a small and in some ways fractured winemaking community, was tangible throughout. The wines taste that much sweeter for it.

Scarborough Yellow Label Chardonnay 2007

Chardonnay, let alone Hunter Chardonnay, is hardly at the vanguard of vinous fashion, so one could be forgiven for greeting this Scarborough wine a shrug. It pays to remember, though, the Hunter has a special place in the history of Australian Chardonnay, and continues to be the home of two of Australia’s more sought after peaches: the Lake’s Folly white and Tyrrell’s Vat 47. Scarborough is something of a Chardonnay specialist, having earned an enviable reputation for this varietal, so I approached this wine with high expectations.

The nose is fresh and clean, showing aromas of butter, peach, a little bit of minerality, perhaps a herbal twang and some smokey toast. Complex, then, but its buttery balance speaks more of enjoyment than analysis. I like that the oak is subdued, the wine appearing to rely more on fruit character and other forms of winemaking input (some lees work, I suspect) to achieve its aroma profile.

The palate takes a step up in expressiveness, being quite rich and full-flavoured. Entry is strikingly flavoursome, a nice spectrum of peach, citrus and butter notes caressing the tongue and paving the way for a middle palate that is quite flooded with fruit. The flavours are very clean at this point, showing good definition and shape, supported by easygoing acidity. I feel this wine’s textural dimension, though, isn’t quite balanced, being too reticent and consequently somewhat overwhelmed by the fullness of the fruit flavour. I’d like to feel a bit more mealiness on my tongue on the mid-palate, which would add more sophistication to the palate structure. The after palate does offer a bit more in this regard, and this helps carry the wine through a finish that seemed a bit hot to me.

Lovely fruit here, made in a gloriously unfashionable style that I admit to enjoying more often than not. It’s not over the top, simply generous and warm. Very well priced.

Price: $A21
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Domaine Tournon (Chapoutier) Western Victoria Shiraz or Syrah 2008

I bought this wine because:

  • it’s labelled “Shiraz or Syrah,” a conceit that one hopes was motivated by a heavy dose of French Theory but which, alas, is probably a lot more prosaic in intent;
  • its cork seal looks decidedly out of place on a wine at this price point; and 
  • the geographic indication is simply “Western Victoria.”

This last point intrigued me, and some lazy Googling leads me to suspect the fruit is sourced from the Pyrenees. If so, one wonders why it wasn’t labelled as such. Perhaps this rather ambitiously named Australian region might have caused confusion in the old country.

In any case, enough metavinosity. The wine itself is decent enough and is improving in the glass. On the nose, a pepper steak vibe mixes with dark, juicy plum fruit and some eucalypt. It’s very clean and fresh, though tending towards anonymity in character. There’s something boring about its cleanly defined, simple fruit flavours that may alienate those looking for more personality.

The palate is consistent with this impression, offering good volumes of plum juice in the context of an easygoing, fresh structure. Medium bodied, there’s plenty of flavour and a bit of detail around the edges. The after palate becomes more textured and complex, though the wine never sheds its core of simple fruit flavour. Some heat on the finish along with a lift of mint.

A pretty solid wine at this price, showing hints of regional character without ever threatening to become too interesting. Cork, though; seriously?

Domaine Tournon (Chapoutier)
Price: $A16.15
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Seppelt Chalambar Shiraz 2008

As should be evident to regular readers of this blog, I tend to view wine not only in terms of what’s in the glass, but also as a function of human input, circumstance, intent, and a whole bunch of other problematic considerations that are hard to pin down but which are, for me, always part of the experience of tasting.

This makes Great Western-based Seppelt’s range, exemplified by the multi-regional Chalambar blend, especially challenging. There’s nothing like visiting a region or two to reinforce the value of clear regional character in wine. After recently spending some time in the Grampians — one of my favourite areas for Shiraz — I feel invigorated in my appreciation of the special qualities of this region, and hence somewhat dismayed by what this wine is. Carrying a Great Western heritage, but made from a blend of Grampians and Bendigo fruit, the Chalambar label is a litmus test of sorts in terms of one’s view of regional distinctiveness versus straight mainstream quality.

And there’s no doubt this is a quality wine. It’s decent value at its recommended retail price (mid-$20s), and a steal at the sub-$15 price point one often sees at the larger retailers. The nose is spicy and meaty in equal measure, with a nice aromatic lift characteristic of Western Victorian Shiraz, but a level of depth and ripeness more suggestive of the Bendigo component. It’s quite juicy in terms of the character of its fruit; all plums and dark berries and pulp, with a leafy edge too. Moderately complex, there’s a gentle oak vibe that frames and gives shape to all that luscious fruit.

The palate continues in this vein, with plenty of generosity and good movement through the mouth, though it took a few minutes to lose the sense of hardness with which it opened. The entry has a mouthfilling quality and is thick with dark fruit flavour, so much so that it teeters on the edge of being full bodied. Prominent, fine tannins emerge on the middle palate, chalky in character and almost too perfect in form. Indeed, there’s a composed glossiness to this wine that is alternately impressive and frustrating. Where is the rawness, the edge, here? There’s an attractively bright sour edge to the fruit, reminiscent of plum skins, which I particularly like. There’s also a good whack of deeply ripened, Bendigo-style fruit that I like less well. The after palate and finish are dark and satisfying, leaving an echo of black berries right at the back of the mouth.

A tasty wine, then, and one made with consummate skill. Whether it satisfies your soul in addition to your palate is more a matter of philosophy than taste.

Price: $A18.95
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Retail

Best's Thomson Family Shiraz 2006

I’ve just returned from a very exciting, though quick, trip through the Grampians and Pyrenees regions of Victoria, and find myself with a backlog of thoughts and not enough time (or energy, for now) to put them into words. I do, however, have a bottle of current release Thomson Family Shiraz in front of me now, and am compelled to make a few notes.

This is on its third day after opening. My first tasting, at the winery, revealed a wine so backward in structure that I found it hard to tease much from the glass. What I did manage to extract — classy oak, dark plums, dense spice — seemed very promising at the time, and it’s only now that I have an opportunity to retaste.

What’s wonderful about it on day three is how elegant a wine it is, perhaps unexpectedly given its initially dense structure and reluctant expressiveness. Now, indeed, this wine is classic medium bodied Great Western goodness, an array of spice notes leading the olfactory way to complex plum fruit aromas and a background of slightly charry oak. It’s less high toned than some, preferring brown spice to sharper cracked pepper. Nonetheless, the wine is regional to its core, and that’s a great thing for lovers of Western Victorian Shiraz.

The palate shows a degree of restraint that is most impressive. There’s a light, almost casual, edge to the clean plum flavours running along the line that makes me smile in this context, because such confident simplicity goes against the grain of many self-consciously brutish “reserve” level wines. No such pretension here, though. The palate structure is easy and elegant, flowing cleanly through all stages with good continuity. Textured red and black fruits mingle with a range of spice flavours and relatively restrained oak, precisely layered and all sitting within a medium weight frame. There are all sorts of complexities to the flavour profile too — some interesting tobacco notes, for example — that help the wine evolve in the glass. An excitingly extended, spiced finish is impressive in quality terms but for me comes across simply as delicious.

One would be hard pressed to find a truer, more relaxed, expression of Great Western Shiraz than this. A great example of one of our great regional styles.

Best’s Wines
Price: $A150
Closure: Cork
Source: Sample