Death and tasting notes

It doesn’t take much exposure to wine to understand, then be overwhelmed by, its astounding, infinite variability. To know wine in its entirety is impossible, but the urge to experience its endless beauty is strong. We chase a constantly expanding repertoire of styles in a — perhaps laudable, perhaps gluttonous — attempt to gauge wine’s true scope. It’s easy to lose track of the aesthetics of wine amidst sensory (not to mention marketing) overload. All of a sudden, we’re talking more about what a wine represents than what it is.

On a fundamental level, wine never happens until it’s drunk, so it’s worth putting that relationship back at the centre of wine appreciation. I’m not playing a postmodern game and suggesting a wine literally doesn’t exist until it is consumed. Rather, a bottle of wine isn’t complete if it’s never tasted. Until that moment, it is just liquid potential – an idea, a “maybe.” The ideas may be interesting or fraudulent, novel or hackneyed, but without tasting, they remain untested.

And that’s true of each bottle, even if one is familiar with other bottles of the same wine. Wine drunk at one moment will be different from at any other moment, its chemistry changed, its context shifted. The only chance we get to capture the beauty within a bottle is at the moment of consumption. If you believe this, as I do, then the idea of a trophy wine, one never intended to be drunk, is an obscenity. It makes a mockery of wine and its capacity to impart pleasure.

Ironically, we destroy wine in our attempt to appreciate it, which makes the drink even more tantalising. Unlike a beautiful painting, one can’t revisit a wine exactly as it was the first (or second, or third) time. The slight sadness I feel when I open a rare bottle is, I think, related to the fact that drinking a wine involves both the creation and the elimination of its beauty. If wine doesn’t exist until it is drunk, it only ever exists in that moment too. And when it’s gone, all we have left are our memories of it, subject to the same distortions and inaccuracies as our memories of loved ones who have died.

If a bottle of wine does have any sort of life beyond being drunk, it’s in the minds of those who were there. I’ve often wondered why I, and thousands of other wine lovers, are driven to write about the wines we love. Perhaps our notes are eulogies of a sort, reminders of what we liked and didn’t like, written in the knowledge that a bottle consumed can no longer speak for itself. All that’s left are those who remember how beautiful it really was.

Domaine Rapet Père et Fils Pernand 1er Cru Le Clos du Village 2000

Rather too oxidised to be fully enjoyable, I’ll write this up for completeness’ sake. And because I worked my customary magic on the rather crumbly cork.

The colour is an attractive golden straw. The nose immediately betrays excessive oxidation – whether it affects just this bottle or the wine generally is something I’m not in a position to know. I tasted a similar wine (vintage, producer, classification) in 2009 and it was on song. In any case, that softly rancid brown apple aroma pervades an otherwise rather attractive, fruit-driven profile that seems quite cuddly but with a savoury, herbal edge.

The palate shows good acid and crisp flow down the line. There’s enough fruit here for me to know this would have been a nice wine, once. Good weight and generosity of flavour – the fruit tends towards white stonefruit, with a repeat of the herbal, basil-like notes seen on the nose. The palate’s texture is creamy and soft, but not flabby, thanks to that acid.

I wish I had known it in better times.

Domaine Rapet Père et Fils
Price: $A60
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Ross Hill Pinnacle Series Sauvignon Blanc 2011

It’s turning summery all of a sudden here in Brisbane, which has reminded me with a slight pang of guilt that I have not yet trimmed my passionfruit vines. Not a metaphor. It has also reminded me that I’ve had this wine for a little while, waiting to be tasted. There aren’t too many $30 Sauvignon Blancs from Orange, let alone ones that have experienced some fancier treatment in the winery like whole bunch pressing and wild fermentation. I’m curious.

Yet again, the whites from Orange impress. This is a long way from the pungency of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, and an equally long way from tropical fruit basket that some of our regions tend to express. It’s lean and tight, as much suggestion as flesh, edging on green without being offensively unripe. It’s marginal in the positive sense, communicating the effort with which it was brought into being.

The palate is equally taut, a nice line of citrus fruit and heady vegetation riding fine, bright acid. There’s definitely some funk here, perhaps a result of the wild fermentation, that pushes this wine’s flavour profile into distinctive territory. There aren’t any magic tricks; the wine still lacks presence through the after palate, but that goes with the territory with this varietal. What’s here is clever and interesting.

It’s so nice to come across a Sauvignon Blanc that tries to be something new.

Ross Hill Wines
Price: $A30
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Clonakilla Ballinderry 2004

There are some nice bottles of wine scattered about my house. Not nice in the sense of outrageously expensive, but nice in the sense that I hesitate, for whatever reason, to drink them. On the whole, I enjoy living by myself, but choosing wine to drink is a definite downside. There are no excuses, no-one else to share the burden of having opened the last bottle of this, or an old bottle of that. I was bemoaning my reluctance to drink a lot of the wine I have at home to a good friend the other day, and he said “Just open them.” So tonight, I have.

It’s not an unaffordable wine, this one. I think it was about $35. The reason why it’s an important wine to me is that I bought it with Chris and his partner Dan at Clonakilla’s cellar door after what I presume (because I don’t think we’ve ever visited Clonakilla without this happening) was a wonderful conversation and barrel sampling session with Tim Kirk. Such occasions happen so infrequently when friends live at opposite ends of the earth, and this wine, sitting on my cheap IKEA wine rack, has served as a reminder of Summer weather, a drive from Sydney to Canberra, precious conversation and the feeling of being amongst your own kind. No wonder I’ve not found a worthy enough occasion to open it.

Looking back over my notes, I’m reminded of a slight hesitation over this wine because, at the time, its aroma was almost entirely locked down and its structure formidable. Perhaps it’s an overrated pastime, allowing a wine time to reveal itself. There’s something masochistic about being made to wait for an anticipated pleasure that may never, in fact, happen. And yet this wine’s gradual maturation into complete, liquid elegance communicates intense reward and a sense of happy shock, the same shock one gets when an old acquaintance turns up after many years’ absence, suddenly handsome and magnetic in a way that only makes sense in retrospect. This wine’s features are just beginning to work their magic now. The nose remains quiet, now more sotto voce than mute, too dignified to lunge for the dark berry notes and pencil shavings that seep out from nowhere and fill in the bottom layer of the aroma profile. A whisper of aged leather sits in the middle, gradually building what should be, with even more time, a complete profile of notes.

The palate is getting ready for this completion; it has paved the way by paring back its structure, adding the most striking thickness of mouthfeel and transforming from a somewhat raw beast into something altogether more civilised. The range of notes is textbook: red and black berries, cigar box, tobacco, a hint of gravel. This is seriously good Cabernet in medium bodied, elegant mode. Why aren’t there more Cabernets from Canberra? This seems ideal to me, effortless and flavoursome.

Tell me again, why did I ever hesitate to open this?

Price: $A35
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Pig in the House Shiraz 2011

When I last reviewed this wine (2008 vintage), I noted the producer was certified organic. Things have moved on to the next plane of cosmic vineyard management, as Pig in the House is now a certified biodynamic winery. No mean feat, mind you – I appreciate the rigour that goes into running an operation in this manner.

It’s what’s in the bottle that counts, though, and I’m pleased to say that this strikes me as a better wine than the 2008, more subtle and complex, but retaining the appealing freshness of the earlier wine. The aroma shows very crunchy red fruits, snapped succulent, copious black pepper and other signs of cooler climate Shiraz. It’s quite lean and may strike some drinkers as lacking in generosity, lacking in ripeness, even. For me, its freshness outweighs any sense of thinness, and makes it immediately appealing as a sort of bistro style.

The palate shows decent intensity and a good dose of fresh acid. It’s not the most articulate wine in the mouth, delivering its flavour in a rather haphazard way. No matter — there’s plenty of it to go around, and the fact that it zips by a bit too quickly just means another sip is in order; easy to do with a wine this fresh-tasting. Plenty of dark fruits and spice, some lightly powdery tannins overlaying the finish. Again, some may consider its flavour profile indicative of marginal fruit ripeness. The fruit flavour edges on the obvious and confected at times, but in the context of the style it’s forgivable.

Mixed experience here, but I rather like its edgy vibe.

Pig in the House
Price: $A22
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Stefano Lubiana Vintage Brut 2004

This makes an interesting companion piece to the Mitchell Harris Sabre tasted recently. Similar ballpark in terms of pricing, but utterly different expressions of Australian sparkling wine. Where the Sabre is rich with a certain unctuous quality, this sits on the side of angular purity.

The aroma is crisp and savoury, making less concessions to fruit than the Sabre while matching it in terms of expressiveness and complexity. This certainly sits on the funkier end of the spectrum, showcasing lees derived notes ahead of its pure citrus and red fruit components. This smells quite classical in the manner in which it puts forward each note with poise and clean articulation. Intellectual more than hedonistic, but also rich and multi-layered, with fuller bass notes underlying the spectrum of high toned aromas.

In the mouth, it’s worth noting how achieved is this wine’s texture. It has none of the coarseness of mouthfeel that can plague lower priced sparkling wines. Acid is fine and crisp, effervescence even and luxurious. It’s very much what I feel a good sparkling ought to feel like. Flavours are as per the aroma, a bready note taking the lead, backed up by a range of fruit notes from citrus through to fleshier red berries. This tastes coherent from top to bottom, texture and flavour operating in concert to create a wine that is both chiselled and satisfyingly flavoursome.

Excellent sparkling wine.

Stefano Lubiana Wines
Price: $A53
Closure: Cork
Source: Sample

Mitchell Harris Sabre Vintage 2008

This has been a long time in the making. I remember talking with John Harris about it a couple of years ago and, even though it was a long way off release, I sensed his excitement. And I feel excited too, because his tenure as sparkling winemaker at Domaine Chandon creates what I feel is a reasonable expectation of quality to this tasting. Mr Harris should know what he’s doing, a fact his still wines have amply demonstrated to me, but to which this wine brings an extra frisson of anticipation.

The nose keeps me excited and shows evidence of the wine’s three years on lees. There’s a clean, pure vibe to the aroma that absorbs bready notes into a matrix of bright fruit, clear juice and the sort of lean florals that aren’t heady so much as piercing. It’s the integration of notes that impresses most – this aroma profile is quite coherent. In the mouth, good texture and relatively fine spritz pave the way for a surprisingly generous set of flavours. The aromatic citrus fruit is as much pulp as rind, and there’s a sense of weight that carries this wine through a few levels of complexity. It’s not the most aggressively savoury wine I’ve ever tasted, and there’s enough sweetness to soften and swell the palate. The sweetness is never intrusive, though, and does not mask an inherently funky streak to the flavour profile. Notes of crusty bread and tropical fruit alternate, vying for first place. Neither wins, but it’s awfully fun to taste them fighting it out.

A very impressive first sparkling release for Mitchell Harris. The maker is serious about this style, and I look forward to the next release.

Mitchell Harris
Price: $A40
Closure: Diam
Source: Sample

Chapel Hill Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

I’m loving the 2010 McLaren Vale reds that have passed through the tasting room of late. Tonight I have a Cabernet in front of me from noted producer Chapel Hill.

Cabernet is an interesting beast, and I feel the degree to which it changes by region is underplayed compared to, say, Shiraz. This varietal has a range of expressions in Australia, and this wine is a case in point. Stylistically, it is a long way from something like Coonawarra Cabernet. It lacks the edge, the muscularity and the intense dusty leaf that are beloved by many Cabernet enthusiasts but which may, indeed, be offputting to others. Here, the McLaren Vale has turned out a soft, almost cuddly version of Cabernet that owes as much to its region as its variety.

The aroma is rich and expressive, showing a good deal of dark berry fruit, hints of crushed leaf and lashings of oak. It is well integrated and retains just enough of Cabernet’s stand-offishness to set itself apart from the region’s other red varietals. As it gains air and time, oak steps forward and contributes even more vanilla and custard to the aroma. The palate shows good density right down the line, with nary a dip at any stage. In many ways, this is a straightforward, honest wine, putting what it has out there for our enjoyment, not playing games nor hiding its character. Its structure is a little raw at this stage, tannins in particular feeling quite astringent and aggressive. There’s plenty of fruit, though, to keep things drinkable, and some overtones of red berry flash in and out of a primarily dark flavour profile. As with the aroma, oak is a significant influence in the mouth. The finish is notable for its length and elegance.

Nice wine.

Chapel Hill
Price: $A30
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample