Mitchell Harris Sabre Vintage 2010

The second release of Mitchell Harris’s sparking wine, this has credentials that stretch back far beyond the establishment of this label. Indeed, John Harris brings a wealth of experience as former winemaker at Domaine Chandon to this wine, and it’s important to remember Western Victoria was once renowned for its sparkling wines above all other styles. So, quite a pedigree.

The style here, as with the 2008, places an emphasis on freshness and generosity. It’s an absolute crowd-pleaser, in fact, but still retains a range of complexities of flavour that reward closer tasting. What I like about this wine in particular is how its lees-derived, savoury notes creep their way in softly, adding interest to a core of citrus fruit and creating an edge of sophistication without robbing the wine of its fundamental deliciousness.

Acid and texture, the bugbears of many an Australian sparkling, are well-handled here. The palate has a creamy mouthfeel that complements its fruit and spice flavours well. There’s ample spritz which means the wine is lively in the mouth, yet it has a softness to its textures that is pleasing. Some nice, chalky phenolic pucker brings up the rear.

While it’s possible to approach this wine analytically, that would be somewhat missing the point of a style that seems designed, first and foremost, for drinking.

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

Tyrrell’s Vat 47 Hunter Chardonnay 2005

I remember tasting this at cellar door, along with the superb 2005 Vat 1, and purchasing immediately. At the time, though I don’t remember specifics, I do distinctly recall being impressed by its focus and drive.

That structure and linearity have served the wine well. This is the first bottle I’ve tasted in quite some time and it’s ageing in style. There are aromas that show definite bottle-age — toast, biscuits, a softening of the lemon flavours down to more curd-like notes — and in a way this reminds me of Hunter Semillon as it gains age. There’s also, unlike your typical Hunter Semillon, a good deal of oak, and I like the way the oak’s spice integrates with the fruit’s evolving aroma profile. This wine’s in a good place right now, aromatically.

The palate shows a nice lick of lemon curd that pools on the mid-palate, along with riper stonefruit flesh and sweetness that gains as the wine moves down its line. There’s a progressive richness to the wine’s shape in the mouth, leading to a rather wedge-shaped palate. Fittingly, the finish is well extended, and there’s plenty of acid to keep things alive and moving. I find this has really good clarity of articulation and, although it’s not a fine-boned wine by nature, it shows good form and drive. Certainly, within its warmer climate style, it has great balance and tension throughout.

I thoroughly enjoyed this wine and am happy to have a few more in my cellar. Given its Stelvin closure and good cellaring conditions, I think this might live for quite some time (as, I submit, many good Australian Chardonnays can).

Tyrrell’s Wines
Price: N/A
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Retail

Domaine Alain Chavy Saint-Aubin 1er Cru En Remilly 2010

I’ve enjoyed many Alain Chavy wines over the years and value this producer for the straightforwardness of his wines. These are vins de terroir par excellence, quite reasonably priced to boot. His 1er Cru Puligny-Montrachets are especially fine, but I’ve enjoyed this wine, from the lesser village of Saint-Aubin, over several vintages, and this edition is one of the most pleasurable.

Forthright aromas of hessian, sulfur, white stonefruit and flint emerge immediately from the glass, even when served quite cold. There’s a good deal of complexity, in fact, which isn’t immediately evident because the fruit seems so up-front and voluptuous at first. With time, it turns increasingly savoury, a reductive influence becoming more prominent as fruit tightens into the grapefruit spectrum.

On entry, what’s immediately striking is the power and impact of the wine’s fruit. I’ve noticed quite a few 2010 white Burgundies from Puligny-Montrachet and surrounds share this aggressiveness, which seems to stem not only from solid intensity but also from firm acid. Perhaps there’s a tendency towards shoutiness, but I value the muscularity on show and feel it may achieve better balance with some time in bottle. The mid-palate is quite minerally, though with plenty of fruit too, and leads to an after palate of powdery texture and taut flavour. Quite long.

While it may lack the subtlety and nuance of a really fine white Burgundy, this is a lot of wine for the money. There’s plenty here to enjoy.

Domaine Alain Chavy
Price: $A50
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Swinging Bridge Mrs Payten Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2012

I want to love every wine I taste. It seems to me there’d be no greater pleasure for a wine enthusiast than to find in each wine, familiar or not, a world of pleasure and revelation. Wines that fall short, then, aren’t just less enjoyable, they’re a little bit heartbreaking too.

Wines often brashly flash their most prominent assets — single vineyard! old vines! French oak! — and why not? In this age of obligatory opinions, snap judgements and forced rankings, producers must surely feel they are putting their wines into the vinous equivalent of a speed dating night, if not a boxing ring. You’ve got mere seconds to establish credibility and generate an attraction. So I don’t begrudge the, of late, spectacular proliferation of single vineyard wines in Australia. I will note, though, that a single vineyard wine, for me, creates a certain expectation. Of distinctiveness perhaps, and quality too, something worth singling out. I approach this wine, then, with heightened anticipation.

So as it presents as slightly blurry, without sufficient articulation of and insight into the flavours it obviously has, I feel frustrated by the opaque view it gives me of its raison d’être – the vineyard from which it came. It’s far from generic tasting, and there are some funky flavours atop fruit that veers between ripe pineapple and much more nuanced, savoury citrus. There are also darker notes that speak of lees and a certain minerality. But there’s a dull edge to the whole that, for me, obscures each component. Structure is relaxed, robbing the wine of tension and fattening its mid-palate, although I do like the chalky texture through the finish. There’s also a lack of intensity to the fruit, making the wine feel like it’s playing too quietly to get me moving. I just want more — more intensity, more definition, more overt distinctiveness. I want this wine to sing its vineyard, so I can hear its colours and enjoy its view.

It might fairly accuse me of not being a good listener; I’m just a bit sad about what we could’ve been, this wine and me.

Swinging Bridge
Price: $32
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Oakridge 864 Willowlake Chardonnay 2012

There’s an interesting conceptual tension at play with this wine. The Oakridge range is structured, at the high end, around ideas of vineyard differentiation, terroir and the progressively more precise identification of sites and blocks of special interest. A highly Burgundian view of wine, then, and one that is certainly au courant in the Australian wine scene.

The wine itself is, simply, spectacular. It’s surely one of the best Australian Chardonnays I’ve tasted in a long while, and blasts into one’s palate memory through a combination of balance, impossibly fine detail and the sort of good taste that speaks of highly attentive winemaking. The flavour profile mixes crystalline fruit with a whole heap of prickly sulphides and other funk, which sounds like modern Chardonnay gone wrong but which, in fact, comes across as an utterly coherent collection of notes. It’s the clarity and detail of the wine that really allow each element to shine. Rarely are flavours articulated with such precision and placement. It’s a controlled experience from head to toe, with only a flash of lemon juice flavour and acid on the after palate standing out as somewhat separate and simple.

The complex rush of flavours and sense this wine gives of having been orchestrated brings us back to its origins as a single-block-within-a-single-vineyard wine, one that by its nature might suggest a fashionable minimising of intervention in the winery. This is anything but a hands-off wine, though; it’s one made in a very specific style, using obviously beautiful fruit and applying a series of winemaking techniques with real skill and a very firm view of how Chardonnay should taste. This is a wine of its maker as much as of its vineyard and, in being so, honestly engages the reality of winemaking: it doesn’t just happen on its own. I can’t help but think this is a far more intricate and interesting view of wine than one where the role of either the vineyard or the winemaker is pushed into the background. This Oakridge wine, delicious as it is, is a veritable narrative of the way people and nature collide in the course of making wine.


Oakridge Wines
Price: $A75
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Gift

Hoddles Creek Chardonnay 2006

Who’d have thought I’d be revisiting an $18 Chardonnay from 2006 with such curiosity and enthusiasm? Such is the state of Chardonnay in Australia. A golden age of sorts, led at the entry level by this label amongst others. The Hoddles Creek Chardonnay (and its Pinot Noir sibling) has quickly become the sort of “must purchase” wine beloved by wine enthusiasts of good taste and limited means (that surely covers most of us). I’ve visited with this wine on a few occasions, two of which I’ve documented on Full Pour (in 2007 and subsequently in 2011). Here we go for a third time.

The lean character of this wine has remained pretty constant over its life so far, and this tasting reveals a wine that in some respects hasn’t moved much since my first tasting. It’s worth pausing to reflect on the fact this is a cheap wine in absolute terms; that it still has life at this point is in itself remarkable. There are some tertiary flavours for sure — honeycomb and nuts mostly — but the wine retains plenty of primary freshness and white stonefruit flavours.

Where it isn’t evolving so much is in weight and opulence; I wondered on previous tastings whether it might gain some weight, and at this stage it seems destined to retain its linear, quite driven movement through the mouth for a while yet. Will it ever become an expansive wine? I’m not sure; in any case, there are plenty of other Chardonnays to satiate that particular craving. A more interesting question is whether its fruit is starting to fall away here; it does seem to lack that last ounce of intensity, and I don’t recall whether it provided greater impact and flavour in previous tastings. In any case, it has a poise right now that flows from a nicely resolved structure and flavour pitched at a moderate level of intensity.

For my taste, I’d like an ounce more generosity, something the flavour profile suggests but never quite gets around to delivering. Still, that’s probably a question of taste more than quality; certainly, this is a striking, important wine in terms of contemporary Australian Chardonnay.

Hoddles Creek

Price: $A18
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Retail

Bloodwood Chardonnay 2010

I like it when wines surprise me, whether it’s a matter of quality or, as with this wine, by showing unexpected dimensions that lift it beyond what I initially believe it to be. This wine, from relatively old vines in the Orange region, is one of two produced by Bloodwood. The other, labelled Schubert, seems intended to be the more outré in style (I’ve not tasted it).

Orange tends to cool climate due to the elevation of its vineyards, so it’s no surprise the aroma here is in a fairly restrained mode, with white rather than yellow stonefruit and aromas tending towards taut flintiness. It’s firmly fruit-driven, though, and quite straightforward as a result.

The palate is what surprises me about this wine. On the basis of the nose, I expected a straightforward flavour profile and equally simple mouthfeel, but this really takes off, texturally. On entry, it slips and slides with stonefruit, but from the mid-palate onwards a nice, raspy mouthfeel creeps in, along with a corresponding tightening of flavour profile, such that the wine ends up expressing tangy aniseed and a sea spray freshness alongside its bright fruit. That salty-sweet tang echoes the addictive qualities of something like Dutch licorice and strikes me quite distinctive. It’s a nice story on the palate and helps this wine to be both more refreshing and more delicious.

Price: $A27
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Stefano Lubiana Vintage Brut 2005

As I sit here jet-lagged and generally puzzled to be back in my study in Brisbane, I resort to sparkling wine to inject levity and the spectre of some kind of celebration into my evening. This wine is from always-interesting Stefano Lubiana in the Derwent Valley in Tasmania. I was fortunate enough to visit Steve earlier this year and saw a most impressive new winery and cellar door facility in the last stages of development. I believe it’s all up and running now, and I suggest it would be well worth a visit to anyone in the area.

To the wine, then: quite a rich nose that mixes lees-derived aromas with weighty fruit and edges of caramel. This seems a much riper wine than the 2004, though its tendency towards savouriness and off-the-wall flavours remains consistent. There’s a lot to enjoy here if one isn’t terminally prejudiced against fuller, more powerful sparkling styles. Personally, I miss a certain lightness of touch that, for all its muscularity, this doesn’t quite manage to retain.

In the mouth, predictably full and rich. Acid, the curse of Australian sparkling wines, is fine and controlled, and benefits from the fruit’s weight. Mouthfeel isn’t quite as creamy as a top Champagne, but it’s far from coarse and, to the extent that it’s a little rambunctious, is well matched to the wine’s weight and intensity. An impactful mid-palate leads to a clean, fresh after palate that extends well back into the mouth. Indeed, this is a long wine.

Not the last word in refinement, then, but a truly interesting wine for its range of flavours, power and outright generosity.

Stefano Lubiana Wines
Price: $A58
Closure: Cork
Source: Sample

The Scholium Project Michael Faraday 2010

I have no interest in diminishing the role of viticulturist and winemaker through my practice of wine writing. Making wine is an inherently interventionist process; a simple fact, but one worth repeating in an age where we deify a nature curiously devoid of people and fetishise a past of naive wholesomeness. The right degree of intervention is, of course, vastly contested, and guiding principles like “minimal intervention” are both hopelessly reductive and damagingly misleading. Many wines benefit from extensive work in the winery which, when done with sensitivity and skill, helps to illuminate the underlying qualities of the fruit and create a more complete wine. To the deniers, I simply direct you to unwooded Chardonnay.

Intervention oughtn’t, however, be the focus of a sophisticated criticism of wine. Viticultural techniques and winemaking operations are means to an end, and it’s in connecting those means to the achieved end where a truly interesting conversation about wine is located. In other words, we judge a wine with reference to why it was made, how it was made and what it tastes like.

Straightforward commercial styles yield easily to this analysis, made as they are to be both technically sound and easily accessible. No faults and plenty of fruit? Check. To effortlessly produce these wines in large quantities is one end point of many New World wine industries, and represents a collective achievement I respect enormously. But these wines are often boring to drink, boring to write about and, as such, contain little to engage one’s interest critically. Monumental efforts in the service of bland ends.

Jumping to the other end of the spectrum we have producers like The Scholium Project, who seem determined to (re)invent, discover and pervert conventional notions of wine style. It’s part punk, part hipster and, as an enterprise, vastly more interesting than yet another clean Cabernet. Especially daring are experiments with wine faults, something Scholium seems to explore with its white portfolio in particular.

Clearly, then, not styles for those without a certain tolerance for winemaking eccentricity. There’s a slight urge I feel to celebrate these wines simply for existing, and I do believe there’s value in an ongoing curiosity about how wine ought to taste. In a way, though, by requiring a greater role of the winemaker, these styles expose themselves to greater criticism. When production decisions are so obvious, they become very large targets for the critic.

This wine goes further than the 2009 the sylphs in its focus on aldehydes and its suppression of primary fruit. Indeed, the distorted but complete view of fruit in the sylphs is here reduced to remnant flashes of flavour; slight darts of citrus, peach and minerality. So thick is its blanket of nutty, sherry-like aromas and flavours that few other elements make it out alive. Yet it’s curiously lacking in freshness too, not at all like a good flor sherry. There’s structure here, but somehow the flavour profile suggests a sort of stasis, like wading through mud.

Clearly, the defining act of winemaking was to allow the wine to sit on ullage for a year or so, developing the nutty aldehydic notes that so emphatically dominate this wine. The consequences of this choice are so significant they come to define the entire flavour profile. That’s ballsy winemaking.

One must ask at this point, though: does allowing the wine to develop so oxidatively illuminate the fruit’s underlying qualities? Do the winemaking inputs help to achieve balance? Is this a wine of beauty?

For me, the answer is no in all cases. I believe the style has a precedent in the wines of Jacques Selosse, but what might work in Champagne seems less successful in the world of Sonoma Chardonnay. Drinking this wine is an exercise in frustration. It’s not totally without beauty; there are beguiling flashes of minerality and fruit, bright and pristine enough to suggest some exceptional raw material. Yet I resent having to fight for these moments, and I regret not knowing what the fruit might have made if handled more sympathetically.

As with all the Scholium wines I’ve tasted recently, this is made with clear intent and conviction, qualities I applaud. It takes guts to be so bold in the winery, a domain that is too often about avoiding faults and too rarely about chasing a vision. That this wine ultimately fails, though disappointing, is perhaps unavoidable in a project so intent on experimentation.

The Scholium Project
Price: $US75
Closure: Cork
Source: Gift

The Scholium Project the sylphs 2009

About three days ago I arrived in San Diego, a place I haven’t visited since 1997 when I was here on a student exchange. What a year. I had come to finish my science degree at UCSD, and I did indeed do that. But my fondest memories are of life outside school.

For the first couple of weeks back then, I wasn’t even 21 years old, so was legally unable to enter any of the bars that, as a fourth year university student, I had become rather too accustomed to frequenting in Australia. No matter; my birthday soon ticked around, the school year started, and my time here flew by in a haze of perfect weather, minimal study and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of great beaches.

The intervening years have brought many things, one of which is my friendship with Christopher Pratt, co-publisher of Full Pour and all-around awesome guy. A few years ago, Chris and his partner made San Diego home, and the city has beckoned ever since. Finally, in my year of wine, I’m here again.

Amongst the many Californian wines I’ve been keen to try, few are higher on the list than The Scholium Project’s various bottlings. Chris has written about these in some detail on Full Pour, and I encourage you to browse through the archives to familiarise yourself with what must surely be one of the more intriguing producers working in California at the moment. We’ve already tasted several over the past few days, and none have been less than interesting. This, though, stands out for its sheer perversity.

This is what might happen if you turn Chardonnay inside out. Everything about it seems designed to test one’s idea of what varietal Chardonnay ought to taste like, from its emphasis on flavours that ordinarily sit at the edges to its radical re-rendering of some clearly beautiful fruit. The nose shoves things like nutty aldehydes, salt spray, Mexican candy and your grandmother’s stash of sherry (thanks Chris for that image) right into the foreground; fruit becomes utterly secondary to aromas that are ordinarily used sparingly to add complexity and depth, and that might reasonably be considered faults if too prominent. But do conventional ideas of balance apply when a wine is so determinedly styled to challenge those conventions?

The palate reveals a core of fruit that seems radically distorted yet weirdly beautiful, like trying to see a peach through glass bricks. This styling strikes me as cubist in its reconceptualisation of expected flavours. This extends to palate structure too; weight is much lighter than expected and lacking the sort of flesh one might associate with Chardonnay from California. Flavours aren’t quite as sweet as the nose suggests, although no amount of fiddling can completely rob the fruit here of a certain lusciousness. Texture becomes rough through the back palate, and complexity of flavour is unmitigated from front to back.

In some ways, I’ve no idea what to make of this wine in quality terms. It’s full of intent, shows good fruit and is vastly provocative, stylistically. Does that make it a good wine? Do regular indicators of quality even apply? I’m not sure, but I love that it poses the question.

The Scholium Project
Price: $US75
Closure: Cork
Source: Gift