Balnaves Cabernet Merlot 2007

Mostly Cabernet Sauvignon with a dash (6.6%, or thereabouts) of Merlot. 

A cool, clean, currant-like nose of moderate expressiveness. Some varietal, leafy notes too, and a fair amount of spicy cedar oak. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s also an undercooked aspect to the aroma profile – as if a banana cake hadn’t quite finished baking in the oven. Not unpleasant so much as curious.
The palate is notable for a good amount of grainy tannin. This isn’t a wine for those who seek “smooth, fruity” experiences. Being a tannin enthusiast, however, I’m just fine with that. Quite sweet, clean red and black fruits flow through the entry and middle palates, along with an assertive level of vanilla custard oak, all of which ends up tasting rather Christmassy, if astringent. This is a lean wine, verging on underdone in terms of fruit intensity, and I wonder at the level of oak present given the relatively subtle fruit contribution. I understand 2007 was quite a challenging vintage, so perhaps the fruit character is to be expected. For all that, a pretty impressive, long finish that is squeaky clean.
There’s no question this is a drinkable, generously oaked wine whose tannin structure in particular is quite daring given the lean fruit. 

Balnaves of Coonawarra
Price: $A24
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Balnaves Shiraz 2006

Shiraz plays second fiddle to Cabernet Sauvignon in the Coonawarra, and one might suggest this is a good thing, considering the classic status of Cabernet from this region. Indeed, I’ve sometimes wondered at the local tendency to plant a fruit salad of grape varieties with little apparent regard for established regional styles. Two points, then. Firstly, if it tastes good, I want to drink it regardless of region or variety. Secondly, and more specifically, Shiraz has a lineage of some magnificence in the Coonawarra. The Wynns Michael Hermitages from the 50s are an obvious card to play in this regard, and on more personal terms I’ve had many lovely Coonawarra Shiraz wines over the years, including a remarkably ephemeral Redman Claret from 1976, consumed about 3 years ago. So yes, I’ve a soft spot for Shiraz from this region, and it’s with some anticipation that I taste this reasonably priced Balnaves from 2006.

Despite 15% abv (per the back label) and an impressive sense of scale in its flavour profile, this wine manages to retain a degree of elegance on both the nose and palate. Certainly, this isn’t due to restraint in oak treatment or a lack of ripeness. The nose shows lashing of blackberry brambles, coffee grounds and a certain (attractive) twiggy aroma. It’s dense and quite heady, hints of spice adding complexity and sophistication. There’s a hot edge to the aroma, which isn’t overly distracting to me. 
The palate follows through with a good dose of blackberry and spice, framed by oak that appears less dominant than on the nose. Indeed, the oak is remarkably well integrated into the flavour profile, adding a cedary, coffeed frame to generous fruit that, after a little tussle, grabs centre stage. The entry is subtle and creeps up slowly, showing mostly oak flavour underneath a rising surge of fruit that finds its full expression on the middle palate. Though the flavour profile suggests rich, ripe berries, this wine stops short of full-on hedonism, and seems between medium and full bodied to me. I think this is a good thing; as the body is contained, a nice tension develops between flavour and structure. There’s plenty of acid and tannin to keep things lively in the mouth; all in balance and well integrated. The after palate is quite light, with transparent fruit flavours and an astringently sappy, twiggy note. The finish is quite satisfying, if a tad hot.
Given its dimensions in terms of flavour and alcohol, this is refined and elegant. Most of all, though, it has that drinkability “X factor” that is rarer than it should be. Go Coonawarra Shiraz!

Balnaves of Coonawarra
Price: $A24
Closure: Stelvin

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Alex 88 Cabernet Sauvignon 2006

Wynns’ series of single vineyard bottlings over recent vintages prompts, amongst other things, the question: why? The back label suggests each bottling represents an outstanding parcel of fruit from a particular vineyard in a particular year, which is fine; but what, exactly, does “outstanding” mean in this context? Of the two I’ve tasted (the Johnson’s Block and this one), both seem within the same order of magnitude of quality as the Black Label, yet slightly outside the mainstream of regional style set by that same wine. Perhaps a distinctive character, not ostentatious quality, is the point here. I can dig that.

This was really disjointed for the first while but is coming together nicely. Used coffee grounds, ripe red fruit, polished sideboards full of old cutlery, and a few pine needles too. I wouldn’t describe the aroma as elegant, which is a shame to me as Coonawarra Cabernet can be terribly stylish, but it’s also flagrantly, sexily aromatic. The culprit, it seems, is fruit that errs on the side of very ripe, and oak that bludgeons in its custard, cedar profile. I’m being picky, though.

The palate is plush and generous, such that the wine drinks well now. Somehow, it seems more varietal than the nose, especially in its herbaceous overtones. As with the nose, the fruit here is sweet and red, and slightly stewed. There’s a nice linearity to the flow, with a consistent level of fruit intensity and density from early on through to the finish. Some interesting complexities of flavour, especially on the after palate where something akin to aniseed seems to poke its head out, along with a bit of menthol. Tannins are silty, globby masses of texture, kind of like wading out onto a mud flat with bare feet.

It’s not really my style of Cabernet, but I think it should win quite a few friends nonetheless.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate
Price: $A35
Closure: Stelvin

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Johnson's Block Shiraz Cabernet 2003

This wine ticks so many boxes. It’s a single vineyard bottling (tick) celebrating an ostensibly remarkable site (tick) full of old vines (tick) in a classic region that is on the comeback (tick). It’s also a quintessentially Australian blend of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon (tick). What could go wrong?

The answer is: something, but I’m not exactly sure what. It’s not that it’s unenjoyable; I’m finishing the bottle as I type. But I’m feeling unsatisfied somehow, as if the intent behind the wine is mismatched with what ended up in the bottle, promising a level of interest and sophistication that just isn’t there.

Perhaps I should just focus on what’s in my glass. It’s my second night with this wine. The first was characterised by a sweetness of fruit that was, frankly, unbalanced with respect to the oak character and marginalised savoury complexity. After being open for a while, it’s showing to greater advantage. The nose strikes me as heavily influenced by the Cabernet component, with a distinct leafiness sitting atop cedar oak and deep berry fruit. It is composed and just restrained enough to create tension and some mystery.

The palate, thankfully, is calmer in fruit character than yesterday, though still deeply sweet in profile. Bright red fruit has been replaced by a compote of darker berries doused in vanilla cream oak. In contrast to the nose, the Shiraz appears dominant on the palate, contributing generous blackberry jam fruit flavour. The oak is borderline overdone for my taste, though I must admit it appears of high quality and is delicious in its own right. I’m missing a sense of detail and complexity, and the wine is bludgeoning me a little with its density and flavour profile. Thankfully, a sweep of acidity livens up the after palate, in conjunction with well-structured, abundant tannins. I’m sure one could leave this wine alone for a few more years yet if so inclined. In fact, I suspect that’s the ticket to greater interest. Perhaps those with greater exposure to old Coonawarra wines can chime in here.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate
Price: $A35
Closure: Cork

Yalumba The Menzies 1999

I opened this bottle a week ago tonight – and immediately though “ugh, something is seriously wrong with this bottle.” I recorked it, put it in the fridge, and forgot about it until Thursday, at which point I took it back out of the fridge, stashed it behind the toaster, and forgot about it again. Tonight, seven days later, I finally thought “well, I should brave another taste before throwing it out.”  Good thing I did.I don’t know what changed in a week or why the chill-and-warm cycle should have helped, but this wine finally tastes good. There’s still just a flash of that strange, off-putting note on the nose, but at this point I can at least pretend it’s some kind of Australian mintiness, something particularly Coonawarra here. Underneath that is a rich, woody sort of reek peeking its nose around the corner; it’s simultaneously surprisingly youthful, but with flashes of unsuspected age here and there.Texturally, this wine is absolutely perfect to me: full bodied, nicely supported by lingeringly grippy tannins, ending on a very solid woody note that lingers for a while. The overall effect is of very earthy cigar box and pencil shavings: not much rich primary fruit left but all of the body has been left behind to duke it out with well judged oak.Given that it’s been beat up so much over a week and still drinks so nicely, I think the best thing to do would have been to decant this thing at least an hour before drinking. Sadly, this was my last bottle so I won’t get a chance to do so, but trust me: this wine ain’t dead yet.Yalumba
Price: $30
Closure: Cork

Rosemount Show Reserve Coonawarra Cabernet 2002

Smelling somewhat like children’s strawberry-flavored breakfast cereal at first, the wine doesn’t seem to change much over time: the nose is attractive if simple, not identifiably Coonawarra, and doesn’t display much in the way of overt oakiness or aged notes.

In the mouth, though, the oak suddenly reveals itself rudely, taking over the texture of the wine and adding an only moderately pleasant charry note to the midpoint of the wine. The finish is fairly long, but again fairly straightforward: a bunch of toasty oak riding roughshod over some fruit that frankly isn’t quite up to the task here.

Is this wine any good? That’s hard to say. I wouldn’t say it’s bad exactly, but it seems like an otherwise decent red wine – competent if somewhat lacking in actual Coonawarra flavor – was lost in the process of making it “reserve” by oaking it to death. I’m not a fan of this style unless the fruit’s as huge as the wood, and in this case it just doesn’t measure up.

Price: $15
Closure: Cork

Zema Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

Interesting bunch, these 2004 Coonawarras. It was obviously a good vintage, but what’s fascinating to me is how each maker interprets their fruit in the context of an acknowledged Australian “classic” style. So far, three wines (Leconfield, Wynns, and this), three quite different interpretations. Perhaps it’s misleading to discuss regions in terms of a singular style. Sure, there are common elements, but it’s the differences that tell the most compelling story.

Initially wild on the nose, and a bit hot, but settling quickly into classic Cabernet notes of leafiness and cool dark fruit. There’s vanilla/cedar oak too, a fair bit of it actually, but the fruit has the scale to contain it. This isn’t a shy wine at all — the nose is quite expressive and the whole thing feels generous.

The palate continues this theme with immediately accessible fruit flavours wrapped in a textured, chunky mouthfeel. Although not quite full bodied, we’re squarely in “big red wine” territory here, fruit-driven and mouthcoating. Notes of red and black fruits (with perhaps a prune or two thrown in) dominate the middle palate before giving way to more astringent flavours like brambles, black olives and tartly unripe berries. I like this progression. Really good consistency through the palate, with no dips or dead spots. Fine, ripe tannins start to blanket the tongue towards the finish. Pretty good length.

This is the kind of wine you’d want to pull out in the middle of a convivial dinner party, perhaps just as you’ve dragged that lasagne from the oven, piping hot and rich with béchamel and Bolognese. You’ve worked your way through some sparking, a riesling or two, and you’re ready for the main event. Crowd-pleasing.

Zema Estate
Price: $25
Closure: Cork

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

Quite a savoury, complex expression of Cabernet, totally different from Leconfield’s 2004 effort. This wine shows a classically leafy aroma profile, lean and a little angular, with some graphite and smokey cedar in amongst lithe blackcurrant fruit. There’s an interesting (and slightly odd) earthy note, plus a light edge of confected red fruit too. A lot going on here for a young wine.

In the mouth, equally lean but with a sour thrust that I find delicious. The entry is deceptively smooth, as it’s not until the middle palate that both sourness and fruit weight begin to register. It never reaches any particular heights in terms of presence, and at times it tastes a little dilute, but I enjoy the fact that this is a light wine, nimble and sprightly in the mouth. Tannins are firm and start to take over on the after palate. They’re a little raw at the moment and feel unevenly distributed, but add a welcome rusticity to the mouthfeel. Reasonable length.

If you must drink this now, make sure you accompany it with food, as this will smooth out the structure and fill the wine in to an extent. I think it will drink better as a more mature wine, and suspect it will transform into one of those ephemeral 1970s Coonawarra Clarets that, as aged wines, sparkle with decaying delicacy.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate
Price: $25
Closure: Cork

Leconfield Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

There was a bit of hype around 2004 Coonawarra Cabernet, so I bought a few examples but somehow never got around to tasting many. Consequently, I’m coming at this wine a fair while after its release. As an aside, I must be one of the few people on Earth who didn’t mind Leconfields “greener” wines from the 90s, and I recall the 1998 as an especially fine release.

This is a different beast altogether, though; there’s no hint of unripe fruit here. In fact, there’s barely any Coonawarra leafiness either. Instead, the nose is a mushroom cloud of smooth, elegant fruit notes and violets. There’s a hint of Christmas cake too, partly in the savoury nature of the fruit, and partly from sweet spice. Quite seductive. In the mouth, more savoury fruit that strikes me as somewhat Italianate. Medium bodied, there’s rich tobacco, smoke and licorice. It’s almost voluptuous in profile and mouthfeel. Perhaps I served it a tad too warm (easy to do in Brisbane’s Summer heat) but the wine seems to gain an extra plushness at this temperature. Tannins are soft and fine, and slightly sweet.

This is a luxury wine.

Price: $A27
Closure: Stelvin

Katnook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1999

Another wine from the cellar, this time a Coonawarra Cabernet from a vintage perhaps somewhat overshadowed by its immediate predecessor. 

A lovely colour that still shows flashes of purple in amongst its ruby clarity. On the nose, one’s first impression is that of sweet silage, backed by clean blackcurrant fruit. It’s a lovely nose and shows a nice mix of tertiary notes alongside a substantial chunk of fruited youth. There’s also a good dose of vanilla and spice oak, which accompanies the other flavours well and strikes me as assertive without being unbalanced. 
The palate is just lovely. A clean, mellow mouthfeel registers immediately on entry, and ushers in a range of flavours on the mid-palate. Here, more clean blackcurrant fruit sits alongside sweetly decaying foliage, some mint and another whack of oak. It’s medium bodied, really quite intense, and complex enough to keep my brow wrinkled with each sip. As a youngster, I’d say this would have been on the fuller side, yet its structure is still firm enough to give the palate shape and flow. As the wine moves through the after palate,  flavour flows quite linearly over the tongue. Grainy tannins also emerge, still quite drying and tea-like, and carry the wine to a persistent finish. It’s one of those wines that seems to settle on the tongue like a blanket and sit there most happily. The sweet leather of bottle age is most evident towards the finish.
I’m really enjoying this one for its complexity and generosity. Lovers of aged flavours will want to leave it for a few more years to allow further flowering, but it’s also a nice wine right now, with its mixture of young and old. 
Price: $A35
Closure: Cork
Date tasted: July 2008