Ridge Lytton Springs 2005

Wine lovers are often bargain hunters too, perhaps by necessity. Back in 2002, Chris and I happened to be in the same city at the same time (Sydney), and experienced the joy of locating, then purchasing, an entire stash of 1994 Ridge Geyserville from a little bottle shop in Chinatown. To find such a wine was grand enough, but the proprietors of the bottle shop in which it lay clearly had no idea what it was, and were happy to sell us the lot for (from memory) about ten dollars a bottle.

Of course, wines of such dodgy provenance often prove disappointing, let alone ones made of a grape (Zinfandel) whose ability to age is contested. But the first bottle we opened that night — before our most memorable dinner — was good, and so was every bottle tasted thereafter. I’ve long finished my half of the stash, but the memory of both the find and the consumption remain vivid. Chris regularly stokes these fond recollections by providing a bottle or two of Ridge wine whenever we meet to drink, so over the years I’ve been lucky enough to taste everything from various Monte Bellos to a spectacular Syrah that gave a bottle of 2001 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier tasted alongside a run for its money. I remember approaching that Syrah after some initial courses of German Riesling and so on; we were at that point in a grand dinner where the company, food and alcohol begin to meld into a single warm sensation. I smelled it once, not knowing what to expect, and was completely unable to control a spontaneous éclat of laughter. It was so wonderful.

All of which makes it difficult for me to write objectively about Ridge wines. In a sense, though, to approach this wine through a lens of dispassionate evaluation is to miss both what it means to me and what it represents, stylistically. Although I had never tasted this particular vintage before last night, the warm prickliness of its aroma was immediately transportative. To me, this smells of Californian wine, and for that alone I grant it enormous value. Each time I taste a Zinfandel-based wine, in particular those by Ridge, I love the difference of its flavour profile. Here, there’s intense spice and fruit cake, abundant chocolate, coconut and cherries. It’s as if someone stuffed a Cherry Ripe into the ripest, richest Christmas cake imaginable. Hence, it’s not an elegant wine in either character or footprint, and I love that it presents its notes with such blustery confidence.

The palate rebalances the aroma’s intense spice by providing a core of sweet, bright red fruit that cools the flavour profile. Entry is crisp and immediate, starting dark but quickly brightening to show a mix of red and black fruits. These fruits are juicy and perfectly ripened and provide much of the pleasure of eating freshly picked berries. Swirling all around this core are warm, rich spice notes, well-balanced mocha oak and a streak of bright orange juice. The finish leaves one with a lingering impression of the purest, sweetest fruit. Structurally, this is quite spectacular, the acid totally integrated and the tannins chewy and sweet. It’s taken a day to really open up, so I’d be leaving further bottles in the cellar for at least two to three more years before retasting.

In a sense, tasting a single wine prompts one to reflect on the entirety of one’s tasting experiences. This is what makes wine a pastime that becomes exponentially richer as the years pass, and also what can magnify the experience of one wine beyond all proportion. Happily, this wine was able to bear the full weight of my memories.

Price: £25
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

Stanton & Killeen Vintage Port 2001

A tasting earlier this year at the Stanton & Killeen cellar door was notable for a lineup of quite spectacular vintage ports (and for the relative lack of excitement generated by its muscats and tokays, usually the highlight of any Rutherglen cellar door). These wines are interesting in part through their mixing of Portuguese grape varieties with Shiraz, traditionally used in Australian VP styles, and Durif, a variety strongly associated with the Rutherglen. What’s pleasing is how achieved the resultant wines can be.

A light yet piercing, complex aroma showing grilled nuts, dried fruits, old wood, and a streak of banana-skin freshness that I’m probably describing badly but which strikes me as distinctive and attractive. In short, there’s plenty going on, yet there’s a mellow, relaxed vibe to the whole that suggests settled confidence and encourages contemplative consumption.

The palate is again both light and powerful. The wine’s essentially savoury character established by the aroma carries through here, with few stylistic concessions to the Shiraz component. Indeed, this is very far from a typical Shiraz VP, a style I happen to love but which typically shows much richer, fuller fruit flavours than are present here. So, the key to enjoying this is to observe more delicate flavour components and savour the transparency that comes with lighter wines. Deliciously savoury fruits, peel, nuts, nougat. A well-balanced line that maintains strength right through the rather long finish.

I had this with some plum pudding on the big day, and it was somewhat overwhelmed. It’s much better tonight on its own, a light yet utterly indulgent dessert.

Stanton & Killeen
Price: $A28
Closure: Cork
Source: Retail

J. Rickards Petite Sirah 2005

This is one of those wines that you can tell someone’s opened even if you’re deaf – the smell’s going to hunt you down right quick like. Absolutely massive, tending towards pruny, and very much in line with an Australian port wine style, the nose is wonderfully rich and fruity, sporting a jaunty undercurrent of saddle leather and cigar wrapper. Thing is, though, it doesn’t smell sweet as much as it does rich; we are in emphatically New World territory here and it makes me just a bit giddy smelling this, especially as I attended a wedding in Marin County last weekend and spent some of Sunday driving around Dry Creek and Alexander valleys. It’s beautiful up there, rolling hills and redwood forests, California oaks loping across the hills, and it’s no surprise this wine came from there.Initially just a bit hesitant, the wine comes across as fairly prickly with aggressive tannins; if you were expecting a silky-smooth, velvety fruit bomb that will sell by the pallet at Costco, this wine sure isn’t it. (This is my not very subtle way of saying that the resemblance to Mollydooker, Marquis-Philips, and other New World huge-smelling wines ends right here). This wine tastes much more serious than the nose would have you believe; it’s a bruiser. If Tim Burton ever developed a violet pastille candy for sullen goths, it would taste like this wine does. Black, black fruit oozes murkily behind a veil of arrogant dark chocolate spice, sneaking out on a rough-hewn plank of to-die-for oak that leaves you with nothing but a haunted memory of those few languid moments where you enjoyed this wine. The overall effect is of dark beauty; this wine sure smells like you’re going to get a snootful of over the top California fruit, but the winemaker has chosen instead to foreground the heaviness. This is an absolutely stunning wine and something any Californian should be proud to point to as a wine style that is peculiarly ours – even though this is essentially the same as a Rutherglen durif in terms of genetics, the grape seems to go darker here than it does in Victoria, providing a somewhat less earthy and (to me) even harder wine that (if treated well by the winemaker) results in a profound beauty that reminds me of port (the hugeness), Chinon (the hard edges), and Argentine malbec (the darkness) all at the same time.Best of all, this wine is absurdly underpriced for what it is. Buy it now before the cultists discover it.J. Rickards
Price: $24
Closure: Cork

Deen De Bortoli Vat 1 Durif 2006

Durif isn’t a variety you see too much of, especially outside the Rutherglen and surrounds. This wine, made from Riverina grapes, is part of De Bortoli’s value-priced “Deen” range. De Bortoli does better than most with its wines at the lower end of the market, so I’ve been looking forward to tasting this curiosity.

An attractive nose, with plum, some spice and a darker, slightly vegetal oak character that adds depth without any hint of unripeness. A bit of lift too. The fruit character is ever so slightly confected, but because the aroma profile is dark and dense, it’s not unduly distracting. The palate shows an interesting array of flavours. There’s a rich, very ripe plum note, teetering on overripe, held in check by a range of savoury influences (including quite prominent oak) that, together, create a flavour profile miles away from the sweetness of many cheaper red wines. Definition isn’t all that great, but it’s a very generous wine, with heaps of flavour and good presence in the mouth. Mouthfeel is interesting, being a little rough and almost spritzy, whilst also showing ripe, slightly chunky tannins. Intensity of flavour tapers off through the after palate and the finish isn’t all that long.

Ridge Vineyards Petite Sirah Lytton Estate 2002

Straight out of the bottle, you know right away that this wine isn’t like most other wines. More than anything else, it’s the color that looks strange: surely wine isn’t quite that dark? There’s a brownish tint that looks more like Kyoto pickle than actual fermented grape juice; it’s not age, but intensity that makes it look that way.On the nose, it’s all sweet dusty bramble. In fact, it’s so odd that part of me is wondering if the bottle is OK: is that TCA? Brettanomyces? Or is that normal? It’s hard to get past the killer sweetness and onto a real wine smell. Jeez, Paul, do you think it would kill you to stop using natural corks? There’s almost a smoked bacon note there, but again and again that weird smell takes over. Is it supposed to smell like that?In the mouth, it gets even stranger: there’s a persistent, tooth-coating fuzziness that’s fairly unpleasant combined with, well, nothing.Dang it, this bottle’s bad. Glad I bought a pair of them… let’s go open the next one…Well, it almost smelled like wine there for a second, and then poof, it smells like tinfoil and metal shavings. WTF? Same horrible taste: vague sweetness and harsh, grating tannins.Next week in Full Pour: Will Ridge respond to my E-mail asking about this wine, and if they do, what will they say? User error? We meant for it to taste like you’re drinking it out of a Capri-Sun pouch? Gosh, we’re sorry, must be a fluke? Gosh, we’re really sorry, but they’re all bad? Or will they say sorry, nice try, but we don’t believe you and won’t refund your $60? Stay tuned…Ridge Vineyards

Price: US $30
Closure: Cork
Date tasted: December 2007