Blue Poles Reserve Merlot 2011

Time to check in on the new release of one of Australia’s few deadly serious renditions of Merlot.

This always tends to savouriness, and the 2011 vintage is no exception. On opening, firm aromas of char, black olive, charcuterie and bitumen. There’s a sappy freshness that underlines these robust notes, giving the aroma a sweet tension that bounces between hard and soft. I like the contrasts, and it’s so beautiful to smell an Australian Merlot that has been made with angularity and savouriness in mind. Keeping in mind this is a very young wine — not yet released in fact — it’s somewhat churlish to note the oak aromas are ever-so-slightly prominent right now, but nothing that suggests any fundamental imbalance.

The palate is as uncompromising as the nose suggests. Structurally abundant, this is a fairly firm experience right now, driven by fine tannins and a firm yet well-integrated acid line. Flavours hit the tongue with impact and clarity, and it’s here the wine’s red fruit is most in evidence, gliding through the mid-palate with a certain elegance. The after palate is quite high toned and edgy at the moment, attributes I suspect will become less apparent as the wine ages. A particularly fine finish closes the line on a positive note.

History with this label suggests some medium term cellaring will bring substantial benefits, and I’d be giving any bottles a rest before tucking in. Though young, it’s a wine that shows fundamental balance and satisfying savouriness.

Update: day two and the wine is opening up nicely. Its fruit has stepped forward and is showing a sweeter countenance, making the wine somewhat easier to approach.

Blue Poles Vineyard
Price: $A40
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Blue Poles Allouran 2010

Although its Reserve Merlot is positioned as the flagship, Blue Poles Vineyard’s Allouran is usually my favourite in the range. For starters, I do enjoy a bit of Cabernet Franc. To this label, it contributes a light elegance that has always struck me as especially attractive, and this 2010 vintage wine is no exception. This might be the most refined expression yet.

Aromatically, this blends the floral and ripe red capsicum notes I associate with Cabernet Franc with the graphite I associate with Merlot from this vineyard. It’s a good combination, the aroma profile capturing a full range of notes from high toned to bass. It’s not especially fruit-sweet, but there’s a core of the prettiest, most luxurious red berries surrounded by ripe flowers. Oak is there, providing a few extra notes around the edges.

One would have to enjoy a bit of acid to really love this wine and, as it happens, I do. Entry is bright with red fruit and sap, moving to a mid-palate of good focus and precision. There’s a hint of expansiveness here that suggests the wine will grow in weight and generosity with time. Even now, it’s intense and complex. The after palate is strikingly savoury and presents a mix of red capsicum and coffee grounds that move naturally into a tannin structure of considerable finesse. Indeed, texture becomes the primary pleasure as the wine moves through its extended finish.

Although this is a 2010 vintage wine, it’s not yet released and rightly so — it’s still incredibly young-tasting. Very good value. I do believe I’ll be buying some.

Blue Poles Vineyard
Price: $A28
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Alkoomi Cabernets 2011

I lingered a little in Frankland River last May. Of all the sub-regions in Great Southern, this felt the most isolated and pastoral and, in being so, made flesh what I had until that point only been able to imagine about the region. To drive from Manjimup to Frankland River is in some ways to travel into the vastness of Australian agricultural life. Magnificent forests of impossibly tall trees give way to farmland that, in its cultivation, shows another side of the landscape’s beauty. I’d say it’s a pity it’s so isolated, but that isolation is an integral part of Frankland River’s appeal. To know you’re hours from a city of any significance makes the experience of being there so much more vivid.

I sometimes wonder about the challenge of marketing Great Southern wines. It’s as if the region’s remoteness translates to an equally remote connection those of us on the east coast feel for the producers who toil there. In any case, even a cursory taste of the region’s wines is sufficient to demonstrate this vast region, with its varied sub-regions, is capable of wines of exceptional quality. I had great visits with Alkoomi and Frankland Estate while in the sub-region, and was lucky to spend some time with Alkoomi’s winemaker Andrew Cherry when I popped in on a Sunday. Lots of wines impressed, but this particular wine stood out not just for its taste but for the value on offer.

It’s a real Bordeaux blend, this one, with all fruit harvested from the estate’s vineyard in quite a warm year. The aroma is thick with purple and black berries, and the floral lift I associate with Petit Verdot in particular. There are darker edges too, of damp twig and black spice, that add depth and savouriness to the aroma. What marks this, perhaps, as a wine of value is a certain lack of definition, of delineation between notes, that means the aroma tends to blurriness. Nonetheless, a nice wine to smell.

The palate tells a similar story. Berry flavour floods the mouth and is of a quality and character that far transcends its price point. This wine has especially good continuity down its line, with no unseemly peaks or troughs. It’s medium bodied and fresh-tasting, with ripe tannins that tighten the after palate and introduce a welcome textural dimension. As with the nose, flavours tend to blur into one another, and the wine lacks the sort of precise articulation one sees at higher price points.

Still, a real bargain at $18 and a great taste of Frankland River Cabernets.

Price: $A18
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Retail

Woodlands Margaret 2011

A blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot and 14% Malbec.

This, like the 2011 Cullen Kevin John I wrote about yesterday, changed a lot over the course of my time with it. Unlike the Chardonnay, however, its evolution was entirely positive.

At first, I thought I might have wasted the $45 this cost me, as the wine I poured bore little resemblance to the deliciousness I had tasted at cellar door and on which basis I made my purchase. Masses of bright, sweet fruit — varietal enough but completely overwhelming — shot off in one direction while oak and structure scurried away separately, like friends who have just fallen out over who might be the prettiest of all. Hanging over the whole, like a toxic cloud, that unpleasant, faintly doughy malolactic fermentation smell, hammering one last nail into the coffin of a wine I was ready to write off as an unfortunate product of its warm vintage.

But what a dramatic difference on day two. After a bit of time and air, savouriness returns to this wine with a smack, and with it vastly improved integration of its elements. No doughy smells, either; indeed, this is squeaky clean. With a diminution of fruit volume, the wine’s elegance steps forward, a dusty note overlaying fresh mulberry fruit and snapped twig on the nose, brown spices and oak making a contribution, perhaps not quite as connected as they might be with more time, but nonetheless still very much part of the wine. The palate is medium bodied and, despite generous fruit, elegant, with abundant, fine tannins setting over the after palate and firm acid throughout. I was dissatisfied with the 2007 vintage due to its, for my taste, perversely light weight; the 2011 seems a more balanced wine in this regard.

I do feel this has been released very early and, hopefully, with a bit more time in bottle it will present better on opening. As it is now, be sure to give it plenty of air before any serious contemplation.

Price: $A45
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Retail

Terra Tangra TT 2009

It’s amazing what turns up when people find out you like wine. For example, a friend recently brought this back from a holiday to his native Bulgaria; a lovely gift as I have exactly zero experience with Bulgarian wine, even though the country has a long history of winemaking and is a somewhat prolific contemporary producer. This is a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah from a vineyard in the Thracian Valley region, all grown organically.

A spongey, fragile cork was slightly concerning as I opened the bottle, but the wine is clean. The aroma is quite confronting, not because its notes are difficult but because it’s easy; so easy that I’m almost inclined to preserve my modesty (and its dignity) and look away. Yes, this is terribly keen to give it away and makes no secret of its intentions. In wine as in life, this is sometimes appropriate (indeed welcome), so I suggest this is a wine that merely needs to find the right occasion. Soft fruits, a prickle of leaf, spice.

The palate is interesting because the ease of its aroma translates to a buxom mouthfeel and a fruit flavour profile that suggests a hint of residual sugar; I don’t have the technical details of this wine to hand so I can’t confirm if this is the case. Flavours are mostly dark and berry-oriented, with a full burst of red fruits on the middle palate. This is 60% Merlot and it shows. There are also edges of overripeness, which detract a little even as they add savouriness. Structure isn’t a feature, though there’s enough acid to prop up the line. Fruit sweetness hangs over the after palate and finish, the latter of which is more persistent than I expected.

Drinkable and (to me) quite different.

Terra Tangra
Price: N/A
Closure: Cork
Source: Gift

Offcuts: Blue Poles dinner

Wine dinners aren’t something I make a habit of; at least, not those run by producers. It’s not an in principle objection – I simply prefer, most of the time, a wider range of wines with dinner than might be offered by a single maker. The temptation of back vintages and verticals, however, can be strong, as can the promise of highly amusing company. Mark Gifford from Blue Poles Vineyard is most certainly that, so it was with pleasure that I attended the recent Blue Poles dinner in Brisbane.

The boutique producer’s dilemma must seem intractable at times: what to produce? How to get noticed? Whose attention to court? I won’t venture to suggest I have any answers, but I know I respond to a focused portfolio that communicates identity and intent rather than a wide range of wines that, together, lack coherence. Although it contains a highly drinkable Viognier and Shiraz, the Blue Poles portfolio stands out for its beautiful, uncompromising Bordeaux-inspired wines, as well as a quirky Teroldego.

Dinner was the first time I have tasted all the Blue Poles Reserve Merlots side by side, and they really do justify the praise I and many other wine writers have given them. The 2007 is by far the richest of the three and is starting to show an aged character that meshes superbly with its primary fruit. Very Bordeaux-like, this one, and quite mouthfilling. The 2008 and 2010 are both very tight, still, and it took about half an hour of swirling to coax from the 2010 more than the aroma of iron filings. When it did start to unfold, I felt it was the most precise wine of the three. The way it lands in the mouth, articulating its flavours with such clarity, is truly impressive. They keep getting better, these Merlots and, although there isn’t a great deal of competition, they are surely amongst the best of this varietal made in Australia.

The Allouran, a Merlot Cabernet Franc blend, is a lighter wine, less masculine than the straight Merlot. Both the 2007 and 2008 seem quite primary, with fresh fruit and bright, acid-driven structures. I can see these being overlooked in favour of the Merlot, but for my taste their flavour profiles show a light and shade that is subtle and attractive. Quite unforced as a style.

There was some discussion regarding the clear influence exerted by Bordeaux on these wines. Blue Poles has never been shy of admitting this stylistic lineage, and is far from the only producer to explicitly claim Old World wines as a starting point. However, what is emerging from the portfolio over time is a coherence on its own terms. These wines don’t taste like imitations of something else, despite strong nods to classic models. I look forward to further releases and the ongoing conversation between style and terroir.

The new release Teroldego is a fascinating interpretation of the “drink now” red wine. What often typifies this category of wine is a simplicity and fruit-forwardness the Teroldego almost entirely lacks. Its argument, rather, is one of chewy tannin, charismatic masculinity and an apparent absence of fruit. To be sure, dark berry fruit underlines the flavour profile, but it’s so joyously secondary that one is drawn immediately to other aspects of the wine. Despite this, it’s highly drinkable, a term not often associated with primarily structural wines. A contradiction, then, in all sorts of ways, and one I look forward to drinking again.

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

Dowie Doole Merlot 2010

It was an exciting day recently when Dowie Doole’s new releases arrived at my door. As the producer of utterly unpretentious, highly drinkable McLaren Vale reds (in addition to be being somewhat of a Chenin Blanc specialist), I feel Dowie Doole’s wines engage the most appealing sides of the region’s character. The PR material that came with these samples informs me that a new winemaker, Chris Thomas, has been appointed, so I’m curious to see if any stylistic changes are the result.

I’ve a soft spot in particular for the regular Merlot, not because it’s a $60 wine in disguise, but for its extreme deliciousness of the pure plum variety. This 2010 version certainly has plenty of tasty fruit, but also shows an extra dimension of varietal character that I’ve not noticed before. Where previous releases have been all about luscious berries, this wine’s aroma has a distinctly herbal, green olive side that certainly adds complexity. It grants the wine an altogether more serious vibe, not angular or difficult so much as savoury and adult.

In the mouth, an elegant experience that, again, takes things up a notch from previous releases. It’s still utterly fruit-driven, to be sure, but with its moderate weight and cleanly articulated flavours, there’s a sophistication here that is most pleasing. A nice gravel note sits alongside poised red fruit and subtle oak, all supported by plentiful acid and raspy tannins. The line has a nice rise and fall, trailing off through the after palate and surprisingly long finish.

I’m really impressed with this wine. It shows a slightly different direction from earlier years, and part of me misses the simple fruitiness of those wines. There’s no denying, however, the appeal of what’s in my glass now.

Dowie Doole
Price: $A22
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Capital Wines The Backbencher Merlot 2010

Capital Wines’ premium Kyeema Merlot piqued my interest in this second label wine. I find it endlessly interesting to see how producers differentiate their lower level releases from their premium labels. Some seem to chase vastly different styles (for example, heavily oaked reserves wines versus fruit-driven entry level wines), while others attach a more nuanced appeal to more expensive wines through exotic vineyards, small quantities, and other canonical markers of vinous authenticity, singly or in combination. In this case, the back label suggests fruit for this wine is sourced from the Kyeema vineyard, the very same vineyard whose grapes power the reserve wine. I presume, therefore, the difference lies in part in fruit selection.

Immediately on smelling it, the oak treatment here is less prominent, pushing fruit forward in the aroma profile. The fruit’s character is particularly interesting. It has the same savouriness as the Kyeema, with perhaps a simpler touch and more rounded expression. It remains light years away from many other Australian Merlots in character. The fruit seems at times to lack vibrancy and freshness, though this does not detract from its generosity and distinctiveness.

The palate is, in some ways, more approachable than the Kyeema, being less bright with acid and hence more mellifluous in flow. Tannins are also less astringent here, allowing the wine to relax through the back palate. Despite all this, it’s still a well-structured wine, showing good flow and focus. Flavours sit in a red berry and herb spectrum, fruit three quarters savoury and one quarter strikingly sweet. It’s an interesting tension, not entirely resolved, overridingly fun. I like this very much, despite its more modest aspirations compared to the Kyeema wine. Both wines are valuable expressions of this varietal in an Australian context.

Capital Wines
Price: $A25
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample

Capital Wines Kyeema Vineyard Merlot 2009

It’s just under a month ago that my computer’s hard drive failed in a not-catastrophic (I back up, of course) but certainly inconvenient fashion. It’s taken me this long to get the thing fixed, and in the meantime there’s been no blogging, and very little drinking, to speak of. This is not a bad thing; for starters, I’ve been able to amply prove to myself that drinking isn’t entirely responsible for my state of overweightedness. Anyway, such a long absence begs the question what to drink upon my return. I’ve decided to try this sample, sent in by Capital Wines in response, I think, to my ongoing quest for decent Australian Merlot. At $A46, this is certainly priced in a premium bracket for a local example of the varietal.

Interestingly, it’s not styled aggressively in the manner of (too) many reserve-level wines. The nose is savoury and well-fruited, staying well away from the sort of facile plushness that can plague this varietal. It’s actually a very interesting aroma profile, lean and almost edgy, with good complexity along roast meat and herb lines. I’m not a fan of the notes deriving from what I presume is the oak treatment; too obviously nougat-caramel for the sophistication of the fruit. The palate is equally fine-boned, throwing in a decent amount of fresh acid that, for me, brings the fruit to life, if somewhat aggressively. Entry is direct, flowing to a bright middle palate full of red fruit and brown herbs. Medium bodied at most, this wine’s styling is fundamentally unforced, communicating an attractive earthiness and ease. The after palate lifts with some astringency and slightly raw tannins, which add rusticity even as they detract slightly from the sophistication of the flavour profile. The finish is light and long.

This isn’t a perfect wine by any means, but it’s one of the most compelling expressions of Merlot I’ve tried from a local producer. It offers a strikingly alternative view of the grape, daring to head down a stylistic path that will confound some drinkers just as it charms others.

Capital Wines
Price: $A46
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Sample