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Premium Australian red wines: it's not all oak, oak, oak
Fine Australian Red Tasting, Handford Wine
Tuesday 10th October 2000
led by James Handford MW

It wasn't so long ago that Aussie reds had a reputation for sameness: impressive concentration, but all with a shared flavour profile of sweet ripe fruit and rather too much new oak. Now the rumour is that things have been changing, and the heavy wine making imprint is receding to allow the different regional characters to come to the fore. Certainly, my interest in Aussie reds has been revived in recent months by some good experiences in the Hunter Valley and Mudgee, where despite the presence of the odd old-style oak monster, there were plenty of fascinating reds which showed real complexity and common regional influences. So I was pleased to be invited as a guest to Handford wines Fine Australian Red tasting, hosted by James Handford MW (who led the tasting impressively). This featured a well chosen selection of 16 high-end Aussie reds, grouped loosely into four flights. What was really encouraging about this tasting was the sheer variety of styles and flavours. Yes, many of the wines showed concentrated ripe fruit, and there was the odd 'oak monster' of old (the Grant Burge Shadrach and Mesach were both guilty here), but otherwise there were impressive and distinctly different styles on show.

My favourites? Well, I'm wary of reputations and labels, but the 1995 Grange stood out in its own class, with its concentrated, exotic mix of flavours. It may be oaky, but there is so much intensity of fruit that you couldn't say this was overoaked. However, Grange isn't just about size: it's also a classy, balanced wine. There were two close runners up. Jim Barry's 1996 Armagh is a wine I've enjoyed before: hugely concentrated and spicily complex, with everything held in good balance. In a quite different style was the excellent Moss Wood Cabernet 1997 from Margaret River, with its creamy, seamless, concentrated blackcurrant fruit. Western Australian wines were well represented here (it's a region James Handford specializes in), and all these wines impressed with their classy fruit and regional character. A slight disappointment was the Brokenwood Graveyard 1998: the sole Hunter representative, this famous wine came across as rather simple and undistinguished. However, I was recently bowled over by my last bottle of the 1991 vintage, which I remember being much less impressive in its youth -- perhaps the 1998 has a similarly bright future? This brings me nicely round to the complex subject of ageing. How will these wines develop in the bottle? It's really up to you: how do you like your wines? The truth is, many of them are delicious now, and I'd be also confident that they'd last well for quite a while. However, I would probably err on the side of drinking them earlier rather than banking on say 15 years' future development, to catch their attractive up-front-fruit character. Even the 1995 Grange is delicious now. Yum.

The wines

Flight 1 Western Australia (this flight sort of overlapped with the first two wines of the next flight which were also from West Australia) Approximate prices where known are given in brackets.

Chestnut Grove Pinot Noir 1999, Manjimup (Great Southern), Western Australia
Light wine with pure cherry and raspberry fruit. Nice balance and good varietal character, but relies too much on primary fruit character to be compelling. Good.

Frankland Estate Isolation Ridge Shiraz 1997, Frankland River (Great Southern), Western Australia
Super wine in a very European style. Deep red/purple colour with a pronounced savoury, peppery nose. Firm tannins and peppery, raspberry-tinged fruit dominates the palate. Quite tight at the moment, but this may well evolve in the bottle. Subtle and complex with good concentration, rather like a good St Joseph in character. Very good + (c. £11)

Howard Park Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 1997, Denmark (Great Southern), Western Australia
Deep coloured wine with a forward, minty and menthol-laced nose. Tannic and ripe on the palate, this is a big wine with more of the creamy, ripe menthol character. There are flavours of blackberries and cream, and complex coffee and chocolate notes. Impressive, balanced stuff despite its size, although with a strong winemaking imprint. Very good/excellent.

Vasse Felix Heytesbury 1997, Western Australia
A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, aged in American oak. Deep coloured with a sweet menthol and eucalyptus nose. Tannic and mouthfilling with some leafy redfruit. Tasty stuff, but my only criticism is that it is perhaps a little over-ripe and jammy. Very good +


Flight 2 Cabernet Sauvignon

Vasse Felix Cabernet Sauvignon 1997, Western Australia
Thick, purple black wine with a dense, sweet nose of blackcurrant and backberries. Smooth ripe fruit dominates the palate, with soft tannins and a sweet, creamy texture. Concentrated, up-front and very drinkable. More-ish. Very good+ (c. £14)

Moss Wood Cabernet Sauvignon 1997, Margaret River, Western Australia
Purple/black colour. Concentrated, creamy blackcurrant fruit dominates the nose and palate, with a delicious core of firm tannins and mineral notes. Pure fruit combines nicely with good structure and weight. Lovely stuff, with distinctive Margaret River character; a serious wine, although you'd never mistake this for Bordeaux. Excellent. (c. £30)

Hollick Ravenswood Cabernet Sauvignon 1994, Coonawarra, South Australia
Opaque red/black colour. Restrained spicy blackcurrant and mint nose. Huge tannic beast of a wine with lots of tannin and acidity. Despite six years' age this still tastes youthful. Fierce, impressive stuff, but will it every resolve? With its dry, spicy tannins, this is almost like a high-end new wave Tuscan red. Very good/excellent (c. £20)

Grant Burge Shadrach Cabernet Sauvignon 1996
A Coonawarra/Barossa blend. A bit of an old fashioned Aussie oak monster. Sweet, forward nose of menthol and mint. Ripe palate with a ton of oak and impressive concentration, followed up with an acid kick. A big wine showing a heavy winemaking imprint. Good but not my favoured style. (c. £20)


Flight 3 Varietal blends

Grant Burge Holy Trinity 1996, South Australia
A Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvèdre blend. This is an attractive, Grenache-dominated wine without too much oak. Sweet nose of cinnamon, vanilla, herbs and tea. Light and quite heady with spicy tannins on the palate. Very good. A bit like a souped up Gigondas in style.

Henschke Keyneton Estate Shiraz/Cabernet/Malbec 1996, Barossa
Deep purple/black colour. Forward nose of spice, mint, roasted coffee and eucalyptus. Sweetly oaked fruit on the palate. Some tannins, but overall this is soft and approachable; attractive but not too complex. Very good, but there's a heavy winemaking imprint, and this will be too oaky for some. Drink up soon IMO.

Torbreck 'The Steading' 1998, Barossa
Another Grenache/ShirazMourvèdre blend. Purple/black with a ripe, earthy and slightly funky nose. Interesting palate, with sweet fruit and some tannin and a bit of herbiness. Somewhere in between the typical Australian and European styles. Good, but not compelling -- a little light.

Penfolds Grange Hermitage 1995, Barossa
Although there's a bit of Cabernet in this it's primarily a Shiraz. Australia's most famous red wine, and on this showing, from supposedly a slightly lesser year, deservedly so. Opaque red/black colour, with an enticing, exotic nose of tar, leather, mint, herbs, eucalyptus and menthol. On the palate it is tannic, with dense fruit, spicy complexity and quite high acidity. It's a lovely, complex, well balanced wine -- there really is enough of everything to balance the substantial new oak and ripe fruit. Approachable now if you don't mind the firm tannins; shows enough character to make it a compelling drink. Excellent.


Flight 4 Shiraz

Ralph Fowler Shiraz 1998, Coonawarra
Another red/black wine with impressive concentration and character. Understated nose leads to a palate dominated by spicy, sweet fruit and moderate tannic structure. May evolve nicely with some bottle age. Good/very good.

Grant Burge Meshach Shiraz 1995, Barossa
A huge, bold wine with a minty, eucalyptus nose and noticeable American oak. Ripe and full on the palate, with spicy/sweet coconut and vanilla-laced fruit. Too sweet and jammy for me, but good.

Brokenwood Graveyard Shiraz 1998, Hunter Valley
Quite restrained in comparison with the other big high-end Aussie reds, I was a little disappointed by this. I had the 1991 a fortnight ago and it showed lovely evolution and complexity -- let's hope the 1998 has a similar bright future ahead of it, because at the moment it shows moderately concentrated, rather simple sweet fruit and a bit of oak (American?). (c. £30)

Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 1996, Clare Valley
Superb stuff; big but balanced. Rich, sweet, spicy and complex, with firm tannins and huge concentration. Exotic wine, but not overblown: rounded, complete and mouthfilling, with no awkward edges. Very good/excellent. (c. £35)

Contact details:
Handford Wine

12 Portland Road
Holland Park
London W11 4LE
Phone: 020 7221 9614
Fax: 020 7221 9613
E-mail: james@handford-wine.demon.co.uk