Just on my way back from the Institute of Masters of Wine Australian Shiraz Masterclass. It was led by a distinguished group of Aussie winegrowers: Tim Kirk (Clonakilla), Julian Castagna, Prue Henschke, John Duval and Ron Laughton (Jasper Hill).
The line up of wines, was – on paper at least – quite stellar. Sally Easton MW had chosen them, and she did a great job. But on the day I found several to be quite disappointing. Sometimes wines just don’t show their best.
The Clarendon Hills Astralis 2004 and Torbreck Runrig 2006 were just too ripe, sweet, big and soupy. Bird in Hand Nest Egg Shiraz showed just simple fruit; Henschke Hill of Grace 1986 was on its last legs (very dry finish, quite evolved); Hill of Grace 2006 was all simple open fruit and five spice; Rockford Basket Press 2005 was simple and too alcoholic; Paringa Estate Reserve Syrah 2007 was a bit monolithic and oaky despite nice acidity and bright fruit; and Dahlwhinnie The Eagle 2005 was prematurely evolved, although it did show nice complexity.
But let’s be positive. There were also some wonderful wines. Tim Kirk’s Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2009 was thrillingly elegant, and the 2005 was also beautiful. Julian Castagna’s Genesis Syrah 2008 was elegant, complex and nicely meaty. Brokenwood Graveyard 2009 is just a baby, but it’s really pure and linear with lovely acidity. Jasper Hill Georgia’s Paddock is fresh, expressive and delicious and Penfolds RWT 2008 shows lovely purity of fruit and real definition.
The chat was good too. Prue had a mini rant about ‘green’ tannins. She thinks that this is a problem with much French Syrah. She says that when she tastes most lesser French Syrahs she thinks that the winemaker hasn’t been tasting in the vineyard. She also thinks green tannins never resolve with age and that these wines are only for people who have a personal preference for them – everyone else ‘should avoid them like the plague.’ I bet she wouldn’t like many of the northern Rhone Syrahs that I love. I disagree with this Aussie idea that tannins have to be tamed in the vineyard. That’s what elevage is for.
This led to a discussion about tasting grapes in the vineyard. There has been a big change, says John Duval, whose wines fit comfortably into the elegant new-Barossa style. 40 years ago winemakers didn’t go into the vineyard, he recalled. Now they walk the rows tasting the fruit. In his view, it is one of the factors that has contributed to rising alcohol levels. Winemakers say they are looking for ripe fruit flavours; for physiological maturity. Tim Kirk suggested that by time you get the flavours you want in the grapes, it’s probably too late. You have to then pick the vineyard, and in the delay between the tasting and the picking the flavours can be lost and the sugar levels can rise. Prue, however, was very keen on tasting and waiting for ripe tannins in the grapes, and Julian Castagna says that he doesn’t do any analysis of his grapes until the taste is right.
The issue of alcohol is indeed a thorny question, and it was raised by the audience. Old Australian classics used to have much lower alcohol levels; one of the wines in this tasting was 16% and another was 15%. Prue doesn’t think it’s necessarily a problem.
Tim Kirk raised an interesting point about the wrong steer that Australian Shiraz took a few years back. He thinks that American critic Robert Parker has a great palate, but that he has a preference for ripe wines, and the sorts of wines that he gave high scores to in Australia were very ripe, rich styles. The wines got stratospheric scores, and sold for high prices, so more people made wines in this stylistic direction. It was a big mistake.
So, a very interesting tasting and discussion that gave much food for thought. And 24 rather diverse wines. A treat for a Monday morning.