FINE WINE SPECIAL REPORT
The times they are a-changin’ at the pointy end of the wine world. The most sought-after and exclusive wines of today are not just well-known luxury brands such as Grange, Krug and Domaine de la Romanee- Conti. A whole new order of highly collectible wines is emerging.
A younger generation of passionate and obsessive winemakers is busily challenging both the establishment and our expectations of wine quality. A new cohort of importers is heading overseas, bypassing the familiar names and returning with some exquisite new classics. And some of our most established winemakers are taking their best wines to extraordinary new levels. I have selected my dream dozen; a collection of new (and a couple of old, but reinvigorated) classics that would not only add to the depth of any serious wine lover’s collection, but provide immeasurable pleasure on any true flavour lover’s dining table. These wines embody the true meaning of exclusivity; they are at the pinnacle of the quality pyramid and available in sometimes painfully limited quantities.
It’s worth investing $30 for an annual “Pro” subscription to wine-searcher.com to help locate and compare the prices of these and other wines. I use it almost every day.
The most exciting, spine-tinglingly brilliant wines in Champagne are not from the well-known houses or big companies – as good as some of those luxury brands can be. They’re coming from small, independent growers such as Jean-Sebastien Fleury, Anselme Selosse, Pierre and Sophie Larmandier and David Leclapart.
Sommeliers and wine merchants in Europe and the US fight over meagre allocations of Leclapart’s champagnes, so it’s a minor miracle that any bottles manage to find their way to Australia. But I’m glad they do, because they’re exquisite. The 2006 L’Artiste, for example, has laserlike precision, purity and the unique dry, powdery taste of the region’s chalky soils.
What sets these champagnes apart – and those of the other top small growermakers – is that they are superb, nuanced, terroir- driven wines first and foremost, before they are sparkling wines. The complexity and intensity and satisfaction found in them is every bit as great as that found in the finest whites from Burgundy or the great sweet whites of Sauternes. eurocentricwine.com.au
This is the best sparkling wine to have been made in this country. An outrageous call, I know. But I honestly can’t think of another Australian sparkling wine that has had quite the same effect – goosebumps, hair-standingon-the-back-of-the-neck impact – as this one, with its extraordinary, multilayered flavours of fresh cream, baking bread, grilled nuts and a hint of leatherwood honey, finishing dry, long and profound.
The secret to the extra depth lies partly in winemaker Ed Carr sourcing the finest chardonnay and pinot noir grapes from the best cool-climate Tasmanian vineyards. But it’s mostly due to the fact that the wine has spent 10 years on its lees after the secondary fermentation, quietly building more and more flavour, before being disgorged.
Actually, I should qualify my initial statement. This is the best Australian sparkling wine to be released so far. Arras has more than a decade’s worth of subsequent vintages quietly maturing. Just imagine what treats lie in store for us, as each one is carefully disgorged and dribbled on to the market. houseofarras.com.au
There has been a revolution in the making of Australian chardonnay in the past decade. As vineyards and winemakers mature, as grapes are picked earlier, as more young wine is put into fewer new-oak barrels, the fat-and-ripe, golden-yellow, vanilla-laced chardonnay style of the 1980s and 1990s has given way to much sleeker, leaner, brighter and more minerally modern wines.
These wines are often more refined, and will possibly age better in the cellar, than their predecessors. But don’t you sometimes hanker for a chardonnay that is rich rather than racy, that does fill the mouth rather than slice across it? If so, Phillip Jones’ 2010 premium chardonnay from Gippsland in southern Victoria fits the bill precisely. Yes, there is plenty of refreshing acidity here to keep the wine juicy and bright and modern, but there’s also oodles of the most seductive yellow fruit and layer upon layer of nostalgic textural complexity.
Jones is, of course, best known for his pinots, and the 2010s are also a must-buy, as are the 2010 gamay and the rather wonderful 2011 gewurztraminer. bassphillip.com
Conceptual artwork as well as a deliciously different take on Hunter Valley semillon, the Natural Selection Theory winemaking collective’s unique Egg Project has sent ripples of both joy and horror through the Australian wine world – joy from some at the brash weirdness of it all and horror from others at, well, the brash weirdness of it all.
Each vintage, the NST boys – Sam Hughes, Anton van Klopper, Tom Shobbrook and James Erskine – wildferment and then “bottle” Hunter semillon in unique, hand-crafted ceramic eggs. These white wines, some fermented with whole berries (like red wines), are unfiltered (and therefore a little cloudy), but they are thrillingly unusual and utterly delicious. From the 2011 vintage, three slightly different variations on the theme were bottled (or “egged”), in a nod to the old Hunter “Chablis”, “Riesling” and “White Burgundy” wines of yore, i.e. different styles, but all made from semillon.
Each trio of eggs also comes with a soundtrack album, on vinyl – the idea being that you listen to the specially commissioned music while sipping on the wines. Art meets wine meets art. naturalselectiontheory.com
This might well be the single best dry riesling I have tasted. It (or, rather, an earlier vintage) is certainly the most expensive dry riesling to have been sold at auction anywhere in the world.
Klaus-Peter Keller is one of the shining stars of winemaking in the German region of Rheinhessen, south of Mainz. He crops his vineyards at ridiculously low levels – more like the tiny harvests you expect in grand cru vineyards in Burgundy – and the resulting wines have outstanding, almost impossible concentration.
The G-Max riesling, named as a tribute to his great grandfather and his son, is a selection of the best barrels from each vintage and is almost painfully intense: limes and fresh white grapes, spice and white flowers cascade across your tongue, channelling vivid grooves of flavour into your memory. Only a few bottles make it to Australia; luckily, Keller’s other wines – such as his gorgeously pristine and beautiful single-vineyard rieslings – are in slightly more plentiful supply. heartandsoil.com.au
Another deliciously bold and different white, made this time not by a rag-tag band of grape-treading anarchists, but by a refugee from corporate life. Glenn James-Pritchard was, until a couple of years ago, group red winemaker for Foster’s (now Treasury Wine Estates), but since leaving to set up his own boutique label, Ducks in a Row, with wife Amanda, he’s had an epiphany. Where once he would spend much of his time behind a desk, now you’re more likely to find him inside an old, 500-litre terracotta amphora, readying the vessel for its next batch of grapes.
In 2011, inspired by ancient winemaking methods, James co-fermented white, Heathcote-grown vermentino, fiano and moscato giallo grapes in this amphora – wild, with no additions and lots of skin contact, much as wines were made thousands of years ago. The result is magical: an intriguing, ethereal perfume of elderflowers and musky grapes, with a wonderfully spicy, satisfying textural quality on the tongue. It’s quite unlike most white wines you have ever tasted. It’s also rare – only a few hundred bottles for the world. pandorasamphora.com.au
Pyramid Valley’s pinot noirs, from a tiny patch of fastidiously farmed vines grown in remarkable white, chalky soils north of Christchurch in New Zealand, are hauntingly beautiful. Mike and Claudia Weersing spent many years searching for just the right spot to plant their own vines before they found the natural amphitheatrelike hillside at Pyramid Valley. They make two exceptional pinots from the one site (as well as wines from other top vineyard sites in New Zealand). I love the round, velvety texture and silky, rich finish of the Earth Smoke pinot (from one side of the hill), but I ever so slightly prefer the dense, spicy, tightly wound structure and wonderful complexity of the Angel Flower.
The Weersings also have a magical touch with other varieties: their 2010 savagnin rose is delicately perfumed and creamy; the 2009 Marlborough riesling is rich and apricotty; the 2010 “orange” Kerner (a skins-fermented pinot blanc-pinot gris blend) is fabulously multifaceted and nutty. pyramidvalley.co.nz
This is an audacious and controversial debut wine from a hugely ambitious vineyard and winery project in Victoria’s Yarra Valley. The wine itself, from the difficult, cool, wet vintage of 2011, is an unusual blend of mostly shiraz with some pinot noir and a splash of sauvignon blanc. The idea was to capture in the bottle the essence of place and season, rather than be guided by or try to emulate an established wine style. And I think the winemakers have succeeded: Bright and perfumed, the wine has a lovely, sinewy, sappy, forest-floor character. It’s tempting to use the French tasting term, sous-bois, a highly desirable sign of quality in that country’s top wines.
That said, this is also very much a new version of an old Australian wine story. Rather than equating quality with power, richness, body and weight (think of the black-purple monster wines that were all the rage in the late 1990s and early 2000s), Thousand Candles offers an alternative view, one of subtlety, finesse and elegance. thousandcandles.com.au
A recent tasting of 20 vintages of Clonakilla shiraz viognier cemented this Canberra red’s reputation as one of Australia’s topechelon wines, a wine as important today as Grange was back in the 1960s.
It tells an emphatic story about perfume, elegance and poise, attributes augmented by the cool, damp growing conditions for the 2011 vintage – and a very different story to the big, clunky icon shirazes of old. That elegance comes from the addition of the heady white grape viognier to the fermenting red shiraz, the cool climate and sensitive handling in the winery.
It will repay 10 or 20 years of cellaring. At the recent vertical tasting, other coolvintage examples of this wine – 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2002 – were all delicious. Clonakilla also produces smaller quantities of a straight syrah with great density of flavour, which is beginning to show signs that it may one day eclipse the shiraz viognier as the label’s top wine. clonakilla.com.au
Penfolds grabbed headlines around the world earlier this year by releasing 12 Ampoules of wine – each a handcrafted artwork in glass, silver and wood, containing a sealed vessel of 2004 Block 42 Cabernet. The $168,000 price tag for each Ampoule came with a promise that, when the proud owner decides to drink his or her purchase, Penfolds will fly a senior winemaker to any location to perform an opening ceremony.
Regardless of your view on this – marketing genius or end-of-empire insanity – you can buy a conventional bottle of the same wine for considerably less. Available at auction and from some fine wine merchants for about $ 600, the 2004 Block 42 – from a small block of gnarly vines thought to be the oldest cabernet plants on the planet – is unquestionably great: powerful yet elegant, multilayered essence of cabernet that will develop beautifully in the cellar for decades. It’s much rarer, and – some argue – even better than Penfolds’ most famous wine, Grange. penfolds.com
PENFOLDS BLOCK 42 IS THOUGHT TO BE MADE FROM SOME OF THE OLDEST CABERNET PLANTS ON THE PLANET.
The result of years of painstaking and passionate research and winemaking experimentation by wine scientist Peter Godden and wine importer Sally McGill, this is one of the best examples of the new wave of Italian varieties being planted in Australian vineyards.
Nebbiolo – originally from Italy’s northwest, where it’s responsible for the famous red wines of Barolo and Barbaresco – is notoriously difficult to grow and make well. It often produces wines that can be deceptively light in colour – almost a rusty orange – but that pack a huge punch of tongue-hugging tannin, leaving the drinker crying out for the ameliorating effects of cured pork products. By macerating the skins of their nebbiolo for more than two months in their newly fermented wine, Godden and McGill have tamed those tannins. This wine is tannic, yes, but it flows like satin through the mouth, draping your taste buds with a deep sense of savoury satisfaction.
The Adelaide Hills is emerging as an exceptional place to grow nebbiolo. As well as Arrivo, other sensational examples from the region include those made by SC Pannell, Protero and Longview. arrivo.com.au
Since 1878, the winemakers at Seppeltsfield in the Barossa have put aside the best barrels of Para port from every vintage, with the intention of bottling them when they each reach their 100th birthday. Until recently, the annual Centennial Collection Para release was almost the only way to experience this remarkable legacy. This year’s vintage, for example, the 1912, is now available in a 375ml bottle for $ 990.
However, Seppeltsfield is now offering a much wider range of vintages. In fact, every vintage before 1983 is available in 100ml bottles ($300 each for the wines from the 20th century, rising to $450 for those from the 19th). You can also buy a 375ml bottle from all the major anniversary years (1972, 1962 and so on back to 1922) for $750. And if you want something really special, such as a 375ml bottle from any of the vintages between 1882 and 1909 – as a tribute to your great-grandparents perhaps – it’s yours for $ 1500.
These are extraordinary, unforgettably intense, dark, treacly wines – unique tastes of liquid history that stay with you for life once you have tried them. seppeltsfieldcentennialcollection.com.au
From left: Bass Phillip Premium Chardonnay 2010; Seppeltsfield Para Port 1962; Pyramid Valley Angel Flower Pinor Noir 2010; Seppeltsfield Para Port 1952; Leclapart L’Artiste Blanc de Blancs 2006; Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier 2011; Arrivo Nebbiolo Lunga...
Max Allen is a wine columnist for The Weekend Australian and the award-winning author of The History of Australian Wine ($49.95, Victory Books).