Old Aussies

Old Aussies

(This article was published in WBM Australia’s Wine Business Magazine in August 2010. The final text published may have been edited.)

The Second Tuesday Club is a group of industry types who meet monthly in Sydney. Most are in the retail trade, but we include writers, managers and the occasional winemaker and chef. Recent themes have included New Zealand Pinot noirs, red and white Burgundies and Austria. The July dinner featured old Australian wines which, as usual, showed more as a group than did the individual wines.

Leeuwin Estate Chardonnay 1995 in magnum was excellent at 15 years, not something many Australian Chardonnays of the era could aspire to. It was richly flavoured, with peach, crème brulée and savoury, nutty complexity, yet retained excellent balance and style. The fruit/oak integration was absolutely perfect. The quality of the wine, as usual, was driven by the remarkable Block 20 – one of the best examples of how we’re discovering the small-scale differences in terroir that contribute to our best wines.

The sole Riesling was Leo Buring’s 1990 Eden Valley DWT18, which showed wonderful lemon curd and nutty development and just a hint of kerosene. The bottle I had three years ago was somewhat fresher, but this one was still wonderful for a 20 year-old.

Two old Hunter Semillons were superb. Rothbury Estate Individual Paddock 1979 was a wonderful example of mature Semillon, with rich vanilla, lemon curd and toasty flavours and great length. The wine came from Blocks B, C and E of the Rothbury Vineyard near the winery. It was made by Gerry Sissingh, in a remarkable decade when Rothbury was the outstanding maker of Hunter Semillon. Gerry had an absolute attention to detail with these wines akin to John Vickery with Riesling and it showed in their ability to retain freshness with age. Its partner was the Lindemans 1970 “Chablis” Bin 3875, a famous multi-trophy winner that more than lived up to its reputation. It was fresh and tight, with fabulous vanilla, lemon and toasty complexity. This was one of a trio of great Lindemans Semillons from 1970. Phil Laffer, who was at the time the chief production manager for Lindemans, remembers the wine well. “It was the most elegant and had the lowest pH of the three” he said last week.

How is it that these wines can live for so long? Even ullaged bottles of the great old Semillons still open well. Very clean juice, low phenolics and low pH are mandatory, followed by scrupulous care in handling the wine after fermentation, in particular avoiding the slightest contact with air.

The three most remarkable reds came from the Yarra, the Hunter and Coonawarra. 1986 Yeringberg Cabernet was still fresh, with delicate, yet intense blackcurrant fruit and a gorgeously fine balance. The flavours were fully ripe and yet the wine had only 11.8% alcohol. The Yarra had a very wet December, was dry through January and February and then saw a hot March. Sandra de Pury told me the harvest was late. “The leaves were falling off and the vines had stalled”, she told me, and yet the wine has fully ripe flavours and tannins.

The Hunter was Tyrrells Vat 61 Dry Red 1967 (Shiraz), where ‘vat’ refers to the 5,000 litre cask the wine had matured in. It would have seen no small or new oak. The wine had a fairly pale brick colour but an intensely perfumed nose, with sweet red berries, cedar and complex earthy development. It was only medium bodied, quite softly balanced with fine tannins, and yet had rich flavours and showed no signs of tiring. 1967 was regarded as just a moderate year for Hunter reds, with well-spaced rain through the season and a dry harvest. Bruce Tyrrell told me he thought the wine came off the Short Flat in front of his father’s house, or possibly the 8-acre vineyard. The casks in the ‘60’ series usually had the “overflow” from the top Vats like 9 and 11 when yields were good. The wine probably had only 12.5% alcohol.

Wynns John Riddoch 1982 Cabernet combined depth of flavour with elegance and perfect balance. It still had sweet, primary fruit, but with a complex overlay of cedar and tobacco, and fine tannins. Sue Hodder told me this, the first Riddoch, was a barrel selection from the Black Label. It came largely from Johnson’s Block, planted in 1954, with some fruit from Majella. The label declared only 12.1% alcohol and yet the wine would clearly hold in bottle for some years, as would the Yeringberg and Tyrrells.

Other impressive reds were 1996 Penfolds Block 42 Cabernet, 1992 Mount Mary Merlot (which I never knew existed) and Clarendon Hills Romas Old Vines Grenache 1999. And if there’s still anyone who thinks Australian Pinot noir doesn’t age well, 1994 Bannockburn Serré would have changed his mind. It was plump and beautifully balanced, with rich, red fruits, five-spice and cedar and just a touch of farmyard complexity.

There’s much more that comes from these tastings than mere hedonism. We all know that Hunter Semillon can age brilliantly with only 10.5 to 11% alcohol, but that the three oldest reds would have opened so well with relatively low alcohols too was notable. All three had fully ripe tannins without a trace of greenness, which undoubtedly helped their cause. Almost all winemakers I speak to are aware of the issues with highly alcoholic reds and are trying to reduce the levels, but most struggle. (And yet, Mac Forbes, with his 2007 Hugh Cabernet at 12.5%, shows it can be done.) This is not the occasion to discuss the background to high Baumé musts, but unbalanced, over-luxuriant vines have a lot to do with it.

The wines said clearly that Australian wine is not just about size, but can achieve elegance with no sacrifice of flavour and longevity. They were an outstanding demonstration of regional expression in our wines and how brilliantly they can age. The more we can show such wines to our international markets the better, which is why we should take the opportunity to do so as individual companies and throw strong support behind tastings such as the Landmark Tutorial and those run by Langton’s and others overseas.