By The Wine Guys, Tom Marquardt and Patrick Darr
In is not uncommon among winemakers to age wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piedmont and even California. But Australia? Except for the exceptional wines from Penfolds, shiraz is not often in cellars. That’s unfortunate because shiraz can be more than a wine to serve with pizza.
Just ask Mark Davidson, the head of education in Australia.
“It is fairly consistent for sommeliers to hear the wines from Australia don’t age very well. Except when they do,” he said. “We have such gorgeous fruit and sometimes that fruit hides complexity. But if you have patience, you see the wonderful development in the wine.”
Davidson was one of several people to demonstrate the ageability of shiraz from southern Australia during a recent program at the San Francisco Wine School. The program included Chester Osborn of d’Arenberg in McLaren Vale and Ian Hongell of Torbreck in the Barossa Valley. These are two extraordinary winemakers whose wines rise above most others. We’ve been big fans of d’Arenberg for years.
Shiraz, the most planted grape variety in Australia, is deceiving in its youth. The lively, fresh fruit can mask the tannins and leave the impression there is nothing there to give it legs. But over time shiraz develops some earthy and savory notes. After tasting different vintages side by side, we prefer the younger wines or maybe some not as old. But we don’t doubt their ageability.
Osborn attributed his wine’s endurance on the terroir of the McLaren Vale. He says the soils are complex and the region relatively cool, which gives the wine good acidity needed for aging.
Ian Hongell, chief winemaker at the well-respected Torbreck winery in the Barossa Valley, said wines from his region are more opulent.
“Underneath are developed tannins which set up longevity. The primary plummy fruit starts to evolve in 5 to 10 years with secondary flavors like cedar, tobacco and a lovely forest floor at 20 years.”
The Torbreck “The Factor” is a phenomenal wine. The 2010 we sampled was showing extremely will with no depreciation in structure or fruit. Although pricey on release, it is a standout in a crowded shiraz field.
Osborn, fourth-generation winemaker at d’Arenberg, made similar observations for wine made in McLaren Vale when we compared his 2017 and 2010 “The Dead Arm.” This has been one of our favorite wines in Australia. He sources shiraz from vines that range in age from 30 to 130 years old. Osborn said that he gets different character from each block.
The 2017 was still tight and young, but the 2010 was showing opulence and a savory, spicy, and raisin character that developed with age.
American oak used to be popular in Australia, but the higher-quality producers are now using French oak to reduce the sweetness and add a layer of secondary fruit, such as dark chocolate. Among the wines we compared, the older vintages had round tannins, tobacco and even leather qualities.
We enjoyed Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna ($40), a shiraz that is relatively easy to find in the U.S. Lots of density and extracted dark fruit. Hongell thought at it would evolve as nicely as the 2010, which still had youthful fruit character.
The other two comparisons were the Kay Brothers Hillside in McLaren Vale and Wakefield “St. Andrews” in Clare Valley. Alas, these wines are priced about $50 but that’s what it takes to get the best fruit and oak.
No aging required
Here are some Australian wines we tried that are don’t need aging and are reasonably priced:
Paxton NOW Shiraz 2021 ($20). From McLaren Vale, “NOW” implies the optimum drinking time of this juicy, raspberry and blueberry flavored shiraz.
Mount Langi Ghiran Cliff Edge Shiraz 2019 ($29). Blackberry and blueberry notes with balanced acidity and hints of spice and vanilla.
Best’s Great Western Bin 1 2019 ($25). Complex yet quaffable, this well-structured wine has fresh raspberry and plum flavors spiked with spice and pepper.
Yerling Station Shiraz Viognier 2018 ($30). The Rathbone family has owned this historic property since 1996 and continues to make reliable wine the family is known for. The viognier gives lift to a generous bouquet of violets, peppercorns, and anise. Rich texture with opulent red and dark fruit.
We recently caught up with Daniel Warnshuis, winemaker, owner and chief bottle washer at Utopia Wines in the Ribbon Ridge appellation of the Willamette Valley. Although his pinot noirs are even better than we remember from previous tastings, the chardonnay rocked our boat. Austere and balanced with the right acidity, it reminded us of some burgundies that are more food friendly than the extracted chardonnays coming out of the Russian River Valley.
Warnshuis said that the climate dictates much of this style. “Pinot ripens before chardonnay here. They just don’t ripen early” to make extracted, overblown chardonnay.
He’s also limiting new oak to only 18 percent to avoid those barrel-inspired flavors. The 2018 Utopia Chardonnay was a good deal at $45.
We also enjoyed his 2018 Utopia Paradise Estate Pinot Noir ($65) made from three clonal varieties and the 2018 Utopia Clone 777 ($65). The pinot noirs undergo whole-cluster fermentation to give them more texture and tannin.
Frescobaldi Castel Giocondo Brunello Di Montalcino 2016 ($75). A very good offering from Frescobaldi, this Brunello Di Montalcino is crafted from sangiovese grapes and aged for 5 years in wood and bottle before release. Cherry leather notes dominate with a hint of earth scents. Big and powerful but seamless on the palate. Pleasurable now but will age well for at least a decade.
Josh Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve North Coast 2018 ($22). This widely available national brand is full-bodied and features ripe cherry and cassis notes with a hint of savory herbs. A terrific wine for a reasonable price. Pair with bold meat, stews and barbecued fare.
Gundlach Bundschu Sonoma Coast Chardonnay 2019 ($27). We liked this chardonnay because it reminded us how chardonnay used to be made: bright acidity, tempered oak and bright, clean fruit and no malolactic fermentation. Apple notes with hints of mineral and citrus.
Qupé Santa Barbara County Grenache 2018 ($30). We can’t say enough about this well-structured, beautiful and effusive grenache. Extracted and concentrated red fruit character with a touch of spice.