‘Unsophisticated ALES & STOUTS. GOOD BEDS’ so used to read a sign on the wall of the Leather Bottle pub, Cobham, Kent, before the pub was restored. The Leather Bottle was frequented by Charles Dickens and is mentioned in his Pickwick Papers. Clearly, unsophisticated in this sense means pure and unadulterated. Pity the same can’t be said of many present day ales and stouts. Source, photograph in The Legacy of England, third edition, B.T. Batsford, London,1946-47.
Among the fine reds lined up on our regular Tuesday table was a bottle of 1952 vintage Mt Ophir Burgundy. Mt Ophir was a renowned Rutherglen winery near Chiltern that shut down in 1957. In its day, according to David Dunstan’s Better than Pommard – A History of Wine in Victoria, Mt Ophir produced over half a million litres a year.
The 53 year old wine (most likely shiraz) was in a heavy champagne bottle of an unusual bluish green hue and we wondered whether the contents had stayed the distance as the ancient cork looked very dodgy and proved difficult to extract. But not to worry, the wine was excellent. In colour it was a deep ruddy brown. The nose showed leathery aged fruit but was not at all sherrified. Also there was a distinct whiff of vanilla, although it is unlikely that the wine was matured in new wood. The palate was soft, rich and dry with a long and penetrating finish and a flavour that reminded me of coffee liqueur. It must have been a monster in its youth.
In a comprehensive piece, If MSG is so bad for you why doesn’t everyone in Asia have a headache? a Guardian Observer correspondent discusses the whys and wherefores of the food additive MSG (monosodium glutamate) – pretty much demythologising the so-called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome (CRS).
What caught my attention was the mention that MSG is a major constituent of autolyzed yeast extracts – like Marmite and similar products. Now students of wine will know well that a significant flavour (umami) component of Champagne is autolyzed yeast. This raises the obvious question: if CRS does exist does the consumption of Champagne create problems for those who feel they are susceptible to that alleged condition? Should one risk accompanying Chinese food with Champagne?
Jacob’s Creek Shiraz Rosé 2005 – under $10
Paleish pink. Sweetish raspberry nose. Light dryish and refreshing, shows delicate raspberry fruit and easy on the palate acidity. Delightful Spring luncheon style.
Yellowglen Perle 2001 – around $23
Pinot noir, Chardonnay and pinot meunier. Three years on yeast lees. Vigorous small bead. Bouquet is lifted, with apple blossoms and biscuity yeast. Medium dry on the palate, mid-weighted with dried apples and apricots and citrus zest to the finish.
Cloudy Bay Gewürztraminer 2003 – about $30+
New Zealand. Pale straw. Heady aromatics of nuts, dried apricots, figs and faint toasty oak make for a complex nose. The palate is rich and long with Turkish delight and marmalade notes leading to a quite firm finish. A beautifully constructed, perfumed white.
Jim Barry Clare Valley The Florita Riesling 2004 – about $40
Green to light gold. Essence of lime and lemon on the nose. Dry steely style with pervasive citrus throughout. This classic Clare dry white has a very low pH of 2.99 but the high acid supports rather than dominates the fruit. Finishes long and lean. Drink at any point in the meal. Cellar if you wish to 2020.
William Downie Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2004 – $40+
Unfiltered unfined. Mid-ruby hues. Intense pinot characters of strawberries and dark cherries on the nose. Powerful and elegant, very dry, showing subtle and spicy French oak. Pronounced acid tang leads to a food-demanding firm finish. Will drink well to 2009.
Yalumba The Signature ‘Geoff Linton’ Cabernet / Shiraz 2001 – $40ish
Dense purple. Cedar and dark berries on the nose. Thick solid and chewy on the palate with blackcurrants and dark chocolate (think Lindt 85%). A great wine with a long lineage – I fondly remember some of these from years ago – particularly the ‘Rudi Kronberger’ of 1967 and the ‘Christobel’ of 1974.
Hewitson Ned & Henry’s Barossa Valley Shiraz 2004 – mid $20sBlended with 10% Mourvedre. Darkish red. Plummy, aniseed nose. Warm and spicy in the mouth with berries, undergrowth and a sub-structure of subtle wood.
d’Arenberg McLaren Vale d’Arry’s Original Shiraz Grenache 2003 – $20 and below
Youthful crimson. Nose of dusty oak and preserved cherries. Medium drying tannins support flavours that remind one of Black Forest cake – i.e. berry conserve and mocha. Solid finish of acidity and tannins will suit main course fare.
Note: Prices in Australian dollars.
Recently, I received the latest issue of “Connoisseur’s Guide to California Wines” (CGCW), one of the older publications that reviews (mostly) California wines. In their Aug. 2005 issue, they reviewed 163 recently released California Cabernets, almost all of which came from the highly touted 2001-2 vintages. Of these 163, 1 (the 2002 Diamond Creek Gravelly Meadow) received their highest accolade of ***, whereas 16 received a rating of ** and 56 received a grade of *. If we take these three rankings as meaning bottles meriting serious attention, then 73/163 (44%) made the grade with less than 1% achieving the highest status and ~10% reaching **. Granted, many of the heavy hitters (Ridge, Phelps, Montelena e.g.) were missing from this issue, but as a survey of what’s on the market I believe that it gives us an accurate picture.
Much has been written in recent years about the tremendous strides made in winemaking in CA, so I decided to see it this was reflected in increasingly positive reviews in CGCW by digging out an older issue of CGCW (Vol. 6 from 1981) that looked at Cabs from the ’76-’77 vintages (drought years that produced some very good wines, but which weren’t heralded as great years). What I found was that, of 212 wines reviewed, 1 (<1%) got ***, 20 (10%) got ** and 46 (21%) received *. So, overall, 31% of the wines reviewed merited serious attention.
What to make of all this number crunching? First of all, it appears that little if any change has been made at the top. It is true that the standards of the publication may have changed in the interim, but the fact remains that as few wines today receive their top marks as did 25 years ago. However, there is a significant increase in * wines, reflecting what I see as an overall increase in the baseline quality of winemaking and vineyard practices. This is also reflected by the absence of any “inverted glass” ratings (undrinkable wine) in the Aug. 2005 issue, as compared to 14 inverted glasses in the ’81 issue. However, this must be balanced by another significant change: whereas there were 11 Cabs labeled “Best Buy” in ’81, only 2 received that accolade in the latest issue.
In many regards, this matches my own, wholly subjective impressions. CalCabs today are uniformly drinkable, well made wines that sell for usually absurdly high prices, with only a very few providing actual excitement. It is interesting to contrast the very successful 2001 vintage of Cabs with the 2000 vintage in Bordeaux. In both cases, the top wines sell for obscenely high prices, but it is noteworthy that the 2000 Bordeaux vintage produced many excellent wines from the satellite appellations that sold in the US for $15-20 a bottle; surveying this current crop of CalCabs, only one of the rated wines sold for less than $20.
I contast this situation with what I remember from the late ’70s, when wineries like Conn Creek, Robert Keenan, Caymus and Franciscan (to name a few) made exciting, idiosyncratic, hit-or-miss wines that sold for reasonable sums of money and would not infrequently hit home runs. I am sure that there remain wineries in CA that still do this, but I fear that the vast majority have swapped inconsistency for mediocrity while at the same time pricing their wines out of all proportion to what’s reasonable.
Geoff Merrill’s current reserve shiraz – selling for $40 – is the 1999 vintage, so we are unlikely to see the 2004 bottling on the shelves until 2009/2010.
The Jimmy Watson Trophy is awarded to the best 2004 vintage red from show classes 19 to 23, that is, cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, pinot noir, merlot, and other blends.
Of the nearly 4,400 wines judged, a staggering 1020 wines were in the running for this one main prize, one wag at the awards dinner suggesting that the trophy is so important to winemakers and the prestige of the Royal Melbourne Wine Show that the event will eventually be renamed the Royal Jimmy Watson Wine Show.
‘Dad, what happens if I get breathalysed by the police after eating Tira Misu?’ The question came from the daughter who has a provisional driving licence – a licence that requires the driver to have zero blood alcohol content whilst driving.
I thought about it for a while and said that depending on how much booze was in the dessert she ran a small but real risk of registering an alcohol blood content on a breathalyser and could therefore jeopardise her licence.
Keo VSOP 12 year old Brandy – around $30. From Cyprus. Higher in alcohol (40%) and bigger in bottle (750ml) than most entry level brandies around. Tea-hued, warm sweetish nose, faint oak. Generously flavoured, nice aged spirity characters with maybe raisin like fruit and integrated barrel notes. Most enjoyable.
In a story in the Melbourne Age today (20 July 2005) Coles demands half-measure from wineries Leon Gettler reports that a major Australian liquor retailer has required its wine suppliers to package wine in six-pack cartons rather than 12-pack cartons from October 2005.
The main reason for this change is based on occupational health and safety issues – in other words, the repeated lifting of heavy 12-bottle cartons is seen a risk to the staff health – and who could argue with that?
No doubt other retailers will follow this lead and I don’t think it would be over the top to suggest that this will herald the end of the 12-bottle case of wine (and spirits for that matter) as we know it.
The obvious flow-on (no pun intended) will be the abolition of 12-bottle packs of 750ml beer bottles and even 24 and 30 pack slabs of 375ml beer cans and bottles. The costs to the beverage industry (not just small winemakers) to repackage will be massive – the profits to packaging companies sensational. Consumers, as usual, will bear the costs of this repackaging in the long run.
Nothing beats getting together with a bunch of wine lovers to taste a selection of superior reds and whites. Drinking good wine is, after all, about enjoyment, fine dining, friendship and sharing. Isn’t it? Then how do you account for what I call ‘wine misers’?
We’ve all met one or two. They’re usually blokes. They know a lot about wine and spend a fair bit of money on it. Typically, they will own an interior-designed, expensively constructed cellar, that is well-stocked with the best that money can buy: top-shelf, imported, indented, aged and selected wines.
With a proud gleam in their beady eyes they like to take you on a guided tour, to point out the rarity of certain bottles and to explain the shelving and cataloguing system and the intricacies of the air-conditioning and the constant humidification.
Trouble is, when they eventually offer their by now exhausted and thirsty guest/s a post-tour drink, they will inevitably open a cleanskin, boasting, ‘Only seven bucks the bottle! The guy who sold me this reckons it’s the equivalent of a thirty-five dollar Coonawarra cabernet!’ It is more likely to taste like it’s only a step away from vat dregs, Chateau Cardboard or the vinegar factory.