1996 Henschke Cyril Henschke vs 1996 Petaluma Coonawarra

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I recently had the good fortune to try a bottle of each of these, both of which have been classified by Langton’s as “Excellent”. Both are South Australian, come from the same vintage, are basically Cabernet blends, and have cork enclosures. So I thought it would be interesting to compare them.

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Well, to my surprise, they turned out to be quite different wines.

While they were both sublimely smooth and perfectly enjoyable, with very fine tannins and typical aged Bordeaux characters, the Cyril Henschke clearly stood out as the superior wine, in virtually every aspect: colour, texture, body, complexity, palate range, and aftertaste.

The Petaluma, on the other hand, although lovely, lacked staying power. It seemed to have peaked and felt as though it wouldn’t hold up much longer. It had aged much faster than the Cyril Henschke.

I have had Petaluma Coonawarra many times, all of them almost always excellent, so I suspect that this bottle might be an exception, rather than the rule. The cork was very brittle and broke, so it was necessary to filter the broken bits. However, there was no TCA tainting, nor were there other forms of cork-related contamination. No Brett characters either. It is quite possible that the disintegrating cork facilitated oxidation at a faster rate than would otherwise be the case.

In contrast, the Cyril Henschke still had years ahead of it. There was so much power in the fruit, not in the sense of your typical big, full-bodied “new world” red; rather, it was a subtle kind of power. All the (100% new) French oak had been soaked up and it was in perfect balance. Despite quite a bit of encrustation, there were still plenty of primary fruit flavours counterpoised with complex secondary characters, and a softness on the palate that belies the power in the fruit. It is very much like the 2005 Cyril Henschke I had a few weeks ago, tempered with an additional 9 years’ bottle age. Both 1996 and 2005 were first-rate; in my humble opinion, deserve a rank at least on par with wines in the “Outstanding” category. They might be overshadowed by their “Exceptional” cousins (Mount Mary, Cullen, Penfolds 707, and Moss Wood), perhaps unfairly so based on so many great vintages since 1996.

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Anyway, to me at least, Cyril Henschke has established itself as one of my favourite Australian reds.

A Tale of Two Corks (Never Judge a Wine by Its Enclosure)

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Just when I thought I had understood, at least roughly, the relationship between the condition of a bottle’s cork enclosure and its contents within, I come across this, throwing what I more or less knew out the window.

I was very fortunate to acquire two bottles of 2003 Mount Mary Pinot Noir. I opened the first after giving the wine about a week to settle. It was very good, but not great. Lovely colour, soft and silky on the palate, with a pleasant earthy character. It needed some time in the decanter to come together, and when it did, it was immensely enjoyable.

Despite all that, I have to admit that I was slightly disappointed. I sort of expected more. Don’t get me wrong: it was a very classy wine, comparable to a fine village-level Burgundy (just short of Premier Cru status). However, this felt like it had already peaked and didn’t appear to have much staying power.

Several weeks later, I couldn’t resist giving it another try, so I opened the second bottle.

Woah, what a huge difference!

This time, it seemed very youthful,  with lots of power in the fruit, mellowed into a harmoniously luxurious and seductive wine, redolent of chocolate, truffle, rich ripe fruit, lovely secondary characters with hints of mint, liquorice, anise and other spices. Simply sublime!  Comparable to a top quality Premier Cru (or even Grand Cru) Burgundy.

This wine bore a similar “character” or soul, as I like to think of it, as the first. After all, it is the same wine. Both acquired at the same time from the same source; both have the same provenance and were cellared professionally.

So why this amazing difference?

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I examined the corks from both bottles. Guess which cork was from the second (better) bottle, and which was from the first.

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Surprisingly, the tired looking cork on the left (the slightly distorted one with purple stain running down it) came from the *better* bottle, while the nearly perfect one on the right came from the first bottle!

Go figure.

I think both had similar ullage to start with, so why the difference? I guess I may never know… Wine is like people: with an organic, evolving life. Even identical twins brought up under similar environments can turn out differently.

Why Some Influential Wine Critics Could Be Doing More Harm Than Good

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(Photo courtesy of a very sad friend.)

What is the role of the wine critic?

I can think of many non-mutually exclusive reasons why people become wine critics: to educate, to share opinions, to establish one’s reputation as an “expert”, to promote wines, to influence market trends, as a complement to their wine business, and/or to “archive” or remember wines.

The last is more about making tasting notes either to share with others or purely for personal reasons; it will be dealt with separately later.

The other roles are interrelated and my main focus is on wine reviews by professional wine critics.

To begin, I would like to quote a review of Mount Mary Quintet by Robert Parker Jr.:

“The proprietor of Mount Mary has never wanted me to taste his wines, which are revered by segments of the Australian press, but with some stealth work, I was able to secure a few vintages. In addition to the 2001 Quintet, I was able to taste the 1998, 1997, 1995, and 1994. For my taste, only the 2001 merited a score higher than 80 points. The attempt appears to be to emulate a Bordeaux petit chateau, but none were as fine, being lean, high in acid, austere, and meagerly endowed. They will not improve with age. The 2001 has slightly more to it than the older vintages. It is difficult to understand what merit these wines possess.”
(Wine Advocate, No 161, October, 2005)

Naturally, this brief review caused a stir amongst many Australian wine professionals. Andrew Caillard MW even made reference to it in his assessment of Langton’s “Exceptional” category of Australian wines:

“In the beginning Mount Mary Quintet Cabernets was something of a cult wine but over the years has built up a reputation for being something quite special and complex. It does not always find favour with critics – especially of the American kind – weaned on the deeply concentrated, monumentally rich and alcoholic Barossa Shirazes and apparently determined to have us all drink the undrinkable.

Just before Dr Middleton died, the American Robert Parker Jr. derided the overall quality of Quintet raising more than a few hackles among Australian wine critics. Indeed it highlights the difficulties of scoring wines and the polarized perspectives of commentators around the world. Australian collectors have largely and correctly ignored American reviews. It’s probably just as well, because the wine is limited and difficult to find anyway.”

Robert Parker Jr.’s review would probably *not* had generated such a stir within the wine community, especially in Australia, had it been by a lesser “authority”. However, this is by the famously influential Wine Advocate.

On one hand, it seems quite obvious to me (reading between the lines) that here is a person, revered by the wine industry as a world expert, who was perhaps more than a little miffed that Mount Mary wasn’t interested in his opinions (and wouldn’t send samples to him), regardless of how all-powerful his influence might be. Let his pen do the rest. How anyone could come to such a conclusion about an entire wine portfolio based on a minuscule sampling of wines (with no reference to provenance) is beyond me. (It is worth recounting the incident when he gave Domain Faiveley a “bad” review and it was later revealed that the wine he sampled was “cooked” due to improper storage in the warehouse of the American importer.)

In contrast, Jancis Robinson MW is one of the rare few who have sampled every single vintage of Grange; so I would be very interested in her views of, say, the 2008 Grange. Did it merit the significantly higher release price because Wine Advocate gave it a perfect score of 100? Why pay well over $700 a bottle upon release when I can get it on the secondary market two years later for under $600? (Refer to wine auctioneer Mark Wickman’s review: http://www.wickman.net.au/wineauction/Grange_Prices.aspx)

Such significant price jumps occurred consistently whenever a wine received exceptional ratings. There’re too many examples to cite. A bottle of Shirvington Shiraz retails on average at $76 (all vintages), with the exception of the 2001 (98 points) & 2002 (99 points) which have an average retail of around $115 (2001) and $120 (2002) respectively. The price jump of the 2008 Grange is a classic example. Bear all this in mind when reading this:

“I really think probably the only difference between a 96-, 97-, 98-, 99-, and 100-point wine is really the emotion of the moment.”
(Robert Parker Jr., in an interview with the Naples Daily News, published 25 January 2007.)

So basically, “the emotion of the moment” can make or break a wine’s future.

Such is the power of an influential critic; and, yes, much has already been discussed and written about this. Still, it is worth reiterating this as majority of the general public *do* rely on critics when deciding which wine to buy, and worse yet, “invest” in.

(A note on photo above: it is merely to illustrate how those bottles would feel had they received negative reviews. Ouch! No, they were not harmed deliberately, although their owner was most upset. He did lick the remnants and remarked that the “blend” of the two was rather good…)

2000 Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru Cherbaudes

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2000 Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru Cherbaudes
Domain Fourrier

(A journey of discovery in the present tense.)

This is a surprising wine.

Upon removal of the capsule, part of which seems stuck to the top of the cork, I see some worrying green encrustation.

“Uh oh, ” I think to myself.

It doesn’t smell though. Gingerly, I plunge the corkscrew in and remove the cork. Intact. A good sign.

A quick smell check reveals a slightly closed nose. I know that a decant would be good;  however, I decide to just pour a little into a large Spiegelau glass (free courtesy of Petaluma when I bought half a dozen from their White Label range) and let it breath.

Colour check: deep ruby reddish purple; no signs of oxidation. The nose very slowly but surely opens up to reveal slightly sweet aromas of succulent ripe berries. No sign of TCA whatsoever. I smile with relief and anticipation.

A quick sip later, I am thrown aback by the palate sensations. It fills my mouth with depth and richness. This, only after about ten minutes in the glass. A touch of dryness. Smooth and silky yet there’s power, restrained by subtle refinement. It is still opening up as flavours of cassis, blackcurrant, very slight hints of chocolate, clove and anise, as well as a touch of oakiness reveal themselves.

Half an hour later, everything seems to be in perfect harmony and balance. I am quite simply flabbergasted. The last truly great red Burgundy I had was in 2000. Leroy’s 1994 Richebourg, my favourite wine of all time. I have had several Grand Crus since then, and this (Premier Cru) is actually better than many of them. Of course not nearly as good as a Richebourg; however, at only a tiny fraction of its cost it is extremely great value. Easily on par with many “better” Grand Crus and comparable with top vintages of Bass Phillip’s Premium Pinot Noir.

This wine is great now, and I suspect it will continue to evolve for at least five years. It depends on storage and how the cork holds up. I am still reeling in profound amazement at the power and finesse in this 13-year old wine. Suddenly, I am reminded of that famous line from Forrest Gump, “Life is like a box of chocolates…” So is a bottle of aged wine.

I might go see if I can find more…