The Art of Wine Appreciation: Wendouree Shiraz & Torbreck RunRig Reviewed

In recent years there seems to have been a growing trend amongst wine critics to be as clinically precise as possible with their analysis and rating of wines, to the point of dissecting the wine experience into separate components like colour, aroma and bouquet, texture, palate feel, initial attack, flavours, aftertaste, and so on. Indeed, there are many models adopted to judge and score wines, most of which involve allocating points to specified components and then adding them up, much like judging an Olympic event or grading a student’s essay.

In the US especially, more and more people – consumers, investors, and collectors – are relying on third-party evaluation in deciding what is good (and thus more valuable) and what isn’t. We see comic books, coins, banknotes, stamps, trading cards, etc., being graded and slabbed and entire registries devoted to pricing and valuing these collectibles.

A similar numerical grading system has been adopted to rate wines. This purportedly made it easier for consumers to know what they’re getting rather than rely on subjective descriptors and outdated wine classification systems and appellation rankings.

However, there is a serious risk in relying too much on third-party evaluation. For one, it could potentially diminish our ability to apply our own senses to appraise a wine’s inherent value, aesthetics and qualitative aspects. Blind faith in others’ opinions could impair our ability to judge for ourselves. Worse yet, we could become influenced by a dominant trend or passing fad (that could be commercially driven) and lose confidence in our aesthetic appreciation of wines. Moreover, by being over-obsessed with rating or quantitative reduction of a wine’s components, we might forget that the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts.

Let’s try a little exercise in reviewing  two ultra-premium South Australian Shirazes: 2000 Wendouree Shiraz and 2005 Torbreck RunRig.

Although they are from different vintages, they are very reliable representatives of their respective cuvées.

When reduced to an analysis of component elements, a typical wine review of these wines might look something like this (broken down into point form).

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Wendouree Shiraz:
Colour: reddish purple; no signs of over-oxidation.
Initial aromas/ on the nose: hint of sweet berries; slight traces of secondary earthy characters.
Viscosity: not very long legs suggesting a low to moderate alcohol content.
Initial “attack” on palate and mouth feel: soft, supple and very smooth, typical of wines with significant bottle age. Wine is drier than initial aromas suggest.
Integration of wine elements: seamless and very well-balanced.
Complexity: this is a surprisingly simple wine. There is very little evolution in the glass over several hours. Secondary characters are very subtle.
Aftertaste: again very subtle and because it doesn’t dominate, gradually fades leaving a pleasant mouth feel.

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Torbreck RunRig:
Colour: deep reddish purple, almost inky black.
Initial aromas/ on the nose: fruit, lots of ripe fruit; seemingly sweet (due to high alcohol, perhaps); followed by a riot of chocolate, mint, and spices.
Initial “attack” on palate and mouth feel: bold and very confident; yet, harmoniously smooth. Simultaneously sweet and savoury; a flood of ripe berries, vanilla, chocolate, liquorice, mint, cloves and exotic spices dominate.
Integration of wine elements: despite its many layered and contrasting aromas and flavours, these elements have integrated very well in the bottle. Not sure what it would have been like upon release; however, after 8 years it has come together perfectly. The power of the fruit suggests that this wine will continue to evolve for at least another 10 years.
Complexity: as indicated above, multi-layered and deep, but not overwhelmingly so. Needs time in the glass to reveal different dimensions.
Aftertaste: this one just lingers on and on with a very long mouth-puckering finish.

I believe my description of the two wines above give a fairly good, albeit somewhat clinical, idea of what they’re like. Of course, it will never replicate the actual experience of tasting the wines. It is but a mere shadow. And it would still vary significantly from individual to individual. But it would to some extent enable quantitative values to be ascribed to each component, as a formula for scoring wines.

Now, I would like to “review” these wines from a totally different perspective, which I will call a holistic experiential approach (for lack of a better term).

Wendouree Shiraz:
Tasting Wendouree is like sitting on your porch and looking at the sun setting. It is early autumn; ripened fruits begin to fall, and a gentle cool breeze brings soft fragrant aromas of sweet berries and herbs, hints of rose petals and cocoa, as well as mild spices. Soft aromas that you can actually taste. Everything is in perfect harmony, just like the recording of the Adagio Assai of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major playing in the background. You’re seduced by the sheer beauty of the experience, and you feel as though you’re a part of something very special and stylish. Yet, it isn’t grandiose; it is alluringly entrancing in its truly classy simplicity. You know it won’t last, but are more than grateful for having been a part of the experience.

Torbreck RunRig:
You’re in a fancy restaurant. The family at the table next to you is having desserts. Sweet aromas from the warm blackberry pie waft past. You can almost taste the spicy ripeness of the fruit, with hints of cinnamon coupled with a mouth-watering savouriness. Someone else is having chocolate mousse. Rich dark cocoa and vanilla so flavourful you feel as though you’re the one having it. A waiter serves deliciously aromatic espresso. People around you are chattering but it isn’t noisy at all. In fact, the chatter just blends harmoniously with Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” playing in the background. Everyone seems happy and there is a buzz of energy in the room. Suddenly, you are transported to a tropical beach. Rainforest on the hills behind you, vast open sea stretches indefinitely in front. Your senses are heightened by the profound immensity you’re experiencing. You open your eyes to find yourself at home in your armchair sipping a glass of RunRig.

*****

Of course my metaphors mightn’t make sense to some because some of them might be quite personal. Still, it is possible to get a pretty good picture of my experience. It’s like a universal work of art: music, painting, food, etc. have a common denominator. They’re things that our senses perceive and experience.

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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…

1990 Mount Mary Cabernets Quintet

1990 Mount Mary Cabernets Quintet

1990 Mount Mary Cabernets Quintet
(Tasted 29 September 2013)

The first time I tasted the 1990 vintage of this cuvée was on 9 April 2000. I haven’t, to my mind, tasted a better Australian wine since then.

Naturally, I was very eager for the opportunity to acquire this bottle, some 13 years later, to see if it still holds up to expectations.

Uncorking an aged bottle of wine is quite a fine art that is very little appreciated. You need the right kind of corkscrew, not too thick and sufficiently long, so it gently goes right to the end of the cork without stressing it. Based on how easily it penetrates the cork, you’ll have an idea of its condition; if it goes in too easily, the cork might be compromised and break apart. The cork in this 23-year old wine was delicate, but it came out intact. Wine had very slowly seeped to the top, leaving slight encrustation under the capsule; but nothing to worry about. I was a little relieved.

A quick sniff suggested that I would be pleased although the brittleness of the cork indicated it might not keep much longer. No severe indication of cork taint, though. Aromas of sweet blackcurrant dominated, followed by hints of secondary woody characters.

After decanting, I poured a little into a large Bordeaux wine glass, swirled gently, then had my first sip.

Confusion followed.

For the first half hour after opening, I was confronted with opposing impressions.

On one hand, it reminded me of a 1978 Mouton Rothschild I had about 5 years ago. Aged Bordeaux. In fact, if tasted blind, I would have thought it was indeed a Bordeaux. A very old one. It was soft and silky smooth with very fine tannins and hardly any sediment or encrustation. The colour was reddish purple, low in viscosity owing to a modest 12.5% alcohol content, with little of those long lingering legs that typify big reds. On the nose, more blackcurrant and hints of yeasty toast. Soft like silk on the palate, drier than suggested by the smell of the cork.

Simultaneously, a hint of something disturbing: possible cork taint or oxidation. Perhaps I am over sensitive to this; however, it was so subtle I wasn’t sure. Or perhaps it was a sense of elements in the wine not coming together, falling apart, as the wine aged. I encounter this in many aged wine over 20 years old. Even with big age-worthy Australian Shirazes. This wine did not have the high alcohol content, nor the jammy ripe fruitiness, to mask it.  A hint of mustiness came and went in my glass, suggesting that this wine had already peaked. I poured more wine from the decanter to make sure. I wondered if this wine was indeed past its peak.

Then over an hour later, something remarkable happened. Contrary to what one would expect with delicate old wines, instead of falling flat, things started to come together. The wine began a dramatic transformation in my glass, and a hidden power from within began to reveal itself. I was very pleasantly surprised. It was as though the wine was finally able to breathe after 23 years. As the hint of mustiness dissipated, a fragrant aroma of fruit and secondary earthy characters came to the fore: subtle yet taut and confident. Soft, mellow and very seductive; yet, bold and well-structured, a perfect complement to the roast lamb I had. And it only continued to surprise: three hours later virtually everything had come together. (I planned to save a little for the following day, to see how it would evolve; however, I ran out of wine!)

To conclude, I feel that this wine has lived up to my expectations, although I do think that it has peaked and, depending on the condition of the cork, should be drunk now. Of course, those in magnums would have potential for further development for there is certainly a hidden power that is strongly reminiscent of what I experienced when I first tasted it in 2000.

Enjoy on its own or with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and a duck.

**********

(Tasted: 9 April 2000)

Notes:
Deep purple-red, with attractive viscous legs. On the nose, a powerful, complex mélange of rich, ripe berries and sweet oak leaps out of the glass. Certainly, it is reminiscent of the finest Bordeaux with its dense, robust, intense multifarious flavours and harmoniously integrated tannins. With its great firm, well-proportioned body and superb structure, this wine obviously has years ahead of it! A simply transcendental experience that is quite unforgettable! (Its pairing with the chargrilled Kangaroo loin was simply perfect!)

2006 Marguet Grand Cru Champagne

2006 Marguet Grand Cru Champagne

Sourced from 100% Grand Cru grapes, this vintage Champagne from a smaller producer really delivers! And at a fraction of the price of cuvées from more famous houses. The colour is rich golden yellow, with very fine bubbles as the froth quickly dissipates, releasing initial aromas of toast & honey, followed by complex yeast & biscuity characters with layers of subtle mellow flavours running the gamut from butterscotch to hints of ripe fruit & of course more honey & toast, followed by a very long aftertaste of lingering toasty biscuit. A bargain at under AUD$70 (http://www.nicks.com.au/Product/View/2006-Marguet-Grand-Cru-Champagne/487835)

I have to note that, despite its young age, I think it has already peaked & should be drunk before 2015.

Perfect on its own, it would also be great with oysters, truffled bruschetta or an old-fashioned roast chicken or turkey.