Sunday, 25 December 2011

Wood You Believe It?

It doesn’t take much to make me want to open a good bottle of wine, but reminiscing about great bottles past is a sure fire way to make me grab a corkscrew and head down to the cellar. Mention of the bottle of 1992 Yalumba Octavius Shiraz that returned with me from Australia (see “An Old Flame” 05/12/11) started me thinking that it was about time that I tried a bottle from the case of the 1996 vintage I bought ten or twelve years ago. Is it a bit weird to buy a case of wine on the basis of its reputation and then not to try a bottle for twelve years? You can at least start to see why I have a problem with bottles falling off the far side of their maturity plateau.

The Yalumba Octavius Shiraz 1996 (14.5% ABV) was a deep blood red, turning pinker at the rim. It didn’t leave tears, it just coated the glass. Talk about growing old disgracefully, this was a real rock ‘n’ roll wine: if some fruit and oak is good, then the most of both that can be squeezed into a bottle must surely be better. The full, powerful and complex nose saw sweet, ripe fruit matched blow for blow by the sweet vanilla of American oak. Raspberry and blackberry fruit, coffee, a medicinal menthol/eucalyptus edge (it reminded me of Vicks Cough Syrup) balanced by a faintly meaty or leathery undertone all swirled around my nostrils. Pretty much every box was ticked in the Barossa Valley Shiraz handbook. There was a tickle of alcohol as you might have expected, but it was in no way overwhelming.

Yalumba, Octavius
Shiraz 1996
After the sweetness suggested by the nose, the palate was dry yet rich and voluptuous. Dark fruits, coffee and Vicks reappeared, as did bags of soft sweet oak, all held in check by plenty of firm but refined tannins. There was so much of everything that this was wine2. The drying tannins, the gentle warmth of alcohol and a salty, mineral core combined with the moderate acidity and tamed the fruit and oak. All of the flavours lingered and melded throughout the long finish. 

The amount of oak was hardly surprising given this wine's 26 months in American oak hogsheads (100 litre barrels); the surprise was that it was not only balanced and well structured but really rather splendid. This easily has another ten years or more of life left in it and, although it is not my usually preferred style of wine, I do look forward to drinking the rest of the case in the coming years.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Let It Snow

I’ve wanted to try to make this for a while, and what better time to have a go at Oeufs á la Neige (“Snow Eggs”) than on Christmas Eve? This dish of poached quenelles of meringue coated with caramel and floating on crème Anglaise is a favourite of my brother, and anything involving custard always wins my vote. Although my quenelle-forming skills may have been a little rusty, I have to say that I’m rather pleased with how it turned out. And hey, the proof of the pudding and all that! We could have drunk a Sauternes, a Tokaji or even a Cognac or a Grappa with it, but I have to admit that we enjoyed it on its own in anticipation of the overindulgence that is so typical of the following day.

Happy Christmas everyone!

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Flip Side Of The Coin

I know it’s hard to believe, but this job isn’t always as glamorous as my writings would have you think. It’s not all plain sailing, you know. Only my dedication to the public service that is this blog enables me to cope with the good, the bad and the ugly faces of the wine world with such impunity. In this instance, it was il brutto and il cattivo that I suffered on your behalf, although I probably should have known better from the outset.

I’m in no way an ingrate, and I heartily appreciate the kindness and the generosity of whoever brought me this bottle as I’m certain that it was given in good faith. That being said, the contents did make me question the statements I have just made in the previous sentence.

As I’ve said, I really should have known better. Any wine which features on its label the phrase “Selección 15% Especial” as its most extollable virtue is quite likely to rub me up the wrong way. If, as I fear it does for many, quantity does indeed equal quality, I’d far prefer to drink two bottles of Mosel Riesling Kabinett at 7.5% to ingest the same 112.5ml of alcohol. The experience would be both far more agreeable and would leave me with far less of a hangover. So what was this incredible intoxicant, I hear you cry? Called simply El Bombero (2010, 15% ABV), this straight Garnacha from Cariñena in north-eastern Spain was, I’m certain, as flammable as its name implied (El Bombero translates as "the fireman").

Bodegas San Valero,
El Bombero 2010
The brightest and most ludicrously purple wine I have ever seen (the result of carbonic maceration, surely?), the nose fortunately gave little away. Just a suggestion of darks fruits and graphite were discernable, but I’m sure I noticed a faint, acetic twang lingering worryingly underneath. Where to begin with the palate? Sweet, fiery alcohol assaulted my tastebuds initially, followed by a dull pounding from soft yet slightly bitter tannins. The berry fruit wrestled to poke its head from under the blanket of sweet alcohol and bitterish tannins, and it was difficult to tell if some or all of the wine had been exposed to oak of any sort for any length of time. The low acidity and modest levels of tannin again suggested carbonic maceration. The finish overstayed its welcome, flavoured as it was with the sweet heat of the alcohol and the piquancy of burning plastic.

Overall, the sweetness of the alcohol swamped whatever character this wine may have had, although without all of that alcohol I’m not sure what else it might have had going for it. I’ve subsequently determined El Bombero to be a Laithwaite’s wine and rather too many of the reviews posted on its website tend to agree with my less than complimentary verdict. I can’t help but worry about the quality and style of future wines produced for the UK market if this is in any way indicative of what Joe Public buys and enjoys. Do we need a bottle of wine at an everyday price point that contains almost twelve units of alcohol?

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Where There's Smoke

Now that I’m all too close to being forty years old, I think I’ve reached the right point in my life to start smoking. To hell with the consequences.

I’ve jerry-rigged a hot smoker and, as you can see, some salmon was the first thing to feel the heat. My initial attempt was nicely cooked but only very lightly smoked, definitely more of a match for a Riesling Kabinett than a foil for an Islay malt (this is a wine blog, after all). Next time, I’ll try to lower the temperature and lengthen the smoking time.

Ultimately, I’d love to try cold smoking, but it’s baby steps and handy fire extinguishers for the time being.

Friday, 2 December 2011

An Old Flame

Common wisdom states that you should never return to a past love, and so it was with a degree of trepidation that I opened a bottle of wine which I had tasted (and loved) only once before, almost twelve years ago to the day.

It all began with a couple of interesting bottles I bought as a gift for my old man whilst I was in Australia, around the end of 1997. One was a 1992 Yalumba Octavius III Shiraz and the other was a 1986 Dorrien Cabernet Sauvignon by Seppelt. Both were around £30 or AU$60, but Australian wine was expensive in Australia then and even well known brands cost around 25-30% more than they did back in the UK.

As the older of the two, it was the Dorrien that we tried first, on my birthday as it so happened, way back in 1998. I was nominally studying for my WSET Advanced Certificate at the time, but the sum total of my academic effort had been to write tasting notes about the occasional great, good or interesting bottle I opened. This was one such bottle, hence my accuracy with the tasting date.

To cut an overly long story short, it was a fantastic wine and I actively sought out a UK stockist so that I could buy some more. Walter S. Siegel Limited, then the importer of the Seppelt wines into England, had a few cases of the 1993 and 1994 vintages of Dorrien Cabernet Sauvignon still available, and, before I snapped it all up at the crazy price of £12 per bottle, they very kindly sent me a bottle of the 1993 and a bottle of its sibling 1994 Drumborg Cabernet Sauvignon as samples. The 1993 Dorrien was, and still is, one of my favourite Australian wines, but the Drumborg also left a lasting impression.

I don’t know why I never bought any of the Drumborg, although I suspect it was because I had spent up on the Dorrien after purchasing everything Siegel had left. About that time, the Seppelt agency passed to Matthew Clark and, in 1999, I purchased several cases of the 1996 Dorrien at the even more ludicrous price of just £10 per bottle, receiving with them a mixed half case of samples for my trouble. Three were everyday Seppelt wines that I’m sure were perfectly pleasant but which passed without note; one was a 1996 Dorrien that was tried quite promptly to get a handle on the latest vintage of my new favourite; one was a 1996 Great Northern Shiraz (something of a legendary bottle of Australian wine and so I held onto it, eventually enjoying it greatly a year or two ago) and the final bottle was another 1994 Drumborg Cabernet Sauvignon.

Having been so enchanted by my previous bottle, despite its youth, I decided to cellar this second one and save it for a rainy day. As is so often the case, I never really got round to opening this second Drumborg, but after losing too many bottles recently to the ravages of time, I’m now making a concerted effort to drink up anything that might be passing its peak of maturity.

Seppelt, Drumborg
Cabernet Sauvignon 1994
My notes from 1999 describe the deep purple 1994 Seppelt Drumborg Cabernet Sauvignon (13% ABV) as having leafy, tobacco, woody and earthy fragrances along with berry fruit and more exotic aromas of mint, eucalyptus and spice. The palate had similarly mint and tobacco infused berry fruit, with earthy notes and fine but firm tannins. I noted a beautiful, cool climate elegance and a very long finish, but also an austerity that needed time to soften.

Skip twelve years and, whilst still an imposingly deep ruby, the brick-tinged hue of the rim suggested maturity. An unmistakable Cabernet Sauvignon nose: dusty cassis fruit laced with herbaceous, green pepper notes that became more celery leaf in character with air. A gentle whiff of oak rounded things off.

Smooth and mellow, bright blackcurrant and bramble fruit merged with delicate oak spice and plummy, cedary flavours. The slightly firm acidity, an indication that the wine might just have been starting to dry out, and the fine-grained, chalky tannins provided a harmonious and elegant frame for the fruit. The finish was still long and sophisticated.

Seppelt pioneered Drumborg as a grape growing region in 1964 when it planted its Drumborg vineyard near Portland in Southern Victoria. Facing the Great Southern Ocean, the area’s southerly latitude, together with icy winds that blow up from the Antarctic, make Drumborg an extremely cool climate region and result in small harvests, often occurring as late as mid May. So marginal is the region that the single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was not bottled every year, only when the quality of the grapes warranted.

A prolonged period of terrible management of the Seppelt brand by the then owners Foster's meant that the difficult climate was a perfect excuse to re-allocate the resource of the this vineyard. The last vintage of Drumborg single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon was 1998; regrettably the old vines were then grafted to Riesling. The shame of the matter is that a degree of sense is now returning to Australian wine producers, and elegant, cool climate red wines of 12% ABV are currently their holy grail. The Drumborg Riesling is supposed to be very good, but I’m still mourning what has been lost.

The Dorrien Cabernet Sauvignon suffered similarly from misguided management at this time, and was deleted from the Seppelt portfolio as a single vineyard bottling. What was once an iconic Australian wine, spoken of in the same breath as the finest wines from Penfolds, Henschke et al, sadly saw its last vintage in 1999. Its fruit is now used elsewhere, uncredited in nondescript blends.

I love both the Drumborg and the Dorrien dearly, but, as with whiskies from long-closed Scottish distilleries, I’m torn between a desire to drink and enjoy my remaining bottles, as is their raison d’être, or to respectfully hold onto them as the museum pieces they have now unfortunately become.