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McLaren Vale Shiraz vs The World

Tom Cannavan, 11/06

In October 2006 I spent a hugely enjoyable week in South Australia as International Judge at the McLaren Vale Wine Show. This region of Australia is renowned for its Shiraz wines, with names like Chateau Reynella, Rosemount Balmoral and d'Arenberg Dead Arm being firm favourites of UK drinkers.

As part of my duties whilst in McLaren Vale I was asked to present a tutored tasting for the regions winemakers. Myself and local winemaker Mike Farmilo each chose six Shiraz/Syrah-based wines, all of Mike's from McLaren Vale, and all of mine from countries other than Australia.

the wines

The six wines chosen by Mike and myself echoed each other's price points:

Mike's six:
Hardy's Ooomo, $16
Kangarilla Rd, $16
d'Arenberg Laughing Magpie, $20
Rosemount Balmoral, $50
Fox Creek reserve, $70
Geoff Merrill The Henly, $150
  Tom's six:
Obikwa, South Africa, $10
Los Cardos, Argentina, $17
Cave Tain, Crozes-Hermitage, France, $36
Clape, Les Vins des Amis France, $60
Craggy Range, New Zealand, $90
Isole a Elena, Italy, $120

The idea of the wines I chose was to represent some really good Shiraz/Syrah wine that was available in the UK market, to show the Aussie winemakers the sorts of wines that UK drinkers can choose from, and the styles that are popular. I confess that sourcing my wines was a struggle: for logistical reasons my wines had to be sourced in the Adelaide area, and we needed six bottles of the same vintage of any wine that was going to make the tasting. Rather optimistically, I first sent the organisers my list of six first choice wines, along with a list of six back up wines, just in case any were unavailable. It was a bit of a shock when an email came back saying that none of the 12 were available locally, and could I instead make my choices from the lists of four local wine stores that were sent over to me.

To say the choices were limited is a bit of an understatement - and prices were high. So the eventual list of wines was very much a compromise: perhaps not really representative of the UK market's best examples, but still a broad-ranging selection of price points, countries and wine styles that I thought would illustrate the diversity of the UK market place.
  

the tasting

Around 60 local winemakers turned up for a blind tasting of the wines at the beautiful Woodstock winery, and in my opening remarks I stressed that the event was for the purpose of comparison, not competition. We wanted the audience to consider the wines (all served blind in two flights of six: the under $20 wines followed by the over $20 wines) and what made each of them good or bad, before revealing them and continuing the comparative discussion.

Out of interest after the first bracket (under $20) I asked the audience to guess which were the three McLaren Vale wines, and everyone got it right: the difference were stark. The Ooomo and Kangarilla Rd were both archetypal and in some ways "old fashioned" Oz Shiraz, with huge amounts of vanillin oak, chocolate and plummy fruit, and the d'Arenberg, though lightened by its Viognier component, fell into a similar mould. The Obikwa was much gamier, though the most similar in style, whilst the Los Cardos was a touch dirty (in my opinion) and not nearly so clean and modern as the Australian wines. The wine from the Cave de Tain co-operative in the Rhône showed a hint of Brettanomyces, and a much more savoury, raspberry character to the fruit.

Onto the bracket of over $20 wines, and the audience was totally confused as to which were the three local wines - I'm not sure that anyone got it right. In particular they thought Geoff Merrill's The Henly (all French oak, a very careful selection and wild yeast ferment) was Old World, and several thought the Balmoral was too. Many thought the Craggy Range from NZ was a McLaren Vale wine.

Tom's notes on the six sub-$20 wines

Obikwa (South Africa) Shiraz 2005
Bright, creamy nose with black cherry and raspberry fruit and some vanillin overlay. The palate develops more of a plum and chocolate, darker character, and though I find the tannins a touch astringent, a very good commercial wine without any real sense of place. $10

Los Cardos (Argentina) Syrah 2004
There's a cherry bubblegum note on the nose that suggests carbonic maceration perhaps, then it hits the palate with a similar flavour profile to the Obikwa from South Africa, though perhaps a slightly less clean and bright quality, and perhaps a touch too much alcohol. $17

Cave de Tain (France) Crozes-Hermitage 2003
There's a really bright raspberry character on the nose here, with a definite hint of Brettanomyces, but giving a meaty edge that works quite well. The palate is dry and savoury, with a meaty, peppery quality and decisive acid structure with firm tannins. Very savoury and a reasonably good expression of northern Rhône Syrah. $36

Hardy's (Australia) Ooomo Shiraz 2004
Big, sweet, obvious American oak nose with plenty of fat black fruit that is creamy and forward. On the palate plum and chocolate fill the mouth, with broad, soft texture and tannins, but retains balance and some freshness despite the density. $16

Kangarilla Rd (Australia) Shiraz 2004
Mint humbug quality to the nose here, with plenty of minty American oak and bright, very ripe black fruit. This is a slightly more understated style on the palate, with a lovely soft, elongated finish showing plush tannins and good balance. $16

d'Arenberg (Australia) Laughing Magpie Shiraz-Viognier 2004
Lifted, floral and dried apricot note is more perfumed, but still plenty of dense black fruit and some creamy oak. On the palate very deep fruit and rather less obvious oak influence or woody tannin, with a dry, moreishly crisp and juicy finish. $20

Tom's notes on the six $20+ wines

Rosemount (Australia) Balmoral Syrah 2004
Perfumed, refined, raspberry and chocolate nose with a cedary quality to the oak. Beautifully bright fruit extends to the palate and really builds through the mid-palate with lovely sweetness. Supple and silky, tannins are refined and acidity well judged. $50

Fox Creek (Australia) Reserve Shiraz 2004
Quite earthy and savoury at first, with a very firm, liquoricy black fruit character. This is massive in the mouth, withy plenty of dark, sweet fruit, some black olive notes and massive tannins. Youthful and needs time, but has balance. $70

Geoff Merrill (Australia) The Henly 1998
The quality of oak is beautiful here and really stands out, with a perfume of Sandalwood and incense, and a pure, elegant fruit quality. On the palate more of those lifted, bright cherry and raspberry notes, but a supple, more dense mid-palate where the silky, refined tannins and poised acidity give structure and definition. $150

A. Clape (France) Les Vins des Amis CdR 2003
Haunting, beautiful perfume on this wine that is gamy and bloody, with savoury, cedary old wood notes and beautifully pure raspberry and redcurrant fruit. Elegant palate too, with refined mid-palate texture and weight of fruit before supple tannins and clearly defined acidity leave the finish crisp. $60

Craggy Range (New Zealand) Le Sol Shiraz 2004
Meaty, savoury, absolutely alluring perfume with a similar oak quality to the Geoff Merrill Henley Shiraz, and a palate that builds though layers of dusty, liquorice flavour to sweet, ripe fruit all seamlessly integrated with charry oak, supple tannic grip and fine balancing acidity. $90

Isole a Elena (Italy) Syrah 2001
A little bit of charry, earthy aroma here and a touch of Brettanomyces character too. This is gamy, and is structured on the palate with a lovely poised, but quite firm character. The fruit builds though the mid-palate, and with a savoury, chewy tannin and acid structure, this finishes with a lot of subtle appeal. $120

conclusions?

It seems that give winemakers their head to make the best wine they can - the best selection of fruit, small batches, the best quality French oak, etc. - and the styles of New and Old World winemaking come closer together.

Interestingly, most of the winemakers thought this was a good thing, and none seemed concerned that there might be a loss of regional identity in the upper end wines, as they felt the sheer quality of what the wines achieved was more than compensation.

In all the tasting was a huge success, and many in the audience said they relished this chance to analytically taste good examples of their own region's wines against the rest in a non-competitive, discussion-led atmosphere. Given the ultra-competitive nature of the Australian wine show system, doing this a little differently was welcomed as a very useful and enjoyable exercise.