Australian Syrah then and now: current line-up

Tonight was the second part of a two-part tasting of Australian Shiraz with Geoff Kelly at Regional Wines & Spirits, the first being the 1996 library tasting (see previous post). This time we blind-tasted eleven new 2013-14 Australian Shiraz wines, including the Penfold Grange which is north of $850 per bottle, and with an Elephant Hill Hawke’s Bay 2013 Syrah thrown in to keep us honest.

Each wine was very well-built, young and purple, peppery and bold. Each wine had something to say, but unfortunately this time I exhausted my palate by the ninth, and couldn’t make head or tail of the last three. Shame, because although I liked them the Lloyd Reserve which I admired in the library tasting was hiding among them.

As we poured the blind wines into glasses, the colours of all the wines were good healthy young Syrah deep purple-red, although I could tell there would be something special about No. 6 and No. 9 just from the density of colour; No. 6 looked like you could stand a spoon up in it.

For me the remarkable wines were Nos. 3, 6, and 9.

No. 3 reminded me of a big, older-style blackcurrant jam Australian Shiraz, with lots of berry, ripe toffee and a long oaky finish. The minty, freshly-crushed basil leaf on the nose typical of South Australian Shiraz goes well; Geoff says if he likes it he calls it “mint”, or “eucalypt” otherwise. Someone else remarked this wine might be like Kylie crashing a Holden ute full of Foster’s into a blackberry patch. Enjoyable perhaps, but not especially subtle. No. 6 was the most beautifully dark rich purple-red, with an intoxicating, highly concentrated nose of mostly blackcurrant, but also warm florals and a whiff of rough-sawn timber. The wine itself was complex, initially spicy but with savoury meaty flavours and berries competing for space, with a longer finish. No. 9 for me was also a dense colour, with a peppery lavender on the nose and an interesting hint of baked dates or figs, not over-sweet but nicely integrated into the plum fruit flavours for a lingering complexity.

Once again we gathered some “wisdom of the crowd” data to see if as a group we could pick our wines, and this time we did a bit better; results are below.

Blind rating totals from the new 2013-14 Australian Syrah tasting.

The Penfolds Grange hiding at No. 6 was correctly identified by about half the group. I was overthinking things too much and was trying to re-taste the last three wines at this point, to find the rich, complex wine that would be a likely Grange candidate. I had assumed that, having never tasted it before, something as ludicrously expensive as the Grange might surely be less up in one’s grill with its big bold Aussie blackcurrants, so although No. 6 was beautifully dense and concentrated, I had assumed the Grange was busy being all sophisticated elsewhere. Once everyone’s hands shot up, however, it became clear the cat was out of the bag! The No. 9 I liked was the Elephant Hill 2014 Syrah Reserve, which surprised me, and the Lloyd Reserve from Coriole in McLaren Valley was hiding at No. 10, which was interesting to re-taste after The Grange. It has that torn basil leaf mint and lavender on the nose, with savory and plum, liquorice and a good long finish.

Of futher note was No. 11, the Cape Mentelle 2013 Shiraz from Margaret River in Western Australia. This was a more delicate wine than the others, with interesting and complex boquet of jasmine, perhaps roses, with a good plum fruit body and a nice mild spiciness like a hint of Christmas cake, with a good long-ish finish. It was certainly different enough from the others that three of us thought it was the Hawke’s Bay Syrah.

Herewith the full list of wines:

1. 2015 Wirra Wirra Shiraz Catapult, McLaren Vale, South Australia
2. 2013 Domaine Chandon Shiraz, Yarra Valley, Victoria
3. 2014 Burge Shiraz FilsellBarossa Valley,  SA
4. 2014 Two Hands Shiraz Gnarly Dudes, Barossa Valley, SA
5. 2014 John Duval Shiraz EntityBarossa & Eden Valley,  SA
6. 2012 Penfolds Shiraz Grange, Barossa Valley, SA
7. 2012 Wirra Wirra Shiraz RSWMcLaren Vale,  SA
8. 2012 Elderton Shiraz Command, Barossa Valley, SA
9. 2014 Elephant Hill Syrah ReserveHawkes Bay, New Zealand
10. 2013 Coriole Shiraz Lloyd Reserve, McLaren Vale, SA
11. 2013 Cape Mentelle Shiraz, Margaret River, West Australia
12. 2013 Seppelt Shiraz St Peters, Grampians, Victoria

Australian Syrah then and now: 1996 library tasting

Tonight we went to one of Geoff Kelly‘s illuminating wine tastings, held as ever at Regional Wines & Spirits next to the Basin Reserve in Wellington. This was part one of a two part tasting – a library tasting of 20 year-old Australian Shiraz wines, with a 1996 Hermitage thrown in as a yardstick; Next month part two will be a tasting of eleven new vintage Australian Shiraz with a good Hawke’s Bay Syrah to compare. Tonight was a blind tasting, in order to gather some interesting data from participants before revealing which wines were which.

It really is quite intimidating to try twelve magnificent 20 year-old red wines, and try to remain objective about comparing their colour and weight, nose (aroma), taste, complexity, and so on. As humans we’re notoriously bad at taste and smell compared to our other senses, so even just trying to identify the different flavours is a constant challenge. They are sometimes elusive or fleeting; there at the start, but then gone with the vapours a few minutes later. Sometimes they are maddeningly familiar, but the right word, recollection or label for it is just out of reach. Geoff, a true national treasure, runs a good show; reminding us not to speak too much aloud and cloud each others’ judgements, but dropping a few helpful hints and starting points to look for in aged reds, and Australian Syrah in particular, drawing on his 40 years of wine cellaring, judging, and writing.

Most of them were just as you’d imagine beautiful aged 20 year-old Syrah to be: plum or berry dominant, interesting florals, smooth, and tannins tamed by oak and time. That is, apart from No. 5 which to my nose was of fresh cowpat and sweaty horse. No. 7 to me had an unpleasant butyric bile odour, but it had weird almost salty savoury taste, like Parmigiano. My favourites were No. 3 for its sheer number and complexity of different and intriguing flavours, and its beautiful long velvety finish, and No. 8, which was a standout for me. It was the most purple-red of the set like it was only three years old, while all the others had aged to a fairly uniform red-ruby, near garnet colour. It had a bold nose of cognac, almond and cherry, with a slight floral element of jasmine and violets. Strong dark plum fruit but with a savoury hint of truffle, and its long-lingering tannins, whilst softened with the oak, were still unwinding even after all this time, and could probably go for another ten years.

Before revealing the wines, Geoff asked us to rate a first and second favourite, a least favourite, and which we thought was the French wine hiding in the glasses. This data set is tabulated below.

No. 5 was the 1996 Cape Mentelle from Margaret River, Western Australia, which might have had either a dose of brett or it was corked. No. 3 was the 1996 d’Arenberg Dead Arm from McLaren Vale, South Australia, and No. 8, my favourite, was the 1995 Coriole Lloyd Reserve, also from McLaren Vale. The No. 7 was the ludicrously expensive Hermitage (AOC Syrah from Rhône, France), the Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle; Jancis Robinson writes about this wine, here. Luckily for me, Regional Wines had a couple of the 2011 Lloyd Reserves in stock!

The full list of wines are detailed on Geoff’s library tasting page, and reproduced here:

1. 1996 Seppelt Shiraz Mount Ida, Heathcote, Victoria
2. 1996 Barossa Valley Estates E&E Shiraz Black Pepper, Barossa Valley
3. 1996 d’Arenberg Shiraz Dead-Arm, McLaren Vale, South Australia
4. 1996 Jim Barry Shiraz McRae WoodClare Valley, SA
5. 1996 Cape Mentelle Shiraz, Margaret River, West Australia
6. 1996 Burge Shiraz Meschach, Barossa Valley, SA
7. 1996 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle, Northern Rhone Valley, France
8. 1995 Coriole Shiraz Lloyd’s Reserve, McLaren Vale, SA
9. 1996 Bannockburn Shiraz, Geelong, Victoria
10. 1997 Mount Langi Ghiran Shiraz Langi, Grampians, Victoria
11. 1996 Henschke Shiraz Mount EdelstoneEden Valley, SA
12. 1996 McWilliams Shiraz Maurice O’Shea, Hunter Valley, NSW

Verona

Ah… fair Verona, such a lovely town. We arrived by train, after a vaporetto ride to the Venice Santa Lucia train station.

One highlight of the trip we had both been looking forward to was the opportunity to see Turandot, the magnificent opera by Puccini, performed at the Verona Arena. In preparation for the evening ahead, in the afternoon we went to the Maria Callas exhibition, which was truly extraordinary. Her costumes, posters, photographs, props, newspaper clippings and so on, all about her life and career at La Scala in Milan, and elsewhere, with an excellent audio guide which interspersed commentary with recordings of her performing opera arias. In the context of the tragic events in her life, hearing her voice and her incredible performances was exquisitely poignant and moving.

Puccini’s Turandot was amazing. It was a Zeffirelli production, so the sets and costumes were fantastic. The chorus we estimated to be at least 150 singers, which is far larger than typical New Zealand opera performances I’ve played in or been to. The sound of the full chorus at fortissimo was simply astonishing, and it also meant that the conductor, rather than giving the orchestra the hand in order to plead restraint, was instead egging the brass on, simply in order to be heard. The result was an absolutely thrilling, intense and unforgettable sound. Went for a pizza and a cheeky prosecco afterwards!

The next day, we went on a wine tour of the local Valpolicella region, organised with Pagus Tours. We visited three wineries in the region, the first was a fairly large producer, the second a smaller family business with a beautiful cellar door building, where we had lunch. The only other people on the tour was a couple Rob and Angela from Florida, who were excellent company.

There are four notable DOC and DOCG wines of the Valpolicella region, made from predominantly the corvina grape, but with varying amounts of corvinone, rondinella, molinara, and other local grape varieties.

Valpolicella (sometimes Valpolicella Rosso) is a DOC red wine made in a light style without oak, for day time summer drinking, rather like a rosé. There is also Valpolicella Classico, a historical denomination indicating just that it comes from one of five townships to the west of the region. Valpolicella Superiore is fermented for longer for a heavier style red wine, and aged in oak for at least a year.

The DOCG wine that has been made traditionally in the Valpolicella region since Roman times is Recioto, a sweet red wine. The grapes are harvested very late and dried on racks for up to three months in order to concentrate the juice and flavour. They will have lost nearly half their weight in water, and the juice is then fermented and cut short to produce a very sweet wine. Until the mid-20th Century, this was by far the predominant wine made in the region. We tried a couple of very good recioto wines, and they are very crisp and fruit driven, without the raisin or prune overtones of port.

In the 1970s a method of winemaking emerged called Ripasso, meaning “re-passed”. Now a DOC wine in itself, it is a Valpolicella wine with the pomace from a Recioto or Amarone added back in, for a second round of maceration and further fermentation. This produces a more robust, darker and beautifully complex wine, which must be aged in oak for a minimum of two years.

Finally, a wine called Amarone emerged in the mid 20th Century. Now a DOCG wine, a good story is that it resulted from barrels of recioto abandoned during World War Two that were left to fully ferment. Although this story may be somewhat fanciful, such wine having probably been produced in the past, modern Amarone began to be deliberately produced only since the 1950s. Amarone is a very strong, highly alcoholic, strongly oaked, full and complex wine, made from dried late harvest red grapes as per a Recioto. For the DOCG it must be aged for three years in oak, and many makers age it for longer still.

After lunch we visited the tour guide’s family business, Damoli, which makes a stunning 2006 “Checo” amarone. We were forced to buy six bottles to bring back in the luggage.

After all that hard work, and a nap at the hotel, we met up with Rob and Angela again at an excellent restaurant, Trattoria Tre Marchetti, for a four course degustation. It was entirely decadent and well-deserved; ham with an apricot and cherry marinaded in mustard and amarone, which gave them a horseradish kick. A porcini and black truffle fettucine, then braised veal cheek in jus, with buttered potatoes and a little pressed spoon of suviche zucchini and carrot. And a plate of miniature dessert pastries. With a great Superiore, a Zenato Ripasso, and finally a Recioto, which we dared to try with the red meat; it was surprising and fantastic. The wine was offered in an array of wineglasses including Murano glass, and one for the Ripasso that was seriously the size of my face. And as anyone who knows me knows, I have a big face.

The following day it was hot, and we felt a little tired and lazy, so we had pizza with soppressata, olives, capers and big white anchoves from a good outdoor pizzeria for lunch, and read our books for a while. We had a look around the fortress museum, lots of devotional art, frescoes and statues of the Virgin Mary.

Interesting different things about Italy #49: bathroom taps are often operated by a foot pedal.

At 5.30 we jumped on the train again. Next up, Bologna, less than an hour away, where we just had great fresh pasta with Bolognese ragù for dinner at a Chinese-run canteen for only €5, since almost nothing else was open. But that’s another story for another post!

Venice

Traveling in style on Italotreno at 300 km/h.

On Monday, we checked out of our hotel in Rome, and jumped on a train to Venice. This Italotreno train zoomed along at up to 300 km/h in places, in a comfortable quiet cabin with free WiFi. On arrival, we find the main island of Venice rammed with tourists, not helped by an illusion of density; the “streets” are very narrow. There are no roads, only canals and pedestrian footpaths; no vehicles, save for hand-pulled carts for delivering goods, and of course the famous Venetian gondolas.

Our hotel room was teeny-tiny but manageable, in a Venetian house that had been converted into a hotel. We were to later learn this to be common; the only “locals” we saw were the business owners, tour guides, restaurant staff and the like. One guide told us that not many locals can afford to live on the main island any more due to the increasing costs of maintenance and insurance as the island subsides (and the sea level rises), and the sky-high rents, driven in part by highly lucrative tourism. Most apart from the mega-rich now live on the mainland, and if they still own property on the island, let it out through Airbnb; much of the housing in Venice is now hotels, or even empty.

After settling in we found what turned out to be an awful place for tea, Aciugheta. The service was terrible and they served tired, microwaved frozen seafood on chewy packet pasta.

The next day we found Magna Bevi Tasi, a lovely place to start the day with coffee and a panini in the morning, on the square next to the hotel. From there we embarked on a walking tour around San Marco, and a visit to St. Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace. In the afternoon we went on the Vaporetto (water bus) out to the island of Murano, with its glass factories that produce the famous and beautiful Venetian glass, and Burano, famous for its lace. By this point the relentless crowds of tourists everywhere drove me to escape down a quiet alleyway, where I found, only a hundred yards away, an oasis of quiet and colourful residential Venice, and managed a few idiot-free photographs.

That night we found Antica Osteria ai Tre Leone for tea, a lovely place right next to the Bridge Hotel with good pasta and wine list.

On Wednesday it was Bek’s birthday, and so we ventured out into the local countryside on a Prosecco tour. What better way to spend a birthday than drinking nice sparkling wine in the sun?

Prosecco vineyards near Valdobbiadene, Italy.

We went to three different Prosecco wineries, all producing Prosecco Superiore DOCG, which is sparkling wine made in a region around the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene, from the Prosecco grape. The first was Toffoli, near Conegliano. They make a really good millesimato, extra dry. We mailed six magnums home to make use of the good NZ shipping rate. Happy birthday! These will come in handy for special occasions. We also got chatting to one of the staff who came to New Zealand for a couple of years and worked in Marlborough vineyards, and he very kindly gave us a couple of bottles of their sparkling rosé, made from the Marzemino grape.

A prosecco vending machine, in the middle of a vineyard.

On the way to the next vineyard in Valdobbiadene, where we had lunch, we stopped by a prosecco vending machine, out in the middle of the vineyard on a hill, with chairs and tables nearby. The whole thing runs as some sort of local honesty system. Just amazing!

Prosecco Superiore DOCG from Villa Sandi.

The third vineyard was Villa Sandi, which also had a lovely extra dry Prosecco Superiore.

After a hard day of drinking sparkling wine and being chauffeured around the Italian countryside, we went to the Tre Leone again for dinner. It’s a good restaurant, and it was very crowded and tiresome to try to find another good one.

The next day we decided to take it easy. The main island of Venice was relentlessly busy with tourists, so we emerged about midday and decided to bob along Canal Grande on the Vaporetto for about an hour and a half, until we ended up at the Lido.

Here we reclined on the beach for a while with Prosecco and spritz. Dear reader, if you want to visit Venice in the height of summer, go to the island of Lido – it is refreshingly free of tourist crowds and has good local cafés and restaurants. We went to a nice outdoor place for dinner on Gran Viale San Maria Elisabetta with good food and service.

Tomorrow we catch the train to Verona!

Arriving in Rome

We arrived from the airport by cab and checked in to the Hearth Hotel, on Via Santamaura, right next to the Vatican museum gate. A good spot and very handy by foot and Metro to the rest of the city.

Pines of the Jainiculum

A walk about took us to Saint Peter’s Square, and then up to the nearby Jainiculum (Gianicolo) in order to unlock the first of many Respighi achievements, Pini di Roma: III. I pini del Gianicolo. It is one of several hills around Rome, and mostly a public park, with many sculptures and busts of historical Italian figures dotted about.

Later in the afternoon we wandered into Trastevere district, which has lots of art shops and restaurants on either side of old cobbled Roman streets. Along the way we entered Santa Maria in Trastevere, a Roman basilica dating back to the fourth century A.D. Its beautiful gilded ceilings and Cavallini mosaics are a stunning sight.

Trevi Fountain.

The next day we went on a guided tour around the Colosseum and Roman Forum, and another around the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain (Respighi achievement unlocked, Fontane di Roma: III. La fontana di Trevi al meriggio) and the Pantheon. A big full day, but thoroughly worth it.

The Colosseum, from the Metro station.

The ancient Romans had figured out how to make strong concrete (opus cæmenticium) using volcanic ash. Unlike the modern technique of using gravel aggregate and pouring it into place, they used it more like a mortar, to lay bigger bits of baked clay bricks or rubble together. The Colosseum was built using brick and concrete around 110 A.D. and must have been a beautiful spectacle in brilliant white travertine, and festooned with many marble sculptures and reliefs.

Whilst it did fall into disuse after the fall of the Roman Empire, its current dilapidated state is mostly due to its deliberate dismantling over the following thousand years by builders, who raided its marble statues and outer cladding blocks in order to build other Roman buildings, including much of what is now Vatican City.

The Pantheon dome from inside.

The Pantheon is the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world, built in 120 A.D. with a diameter of 43 metres. It was built using pumice as the aggregate towards the top, to reduce the load on the lower structure.

It is truly remarkable that, despite the Italian peninsula being prone to large earthquakes similar to New Zealand, these buildings are still standing after two thousand years.

The Lombardi Propileo Cesanese, a good IGT red from the Lazio region.

Along the way we observed that in Rome at least, road rules are mostly optional, and most cars seem to be fitted with broken indicator bulbs. Drivers do stop for pedestrians though, which was a relief. Just around the corner from the hotel was a great restaurant where we could use our colourful Euro beer vouchers to buy great Italian food and local wine, including a Lazio Cesanese called Propileo, which has been somewhat hard to track down since. Inevitably, I tried a local dish called Cacio e pepe.

Cacio e pepe

Like many Italian dishes, cacio e pepe is fantastic yet deceptively simple: pasta served hot straight from the pot, with a generous handful of finely grated cheese and pepper. This restaurant added a squeeze of lemon juice, which makes it exquisite.

Ingredients:

  • 450 g (1 lb) of fresh pasta (spaghetti, tagliatelle)
  • 180 g (6 oz) Pecorino Romano*
  • ground pepper
  • lemon juice

Bring plenty of water to a rolling boil and cook the pasta for 2-3 minutes. Grate the cheese with a fine grater. Lift the pasta into bowls and stir though a handful of grated cheese in each. Serve immediately with a squeeze of lemon juice, and grind plenty of pepper straight on top. Match with a good red wine with plenty of acid.

Note: Pecorino Romano is a local Italian cheese made from sheep milk. If required, substitute any good hard salty cheese instead, e.g. Parmesan or a good aged cheddar.