Note: This wine was a sample from the 2019 Wine Media Conference.
A few quick thoughts on the 2018 Hopes End Brandy Barrel-Aged Cabernet Sauvignon from South Australia.
Hopes End is part of the Trinchero Family’s extensive portfolio, which includes brands such as Menage à Trois, Charles & Charles, Joel Gott, A3 Wines and Sutter Home.
Slightly unusual for its style & low $10-13 price point, the Cabernet Sauvignon is sourced entirely from the state of South Australia instead of the vast, multi-regional South Eastern Australia designation.
While South Australia is known for the wines of the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, Padthaway and Coonawarra, most likely this wine comes from the Riverland region in the Lower Murray. As Australia’s largest wine region by volume, the Riverland is responsible for nearly 25% of all Australian wine produced.
As noted on the bottle, the wine spends 30 days aging in brandy barrels. However, I can’t find any details of the barrels’ origins or if the wine saw any other type of aging.
Definitely more blackberry pie notes than brandy in this wine.
Medium-intensity nose. Very jammy dark fruit–blackberry, black plum. Noticeable woodsy oak and vanilla, but it doesn’t smell brandy-like.
On the palate, the 9 g/l residual sugar is very noticeable with the dark fruit having a pie-filling weight and texture. Medium-plus acidity helps balance it somewhat but is curiously citrusy. This could be some of the brandy coming out.
The vanilla is very present with soft medium-plus tannins and a creamy, full-bodied mouthfeel. The moderate finish does introduce black pepper spice which adds some complexity.
As I’ve done before with previous tastings of bourbon barrel-aged wines, I did my best to keep an open mind. While it wasn’t as gawd-awful as Apothic Inferno, this Hopes End was still just okay.
It’s an off-dry red blend that doesn’t taste like the inside of a barrel. While it’s not my personal style, it’s certainly in line with many mass-market red blends in the $10-13 range.
The wine world has a wicked way of promoting FOMO–a fear of missing out.
From the luxury end, there are cult wines and trophy bottles. In years past, score hounds would scavenge the shelves looking for highly-rated gems before they sold out.
Now for wine geeks and wanderlust Millennials, the entire world of wine is a temptress. But what we fear missing out on is not what the pack is gobbling up. Instead, our minds quiver at the thought of missing out on what’s new and exciting by settling for what’s old and boring.
Why feel content with the same ole Cab and Chardonnay when you could have Touriga Nacional and Grenache blanc?
Yeah, Champagne is charming. Prosecco is perfect for patio sipping. But that’s what everyone else is drinking. It’s what you can find in every wine shop. You can’t have FOMO if there is nothing to be missed.
And that’s the dirty little secret of the human psyche.
Despite the real repercussions when we let FOMO reach anxiety levels, we still crave it. We still crave the thrill of the hunt. But how much thrill is there in shooting ducks in a basket?
In the world of sparkling wine, finding premium Aussie bubbles is a tough unicorn to bag. Unless, of course, you’re one of the 25 million people who call Australia home.
Now yes, we’ll get some sparkling Shiraz exported.
Actually Australia is home to many unicorns. If only I could’ve found a way to keep these frozen for the plane ride home.
Though the ones that make their way to the US tend to be mass-produced and underwhelming. Of course, there is the ubiquitous YellowTail, which has several sparklers in their line up. However, that’s basically the “Fosters of Australian wine”–a well-known ambassador but not really a benchmark.
But only around a fifth of Australia’s sparkling wine production gets exported. That means you need to go down under to even get a hint of what the rest of the world is missing out on. Luckily, I got such a chance this past October during the Wine Media Conference.
There, in both the Hunter Valley and neighboring Mudgee, I was able to try several sparkling wines that I could never find in the States. But I barely scratched the surface. Even spending extra time in Sydney, I found that the highly regarded Tasmanian sparklers were surprisingly difficult to find.
I’ll share my thoughts on many of the sparklers I tasted below. But first a little geeking about Australian sparkling wine.
Australia isn’t an “emerging” sparkling wine producer.
I’d imagine it was quite the scandal having a non-French sparkler served to the French emperor.
Up in the Hunter Valley, James King began producing sparkling wine around 1843. King’s wines would receive great international acclaim–doing particularly well at the 1855 Paris Exposition. Yes, that1855 Paris Exposition. At the end of the event, King’s sparkling Australian wine was selected as one of only two wines that were served to Napoleon III at the closing banquet.
It’s hard to know exactly what these first Aussie sparklers were. King, in particular, was noted for the quality of his Shepherd’s Riesling (Semillon). However, he also had Pinot noir in his vineyard as well.
These early Australian sparklers were made using the traditional method of Champagne.
The 20th century saw more innovation in sparkling wine techniques with producers experimenting with a “twist” on the Champagne method known as the Transfer Method or transvasage. (We’ll geek out more about that down below) The exact date and who was the first to pioneer this technique in Australia is not known though Minchinbury helped popularize its use.
In 1939, Frederick Thomson started using carbonation (or the “soda method”) to make his Claretta sparkling fizz. We should note that while many cheap sparkling wines (including some so-called “California Champagnes”) are made with added carbonation, in Australia these wines can’t be labeled as “sparkling wines.” Only wines that get their effervescence through fermentation (either in a bottle or tank) can use the term.
Speaking of tanks, adoption of the Charmat method took hold in the late 1950s–beginning with Orlando’s Barossa Pearl Fizz. Today, the tank method is gaining in prominence–especially with the strong sparkling Moscato and “Prosecco” market in Australia. (More on both of those a little later too.)
The 1980s saw a spark of French interest in Australia.
Much like in California, the big Champagne houses took an interest in Australia’s growing sparkling wine industry. In 1985, both Roederer and Moët & Chandon invested in new estates.
Roederer help found Heemskerk as a joint-venture in Pipers Brook, Tasmania. But eventually Roederer moved on from the project–selling back their interest in the estate in 1994.
Throughout Australia, sparkling wine accounts for around 6% of production. In Tasmania, that number jumps up to 30%.
Moët’s Domaine Chandon at Green Point in the Yarra Valley of Victoria, though, saw immediate success thanks to the work of the legendary Tony Jordan–who sadly passed away earlier this year.
Like Roederer, LVMH also looked to Tasmania as a potential spot for sparkling wine production. However, they wanted a location more prime for tourism and cellar door sales.
Bollinger was also briefly a player in Australia’s sparkling wine scene through their partnership with Brian Croser in Petaluma. However, the hostile takeover of that brand by the Lion Nathan corporation in 2001 seemed to have ended Bollinger’s involvement.
Today, except for Domaine Chandon (and Pernod Ricard’s Jacob’s Creek), most all of the Australian sparkling wine industry is wholly domestic. This makes me wonder if this is why Aussie sparklers are so hard to find outside of Australia?
Even the most prominent players like Treasury Wine Estates (Wolf Blass, Penfolds, Seppelt, Heemskirk, Yellowglen) and Accolade Wine (Banrock Station, Arras, Bay of Fires, Hardy’s, Croser, Yarra Burn) have their origins as Australian conglomerates before they gained an international presence.
Understanding this is a big part of understanding Australian sparkling wine. Like the traditional method, fermentation happens in the bottle. However, it’s not happening in the bottle that you’re taking home. Instead, after secondary fermentation and aging, the wine is emptied into a pressurized tank at around 0°C where the lees are filtered out. Then the sparkler is bottled anew with its dosage.
The Champenois themselves use transvasage for 187ml airline splits and half bottles as well as large format Champagnes starting with double magnum (3L Jeroboam) in size. This is because these odd formats would be difficult to riddle without excessive breakage.
The Australians were keen to adopt the labor and cost-saving benefits of the transfer method and it’s the most widely used technique. It allows wineries to increase efficiency without sacrificing the quality character of autolysis. Ed Carr of Accolade Wines noted in Christie’s that the difference is as much as $30-40 AUD per case compared to traditional riddling. Plus, winemakers can do one last “tweaking” (such as SO2 and acidity adjustments) before final bottling.
However, many boutique producers stick to using the traditional (instead of transfer) method. These bottles are labeled stating “Methode champenoise,”“Methode traditionnelle” or simply “Fermented in this bottle.”
The sparklers that are made using the transfer method are more likely to state that they are “Bottled Fermented” or “Fermented in the bottle.”
Australian Moscato & “Prosecco”
As elsewhere in the world, Australia has had its own “Moscato Boom.”
Now usually Moscato is associated with the Moscato bianco grape of Asti (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains). However, in Australia, the term is used to refer to the whole Muscat family when the wine is made in a light, sweet style with low alcohol. So a bottle of sparkling Australian Moscato can be made from Moscato bianco, Muscat of Alexandria, Orange Muscat, Moscato Giallo or a blend of multiple Muscats.
The King Valley in north-east Victoria has a strong Italian heritage. The Glera/Prosecco grape thrives in the cooler southern end of the valley with vineyards planted at higher altitudes.
Australian Prosecco is also apparently a big deal–though I didn’t personally encounter any bottles on my trip. The first Australian Prosecco was made by Otto Dal Zotto in King Valley (or “Victoria’s little Italy”) in 2004. The success of that wine and others caught the attention and ire of producers in the Veneto.
This led Italian authorities to take some dramatic steps in 2009. First, they petitioned the EU to change the grape’s name from Prosecco to Glera. Then they expanded the DOC to the province of Trieste, in Friuli Venezia Giulia, where there is a village named Prosecco. This gave them the justification to claim the entire region as a protected geographical area.
Obviously Australian wine producers balked at this with the conflict between the two parties still ongoing. But while Australian Prosecco can be sold domestically, none of these wines can be exported into the EU.
A few of the Australian Sparklers I’ve enjoyed this year.
Amanda and Janet de Beaurepaire at their family estate. Amanda’s parents, Janet and Richard, started planting their 53 hectares of vineyards in 1998.
De Beaurepaire 2018 Blanchefleur Blanc de Blancs – $45 AUD (Purchased additional bottles at winery)
I’ve got a future article planned about the intriguing story of the De Beaurepaire family and the genuinely unique terroir they’ve found in Rylstone, southeast of Mudgee. The family’s name and ancestors come from the Burgundian village of Beaurepaire-en-Bresse in the Côte Chalonnaise. So it’s no surprise that their wines have a French flair to them.
It’s also no surprise that their 2018 Blanchefleur was quite Champagne-like. Indeed, it was the best sparkling wine I had on the trip. A 100% Chardonnay with 15 months on the lees, this wine had incredible minerality. Coupled with the vibrant, pure fruit, it screamed of being something from the Cote de Blancs. I’m not kidding when I say that this bottle would stack up well to a quality NV from a grower-producer like Franck Bonville, Pierre Peters, De Sousa or Pertois-Moriset.
Peter Drayton 2018 Wildstreak sparkling Semillon-Chardonnay – $30 AUD
I had this at an Around the Hermitage dinner that featured many gorgeous wines. But the folks at the Around Hermitage Association started things right with this 80% Semillon/20% Chardonnay blend that spent 18 months on the lees. Hard to say if this was transfer method of not. However, the toasty autolysis notes were quite evident with biscuit and honeycomb. Very Chenin like. In a blind tasting, I’d probably confuse it with good quality sparkling Vouvray from a producer like Francois Pinon or Huet.
BTW, the Around Hermitage folks made a fun short video about the dinner (3:20) which features an interview with me.
With a blend of 63% Chardonnay, 19% Pinot noir and 18% Pinot Meunier, this is another bottle that is following the traditional method and recipe. Sourced from the cool-climate Orange region of NSW, which uses altitude (930m above sea level) to temper the heat, this wine spent almost two years aging on the lees. Lots of toasted brioche with racy citrus notes. It feels like it has a higher Brut dosage in the 10-11 g/l range. But it’s well balanced with ample acidity to keep it fresh.
Hollydene Estate 2008 Juul Blanc de Blancs – $69 AUD
Hollydene Estate Winery in Jerrys Plains is about an hour northwest of the heart of the Hunter Valley in Pokolbin.
Made in the traditional method, this wine is 100% Chardonnay sourced from the cool maritime climate of the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria. It spent over 60 months aging on the lees and, whoa nelly, you can tell. Hugely autolytic with yeasty, doughy notes to go with the lemon custard creaminess of the fruit.
Peterson House 2007 Sparkling Semillon – ($60 AUD)
If you love sparkling wine, make sure you book a trip to Peterson House. Each year they release more than 30 different sparklers. Beyond just the traditional varieties, they push the envelope in creating exciting bubbles. You’ll find sparklers made from Verdelho, Pinot gris and Sauvignon blanc as well as Chambourcin, Petit Verdot and Malbec.
I’m generally not a fan of overly tertiary sparklers. But this wine made a big impression on me during the conference.
Wow! A vintage sparkling traditional method Semillon that spent 11 years on lees. 11 years!
Robert Stein NV Sparkling Chardonnay and Pinot noir – $25 AUD
I raved about the Robert Stein Rieslings in my recent post, Send Roger Morris to Mudgee. But there are so many good reasons to put this winery (and the Pipeclay Pumphouse restaurant) on a “Must Visit Bucket List”. The entire line up is stocked with winners–including this Charmat method sparkler.
At first taste, I had this pegged for transfer method. It wasn’t as aggressively bubbly and frothy as many tank method sparklers can be. However, the considerable apple blossom aromatics should have tipped me off. If this ever made its way to the US for less than $30, I’d recommend buying this by the case.
Gilbert 2019 Pet Nat Rose – $25 AUD (Purchased additional bottles at winery)
Gilbert’s Sangio Pet-Nat was just bloody fantastic. I wish I brought more than one bottle home.
It’s always trippy to have a wine from the same year (2019)–especially a sparkler. Gilbert harvests the Sangiovese in February and bottles before the first fermentation is completed each year. Released in July, this wine was surprisingly dry and is teetering on the Brut line with 12.5 g/l residual sugar. Very clean with no funky flavors, this wine had a beautiful purity of fruit–cherry, strawberries, watermelon and even blood orange.
The Christie’s Encyclopedia notes that Domaine Chandon shot out of the gate partly because of the lessons that Tony Jordan learned at Napa’s Domaine Chandon. In particular, Jordan was well aware of the challenges of dealing with grapes from warm climates. In Australia, Domaine Chandon casts an extensive net by sourcing from cool-climate vineyards in both Victoria and Tasmania. They have vineyards not only in the Yarra Valley but also in the King Valley, Macedon Ranges, Whitlands Plateau and Strathbogie Ranges as well as the Coal River Valley region in Tasmania.
For the fruit that comes from Tasmania, Domaine Chandon follows the tact used by many Australian sparkling wine producers. They press the fruit at local press houses in Tasmania before transporting the must in refrigerated containers to the mainland. This helps maintain freshness and ward off spoilage organisms.
The 2013 vintage Brut is 47% Chardonnay, 50% Pinot noir and 3% Pinot Meunier. As in Champagne, Domaine Chandon ages their vintage sparklers at least 36 months on the lees. Fully fermented in the same bottle, it tastes very similar to other Moët & Chandon sparklers with rich, creamy mouthfeel holding up the ripe apple and citrus notes. An enjoyable bottle priced in line with its peers.
Bleasdale Sparkling Shiraz (tasted in London at the WSET School) – Around 15 euros
I’ll admit that the color of sparkling Shiraz is always very striking.
Admittedly I’m still on the search for a genuinely impressive sparkling Shiraz. But this Bleasdale came close. Like the Paringa I’ve reviewed previously, it’s sweeter than my ideal though I get the winemaking reasons behind that.
Sparkling red wines are notoriously tricky to pull off because you have to balance the tannins. This is why many of these wines often have more than 20 g/l sugar.
Most sparkling reds come from the same regions as premium Australian still reds. Think places like the Barossa, McLaren Vale or the Langhorne Creek (Bleasdale). Interestingly, producers will harvest these grapes at the same time as those for still reds wine. Instead of harvesting early to retain acidity, producers want the extended hang time for riper tannins.
However, these sparklers sorely need acidity to balance both the intense fruit and sweetness. While secondary fermentation does add carbonic acid, I suspect that these wines are routinely acidified.
Still, this Bleasdale had enough balance of acid to go with the dark plum and delicate oak spice. That got me wondering how well this would pair with BBQ pulled pork.
Or, if I’m brave, maybe I’d pair some of these Aussie sparkling unicorns with steak de cheval.
Back in January, I wrote a post called Wine Clubs Done Right that detailed my discovery of Tablas Creek’s Wine Club program. Which I promptly joined. As I noted in that post, I don’t join many wineries’ wine clubs. They rarely offer compelling value. Plus, I don’t like being committed to buying quantities of wine that may eventually shift in style due to changing winemakers/ownership, etc.
However, while exploring the Tablas Creek story and all they had to offer I found many compelling reasons to pull the trigger and join. Much to my surprise, the folks at Tablas Creek were actually interested in my tale and offered on their blog some cool behind the scene insights into their thought processes in how they set up their wine club programs.
You usually don’t see that kind of receptivity and transparency with many wineries but, as I’ve found out in the nearly eight months since I’ve been a member of Tablas Creek’s wine club, that is just par for the course with them. It’s not marketing or show. These folks are really just wine geeks through and through. They love what they are doing and sharing that passion with others.
If you are wine geek yourself, I honestly can’t recommend a more exciting winery to discover.
Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes is still my holy writ (and I like Harry Karis’ The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book chapter on grapes). But when I’m away from my books and want to check up on a Rhone variety, there is no better online source than the Tablas Creek site. Plus, the particular winemaking details they cover in the entries is often stuff that you won’t find in many wine books because it comes from their decades of hands-on experience working with these grapes between themselves and the Perrins’ Ch. Beaucastel estate.
But enough with the effusive gushing and let’s get down to some hardcore geeking over the 2017 Tablas Creek Vermentino from the Adelaida District of Paso Robles.
Counoise vine outside the tasting room at Tablas Creek.
Tablas Creek Vineyards was founded in 1989 as a partnership between the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel and Robert Haas of Vineyard Brands. As I noted in my 60 Second Review of the 2000 Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Perrins have been in charge of the legendary Rhone property since 1909.
Aaron Romano of Wine Spectator noted that Haas also helped launch Sonoma-Cutrer and promoted on a national stage the prestigious California wines of Chappellet, Joseph Phelps, Hanzell, Kistler and Freemark Abbey. In 1980, he co-founded the distribution firm Winebow Group.
Planting Tablas Creek
The vineyards of Tablas Creek with some of the rocky limestone soil visible.
Haas and the Perrins saw the similarity in maritime climate and limestone soils of the Adelaida District and Rhone. They purchased 120 acres west of the city of Paso Robles and established Tablas Creek. Planting of their estate vineyard began in 1994. Today the winery has 115 acres of biodynamically farmed vines–producing around 30,000 cases a year.
Utilizing its close connection to the Chateauneuf estate, Tablas Creek would go on to become an influential figure in the Rhone Ranger movement in the United States. They did the heavy lifting of getting cuttings from Beaucastel through quarantine and TTB label approval. Over the years, Tablas Creek would help pioneer numerous varieties like Counoise, Terret noir, Grenache blanc and Picpoul in the US. Additionally, the high quality “Tablas Creek clones” of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre have populated the vineyards of highly acclaimed producers across California, Oregon and Washington.
In the mid-2000s, Robert’s son Jason joined the winery and is now the general manager. He’s also the main contributor to Tablas Creek’s award-winning blog.
Vermentino from Giorgio Gallesio’s ampelography catalog published between 1817 and 1839.
Wine writers and producers hotly debate the origins and synonyms of Vermentino. Some ampelographers claim that the grape came from Spain via Corsica and Sardinia sometime between the 14th and 17th centuries. However, DNA evidence point to potentially the mainland of Italy as the birthplace. Here they suggest that the Vermentino of Tuscany, Corsica and Sardinia are the same grape as the Ligurian Pigato and the Piemontese Favorita.
But, Ian D’Agata, in his Native Wine Grapes of Italy, notes that these conclusions are vigorously disputed by Italian growers, particularly in Liguria, who point out that Pigato produces different wine compared to other Vermentino. D’Agata finds Pigato to create “bigger, fatter wines” with a creamier texture than most Vermentino. The name “Pigato” may have derived from the word pigau in the Ligurian dialect, meaning spotted. It could be a reference to the freckled spots that appear on the berries after veraison.
It is possible that the grape is a relatively recent arrival to Sardina. The absence of Vermentino in the 1877 Bollettino Ampelografico listing of Sardinian varieties suggests this. However, the 1887 edition later included it. Today the grape plays a prominent roll in Sardinia’s only DOCG wine–Vermentino di Gallura.
The connection to Favorita seems to be less disputed, though.
Vermentino vineyards in Sardinia.
Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz note in Wine Grapes that historically the grape was believed to have been brought to Piedmont originally as a gift from Ligurian oil merchants. The first documentation of the vine was in the Roero region in 1676, where it was a “favorite” table grape.
Almost two decades earlier, in the Piemontese province of Alessandria, a grape named “Fermentino” was described. Growing in vineyards along with Cortese and Nebbiolo, this may be the earliest mention of Vermentino.
Historically, as Favorita, the grape has a long history of being blended with Nebbiolo. It was a softening agent, used to smooth out the later grape’s harsh tannins and acid. This is very similar to how producers once blended white grapes like Trebbiano and Malvasia with Sangiovese in Chianti.
While once the primary grape of Roero, in recent decades, Favorita has fallen out of favor. In its place, Arneis and Chardonnay have gained in popularity.
Rolle/Vermentino grapes growing in southern France.
Outside of Italy and Corsica, Vermentino also grows in the Languedoc-Roussillon. Here the grape is known as Rolle. Beyond Europe, Lebanese producers are growing in the Bekaa Valley. It has become one of the fastest-growing “alternative grape varieties” in Australia. As of 2016, there are nearly 300 acres across Victoria, the Hunter Valley, King Valley, the Barossa and Murray Darling.
While Tablas Creek mostly focuses on Châteauneuf-du-Pape grapes, they were one of the first US producers of Vermentino. They planted the vine in 1993 based upon the recommendation of the Perrin family’s nurseryman. He thought that Vermentino would do well in the soils and climate of the Adelaida District. While initially used as a blending component, the winery has been making a varietal Vermentino since the 2002 vintage.
Growing in popularity
In 2008, there were around 20 acres of the Vermentino planted in California when there was some speculation that the grape could have appeal to Sauvignon blanc drinkers. By 2017 that number had jump to 91 acres as producers like Tablas Creek, Seghesio in the Russian River Valley, Mahoney Vineyards, Fleur Las Brisas and Saddleback in Carneros, Unti Vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley, Gros Ventre Cellars in El Dorado, Brick Barn in Santa Ynez, Twisted Oak in the Sierra Foothills and others began receiving acclaim for their bottlings.
Outside of California, notable plantings of Vermentino are in the Applegate Valley of Oregon (Troon Vineyard and Minimus Wines). You can also find it in the Texas High Plains (Duchman Family Winery) and Monticello AVA of Virginia (Barboursville Vineyards).
In 2017, Tablas Creek produced 1430 cases of Vermentino. While some producers age their Vermentino in neutral oak, Tablas Creek fermented and ages theirs in stainless steel tanks.
The mix of citrus and yellow peach notes is very intriguing with this wine.
High-intensity nose. Very citrus-driven with kefir lime, pink grapefruit and pummelo–both the zest and the fruit. There is also a tree fruit element that seems a bit peachy. But I would put it more in the less sweet yellow peach category than white peach.
On the palate, those citrus notes carry through and have an almost pithy element to them. Not bitter at all. But it adds weight and texture to the medium body of the wine. The medium-plus acid is mouthwatering and lively but well balanced with the acid highlighting the yellow peach note. The palate also introduces some racy minerality with a very distinctive streak of salinity that lingers long throughout the finish.
The best way I can describe this 2017 Tablas Creek Vermentino is if a New Zealand Sauvignon blanc, a sur lie Muscadet from the Loire and an Italian Pinot grigio had a threesome. This would be their baby.
Such a fascinatingly unique and character-driven wine. It combines multiple layers of tropical and tree fruit with acidity, minerality, weight and texture. Well worth its $27 price.
Rubus is a negociant label of the importing firm Kysela Pere et Fils that was founded by Master Sommelier Fran Kysela.
Prior to earning his MS in 1989 and starting his firm in 1994, Kysela previously worked for California wineries Fetzer and Gallo as well as importers Kermit Lynch and Weygandt-Metzler. In his more than 40 years in the wine business, Fran Kysela has earned numerous awards including 2013 Importer of the Year from Wine Enthusiast magazine.
His wine import portfolio represents over 200 producers, including notable wineries such as Abeja, Accordini Igino, Alain Jaume, Avennia, Bressia, Bonny Doon, Buty, Betz, Chakana, Cholila Ranch, Clos de Sixte, Domaine Mordoree, Finca Sobreno, Gravas, Hahn, Jip Jip Rocks, La Petite Frog, Levendi, Long Shadows, Loring, Maipe, Marcassin, Mas Sinen, Maysara, Milton Park, Montebuena, Mt. Monster, Pago de Carraovejas, Palacio de Bornos, Paradigm, Patton Valley, Poggio Nardone, Quilceda Creek, Rebuli, Reverdy, Rinaldi, Segries, St. James Winery, Tamarack, Thorn Clarke, Tiza, Tres Ojos, Valminor and Vinsacro among many others.
The first wine released under the Rubus label was in 1997 with 1200 cases of an Amador County Zinfandel. Since then the brand has expanded to include Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley, Chardonnay from Colchagua Valley in Chile, Pinot noir from the Waipara Valley in New Zealand, Prieto Picudo from Tierra de León in Spain, a Grenache-based Vin Gris from Corbières in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of France as well as a Shiraz from the Barossa of South Australia.
All the wines bottled under the Rubus label are personally selected by Fran Kysela.
While the oak used for the Rubus Shiraz was entirely American, for half the barrels the staves were sent to France to be seasoned (air dried) and coopered in the French style.
The 2014 Rubus Shiraz was only the third release of a Shiraz from Kysela. A co-ferment of 98% Shiraz with 2% Viognier, the wine was aged 12 months in 100% American oak with half the barrels being seasoned and coopered in France. Around 2,000 cases were produced.
Instead of being labeled as the Geographical Indication (GI) of Barossa Valley, the 2014 Rubus is labeled as being from simply “Barossa” which Mike Desimone and Jeff Jenssen note in Wines of the Southern Hemisphere: The Complete Guide means that fruit from neighboring Eden Valley could have been blended in. Conversely, if a wine is labeled as being from the “Barossa Valley” then only 100% Barossa Valley fruit could be used.
The Origins of Syrah
In Jancis Robinson’s Wine Grapes, co-authored by Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, it is noted that the origins of Syrah have been proven to be distinctly French despite myths attributing its origins to the Persian city of Shiraz in modern-day Iran.
With Mondeuse Blanche native to the Savoie region (#4) and Dureza originating from the Ardèche (#1), it is likely that the cross-pollination that created Syrah happened somewhere in the Isère (#3) where Dureza is known to have reached.
The Drôme department (#2) includes the Northern Rhone wine region of Hermitage where there are written accounts of Syrah being grown here by at least the 1780s.
DNA analysis conducted in 1998 by Dr. Carole Meredith and others at UC-Davis have shown the parents of Syrah to be the Savoie wine grape Mondeuse blanche and the Ardèche variety Dureza. Both grapes were at one time cultivated in the department of Isère, southeast of Lyon, in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region with ampelographers speculating that this was the likely area that Syrah originated in.
Further research by José Vouillamoz has shown a potential parent-offspring relationship between Syrah’s parent Dureza and the Pinot grape meaning that potentially Pinot noir could be a grandparent variety to Syrah.
Additional research into the origins of Viognier has shown a parent-offspring relationship with Syrah’s other parent, Mondeuse blanche, and Viognier though it is not yet clear which variety is the parent and which is the offspring–partly because the other potential parent of Viognier hasn’t been identified yet. This means that Viognier could be either a half-sibling or a grandparent to Syrah.
Aussie Shiraz vs French Syrah
Syrah was first brought to Australia in 1832 by viticulturalist and “father of Australian wine” James Busby as part of a collection of 75 different grapevine varieties from Europe. Known initially as Hermitage and then Scyras it was first planted in New South Wales before spreading westward.
Today it is the most widely planted variety in Australia, accounting for around 45% of the yearly harvest. It is planted across the country with the Barossa Valley known for having some of the oldest vineyards of Shiraz in the world–including many pre-phylloxera plantings on their own rootstock.
Pioneered by German Lutheran settlers from Prussia and Silesia (in modern-day Poland), the Barossa Valley is home to numerous 6th generation family wine growers. Often traditionally aged in American oak, the style of Shiraz here is characterized by James Halliday in his Wine Atlas of Australia as “…lush, velvety and mouthfilling with flavors in the black cherry to blackberry spectrum, the tannins ripe and soft.”
The soils in the Barossa are mostly sandy and clay loam which will have varying water-retaining abilities in the hot Australian sun depending on the percentage and type of clay. This tends to produce concentrated wines with lower acidity and higher pH that contributes to the powerful and lush dark fruit typical of Aussie Shiraz.
In contrast, the mainly granite and schist-based soils of the Northern Rhone (particularly in Côte-Rôtie) produces wines that John Livingstone-Learmonth notes in The Wines of the Northern Rhône tend to be “… less intensely coloured–red rather than black–and much more sinewed. Their fruit is more stone and pebbly in texture, their tannins more upright and raw at the outset. Pepper tones are drier and more evident…”
Medium-plus intensity. Noticeable oak with coconut and cinnamon. Certainly dark fruit like black cherries but there also seems to be some faint red fruit like red plums on the edges. Red flowers like dahlias add some intrigue.
While the oak and dark fruits certainly play a prominent role in this wine, I was very intrigued by some of the layers of potential complexity suggested by the red floral notes like dahlias on the nose.
On the palate the oak is still quite pronounced with creamy vanilla mouthfeel and dark chocolate joining the party. However, medium-plus acidity does add enough freshness and a mouthwatering component to keep this from being jammy. The ripe medium-plus tannins are soft but well structured holding up the full-bodied fruit. On the moderate-length finish there is a subtle herbal note (maybe eucalyptus) that isn’t quite defined but does add some complexity.
Overall, I wouldn’t describe this as a stereotypical “Big, bombastic Aussie Shiraz” that seems to dominant the shelves of the American market. No one would ever confuse this for something from Mollydooker or Glaetzer.
While definitely oaky and fruit-forward, this is a little more in the Penfolds style with an element of elegance and additional layers that I suspect could become even more complex with a few more years of bottle age. With its juicy acidity and structured tannins, I can easily see this going another 3 to 4 years in delivering ample pleasure.
At $20-25, this is a well-made Shiraz that would certainly appeal to many New World drinkers who like their wines fruity and ripe but not sweet or jammy.
I’m in Paso Robles this weekend attending the Hospice du Rhone. Look for a fuller review about the festivities and if I think the cost of a Weekend Pass (and travel to Paso) is worth it to be posted sometime next week.
But, in the meantime, here are a few quick thoughts from Day 1.
Seminar One: South Africa’s Cinsault Renaissance — Very eye-opening. Cinsault is not a grape on many folks’ radar and, especially in the US, neither is South Africa but there are exciting things going on here. The diversity in styles from light, easy drinking and fruity to meaty, spicy and deep reds is remarkable.
All the wineries featured were stellar but the star of the show was Tremayne Smith’s The Blacksmith wines–particularly his Prince of Bones Cinsault.
Seminar Two: A 6th Generation Crusade in the Barossa Valley — This was a particularly fascinating seminar for someone familiar with Washington State wines to sit in on. I was surprised at how similar Barossa was to Washington with numerous vineyard growers who only grow grapes to sell to wineries that do not own any vineyards. What’s different though is that apparently Barossa has a lot more “corporate vineyards” ran by vineyard management teams rather than small family growers.
This seminar focused on wines made by 4 wineries with fruit from Hoffman Vineyard and 6th generation Barossa farmer, Adrian Hoffman. Once again the wines were stellar but I was particularly impressed with Soul Grower’s Shiraz sourced from 100 year old vines at Hoffman and Chris Ringland’s Dimchurch cuvee.
The author meeting Adrian Hoffman of Hoffman Vineyard.
The Rosé Lunch included a very lovely memorial to the late Robert Haas of Tablas Creek and Seth Kunin of Kunin Wines. It also featured some delicious food that highlighted rosé’s versatility in food pairing with everything from Chicken Provençal, pork cassoulet to olive oil cake pairing wonderfully with the assortment of dry rosés on each table.
There were a lot of hits and misses here. I’m a bit concern about the prevalence of volatile acidity (VA) in several domestic examples. Nothing was full-blown vinegar or nail-polish (which are the more obvious signs of VA) but several wines had the subtle oxidize fruit notes on the nose and prickly “tomato ketchup” acid note on the tongue that trip my VA detector.
Truly some remarkable stuff coming from Santa Barbara County.
This cool-climate area is well known as “Sideways Country” for their Pinot noir but the Rhone varieties from this region were some of the most exciting wines at the tasting.
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The next few months will be a busy travel season with upcoming trips to Las Vegas for the Wine Spectator Grand Tour, to Burgundy for 5 days touring wineries and vineyards and to the Vodka Belt of the Baltic Sea countries of Sweden, Finland, Russia and more.
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Below are my notes from each of the flights followed by the reveal of what the wines were.
Wine 1: Opaque ruby with more red than blue hues. Medium-minus intensity nose–floral roses with red berries. Some oak spice.
On the palate–red cherry and currant. High acidity, medium-plus tannins. Little skeletal and thin. Short finish but the floral notes come back and seem promising. Feels like a young Cab that needs some time to flesh out. No minerality so likely New World. Cool climate Washington–Yakima/Walla Walla?
Wine 2: Very opaque purple. Much darker than #1. Little hazy so likely unfiltered. Medium-minus intensity–dark fruit but also a noticeable green note. Vanilla.
The sediment from wine #2. There was no sign of age so clearly this wine wasn’t filtered.
On the palate, the noticeable oak vanilla comes to the forefront but the green leafy notes are also there. Dark fruits but still not very defined, especially with the oak. Medium-plus acidity and high tannins that have a chalky grittiness to them. Some clove spice from the oak. Likely a Cab like wine #1 and it feels like a New World Napa with dark fruit and all the oak but the green notes are throwing me off. Napa Mountain AVAs? 2014 Walla Walla?
Wine 3: Opaque with more red than blue hues. Medium intensity nose. Chocolate covered cherries and spice.
On the palate, chocolate cover cherries still with blue floral notes (Cab Franc?) and a mix of oak baking spice and Asian cooking spice. A lot of layers to evolve. High acidity–very juicy cherries. Medium-plus tannins, very velvet. Some pencil graphite minerality on the long finish (Cab Franc x2?) Kinda Old Worldish but the chocolate covered cherries seem New World or a very modern Right Bank Bordeaux? Very lovely.
Wine 4: Opaque ruby with a little fuchsia hues. Pretty similar color depth to #3, just slightly different shades. Medium intensity nose with some floral and perfume nose. Vanilla blossoms. Smells like a Macy department store. Some blue fruits.
On the palate, the blue fruits–plums and blueberries–carry through and has noticeable oak. Medium-plus acidity and high grippy tannins. Seems very Cab-like with that big structure. No minerality and really short finish. Like wine #1 this seems a bit skeletal and young but I don’t think this one is as promising as #1. Washington BDX blend?
Wine 5: Opaque ruby with noticeable blue hues. High intensity nose. Smokey tobacco and meatiness but also an earthy forest element. It smells like you’re hiking through the forest to get to a brisket BBQ.
On the palate, lots of dark fruit–black currant, black raspberry–but lots of smokey, meatiness too. Some leather. High acidity, high tannins. Big wine! Long finish with cigar notes. Taste like a Left Bank Bordeaux and Cote Rotie had a baby. Fantastic wine but I can’t think of a WA producer doing this.
Wine 6: Opaque ruby with noticeable blue hues. A tad darker than #5. Medium-plus intensity nose. Dark fruits. Chocolate covered acai berries. Lovely blue floral notes.
On the palate, rich black fruits–black plums, black currants. Noticeable oak vanilla. Juicy medium-plus acidity and medium-plus tannins. Very well balanced. Long finish. Taste like a high-end Napa so high-end WA? Both of these are outstanding.
Wine 7: Opaque ruby with some blue hues. High intensity nose with leather and smoked meat. More intense than Wine #5! A little green olive tapenade on toasted bread. Grilled rosemary skews. Floral violets. Roasted coffee. Lots and lots of layers!
On the palate, blackberries and bacon. The roasted coffee notes come through as well as most of the bouquet. Medium-plus acidity and medium-plus tannins. Little back end heat. Long finish. Very Northern Rhone-like. Really delicious wine that I want more time with.
The panel for the seminar. (Left to Right) Doug Charles, moderator Casey McClellan, Seven Hills Jeff-Lindsay-Thorsen, WT Vintners Keith Johnson, Sleight of Hand Damon Huard, Passing Time Anna Schafer Cohen, àMaurice Sean Sullivan, Wine Enthusiast
Wine 9: Clear ruby with red hues. First wine that I can see through. Medium-plus intensity nose. Roasted chicken herbs–thyme and sage. Some blue floral notes.
On the palate, a mix of red and dark fruits–cherries and berries–with the herbal and floral notes. High acidity. Medium-plus tannins. Little minerality on the moderate finish. Seems like a cool climate New World or Old World Rhone.
Wine 10: Clear pale ruby. Lighter than #9 but darker than a Pinot noir. High intensity aromatics with earthy notes and red fruits. Some bacon fat smokiness.
On the palate, all red fruits–cherries and tart cranberries. The smokey bacon fat also comes through (Syrah?). High acidity and medium-plus tannins but way more biting. Not as well balanced as #9 and coming across as more thin and skeletal. Short finish. Seems young.
The Reveal My favorite for each flight is highlighted with ***
Wine 1: 2012 àMaurice Cellars Artist Series Ivey Blend Columbia Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $43)***
Wine 2: 2013 Joseph Phelps Vineyards Insignia Napa Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $213) Update: Sean Sullivan informed me that this was poured from a magnum which likely highlighted how young tasting and underwhelming this wine was.
Wine 7: 2015 Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah Stoney Vine Vineyard Walla Walla Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $61)***
Wine 8: 2015 Glaetzer Wines Amon-Ra Shiraz Barossa Valley (Wine Searcher Ave $75)
Wine 9: 2015 WT Vintners Rhone Blend Boushey Vineyard Yakima Valley (Winery price $40)***
Wine 10: 2014 Sadie Family Columella Coastal Region (Wine Searcher Ave $107)
My Top 3 Wines of the Event
2015 Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah Stoney Vine Vineyard — WOW! This wine was so funky and character driven that I can still memorably taste it over 4 days later. I’m usually not that blown away by Sleight of Hand wines–finding them well made but often jammy and fading quickly–and while I don’t think this wine is necessarily built for the cellar, it certainly built to deliver loads of pleasure and layers of complexity over the next few years.
The Sleight of Hand Psychedelic Syrah from the Stoney Vine Vineyard was my Wine of the Event.
2012 Château Lynch Bages Pauillac — I don’t know what kind of decanting this wine saw before the event but this wine was tasting exceptional for a young Pauillac–more so for a young Lynch Bages! I suspect it was opened earlier in the morning with the somm team pouring the glasses at least an hour before the event started–which is still a relatively brief amount of time for a top shelf Bordeaux. Update: I learned from Nick Davis of Medium Plus and the somm team at the seminar that the 2012 Lynch Bages was opened only 40 minutes before the event and poured 20 minutes prior to the tasting beginning. That only adds to how impressive the wine was showing.
The 2012 vintage in Bordeaux is not getting a lot of attention being bookend between the stellar 2009/10 and 2015/16 vintages. Like 2014, you hear Bordeaux lovers note that 2012 is much better than 2011 and 2013 but that almost seems like damning with faint praise. It’s clear that there is a lot of great value to be had in this vintage–compare the Wine Searcher Ave for 2010 Lynch Bages ($190) & 2015 ($142) to the $114 average for 2012–and if it is starting to deliver pleasure at a little over 5 years of age then it’s worth investing in as a “cellar defender” to enjoy while waiting for your 2009/10 and 2015/16 wines to age.
2014 Duckhorn Vineyards Merlot Napa Valley — I was not expecting this result. During the blind tasting I was very intrigued by this wine and ultimately pegged it as a Right Bank Bordeaux made in a style along the veins of Valandraud, Fleur Cardinale, Monbousquet or Canon-la-Gaffelière. Never would have pegged it as a Napa Merlot! In hindsight the chocolate covered cherries should have been my clue but they were so well balanced by the acidity and minerality that it didn’t come across as “Napa sweet”. Well done Duckhorn!
An honorable mention goes to the 2015 Passing Time Horse Heaven Hills Cabernet Sauvignon. I was very impressed with how how Napa-like it has become. I was already a fan of the winery and tried this 2015 as a barrel sample at last year’s release party where its potential was evident. Still, I wasn’t expecting it to be this good, this quickly. It was rather unfair to compare the Passing Time to the 2012 Lynch Bages which was so different and so fantastic in its own right. A better pairing would have been with the Joseph Phelps Insignia or any other high end Napa like Silver Oak, Caymus, Frank Family, Cakebread, etc and I have no doubt that the Passing Time would have came out on top for most tasters.
Things I Learned About Blind Tasting
Admittedly I was a tad concerned finding myself consistently liking the first wine in each tasting flight but I can’t think of any systematic reason that would lead to that result. The wines were all poured in advance and I cleared my palate with crackers and water between each so I have to chalk it all up to coincidence.
For the most part, the varietal character and identity of each flight stood out and I was fairly accurate in identifying them. The main outlier was the Merlot flight (#2) featuring the Duckhorn and Seven Hills Merlots. The Duckhorn was tripping some of my Cab Franc notes while the Seven Hills was exceptionally Cabernet Sauvignon-like so that led me to deduce Right Bank Bordeaux blend which was wrong but at least in the ballpark.
The more difficult task was trying to nail down the region and which was the Washington example versus the World example. Here I felt like I only solidly hit 2 of the 5 flights (Flight #1 and Flight #3–Cab and Cab-dominant blends) but that was mostly just by 50/50 luck–especially in Flight #1.
The WT Vintners Rhone blend from Boushey Vineyards in the Yakima Valley is a tough wine to pin down in blind tasting because of its mix of Old/New World characteristics.
I was often tripped up by how “Old Worldish” many of the Washington wines were–especially the Sleight of Hand Cellars Psychedelic Syrah from the Stoney Vine Vineyard in the Rocks District. In hindsight, this should have screamed “ROCKS!” to me much sooner. While technically Oregon, this sub-AVA of Walla Walla produces some of the most complex and interesting Syrahs being made in Washington. I commented from the audience that putting this Syrah in a blind tasting is a little evil because of how Old World and Cote Rotie-ish it is.
Another thing that makes Washington a bit difficult to peg down is how frequently “cool climate notes” like red fruit, juicy medium-plus acidity, bright floral perfumes and subtle herbal notes appear in wines that are actually grown in rather warm climates (especially compared to Old World regions like Bordeaux). This is largely because of the significant diurnal temperature variation in Eastern Washington that can swing as much as 40℉ from the high heat of the daytime to cool low temperatures of night. This allows Washington grapes to get fully ripe and develop some of those dark fruit notes but, especially in cooler areas like Boushey and Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima and parts of Walla Walla, also maintain ample acidity and some of those cool climate characteristics.
From a blind tasting perspective, I need to solidify in my mind that getting a wine with that mix of warm/cool climate characteristics should be a tip off that I’m dealing with a Washington wine.
At $85 a ticket, this was one of the more expensive seminars with others being as low as $45 a ticket, but the experience (and tasting over $800 worth of wine) delivers more than enough value to merit the cost.
A lot of great wine to taste through.
The only slight criticism is the rush between tasting each wine and getting the panel and audience to start commenting on them. Especially being a blind tasting, I wanted more than just a minute or two to critically taste and evaluate the wine before I start hearing other people’s comments that may sway my assessment.
Granted, I’m sure I’m in the minority here as I could tell that for many other participants in the audience, tasting the wines and being able to ask questions of the panel was a bigger draw than getting a chance to sharpen their blind tasting skills. When you have 10 wines being presented over 90 minutes–and allotting time for questions about vineyards, grape varieties, winemaking style, etc–something got to give so I understand why the tasting time got the short shrift.
Still, it was an exceedingly worthwhile experience that I highly recommend for Washington wine lovers and wine geeks alike.