Celebrating the 120th birthday of Elderton’s Command vineyard

It’s not every day that you get invited to celebrate the birthday of a vineyard. But then, this wasn’t just any birthday, or indeed, any vineyard.

2014 marked the 120th birthday of Elderton’s Command vineyard in the Barossa Valley. To celebrate I was invited to a masterclass of Command Shiraz led by Elderton’s co-Managing Director, Cameron Ashmead. Leaving aside the fact that this particular party was really a belated birthday (happening a week ago – firmly in 2015), it made a fantastic hook for a tasting of these old vine wines.

Elderton Command Shiraz

Elderton Command Shiraz

When the Command vineyard was planted in 1894 it was in quite a different world. Queen Victoria was still on the throne here in the UK. Aeroplanes, world wars and the civil rights movement were all still yet to happen. And we three monkeys were not even a twinkle in our grandparents’ eyes. So much has changed in the world in those intervening 120 years, and yet that vineyard is still there and still producing wine from its gnarly old vines. Impressive stuff.

The story of the Command Vineyard begins rather unusually in a country not known for its love of alcohol: Saudi Arabia. There Cameron’s father Neil made a living selling tractors, whilst also making his own ‘wine’ for home consumption from grape concentrate. The family returned to the Barossa in the late 1970s and started looking for a home to buy. Eventually Neil found a suitable house he liked in Nuriootpa and was told by the agent “If you buy the house I will give you the surrounding 72 acres of old vines for nothing”. Of course, he bought the house – and that vineyard is now known as the Command Vineyard and has gone from being worthless to being considered as one of the top single vineyards in the Barossa. I wonder if it was really the house that attracted Neil – or, after time making ‘wine’ in Saudi Arabia, it was the vineyard that did it.

After a few years of selling the grapes to local wineries, Neil decided to try his hand at making his own wine in the early 80’s – and in 1984 produced the very first vintage of Command Shiraz from those old vines: then labelled as Command Hermitage. Since then there have only been three vintages where Command Shiraz has not been made: in 1989 and 2011 due to very wet years, and in 1991 due to the recession. In typical Aussie tell-it-like-it-is style, Cameron explained that his parents needed cashflow that year and so downgraded the Command fruit into the standard Estate Shiraz blend. With less time ageing in oak and bottle, it could be released for sale much earlier than the Command Shiraz could have been.

To celebrate the 120th birthday of the vineayrd, Cameron presented us with seven vintages of Command, spanning 2010 to 1992. As well as allowing us some insight into the wine’s capacity for bottle ageing, this also highlighted the difference closures can make. Both the 1998 and 1992 were under cork and Cameron had brought along three bottles of each. Of these, 1 bottle of 1992 and 2 bottles of 1998 were corked. As Cameron put it: “soul-destroying”. He also told us that last year he had overseen the recorking of all of the wines from the 1980s and up to 50% of each vintage was either corked or oxidised. No surprise then that the wine has been 100% under screwcap since 2006.

Onto the wines:

2010 – This was my favourite of all of the vintages, showing a lovely freshness and real elegance. Vanilla and coconut aromas from the American oak were obvious on the nose, but on the palate these softened into more savoury brown spice notes. Driven by juicy, red fruit with fine, taut tannin and bright acidity – clearly made for the long haul.

Cameron said this new, fresher style was something they were aiming for and a slight departure from the more intense styles of previous vintages. He thinks it is the best they’ve ever made.

Winemaking – the grapes were handpicked in four different picks, each at a different level of ripeness in order to give more complexity as well as retaining acidity. Fermented in open tanks at 20-24C: a surprisingly low temperature for reds. This was explained by Cameron as a method of stopping too much overextraction and preventing any baked character in the wine. After ferment the wine was aged in new oak for 18 months – 65% American and 35% French – and then a further 12 months in old oak. It was then stored in bottle for one year before release.

2008 – Softer fruit, plums and blackberries. Concentrated and layered with hints of herbaceousness. Not quite as fine as the ’10, somehow a little blurry around the edges.

2007 – A hot year with only 20% of their normal yield, showing in the slightly paler colour and more baked nose. This showed more herbal, minty notes than the 2008 did and lacked the fruit concentration both the 2008 and 2010 had. One to drink sooner rather than later.

2006 – Served in magnum. Incredibly deep, inky colour: indicating the intensity of the wine to come. Despite being nearly 9 years old this was still full of primary dark fruit flavours with notes of mocha, pepper and spice giving complexity and depth. Dense and concentrated with lots of fine tannins: this has a very long life ahead and I’d love to try it again in another 5-10 years.

2004 – At 10 years old this was just beginning to show some evolution with a core of lingering juicy fruit surrounded by more savoury, complex aromas. Still that concentration of flavour, but here the tannins were softening and allowing the layers of complexity to shine through. Very long and at a lovely stage in its development – unlike the 2006 I could happily drink this now.

1998 – Just a hint of oxidative character around the edges. Much more delicate texture than the younger wines, although that core of dark fruit was still there along with a real exotic spice mix: caraway and fenugreek.

1992 – Somehow fresher than the 1998. Delicate with brown spice notes along with that savoury mocha character that was present in many of the other vintages. Tannins have softened and integrated, with just a whisper of grip on the finish to keep everything together. Complex and really quite pretty.

All in all this was a fascinating tasting. Happy birthday Command vineyard.

Emma

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