You might think that when working in the wine trade your days are spent tasting wines, swirling, spitting and writing notes. Whilst this may be true on the days I spend judging at various competitions, on normal days I am much more likely to be found behind a computer. Talking about wine for sure, but not generally more than that. So it is always a pleasure to be invited along to a tasting, particularly when it involves chatting to a winemaker about their newest wine.
Earlier this week I had the chance to do just that when I went along to Yalumba’s ‘Rare and Fine Tasting’ led by winemaker Kevin Glastonbury. Kevin was in town to talk about Yalumba’s newest addition to their portfolio, The Caley – an ultra-premium Cabernet Sauvignon – Shiraz blend. But before we got to that we had five other wines to taste through first.
Yalumba’s Rare and Fine Tasting
First up was the Virgilius Viognier 2015, Yalumba’s flagship white. Yalumba was the first Australian winery to plant a commercial vineyard of Viognier, back in 1981 using cuttings from the Rhone Valley. So it seems fitting that their top white is not a Chardonnay or Riesling as you may expect, but instead is a Viognier. Whilst Kevin was talking us through the wines, the Virgilius is not his baby – but fellow Yalumba winemaker, Louisa Rose’s. “Louisa is such a good winemaker because she doesn’t do anything. It’s what we should all do.” High praise indeed.
The wine itself is perhaps not what you might expect from Viognier. Whilst it does have some hints of apricot fruit, it is not the opulent, heady, peaches-and-cream style that so many are. Instead, this is a wine that – counterintuitively for Viognier – is aiming for cellaring potential and a certain finesse. So along with that ripe apricot fruit there is also a real citrus freshness to it and cut of root ginger. And whilst the wine has a lovely texture to it, it is in no way creamy or over the top. A real benchmark for Viognier.
Next up was Tri-Centenary Grenache 2011, a wine made from a block of bush vines planted in 1889 – vines that have lived in three centuries. The Barossa Valley is blessed with a lot of old vines thanks to the fact it (and the whole of South Australia) is still phylloxera-free – meaning that whilst the vast majority of Europe’s vines had to be ripped out and replanted in the late 19th century, it never happened here. So it is now home to some of the oldest vines in the world and it never ceases to amaze me to think what these old vines have seen and how the world has changed – and yet they are still there and making incredible wine.
As I have mentioned before, I think Grenache is one of the most exciting varieties in Australia at the minute and there seems to be something very special about old bush vines and Grenache. Rather than the exuberant, juicy fruit of young vine Grenache, old vines tend to give more savoury, spicy notes and more structure. The Tri-Centenary is no exception and at 6 years old this is drinking so well. The added bottle age has further enhanced the secondary, savoury characters and it has a real crunch of black pepper spice to it. What most impressed me though was the perfectly judged balance between delicacy, fragrance and elegance with a real concentration and power behind it. Kevin admitted this was his favourite wine of the line up and I can’t help but agree with him.
Onto the Menzies Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 – a classic Coonawarra Cab. Again, a more savoury style than some with earthy, tapenade notes along with some dark, crunchy berry fruit. Taut, ripe tannin and bright acidity gives the Menzies a real structure and certain firmness. Whilst it is drinking beautifully now, I’d certainly hang onto this for a few more years – it’s got a long life ahead.
Kevin joined Yalumba back in 1999 and he said that the one wine he really wanted to evolve was the Octavius Shiraz – and with the 2013 vintage he showed us, he is now getting towards what he wants the style to be. In the past Octavius used to have much more new oak, and much more American oak, than it does now. Kevin has completely pulled back on oak use as well as refining the vineyard source – it is now predominantly Eden Valley fruit rather than Barossa Valley. Rather than 55% new oak, mostly American, the Octavius is now around 25-30% new and using French and Hungarian oak barriques (225l) and hogsheads (300l). The special 100l octave barrels made in Yalumba’s own cooperage that give the wine the name are still used, but only as second fill barrels – not when new. In total this has meant the wine has moved from a super-opulent, sweet fruited and sweet spiced wine to something which is much more refined. It still has a core of intense dark fruit, but this is balanced by fresh acidity, smoky spice notes and even some savoury, meaty complexity. The merest hint of mint gives a freshness on the finish and fine tannins give definition. A modern classic – and one that obviously appeals given its win over Craggy Range’s Le Sol at last month’s Wine Challenge.
The last wine before we got to The Caley was The Signature Cabernet Sauvignon – Shiraz 2013. Cab-Shiraz blends are often called ‘The Great Aussie red blend’ and Yalumba have long been a proponent of this style, with the first vintage of Signature being made back in 1962. Kevin admitted this is the toughest wine to make for him as he’s not just trying to make a great wine, he also needs to make it be The Signature. He explains that the wine has its own style with a stamp across the decades. Whilst winemakers have changed, vintages have changed and fashion in wine tastes have changed over the years, The Signature has remained.
The Signature is always Cabernet-dominant: the 2013 is 54% Cabernet Sauvignon and 46% Shiraz and predominantly from the Barossa Valley, although there is always some Eden Valley fruit there too. Erring more towards the red fruit spectrum rather than dark fruits, this is a true blend: neither variety dominates. Savoury elements add complexity and above all the watchword here is elegance.
Finally it was time to taste The Caley: the new icon wine born of the superb 2012 vintage. It is named after Fred Caley Smith, Samuel Smith’s grandson, who has also been nicknamed the ‘Indiana Jones of wine’ by Yalumba’s great raconteur, Jane Ferrari. He earned this nickname due to his travels in 1893-1894 when he went on a world tour reporting for local newspapers about horticulture and to find new markets for Yalumba. In this time he wrote hundreds of letters home which remain to this day in the archives at Yalumba, an incredible historical record. This story and his influence on Yalumba’s horticulture and viticulture is what led this wine to be named after him.
A blend of 52% Coonawarra Cabernet, 27% Barossa Cabernet and 21% Barossa Shiraz, The Caley is designed to showcase these two great South Australian regions and their hero grape varieties. Of course when tasting a wine at this level (£225 in the UK) and with the winemaker there it can be hard not to be taken on the journey. But there is no doubting the pedigree and quality of this wine. Beautifully fragrant with lifted herbal notes on the nose and pure red and black fruits. Concentrated but elegant. Polished but in no way gaudy. This is a wine that at its heart speaks of its place and in time I am sure this will be known as one of the very best wines in Australia. One to watch.