There was also Syrah/Shiraz from Australia to consider.
In the early 1980’s, for instance, I was drawn to another supposed Syrah based red–the 1975 Penfolds Grange Hermitage from Australia. Unlike its Shiraz based peers & neighbors, this was one of immense power, concentration & grandeur that was truly monumental & full of mojo, vinosity & character. It was really impressive to say the least & had the stuffing with quite the swag.
On another occasion, when looking for an appropriate wine to take to a BYOB red wine tasting I was attending in San Francisco, I remember trading one bottle of 1966 Chateau Haut Brion & one bottle of another wine in exchange for only one bottle of 1971 Penfolds Grange Hermitage. Yes, the price was stiff & a very considerable expense for me, especially at that time. As it turned out, however, the tasting featured quite THE line up of top caliber red wines from around the world from vintages 1966 to 1971 & this wine fit the theme so perfectly. I could therefore see first hand how this wine would fare amongst the more familiar standouts. There was also quite an impressive list of top echelon tasters attending & I could witness everyone’s candid reaction to this relatively undiscovered wine (at least in the U.S. at the time), since all of the wines were served blind. What a line up & tasting this turned out to be! I was really taken with the ’70 & ’71 Chateau Petrus & ’66 Chateau Latour. Wow! Wow! Wow! But I also remember being especially taken by the 1970 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Riserva “Monfortino” & my bottle of 1971 Grange Hermitage. Both were truly like no other wine I had had previously. I did not, however, find any aspects of either the 1971 or the previously tasted 1975 Grange that reminded me of Northern Rhone Valley Syrah (not that it should’ve). It was quite another interesting genre of what this grape variety has to offer. This tasting clearly showed to me, though, that Grange was definitely the wine that would open the door & usher Australia onto the world class stage of red wines.
I was, at the time, working at the Kahala Hilton Hotel & for a Food & Beverage Director who was originally from Australia. (Since the hotel was part of Hilton International, we were fortunate to work with professionals regularly from all over the world). Interestingly, we also had had another Food & Beverage Director just a few years earlier who came to us from a sister property in Australia. I am very thankful for all of the knowledge & wines they both shared in helping me better understand & appeciate what was happening wine wise Down Under, especially on the “boutique” front. This really was quite the opportunity!
While I appreciated many of the wines from this new found niche of wines for me, the next real WOW bottling came years later & a winery named Henschke from the Eden Valley. These wines floored me upon first taste & I remember both the 1985 (& later the 1986) “Hill of Grace” & “Mt Edelstone” like it was yesterday! Where Grange offered bodacious, mega-intense, luscious fruit, the Henschke wines, in comparison, were much more about vinosity (old vine-ness) & savoriness on a more masculine, muscular frame with lots of saddle leather, cigar box, roasted chestnut, smoked bay leaf, charred sandalwood nuances. I was later astounded to find out “Hill of Grace” was planted in the 1860’s, 1958 being the first release & Mt Edelstone was planted in 1912 (on its own roots). Stephen Henschke oversaw the winemaking & his wife Prue was the viticulturist responsible for the care of these ancient vines. What a talented combo & what a duo of standout wines!
The “Grange”, especially those back in the 70’s & 80’s, & the “Hill of Grace” bottlings are still the two shining stars for me EVER out of Australia even to this day. Collectors over the years have pointed all of these much higher rated wines & those that are even harder to get. But I find them not as interesting & not as “game changing”.
Grange to me, at least in the old days, was like an orchestra rather than just the horn section (just as I have heard & noted about old time Barolo, which was made from several sites rather than being a single vineyard, where the sum of parts was profoundly more complete & moving than each part individually). The core was profoundly vinous & must have come from their elaborate scope of old vine sources AND a myriad of areas, soils, climates & terroirs. To that base note, the Penfolds team layered it & added nuance through tireless, very detailed blending….just as one would add the string section, percussion, etc to the horn section. An orchestra sound–layers upon layers & something to behold. Another simple way to understand what I am trying to say is–in the music of the Beach Boys, there were the simpler, catchy, sing along songs like “Help Me Rhonda” & “Fun, Fun, Fun” AND then there was “Good Vibrations”, a tune seemingly comprised of 4 to 5 songs smashed into one, using 10 guitar tracks & 7 piano. Epic, game changing! Or the Beatles with “She Loves You” compared to the much more complex work on “Sgt Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band” album. Grange was grand! It was something to behold! There has been no one peer to even come close.
Henschke, on the other hand, to me was Jimi Hendrix. Jimi was so spellbinding–his sound & skill was distinctive AND so personal, heart felt & soulful. I would be spellbound even if he played a solo guitar rant. There truly has been no one else like him. He really didn’t need an orchestra or even a band behind him. He could stand out on his own. That is Henschke “Hill of Grace” for me. Only one vineyard, but the resulting wine was all about vinosity, was soulful to the core & heart stirring in its delivery.
I must also add, however just to be clear, I am speaking of Grange & Henschke of the 70’s, 80’s & 90’s here. The prices of the current releases are just too prohibitive for me to even think of splurging. I did, for example, fortunately have a 2009 & a 2012 Grange not that long ago & I will say, these are a VERY different kind of wine from those I remember having back when. Today’s certainly have the stuffing, vinosity, mojo & character, but somehow I think the soul orientation has waned. (Each were served blind & I know had been stored right).
The next BIG wave of “Thunder from Down Under” for me, was spearheaded by wine importer Dan Philips, who seemingly came out of nowhere & created a tidal wave of “must have”, artisan Australian wines. His company, the Grateful Palate, had a real cool “look”, schtick & a well selected portfolio of mainly lavish, hedonistic, Old Vine Shiraz. The wine media, especially the Wine Advocate, helped fuel a frantic, shark feeding frenzy for his wines & developed a cult like following–with wines from Torbreck, Dutschke, Henry’s Drive, Chris Ringland, Trevor Jones, Shirvington & later his own Marquis Philips (with partners Sarah & Sparky Marquis). Sometime in the early to mid 2000’s Sarah & Sparky Marquis parted ways with Philips & founded their own Mollydooker wine label, starting I believe with the 2005 vintage. The Mollydooker wines just exploded, taking off like a rocket, with immediate hype & fervor most wineries can only dream about getting. There are still no signs of their “show” slowly down. I had recently heard, though, that big personality front man Sparky is now out (divorced) & Sarah has taken over the reins herself.
On the other front, Dan Philips just kept his ball rolling & continued where Sparky left off, using the BIG name Chris Ringland as his winemaking “face” for the wine world to see. It seemed to work for a couple of years, but inevitably the whole “Grateful Palate” operation just seemed to ride off into the sunset, although I heard there was a brief stop in Italy (for Philips) & Spain (for Ringland) along the way.
Our next real interesting Australian Syrah maestro we encountered was Serge Carlei from Victoria (with vineyards also in Bendigo). Serge produced wines with real mojo, intriguing vinosity & layering, all done in a much more sensible style–suave, well textured & balanced, without the extreme showiness, flamboyance & decadence often seen during Australia’s 1990/2000’s heydays in the U.S.. They had a different beat, were much lighter on their feet, easier to enjoy without compromising complexity, vinosity, integrity or mojo. I don’t think it a coincidence that Serge was recognized as one of Australia’s top Chardonnay & Pinot Noir specialists prior to his Syrah bottlings, & is probably why I was so enamored by his wines. A Syrah crafted by a Pinot maker? I often wonder why neither he nor his wines ever got too much international superstardom?
Our search for really good Syrah from Australia continues.
We recently had a Grenache from fellow Master Sommelier Richard Betts under his Sucette label. 90 plus year old, own rooted vines, 25 to 40 stems….this was some kind of Grenache & one that was truly memorable.
If someone, in this day & age, can come up with something this superb, imagine the possibilities with Syrah?