Tahbilk builds on its rich tradition

Happy birthday, ‘Chateau’ Tahbilk – 150 years old this year. It’s quite something in this young country…150 years is a long time in a land that’s only seen white men making wine for around 220 years. It’s been known as Chateau Tahbilk most of that time, but Tahbilk is the name it prefers to go by now, on account of the French connotations of the word chateau. It’s been owned by the Purbrick family for 85 of those years. Today, the fourth generation of the family is in charge, in the person of Alister. His father John, brother Mark and sister Debbie George are also on the board of directors. And young daughter Hayley has recently begun working for Tahbilk. In this era, family equals good. While corporate has a bad press in the wine business, family is equated with positive things such as stability, continuity, consistency of wine style and philosophy.

Tahbilk certainly has those things. Its speciality has always been a dry white marsanne (tastings); its strengths continue to be statuesque reds made from cabernet sauvignon and shiraz (tastings). They are, and have always been, some of the most affordable cellarworthy red wines in this country. I cut my teeth on Tahbilk vintages such as 1968 and 1971 in the late 1970s. That was a time when cabernet sauvignon (tastings) was in fashion, but the shiraz (tastings) is equally good. Back then, Tahbilk’s were among the few ageworthy red wines I could afford, and they’re still an ideal base for any budding collector’s cellar.

But, after the recent 150th celebrations, when I tasted most of the Tahbilk reds made from the mid 1950s to the present day, I can safely say the reds of today will be better wines when mature than today’s old wines. Why?

They have been better made, and the intermittent microbial issues that affected some of the older wines are unlikely to affect the reds made in the past decade. As well, the viticulture and winemaking are of a higher standard and the grapes are being picked riper. In the distant past, they were sometimes harvested a touch underripe.

While the Purbricks have treasured and safeguarded the strengths of Tahbilk, they have not been head-in-sand or anti-progress. They’ve embraced viognier (tastings), for example. The Tahbilk viognier is a very good one, and like the marsanne, the riesling and the regular shiraz and cabernet, it is remarkably inexpensive. Viognier was a shoo-in, perhaps, because like marsanne it is a Rhone Valley variety and could be expected to make good wine in a vineyard where marsanne and shiraz have always excelled.

Alister Purbrick has been running Tahbilk for 30 years, and has done a superb job. Wine quality has risen, the vineyard has expanded, the place has flourished. The latest improvement is the development of the Tahbilk Wetlands and Wildlife Reserve, with 160 hectares of water and guided boat tours of its ecological oasis. Since the Wetlands Centre and restaurant were opened five years ago, visitor numbers have doubled. It’s given a new lease of life to this venerable property. And it’s perfectly timed, coinciding with rising interest in the environment, not to mention drawing new visitors at a time many wineries are experiencing a drop in visitors.

But what of the wines themselves? After two days of tastings, there are two main findings. I was not surprised that the reserve wines, variously labelled with a Bin number, later Reserve, and currently Eric Stevens Purbrick (selections of the best of both shiraz (tastings) and cabernet sauvignon (tastings)) and the 1860 Vines Shiraz (tastings) are outstanding wines, at least in recent years (the final decade to 2007). They are expensive and rare, the ESPs $70 and 1860 Vines $135.

However, what impressed me most was how good the regular shiraz and cabernet sauvignon are, and what great value they are at $20 (or less) a bottle. If longevity and track-record – the proven ability to age and improve – are factors in the calculation of quality, Tahbilk passes with flying colours. These are 20 to 30-year wines, no problem. But you can enjoy them upon release, as they are smooth and balanced. Yes, they are at the high end of the tannin spectrum, but I see that as a plus: too many modern Australian red wines lack backbone. And the tannins of today’s Tahbilk reds are ripe, supple tannins that melt away when you have them with any protein-rich food – not hard, green, astringent tannins which are never enjoyable.

As well, the younger marsannes impressed. I’m not one of those who believe Tahbilk marsanne is one of our greatest aging white wines. Exceptional vintages do age spectacularly, for up to 30 years (the ’82 is still extraordinary!), but certainly not all. I prefer them relatively young: within about 10 years of harvest. There is none better than the current release 2009 (tastings), a delicious, flavoursome and character-filled dry white that is criminally underpriced at below a tenner when discounted (full price about $15).

So raise a glass to Tahbilk, temple to the values of family, heritage and the environment, and in safe hands under the fourth and fifth generations of the inspiring Purbrick family.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 9 March 2010.

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