A BYO delight of Australian classics
Almost a year ago I had the pleasure of hosting a dinner with a fantastic line up of classic Bordeaux wines and was able to share the experience with The Real Review audience. Over the time since there have been many great bottles cross our corkscrews here at FIX, but a recent bracket of classic Australian shiraz demanded my attention and I felt it was worthy of writing a few words about them.Wines like these are such an amazing experience to try and when the corks survive as well as this set did, it’s a reason to rejoice.
The back-story was that a regular had these wines from his family’s collection. Provenance wasn’t 100% and he had asked my thoughts about them on a previous occasion. Other wines from the collection had been opened before and generally not been in great condition so my suggestion was to find a reason to open them. I thought he might get lucky and find a decent bottle, but I also strongly advised he should have a fallback plan.
Lo and behold, he arrived at the restaurant carrying three bottles to try over lunch, 1981 Penfolds St Henri Claret, 1981 Penfolds Grange Hermitage and 1985 Henschke Hill of Grace. Fill levels on all three bottles were very good, with only minor ullage in the Grange and Hill of Grace. The St Henri had been through the Penfolds re-corking program in 2008 so there was more confidence around this bottle. With a line-up such as this, pouring order is a bit hit and miss because until the cork is extracted, we have no clue as to the condition but consensus was to start on the Grange. I didn’t decant any of the wines, to ensure the guests could experience the wines’ evolution in the glass.
The Durand cork extractor had its work cut out on the 1981 Grange cork: it did crumble, but it was clear that there had not been any progress of wine between the glass and cork for at least the top 2cm, so things were looking promising. A quick taste confirmed that this bottle was very much alive, and it was poured for the table. An amazing intensity of blue fruits still filled the core of the palate, with tobacco, dry leather and roasting meat juices flowing throughout. Tannins were still present and brought great definition to the wine with a supple tension that left savoury tones lingering for ages on the tongue.
Next up we remained in the Penfolds camp with the St Henri, a fantastic fresh cork due to the 2008 clinic and the wine showed a vibrancy that echoed the quality of this program. The profile was more black fruited than the Grange, dried herbs filled the higher senses and there’s was a deep, ferrous and meaty undertone. For a moment it felt almost barnyard but as it sat in the air that note dissipated. It still carried that classic grace and flow that epitomises the St Henri style, reminding me why it has consistently been one of my favourites in the Penfolds stable.It goes to show the truth of the saying “There are no great old wines, just great old bottles”.
Finishing with the 1985 Henschke Hill of Grace, the question at the table was very much, had we used up all our luck on the first two bottles? But again the cork gods smiled and this cork showed only some staining in the bottom third, and the wine was sound. Well, the wine was far more than sound, it was a revelation. Lighter, more ethereal than the previous two wines but holding a seamlessness and quiet power that exuded a unique sense of confidence in its place in the world. Raspberry, plum, thyme, violets and roasting meat all filled the senses with a fine lift of acidity still ensuring a grace (excuse the pun) and poise, yet persisting on the palate for an eternity. I have been very fortunate to try a lot of great old wines over the years, and there’s only a handful that have sent a shiver down my spine. This was one of them.
Wines like these are such an amazing experience to try and when the corks survive as well as this set did, it’s a reason to rejoice. I also got lucky the following day: a semillon with no label but a handwritten note that had faded to be almost illegible beyond 198(?), gold capsule, burgundy bottle makes me think Lindeman’s Hunter River Burgundy but it’ll remain a mystery. Whatever it was, that cork had done another outstanding job. It goes to show the truth of the saying “There are no great old wines, just great old bottles”.
Some technical information on the wines:
- 1981 Penfolds Grange Hermitage – 89% shiraz, 11% cabernet sauvignon, 12.6% alc.
- 1981 Penfolds St Henri Claret – 74% shiraz, 26% cabernet sauvignon, 12.5% alc.
- 1985 Henschke Hill of Grace – 100% shiraz, 12.0% alc.
4 thoughts on “A BYO delight of Australian classics”
Look at the alcohol levels!!
Exactly Steve, couldn’t agree more. Stu, why do you think most current Aussie shiraz are pushing to 14.5% alcohol levels? Is it lazy winemaking? The Robert Parker (bad) effect of encouraging the big bang theory? Climate change? If you can have so much finesse and longevity with 12% alcohol levels, why can’t they today?
Hi Peter, there’s a myriad of reasons why we see higher alcohols in these wines now versus those lower numbers back then. For a period I’m sure Mr Parker had some influence and undoubtedly regions are seeing warmer seasons with the effects of climate change. But also, viticulture, winemaking and all the pieces of that puzzle have become much more efficient at the basic tenant of wine production, ripening grapes and fermenting the sugars into alcohol. With a wine such as Hill of Grace, clearly the 1985 was lovely but perhaps other wines produced at the time may have been lacking some ripeness. Of course there is also a general consumer preference to drink wines young, meaning that those with riper fruit (and alcohol) tend to have more appeal in their youth.
I noted them specifically as it’s such a marked difference to what they are today.