Tom Cannavan reflects on The Wine Gang's 'Ultimate Australia' tasting, an event that shows how far Australian fine wines have come.

Ultimate Australia Evening

Tom Cannavan reflects on The Wine Gang's 'Ultimate Australia' tasting.
Tom Cannavan reflects on The Wine Gang's 'Ultimate Australia' tasting, an event that shows how far Australian fine wines have come.

Australian wine’s reputation for fine wine has grown inexorably over the past decade or so. Once-upon-a-time Australia’s fine wine contingent – in the eyes of the average wine lover at least – was confined to the likes of Grange and Hill of Grace. These days, however, Australia’s fine wine category contains an absolute bevy of beauties, many of which are listed in the Langton’s Classification, wines which are finding ever wider global audiences as, as well as brilliance, they offer a rare value quotient when compared to equivalent quality Old World classics.

It is a testament to how quite much interest there is in Australia’s fine wines that high-profile tastings are starting to be dedicated to them. Traditionally such big-ticket events were the preserve of Bordeaux, Champagne of Burgundy, but as befits the elevated status of Australian fine wine, so they too are taking centre stage. One such tasting, ‘Ultimate Australia’ was recently held by leading British wine critic and founder of ‘The Wine Gang’, Tom Cannavan of Wine Pages.

The Wine Gang regularly host tastings of fine wine but this was their first foray into the world of fine Australian wines and, as you can see from both the commentary and scores from Tom, it was an event that didn’t disappoint….

Ultimate Australia tasting:  some context

For the past five years, myself and colleagues in The Wine Gang have organised 'The Ultimate Champagne Evening' in London, giving aficionados the chance to taste 10 super-deluxe Champagnes from five top houses. It’s real blow-out occasion: a chance to taste and discuss some of the world’s rarest and most expensive wines. Each year the Champagne houses we feature change, because of course there are more than five Champagnes that could claim to be ‘ultimate’ - and many more opinions on which wines would qualify for the accolade.

This is a way of me pre-empting your queries about our first ‘Ultimate Australia Evening’ held in London a couple of months ago, before the knives come out what was included, and what was not, was never meant to be definitively ‘the best’. We took Langton’s Classification as one yardstick, fame in the UK as another, and simple pragmatism as a very important third: when you set up an event featuring very expensive wines in a swanky London venue, you cannot risk not attracting enough paying customers, so big-ticket wines like Grange and Hill of Grace were essential.

The wines we ended up with were not meant to represent all Australian regions, nor all of Australia’s wine styles. More importantly we featured well-established big names, not the cutting edge of the artisan Australian scene. Hopefully we’ll showcase a whole different set of ‘Ultimate’ Australians in the future, but I hope you’ll agree that the wines we poured were undeniably from the top echelons of established producers, and truly flew the flag for Australian wine.

The Ultimate Australia Evening 

The sell-out crowd assembled in the swish M Restaurant’s private room in London’s Victoria. The audience was a mix of die-hard Australian wine fans keen for an update on wines they already knew, and wine lovers less familiar with Australia but curious to see what was on offer. Each of the five members of The Wine Gang took two wines each, to present to the audience.

It's fair to say the first wine - Jeffrey Grosset’s 2015 Polish Hill Riesling - was like an electric shock to some around the room. Those unfamiliar with the intensity of top Clare Valley dry Riesling really didn’t know what to make of it, whilst others talked of the nerve, the energy and the obvious future potential. The 2009 went down a lot more smoothly in all senses of the word, and it was a perfect example of how this wine transforms with age.

Leeuwin Estate was represented by two vintages of the Art Series Chardonnay, 2012 and 2008. Both wines drank beautifully, again showing how nicely the wine ages, but also how winemaking approaches must be adapted in terms of picking dates, barrel use and other factors, in light of different vintage conditions.

Onto the reds (for some, where the tasting ‘really started’ – yes, a significant number still see Australia as principally a red wine country).  We included three top examples from the 2010 vintage: Jim Barry’s ‘The Armagh’ was shown in the 2010 and 2006 vintages, the super-ripe and in some ways ‘classic’ large-scaled 2010, and the nicely maturing, polished 2006.

Henschke was represented by Hill of Grace 2010 – narrowly voted wine of the night by the tasters’ present – and the alluringly aromatic Johann’s Garden 2014.

Finally, Grange 2010 and Bin 389 2012 represented Penfolds. The contrast between the single-vineyard Hill of Grace, so aromatically expressive of its vintage, and the brooding, deep purity of the multi-district Grange prompted a lot of debate around the room, and split loyalties.

My personal tasting notes on the wines:

Henschke Hill of Grace 2010

Made from pre-Phylloxera Shiraz vines, some over 100 years old, this was matured in oak hogsheads (300-litre barrels), 65% of which were new, and a blend of 95% French oak and just 5% American. Such lifted aromas with eucalyptus and tomato leaf, masses of energy, blackberry and bright but dark-hued fruits. Such cool, sophisticated flavours on the palate, there’s an almost pastille quality to the fruit, a certain femininity, certainly real raciness and energy, the fruit sweet and mouth-filling, the tannins polished to a perfect sheen. Utterly delicious right now, but undoubtedly will cellar for decades. 97/100.

Penfolds Grange 2010

There’s 4% Cabernet Sauvignon joining the Shiraz, in a wine that spent 17 months in new American oak hogsheads. Fruit came from across South Australia as always. Fabulous concentration, mind-boggling intensity, so many layers packed into this, chocolate and liquorice, coffee and balsamic, meat-stock notes and serious black fruit at the core of it. Very tightly wound at present and unlike the Hill of Grace 2010 it would be criminal to drink this now:  it’s a massive Grange of power, concentration and great purity, and will require many years in the cellar to show at its best – and age for 20 years at least. 96/100.

Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 2010

Aged 14 months in new oak, 80% French and 20% American. Big, super-ripe, even slightly raisiny, pruney aromas, but Amarone-like rather than being stewed or baked: cloves and spices too. Terrific energy and real freshness on the palate, an electrical charge of power, all the time the solid fruit at the core and a grippy finish. Very good - big, but fleet of foot. Should cellar well for a decade. 94/100.

Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 2006

Creamy, dense, blue/black fruit, intense blueberry and damson plum spectrum. Tight and polished on the palate, there’s a liquoricy core, which gives this lots of grip, lots of length, and given the alcohol remarkably fresh – though not so fresh as the 2010, the 17 months in French and American oak also a little more evident. 93/100.

Henschke Johann's Garden Grenache/Mourvèdre/Shiraz 2014

A blend of 70% Grenache and 24% Mataro with 6% Shiraz, aged in large barrels. What beautiful ripe fruit, bursting with blueberry and super-ripe, deep mulberry, then fleshy and ripe, spicy, but so alive with slightly meaty, balsamic notes. In the mouth, it is savoury to the nth degree, with polished tannins and perfect balance. Impressive. Blooming good value from this garden for a wine of such quality. 93/100.

Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2012

The blend is 54% Cabernet Sauvignon and 46% Shiraz in the wine known as ‘baby Grange’ because it is aged in ex-Grange barrels – 12 months in American oak hogsheads. Cedary, quite pruney at first, curranty, but again crucially not ‘dead fruit’ – super ripe, not overripe. Tight and creamy on the palate, filled with sweet but tangy cassis, excellent concentration and so tightly focused by its acidity and fine tannin framework. Will cellar 10 years. 93/100.

Grosset Polish Hill Clare Valley Riesling 2009

Wonderfully developed nose, with loads of toastiness, minerals with that touch of petrol/paraffin, and a lightly earthy character all joining the limey fruit. In the mouth, beautifully honed, river stone minerals and salts and endlessly long. Fabulous and probably still capable of another 10 years of cellaring: these wines really do need age. 93/100.

Leeuwin Estate Art Series Chardonnay 2012

Obviously, a broader fruit spectrum following the shock of two Grosset Rieslings, a layer of cashew and almond too over ripe pear. Mouth-filling, long and poised, there is plenty of ripe fruit, but it stays on the pear and stone fruit spectrum, elegantly framed by its acidity and the gentle creaminess of the oak. 93/100.

Ultimate Australia: an eye-opening experience

The Ultimate Australia Tasting was a real eye-opener for many in the audience. The Leeuwin Chardonnay in particular, showed how well-balanced and subtly complex Australian Chardonnay can be with its careful use of oak and natural feel. And on the reds, there was a lot of admiration for the freshness and agility of the wines by and large; alcohols not too high, and obvious balance and potential longevity.  Some of the more confirmed Old World drinkers there were certainly enamoured by the old vines and concentration on vineyards and ‘terroir’ as a something they hadn’t expected in Australia.

Such events as The Wine Gang’s Ultimate Australia highlight not just how Australian wines are fit to rank with the finest in the world, but also that even classical Old World fine wine lovers can be blown away by such wines if only they get the opportunity to taste them.  That is why events such as this are to be applauded and the wines on show rejoiced in.



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