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Buying plonk skillfully

There is a currently a wine glut in Australia and hence an opportunity to stock up big on wines that you can happily imbibe over the next decade or so for reasonable prices. One could think of this as purchasing a short-term real investment where – in my case at least – I am more likely to consume than sell the asset over the next five years or so. Some of the purchases could also be an attempt to buy inexpensive high quality wines for medium to long-term cellaring – but this is more chancy proposition. From either perspective the time to buy would seem to be about now since already Australian wine producers see the glut coming to an end.

On wines I am a drinker (with admitted pretensions) not a deep thinker – my critics might say that’s true in other areas as well – but I’ll deal with these sorts of critics with, you guessed it, a bottle of vino.

At Clarke Mansions I have a reasonable cellar of wines with a few going back to the 1960s. I also have considerable practical experience of drinking the stuff although health concerns tend to limit my intake these days to below the unconstrained optimum. Occasionally I will have a posh booze-up with friends when we will discuss glass in hand, earnestly, without necessarily the greatest experience or knowledge, the comparative advantages of a Chateau Latour, a well-aged bottle of Grange or an early Wendouree cabernet.

When it comes to wines I am omnivorous – like ‘em all – whites, reds, dry wines even ‘stickies’ (especially the De Bortoli Noble One ). Really I enjoy anything that is well-made. (I also enjoy most spirits and beers so I am not generally hard to please!). This makes selectivity a real task because my main response in relation to many liquors offered is just ‘more please’.

In what follows I present my considered, unbalanced and not very original views on Australian wines. The emphasis is on their crass economics as that’s what I am when it comes to drinking – a crass economist. My comments centre on warnings that occur to me about wines that you might want to try to cellar – some bitter experiences condition my remarks here. The big cellaring bargains at present – shiraz and cabernet – are wines that I don’t have a lot of specific things to say about – just buy lots now and take advantage of cyclically low prices.

Chardonnay. In my view if you want to skimp when you buy wine don’t drink Australian chardonnay. As the French winemakers say Australian chardonnay has ‘too much sunshine’ in it and too much oak. If you want to drink a reasonable chardonnay you have to pay for it. Then Petaluma, Bannockburn and particularly the Art Series Leeuwin Estate wines are all great Australian chardonnays but never cheap. Do yourself a favour and try them if you haven’t – they are not expensive by global standards and quite profound wines. An almost acceptable cheapie is Seppelts Victorian Chardonnay which sells for about $12. Both the Leeuwin Estate and the Bannockburn age really well – a 1994 Leeuwin I drank this year was wonderful. But, generally I have had disappointing experiences cellaring Australian chardonnay – it seems to me these wines are generally best drunk young. I enjoy the restrained flinty taste on a good French Chablis but again I have been often disappointed and, again, I find it difficult to secure reliable material that will age well.

Generally don’t cellar chardonnay unless you can buy the more expensive specialist labels. Otherwise buy ‘drink now’ propositions as you need and target the occasional really good wine rather than the everyday $10-$15 rubbish that dominates offerings in the bottleshops.

Reisling. This is often a bargain in Australia mainly because the masses go for heavily-oaked chardonnays. I like the relatively inexpensive rieslings from the Clare Valley, Eden Valley and from cold-climate Victoria. One of my favorites from the latter is Seppelts Drumborg – this will age beautifully but is also delightful when drunk young.

I still have a 1973 Leo Buring Eden Valley Reisling – claimed by some to be one of the greatest Rieslings produced in Australia.

I recently bought a dozen of the 2005 Leo Burings Eden Valley for about $14-50 a bottle which I will start to drink about a decade from now. These are, in my view, some of Australia’s greatest wines. They will last decades if properly cellared. Jim Barry Reislings and various other wines from the Clare and Eden Valleys are good as is the wonderful Tasmanian reisling Moorilla Estate but there are numerous inexpensive rieslings that you can drink now or cellar.

By the way if you haven’t experienced aged reisling check that you like the flavor of it – it can have ‘kerosene aspects’ that don’t appeal to all. I like it!

Semillon. The great semillon wines of the Hunter Valley in NSW are widely (and correctly) recognized to be some of Australia’s greatest white wines. Murray Tyrrell makes some of the best. Contrary to popular opinion I have found that Mount Pleasant Elizabeth – a favorite when there was nothing else on a miserable restaurant wine list – has deteriorated in recent years. It often has a corked, ‘nail varnish’ finish that I don’t enjoy. Some of the early vintages however that I had kept for up to 20 years were wonderful.

The semillon that most will buy is Mt Pleasant but, as I say, I now find it disappointing these days. The Murray Tyrrell Semillons used to be a bargain – now much less so – but these are still pretty good. Some of the smaller Hunter Valley vineyards are also worth a look – the promising wines will have quite low alcohol and a slightly soapy, fairly neutral flavor when young. Leave them for 20 years and they will become golden toasted beauties. Generally a much better prospect for cellaring than chardonnay.

Sauvignon blanc. I have developed something of a palate for the non-herbaceous varieties of this over recent years, particular the Western Australian wines and (of course) those from New Zealand. It is definitely not my preferred white wine so I don’t have particularly definite views.

It does not cellar at all well so buy as you need or for a year or so down the track.

Pinot noir. Again don’t try to drink this stuff unless you are flush with funds. The Aussie cheapies are just not worth drinking. The Yarra Valley vineyards like Coldstream Hills and many of the boutique Mornington Peninsula specialists produce reasonably good pinot. But if you want something special you really are looking for at least an $80+ French burgundy and you can pay much more than this. I have wasted a lot of money (and effort) chasing quality French burgundy. Before I die I want to drink a Domaine de La Romanee Conti! The ‘Conti 98, which should cellar well for 30-40 years, will set you back over $3000US a bottle. I was impressed by the wine critic James Halliday’s description of drinking a DRC in the 1970s that was produced in the year of his birth, 1937 – he found tears involuntarily pouring down his face. He had discovered perfection.

I have cellared some beautiful pinots with success – one of the best was some Yarra Yering pinot. The wine snobs have now grabbed this source – it was always pricey – and it is now quite hopeless to try to enjoy without worrying about your overdraft. Others that I bought that have aged well included Bannockburn (a favourite that cellars well) and the Tasmanian beauty Morilla Estate but again these are all quite pricey these days.

Generally don’t try to cellar pinot. Instead target an occasional quality label, pay a lot and enjoy it as a current treat. Look for cellaring bargains among other wine varieties.

Cabernet. You can make some bargain purchases here that can keep you supplied with booze for 20 years. Cabernet has lost out a bit to shiraz in recent years so there are numerous labels out there competing for your dollar. Generally I have bought both small quantities of a wide range of boutique cabernets for $20+ and much larger quantities of the high volume brands such as Wynn’s Cabernet. During the recent glut I have seen this is Melbourne for less than $20. It ages beautifully for up to 20 years – although I recall reading about a vertical tasting of Wynns that was recently held that sampled wines up to 50 years old. I have drunk an indecent number of Wynns from the early 1970s and regard these as among the best-value cellaring propositions I have enjoyed.

While Wynns has always seemed great value to me, there are a host of quality cabernets on the shelves that can be purchased for around $15 plus which will offer good cellaring. Picking almost at random I could nominate D’Arenberg’s the High Trellis which will likewise last for 20 years and which has some gamey French characteristics that are delightful.

Shiraz. The red wine selection that most of us make most of the time. There are literally hundreds of reasonable quality shiraz wines that sell for about $15-$20 per bottle. I think here that buying on the basis of location makes sense – the shiraz wines from MacLaren Vale in South Australia are, in my view, the pick of the country but, defying geography and agronomic sense, the great shiraz wines of the Hunter Valley with their earthy, feral characteristics are also outstanding. The Seppelts cold climate Victorian wines are a bargain at their price as is the outstanding range from Mount Langi Ghiran – I still have a few of the block-buster 1989s that still taste like huge, peppery distinguished wines.

The obvious question here is what to say about the Penfolds brand which is the Australian shiraz specialist and the producer of the monumental Grange Hermitage. I have purchased a vast amount of Penfolds wine over the years and generally find it does not improve much with bottle age. That is a very provocative statement that most will disagree with but I will stick to it. Current vintages of Kalimna (the name of this blog) and Bin 389 are delightful to drink but with more than a few year’s bottle age they just seem to fade a bit without gaining complexity. I don’t buy Penfolds as a cellaring proposition these days. I still have a reasonable cellar of old Granges – including a dozen of the famed 1986s – and these are delightful to drink with bottle age but their price these days makes them bad value compared to the competition.

Among the Penfolds I do drink with pleasure is one of the cheapest of their range, Koonunga Hill – I like the shiraz/cabernet blend. This will not set the house on fire but is a reliable everyday drinking wine with no obvious wine-making faults.

By the way don’t neglect the sparkling shiraz wines made by groups such as Seppelts. These are a unique Australian wine that cellars well and is about the best foil I have ever discovered for barbecued turkey. Will cellar for 20 years in good vintages and currently a bargain.

Any of the good wine guides will help you through the mass of shiraz labels. Buying well-recognised brands which are known to cellar well is better than ‘hit and miss’. The big producers have reputations to defend. I accumulate notes on good varieties from knowledgeable wine commentators (Tim White in the Australian Financial Review is good) and of course James Halliday (in the Saturday Australian) and then head off to raid the local liquor mega-markets like Dan Murphy’s or, in Sydney, Kemeny’s. I buy a couple of dozen individual bottles and give them a trial and then return to buy in dozen lots the wines I think might be good. All in the name of science, you understand.

By the way wines are making it big time in the blogosphere. Appellation Australian is a newer blog on Australian wines. Wino sapien is an attractive local web blog on wines – its author Edward also includes an alphabetical listing of tasting notes. A prominent US blog on various wines (with an exhaustive list of all major US sites) is Vinography .

Good drinking. You’ve heard some of my wine views – I’d welcome news of yours.

6 comments to Buying plonk skillfully

  • Lucy Tartan

    Wow. I don’t have any views but I really enjoyed the post. I might even print it out and take it with me next time I go to Leo’s.

    Wine knowledge is completely beyond me and we don’t drink much at all but I like it. Opening a bottle isn’t worthwhile for a two-person household where we usually need to do work in the evenings.

  • hc

    If you don’t drink a lot you can afford to drink well. Generally I can’t afford to drink well.

  • Edward

    Dear Harry,

    Thanks for the vote of confidence!

    You give some very sound wine buying advice.

  • FXH

    aah harry – we live in different worlds. I’ve never cellared a bottle longer than a month.

    The wine glut for me means great access at 1 St Choice to cleanskins under $7, Stepping Stone down to $9 (from a launch price point @$28) and Oomoo around $10.

    otoh I can’t see the wine glut going away. Fluctuating a bit maybe but vines aren’t like spuds or peas – you don’t have to plant them each year, you don’t even have to make wine each year, you can, to an extent have winemaking in hibernation.

    I can’t see the wine industry being able to cartel together to drive prices up. Demand for everyday wine is pretty elastic from where I sit and consumers like me have got used to certain price points and had the opportunity to taste around and make their own decisions sans labels.

    A wine has to be pretty bloody good to be worth over $20 from the shop these days.

    There are also plenty of near substitutes these days. I can remember when there was around 4 beers to choose from and they weren’t much different, now there is about a million (no exaggeration as you know) and they are actually interesting.

    When I spend $ I reckon a bottle of Single Malt is much better value and more interesting than a bottle of over hyped plonk.

    That said I always like it when someone who buys over priced plonk lets me have a glass or gives me a bottle.

  • FXH

    lucy – two people who can’t get through one bottle in a night while working need help.

    I don’t know what Harry would say but most bottles don’t have a problem being open /consumed over two days / nights.

  • hc

    fxh, Lucy is the Lucid voice of moderation. No I am never worried about half-empties. Of course on the rare ooccasion where a bottle is incompletetely consumed – stick a cork in it and have it with your Vita Brits for brekkie.