With the 2015 Vancouver International Wine Festival just around the corner my mind has started leaping ahead to the star-studded line-up of world-class winemakers who will be jetting in. Over 1,700 wines from 170 wineries will be poured and some of the most exciting, to me, are from this sixth-generation producer from the Barossa valley.
Let's be honest about why I'm so excited to meet these folks: it's all about quality. But maybe I don't mean quality in the way that you're thinking. It's not just that this family, who've been pouring heart and soul into South Australia since the 1850's, released an entire line-up of wines that are great value for money. Hey - it's the "Golden Age" of wine! We're used to getting great wine for a great price.
THE thing to me is that I'm continually impressed, each and every year, because this is what they do with every vintage. I'm entering my fifth year writing about wine (a "youngster" still to many) and I taste a silly amount of wine... on average it's over 2,000 per year. And I can tell you, without reservation or hesitation, that there are very very few producers who are releasing quality of this magnitude year after year after year. Every year just a little better than the last, every wine being sold for less than it's true value.
The Clarke family state categorically that they:
"-take a long-term view of the future and our goal is unashamedly to be still growing grapes and making wine for another six generations."
And this is how it's done. This is why James Halliday, who knows more about Australian wine than any person who ever walked the Earth, has given Thorn-Clarke 5 stars for the ninth time in a row! Not familiar with Mr Halliday? Suffice it to say that when a winery earns it's first 5-star rating, it's going to be written about in the news. It is the benchmark for "outstanding quality" in Australian wine and is used as the yardstick by which every winery judges it's calibre versus it's colleagues and it's own previous vintages.
Nine times in a row means that the man who knows the most about Australian wine considers this tightly-knit team to be amongst the top echelon of a country brimming with brilliance. And when one hears the stories - of David Clarke testing soil samples by the light of the headlights of his car, at night, so as not to arouse suspicion in local farmers... well, stories like this are what feed the intuition that herein lies something beyond a desire to make good wine, it's (mild) obsession in the best of all possible ways.
This is the team that outfitted entire vineyards with moisture-probes: calibrated to only allow the vines access to irrigation under the most stringent conditions. Is this an environmental responsibility? Of course it is, but the benefit to you and I is that Thorn-Clarke is keeping it's berries small; less water per grape means a higher concentration of flavors!
Planting cover-drops between the rows of vines, planting thousands upon thousands of trees on the properties; these are environmentally responsible as well right? Once again - the winery and it's team are to be lauded, but as someone who's just one generation off the farm I'm thinking about the bio-diversity! What is happening is a return to, as some call it, ancestral farming. Through these techniques Thorn-Clarke is creating an environment that will allow full expression of flavor to come through the grapes and give their land it's own unique taste.
And this vision is all the more apparent when one hears them speak of their ardent efforts to now return the local waterways to " -a pristine example of native vegetation.". It's funny in a way, to think that in 100 years we as a First-World culture have come full circle; from the early 1900's and respecting the land and it's cycles, to the mid 1900's when we first decided that we needed to control Mother Nature and her many flights of whimsy, to the early 2000's when the trend is coming back to a place of respect.
And perhaps that's what separates Thorn-Clarke most of all from their competitors. In a time when quality is easier to come by then ever before and even great value can be found on almost any wine-vendor's shelves, respect in it's most sincere form is still rare enough to be extolled when we see it. Respect for the land, respect for the water, respect for the grapes and the winemaking process and, most of all, respect for you - the customer.
I hope you find value in my thoughts on these beautiful wines.
89+/90 points, $13+ USD, Great Value
... Expansive yet not expensive: this wine is rich with aromas of wild blueberries and Saskatoons, tomato leaf, warm earth, hints of vanilla, oak. On the palate is a perky acidity with fine, well integrated tannin and an intensity of flavors that well-matches the nose. Very good balance and structure, the length on the palate is also substantial for the price.
... When I smell and taste those darker berry flavors: blueberries, black currants, Saskatoons, I immediately think of venison! To me there's nothing that would pair better with this then a dish of venison stew/ragout with steamed new potatoes and fresh garden veggies. Although, I say that and then I savored the bottle over successive evenings and a ration of premium, hand-made, fresh peppercorn beef jerky from Hopcott farms, Pitt Meadows.
89+ points, $16+ USD, Great Value
... What I love about this wine is its ability to express young Cab: big, beautiful, pear-shaped tones of ripe red fruit, summer flowers, the backbone of pencil-shaving/minerality and the warmth of musk/forest aromas. The bouquet is inviting, the palate offering substantial yet well balanced acid and more of the trademark well-integrated tannin though these are more substantial then the previous blend. Great structure.
... Food pairings abound! A natural for beef dishes, this will also bring beauty to the meatier Italian dishes like a lamb bolognese but I found it light enough to serve with grilled panini for lunch. This is a terrific introduction to the "softer-side-of-Cab" and pairs well with Tuesday nights and a warm fireplace :)
Left Bank Bordeaux-styled blend: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Merlot
91+ points, $18-$25 USD, EXCELLENT Value
... it's no secret that I love Bordeaux, but good Bordeaux is becoming out-of-reach for a writers salary. Top-tier Bordeaux is out-of-reach for most doctors and lawyers. But~! But there is great Bordeaux-style coming from all corners of the world and Australia is certainly a part of that wave. This wine is a personal favorite of mine and I have been constantly impressed vintage after vintage. For the money, this may be one of the best values in the North American market! Rich, nuanced dark floral aromas burst from the glass with violets and dark roses followed by black currants/black cherries/red raspberries. The palate is brisk with lean/focused young red currant acid, fine/chalky tannin and a concentration of flavors that well-mimic the nose and outperform the price-tag. Excellent balance, very good structure, this wine drinks well now and holds for several years but will not develop in bottle due to the Stelvin enclosure.
... Food pairings? Try cigar pairings! From Rocky Patel "Decade" to Montecristo, this wine is a cigar-lovers delight. If you must pair it with food, consider the price and then spoil yourself: this is a decadent treat for a Wednesday afternoon and gourmet pizza, capicollo panini or a simple steak frites... use great ingredients and let the beauty of this Barossa shine!
90+ points, $15-$22 USD, Great Value
... first, a word on Shiraz if you're thinking right now "Oh - I don't like Aussie Shiraz, I only like French/Spanish/California/etc". In a recent blind tasting with a dozen highly skilled industry professionals, no one could tell which Shiraz out of ten bottles was from Australia. Well... I could tell one of them, but only because I was incredibly familiar with that particular winemaker and knew his "signature". But my point is that there is a new era in winemaking and what you tasted 10 years ago (or older) isn't necessarily what you will find today! I have shown colleagues time and time again that the "New Face" of Aussie Shiraz is a sophisticated, elegant one that merits attention.
... Harmonious. This wine achieves a delightful balance of dark floral aromas, dark exotic chocolate and warm earth tones. The palate is awash in fresh red berry flavors and achieves mouth-watering acidity yet in a balanced and approachable manner. Very good concentration of flavors that match the nose with that ever-present peppercorn finish, to me this is a great example of the modern Shiraz.It will keep well for several years in cellar but, once again, will not develop due to Stelvin enclosure. Enjoy it young with sea-salt and olive grilled lamb and an herbaceous quinoa-tabbouleh salad!
93+/94 points, $40-$50+ USD, WORLD CLASS
*97 points James Halliday
*in my TOP WINES, 2014
*minimum 1 hour decant or 2 runs through the aerator
... made from small, select lots and only in the best years, this is the essence of truly Great Barossa without the staggering price that some can fetch. That James Halliday of the Australian Wine Companion would bestow 97 points on this is enough for any reasonable person to ascertain that here-in lies beauty... created as an Ode to one of the patriarchs of the Clarke family, this wine offers the "Holy Trinity" of stunning: balance, structure and concentration.
... if you open this wine and find the aromas closed, just try decanting another 30 mins to an hour; it is impossible to over-decant this. To the eye this wine is so dark in it's bruised purple tones that it appears black in the glass. I was most struck by the plethora of floral aromas; the usual suspects of red and dark berries, dark cocoa, peppercorns and warm Barossa soil abound, but the lifted scents of violets, soft roses and irises is both feminine and tremendously alluring. On the palate, it presents tight, lean, well-focused red currant and young red raspberry acid that reminds one of Northern Rhone; tremendously fresh. The tannin is full, yet ultra fine/chalky/chewy and is delightfully approachable considering it's relative youth. The flavors are as full, and full of life and dimension, as the bouquet; a true craftsman's work. If you would drink this now (and it is utterly delightful now) I would highly encourage buying another few bottles to set aside. This wine will live and evolve for at least 15 more years with grace. Food pairing? Consider this dish I created for my Chef du Cuisine final project:
lamb, 3 ways (sourced from Elliot Ranch, Strathmore, Alberta)
1. tenderloin (wrapped in duck pate and spinach) on braised chicory
2. two points of rack, baked in coarse salt with vanilla bean & fresh thyme, Hainle vineyards Gewurztraminer icewine poached Anjou pear, warm crab-apple compote
3. individual tortierre with braised shank and shoulder, charred heirloom tomato ketchup
Many thanks to Renaissance Wine Merchants (importer to Western Canada) and Thorn-Clarke Wines for the very generous sample bottles. As always you can find more recipes, free wine reviews and my notes on premium distillates and cigars on: