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Hugh Johnson May 2011 column

How would Bordeaux fare if all we saw were big brands?

I was grinning with pleasure as I came out of the Saatchi Gallery on Australia Day. It was my first visit to the old barracks on London’s King’s Road since it became a space for modern art, and I’d probably never have gone without the draw of Australia’s big annual tasting.

I was impressed by the gallery but bowled over by the wines. Australian wine has a different problem from Bordeaux. It is judged in the UK by its entry-level wines, seen mostly in supermarkets and regularly discounted.

How would Bordeaux fare if all we saw were big brands and petits châteaux? Bordeaux’s engine is the tiny apex of production, regularly in the press, constantly in sale-rooms, enjoying fame far beyond its actual impact on wine drinkers.

Australia, alas, can hardly sell its equivalent creations – or not to us. £9 for an Aussie wine looks a lot; £29 a fortune. It has to be pushed along at the foundations where the going is hardest and the margins imperceptible.

Yes, there are a few famous peaks: Penfolds’ Grange, Henschke’s Hill of Grace, Jim Barry’s Armagh, Leeuwin’s Art Series, Cullen’s Diana Madeleine, and more, but what gives them coherence?

We have vague ideas of their geographical relationships or the cultures that inspire them. They have no official pecking order; worse, chances to taste them are rare. Hence my grin.

A dozen brilliant, original wines were still dancing on my palate. A few cameos: Tahbilk, Victoria’s old wine farm, makes a Marsanne I’ve admired for 40 years.

Their old vine bottling ‘1927 vines’ stands out in any crowd; low-key at first, then searingly intense, oily, with heroic acidity. And its Cabernet is a true New World bargain, crisp and classic.

Skillogalee, in Clare, fields a Cabernet called ‘The Cabernets’, of similar cut and weight, and a Shiraz – long and powerful – at the same honest price of £15.99.

I’d not tasted Woodlands before, a Margaret River estate with notable Cabernet blends that keep their minty freshness dancing above salty ripeness.

In the Hunter Valley, Tyrrell’s maintains the brilliant understated balance of its Semillon and Chardonnay.

Other stars were Hewitson’s Old Garden Mourvedre (Barossa); Larry Cherubino’s Sauvignon Blanc (Pemberton); Penny’s Hill Cracking Black Shiraz (McLaren Vale); Voyager Estate Cabernet-Merlot (Margaret River); Clonakilla Shiraz-Viognier (Canberra); Grosset off-dry Riesling (Clare); John Duval’s Plexus (Barossa); Shaw & Smith Sauvignon Blanc (Adelaide Hills).

What have they in common? Technical excellence, a style you could call intelligent, and something forthright that seems to say ‘Australia’. And value for money.

Written by Hugh Johnson

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