Thursday, October 11, 2012

Tasting St. Hallett's Barossa Valley Wines

Stuart Blackwell, senior winemaker at St. Hallett's Barossa Valley winery, came to Kalamazoo last night to present his wines at a wine dinner at the Oakwood Bistro. We enjoyed an excellent five-course meal prepared especially to match up with the wines of this high-quality Barossa Valley estate.

I was fortunate to get a seat right across the table from Blackwell, delighting in his stories, good humor and  broad knowledge of Australian wines and vineyards. Americans are accustomed to the cheap commercial Australian wines (such as Yellowtail) made specifically (and somewhat cynically) for the American public. To counter this image, Blackwell and St. Hallett would like to establish a reputation for high quality Shiraz and other wines. They fit the pattern precisely of what I consider "artisan wines"--wines carefully made to express their origin and the varietal traits of the grape.

The 2009 Poacher's Blend Barossa White (Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling) is what Blackwell calls "26 fluid ounces of fun"; it offers up zesty lime and tropical fruit smells and flavors. The Semillon/Sauvignon blend is typical of white Bordeaux. Riesling adds structure and mouth feel. At about $10 a bottle, it is a good choice for frequent drinking.

The 2009 Gamekeeper's Shiraz, Grenache, Touriga was perhaps my favorite of the evening, even though it too can be purchased for about $10 a bottle. For this wine, Blackwell blends well chosen old vine Grenache and Shiraz  grapes with Touriga, a grape ordinarily used in making fortified Port or Portuguese dry wines. It's a fortunate combination, with the Touriga adding what Blackwell describes as a rose petal quality. The Grenache and Syrah grapes sit on their lees for two months, picking up unique and unexpected aromas and flavors. It's a deep crimson color with wonderful spicy, gamey notes. Blackwell delights in telling of the critic who told him "the oak in this wine is really subtle." "Yes, it is really subtle," he answered. "No oak at all." Stuart is also fond of this wine, speaking of its versatility. "It's great with duck but also with pork--anything smokey. And it's a ridiculous price for a wine of this quality." I agree wholeheartedly and plan to add some to my own cellar.

Shiraz, though, is what St. Hallett's is building its reputation around, and Stuart Blackwell knows how to select and use grapes from the best of Barossa's vineyards. Many of these vines--gnarled and tree-like--were planted by German immigrants to Australia around 1840. The oldest and best--some up to 140 years old--go into St. Hallett's Old Block, which is not made in large enough quantity to be presented at a tasting such as this one. I have had it before and agree with Stuart that it belongs in the top ranks of Australian Shiraz.

The 2009 Faith Shiraz is at the low end of the price range, at about $20 a bottle. It comes from vineyards up to 50 years of age, and, as Blackwell explained, it has more of a red fruit quality--red raspberries, cherries, red fruit and spices. He vinifies it as an accessible fruit driven wine. Some new oak is used but it's not at all obtrusive. Much of the wine is aged in seasoned French and American oak--one, two and three years of age. I enjoyed this wine a great deal.

The 2008 Blackwell Shiraz, sourced from vineyards up to 80 years old and with lower yields than the Faith, is aged in American oak, and this is quite apparent on the nose at this point. From vines older than 50 years, Blackwell pointed out, "you get more black fruit qualities" as well as mineral qualities from deep within the soil. Black raspberries and blackberries plus licorice and vanilla. Although the wine is still very young and tannic, it has a soft feel on the palate. For this dinner it was served with a coffee and cocoa rubbed ribeye loin steak--a perfect match. But it's also lush enough to enjoy on its own.

For dessert, we had a dense chocolate torte served with the 2008 Gamekeeper's Shiraz Cabernet. Both were very good, but I'm not a fan of this kind of dry red wine/chocolate dessert combination. Shiraz Cabernet is a unique combination that admittedly has dark chocolate traits. This young Shiraz Cabernet is still tannic, however, and it tasted even more bitter when tasted against the chocolate torte.

If you're a fan of Shiraz/Cabernet wines, you might want to pick up a few bottles of the St. Hallett's right now at a good price. Only four cases were brought into Michigan, and St. Hallett's doesn't plan to bring any more in. At this time, Stuart Blackwell wants to focus sharply on St. Hallett's as a premium maker of excellent Shiraz wines, all produced from well selected old, low-yielding vineyards.

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