Few would think that the words "delicate" and "Australian Shiraz" could belong in the same sentence, but then they never would have tried Craiglee Shiraz. I am as guilty as the next big red Shiraz lover for dismissing this wine as light and pleasant, but inconsequential, although I have rated it highly in some vintages. For those with the patience to let the wine develop in the bottle for a few years, the result is something I can only describe as ethereal.
Owner-winegrower Pat Carmody takes a shot at explaining it in my video.
I arrived at the winery for a vertical tasting only to find Pat and his wife, Dianne, wrestling with a couple of baby lambs and trying to herd the rest of the flock into their proper pen. They raise the animals on the sheep farm that Pat's father bought in 1960 so that Pat and his siblings could attend school in Melbourne. The vineyard today occupies 25 acres on the farm, on the outskirts of the busy Melbourne suburb of Sunbury, only 10 minutes from Melbourne International Airport.
There would have been no vineyard today except for a cache of old bottles the family discovered hidden away on the property. They turned out to be from 1872. A little research determined that the wine, a Shiraz, came from vines planted on the property and had won trophies in Europe. To the family's surprise, the wines still tasted fresh and drinkable when they opened a few bottles in 1972.
"I figured that if they could make a wine that lasted 100 years, there must be something here," Pat said. "So we tried planting a few acres." He made his first wines from the property in 1979, and bottled his first commercial vintage in 1980, but wasn't really happy with the results until 1984. "That was the first vintage when I could go out to the vines and taste something, not just grape sugar," he said.
Today, that 1984 is light, with a velvety burr to the tannins and pretty plum and mineral flavors. The crisp texture rapidly fills out to be supple and silky. The fruit lingers on the finish.
In tasting virtually every succeeding vintage, it struck me just how well they all kept their fresh fruit character. The textures in all the wines are delicate, more like Pernand-Vergelesses (a lightish Burgundy) than Hermitage (the preeminent French wine from Syrah), and that fresh fruit character seems to float in the air as it hovers over the finish. The best word I can find to describe it is transparency.
"I don't pretend to be able to understand it," Carmody mused, "but it appeals to me immensely that they're still fresh."
What made me a believer were vintages such as that 1984, 1990 and especially 1996, which I rated 93 points, non blind. It had pepper galore in the mix with plummy flavors, delicacy yet plenty of complexity, with the pepper-shaded fruit lingering effortlessly. Alcohol levels generally range from 12 to 13.5 percent, although recent warmer vintages are creeping up slightly higher. Few wines can deliver such a complete package with so much refinement.
The downside of a cool climate like Sunbury's is that lesser vintages can just taste thin. That was a problem in vintages such as 1985, 1987, 1988, 1992 and 1995, when the wines just didn't make magic. But more recent vintages show how Carmody's winemaking touch (or perhaps it's just older vines) has produced wines of delicacy and charm, if not tremendous depth, in very cool vintages such as 1993 and 2002.
Of late, he is concerned that a succession of warm vintages is changing the wines' style. "Except for 2002, every year is very hot," he said. "I don't want them to be slam-bam, thank you ma'am wines."
After the tasting we wandered into the winery, a tin shed that faces the vineyard and the sheep paddock. He climbed up a catwalk and dipped out two samples of 2008 Shiraz, just completing malolactic fermentation. The first had surprisingly dark color, focused cherry flavors and firm texture. The second had a little more lightness to its step. The flavors had a hint of a floral note and silkier texture. I noted the difference and he smiled.
"The second wine has 2 percent Viognier in it," he revealed. "I planted a couple of rows to see what it would do here. In these warm vintages, I think it helps bring back some of that cool-climate transparency."
Sandy Fitzgerald — Centennial, CO — May 21, 2008 10:50pm ET
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