When it comes to sweet wines, Australia might be best known for what used to be known as liqueur Muscat and and Tokay. Those are fortified wines, now simply known by their correct varietal names, Muscat and Muscadelle.
De Bortoli, one of Australia's largest independently owned wineries, makes an exceptional wine in the other notable sweet wine style, from botrtytis-affected grapes. It carries the distinctive name Noble One. It's a Sémillon from Griffiths, in the hot Riverina region of New South Wales, and it's been consistently outstanding since Darren De Bortoli made the debut 1982 vintage as "Australian Sauternes." The name changed to Noble One after the 1985 vintage, but Darren still makes the wine.
Last week I sat down with Steve Webber, Darren's brother-in-law and De Bortoli's winemaker for dry wines, to taste through five vintages of the wine. It reaffirms what a special wine this is.
The 1985 was a stunner with a gorgeous balance, seemingly not quite as sweet as the younger wines, showing more restraint to the apricot and fig fruit still apparent in the wine. It was very long and, well, yummy (93 points, non-blind). The oldest, the 1982 Sauternes, was drying out a bit but it still had that spicy fig character that signifies ripe botrytized Sémillon, and a persistent aftertaste (88 points, non-blind).
We tasted two wines from the 1990s. I especially liked the 1993, which was complete, harmonious, elegant, maybe drying slightly but full of tobacco and caramel accents to the fig and spice flavors (91, non-blind). The 1995, by contrast, had more generic caramel and toast aromas, and something resembling roasted lemon in the flavor spectrum (89, non-blind). It was also a tad less silky than the '93.
The newest vintage, 2006, looks like another fine one. Ripe, silky, elegant, with superb balance, a nice apricot edge to the fig and spice flavors (93, non-blind). At $30 for a 375-milliliter bottle, the wines are worth it.
De Bortoli also makes a less-expensive version; the Botrytis Sémillon Vat 5 2006 ($13 for 375 mL) smelled great but lacked the sweetness and flesh I expect from a botrytized wine. That's intentional, said Webber, noting that the Vat 5 has 7 percent residual sugar to Noble One's 10.
I couldn't help thinking that maybe that approach is why I never seem to like De Bortoli's dry wines, made in Yarra Valley, as much as some Australian critics do. While the wines are always correct and nicely balanced for food, too many of the dry wines lack the presence and intensity that distinguishes really fine wines, and they stumble on the finish. It's not that they should be bigger, but they seem muted.
We tasted through a wide range of dry wines, including some pleasant bottlings in the $13 Deen range. Best for me was the Petit Verdot Vat 4 2007, which had the flesh to go along with its ripe fruit. Pinot Noir Vat 10 2008 is more Beaujolais than Burgundy but pretty and floral, and Petit Sirah 2007 is simple and berrylike. Shiraz and Cabernet 2007s seemed to pull their punches on the finish.
Moving up in price, I liked the $36 Shiraz-Viognier Estate 2006, a Yarra Valley wine with more flesh, presence and length than the more expensive Estate Reserve, which I found restrained but not really elegant. De Bortoli also has a line of "Regional Classics," including a McLaren Vale Shiraz from South Australia. At $20, the 2007 has tangy balance and fleshy texture, marred by a slightly bitter finish.
De Bortoli also has something of a reputation in Australia for elegant Chardonnays. For me the Yarra Estate Chardonnay, made in a tangy style, has some nice mineral and apricot flavors but fades on the finish. The Chardonnay Reserve 2006, a $50 bottling, showed a slightly bitter edge and missed on charm. I much preferred the new Sauvignon Reserve 2007, 100 percent fermented in neutral oak, which had lovely texture and none of the vegetal character that can affect cool climate Sauvignon Blanc. It's really good, but the $40 price tag gives me pause, especially for a Sauvignon.
Scott Oneil — UT — August 5, 2008 5:14pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — August 5, 2008 5:22pm ET
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