Kim Longbottom, who started Henry's Drive in Padthaway, Australia, with her husband, Mark, recently stopped by for a visit and brought along some of their first wines to show me how they are developing.
They planted their first vineyards in 1992, continuing through the 1990s to reach almost 500 acres. Padthaway, the northernmost and warmest region in the generally cool Limestone Coast, is largely covered by big tracts owned by the big wine companies. The Longbottoms' vineyards are among the few substantial ones that are privately owned. When their first wines showed up in my tasting room with the 1998 vintage, they received scores in the 90s. The wines have remained consistently good.
Sparky and Sarah Marquis, who now have their own winery, Mollydooker, were the consulting winemakers then. They installed a ripe, generous style, perfectly adapted to the U.S. market. The company sells about 85 percent of its wine in the United States.
Most of the Longbottoms' grapes go into Pillar Box Red and White, made to sell for $10 (with a reserve at $20), but the best portions of the vineyard go into the Henry's Drive Shiraz (around $36) and Parson's Flat, a Shiraz-Cabernet blend (around $37). The reserve wines are around $55. "Those grapes come from the hillsides," said Kim, by which she means the southeastward-tilting portion adjacent to the main road that runs through Padthway, linking Adelaide with Coonawarra. There is also a distinctly spicy, herbal style of Shiraz, called Dead Letter Office, from the Longbottoms' 30-acre McLaren Vale vineyard. It sells for $30.
So how are the earlier wines doing? Henry's Drive Shiraz Reserve 2000, the first reserve wine, made from vines planted in 1996, shows a distinctly eucalyptus character. It is a warm, rich style, very long and complex, and seems more integrated now. When I reviewed it in 2002, I suggested drinking it by 2007. I don't think it's going to develop more, but it's turned out very nicely, and should hold for a while. Non-blind, I'd rate it 91 points.
"That eucalyptus doesn't come out until the strong fruit of the new wine goes away," Kim said. "It becomes a different wine, doesn't it?"
The Shiraz Reserve 2002 has that same eucalyptus note, and it showed it from my first tasting of it in 2004. It also seems less warm and fuzzy, more upright than the 2000. Partly that's due to the extra-chilly 2002 vintage. I found this wine to be a bit more tart, hotter with alcohol (15.5 percent on the label) and not as well-integrated as the 2000. But it's still an impressive sip of wine. Non-blind, 90 points.
Parson's Flat 2001, a blend of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, has more of a sense of balance. It has presence, with plenty of mocha and black pepper overtones, dark and rich but not over the top. I thought this one would be done by 2005, but it's still bouncing along well. Non-blind, 91 points.
Dead Letter Office 2004, the first vintage of the McLaren Vale Shiraz, shows spice and leather fragrance and ripe fruit, and it seems to strive more for crispness and elegance than the Padthaway wines. Non-blind, 89 points.
The Longbottoms brought the winemaking in-house after waving goodbye to the Marquises, who had fashioned the opulent style of the wines at the urging of their American importer, Dan Philips of the Grateful Palate. It made impressive stuff, but in recent vintages the Longbottoms have been working on getting the alcohol levels down. "Some of the parcels just seem out of balance no matter what we do," she said. "We find that if we remove some of the alcohol from them with reverse osmosis, we can make a better wine when we blend those lots with the rest."
Henry's Drive parted company with Grateful Palate last year because, Kim said, Philips "seemed to be de-emphasizing our wines." The new importer, Quintessential Wines, has had success with South African and Italian wines. Henry's Drive is Quintessential's only Australian brand, but maybe not its last.
Dave Joyce — Winston-Salem, NC — August 30, 2008 8:32pm ET
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