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A Decade of Bella's Garden

First 10 vintages of Barossa Shiraz show consistency, distinction
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 28, 2012 3:00pm ET

In Wine Spectator's Top 100 Wines of 2012, a familiar name stands at No. 3. Two Hands Shiraz Barossa Valley Bella's Garden has made it into the Top 100 eight times, including four years in the Top 10. What's astounding is that the wine has existed only since the 2001 vintage.

No, that one didn't make the Top 100. Neither did the 2002. The winery produced only a few hundred cases of each vintage, but the 2003, the first one to exceed 1,000 cases, debuted at No. 11, and it's been a perennial ever since. It consistently rates around 94 to 95 points, unusually high for a wine priced today at $69 and that reaches as much as 6,000 cases in a good vintage. And most of it is exported to the United States.

Although Two Hands makes several estate bottlings, the Garden Series comprises six different Shiraz wines that each reflect a region's character by using grapes under long-term contract with individual growers. The other regions—McLaren Valle, Clare Valley, Padthaway, Langhorne Creek and Heathcote—make much smaller quantities. (The names refer to spouses and offspring of Two Hands proprietor Michael Twelftree and his founding partner Richard Mintz and reflect the habit of 19th-century German winegrowers who settled the Barossa to call their vineyards "gardens.")

Bella's has the largest production largely because Two Hands is based in Barossa and has relationships with more vineyards there. It always maintains true regional character: a flavor profile that favors cherry and spice, along with the signature licorice of good Shiraz, generous but soft tannins, creating a plush texture. The style aims for depth and focus. Over a decade the proportion of new oak barrels has fallen to less than one-third.

Recently, Twelftree offered to taste all 10 vintages of Bella's Garden with me. When the wines arrived, I was surprised to find all the Lily's Garden wines, made from McLaren Vale grapes, packed in the same boxes. Lily's has performed just a tick behind the Bella's on average.

He said if it was too much, we could save the Lily's for his next visit. I e-mailed him in response: "I think it would be good to taste both in one go. What do you think of tasting them blind to see how the regional differences come through?" To his credit, he agreed enthusiastically. "Great idea," he wrote. "I would guess they would look more similar as they age and I am sure I will get a few wrong (which would be good)."

Not many successful vintners would take that risk.

I'll save the Lily's Garden notes for another time and focus this report on Bella's, which we tasted blind, in random order, along with ringers to keep us honest.

The most impressive result was how consistently well the wines showed. There has been considerable vintage variation in Barossa over the past decade, with various levels of drought and heat spikes strongly affecting 2003, 2007 and 2008 in particular. 2002 was the coolest vintages on record, and 2003 the hottest. It was so close that the less celebrated vintages slightly outperformed the ones with the big reputations.

"That was the surprise for me," Twelftree said after the bags came off the bottles. "2002, 2004, 2005, 2009 and 2010 are the rock stars, but today we both seemed to like the middle-of-the-road vintages better."

We both were dazzled by the 2007, which held its richness in a deft balance, a distinct cinnamon note adding complexity to the ripe flavors. It seems to be fulfilling the promise of my original tasting, which called it "fleshy but not over the top." The other wine that seems to be improving with bottle age is the 2001. Only 300 cases were made of that first go at a Barossa bottling, a dense, heady wine in its youth that has found a silkiness at the core to keep the generous fruit and smoky spice flavors expressive.

Another pleasant surprise was 2003, a vintage that many Australians dismiss as grotesquely hot. This bottling is opulent, all right, but it has developed an earthy layer in an expressive finish, all held in place by a fine acid balance. It has classic proportions.

The only disappointment was the 2005, which Twelftree and I both thought was the ringer because it had such a different structure and flavor profile from the others. He thought, and I agreed, that we had two off bottles. The first was corked and the second just didn't seem to fit the profile.

On the regional face-off, the main difference was a generally darker flavor profile in McLaren Vale. But other than that, it was hard for me to distinguish the regions on sheer quality. My scorecard had the wines equal or the Barossa slightly better in every vintage except 2006 and 2008. In those the Lily's seem to have the edge with more finesse and a bit longer finish.

The Barossa ringer, by the way (there were two McLaren Vale wines), was Elderton Shiraz Barossa Command 2005, smooth and polished, the cherry and clove flavors arching seductively on the long finish. I had it at 96 points. It was a heck of a way to keep things honest.

Here are my tasting notes for the Bella's Garden bottlings:

2001: Rich and generous, splaying its classic black cherry, blackberry, smoky, tobacco and spice flavors into a long and expressive finish. Finds a silkiness at the core to keep things in balance. 300 cases made. (95 points)

2002: Dark and spicy, a bit lighter and more tangy than others, but very rich and gooey at the core, dried blueberry and meaty flavors persisting on the finish. 400 cases imported. (93)

2003: Big and rich, with tangy acidity playing against ripe and opulent black cherry, mint and spice flavors. Complex, earthy and expressive on the finish. 1,200 cases made. (95)

2004: Lean, lively and nicely focused, juicy with cherry and blueberry flavors, picking up cedary, minty notes as the finish lingers. 1,500 cases imported. (93)

2005: Sharp edge to the black cherry and herb flavors, finishing with a different level of intensity than everything else in the tasting. Nice, but not cohesive. Probably off bottles, one corked, the other a victim of incipient levels of TCA. 5,000 cases made. (88)

2006: Tight, focused and vibrant with cherry and blackberry flavors, finishing with smoothness and intensity. 5,400 cases imported. (92)

2007: Rich, thick and dense, powering its ripe cherry, chocolate and Red-Hot candy flavors into a long and expressive finish, polished and spherical. Gorgeously balanced and endowed. 6,500 cases made. (96)

2008: Bright and juicy, jazzy style with acidity to cut through the ripe blackberry and dark plum fruit, coherent on the finish. 2,400 cases imported. (93)

2009: Smooth and vibrant, a lovely texture framing the ripe berry and spice flavors so that they dance deftly, finishing with power and depth, lingering expressively. 3,000 cases imported. (94)

2010: Fresh and vibrant black cherry and spice, supple and expressive, finishing with finesse. Has depth and power, a splash of mint, then backs off gracefully. 4,000 cases made. (94)

Richard Lee
Napa —  November 29, 2012 2:53pm ET
Harvey,
I just opened my last '05 Bella two weeks ago and found the same issue. We opened 3 other Syrahs and I was surprised that the Bella wasn't the show stopper it had been in the past. 88 seemed to be the range that we gave it as well. Funny that 88 can be so disappointing. We opened an '04 Lily's last weekend and it was still exceptional.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  November 29, 2012 10:41pm ET
When did he switch Bellas to all screwcaps?
Andrew S Bernardo
Ottawa, Canada —  November 30, 2012 10:29pm ET
Harvey,

Would you say it's worth drinking the 2008 sooner rather than later?

Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  December 1, 2012 3:32am ET
I was a big fan of the 2005 Bella's, and am thinking about opening another one soon, but missed out on the 2004 (hands down, my favorite Australian vintage). My experience with the 2007 made me reluctant to buy any further vintages, though. I was frankly a little disappointed with all 3 bottles I've opened, even as late as May of this year. I recently had the opportunity to taste the 2010 and appreciated the robust aroma, in particular, but confess I don't necessarily understand the high praise it received. Perhaps in time...

Harvey, I'm extremely eager to read your notes on the Lily's Garden vertical. Those wines are of a more robust, darker fruit style that's significantly more exciting to me... so please don't keep us waiting too long for your comments! Cheers
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  December 1, 2012 1:36pm ET
Andrew,
Bella's is not bottled under twist-offs, as far as I know. All the bottlings I have tried are finished with cork.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  December 1, 2012 1:39pm ET
Don,
If you have more of the 2007 give it another try in the next year or so. I think it has come into its own. Of course, your disappointment may have been due to cork issues. The bottle I had (blind) was terrific.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  December 1, 2012 1:48pm ET
Andrew,
It's certainly possible that the 08 Bella's has fallen off into a good but not exciting wine. It certainly tasted great upon release in 2010. 2008 was a challenging vintage because of the heat waves in March (height of harvest season). Bella's production ended up about half of normal because so many lots were winnowed out to make the level of wine desired. It would be odd, however, if that resulted in a LIGHTER profile, which makes me suspect bottle variation due to cork issues.
Brian Oconnor
Singapore —  December 1, 2012 8:51pm ET
Hi Harvey

I was visiting Two Hands when they were releasing the 2003 vintage with my daughter who was born in 2003. Matt was kind enough to sell us one of the only Imperial's bottled (we also bought 3 cases) of Bella's Garden (it helped that my daughters name is Isabella).

The wine is being stored in optimal conditions. When do you think the wine will start decline?

Many thanks, Brian
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  December 2, 2012 9:14am ET
THats interesting...every other 2 Hands wines that I've had have been topped with caps...why on earth would he take his best wines and stuff a cork in them? The Aussies (and Kiwis) tend to be soo much smarter than us in that regard!!
Ron Lippitt
warwick' RI USA —  December 3, 2012 7:01pm ET
I have been a fan of Two Hands for a while. I, too,
am looking forward to reading your notes on Lily's Garden. I agree with Richard of Napa; the 04 is a fantastic wine.
Scott Bell
Danbury, CT —  December 7, 2012 10:41am ET
I found it interesting that the 09 Bella's Garden and the 09 Gnarly Dudes scored WS 94 and 93, respectively. I was under the impression that the Gnarly Dudes is essentially bottled as the 2nd wine from the same barrels that go into the Bella's Garden. Is this true? I find both wines to be rather delicious and am happy to have also found ample supplies of the 2010 available. Thanks.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  December 7, 2012 2:10pm ET
As Twelftree has explained it to me, Gnarly Dudes is aimed at a different style, more savory flavors and with shorter aging in fewer new barrels. I imagine some of the barrels selected out of Bella's could end up in the Gnarly blend, but it's a different wine.
Steve Cripe
Wisconsin —  January 6, 2013 3:54pm ET
Harvey- I just saw the 2011 Bella's retailing for $35, considerably lower than normal. I haven't, however, seen any ratings for the 2011- but overall ratings for the vintage aren't up to par with recent years. Any comments?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  January 7, 2013 1:08pm ET
Interesting, Steve. I usually don't get the Two Hands Garden Series in my tasting room until early spring. But 2011 was a very cool, weather-challenged vintage, so maybe it's lighter and they released it earlier.
Rob Hofferman
Boulder, CO —  October 18, 2016 10:34am ET
Harvey,

I've got a vertical of Bella's Garden going back to 2004 to present (2013, I think.) I've never hosted or participated in a true vertical tasting. I was wondering if using a Coravin was a good way to taste all the vintages without a) wasting any, b) inviting 10 people over or c) getting so drunk I don't remember any of them. Also, is it proper to taste oldest to youngest?

Thanks.

Rob
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  October 18, 2016 11:17am ET
The Coravin would allow you to draw a sample from each bottle without having to pull the cork, but then you will have all those bottles with significant head space (ullage). I would not want to store those for more than a few weeks. Better to invite some friends and consume most of the wine in one go, in my opinion. You could preview the wines shortly before the tasting using the Coravin and not have to worry about quick oxidation.

By the way, I opened a bottle of Lily's Garden 2004 (the McLaren Vale bottling) a few nights ago, and it was singing.

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