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Tasting Tahbilk with Alister Purbrick

Noble Shiraz, but the whites made from Marsanne are the head-turners
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 22, 2014 10:00am ET

Château Tahbilk, the winery estate in central Victoria's Goulburn Valley, dates from the 19th century. It's been in the Purbrick family since 1925, known for Shiraz from old vines, some dating to 1860. Alister Purbrick, the fourth generation, has run the estate (now at 120,000 cases) since 1979. He brought a series of mini-verticals for me to taste in San Francisco.

My first acquaintance with the Tahbilk Shiraz wines dates from the early 1980s, when I first got interested in Australian wine. Then the aromatics many of the Aussie Shirazes I tried reminded more of leather than fruit. Tahbilk was no exception until about 10 years ago.

"It took a while for my awareness of brettanomyces to lead me to do things to control it," Alister said as we sampled a lovely series of the basic estate Shiraz. The new 2010 had a hint of pepper and char around blackberry at the core. A 1999 showed even more freshness, but also had leather and spice notes. The better of two mildly cork-tainted 1986 bottles was pretty funky from brett, too.

The 1860 Vines bottling, the winery's signature wine, showed beautiful blackberry and currant fruit at the core in 2007, harmonious and long. A 1996 had minty overtones, but real clarity to the plum-based flavor profile, hefty but balanced, long, really elegant. Enticing older wine flavors in a 1986 competed with dense tannins. "In the 80s I didn't have as good an understanding of Tahblik tannins and how it reflects in the wine," Purbrick said.

As good as these reds were, the whites showed more distinction and personality for me. Marsanne, the primary grape, is made in a style that rewards aging. The basic estate bottling, light and tangy with just a hint of wax on the finish in 2011, shows more lanolin quality in 2007, although the acidity sticks out a bit. Best was the 2004, which had turned soft and sleek and showed ripe pear fruit. This comes from aging in the bottle. The young wines are quite citrusy. The winery holds back 25 percent of the production to release at five years.

The same sort of thing happens with the 1927 Vines bottling. Approaching a century in age, these 16 acres of vines showcase what Marsanne can do. Sleek and soft, the 2005 has sneaky acidity to tang it up, with lemon curd and floral notes. Even better, the 2003, tangier yet, sings with grapefruit and lanolin flavors and a hint of caramel on the expressive finish. My wine of tha day.

The good news is that these whites are not expensive. A 10-year-old 1927 Vines goes for $34 and the 5-year-old Museum Release of the estate Marsanne, $23. If you want to age it yourself, it's $15. All now bottled under twist-offs. Hallelujah for that.

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