Dark clouds hang over Barossa Valley, which has seen no significant rain for months. The grapes are safely in the winery, and this mid-April afternoon holds the promise of a downpour to give the vines a much-needed drink. Stuart Bourne, the winemaker for Barossa Valley Estate, bounds across the open area between the winery and the parking lot.
"I can smell it," he grins. "We just might get some rain." All I can smell are the diesel fumes of a forklift carrying barrels, but some better aromas await me inside. Bourne has set up a vertical tasting of BVE's flagship wine, the redoubtable Shiraz E&E Black Pepper. It has made it into the Wine Spectator Top 100 twice: the 1996 vintage at No. 7 in 1999, and the 2002 at No. 21 in 2005. I haven't rated a single vintage below 90 points since 1994.
Begun as a cooperative of some 70 growers in Barossa Valley, BVE named the wine after the original old-vine Shiraz blocks (Elmore and Elaine) that were the core of the early vintages. Those blocks remain in the blend, joined by others in the same neighborhood with vines at least 60 years old, mostly on the northeast side of Barossa (across the highway from most of the activity, for those who know the region).
As a result, E&E has a distinctive personality. The flavors run toward dark fruits, often cherry and plum, with noticeable floral and spice notes, including licorice and, yes, black pepper. The texture in the best vintages is plush, but it seldom gets overwhelmingly alcoholic or veers off into the dry-fruit range. A classic E&E is seamless.
In the run of 12 bottled vintages and two barrel samples I tried, the two best are still the ones that made the Top 100.
Great intensity and supple texture characterize the utterly seamless 1996, pure plum and currant at the center, but waves of other nuances lapping at the edges. The texture is plush and elegant, and it feels like it has miles to go before its life is over. I rate it 97 points, non-blind, this time (97 on release).
The acidity that makes the vintage so special is evident in the 2002, which manages to be big, ripe and rich against a juicy, tangy background. I find black cherry and milk chocolate notes in the dense harmony of flavors. I go to 97 point, non-blind, this time, which duplicates the published score.
The oldest wine, 1988, feels a bit crisp, too, but the nose is opulent with roasted fruit, spice and caramel, a truly complex older wine. The tannins have gotten gritty, though, so it needs some rich food to soften it. 90 points, non-blind.
Unfortunately, the 1990 and 1991 are not good bottles, the '91 clearly corky and the '90 tight and hard, with the fruit fading. I would rate the 1990 83 points, non-blind.
1998, the ripest vintage of the 90s, carries savory, dry-fruit notes to balance the dense savory flavors that well up in the mouth. Hints of roasted meat and dried rosemary add interest. 94 points, non-blind (95 on release).
1999 has impressive density and richness, with hints of red fruits among the cherries and plums, showing chewy tannins now that fruit has started its slow fade. 91 points, non-blind (91 on release).
2000 has plenty to offer, but the opulence of its youth has been replaced with firm texture, chunky tannins and a sort of wildness. Layers of green olive and black pepper weave through the plum flavors. 91 points, non-blind (95 on release).
2001 is also chewy, but it has tremendous depth, mingling cherry and dark chocolate flavors, finishing long, with sweet fruit echoing in the mouth. 94 points, non-blind (93 on release).
2003 has rich fruit but chalky tannins and crisp texture keep it from liftoff. Still, the cherry and chocolate flavors beguile. 90 points, non-blind (releasing in the U.S. later this year).
2004 has gorgeous fruit, with a floral component to the succulent cherry and plum flavors, and that signature hint of black pepper on the finish. Has the style, character and seamless qualities to be a classic.
2005 could be the best yet. Dense and opulent, it balances its extraordinarily ripe fruit with welcome acidity, hinting at leather on the long and expressive finish.
From barrel, 2006 seems like a step back, not quite as dense as the 2004 or 2005, but it has ripeness and presence with blackberry and plum fruit. A barrel sample of the newly minted 2007 suggests that it will be a better vintage.
E&E is an Australian classic, and best of all, Constellation Brands, which now owns the winery and label, keeps the price around $85. Other wines this good sell for much more. A second wine, called Ebenezer, made from lots not quite up to the E&E level, now sells for $35 and can top out in the low 90s. It doesn't quite have the longevity of E&E, but the 1996, which I rated 92 points on release, still shows plenty of ripe cherry flavor and some elegance, its original peppery notes turning to tar and licorice. I rated it 89 points, non-blind, this time (92 originally). Watch out for the 2005; it's only a couple of steps behind the E&E.
BVE's basic Shiraz, which had been called Spires, has been renamed E Minor for the 2005 vintage, to be released in the U.S. later this year. At $12, its chipper red fruit flavors and bright balance make a welcome everyday red.
As I emerge from the winery in the late afternoon gloom, the tarmac glistens with newly fallen—well, we can't call it rain, but it's a light spray of moisture from the sky. Later in the evening, actual rain falls. A happy finish to an impressive tasting.