Australia's Peter Lehmann makes two reserve-level wines from Shiraz. The better known wine is Stonewell, which is made in limited quantities, but in most vintages I have preferred Eight Songs. Now I know why.
It has to do with the evolving style of Shiraz in Australia. Simply put, Eight Songs is the more modern style. And in coming vintages, Lehmann's U.S. importer, Hess Collection, will be emphasizing the differences. There's good news for those who share my preference, because the price on Eight Songs is dropping.
Winemaker Ian Hongell, who has responsibility for these two wines, visited me last week with some samples of unreleased vintages and an older vintage of Stonewell for comparison. As we taste the wines, he explains the differences.
"The same 20 vineyard parcels are in contention for both Stonewell and Eight Songs," Hongell begins. "They're all low-yielding vineyards that get really concentrated fruit. We choose the ones with more black currant, tar and anise seed flavors for Stonewell. The ones with more plum and mocha go into Eight Songs. It's not always the same lots from year to year."
Eight Songs represents the modern style of Barossa, with softer tannins, more fruit and less licorice in the flavor spectrum. It is more easily approachable when young, but it has plenty of density and it will develop with age. Lehmann's house style emphasizes balance and tries to keep alcohol in control. As Hongell says, "We're trying to stay away from sledgehammer qualities. We want to make wines we like to drink."
The vineyards for Stonewell and Eight Songs range in age from 15 to 120 years (old, but not the oldest in Barossa). "These are the no-brainer vineyards," Hongell laughs. "They all have a chance to make great wine unless we stuff them up in the winery."
In previous vintages, I generally rate the wines in the low 90s, often with a 1- or 2-point edge to Eight Songs even though its price tag of $55 is less than Stonewell's $75. Starting with the next release, which will be the 2002 vintage of both wines, the price on Eight Songs goes down to $35 and Stonewell goes up to $90. "We have a lot less of Stonewell to sell and it has a longer track record," says Tom Selfridge, president of Hess, who adds that the wines will be released 4 1/2 years after the vintage, a year earlier than before.
We taste the 2001, 2002 and 2003 vintages, yet to be released. Among the Stonewells, my favorite is the 2003, an extraordinarily expressive wine, swarming with tannins but long and harmonious. The '02 is corked. The '01 has impressive density and lots of pepper on the finish. Of the Eight Songs, my favorite is the 2001, singing with plummy sweetness, but the 2002 is right behind, tight and polished. The '03 feels a little hot, but it has time to grow into itself.
Then Hongell opens the 1991 Stonewell. My original notes (from 1997) speak of "a solid Barossa Shiraz, full of spice and gooey with chocolate and molasses notes. It's ripe with berry flavor that gets a little tarry on the velvety finish." I rated it 89 points.
Today, the 1991 is a bit past its prime, showing lots of brown sugar against black cherry, finishing long and harmonious but without the extra depth you get from a great Barossa Shiraz. I'd rate it the same 89 points.
Interestingly, the '91 is the only Stonewell or Eight Songs I have rated below 90 points. The wines definitely got better in the late 1990s (the '96s are especially impressive), and the upcoming vintages keep it up.