Shortly after Bailey Carrodus died Sept. 19 at 78, I got a message from Gavin Speight, his U.S. importer. He said that he would like to celebrate Carrodus' life by dipping into his own personal cellar to open a few of the iconoclastic winemaker's older Yarra Yering bottles. Earlier this week I met Speight, who imports some of Australia's finest and most venerable artisanal wines, at Cavallo Point, the new resort near Sausalito.
I walked in to find a long table with more than 40 wines on it, corks pulled and a forest of glasses waiting for us to taste them.
"I thought you said a few older wines," I laughed.
"Well, I started pulling out the wines and couldn't stop," he responded. "If you don't want to taste them all ... "
"Oh, no," I said quickly. "I don't have any more appointments today."
As we tasted through the wines, Speight reminisced about Carrodus, who was a seat-of-the-pants winemaker, self-taught, irascible and disdainful of modern methods. In my video, the importer recalls the vintner's cavalier approach to blending.
Yarra Yering's best-known wines are called simply Dry Red No. 1 and Dry Red No. 2. Both are blends. No. 1 is Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant, with some Malbec, Merlot and Petit Verdot. No. 2 is Shiraz, with either Viognier or Marsanne, or both. Carrodus would tell Speight different things at different times about the varietal makeup of the wines.
"I must have asked him a dozen times how much of each grape variety was in his wines," Speight recalls. "I never got a straight answer."
There seems to be no question, however, that Carrodus was the first in Australia to co-ferment a small percentage of white grapes with Shiraz, as is done in Côte-Rôtie. In the 1970s he planted his 30-acre vineyard with Cabernet and the other Bordeaux varieties, an uncommon practice in Australia at the time. In 1973 he made the first new commercial wines in Yarra Valley in more than 50 years.
He also made Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, grapes which have turned out to be the mainstays of Yarra's cool climate. And yet, the Cab and Shiraz blends were the ones that excelled.
Over the years I have had a love-hate relationship with Yarra Yering's wines. When they were good, they showed a refinement and elegance to go along with vivid fresh fruit flavors. When they were not, they were plagued with overly earthy, gamy flavors. Sometimes I thought the winemaking was suspect, but that often happens with self-taught practitioners. When they get it right, they can do something special. But they are less consistent than others.
And that is indeed what showed up in our vast tasting. The best wines make ideal table companions, full of character, with depth, style and real refinement. Others obscured their nice traits with strong whiffs of barnyard and metallic notes. Or, if the Bordeaux varieties failed to get ripe enough, the Dry Red No. 1 could veer off too strongly to the green and vegetal side.
My favorite wines of the day, tasted non-blind, were all from the most recent decade. I think a combination of vine age and better winemaking produced more complete wines without losing that essential refinement. The older wines were still alive, but age has amplified flaws without the compensating fruit of youth.
At the top of my list were three Shirazes.
The bright, vibrant and jazzy Dry Red No. 2 2002 brims with rose petal-accented raspberry, cherry, white pepper and delicate spice notes on a light and elegant frame. It's long and refined. 94 points, non-blind.
With a bit more age, the smooth and velvety Dry Red No. 2 1999 (93 points, non-blind) shows a silky edge to the raspberry and guava flavors.
Made from a neighbor's vines planted in 1980, the smooth, round and beautifully open-textured Shiraz Underhill 2001 displays gorgeous layers of perfumed blackberry, currant and coffee flavors. The finish is very long and deft. 93 points, non-blind.
Among the older Shirazes, I especially liked the Dry Red No. 2 1996. Though mature and earthy, it livens things up with a strong minty cast to the firm-textured blackberry and cherry fruit, and is crisp and zingy through the long and expressive finish. 91 points, non-blind.
My favorite among the Dry Red No. 1s was the 2002, lively and sweet, with lovely floral and savory overtones to the raspberry and guava flavors, lingering on the sharply supported finish. 92 points, non-blind. Among the older No. 1s, I really liked the bright and lively 1993. A minty note weaves through the candied strawberry and raspberry flavors, persisting impressively on the delicate finish. 91 points, non-blind.
Among the disappointments were several of the early-1990s Underhills, which had turned excessively gamy and earthy, and most of the early-1990s Pinot Noirs, which lacked vibrancy and seemed to be fading fast. I did enjoy the long and harmonious Pinot Noir 1997. Smooth and appealing for its generosity and concentration on a nicely proportioned palate, its complex nose has hints of roasted meat and spice, the plum fruit sliding in gently on the palate. 91 points, non-blind.
In 2004, Carrodus hired a winemaker, Mark Haisma. "He went to Oxford and studied botany," Speight noted, "and he is also self-taught, like Bailey. I think that's what appealed to him most, along with his background in botany. The vineyard was the most important factor for Bailey."
The future of that Yarra Yering vineyard has a bit of a cloud. The land is owned by two friends of Carrodus', and it is unclear what they intend to do with it. Given Haisma's sure hand, let's hope we will continue to enjoy the unique wines from this special place.