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Looking back at Two Hands' Ares

After a dozen vintages, this Australian Shiraz has the goods

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Aug 22, 2014 11:30am ET

To make great red wine, you can find a great patch of dirt and, when the vines mature, fine-tune the winemaking process to bring out the best in the grapes. That's the formula for great Burgundy and single-vineyard wines everywhere.

Or you can use a range of vineyard sources, choosing the best of them and, with careful winemaking, produce something spectacular. That's how many great Champagnes are crafted. Also, a pretty good bottle from Australia called Penfold's Grange.

A third approach combines elements of both. Here, the vintner selects the best barrels from his cellar, rather than always going to certain vineyards, to make a blend of stature, depth and complexity. Many New World wineries rely on this option. The flexibility it offers has an added benefit: It tends to find the best possibilities in poorer vintages. This may confound the terroir-minded among us, but it improves the odds for a better wine to drink with dinner or for a special occasion.

One wine that exemplifies the great potential of barrel selection is Ares, the flagship Shiraz of Australia's Two Hands winery.

Owner Michael Twelftree explained his approach. Before bottling, he and his winemakers methodically taste through all 1,800 to 2,200 barrels in the winery. "We do 100 a day, tasting double blind. We don't even know the variety," he said. "We give every barrel a score from A-plus to D-minus. We take it very seriously, because the score determines how much the growers get paid and where each barrel will go."

B and B-minus barrels are used in the Picture Series (some of which are stunning, such as Sexy Beast, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and Yesterday's Hero, a Grenache), which sells for less than $50. A and A-minus barrels make up the Garden Series (including Bella's Garden, consistently outstanding), which sells for $65 to $80. The A-plus barrels go to Ares, priced at $199.

I recently had a chance to blind-taste all 12 finished and bottled vintages of Ares with Twelftree at Aspen's Casa Tua restaurant, with the help of sommelier Jill Zimorski.

"My model for Ares is consistency," he noted, as Zimorski poured the first round of five glasses. "I've never tasted all these wines together, blind. I want to see if there is a thumbprint, and how well it ages."

My answer is that yes, there is a thumbprint. And it has aged very well. The first vintage, 2001, was among my favorites, sweet and silky, with animal and earthy overtones to the plum and berry flavors, open and expressive. That plum note stood out as a signature element for me, recurring in most vintages with cherry, sometimes with blackberry or raspberry. In most there was also a presence of mineral flavors as well. Big, but not massive, these wines have an open texture, a sense of elegance and a touch of softness in a muscular package.

Three ringers, well-known Shiraz wines from the same regions hidden in the tasting, underlined differences with Ares' style. A blueberry flavor (not plum) and smoky overtones (not mineral) turned out to be Runrig 2003, which otherwise had similar structure. Another, a bit less dense, suffused its plum character with more mint and garrigueHill of Grace 2009. A complex, elegant wine, tighter than the others, was Grange 2008.

Other top vintages of Ares in this tasting earned "classic" ratings from me (as they did on release). The fresh, vibrant 2008 added peppery and feral notes to the fruit and mineral character. The rich, juicy and very long 2007 picked up additional spices on the finish. And the explosively flavorful 2012 (not yet released) was extraordinarily well-balanced for its youth.

Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  August 22, 2014 5:15pm ET
From my notes, when I opened an Ares 2005 this July: "...delicious upon opening, plum/blackberry preserves, dense yet poised… but after a couple hours the red cherry pie filling came rushing out with a sweetness that seemed impossible. Mouthfilling, intense, juicy beyond belief, where the flavors kept up intensity on the endless fiinish."

Did I gush too much? LOL ... as you can plainly tell, LOVED IT. Send any promotional bottles to my home address, .... ;-)
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  August 22, 2014 6:39pm ET
Sounds like it passed muster, Dan. The '05 was one of my favorites too.
Mark A Howard
Yorba Linda, CA —  August 24, 2014 8:33pm ET
Harvey you did not comment though on the 05 in your piece..where did that rate and what type of drinking position is it in
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  August 24, 2014 9:12pm ET
None of the wines I tasted had reached the "must drink" stage. The 05 was just beginning to show some mature-wine character. Full tasting notes are in process of editing for the database.
Ronnie Sanders
Philly —  August 25, 2014 8:20am ET
I had the 99 last week and it stilled showed really well.
David Peters
Mission Viejo, CA —  August 27, 2014 1:05pm ET
Harvey: Sorry this is off-topic, but why haven't you posted any new reviews of Washington red wines for so long ?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  August 27, 2014 1:18pm ET
There were Washington reds reviewed in the July and August issues. (There were none in the September issue.) I am tasting a lot more Washington reds this week.
John Richardson
Bloomfield hills, Mi usa —  August 28, 2014 10:59am ET
we opened a bottle of the 07 ares about a year ago because the cork was leaking. Just outstanding, I had to go and buy 3 more bottles which I'm holding. The 1st bottle was a gift and based on other bottles was probably not stored well and might explain why it drank so well early. Clearly one of my all time favorite wines
Wilfred Wong
San Francisco,CA, USA —  August 29, 2014 12:37pm ET
Hi Harvey,
I always enjoy your pieces on Australian wines. I met and tasted with Michael recently in our offices in SF FiDi and the wines he poured were really delicious. His story was pretty awesome too. Good to see you so active in this area of the wine kingdom.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  November 11, 2014 11:29pm ET
Hurvey - when/where are your notes about this Ares vertical going to be posted?
Bin 94 Wines
Salisbury Mills, NY, USA —  April 2, 2015 2:30pm ET
Harvey, I am very envious. Recently had a bottle of the '05 Ares, and can only say it was one of the greatest wine experiences ever. Big and rich, blackberry jam and dark chocolate, but the best thing about it was that it just grew and grew in the glass. Even when, sadly, the bottle was empty, my glass had new aromas that just continued the Ares experience. This is a magnificent wine.
Kenneth Sternberg
Fort Lauderdale, Florida —  November 27, 2016 3:51pm ET
Dear Mr. Steiman I was wondering if you perhaps knew if there is a difference between Barossa Valley and Barossa Valley/McLaren Vale. Seems the 2006 Two Hands Ares has Barossa Valley/McLaren Vale on the back label and my 2007 Two Hands Ares just has Barossa Valley?

Thank you for your time, Ken Sternberg
P.S. I enjoy your writing.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  November 27, 2016 10:22pm ET
Kenneth, thanks for your comment. Since Ares is a barrel selection, it may come from different vineyards in different vintages. For the 2007 vintage all the barrels selected had wines from Barossa Valley, and in 2006 the barrels selected had wines made from both Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale. The label simply reflects that.

The first five vintages were all Barossa Valley. From 2006 it’s been a blend of Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale (except for 2008, which was labeled Adelaide because it included wines from other regions in the blend).

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