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 garrigue—Hill 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.