Conclusions from the tasting:
To anybody who cares about older wine, this Library Tasting was an eye-opener. Fifty-year-old Australian reds are not seen very frequently, in New Zealand. Only a handful of the participants had tasted Australian wines this old. For the better wines, the nett quality still evident in the glass was astonishing. Tasters seemed thrilled with what they found: at the tidying-up stage, it was remarkable how many of the glasses were empty.
This photo under tungsten has enhanced the reds a little, the wines on the night being somewhat lighter, and the hues showing rather more garnet. The nett impression was appealing. Numbering from front left to back right, wine 8, the 1969 Orlando Bin Hermitage, is right in the middle for depth. Wine 6, the Hardy’s Cabernet Sauvignon is (unexpectedly) the lightest, and wine 3, 1968 Stonyfell Metala, the deepest. Wine 10, the second to lightest under a white light, is 1969 Chateau Tahbilk Shiraz, wine 11 is the same winery’s 1969 Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 52, while wine 12 is 1969 Seppelt Hermitage / Cabernet Bin EC4, for me the top wine of the tasting.
This tasting represented something of a personal odyssey. Most of these wines I had bought by the case, at release, and in earlier years was well-familiar with them. Along with the 1964 and 1966 bordeaux, and the 1966 and 1969 burgundies, they set my palate, at a time when New Zealand wine (with a couple of Hawkes Bay exceptions) was not worth buying or drinking. To see some of these at-the-time better Australian wines lined up in one batch so many years later was simply thrilling, for some of the wines were even then quite rare, in New Zealand. Some of the labels tasted are now rare even in Australia, not least because doctrinaire Australian winewriters with little experience of (nor it seems, interest in) old wines, have gone out of their way in past years to say the wines were ‘over the hill’. For example, for the four top wines below, Bradley in his 1993 edition opines that two were past their best then, that is, 26 years ago, and the other two are not even worth listing. Sad.
Thus a word or two to those too ready to discard older bottles, without carefully tasting them, when the fill level is well into the shoulder. In general, any carefully-cellared bottle will prove to be in good condition until the fill level is around or fractionally below mid-shoulder. This amounts to approximately 700 ml of wine remaining, or a loss of 6.5% of the original liquid volume (nominally 750 ml). The numbers can only be an indication, since bottle shapes vary infinitely in detail. Below that point, luck more and more decides the outcome. I realise that for burgundy-shaped bottles, determining where the shoulder is, is near impossible. Accordingly, the fill level from base of cork to top of the wine is given for each wine, below.
The fact that so much wine can evaporate from a bottle, and (provided the retreat of the wine extends over decades) the wine does not deteriorate despite the presumed ingress of oxygen, is one of the outstanding mysteries of wine science. Why supervising staff in University Wine Science departments are not guiding, indeed urging, PhD candidates with organic chemistry into researching this unresolved and puzzling field of wine study is absolutely beyond my comprehension.
All these bottles were purchased at their original release. They have been cellared in near-ideal conditions, in the decidedly temperate climate of Wellington, New Zealand. All bottles were ‘original’, with their original corks.
Specific advice of this rare, even historic, Australian Library Tasting in Wellington, New Zealand, was provided to the Australian Embassy in Wellington, complete with some detail. There was no detectable personal response or interest, and nobody attended. It is not only the New Zealand wine industry, it would seem, which takes no interest in its history.
In the Invitation, I suggested a reflective / contemplative approach, to best enjoy this tasting. That was to emphasise both the very different wines of the era, but also to gently underline the fact that some of these wines are now at full stretch … or even written off by ‘right-thinking’ people … so some tolerance may be needed, to enjoy them today. In the 1960s, the wine world in Australia and New Zealand was dramatically different from now, and the winestyles were thus different to a degree. Australia however had the immense advantage of always having had a vinifera wine industry, so Australian winemakers did not suddenly have to learn what proper wine tasted like, unlike New Zealand.
In the 1950s and 1960s, some of the most famous names in Australian wine were still practising wineries. The near-destruction of the long-established 100-year-old artisan side of the wine industry by profit-seeking corporates had not yet started. But even so, it was a different world. Like Europe, big old wood still played an important role in red-wine elevation. New small oak had been experimented with since the earliest 1950s, but for the first decade it was American white oak almost entirely, it being much cheaper.
At that time, as in New Zealand, cabernet sauvignon was almost unknown, except at Coonawarra. Shiraz, then called Hermitage, was the mainstay of the Australian red wine industry. But in the early 1950s, some progressive winemakers were planting cabernet, and by the later 1950s and early 1960s, cabernet sauvignon reds started to appear. And then followed the excitement of realising that the Bordeaux model for cabernet sauvignon was raised solely in French oak. Progressively throughout the 1960s, more and more labels proudly spoke of ‘new French oak’.
Our wines date from 1967 through to 1969, so they are all 50 years old, or older. They include some of the most famous wine-names of the day, long before the plethora of specialist boutique winegrowers appeared. We do not have the rarest and finest wines of the era: by and large they did not reach New Zealand. [ I have put aside a Penfolds Grange in our timespan, for a Penfolds retrospective tasting.] And there were not the specialist wine importers, then. The best wines then tended to come from the established wineries.
Among our wines, perhaps the very highly regarded Lindeman’s 4-figure Bin wines from the long-established and then-famous Hunter Valley region were at the time the most famous, and are amongst the most sought-after now at auction (after Grange). Some of our other labels had had brilliant pre-cursor wines, when they were small-production almost experimental wines, but within 10 years, as production volumes increased, the wines never quite re-captured their early reclame. Both the Hardys C-series Cabernet Sauvignons and the Mildara Coonawarra labels come into this category. For the Mildara, none moreso than the famous 1963 Mildara ‘Peppermint Pattie’ Cabernet Sauvignon, tasted in this room a few years ago. But ours are still a clear pointer to the winestyles of the times.
As in New Zealand, public interest in these older wines has suddenly picked up, at auction. Prices are firming markedly. At the same time, except for the most dedicated producers (apparent in the reviews), corks then tended to be both short, and of indifferent quality. Once these wines reach 35 – 40 years old, the corks are (in general) on their last legs. Most of our bottles show some ullage, but in my experience the levels should still be workable. There are back-up bottles for some, and spare wines.
Due to time constraints, this is not a detailed examination of the wines of the era. With the exception of the first item, the main reference works for Australian wines of the 1960s are:
Bradley, Robin, 1993: Australian and New Zealand Wine Vintages. Eleventh Edition, Nepenthe Publications, no page numbers.
Evans, Len, 1973: Australia and New Zealand Complete Book of Wine. Paul Hamlyn, Australia, 528 p.
Evans, Len, 1978: Complete Book of Australian Wine. Third Edition, Paul Hamlyn, Australia, 512 p.
Halliday, James, 1985: The Australian Wine Compendium. Angus & Robertson, 576 p.
Halliday, James, 2002: Classic Wines of Australia and New Zealand. Third Edition, Harper-Collins, 386 p.
Lake, Max, 1966: Classic Wines of Australia. The Jacaranda Press, 134 p. (Reprinted 1967, twice)
THE WINES REVIEWED:
In the original Invitation I scheduled the 12 wines I hoped to include in the tasting. I went on to say that corks (and especially then) being what they are, the likelihood of them all opening well was low, so a fall-back six wines were listed. In the event, only the 1969 Orlando Barossa Cabernet had to be rejected, due to TCA. A clean bottle would have been in the top half of the tasting. A second bottle, also from Orlando, showed low-level TCA impairment, but was kept in the tasting: see notes. No websites are given, since in Australia very few wineries give information on wines of this age.
Values given are wine-searcher, which in general does not even acknowledge these wines exist. The limitations of the consumer society. Current auction realisations for Australian wines of this age and type (and in good condition, ullage still well up shoulder, or just touching base neck) currently range from $40-ish to several hundred dollars. Recent sales indicate a firming trend, for wines of this kind. In the notes below, both an impression and an exact measurement of the ullage is given. For a burgundy-shaped bottle, defining where the neck turns into the shoulder can only be by hunch. Hence I have given a measurement from the meniscus to the base of the cork.
The top six wines of the tasting. From the left: 1968 Mildara Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon, still rich, dark and assertive, a wine of its times, 17.5; 1969 Orlando Bin Hermitage, delightfully subtle with even a hint of syrah, 17.5 +; 1969 Saltram Mamre Brook, less bouquet but supple and mellow, 18; 1969 Chateau Tahbilk Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 52, browning cassis and fragrant cedar, the most popular wine, 18; 1969 Chateau Tahbilk Shiraz (the standard wine), almost ethereal, reminders of both Cote de Nuits and fading Hermitage, very un-Australian, 18 +; and the surprise of the night, 1969 Seppelt Hermitage / Cabernet Bin No EC4, perfect maturity, beautiful bouquet, lingering fruit and harmony on palate, a delight, 18.5.
Ruby and garnet, clearly a flush of red still, the third to lightest wine. Bouquet shows a lovely harmony of ripe berry browning now, the subtlest hint of Australian flowering mint (Prostanthera), almost detectable fading cassis in red berries, plus faintly cedary and totally complementary oak. Palate continues the harmony in a manner astonishing for Australian reds of the era, the palate light yet long, almost cabernet-dominant, the oak subtle yet sustained and of a quality that suggests some French, yet the wine finishes on berry which is remarkably fresh and flavoursome for its age. In its youth my recollection is the degree of toast on the oak was more apparent, but now the balance is remarkable. The qualities which this wine shows today are rare in Australian reds from the 1960s. Few 1969 Bordeaux could compete, it being a weak year there, and further, the shiraz does add body. One of the four most popular wines, three first places, three second. Totally mature now, but not frail, when cellared in a cool Wellington climate. The Stuyvesant House restaurant in Sydney has the 1973 of this label on their list at $AU290. Ullage base of cork to top of wine, 36 mm. GK 04/19
Garnet and ruby, the second to lightest wine. The bouquet of this wine is light but astonishing for its purity, its elegance, the faintest flowering mint, and ghostly berry, more like a 50-year-old Cote de Nuits wine than 1960s Australian shiraz. The joy of the bouquet apart from its exquisite purity, is virtually no oak, yet undoubtedly it would not be a fraction so enchanting had it not been in big wood. The wine totally comes to life in mouth, beautiful oaking, aromatic berry and red fruit still astonishingly fresh, and amazing length for a wine so light in hue. In one sense it is hard to imagine how this could be better (and it is astonishingly Northern Rhone in style, age for age), but it is true to say only an experienced wine person would tease out its attributes today, so perhaps just a little more on bouquet would make it gold medal level. One of the four most popular wines, two first places, and four second, and importantly, no leasts. Tasters accurately identified this as shiraz. Totally mature to fading now, when cellared in a cool climate. A replacement bottle for the TCA-affected 1969 Orlando Barossa Cabernet (which otherwise would have rated well). Ullage base of cork to top of wine, 33 mm. GK 04/19
Garnet and ruby, just below midway in depth. This wine opened in an interesting way symptomatic of a red wine at full stretch, at one moment smelling faded, at the next clear browning berry, and yet when you went back to it, quite different again, with for example enticing brown sautéed portobello mushrooms showing. Unlike the top three wines, it was more clearly (but not too much so) Australian in character, suggestions of the characteristic boysenberry of over-ripe shiraz noticeable, but the whole wine not too oaky. Palate has delightful richness, length and balance, not too weighty, but again the fading fruit / berry flavours pointing to shiraz rather than the syrah the Tahbilk hints at. The cabernet component is hard to identify, but presumably adds to the finesse and high rating of the wine. The length of the browning berry and its dominance over oak is attractive. Two first places, and one second. Fully mature, not a great cork, so we were lucky. The Stuyvesant House restaurant in Sydney has the 1986 of this label on their list at $AU120. Ullage base of cork to top of wine, 53 mm. GK 04/19
Garnet and ruby, above midway in depth. This is not the standard wine labelled simply ‘Chateau Tahbilk Cabernet’, but one of the rare numbered Bin wines, with ‘Cabernet Sauvignon’ spelt out in full. Unlike the Tahbilk Shiraz, this wine was very fragrant, with a clear top note of aromatic flowering mint to about the maximum that might be regarded as positive, but happily avoiding menthol / euc’y notes. Below is aromatic clearly cassisy but browning berry, and cedary oak. Palate has a cassisy delicacy and alcohol balance which is ripe-year bordeaux, good sustained berry which is beautifully fine-grained, with near-cedary oak which must have included some newish French, though Tahbilk was not regarded as having any or much, in those days. It is the aromatic lift and freshness in this wine (not VA) that made it so exciting, coupled with it not being a 'warm-climate' wine. In popular terms, the most highly favoured wine on the night, four first places, two second, the newish oak speaking, maybe. Fully mature, but one of the better corks, so no great hurry. Ullage base of cork to top of wine, 46 mm. GK 04/19
Garnet and ruby, midway in depth. This wine was slightly TCA-impaired (noted by half the tasters), but I left it in due to the interesting handling of the fruit. Bouquet has a fresh aromatic quality to it almost pointing to syrah, suggesting one of those cooler seasons in the Barossa Valley which at that time, Australian wine people wrote off, but tasters from more temperate climates were specifically attracted to. On both bouquet and palate there is a freshness to the dark fruits again hinting at the cassis of fine syrah, rather than the boysenberry of (then) habitually over-ripened Australian shiraz. On palate, fruit and berry dominate all the way through, oak being fresh but never dominant. I would love to see a ‘clean’ bottle of this wine, but sadly this was the last of the case. A very interesting Australian wine, perhaps a remarkable one. Ullage base of cork to top of wine, 61 mm. GK 04/19
Garnet and ruby, just a hint of amber to the edge. It is hard now to recollect just how sought-after this wine was in those days. And still today there is a sizeable bouquet, with a lot going on. There is now almost a hint of the flowering mint that made the 1963 of this label so famous, but then a lot of ‘brown’ notes including caramel, licorice, and a lot of still-charry oak. Behind all that though, you can see browning cassis, which is in a sense surprisingly ‘fresh’ – in its way. You wonder a great deal what on earth it will taste like, such mixed signals on bouquet. Palate is rich and strong, an amazing volume of ripe to over-ripe browning cassisy berry pointing to high actual cabernet, plus dark toasty oak still very prominent / overly prominent, even if time has mellowed the tannin aggression. The wine is a long way from Bordeaux, and reflects to perfection the Australian love affair with the newly discovered French oak of the time, but you have to reward the nett achievement. And time is finally lending this big bold wine a kind of sturdy harmony, and a very long finish in which added acid is not too obtrusive. The 1963 had a much better balance of fruit to oak, but this is still a clear reminder of that remarkable wine. One of the four most popular wines, more reflecting traditional Australian big reds, two first places, four second. Fully mature, but one of the better corks, so no hurry at all. The Stuyvesant House restaurant in Sydney has the 1991 of this label on their list at $AU115. Ullage base of cork to top of wine, 33 mm. GK 04/19
Ruby and garnet (markedly redder than the Mildara, showing how much that wine is oak-influenced, yet this Kaiser Stuhl was nearly four years in barrel), one of the deeper wines. Bouquet is big: big berry, big ripeness, big oak probably American, plus threshold VA, which it has had since bottling. The boysenberry shiraz is markedly browning now, but there is a lot of it. Palate emphasises the ripeness / over-ripeness and big oak, with almost coffee touches in the vanillin and char, yet the fruit is rich and in one sense refreshed by the VA, plus there is a certain attractive lightness on tongue relative to the Mildara, the Metala, or Philip. Flavour is long and well-married, in the rich over-ripe tending boysenberry style of the times. Final impression is one of intrigue. Two people rated this their top wine, and one second place. Fully mature, and a miracle it survived, given the shameful 38 mm cork. The Stuyvesant House restaurant in Sydney has the 1982 of this label on their list at $AU160. Ullage base of cork to top of wine, 52 mm. GK 04/19
Ruby and garnet, clearly red, the deepest wine unsurprisingly, since it was enormously deep in youth. The bouquet is delightfully pure, and now (at last) retreating from being huge and elephantine to just being very rich, very ripe, a lot of browning glacé figs and boysenberry fruit, quite an aromatic lift verging on euc'y, lots of sunshine and raisins, but not oppressive. In mouth the berry richness is still amazing, and here you can (in a way) taste the cabernet, just a hint of darkly-cassisy, markedly browning, fine-grained flavour in big ripe to over-ripe berry. There is noticeable oak, including some new maybe, but it is well in balance with the rich fruit. The whole wine is now finally marrying up into a rich sturdy harmony, finishing on milk chocolate and boysenberries, Australian to a fault. It has another 20 years of cellar life ahead of it, if the corks allow. In this particular bottle, though the cork was only 46 mm in length, it was a superb fit, the top third of the cork still dry and unstained, ullage the least in the set, and the fill level still well into the neck. I hope it is representative of the bottling as a whole. It is worth noting that in the 1960s, Stonyfell Metala was seen (and priced) as a top or premium Australian wine, much praised by Max Lake in his 1966 review. In style and ripeness it reflected the contemporary wisdom of the day, but it was the cropping rate / concentration back then that made it rare. In subsequent decades it became far more commercial. One second-place vote. The Stuyvesant House restaurant in Sydney has the 1994 of this label on their list at $AU150. Ullage base of cork to top of wine, 25 mm. GK 04/19
Ruby and garnet, in the middle for depth. Bouquet is clean and ‘sweet’, in one sense unchanged from its aroma at release. At that point it was highly cabernet, but in the over-ripe style of the times, it was all deep carmine blackberry, no cassis at all. And today it is now all browning blackberry, but remarkably fragrant in its style, and the berry in good ratio to the oak. Palate is even ‘sweeter’, suffused with this over-ripe berry flavour, all simple and tending to blackberry ice-cream and vanilla, but age is now lending a certain dignity. And the oaking is sophisticated for the times, nicely balanced through the later palate, fragrant and clean. Cork quality is good and the length 50 mm, so there is no hurry at all with this wine. It just lacks the cooler bordeaux-like hints the 1964, for example, showed, being more a prisoner of the warm Australian climate. No ratings, solely because it was placed first in the line up, as a good introductory wine to the set. The Stuyvesant House restaurant in Sydney has the 1976 of this label on their list at $AU$210. Ullage base of cork to top of wine, 27 mm. GK 04/19
Rosy light ruby and garnet, glowing, the lightest wine. Bouquet is light but lovely, fragrant, clearly browning cassis in a cool-climate and ethereal way, hints of brown pipe tobacco, very light nearly cedary oak, some mulberry too, all beautifully balanced and subtle on bouquet. It is a running mate for the 1969 Tahbilk Shiraz. Palate however is a bit of a shock, the total acid being extraordinarily high for the body of the wine, and the cassisy notes dramatically tapering away to a nearly stalky interaction with the acid. It is a vivid contrast to the Wynns 1968, it being hard to imagine how McLaren Vale cabernet sauvignon could seem so under-ripe, in the same season. Nonetheless, with appropriate food, this would still be a refreshing light cabernet-styled wine: the mark rewards the good aspects of the wine, and the style with respect to oak, which is forward-looking for its day. Others shared my view, three top ratings, and two second places. Six tasters however rated it their least wine, underlining how personal wine appreciation and ranking can be. Fully mature to fading now, but an interesting and historic bottle, this whole wonderful series of C-series Hardy's Cabernet Sauvignons soon to be only a fond memory. The Stuyvesant House restaurant in Sydney has later somewhat related Hardy Cabernet Sauvignons on their list, starting at $AU133. Ullage base of cork to top of wine, 45 mm. GK 04/19
Garnet and ruby, one of the lightest wines. Bouquet is time-travel, back to when the Hunter Valley was famous for its soft, fragrant, vaguely burgundy-style but all too often leathery red-fruited shirazes. From a trans-Tasman viewpoint, it seems safe to say that these distinctive Hunter reds enjoyed a fame and reputation in Sydney which informed wine opinion elsewhere in Australia did not quite so wholeheartedly endorse. But then, I've never tasted a great Maurice O'Shea shiraz. And there must have been beautiful examples of this style, in cooler years when the wines were unencumbered by the trace reduction so frequent then, given no refrigeration in wineries. Palate in this wine is chamois-leather soft, beautifully balanced, fading raspberry fruit much browning now, exquisitely oaked – but too leathery. Fully mature now, in a cool Wellington cellar. Two tasters rated this the top wine of the set, and two their second favourite: great to see a rare and now historic bottle being enjoyed for its absolute typicité. The Stuyvesant House restaurant in Sydney has the 1980 of this series on their list at $AU320. Ullage base of cork to top of wine, 59 mm. GK 04/19
Ruby and garnet, the second deepest wine. Bouquet is complex, hard to describe, quite big and rich, still with a dark tarry quality plus a slightly carbolic edge, on big leathery darkly berried and browning fruit. There is trace eucalyptus too, so the whole wine retains much of its former big and distinctive styling. In mouth it is finally lightening up somewhat. The tarry notes bespeaking earlier complex reduction with mercaptans are retreating, and the very leathery fruit now has a lot more to say. Oaking is clean and aromatic, more noticeable than many Hunter reds, perhaps reflecting the fact that in 1969 the other red varieties were blended into this single bottling for the year. It is packed in a claret-shaped bottle, but my recollection is, all Mount Pleasant wines even including the Pinot and Old Paddock Hermitage were at that time in claret bottles. The fruit fades in mouth, and the leather and older oak stand firm, so the final impression is back to the tarry notes on bouquet. This is ’distinctive Hunter character’ with a vengeance, which people either love or loathe: two second places, but five least. Fully mature now. The Stuyvesant House restaurant in Sydney has the 1990 of this label on their list at $AU190. Ullage base of cork to top of wine, 59 mm. GK 04/19