Tag Archives: Nebbiolo

Wonky Canberra Angle

Bryan Martin is a brainy sort. It speaks volumes that the high-IQ winery where he does his real job has this this to say about him: “He brings wisdom and intellect to the question we constantly ask ourselves at Clonakilla: ‘What can we do to make better wine?’” The cool thing is that the wines Martin makes under his Ravensworth label are first and foremost a sensual, rather than cerebral, affair.
His background as a chef, a profession he practised until 1997, helps explain his heightened sense of a wine’s tactile and savoury qualities, as does his authorship of a Canberra Times food column (so yes, both my prose and palate are under the microscope when he reads this). “When Tim (Kirk, Clonakilla chief) and I taste wine, Tim always talks about aromatics and I always talk about the flavour and shape of the palate,” he tells me. “For me what happens with texture is the most important thing. I’m always thinking about how we can modify texture and what we can do next year to influence the shape.”
And Martin’s using his head rather than inputs to answer those questions. He adds no yeast, bacteria, enzymes or nutrients to the wine, while the cool, high vineyards of the Canberra District chip in with essential acidity. Not everything is a riddle, though. He plays it straight and pristine with his Riesling, which in 2012 fended off more than 400 competitors from six countries to be crowned best wine of show at the Canberra International Riesling Challenge. The Shiraz Viognier is likewise made in the mould of the peerless Clonakilla – cofermented fruit, 20% to 30% whole bunches, three to four week maceration and a preference for puncheons (30% new oak) for maturation.
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Aside from those regional classics “anything else is fair game for experimentation” – and grape skins are a key part of the puzzle. “A lot of places don’t think of skins at all, but I love this idea of soaks and macerations with whites and reds,” he says. Take the Chardonnay for example: the 2013 was made in two separate parcels, the first with 24 hours’ skin contact and the second fermented with 50% whole bunches and on skins for about 14 days. When I tasted the wines I couldn’t bring myself to cut short the sensation of its delicate folds furling and unfurling across the palate, like sun-dappled lace billowing in the breeze. Yeah, I know he’s a writer and he’ll read this; I’ll bear the shame of that sentence because it’s true.
Martin, who lives with wife Jocelyn and their three children on a 650m-high vineyard in Murrumbateman, began working at Clonakilla in 2004 after six-odd years studying viticulture and wine science at Charles Sturt University. It all adds up to a solid platform from which to launch experiments, especially when you chuck in his employer’s well-appointed winery. Martin also seems to relish a bit of mental sparring, bouncing ideas off a visiting Kiwi and Israeli during vintage 2014 and finding himself “very much at home” among the wide-horizoned winefolk of Sydney’s Rootstock festival, where he hosted a session on hunter-gathering. “If you’re not careful you can get insular in your own winery,” he says. “Just by tweaking and playing around at the edges, you can find something that can fine-tune a wine. I’m just really happy to have the time and the interest to go ahead and try things out. I’m always playing around with food and I’m inclined to do the same with winemaking.”

Ravensworth The Grainery 2013 Murrumbateman

A field blend from Martin’s own vineyard comprising Marsanne, Roussanne, Chardonnay, Viognier, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Traminer and Sauvignon Blanc. “The idea is a Rhone blend with some aromatics to give it lift and acid. I’ve tried to make a style based on varieties, not techniques.”
Clear pale lemon, fairly pronounced on the nose with grass and nettles prominent; beyond these are murmurs of citrus and orchard fruits, with no one voice rising above the rest. From a juicy, lemony attack it broadens as white stone fruits and citrus fan out on the mid-palate, the zesty acidity working to keep it trim. It’s a touch more than medium bodied, creamy and velvety in the mouth with orange and gingery spice in there too. It tapers to a lingering finish of white flowers, stone fruits and nettly zing.

Costs $27 from winery website* – Alcohol 12.5% – Tasted 18/03/14* (*applies to all)

Ravensworth Chardonnay 2013 Tumbarumba

Clear medium lemon in colour. The nose is a touch herbaceous, with white flowers, citrus notes, creamy lees and nutty oak. From there it’s an essay in mouthfeel and harmony. Citrus zest drives the palate and the oak feels really good – a firm guide but not the least intrusive. Savoury, soft and lacy on the palate. Grapefruit, white peach, nougat, cinnamon and vanilla skip over each other to a delicate but persistent finish.

Costs $30 – Alcohol 12.5%

Ravensworth ‘Le Querce’ Sangiovese 2013 Canberra District

Sangiovese was the first variety Martin planted, and this is the 10th vintage he’s made. The fruit comes from a few different sites, following Martin’s belief that the variety works best in the lower (circa 500m) vineyards.
Pale ruby and with a pinkish rim. Nose of cherry, dusty herb, fresh plum too. The juicy attack sets the tone for a sprightly, mid-weight wine with soft blood plum, blood orange, sour cherry and earth across the palate. It has the fresh acid and dusty tannins you’d expect and finishes with a lovely cherrystone tang. Immensely pleasurable.

Costs $24 – Alcohol 13%

Ravensworth Nebbiolo 2013 Hilltops

Martin decided “not too go too wild” with his four tonnes of Young-grown grapes in 2013, since this is the first Nebbiolo to appear under his label. The two batches were given three weeks and six weeks respectively on skins.
Pale to mid ruby and pink-orange at rim. Red and black cherry, smoked meat and a bit of earth and tar on the nose. It’s medium bodied and silky smooth, with sweet red cherry offset by orangey sharpness. Racy acidity and intense, scratchy tannin on the finish complete the picture. The varietal signs, feel and price are spot on but I felt the palate came up short on depth and complexity.

Costs $27 – Alcohol 14%

Ravensworth Shiraz Viognier 2013 Murrumbateman

Medium to deep ruby/garnet. Terrific nose: pronounced perfume of violets and roses swirling above a deep well of pepper, plum and cherry. Lithe and textured, with a mid-weight palate of great complexity and concentration – sappy red fruits, star anise and gingerbread. You sense a lot more tightly bound up within a core framed by firm, ripe tannins and tangy acidity. Great wine – time will be kind to it, and it will be a friend to food.

Costs $32 – Alcohol 14%

Just Went Vajral

“The wine speaks very well, not me,” is the disarming claim from Milena Vaira. She’s wrong on one front – she’s an engaging hostess with very good English – but otherwise spot on: these are eloquent wines that you could listen to all day.
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In any case, Milena’s relieved from duty by her 28-year-old winemaker son Giuseppe, who’s clearly more at ease entertaining the masses. He’s just got back from showing his wines in Singapore, where Barolo-on-the-rocks in 40-degree heat was the order of the day. “It’s important to get out of your comfort zone,” he says.
I certainly get the impression throughout the tasting that this is a thoroughly adaptable clan, the kind that’ll run with a printing error that sticks a rogue ‘j’ in the family name. Giuseppe’s father Aldo set upon a life in wine despite vehement entreaties not to from those around him. His first vintage was 1972, uniformly written off as a stinker, maybe the toughest of the century. But he stuck at it.
This same man later took a shine to the art of Father Costantino Ruggeri. He wanted some stained-glass windows for the winery so the cellar hands would never lose sight of beauty as they went about their work. The talented monk declined Aldo’s request but received a case of wine as thanks for his consideration. Anyway, you guessed it: he changed his mind.
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And so to the wines. The winery is situated in Vergne, a couple of kilometres from Barolo village. The family has 60 hectares of vines, taking in Barolo, Novello and Serralunga d’Alba. Riesling is the token white here (floral and pure it is, too), while Pinot Noir (“a good teacher,” as Milena puts it) and Albarossa are the other outliers. Then you have the red quartet: Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo and Freisa, all showing finesse and sensitivity and – it must be said – thoroughly enjoyable drinking. Dolcetto and Barbera are given both a traditional and alternative rendition, while Nebbiolo comes in five guises. There’s a Langhe Nebbiolo and four Barolos: Albe (a blend of three vineyards); Bricco delle Viole (see below); and two wildly different single-vineyard wines bottled under the Luigi Baudana label, from the Baudana and Cerretta vineyards in Serralunga. I found the 2009 Baudana particularly exciting; a little unruly and way too young to drink but bursting with energy and personality.

G.D. Vajra Coste & Fossati Dolcetto 2011, Dolcetto d’Alba DOC, Italy

Named for the Barolo vineyards of Coste di Vergne and Fossati which provide the fruit, this is the big brother to the more conventional, light and fresh Dolcetto d’Alba. This one is aged for eight to 12 months in large oak casks.
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It’s medium ruby in colour, with a surprisingly subdued nose (for Dolcetto) of violets, red cherry and clove. It’s medium bodied, with a soft, slinky, almost creamy mouthfeel and lots of sweet, juicy damson, raspberry and cherry fruit plus a hint of menthol. The chalky tannins have a bit of grip, there’s enough acidity to give it drive and it finishes with a pleasing cherrystone tang.

RRP $52 from Enoteca Sileno in Melbourne – Alcohol 13.5% – Tasted 17/11/13

G.D. Vajra Barolo Bricco del Viole 2009, Barolo DOCG

You can see the sloping vineyard from the tasting room. Bricco del Viole takes its name from the violets exposed when the blanket of snow is peeled back each spring. A pretty image befitting this lovely Barolo, made from vines grown 400 metres up and aged 45 to 48 years old. It’s intensely perfumed, very reminiscent of top-notch Pinot Noir on the nose, with roses and violets joined by plums, earth and some underlying smokiness. It tastes like it smells, but the real winner here is the softness of the fruit on the palate – gentle but with real strength and length – allied to tannins that are almost velvety, finishing with some gentle spice.

RRP $175 from Enoteca Sileno or €55 direct from the cellar* – Alcohol 14.5% – Tasted 17/11/13

Brezza Fresh Heir

They’re not textbook tasting conditions – a tad dingy, bulbs missing from the chandelier above – yet the setting’s perfect. The room’s littered with old photos and pristine current-release wines. Dusty ancient bottles adorn the mantelpiece and fourth-generation family winemaker Enzo Brezza sits opposite me.
These organic wines, fermented with natural yeasts, are made from fruit sourced from 16.5 hectares of vines. Just over three-quarters are in Barolo itself, taking in vineyards such as Cannubi, Sarmassa and Bricco Sarmassa. Add to this a hectare in each of Novello and Monforte d’Alba and another two situated between Barolo and Barbaresco.
Enzo places a cheeseboard and grissini in front of me as we prepare for a look at his handiwork. We’ll be here a while. The 2013 harvest ran pretty late and there’s still a fair amount going on in the winery. Also, visits are sporadic this time of year and some open samples have to be tested for freshness. Any lack of would stick out like a sore thumb; my host has successfully made freshness a priority. “I like elegant style,” he tells me. “I don’t like overconcentrated wine. I like the character of the grape.”

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The wines bear out his claim. The Dolcetto d’Alba 2011 (13% alcohol, stainless steel, Vinolok glass closure or natural cork options) I found a bit too subtle for its own good, missing out on the juice and sport of this variety, but both the super-fresh, traditional Barbera d’Alba 2011 (14.5% alcohol, stainless steel, Vinolok) and the less lifted, rounded, plummy and smooth Barbera Superiore 2010 (14% alcohol; one year in big, newish oak, cork) were vibrant, gluggable and elegant. The light-bodied Langhe Nebbiolo 2012 (14.5% alcohol, stainless steel, Vinolok) with which we kicked off, was gorgeously fragrant and caressing, with strawberry compote, roses, liquorice and herbs. The Santa Rosalia Nebbiolo d’Alba 2011 (15% alcohol, one year in oak, Vinolok and cork) is clearly related: medium bodied this time, with roses, raspberry and earth.
The Barolos (there are five; I’ll take a closer look at two of them) undergo a 20-30 day maceration and immediate malolactic fermentation, They get two years in large-format, seasoned Slavonian oak before an additional year in bottle. Enzo says he likes to drink Barolo between six to 15 years after the harvest, with the best window between eight and 10. “For me, you like it because you like it, not because it’s old and you respect it,” he adds.

Brezza Barolo Cannubi 2009 Barolo DOCG, Italy

Medium ruby in colour with a relatively pronounced nose of raspberry, strawberry and wood smoke. It’s medium bodied with poise and strength, great depth of red fruit on the palate plus some sagey herb. The rich tannins are nicely integrated, the natural acidity high, and it finishes long with raspberry and a sensation of crushed flowers.

RRP €25 from the cellar* – Alcohol 14.5% – Tasted 19/11/13 – Cork

Brezza Barolo Sarmassa 2009 Barolo DOCG, Italy

The pick of the bunch for me. Nose of lifted roses and violets, plus red cherries, redcurrants and strawberry compote. The savoury side of things is catered for with earth, rosemary, fennel and fresh mint. It’s high in tannin, of course, but these are almost lacy and well balanced with the fresh acid. There’s some roundness to the fruit but there’s nothing broad about it; it’s focused and linear. Again, only medium bodied but superb strength across the palate, with a long finish of plum and raspberry. Sensational.

RRP €28 from the cellar* – Alcohol 14.5% – Tasted 19/11/13 – Cork

*Brezza’s Australian distributor Déjà Vu expects the 2009 wines to arrive here in December. The best outlets to get them will be Prince Wine Store and Winestar. Prices are expected to be around $79 for the Brezza Barolo Cannubi 2009 and $85 for the Brezza Barolo Sarmassa.

In Praise Of Freisa

This might shock and amaze ya
But you’re gonna dig this Freisa

At the mention of this little-known Piedmontese grape, my teetotal father – as white and English as they come – pulled out a terrible impression of Muhammad Ali’s rhyming-couplet threat to “destroy Joe Frazier”. Perhaps the fact that he’d nosed more Nebbiolo than the wine critic at the Barolo Chronicle had something to do with it. Whatever, the boxing legend and this underdog variety will be forever linked in my memory.
It’s fair to say Freisa is not the greatest. In fact, it was almost out for the count – once Piedmont’s second most planted variety, it’s little more than a palooka these days. Giuseppe Vaira, of Barolo family winery G.D. Vajra, says its decline has come about for a number of reasons. First, a good chunk of it is used for Vermouth, thanks to its vibrant acidity. Then there are the inconsistent yields, and the fact that it’s way down the pecking order when it comes to selecting sites. In addition, this highly tannic variety gives lots of harsh, malic acid. “If it’s not ripe, the acid/tannin combination kills the wine,” says Vaira.
It also has identity issues. It’s commonly made “vivace”, as a slightly sweet, forthy wine for quaffing at picnics, but is a very different beast as a quite masculine, dry red. And let’s not forget the divisive bittersweet flavour profile. The Oxford Companion to Wine quotes Hugh Johnson as finding it “immensely appetising” and Robert Parker shuddering at a “totally repugnant wine”.
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So what does it have going for it? Well, one can never overlook breeding, and Freisa is a close relative of Nebbiolo, Italy’s king of reds. (Apparently this DNA-profiling revelation was “mindblowing” for local growers. ‘How can this crappy grape be related to noble Nebbiolo?’ is the refrain Vaira recalls.) Then there’s its comely purple colour and fragrance of wild red fruits and violets.
For many, it’s a bit of a legacy grape. “We make Freisa because we’ve always made Freisa,” they quip at Bartolo Mascarello. Here it’s a dry version, but there’s no firm line taken on the spritz. If it happens, it happens, which means customers have to take the rough with the smooth – or the flat with the fizz. It’s not the kind of variation normally tolerated by wine folk but like everything at Bartolo Mascarello, the wine is good and runs out in no time.
Conversely, Brezza’s Langhe Freisa 2012 (14% alcohol) is a resolutely still version, with a perfumed nose of raspberry and red cherry, zingy acid and lots of fine tannins that carry the fruit nicely. It definitely calls out for food, though – pork belly or salami would go down a treat.
At Vajra they’ve gone to even greater lengths to get Freisa fighting fit. Giuseppe Vaira says the trick is to pick it late, at the same time or later than Nebbiolo. He gives it a long maceration – 20 to 25 days – before 12 to 18 months’ ageing in large, seasoned oak casks. The Langhe Freisa Kyè 2010 (14.5% alcohol; the name’s a phonetic transcription of the Italian ‘Chi é?’, or ‘Who is it?’) is a knockout. A nose of earth, cherry, plum, white pepper and spice, its rich, fine tannins and vibrant acidity give a firm frame for the juicy cherries, plums, redcurrants and herbs.
Not necessarily the greatest, but it’s well worth going a few rounds with this one.

Meet Johnny Canonica

“I’m a lucky man. One and a half hectares of land is enough to live.” Giovanni Canonica – Gianni to his mates and honoured guests at his Barolo home – is pretty cool from where I’m sitting. Scruffy and handsome in red-rimmed specs that only an Italian could carry off, he’s showing us his wine in his sitting room. We’re staying next door, in his three-bedroom farm stay, Il Quarto Stato. The place is named after the iconic 1901 painting of striking peasants by Piedmontese neo-impressionist Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo, a print of which adorns our front door. The house is slap bang in the middle of this storied village, and the Paiagallo vineyard can be seen from my bedroom window.
It’s from a 1.5-hectare patch of this vineyard that Gianni makes his one and only Barolo. He does it naturally, with no yeasts, no filtering, just a touch of sulphur at bottling to arrive at 30mg/L. It’s made in tiny quantities – 6,000 bottles in 2009 – in the shed and cellar out back. The basket press is endearingly ancient, the 2,500L Slavonian oak casks cumbersome and uncomplicated. The only other wine Gianni makes is 1,000 bottles of Barbera d’Alba.
And distribution is fittingly random yet simple. In the mid-1990s, when times were pretty desperate here, a natural wine lover from Japan tasted some and became unofficial brand evangelist. Gianni now sells half his production to the Japanese. They’ve scored a rare treat.

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Giovanni Canonica Barolo Paiagallo 2009, Barolo DOCG, Italy

Light ruby to garnet colour, this 100% Nebbiolo has a pronounced nose of cherry blossom, roses, red cherry, tar, leather and roasted nuts. It’s medium to light bodied, and the soft strawberry, red and black cherries and prunes on the palate are a striking follow-up to the savoury overload of the nose. Plenty of layers here too, though, with caramelised orange, leather and spice on the back palate. The tannins are very fine with a firmness that keeps everything in check. The wine finishes long, with bit of tang and some spirity warmth. It’s a bit out there but honest as the day is long, and with bundles of intrigue to go back for. Personally I loved it. Drink 2014 to 2022.

RRP €20 from the cellar* – Alcohol 15% – Tasted on 16/11/13

*Gianni says he’s sending 120 bottles of Giovanni Canonica Barolo Paiagallo 2009 to Australia this month.

Barolo Travel Cheat Sheet

Seems strange now, but I used to be daunted by Barolo: that authoritative label bearing down on you from a high shelf, like a hilltop fortress. I suppose the price tag – not astronomical in the UK, but enough to intimidate a scavenging journo – played a part.
In reality, the region is extremely accessible. I’ll be writing about some of the fantastic people and wines I came across on my recent visit, but first want to put together a basic guide. Though sketchy – especially relating to prices – I hope it’ll persuade some to discover the region for themselves.

Location

Barolo is a village just over an hour’s drive south of Turin or 15km south of Alba, in the region of Piedmont in northern Italy. It’s also a DOCG appellation for wines made from Nebbiolo grapes sourced within the immediate vicinity of Barolo itself, including famous villages such as La Morra, Castiglione Falleto, Serralunga d’Alba and Monforte d’Alba. These villages are an easy 10-minute drive away. It’s a fabulously picturesque area, strewn with steep vineyards and hilltop castles.

Accommodation

For my money, it’s agriturismo all the way. These local farm stays are often well situated, give good guidance on food and wine and offer great value, starting at about €45 a single and €55 a double. I stayed at – and heartily recommend – Gioco dell’Oca, 2km from Barolo, and Il Quarto Stato, in the heart of the village. Friends stayed at Casa Svizzera a couple of doors down. Another one that caught my eye was Le Viole, but there’s nothing to stop you staying in La Morra or Serralunga. For a more complete listing go to Agriturismo.It

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Food

The villages are small but have quite a few options. You may need to book on Friday and Saturday night, especially in Barolo. My favourite in Barolo was La Cantinetta, while L’Osteria del Vignaoiolo in La Morra was sensational. Value across the board is good – primi piatti (pasta ribbons with porcini mushrooms or ravioli with butter and sage, say) start around €9, and secondi piatti might start at €12. As you’d expect, the wine lists are superb and the mark-ups thankfully modest – say, €20-€25 for a lovely drop of Nebbiolo. For Barolo you’re probably looking at more like €40+. There are also by-the-glass options – Dolcetto and Barbera from €3.50, Nebbiolo from €4 and Barolo from €8.

Wine

It’s common for wineries to close the doors for a couple of hours for lunch. In any case, it’s best to email or ring ahead to make sure it’s OK to visit. You’ll often find the ensuing welcome embarrassingly warm. Many will show you round the winery and chances are there’s unlikely to be any hard sell attached to your tasting. For those meaning to buy, price lists are not prominently displayed, so here’s an idea of what you might be in for: Dolcetto d’Alba from €6, Barbera d’Alba from €7-8 basic Nebbiolo from €10-12, Barolo from €25-€30 (climbing much higher for single-vineyard wines from best sites and producers).

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This is red territory. Some producers have a token international white in their stable – we tried a good Chardonnay and Riesling – or else a white from further afield in Piedmont, such as a Gavi, Arneis or Moscato d’Asti. But really it’s all about these varieties:

Nebbiolo: High in tannin and acidity, low in colour, with typical aromas of roses, tar, red fruits from strawberry to plum, and liquorice. Producers may offer a Langhe Nebbiolo or Nebbiolo d’Alba, often approachable, ready to be drunk young and spectacular value. Barolo is the cream of the crop, produced from a designated area and released after at least three years (minimum 18 months in wood). It has the potential to change your life and, with age, do things you can’t even imagine.

Barbera: High in colour and acid, low in tannin. Varies in quality but can be extremely juicy, lively and fresh and food friendly. Some producers also make a Superiore version, a little more complex, ready to drink a little later, perhaps with some oak, perhaps able to age well over an extended period.

Dolcetto: Low-acid grape producing early-drinking wines that are fragrant, soft, round and juicy. Typical aromas of cherries and plums, liquorice and almonds. As one winemaker quipped of this and Barbera: “They’re family wines. You can drink them all day.”

Freisa: A slightly weird and much-maligned local grape, which you can read about on the blogpost, In Praise Of Freisa.

For more information about wineries, the Barolo di Barolo website is good for producers in the village itself, but you’d be missing out on lots of other great Barolo makers on your doorstep. Hugh Johnson’s Wine Companion has good recommendations, including contact details. Bear in mind, too, that Barbaresco has Nebbiolo to rival these, and is just a few miles up the road…

Far From Home Nebbiolo

It’s hosing down with rain outside, it’s five in the morning, I can’t sleep – and I don’t care. Why not? Because I’m in Milan, and in a couple of hours I’ll be heading down to Barolo to taste some of my favourite wines in the stunning landscape in which they were grown. And to plant the idea that I’m not just a loser that sits up at night in a darkened room blogging about Nebbiolo, I’ll be meeting my parents and a couple of great English mates who’ve flown down especially.
So here’s a bit of jetlagged reminiscing about a lovely wine from the other side of the world. I’m not going to bang on about what a great bloke Steve Pannell is or how wonderful all his wines are – though these things are manifestly true – because I still harbour hopes of some shut-eye before the bus goes.
So: Nebbiolo. Hunting for a good ‘un in Australia can be an expensive hobby – in general, our best Nebs are ahead of us and Italians start pricey. On that point, though, the chap who set up this blind tasting also brought along a Marcarini ‘Lasarin’ 2012 from the Langhe ($30 at Vino Italiano). It was very good (juicy strawberry, liquorice, balsamic) but didn’t quite muster the light-and-shade complexity that makes the grape so exciting.

S.C. Pannell Nebbiolo 2009 Adelaide Hills

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Bright light ruby with an orange-pink tinge, this has an enticing nose of roses, strawberry, orange peel, earth, tar and charcoal. Strawberries, black cherries and plums float along the medium-bodied palate, accompanied by an orangey tang and some spice. As one would expect, there are tannins aplenty but these are fine, savoury and sit back nicely, combining with lively acid to drive it out to a long and lovely conclusion. Satisfyingly complex and complete. Bravo.

Costs $50 from the Prince Wine Store, Melbourne – Alcohol 14.5% – Tasted 14/10/13