Aside from the rugby team of his native Wales – and, arguably, his wife and front-of-house Sue – chef and restaurateur Roger Jones’ main love is Australian wine. It’s an unusual speciality for the force behind a long-time Michelin-starred restaurant – and all the more welcome as a result.
Jones first got into Australia’s wines when he was seduced by its zingy Rieslings 30 years ago. As the wine list at The Harrow at Little Bedwyn increasingly gravitated towards the southern hemisphere behemoth, so Jones became increasingly vocal in championing its qualities at wine’s top table. And 16 years ago, he launched an event to showcase their pre-eminence and crown the star performers.
The ‘Mamba’ awards (named after the Riedel decanter which went to the winners) was an annual tasting that saw critics and commentators convene at Jones’ Wiltshire restaurant to taste through and garland the standout Aussie wines in two grape varieties, which rotated each year. The inaugural edition focused on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the latter bolstered by some interlopers from New Zealand (Ata Rangi took the title) – a crutch Jones soon did without.
Over the years, the awards became an increasingly serious – and boisterous – fixture on the UK wine judging circuit. This year, with Jones having officially retired, the restaurant closed, and social distancing still in place, what was intended as a grand finale for the contest was a necessarily more subdued affair. Just eight judges gathered for a ‘best-of-the-best’ type tasting, assessing a host of winners from previous years in a bid to chart their longevity. Needless to say, the reduced scale didn’t dampen their enthusiasm.
The idea was to compare like with like – so to assemble the wines that had won in previous years, but not necessarily from the same vintages. Instead, Jones wanted to assess their ageability, and concentrated on gathering wines of a similar age within each category, from a varied scope over the last couple of decades. So the Rieslings came from 2004/2005, the Semillons largely from 2006, while the expansive Shiraz flight ranged from 2002 to 2010.
What was consistent was the undisputed status of the wines: from Giaconda Chardonnay to Yalumba’s £150 Shiraz-Cabernet blend The Caley. ‘Even for me,’ said Jones, ‘It was a rare privilege to assess such top-end aged Australian wines.’
So what conclusions can we draw from the event with regard to Australia’s strengths and weaknesses in fine wine? It was largely agreed that the whites outperformed the reds, with Jones’ beloved Rieslings a particular draw. Grosset’s honeyed 2005 Watervale was outshone by the more lively, sappy 2004 incarnation of Peter Lehmann’s Wigan, but both played second fiddle to the always outstanding (and outstanding value) Pewsey Vale The Contours, the 2004 showing tremendous balance and roundness on the signature rapier thrust of lime cordial and petrol. ‘Sublime,’ said Jones; ‘My favourite wine of the day,’ gushed Gareth Birchley of Burns & German.
The Chardonnay flight was also a hit – ‘Wow,’ said Jones – with Cullen’s young but already layered Kevin John 2017 taking the prize ahead of the 2016 Penfolds Bin 16A, Brokenwood’s Indigo and Giaconda: ‘Decades ahead of it, but pure class,’ said Jones. ‘Tense yet ripe,’ agreed Peter Dean of The Buyer. The Semillons were of an equally landmark nature, not least in the identity and class of the winner – Moss Wood 2006 showing that Hunter Valley doesn’t have a monopoly on this ageworthy, classic Aussie style. The sole Margaret River representative was described by Dean as ‘textbook’ in its make-up, with ‘crisp lemon acidity balanced by a nutty roundness on the palate’. The Sauvignon Blancs, by comparison, were more functional than memorable.
As for the reds, the modest grouping of Pinot Noirs also suggested that Australia hasn’t yet caught up with the brilliance of New Zealand when it comes to mastery of the grape, though the Paringa 2010 (en magnum) showed an impressive marriage of power and charm after a decade in bottle.
It was the Cabernets that stole the show. Leeuwin Estate 2008, the perfect balance of savoury maturity and bright fruit, showcased the brilliance of Australian Cabernet, and was voted Best in Show of the entire tasting. ‘A world-class wine,’ said Jones – and again, its provenance (Margaret River, in West Australia) came as something of a blow to the arguably more recognised Coonawarra and South Australia.
The Shiraz flight was the one significant disappointment – too many of the wines were overly concentrated, rich and jammy, a style that now seems as outdated as bleached blonde hair and Bermuda shorts. Amid a mixed bag, the 2002 vintage of Brokenwood (from Hunter Valley) stood out for its fresh, vibrant clean-focused fruit and delicate tannins, delivering another kick in the teeth for Barossa and South Australia.
‘Times have changed and some of the Shiraz were a bit boisterous,’ said Jones, while Birchley lamented the fact that most of the line-up came from an era in which Australian winemakers had ‘lost their way’ stylistically. ‘I’d love to see the same line-up of wines from the latest vintages, to see how the style has changed,’ he added.
These were wonderful wines – further evidence, if it were needed, of the ability of Australia’s top cuvées to deliver complexity and longevity as well as their signature strength and brightness. Looking at the source of the top of performing wines, however, one might be tempted to conclude that the cooler climate regions are the long-term bet to preserve and further the country’s fine-wine reputation. We’ll leave that debate for another day…
The wines (winners in bold)
House of Arras, Grand Vintage, Tasmania 2007
The most overtly brioche and biscuit-toned of the three, sharpened by citrus fruit and floral notes on a zingy palate.
- House of Arras, Blanc de Blancs Museum Release, Tasmania 2004
- House of Arras, Late Disgorged, Tasmania 2004
Pewsey Vale, The Contours, Eden Valley 2004
Rounded, balanced but still with that tell-tale kerosene-and-lime sappiness and freshness. Sublime.
- Grosset, Watervale, Clare Valley 2005
- Peter Lehmann, Wigan, Eden Valley 2004
Larry Cherubino, Pemberton, West Australia 2019
Clean, pure and zappy without being overly aggressive or biting. Tremendous brightness of fruit.
- Shaw & Smith, Adelaide Hills 2019
Cullen, Kevin John, Wilyabrup, Margaret River 2017
Spicy but subtle, wonderfully textured with zesty citrus fruit on a rounded palate.
- Brokenwood, Indigo Vineyard, Beechworth 2016
- Giaconda Estate Vineyard, Beechworth 2016
- Penfolds Reserve Bin 16A, Adelaide Hills 2016
Moss Wood, Semillon, Margaret River 2006
Great bite and length on a lemon meringue pie palate.
- Mount Horrocks, Clare Valley 2006
- Peter Lehmann, Margaret Semillon, Barossa 2006
- Tyrrell’s VAT 1, Hunter Semillon 2009
Paringa Estate, Estate Pinot Noir (en magnum), Mornington Peninsula 2010
Still powerful and young in its steeliness but with a purity of fruit shining through.
- By Farr, Farrside, Geelong 2016
Leeuwin Estate, Art Series, Margaret River 2008
Tremendous balance of evolution and brightness – fresh yet savoury fruit; very long.
- Woodlands, Rachel, Willyabrup 2004
- Moss Wood, Margaret River 2005
- Rockford, Rifle Range, Barossa Valley 2005
- Wynns, John Riddoch, Limited Release, Coonawarra 2010
Yalumba, The Reserve, Barossa Valley 2004
Still powerful with ripe dark fruit and prodigious length.
- Ben Glaetzer, Godolphin, Barossa Valley 2005
- Yalumba, The Caley, Coonawarra/Barossa 2012
Brokenwood, Graveyard Vineyard, Hunter Valley 2002
At its peak with a wonderful marriage of rounded fruit and silky texture, all moulded together in a harmonious whole.
- Eileen Hardy, McLaren Vale 2004
- Yalumba, Octavius, Barossa 2004
- Ben Glaetzer, Amon-Ra, Barossa Valley 2005
- Clarendon Hills, Astralis, McLaren Vale 2005
- Mitolo, G.A.M., McLaren Vale 2005
- Dan Standish, The Standish, Barossa Valley 2006
- John Duval Wines, Eligo, Barossa Valley 2008
- Penfolds, RWT, Barossa Valley 2010