Thursday, December 3, 2009

Chris Ringland Shiraz Tasting with Chris Ringland

As was mentioned in the previous post, the R Wines tasting was a great success. The event was very well attended, as it should be when a world famous winemaker is in the store. The wines showed very well, and best of all, sales were very brisk. In addition to selling wines with 'everyday' pricing, we took a large number of pre-sale orders for the rare and exceptional limited production shiraz's.

But the real treat was at the end of the tasting. Chris had with him a four year vertical selection of the legendary Chris Ringland Shiraz, which he had opened for a private tasting earlier in the day. And in a moment of extraordinary generosity, he shared the wines with the wine staff who had worked the tasting.

A little back story is in order. Chris Ringland Shiraz is a tiny production wine made from the Three Rivers Vineyard, located at the top of ridge in Barossa. The vines were planted in 1910. Yields are miniscule, generally around 1 ton per acre, extremely low for the Barossa Valley. Production typically is 750 to 1100 bottles, depending on the  the vintage. Intervention and manipulation of the vineyard is minimal.

Chris said he throws bird netting over the vines after the grapes change color at veraison and rarely goes under the nets until it's time to harvest. "I used to be fairly obsessive about checking the progress of the grapes," he said. "But now I just throw on the netting and let it go. When you really know the vineyard, you can usually tell what's going on just by looking at the grapes. Now, when I think it's about ready, I go under and taste the grapes and maybe test the sugar. Usually it's about a week or so before they're ready to harvest and sometimes, it's 'Oh shit, we need to get these grapes in now!'"

The winemaking is equally minimal. The grapes are crushed, the juice is fermented and aged in new French oak for around 40-42 months. It is then aged in bottle for another couple of years before release. The bottles are wrapped and packaged in individual wooden boxes with lead seals. Buyers beware, there's no checking the fill level of these bottles! Generally about 1/3 of the production is sold in Australia, the rest in the States. Any wine sold in Europe is via after market transactions. Needless to say, it is not cheap.

And, needless to say, the wines are amazing. We tasted the 2001 and 2002 vintages which have been released, as well as the 2003 (about to be released) and the 2004, which is still a year or so away. The wines all show a remarkably consistent flavor profile and identity. There is vintage variation, but it doesn't come close to overriding the singular flavor of the wine produced from this exceptional vineyard.

Aromatics are deep and dark, redolent of any black fruit you can name, licorice, creosote, earth, smoke. Intensity of floral perfumes seemed to vary by vintage. The dense, dark wines bring flavors of deep, dark intensity. Notions of black fruits tend to be swallowed by soy, hoisin, smoked meats and provencal herbs before those are devoured in turn by dark minerals, asphalt, truffles, earth, integrated tannins and surprising acidity which keeps the flavors turning on the palate through the long extended finish. Alcohols tend to be massive, even by Australian standards, but totally unobtrusive. You would never even think about alcohol unless you looked at the label.

Even against this massive tapestry, each vintage presented unique characteristics and it seemed that every taster had a different favorite. The 2001 (100 pts- Robert Parker) had a dark snarl to it, reminiscent of V-8 engines and glass-pack mufflers. The 2002 (100 pts - Robert Parker) had rich, opulent fruits and was showing a seamlessly silky profile. The 2003 (97 pts- Robert Parker) showed expressive elegance and rich, exotic perfumes. The 2004 (not yet rated) was just a monolithic mass of flavor and fat baby fruit. Yet despite their differences, each wine was just a different expression of the vineyard.

(Different Expression. The term is thrown around with increasing frequency these days. Whisk(e)y folk use it all the time. This tasting gave real meaning to the expression.)

I want to express my thanks to Chris for the entire evening. He is easy to be around, to work with and to talk to. He was great with the customers and signed many, many bottles. It was an overwhelming treat to be able to taste the Chris Ringland wines at all, let alone sit around a table, taste and discuss them with the winemaker. Let me just say that it was up there as far as experiences go for wine guys like me and my colleagues. Needless to say, we wore big grins for the next few days!


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  2. I met Chris Ringland at a tiny pub in the Eden Valley last year when visiting the Barossa. He is a welcoming and interesting guy and I found him very down to earth for someone of his stature in the wine industry. What a great opportunity to taste the vertical of Chris Ringland Shiraz, and to taste it with the winemaker himself is over the top.
    ~Chris Colloca, DC
    Phoenix, Arizona