Sat 13 Jan 2007
I’m a great admirer of wine importer and food entrepreneur Dan Philips, whose The Grateful Palate in Oxnard , California — http://www.gratefulpalate.com — is a trove of edible treasures, including the well-known Bacon of the Month Club. Philips is one of the best American importers of Australian wines, specializing in small producers with big aspirations; among several dozen labels he imports are Burge Family, Hazy Blur, Henry’s Drive, Kay Brothers, Lengs & Cooter, Lillypilly, Trevor Jones and The Willows. Philips was also partner with Sparky Marquis in the widely acclaimed Marquis Philips label, an enterprise that broke up last year.
So I was enthusiastic when a clerk in a local retail store recommended the 3 Rings Shiraz 2005 from Australia’s Barossa Valley (about $16 to $20). The label is another Philips partnership, this time with grower David Hickinbotham and winemaker Chris Ringland. I assumed that this would be a pretty bold expression of the shiraz grape; I didn’t expect a travesty.
Five or six years ago, I was in Los Angeles for a comprehensive tasting of Penfolds Grange — yes, it was an extraordinary event — and before the tasting began, Australian writer and wine-maker James Halliday rose to his feet to say a few words, and the first sentence he uttered has stayed with me: “The three most important elements of wine are balance, balance and balance.” I think this aphorism should be tattooed on the backs of the hands of every wine-maker and producer in the world as well as hung, in the form of embroidered samplers, in every winery, chai and chateau.
Halliday was not calling for well-mannered, wimpy wines, holding little fingers a-curl as they sip milky tea. He was asserting the fact that the greatest wines, at every price range, should reflect harmony and integration in all their components: fruit, acid, tannin, alcohol and — the most dangerous factor — oak. (Well, alcohol level has become a vital issue too.) Even deep, large-framed young wines intended for aging, Bordeaux classified growths, California cult cabernets, Barolos and so on, however tannic they may be in infancy, should display a sense of innate balance and order; the balance may shift and change over the years, but it’s always there.
Which brings us back to the 3 Rings Shiraz 2005.
This opens with a super-ripe, fleshy, meaty bouquet that teems with scents of macerated and roasted blackberries and blueberries as well as a touch of zinfandel-like boysenberry. In the mouth, the wine is exceedingly plush, velvety and voluptuous and, at 15.5 percent alcohol, offers a considerable amount of that high-alcohol raisiny plumminess and jamminess. The wine is starting to taste, in fact, like something you might rather spread on toast than drink with a meal with the other grown-ups. The spicy factors increase as the wine slides over the tongue, becoming not only dominant but strident and austere, and the wine concludes unpleasantly in a welter of incoherence.
My palate was not grateful.
I single this wine out, because of its origins, as a prominent example of what happens when producers value power, intensity and simple-minded texture over wines that balance feeling good and tasting good. It is not, I assure you, the only example.