Sometimes it almost doesn’t pay to read the press material that comes with wine, or the back label, for that matter. For example, the back labels of Layer Cake wines carry this little story:
My old grandfather made and enjoyed wine for 80 years. He told me the soil in which vines lived were a layer cake. He said the wine, if properly made, was like a great layer cake, fruit, mocha and chocolate, hints of spice and rich, always rich. “Never pass up a layer cake,” he would say. I have always loved those words.
Subject-verb agreement error aside, thank god the old duffer didn’t say, “My boy, wine is like a bowl of Count Chocula, rich, chocolatey, milky. Never pass up a bowl of Count Chocula.” The effect is pretty much the same. Gramps was prescient about one thing: The wines of Layer Cake — motto: “One Hundred Percent Pure” — are certainly “rich, always rich.” The problem is that wine, “if properly made,” has more going for it than richness, a necessity that seems to have eluded the producers of Layer Cake Shiraz 2008, South Australia. The Layer Cake label is owned by, as he is inevitably defined, “Napa based wine visionary Jayson Woodbridge.”
Layer Cake Shiraz 2008 is described on the press sheet as “a pure fruit bomb.” How embarrassingly ’90s, yet how true. The wine is very rich, plummy and jammy, a concoction, it feels like, of blackberry preserves infused with port and so laden with boysenberry that it could be mistaken for an over-ripe, warm-climate zinfandel. True to the “layer cake” concept, the wine is packed with mocha and chocolate and, after a few minutes, actually smells like chocolate cake with brandied black cherries decorated with candied lavender and violets. The finish brings in a whiff of Bazooka Bubble Gum, rhubarb and dried cranberry. The texture is, not surprisingly, dense, chewy and almost viscous; it’s the old velvet fist in the velvet glove technique. I know that this immoderately fruity, structureless fashion is popular in some quarters — Wine Enthusiast gave this wine’s ’07 version 90 points — but I found it undrinkable. About $15.
The “Winemaker’s Notes” for the Layer Cake Shiraz 2008 list as among the wine’s virtues, “No added acid, no American oak.” Actually, this is a wine that could use more acid structure to give it some backbone, but what’s interesting is the “no American oak” admonition. When did American oak become the Big Boogieman, especially in Australia, where the use of American oak, cheaper than French, is widespread? American oak, judiciously used, as with Ridge zinfandels, brings its own desirable qualities to the table.
Not to be too much of a jerk about this, but after tasting the over-the-top Layer Cake Shiraz 2008, I needed a more rational style of shiraz (remember, that’s the syrah grape), so I turned to the Robert Oatley Shiraz 2007, from Australia’s Mudgee region, 162 miles northwest of Sydney, in New South Wales. Oatley was the owner of the well-known Rosemount winery in Hunter Valley before selling in 2001 to Southcorp, which was taken over by Fosters in 2005.
With the Robert Oakley Shiraz 2007, one feels the structure as well as the fruit with every sip. Briery and brambly black currents, black cherries and plums are permeated by smoky potpourri and bitter chocolate — bitter chocolate being intense and austere, not sweet or enveloping — with touches of wild blueberry. The grounding in oak is definitely there, from 12 months in a combination of French and American barrels, but it’s neither toasty nor tinged with vanilla; the word we want is “rigor,” and that quality is provided not only by wood but by dry, slightly chewy tannins and vibrant acidity. In other words, the wine offers sensuous appeal but also the satisfaction of a balanced and essential structure. Excellent. About $20.
To be honest — that’s moi! — I did enjoy the Layer Cake Primitivo a.k.a. Zinfandel 2007, from Italy’s Puglia region. While its opening salvo is ripe, plummy, juicy and jammy, bursting with spice and toasty oak, and its blackberry, currant and blueberry flavors are lavishly washed with smoke, lavender and licorice, and you’re thinking, “Man, this is wearing me out,” the wine pulls up a strain of walnut shell, a foresty layer of briers and brambles, a hint of tarry minerals that lend some balancing restraint and a bit of austerity to the finish. Whew! Very Good+. About $15.
Layer Cake wines are imported by Vintage Point, Sonoma, Cal. Robert Oatley wines are imported by Oatley Wines, Petaluma, Cal.
Count Chocula is, of course, a registered trademark of General Mills.