It’s hardly an original formula – pit a single, often new world, premium wine up against contemporary benchmarks from both the old and the new.
What it often does do, however, is throw up some surprises.
So today it was Howard Park’s turn to throw out the challenge, with Jeff Burch himself on hand to take us through a comparison of the latest vintage of Howard Park’s flagship Cabernet, now known as Abercrombie, to several peers from around the globe. With some high class Europeans and relatively unknown new world drops in the mix, the results looked to be skewed from the start. But, as is often the case, things weren’t that clear cut. What’s more, the HP wasn’t embarrassed either.
The wines then were served in effectively one flight, although the order of the wines – moving from old to new world – was quite deliberate.
Wine 1: Château Durfort Vivens 2005 – Margaux, France ($89)
Rich, black & classy. A licorice & cedar nose that is both leafy and classic, but with a scorched ripeness to it that is particularly attractive. The palate is very tight, elegant & classic with mouthcoating tannins and notably high alcohol. Beautifully integrated oak and nice full flavours. Very attractive 10-15yr wine. Kept coming back to this, and enjoyed it thoroughly, though the alcohol poked out just a little. 18/92
Wine 2: Château Lagrange 2005 – St Julien, France ($119)
Disappointment. Clearly high quality at its core but obscured by heavily toasted oak. Purple rim, with heavily toasted oak dominating the nose. The palate is lush, rich and shows excellent fruit, with nicely balanced tannins, the oak protruding again into the finish.
Should improve markedly with age, but certainly could be much better oaked. 17/89+
Wine 3: Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia 2004 – Bolgheri, Italy ($185)
The second of two bottles opened and less than representative, this had a tawny rim, with a meaty overtone and a roasted palate. An average bottle, showing less than its best. 15.0/82
Wine 4: Tenuta Dell’Ornellaia Ornellaia 2006 – Bolgheri, Italy ($230)
Stunning. I want some. Wild & pretty and rather modern in style, with big oak and equally big purple fruit, all simmering away in a brawny, powerfully dense fashion. It’s like a sleeping giant on the nose really. But the magic doesn’t stop there, for the beautifully dense, Italianate palate is classic in its power and polish, with long, whole mouth tannins. It actually reminded me of the Balnaves Tally, with that same black density and endless power, yet with classic Italian tannins. Excellent already, though it really needs a decant. 18.5/94
Wine 5: Gaja Darmagi 2004 – Barbaresco, Italy ($325)
Apparently ‘Darmagi’ means ‘what a shame’, a remark attributed to Angelo Gaja’s father Giovanni after this vineyard was planted to Cabernet. What is most delightful about this wine is that it tastes so much of its region first, varietal second. The nose is almost Nebbiolo like in its long & leafy, tea leaves and spice, yet with a distinctive mintiness that over time wore me enjoyment down a tad. Really long, very dry and fully extracted palate with a magical mouthful of tannins that had me returning for more. The only detraction was a slightly green edge to all this glory, so the score is just a little conservative, though all those plus signs mean something. Another wine I would like in my cellar, for the long term. 18.0/92++
Wine 6: Torres Mas Le Plana 2004 – Penedes, Spain ($69)
A sexy looking bottle that failed to deliver. Stinky, cooked green tomatoes and minty nose, with a heavy caramel oak sweetness to it. Underripe and overoaked. The palate is better than the nose, showing a plushness & open richness to it, but again its all very oaky. Like to see more than just the oak. Each time I came back to this I was less impressed, the wine losing points by the minute. 16.0/86
Wine 7: Boekenhoutskloof Cabernet 2006 – Franschhoek, South Africa ($89)
Another chunky bottle, though this wine certainly showed some promise. Apparently from a vintage that ended with late rains and slightly uneven ripening, which was apparent on the just slightly hard palate. Nose of freshly sawed logs (timber!), tea leaves and chocolate oak. Nicely varietal, if massively proportioned & oaky. Palate is just a bit dull edged and dry, but with again some very nice tannins. Noticeable alcohol through the finish, but certainly much to like here. I’d prefer a bottle of 06 Wynns John Riddoch over this anyday (would get $20 change too, but certainly much to like. This actually reminded a little of some of the 06 vintage Margaret River reds, but with just an inch more ripeness. 17.2/91+
Wine 8:Vina Ventisquero Queulat Cabernet Sauvignon – Maipo, Chile ($21)
Produced by John Duval. Whilst he is a very talented winemaker, this thin & rubberish wine does him no favours. Obviously off very young (or overcropped) vines, this smelled like violet scented weedkiller, with a simple squeaky clean palate of limited appeal. $10 wine, no more. 14.5
Wine 9: Howard Park Abercrombie Cabernet 2005 – Western Australia ($89)
The second time I have tried this now and much less impressive the second time around. I definitely prefer the stunning 04. Dried wood nose, with redcurrant & blackberries in a quite restrained and leafy style. At first I thought I had this confused with the next wine, but I hadn’t. It’s actually quite minty, surprisingly minty and leafy. I left it alone for a while though and on the second revisit had come around to the style a bit more. The palate builds power in the glass, becoming richer, but also showing that it’s quite a different wine to previous releases. Needs some time I think. Still stylish though. 18/92+
Wine 10: Howard Park Leston Cabernet 2006 – Margaret River, WA ($32)
The only single vineyard Howard Park red released in 06 and you could argue that it probably shouldn’t have been released. Not a bad wine, but certainly not a patch on the vintages preceding it. Minty, to the point of menthol on the just ripe, slightly stripped nose. Palate starts well, but hits a roadblock of hardness at the midway mark that may never resolve. Washed out tail. Drunk with a big piece of steak this would be an ok wine, but its just not quite up to its $32 pricetag. 15.5/85