In cycling, they call an individual time trial (ITT) the ‘race of truth’.It’s a great description because in an ITT you have nowhere to hide. No teammates to take the brunt of the wind. No team car to draft behind if you crash. Just you, and your ability to ride through the pain against the clock.
That idea carries over to the vinous world too, as I think a thirty-year vertical be a wine’s race of truth. Sure, a producer can decide to show only the good years, but if the full vertical is cracked there is similarly nowhere to hide. No way to take back the overoaked vintages. No chance to forget that winemaker who decided that if a little Viognier was good then a lot of Viognier must be better.Wines, in that way, are also like photographs – time capsules of a moment and a season, never to be identically replicated, forever beautifully flawed.
A few weeks back it was Jim Barry Wines opening up their own picture book of wine history, via a thirty-year vertical tasting of their renowned ‘The Armagh’ Shiraz at the winery.
Now I’d literally just walked off a plane from the UK the day before this event – and was thus laden with A-grade jetlag – yet there was no way I was missing such a tasting. 90s Clare Shiraz was one of the gateway drugs that got me hooked in the industry, and I can remember gazing in misty-eyed awe at the concentration of a mid 90s Armagh back in the day.No shortage of love then.
What this lineup did was to put up a mirror to the last 30 odd years of winemaking trends. From the early(ish) picked, acid driven style of the 1985, to the ‘Parkerised’ wines of the early noughties, and finally the hint of some whole bunches in the last few years.
An open book of Shiraz styles illustrated in vinous form.
It’s worth touching on the wines from the turn of the century for a moment, as I thought that those from 1999-2008 were the least impressive and least well-balanced of any. More to the point, all the Armagh from that period topped 15% alcohol, and few carried it well.
You could sense the Barry family knew that the alcohol levels might be contentious, as we weren’t given figures until after tasting the wines. It wasn’t hard to see why, with our gaggle of wine writers were all keen to understand how the wines ended up so ripe, going from circa 13-14.6% alcohol in the first 15 odd years of Armagh, to 15%+, and now back to circa 13-14.6%.Was it about chasing a style, or something more?
That’s an unanswered question, but suffice to sat that the wines are now going back to more ‘classic’ ripeness now, an obvious indictment of that noughties ultra-ripe style if ever there was one.
Regardless, this was an impressive vertical, if just to show how Armargh ages. The 90 and 91 – at twenty-four and twenty-five years of age respectively – are still in rude health, to the point where you could comfortably hold for another decade without them falling over. The ’12 and ’13 will easily follow with that sort of longevity, and under screwcap I’d reckon them both to be enjoyable drinks in forty years time.
The best wines amongst this lot are simply superb too. Epic reds, with the concentration and length to put them right up with the best in Australia, with the 2012 and 2013 genuinely worth saving for.
Jim Barry The Armagh Clare Valley Shiraz
|Armagh vineyard. These are the younger vines|
The name ‘Armagh’ comes from the Irish settlers who settled in the area northwest of the Clare township in 1859. The Armagh vineyard lies at the eastern edge of this historic village and was first planted by Jim Barry back in 1968. Largely dry-grown, the oldest plantings are on contoured rows, the soil a mix of sandy and clay.
Interestingly, this vineyard was once viewed as best used for making port, and there are still multiple vintages of tawny in the Barry family back shed (taste great too).
Originally matured in American oak, now much more French with 100% new oak up until quite recently when it is more like 80% new. Armagh is only a small production, so 1-2 different fermenters. Pump overs with rack and returns are used, plus headers. Ferments are 7-10 days and kept reasonably cool at 18-22C.
All these wines were tasted at the winery, having been double-decanted a few hours earlier. It was bloody cold (circa 11C) during the tasting, which didn’t harm the wines at all, just annoying us scribes.
Extra bits in italics. The missing vintages were years when no Armagh was produced.
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 1985
All American oak this vintage.
Brick red with a little tawny. Roast beef/bonox and just a little stewed fruit but largely still quite fresh, rather than decayed. A little capsicum too, Palate is leaner than expected – more about drying tannins rather than fruit weight. It’s still got some years in it, but somewhat atypical in the lineup. Definitely medium bodied. Lots of acid here’s though – very firm. 17.5/20, 91/100. 13.7%.
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 1987
Brick with plenty of red still in there. Concentration takes a step up here – definitely more ripeness. More plum and coffee oak. Maybe just a little porty? Real rich, caramel meets cooked plum fruit. Oak a player here. Good and with plenty of time left but hardly going to sweep you off your feet. Richer but is it better than the 85? More classic for sure. 17.7/20, 92/100. 14.5%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 1988
Quite tawny really. Smells a fraction advanced too – caramel and figs. Drying tannins aplenty here! Oak tannins aplenty you’d think, but it’s still very concentrated, perhaps a little soupy. Has that brick dust old Aussie red thing going on. Long finish. Some delicious sweet fruit to end. Apparently all the bottles of 88 looked this forward. Not terrible. 17.5/20, 91/100. 14.6%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 1989
Dark red with bricking edges. Lots of sweet oak on the nose – a real caramel oak sweetness. I think oak sweetens thing up quite a bit here – caramel seems to be the overriding character. Lots of vanilla sweetness. A fraction lesser. More oak, less love. Still young though – 10 years no probs. 17.5/20, 91/100+. 14.5%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 1990
French oak makes an entrance here.
Still very dark red. This looks much bigger but so much younger than the ’89 – bold and dense. Indeed it’s still a baby, with big firm red fruit, maybe even a little mint, the tannins soft, the power all in the fruit. In excellent shape, without looking overdone. This is top shelf stuff, quite moderate for 90 too. 18.7/20, 95/100. 14.6%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 1991
Red with a little bricking. A little Formic on the nose here, certainly more spice than the 91. Drying tannins too – feels like it could almost be from Coonawarra with that meaty spice. Structured and firm, if not quite the seamlessness of the 90. Maybe even a little bretty too. But the structure and tannins of this make it perhaps as formidable as the 90. A decade in it easy, and delicious wine. 18.5/20, 94/100. 13.4%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 1992
Deep red with a little bricking. A much lighter wine given the lineup and the oak looks more caramel chew sweet too. Oak plays a big part, but it gives this a luscious vanilla sweetness that works with the quite rich fruit. I’ve loved this big wine more previously, but it’s just not as good as the 90 and 91. Still a beauty though. 18/2, 93/100. 14%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 1993
Deep red with tawny edges. Meat aplenty on the secondary nose. It’s even slightly fecal in its leafiness. Slightly sour finish. Very much a lesser wine compared to the previous 3. 17.5/20, 91/100 14.3%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 1994
Deep red with a little bricking. This also looks a little porty, a little lesser though in a more ripe and ready way. It’s just a little stewed, despite the power of the fruit behind it. Still plenty of power though – a bold red, with real tannins. 17.7/20, 92/100+. 13.7%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 1995
Always the vintage-defying surprise packet. A whole different colour – this is dense and black, thick and coffeed. I’ve always liked this wine, with its grunt and power, the fruit swallowing up the oak with ease. Love the power it’s actually quite different, modern, powerful. Big. Delicious. 15 years ahead. Glorious wine. 19/20, 96/100. 13.7%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 1996
Brick red with a little tawny, lighter edges than the 95. Looks and tastes lighter too, minty and spicy, a slightly liquered wine, maybe even a little too spicy. Oak looks a bit heavy fruit ripe and heavy. Lacks the generosity of the 95, a much more angular beast, but the acid is still what brings you back. Hold, it needs time to gather itself. Still a classic, if not ready, this will repay cellaring. 18.3/20, 93/100+. 13.1%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 1997
Deep red but with noticeable tawny edges. It looks forward, though caked with oak, stewed fruit palate is rich, concentrated but also a little hard and awkward. Every bit a drought vintage, with oak aplenty. 17/20, 90/100. 14.3%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 1998
Deep red black, just a little bricking. Every bit the burly, warm year wine, the oak, tannins and fruit a massive chunky, wall. It’s quite meaty and beefy at first, but underneath layers of flavour, oak sweetness, tannins real but soft, the style unequivocal. Classic big Clare red, 18.7/20, 95/100. 14%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 1999
Very deep red, lighter edges. Oak kicks off the nose and the palate. I think this is still very backwards – in time it might follow the path of the 95′ but for the moment it’s just looks big, oaky and awkwardly bulky. Score is a nod to promise and form underneath. 18/20, 93/100+. 15%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 2000
Deep, black red. An oakasaurus, with that caramel chew character of oak and some very sweet, raspberry fruit. It’s chunky and oaky but just doesn’t have the stuffing of other vintages – pretty, but pumped up by oak with a warm finish. 17.5/20, 91/100. 15.2%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 2001
Deep red with a little purple – youthful! Berry liqueur nose and it looks very ripe. Tastes a bit too ripe methinks, with a hint of dead fruit and some bitterness to finish. Very much a ‘Parkerised’ wine and lesser than the wines before it. 17/20, 90/100. 15.4%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 2002
Deep red colour goes all the way to the edge. This looks figgy and ripe too, hung out to ripen for as long as possible, the density impressive and definitely more tannic, but still a surprisingly short wine. Good, not great, and just a little underwhelming for the vintage. I may be slightly harsh, but I expected more here. 17.7/20, 92/100. 15.5%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 2004
Deep red, not much purple. Again it’s a fractionally overripe style, with treacly cherry fruit overwhelming the natural Clare elegance. It’s better than the heavy 01, and probably on a par with the ’02, but still lesser than I expected. 17.7/20, 92/100. 15%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 2005
Deep red. A welcome return to a sense of balance here, the fruit carrying that obvious density, but less strictly overripe heaviness. Still a dark and deep wine, with a vintage port edge. Interesting to see the oak more evident here, the style very big and thick. On a par with the past two wines. 17.7/20, 92/100. 15.5%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 2006
Deep red-purple. Lots of oak. Too much oak at this stage and it’s quite biscuity and nutty oak too. There’s clearly good wine underneath, and it may well end up fresher than the 05, but the oak is a real distraction. High quality, even and moderate wine underneath – such a surprise all things considered. Score should go up. 18/20, 93/100. 15.6%
A change in management of this period with less shrivel, earlier picking, more sorting to get rid of shrivelled bunches,
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 2007
Deep, dark red, more bricking than the 06. Some of that red liqueur fruit in this wine and I can really notice the alcohol warmth. It has the oak vanilla sweetness of a drought year wine, the finish marred by over ripeness. Another 2000 in the making? 17/20, 90/100. 15.2%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 2008
Purple red. A heatwave style in its sugar like sweetness but carries less of the over-ripeness. Indeed it’s quite generous, with a condensed milk vanilla sweetness. Not bad for the year, all things considered. 17.7/20, 92/100. 14.9%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 2009
Deep red with a little purple at the edges. Ribena sweet fruit seems slightly odd for an initial whiff, but it’s certainly generous, if cloaked in oak. Still a barrel sample youthfulness with that juicy fruit. No heaviness though, it’s even quite moderate – polished, modern, if perhaps too clean and bright right now. In a slightly odd phase. 18/20, 93/100+. 14.8%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 2010
Current vintage. First under screwcap
Purple red. Biscuity oak and red berries aplenty. It’s very concentrated, very luxurious in its sweetness and fruit weight, barrel sample-esque in its youthfulness. A return to a more classic form for The Armagh though, even though I prefer the best of the slightly more meaty and less polished 90s wines. Time should see this develop in a good way regardless. Nice wine. 18.5/20, 94/100+. 14.2%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 2012
Released in 18 months.
Purple red. Easily the best of this century, the nose has a limitlessness to it that suggests real power and fruit sweetness. Perfectly ripe, polished and moderate. There’s a bit of that 1998 boldness in this the fruit is monstrous and it feels rightly tightly packed. Well done. Perfect ripeness. Back to full tilt. 18.7/20, 95/100+. 13.7%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 2013
Bottled but a good three years off release.
Purple. Jubey and juicy fruited, the nose all purple berry fruit, slick oak and soft tannin. It feels a bit discombobulated, but the components suggest it’ll be a strong vintage, if in a slightly big form for Armagh. High high quality, if achingly young. Could well be on a tier with the ’12 in time. 18.5/20, 94/100. 14.2%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 2014
Blend sample from barrel.
Juicy purple fruit, even and moderate again! Hooray! I think it could be even more moderate than the ’13’. Again a compote of purple fruit juiciness leads the pack here and even a little suggestion of mint and spice. Could be a real star. 14.0%
Jim Barry The Armagh Shiraz 2015
A tasting of three wines, indicative of three different components in barrel. Final wine spent more time on skins and it shows – meaty and spicy, it’s very much the look-at-me modern ‘Syrah’ style. There is some warmth about this ’15 though, warmer and full. Maybe another 95? Big and maybe a little raw though. Gee the spicy, almost whole bunch white pepper character could make this really fascinating! 14.5%ish