[Cross-posted at popandpour.ca]
Nothing improves a good bottle of wine more than a good accompanying back-story, and I ended up at the Jim Barry Armagh tasting at Bin 905 in Mission on Friday night due to one of the best wine tales in my recent memory. The Armagh Shiraz, one of Australia’s rarest, priciest and highest quality bottles, was named after the hamlet of Armagh adjoining the Clare Valley wine region in South Australia, a small village that was initially established by Irish settlers and named after the county of Armagh in Ireland…which in turn is where my friend Fiona was born. Upon walking into Bin 905 and seeing a sign advertising an “Armagh” wine tasting, Fiona immediately grabbed a ticket for it and also ordered a bottle, not knowing that it cost around $250 and not caring when she found out. Not one to turn down a chance to drink ludicrously expensive wine for a less-than-ludicrous price, and not being likely ever to come across a wine named after my homeland (the Jim Barry “Edmonton”?), I jumped at the chance to come along to the event.
The best part about going to a tasting of an expensive and ageworthy bottle that you already own is that you get a bonus chance to see how the wine is showing at that moment and how much more time it might need to age before being at its best. Bin 905′s event went one better than this for all Armagh owners because it was a vertical tasting, a showcase of multiple different vintages of the same wine — in this case, the 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004 and 2005 Armagh Shiraz. Getting the chance to taste a vertical of a wine not only gives you an inside look at its aging curve, but it also provides clear insight about how the annually-variable elements of wine production — sunlight hours, temperature, rainfall, vine diseases, pests, etc. — can impact the final product. Six wines that are all one and the same bottle end up tasting very different because each one is at a different stage of maturation and is a snapshot of the particular conditions of its own vintage. This was my first ever vertical tasting, and it’s hard for me to think of another way that you can learn so much about wine in a 2 hour window. It was fantastic.
As mentioned above, The Armagh Shiraz is produced from grapes grown in a premium vineyard in the Clare Valley wine region, located due north of Adelaide and just north of the more-famous Barossa Valley in South Australia. The vines are low-yielding, almost 50 years old, planted on their own rootstocks (as opposed to on pest-resistant American rootstocks like the grand majority of the world’s grapevines) and not irrigated, and the Jim Barry estate (now run by his 3 sons) handles them as naturally as possible in order to achieve a small yield of top quality, concentrated grapes ideal for wine production. The Clare Valley differs from its more famous neighbouring Valley, the Barossa, because it is located at a higher altitude and features a correspondingly cooler climate, with much colder nights and nutrient-poor soils, all of which helps prevent the grapes from ripening too quickly and thus preserves acidity, balance and complex flavours. While you normally see Australian Shiraz from more scorching areas, the Clare’s cooler touch makes a tremendous difference on the resulting wines.
After Bin 905′s resident Aussie expert Nigel Bousie had taken us through this introductory info, everyone was looking justifiably thirsty, so he graciously let us dive into the wines. We started with the oldest vintage of Armagh at our disposal, the 1998, and worked our way towards the present. What follows are my actual vintage and tasting notes that I frantically scribbled on Friday night, one great glass at a time.
VINTAGE: Very dry preceding winter/spring, then GIANT rainfall in one fell swoop (111 mm), so great early growth — fantastic vintage for Australia and especially Clare Valley.
WINE: Still totally opaque and glass-staining, even at 14 years old; you can only start to see its age because it’s not totally purple at the rim. Gorgeous sweet floral aromas, jasmine, Earl Grey tea, apple, currant, raspberry, cola — complex but still young. GREAT acidity, mouthwatering and electric; soft but structured, with lively dark fruit and eucalyptus flavours…could still go miles. Warm and flowery finish…wow. One of my all-time favourite glasses of Shiraz. 95-96 points
VINTAGE: Again, very dry early, but very strong year for Shiraz in Australia.
WINE: Very similar in colour to the ’98 but TONS of sediment. Totally different on the nose: mintier, thicker, more savoury/meaty, with a bit of a cheesy funk. Very few primary fruit aromas left; touch of stink/barnyard/manure. On palate, blackberry, prune, tomato, a permanent-marker-y sort of sharpness…spiny/brambly. More power, less finesse than ’98. Huge acid, notable alcohol, but slightly oxidized, almost Port-like. Possibly an issue with the bottle? Was apparently way better when first opened. Too bad. 87-88 points
VINTAGE: A “write-off” vintage for much of Australia: dry winter, and then early hail and a cooler growing season followed by a heat wave that led to uneven ripening.
WINE: Much less opaque than the two older bottles, can see through it much more easily…because of the bad vintage? Should be thicker/darker than the older wines, but it’s the exact opposite. Perfumed nose that smells way more like the ’98 than the ’99: potpourri, bath soap, blueberry, cherry, and a fresh tanginess like ocean breeze. Fiona says talcum powder: totally! Drinking well right now, may not benefit from much more age (unlike other two). Red fruit, lighter, less structured, but still has vibrant acidity; a touch waxy, goes from lush and fruity to a little tighter and shut off at the finish, but still stays with you. Solid showing from a bad year. 91-92 points
VINTAGE: A beautiful year: winter/spring rain, warmer season and easy growing conditions led to great Shiraz, bigger wines with higher alcohol levels.
WINE: Also not totally opaque; looks almost exactly like the 2000. Super Port-like on the nose: caramel/burnt sugar, big black fruit (especially currant), slightly chemical, violets, grenadine. No surprise, a BLOCKBUSTER on the palate — huge, powerful, deep, black and concentrated. Leather and scorched earth in background, but mainly tons and tons of dark fruit. The label says 15% alcohol, but I bet it’s more…even so, it doesn’t taste hot, tons of “stuff” to it. Unreal. 94-95 points
VINTAGE: Difficult year due to near-drought conditions — only 1/2 of average rainfall, big heat wave (featuring 16-day stretch averaging 37.9 Celsius!!) in growing season.
WINE: Black, glass-staining, sunlight-stealing wall of wine. SO dark. HUGE fruit on the nose: blueberry pie, saskatoon berry, cinnamon, chocolate. No surprise in hot year, but over-big and boozy on the palate right now, needs time to settle. Still delicious, and tastes like you would expect Aussie Shiraz to taste (as opposed to the much more elegant and interesting prior examples)…maybe not a great sign for a $250 bottle. 88-89 points
VINTAGE: Like basically everywhere else in the world, a remarkably good vintage with fantastic weather — Shiraz allowed to hang a bit longer on the vine to ripen slowly.
WINE: The youngest wine of the bunch, so not a shock that it was thick, blocky, glass-coating and black. Not just opaque to the rim — there IS no rim. As described by my other tasting companion Helen, “sedimentacious”. We should not be opening this yet (Nigel from Bin says the drinking window is sometime in the 2030s). Antiseptic, cough syrup, nail polish remover aromas to go with thick dark stewed fruit; grapey, but almost in a Hawaiian Punch sort of way. Almost hurts to drink this: too gigantic too young. Almost 16% alcohol if I had to guess. Big potential, just not ready to show itself yet…I can’t believe it’s already seven years old! Check back in a couple decades. 92-93 points
All told, around $1500 worth of wine was opened on Friday and the lot of us left the tasting with a whole new appreciation for the capabilities of serious Australian Shiraz. Nigel and the rest of the folks at Bin 905 ran a highly entertaining and informative event, and I felt fortunate to get a glimpse into the various growth stages of a wine that I may never get to try again in my life. There are tons of events like this going on at Bin and other shops in the city, so I highly encourage you to sign up for one — there’s nothing better than an education you can drink!
Bin 905 is located at 2311 – 4th Street SW.