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1998 Virgin Hills Dry Red
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- Cellar 3 - 4 years (2006-2007)
- ABV 12.5%
- Closure: Cork
There has been much hype about this wine, with segments of the media reporting that US wine writer Bill Giliberti made the claim that this was the best wine he had tasted over a 20 year period. Bill's report was written up in the Washington Post on Wednesday October 1. On hearing the news we were quite perplexed, firstly that anyone should make such an extraordinary comment, and secondly that Giliberti had chosen Virgin Hills as the world's best wine. Let's not get in the way of a good piece of PR for Australia, however, on careful reading of the Washington Post report, Giliberti in fact makes no such claim. It would appear that the media jumped to quite another conclusion which fared very well for Virgin Hills.
"After more than 20 years of covering the wine beat, it takes a lot to get me to go gaga over a wine. It has to be either a tremendous bargain, that I am dying to share with you or a wine of such superb quality that just sipping it makes my nervous system tingle." That statement is quite different to a declaration that this is the best wine he had tasted in 20 years.
The history of Virgin Hills is a chequered one. The vineyard was started by the colourful restaurateur Tom Lazar on the very cool fringes of the Macedon Ranges, Victoria. Historically, the wines have always been relatively light, with alcohol levels similar to those of Bordeaux, generally around 12.5%. The degree of fruit ripeness has varied over the years, due to the marginal nature of the site. Some of the early wines were bottled straight out of individual barrels (without even blending) which caused a great deal of concern amongst wine lovers, as the bottle variation was quite considerable. There has certainly not been a consistency of quality over the period, again this has been due to the marginal nature of the vineyard. Tom Lazar, after many years of gallant effort, finally sold out to Marcel Gilbert (who used to own Young & Jacksons Hotel in Melbourne along with a string of other hotels). Marcel had the resources to put into the vineyard and certainly improved the general quality of the wines and the vineyard, but the seasons were not always kind to him. So how did Virgin Hills get such a reputation?
The answer in the early days had to be with the personality of Tom Lazar. He was certainly a larger than life character. His reputation in Melbourne was established in the 1960's when he opened the very popular restaurant La Reata and later opened a larger restaurant, Lazars. He purchased land in the Kyneton district in 1968. Lazar then spent the 1971 vintage with Owen Redman learning how to make wine, and in 1973 released his first wine with minimalist label - which was so European it made the market gasp. To call a wine 'Virgin' was in itself a brave move. The marginal character of the district resulted in light Bordeaux-like wines being made, which was totally different from the big porty Rutherglen reds, which were common at the time. It was this elegance that caught the imagination of wine scribe James Halliday as well as many other winelovers. Virgin Hills provided the wine drinker in the mid 80's with a taste profile that they had not experienced before. The light leafy wines started a trend and it was very 'in' to be drinking cool climate reds. This short lived trend spooked the traditional winemakers like Geoff Merril, who began to imitate cool climate wines from McLaren Vale grapes. The leafy wines he made at Reynella ultimately saw this wine label virtually disappear from the market. As the wines aged, the leafiness actually accentuated. All this must be held in perspective. The operation was very much a hit and miss affair, with viticulture being practiced on a very rudimentary level, and even more fascinating, the composition of the vineyard planting is not entirely known, although Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Malbec and Merlot are said to be planted.
This is an elegant wine, but far from the greatest wine we have ever tasted, or the greatest wine to be produced in the last 20 years. Our comments are not unkind, or intended to detract from the hype that this wine has had bestowed upon it. We have received the wine on the same basis as any other wine that is presented to us, using the Winespider methodology.
Tasting Note: Crimson brick red colour with brick red hue. Medium body. Subtle nose of blackcurrant, violets, spice and just a touch of tealeaf and gerkin appearing as the end note. The gerkin character that is evident on the nose suggests that the vines were stressed during the growing season. The palate is refined with a distinctively Bordeaux like 'touch'. Moderate length, flavours of blackcurrant, cedar and spice emerge over a stewed fruit background with some of the primary fruit flavours beginning to fade. Fine grained soft tannins. Aftertaste of stewed fruit, cedar, tea leaf and blackcurrant.
Cellar 3-4 years (2006-2007)