Other Press

Max Allen

THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN / A PLUS / APRIL 2013

"Right Wine Can Hinge On Time"

Here you go.  Three glasses of pinot noir.  Taste them and tell me which one you think is the best.

This, in essence, is what drinkers expect wine "experts" - writers, makers, judges, critics, retailers - to do.  "What's the best wine?" they ask.  And then they get a bit miffed if the answer is: "Well, it depends...."

But it's true.  It does depend.  On so many things.  Wine's like that.  Not always easy to pin down.  And the older I get and the more wine I drink and the more people ask me this question, the more equivocal I become.

Take three pinots released recently by Joe Holyman of Stoney Rise vineyard in the Tamar Valley in Tasmania: an "entry-level, drink-young" 2012 Stoney Rise Pinot Noir for $29; a single-vineyard, home-block 2011 Holyman Pinot Noir for $45; and a limited-release, 100 per-cent whole-bunch, 100 per-cent new-oak special cuvee, the 2010 Project X Pinot Noir for $90.

The language and the prices clearly indicate what Joe thinks of the quality of these wines; good, better, best, in that order.  But when I tasted them, I had a different reaction: yes, the Stoney Rise was lovely, slurpy, full of dark cherry fruit, and the Project X was impressively structural and savoury and long and definitely needs time in the cellar to reach its peak.  But the "best" wine of the three in front of me,  on the day I tasted them, was the middle-priced one from the "worst" (most difficult, wettest, coolest) vintage: the Holyman was just gorgeously perfumed and open and textural and a sensational drink.

Then I drank the wines over dinner.  And it was a very different story.  Being the fresh-from-the-farmers-market foodie wanker that I am I was having fancy steak sandwiches that night: grilled ciabatta buns smeared with dijon, topped with pickled halapenos, cos, cucumber, heirloom green tomatoes and thin slices of juicy barbecued venison.

The food was a disaster for the pricey Project X, which tasted oaky, stern and tough.  And the very qualities that made the Holyman such a fine pinot to taste - the delicate perfume, the transparency - were no match for the bold flavours in the sanga.  No, the "best" wine with dinner - by far - was the cheapest, the Stoney Rise: deliciously vibrant, lively, essential.

I put the screwcaps back on the opened bottles so that I could try all three wines again a couple of days later.  And when I did - well whaddya know? - the story had changed again.  The Stoney Rise was beginning to fall over, lose its freshness, taste tired, and the Holyman was still pretty but hadn't evolved too much with air.  The Project X on the other hand was a different and altogether more lovely beast: the oak and tannins had relaxed, revealing a deep, meaty, seductive richness and long, velvety texture - supporting my initial impression that this is the pinot you'd want to have in your cellar.

So: which was the best wine?  Well, it depends.