Wynns 1955 Michael Hermitage is one of the greatest Australian red wines of the 20th century, and stands alone as the most enigmatic.
It was matured in a second-hand fortified wine cask that came from a merchant in Sydney; once bottled, it became clear that it was an exceptional wine with an X-factor. Wynns tried to repeat the success with casks from the same source, but to no avail.
When I wrote 'Coonawarra, the History, the Vignerons and the Wines,' published in 1983, I said 'I have tasted Michael Hermitage on half a dozen occasions over the past 15 years; every time it has shown a concentration and complexity of flavour beyond any normal bounds.' Another 30 years have passed, and I have been lucky enough to taste it on many more occasions. It has added to its lustre through its extraordinary longevity, and - even more - its consistency.
So, when I heard of Jacob's Creek Double Barrel Barossa Shiraz and Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon respectively finished in Scotch Whisky and Irish Whiskey barrels, my ears pricked up. Was there magic in the air?
I was not alone. Richard Hamilton, proprietor of his eponymous McLaren Vale winery, sent me a lengthy email (with several more to follow) recounting that his uncle Syd Hamilton started using whisky barrels for both red and white wine making in the 1940s. Richard's father, Burton Hamilton, had commissioned a distillery to produce whisky at the outset of the war because the supply of scotch had all but stopped. The commercial shipping routes were simply too dangerous. Thus Hamilton's Gold Label Whisky and Oaklands Whisky were born, and had a fine reputation.
It was not the only groundbreaking venture by Syd, who was the first winemaker to use refrigeration for the Hamilton white wines - notably Hamilton's Moselle, which had substantial residual sugar. He thus pre-empted Orlando's 1953 importation of temperature-controlled-fermentation white wine fermenters by (almost) 15 years. I, and most other writers, have (wrongly) attributed this breakthrough to Orlando and (the following year) Yalumba.
'I don't know if Syd realised at the time the benefit of tannin softening from the trace of whisky in the barrels, but he certainly recognised the benefits of sterility,' says Richard, who continued the practice when he started his winery in 1972, using matured whisky casks for maturation of shiraz following barrel fermentation in new American oak casks, and continued the practice until 1980.
The parallels with the Jacob's Creek techniques are striking. I was sent a bottle of each of the Double Barrel™ wines, and the tasting notes for each appear opposite. But I wondered what the wines must have tasted like at the end of their 12 to 18 month maturation in new and used American oak for the shiraz and new and used French oak for the cabernet - and before the final eight to 12 weeks in the whisk(e)y barrels.
Well, I subsequently met with chief winemaker Bernard Hickin, and was able to taste the before and after wines next to each other. There is no question the latter wines have distinctly better depth and length (mouthfeel) even if there are no appreciable changes to the flavour.
2012 Jacob's Creek Double Barrel Barossa Shiraz
The bouquet is particularly fragrant, with plum, all spice and licorice aromas; the palate is no more than light- to medium-bodied, but does have very good mouthfeel and persistence; indeed, it seems to have done away with the need for tannin support, and the oak impact is minimal. Ready to roll right now.
93 points; drink to 2022; 14.5% alc; screwcap; $24.99
2012 Jacob's Creek Double Barrel Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon
Surprisingly, slightly lighter coloured than the shiraz, and the fruit is less fragrant on the bouquet; however, the palate makes up for that in no uncertain fashion, with cassis to the fore, and given complexity by touches of Coonawarra earth and herb; classy, integrated and balanced tannins add depth and length.
94 points; drink to 2025; 14.6% alc; screwcap; $24.99
2010 Jacob's Creek St Hugo Vetus Purum Barossa Shiraz
Made in tiny quantities and only sold in airport shops in Australia, Asia and the United State; the packaging is at a level only previously seen with top end Special Bin Penfolds reds. Hand-picked from the Willandra Vineyard in the Barossa Valley, it is an outstanding wine, still amazingly youthful, with a cascade of plum, blackberry, licorice and multi-spice flavours on the very long, superbly balanced and focused palate. It spent 24 months in a mix of new and used oak, now totally integrated.
97 points; drink to 2040; 14.9% alc; cork; $188
This is an unedited version of Jacob’s Creek Double Barrel written by James Halliday for the Weekend Australian Magazine.
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