The Southern Cross is a constellation of stars infamously visible in the night sky of Australia. It is writ large in Australian folklore; it features in the national anthem and in its bold presence on the Eureka flag, where it was an iconic symbol of the workers’ resistance to British imperial rule, a moniker for class equality.
No wonder the eponymous ‘Astralis’ label, Clarendon Hills‘ world famous and highly collectable 1er Grand Cru Syrah, features the stunningly bright five glowing stars of the cross against its black background, at once a reminder where this infamous wine hails from, the stars a metaphor for any review.
Clarendon Hills has 20 single vineyard red wines from the critically vital wine region of McLaren vale and their sub regions such as Blewitt Springs and Kangarilla. Owner and founder Roman Bratasiuk has, to an extent, redefined both the region and international opinion of Australian Syrah, forging strong relationships with growers identified as having exceptional sites back in 1990. What began then has organically grown to include Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cabernet and Merlot of outstanding reputation and quality.
The occasion was an intimate dinner at renowned Shanghai landmark restaurant Jean Georges at 3 on the Bund with Marketing Director Alex Bratasiuk, the son of Astralis founder Roman Bratasiuk, and a small group of passionate lovers of Clarendon Hills wines. The world covets the Astralis, sitting as it does in top echelon of Australia’s greatest wines. There’s not a lot of it, and you certainly need to dig deep to acquire it, but what an acquisition. We savoured the 2006 along with a range of hand selected wines chosen for this occasion, Summergate’s launch of Clarendon Hills in China. With so little of his wine released within Australia, it is a rare privilege to taste Clarendon Hills here in China.
All wines showed beautifully on the night. The 2007 Hickinbothan Grenache from old vines Grenache opened with notes of anise, cherry, plums and liquorice. Too many Aussie Grenaches fall over quickly and possess somewhat light, sweet fruit lacking complexity. The 2007 was drinking beautifully, deliciously balanced which is the hallmark of Bratasiuk’s wines, and still has a few years in its plateau. Confidently drink through to 2016. The slightly lighter structure than the Shiraz wines meant this was well paired with our starters. The next two wines were paired with our braised beef, a superb choice. The 2006 Sandown Cabernet opened with perfumed lavender and mixed crushed dark berries, without any hint of volatility or green edges. Purely varietal, this is dense and complex, with layers of spice and tobacco. It is at once completely rounded and long, yet youthful despite being in its 7th year. Are we recognising a theme here?
The 2006 Hickinbotham Syrah contrasts with the Sandown through its more peppery, anise nose mixed with ripe crushed olives and black jam compote. Wow! A lot going on here, and as with all Clarendon Hills wines it is the brilliant focus in the primary and secondary fruit flavors which immediately captures my attention. That, and the density of the palate. This will comfortably cellar to 20 years, evolving into an earthy, complex aged wine. The kirsch-like liqueur and crushed berry nose and palate make this an immensely rewarding Syrah, perfectly balanced with our roasted meats.
As a prelude to the Astralis we were served the 2006 Bakers Gully Syrah. The density in the glass suggested a complex wine and that’s again what you get. Purple, dark hued wine. This to my way of thinking is a very modern, spicy yet earthy wine with a lick of licorice weaving on the nose and palate. Beautifully balanced, it is a bright and youthful wine again belying its age. I only say this as those not accustomed to Australian wines with at least five plus years of age will be so surprised at the exuberance of this wine. It is a very more-ish Syrah. Bratasiuk claims to create wine atypical of those Australian Syrah’s that can be overly ripe, jammy even. Clearly he is right.
To conclude we drank the 2006 Astralis, sitting at 98 points in Wine Spectator. So much has been written about the Astralis, it’s hard not to be clichéd and all gushing. This Syrah hails from ninety plus year old pre-phylloxera vines, and exudes an array of complex notes, from star anise, cinnamon, blueberries, coffee bean, chocolate and an earthiness that suggests its longevity. For a wine so complex it is remarkably balanced and approachable, having opened up in the glass to reveal these layers of flavour which are married on the long, round and full palate. There is an almost creaminess to the wine when you taste it, awash with crushed black fruits and spice. A velvet glove? This is a mere pup and will greatly reward those wise enough, fortunate enough to procure some bottles.
Drinking Clarendon Hills wines is akin to looking into the giant trunk of an old growth gum tree, at once immense and profound, with layers and layers of texture. These layers astound you. Like all great wines, they evolve not only in the bottle for years, but over the hours of opening, revealing nuances like perhaps only great classical music can. Alex spoke with intimate knowledge about the early days, the history of the individual vineyard sites, and the creation of Australia, the prehistoric soils, and the process. Really, he needn’t have…the wines speak for themselves.