“Liquid Sex”? Retrospective blindtasting of Parker Aussie favorite Oliverhill

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“LIQUID SEX”? RETROSPECTIVE BLINDTASTING OF PARKER AUSSIE FAVORITE OLIVERHILL – Rich and Peggy’s Home in Los Altos, California (3/14/2011)

It is generally accepted at this point that Robert Parker went overboard in his enthusiasm and high scores for Aussie wines in the last decade. Lots of us fine wine people bought these wines based on Parker’s high scores, and too often found the wines overly concentrated, jammy and alcoholic. Despite Parker’s specific claims with respect to many of these wines that they would last and evolve for 15 or more years, that has not proven to be the case.

Sure, there are some wonderful and balanced Australian wines out there, with strong examples regularly from the likes of Henschke, Rockford and Torbreck. Too often, though, the wines to which Parker gave high scores were overblown and not made to last. The disappointment in the fine wine market over many of Parker’s highly rated wines was a major contributing factor to the wholesale collapse of the Australian wine export market over the last few years.

This tasting was an opportunity to review the ageworthiness of one of those Parker favorites, Oliverhill’s Jimmy Section Shiraz, which he praised in one vintage by quoting approvingly another taster’s description of the wine as “liquid sex.” These were not wines that other reviewers had identified as outstanding prior to Parker’s rave reviews, and I’ve found that to be a good criterion for identifying Parker’s more unreliable Aussie scores–his big “finds” may have produced “big” wines, but not very balanced or lasting ones, in many cases.

The esteemed dean of Australian wine writing, James Halliday, famously responded in 2005 to Parker’s effusive Aussie reviews and high ratings by pointing out that they varied wildly from the results of tastings by Australia’s wine show judges. He also referred to the “monstrous red wines so beloved of Robert Parker.” Parker, of course, fired back, charging that, “[Halliday] and most of his colleagues long ago turned their backs and palates on the true glories of Australia,” while also claiming that, “so many of these Euro-imitations that Halliday, [Brian] Croser et al have championed are vapid, innocuous and no better than very minor wines.”

Oliverhill was one of many that Parker plucked from obscurity and anointed with 95 or more points. Parker also regularly claimed in his Oliverhill reviews that these wines “should age beautifully for 10-15 years.” In the case of the 2005 Jimmy Section, for example, he claimed that the wine’s “[h]uge intensity, full body, and stunning concentration, richness, and length suggest this spectacular wine will age effortlessly for 10-15+ years.” And the ’06 Jimmy Section, which he rated 93 points, he advised to give “4-6 years in the cellar and drink it through 2027” (i.e., 21 years after the vintage).

Oliverhill was founded in 1973 in the heart of McLaren Vale and is currently owned by Linda and Stuart Miller. This part of McLaren Vale along Seaview Road is also home to vineyards for d’Arenberg, Kay’s Amery, Maxwell and Coriole, and supplies some of the Shiraz that goes into Penfolds Grange and Rosemount’s Balmoral. Oliverhill makes Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah and Grenache. Their highest rated Shiraz comes from Jimmy Section, a five-acre vineyard planted by the original owner 38 years ago, which the Millers started bottling in 1999.

In contrast to many Australian wineries, Oliverhill uses only French oak, of which one third is new. In this tasting, we reviewed five vintages of the Jimmy Section, back to 2000. We also had three vintages of Oliverhill’s Clarendon Shiraz, made from purchased fruit grown by Tony Fagg. For the results of our blindtasting, my take on the wines’ ageworthiness and more thoughts on Parker’s unreliability when it comes to the wines of Australia, see below.

My TNs and group scoring

I had never tasted an Oliverhill wine prior to this blindtasting. What I learned from this tasting is that these are, indeed, wines with intense flavor and admirable complexity. Later vintages are so concentrated and show so much alcohol that they are not likely to age well at all. The flavor intensity is such that they would overpower just about any food pairing, with the possible exception of barbecue.

The group and I were in total agreement on our number one wine of the tasting being the oldest–the 2000 Jimmy Hill–which was the vintage prior to the first one Parker scored (2001), and therefore made without his influence. It was relatively balanced and in harmony compared to wines from later vintages. It was complex, richly flavored, had a sense of pepper and a long finish. I gave it a strong 93 points.

The next vintage that Parker scored was the 2002, giving the Jimmy Section 94 points, and claiming it would last 10 to 15 years. I scored the 2002 last among our eight wines, at 87 points, and it was the group’s next to last. It may have lasted almost 10 years by this point but was not particularly good. The 2003 Jimmy Section, by contrast, was holding up much better. Parker had given it 94 points and advised drinking it “over the next 5-12 years.” I rated it 92+ points, despite a little VA on the nose, because I was impressed with its richness and complexity.

The next vintage, 2004, was rated 95 points by Parker, who thought it would age “beautifully” for 10-15 years. This sample, at least, was not aging well at all, and was disjointed and hot. I still gave it a decent rating, though, of 87+ points, for its intensity of flavor and complexity. The group did not rank it highly either. The ’04 Clarendon, on the other hand, was the group’s number two wine in the tasting. Parker had given that one 92+ points, and I was close to that with 91+ points. It had some very distinctive gunpowder and green herb flavors, which I picked up on the other Clarendon bottlings in this tasting as well.

Parker’s top rated wine in our tasting at 96 points was the ’05 Jimmy Section, which he called “one of South Australia’s finest efforts.” I liked it too, for its plush, chocolaty palate, but only to the 92 point level. It was my number three in this tasting and number 4 for the group. The group’s last place wine was the ’06 Clarendon, which was showing its heat. Parker had only rated that one 90+ points, and I wasn’t far from that at 89.

So I can see why Parker was attracted to these very intensely flavored wines. They do possess a high level of complexity and are made in a very rich and concentrated style. I’m wondering whether, after they received their first good review from Parker for the ’01 vintage, they might have pushed the ripeness and concentration even more, to try to earn as good a score or better in the future, so that only the 2000 seemed quite balanced to us. A few of them had a lot of heat, and the 2004 Jimmy Section, as described above, was disjointed and falling apart, so no way is it going to “age beautifully” until 2019. So while these are good wines, if you like intensity of flavor and wine as an aperitif instead of with food, I wouldn’t plan to age them past six or seven years.

I do think Parker went overboard with his scores and drinking window projections on these, and that having more experience with Australian wine in general and older Aussie wines in particular might have kept him from such overheated rhetoric and aging predictions. I also believe, however, that, over the last several years, Parker has inflated his ratings of particular areas and vintages in an attempt to garner attention (as we’ve seen most recently with 2007 Chateauneuf du Pape and 2009 Bordeaux), so Parker’s need for attention might well have trumped his desire to be accurate, even if he had the necessary prior experience with a wide range of Aussie wine to have been more circumspect with his ratings.
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  • 2000 Oliverhill Winery Shiraz Jimmy Section – Australia, South Australia, Fleurieu, McLaren Vale
    Group’s #1 (my #1) – 28 pts; 3 firsts, 3 seconds, 2 thirds, 0 last places – very dark purple red violet color; intense and intriguing ripe berry, roasted berry tart black fruit, boysenberry, eucalyptus nose; tight, tart black fruit, tart berry, tar, chocolate palate with a sense of pepper; long finish (most balanced of the five vintages of Jimmy Section we tasted) (93 pts.)
  • 2004 Oliverhill Winery Shiraz Clarendon – Australia, South Australia, Fleurieu, Clarendon
    Group’s #2 (my #4) – 32 pts.; 2, 3, 0, 1 – nearly opaque purple red violet color; intense clove, sweet smoke, charcoal, tart black fruit, sweet green herb, menthol nose; tight, intense, tart black fruit, pepper, green peppercorn, gun powder, menthol palate; long finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
  • 2005 Oliverhill Winery Shiraz Clarendon – Australia, South Australia, Fleurieu, Clarendon
    Group’s #3 (my #5) – 71 pts.; 2, 0 , 0, 1 – opaque purple red violet color; intense, green herb, green peppercorn, gunpowder, wasabi nose; intense, tart herbal, tar, tart black fruit, gunpowder, wasabi palate; long finish 90+ points (90 pts.)
  • 2005 Oliverhill Winery Shiraz Jimmy Section – Australia, South Australia, Fleurieu, McLaren Vale
    Group’s #4 (my #3) – 41 pts.; 0, 1, 4, 0 – opaque purple red violet color; tart black fruit, tar, berry, chocolate nose; concentrated, plush, tart black fruit, tar, licorice, dark chocolate, mint palate; long finish (92 pts.)
  • 2003 Oliverhill Winery Shiraz Jimmy Section – Australia, South Australia, Fleurieu, McLaren Vale
    Group’s #5 (my #2) – 44 pts.; 1, 2, 1, 1 – very dark purple red violet color; intense and rich ripe berry, blackberry, juicy, black plum nose with some VA; tasty, rich, blackberry, berry, mulberry palate with nearly integrated oak; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
  • 2004 Oliverhill Winery Shiraz Jimmy Section – Australia, South Australia, Fleurieu, McLaren Vale
    Group’s #6 (my #7) – 56 pts.; 1, 0, 1, 3 – opaque purple red violet color; VA, heat, tart black fruit, berry, blueberry nose; tight, intense, ripe berry, tart black fruit, blueberry, tar palate with pepper edges, a little hot and disjointed; medium-plus finish 87+ points (87 pts.)
  • 2002 Oliverhill Winery Shiraz Jimmy Section – Australia, South Australia, Fleurieu, McLaren Vale
    Group’s #7 (my #8) – 57 pts.; 0, 1, 2, 3 – very dark purple red violet color; smoke, tart black fruit, herbs, garrigue, anise, brett nose; concentrated, tart black fruit, herbal, brett, garrigue palate; medium-plus finish (87 pts.)
  • 2006 Oliverhill Winery Shiraz Clarendon – Australia, South Australia, Fleurieu, Clarendon
    Group’s #8 (my #6) – 61 pts.; 0, 0, 0, 1 – opaque purple red violet color; savory, roasted meat, brisket, charcoal, tar, sage nose; savory, sage, pepper, tart black fruit, oregano palate, a little hot; medium-plus finish (89 pts.)

I was reminded, during this tasting, of my surprise in the early 2000s, after having relied on Parker so much with respect to Bordeaux and California wine, that he seemed to have arrived at such inflated scores for the big jammy Australian wines I’d bought on his advice. Even more incomprehensible, to me, were his 99 and 100 point scores for a number of Aussie sweet wines, which I found functional as syrup for ice cream but basically undrinkable otherwise due to their total lack of the balancing acidity that makes for great sweet wine in Sauternes, Germany and Tokaji.

So I simply stopped buying Parker promoted Aussie wines at all by 2005. When I occasionally sample the ones still sitting in my cellar (for which there is no call, as they never pair well with food), I often find them to be out of balance at this point, and very much showing their high alcohol.

At about the same time I realized that Parker’s vaunted Aussie finds were not to my taste, I also started noticing that the Cali Pinots he rated most highly were often basically undrinkable and were not the same as my favorites at all. I kept subscribing to the Wine Advocate, however, for another few years, mainly because of its impact on the market, and to read the reviews by David Schildknecht and Neal Martin (and, I admit, some morbid curiosity in the last couple years as to what overblown Cali Pinot Parker was next going to call “Burgundian” and compare to a La Tache or DRC Richebourg). With Parker’s arrogant destruction last Spring of the Squires Board on eRobertParker (up until then, the most interesting and heavily trafficked wine bulletin board, but one where growing criticism of Parker and some of his stable of critics was becoming increasingly impossible for Parker and his minions to control), I finally ended my subscription and vowed to avoid giving any money to Mr. Parker in the future. I also went public with my issues regarding Parker in this intentionally hyperbolic blog post: http://www.rjonwine.com/bordeaux/robert-parker-reeking-pile-of-puss/

I do plan to keep my promise to avoid spending much time attacking Parker on this site, even though I do seem to receive a lot of kudos from readers when I go there. As I wrote in that prior post, “Frankly the man is just too big a target and writes too many patently ridiculous things for it to be that interesting anymore to attack him for his endlessly pompous statements and dumbfounding reviews.” When Parker is very much associated with a wine I’ve tasted, however, some mention may be appropriate, and I think reference to his role in singlehandedly promoting this winery, and other of his Aussie finds, is highly relevant to understanding the wines that were the subject of this tasting. Having dwelt so much on this overly influential critic in this post, however, I’ll make sure my next one is totally “Parker free.”

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