Henschke wines and Sichuan food are put through their paces.
For my last meal on Earth I would happily settle for a banquet at Spice Temple restaurant in Sydney. For the wine to accompany it, I probably wouldn't choose Henschke's Hill of Grace because other wines would go better with the food.
But here we are with Stephen and Prue Henschke and daughter Justine, drinking this famed wine and blissing out on Sydney town's most mysteriously fascinating food.
Spice Temple food is spicy but not so spicy you cannot enjoy good wine - both red and white. We start off with Henschke sparkling wine - non-vintage Blanc de Noirs ($50) - and a delicious drink it is, with food or not.
Then to a 2010 Henschke Joseph Hill Eden Valley Gewurztraminer ($33) and a 2002 Henschke Green's Hill Riesling, which shows superbly, only a few days shy of its 10th birthday.
Then a couple of reds: the 2010 Henry's Seven ($34; a shiraz-driven blend of Rhone varieties including grenache, mourvedre and viognier) and 2009 Keyneton Euphonium ($48; mainly shiraz and cabernet sauvignon, with a little merlot and cabernet franc).
I normally make notes on wines such as these but in this dark Aladdin's Cave of a room with food smells, noise and conversation, to say nothing of the dishes' flavours, it doesn't make a lot of sense. It's a matter of what feels good - like walking in the dark using your hands as a guide.
Suffice it to say, the wines are excellent food wines, especially the two-year-old gewurztraminer and the Euphonium. The latter surprises by being a most agreeable companion to this challenging food. This, I suspect, is because it's elegant and balanced, soft of texture and gentle of tannin: a red made to be a good drink rather than an attention-seeker.
Henry's Seven works because of its silken lushness due, I suspect, in no small measure to the grenache in the blend. Soft tannins and fruit sweetness work with spicy food. Firm tannins, such as in young cabernet, don't.
The other bogyman with this kind of food - indeed, almost any food - is excess alcohol, which neither possesses, although at 14.5 per cent they certainly didn't lack it.
Earlier, the 2007 Hill of Grace was dusted off and made its debut as a pre-dinner taste. This kind of powerful, concentrated and quite tannic wine begs to be cellar-aged. It's a solid, dense wine, showing drought-year, low-yield concentration. This vintage, the vines gave just a quarter of a tonne of grapes per acre, which is lousy.
The $620 price of this fabled wine is a mixture of the quality and character of the wine, but also fame, scarcity and certain less-tangible factors. The history of the vineyard, planted in the 1860s by Nicolaus Stanitski, the family-owned Henschke wine business (established 1868) and the special cachet of single-vineyard wines, all add to the perceived value. The 2007 Hill of Grace is a very good wine. Powerful, fleshy, and loaded with spice, black fruits, cedar, mint and many other flavours, the wine is dense and amply endowed with tannins which are forceful yet svelte. There are no raisin, jam or other overripe fruit notes. It's a very good, if not a great Hill of Grace.
Back to that Blanc de Noirs, which is a unique wine - yes, another unique Henschke wine.
Not only does it taste good, it's produced in a way nobody else does.
The Henschkes saved pinot noir base-wines from their Lenswood, Adelaide Hills vineyard for 10 years before the first Blanc de Noirs was released. The first component was vintaged in 1997.
Instead of blending all the vintages as they come along, Stephen Henschke matures each vintage's wine separately. Periodically, he makes a blend, which is bottled and given a secondary fermentation.
Voila: a sparkling wine with ready-made depth of aged character.
It's a pale coppery pink in colour, and full-bodied, rich and highly textured in the mouth.
Not a delicate wine by a long shot. But it's certainly characterful. And different.
Frankly, I can't imagine those Henschkes doing anything run-of-the-mill. I doubt it's in their DNA.
PENFOLDS RETURNS TO WOOD
Penfolds chief winemaker Peter Gago says Penfolds - which uses screwcaps on all its wines except Grange - is moving back to natural cork bottle closures. However, the change won't be 100 per cent to cork; Penfolds will offer the choice of cork or screwcap. The change of heart was prompted by damaged wine being returned to Penfolds, mainly from export markets. Bad handling or storage can result in heat damage. Cork-sealed wines show the damage through leaky or ''pushed'' corks but screwcapped wines show no sign. Leakers or pushed-cork wines can be returned for exchange but it's more complicated with screwcapped bottles. ''Cork is a barometer of care,'' Gago says. Interestingly, the announcement comes just as Penfolds' stablemate at Treasury Wine Group, Wynns Coonawarra Estate, releases a screwcapped magnum for its mid-priced cabernet shiraz, The Gables.
TASTING ON THE ROAD
Penfolds will take a new approach to tastings for the next edition of The Rewards of Patience, its book of tasting notes and commentaries on the brand's wines from leading wine journalists. Instead of having one large tasting in South Australia, with a panel of local and overseas tasters, the company will take to the road, holding parts of the tasting in various countries. Peter Gago and his winemakers recently did the Bin 707 cabernet sauvignon vertical tasting in China. They will taste Grange and Koonunga Hill wines in the Americas and RWT Barossa shiraz and other wines in Europe later this year. The book's seventh edition is due to be published next year.
BLEND OF TALENTS
McLaren Vale's Yangarra Estate, owned by Californian company Jackson Family Wines, is making a US-Australia collaborative wine this vintage. Jackson's Californian winemaker, Chris Carpenter, a cabernet specialist, is making a cabernet shiraz in McLaren Vale with his local counterpart, Peter Fraser. Carpenter is making the cabernet, Fraser the shiraz, and the wines will be blended.
The popular Vin de Champagne Awards will this year feature a new prize, open to students of all subjects, from viticulture to fine arts and maths. In the past, the student-section winner won a two-week study trip to Champagne with winners of the professional and amateur sections. There's no overseas trip for students this year but a year-long mentoring program in which they will learn about champagne. For entry forms for all categories, see champagne-cic.com.au. Entries close on July 9.
DISTILLING A FINE IDEA
Mudgee has a new distillery to complement its wine industry. The managing partner and distiller at Baker Williams Distillery, Nathan Williams, is setting up business next to Vinifera Wines, just outside the town, and working towards licensing. He plans to start with a vodka then liqueurs, ''but, at the end of the day, my heart goes to whisky, which is where we will direct the business''. It makes sense in a wine-growing region to develop a brandy, too, and Williams's goal is to include as much local produce as possible. ''Folks coming to the region want to experience the regional produce and we think there's plenty of quality on offer.'' He aims to have his first product on sale in July.