Wine Review: 2006 RedHeads Studio Esule

16 04 2011

Awesome label, domineering wine.

Here we have a wine with a great back story, a fun concept and a kick-ass label, but which is made in a style that just makes me cringe.  It’s from the McLaren Vale, one of the premium wine regions in Australia located immediately south of Adelaide in the dead centre of the country’s southern coast, and it takes the super-ripe, ultra-concentrated Aussie style to crazy, irrational extremes.  It is probably a well-made wine for its style, but I will take a rather harsh stand and say that there shouldn’t BE any wines of this style.

But let’s rewind to the good stuff first.  RedHeads Studio is a garage wine collective located in south-central Australia.  “Garage wine” is a term used to describe high-quality, small-production artisan wines generally made by winemakers who don’t own vineyard land themselves but who buy grapes from growers and make custom wines in small crushing/fermenting facilities.  Some of the first such facilities in Bordeaux, France were actually in garages, which is what coined the term.  RedHeads is home to a number of such custom winemakers, who are often responsible for creating modern, edgy wines.

Poor King Cab...all he ever wanted to do was love.

The Esulé is a blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon and 45% Cabernet Franc, rare for the Shiraz-dominated McLaren Vale but central to the story behind the wine.  “Esulé” means “outcast”, and it refers to the fact that Cabernet-based wines had a sharp decline in popularity in the early 2000s, a fall from grace for the previously-undisputed King of red wines.  The film noir-esque label was specifically designed to reflect this narrative (that’s Old Man Cabernet to the right with his crown beside the femme fatale crying over his loss of stature).  The wine was designed to honour a top-end varietal that at the time had fallen out of vogue.

All of that would be tremendously cool if the Esulé actually showed off the best characteristics of Cabernet (complexity, structure, mouthfeel), but instead the wine seems geared towards wringing every possible living ounce of flavour out of each and every grape.  The grapes making up the Esulé were intentionally not harvested until they were so overripe that they started shrivelling on the vine (a technique usually only seen in dessert wines), and the resulting ripeness (combined with the warmth of Southern Australia) led to a harvest with a high enough sugar content to support this wine’s *gasp* 16% alcohol level.  As a charter member of the Sub-15% Club who has yet to see an alcohol percentage over 15% make a wine better, I shake my head at you, RedHeads.  This is a wine on steroids where those steroids are on steroids.  It’s ridiculous.

Great story. Wish the wine lived up to it.

Not surprisingly, the abominable alcohol level dominates every facet of the Esulé’s flavour profile.  It is totally opaque in colour, an inky, glass-staining, deep dark red, even 5 years after harvest.  A rush of sweet ripeness greets the nose, primarily cooked blueberry and raspberry along with secondary notes of cedar (or cedar shavings, like a hamster cage), caramel and cinnamon.  On the initial attack the darker/blue fruit flavours carry over, mixed with tons of sweetness from the alcohol (a byproduct of alcoholic fermentation is glycerol, which has a slightly sweet taste) and vanilla from the oak aging.  The wine has a massive, mouth-coating, creamy body that I was just beginning to appreciate when WHAM! — the booze kicked in and obliterated every analytical thought in my brain.  This is hot hot HOT on the back end, with a burning finish that’s almost uncomfortable, to the point where you can barely keep your mouth closed after swallowing it.  It’s like taking a big fiery swing of cask-strength whisky.  This walk over the coals is partially restrained by the wine’s tannic structure, but ultimately the Esulé’s fine tannins can’t contain this blockbuster.  After a glass or so, it got to the point where the wine was physically tiring to drink; there was so much of everything punching my tongue on each sip before the concentrated alcohol lit it on fire.

Cork Rating: 6/10 (A little Alice-In-Wonderland-y.)

I know good wine can be made in a variety of styles, and I know Australian winemakers have achieved both commercial success and critical acclaim by making full, fruity, alcoholic red wines, many of which I quite enjoy.  But everything has a limit, and the Esulé beat up that limit, stole its car and drove it off a cliff.  This isn’t a badly made wine, because it is exactly what the winemaker was going for, but I don’t understand the point of making a wine like this where the varietal characteristics of the grape and the sense of “somewhereness” you get from the place where it’s grown are completely wiped out by excesses of ripeness and alcohol.  This is an ode to Cabernet that you can’t even tell IS Cabernet.  I’m particularly disappointed about this wine because I actually diligently cellared it for two years before opening it tonight…if I had noticed the 16% on the bottle earlier, I wouldn’t have bothered.

83 points

$40 to $45 CDN

[Wine Jargon Notes:
varietal = a varietal is a type of grape, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, etc.
structure = the combination of all of the compounds/components that form the framework or architecture of a wine, including its acidity, tannin, and alcohol
mouthfeel = literally, the feel of the wine in your mouth, its weight, texture and body
attack/finish when you taste a wine, the initial taste impression you get is called the attack; the final taste impression as and after you swallow is the finish; everything in between is the midpalate.]
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