Wine Review: Jim Barry Value Red Showdown

13 01 2016

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

I'm not making up the vertical/horizontal label dichotomy, right?  Totally something thematic there.

I’m not making up the vertical/horizontal label dichotomy, right? Totally something thematic there.

Australian wine is in sort of a weird place right now.  I first got into wine during the Great Shiraz Rush just over a decade ago, when critter wines ran rampant and the overtly ripe, sweet, boozy style and approachable branding of big-name Aussie Shiraz rolled over the global wine scene like a tsunami, spawning copycats galore and creating ripples that are only now just starting to settle.  The behemoth brands at the front of this wave are mostly still around today, and their bold, fruity, slightly concocted style certainly retains its share of popularity with casual drinkers, but the world has moved on to other phenomena and the scene in Australia seems caught in aftermath phase, not wanting to totally abandon what brought it to global prominence but understanding that its long-term prosperity is likely tied to being something more than liquor store filler.  The country is taking steps to avoid being a one-hit wonder, surprisingly churning out some of the best Riesling you’ve never tried, finding cooler pockets for Pinot Noir and (especially in Tasmania) sparkling wine, using its plentitude of remarkably old vines to its advantage, and dialling its Shiraz back a notch or two while still keeping it lush and appealing to New World palates.  It is also finding stronger and more quality-focused expressions of its value wines which are less industrial commodities and more genuine expressions of grape and place.  This is where Jim Barry comes in.

This family-owned producer is now run by second-generation executive winemaker Peter Barry, the son of eponymous founder Jim, who was the first qualified winemaker in South Australia’s Clare Valley, where the winery is based.  Its tailored lineup of wines runs the gamut from dynamite supermarket bargains (see below) to one of Australia’s very best and priciest bottles, The Armagh Shiraz (as experienced by me in one of my favourite tastings ever).  I was first converted to the Jim Barry cause a few years ago when I bought the Cover Drive Cabernet Sauvignon on a whim because of its circus-tent striping on the neck foil and the cricket player on the main label and was wowed by what I found inside.  I could be wrong, but by its participation in the JB value red duel below, I believe Cover Drive becomes the very first wine in PnP history to be reviewed in three separate vintages, following its write-ups here and here.  Can it hold off a spirited challenge from its neck-striped brother, the Lodge Hill Shiraz?  Let’s find out.

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2012 Jim Barry The Cover Drive Cabernet Sauvignon

Both the Cover Drive Cab and the Lodge Hill Shiraz differentiate themselves from the other value-priced Aussie reds out there by matching their approachable price points ($25ish, less if you can find them at Costco, where they often appear) with single-vineyard expressions of top grapes from some of the country’s leading wine regions.  The Cover Drive is from arguably Australia’s best Cabernet Sauvignon area, Coonawarra, a tiny oval-shaped strip of land near South Australia’s southern tip known for its trademark reddish “terra rossa” soil, which sits overtop water-retaining limestone, making it a mecca for grape-growing.  This particular 30-acre Cabernet vineyard was planted on the site of an old cricket ground (hence the label), and Jim Barry actually kept the cricket pitch itself intact, so it’s still there, watching over the grapes.  2012 was an absolutely spectacular vintage in South Australia, the best in at least a decade, allowing the winery to craft exactly the wine it wanted to.

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The 2012 Cover Drive was a deep, but not fully opaque, ruby colour, seeming almost delicate for a warm-weather red like this.  The textbook aroma for Coonawarra Cabs (like all Cabs, but particularly prominent in Coonawarra) is mint/eucalyptus, which was present in spades on the nose, along with plum, red currant, grape, savoury herbs like sage and a surprising medicinal note.  The restrained hue of the wine (not to mention its toned-down 13.5% abv) was a precursor for the palate:  sharper and leaner than previous incarnations of Cover Drive, its currant and raspberry flavours were tart rather than sweet and were layered with distinct floral, mineral and herbaceous accents, river rocks and rhubarb and tomato leaf.  Fine yet grippy tannins clamped down around the finish, which triggered previously hidden but suddenly mouthwatering acidity.  Believe it or not, this is almost refreshing to drink — when you think “Aussie Cab”, you don’t think this, but maybe that’s soon to change.

87+ points

$25 to $30 CDN

Steven Ratings:  8.5/10 (THIS is how you screwcap, people.  Leave the plain black at home.  Live a little.)

Steven Ratings: 8.5/10 (THIS is how you screwcap, people. Leave the plain black at home. Live a little.)

2012 Jim Barry The Lodge Hill Shiraz

From Coonawarra we head northwest, just north of Adelaide, to Jim Barry’s home base of Clare Valley.  Here the altitude increases and the climate cools in one of Australia’s prime zones for Riesling, which is planted in the winery’s Lodge Hill vineyard, one of Clare Valley’s highest at nearly 500 metres above sea level.  This mountainous vineyard is along the eastern edge of the Clare Valley, with rocky soils featuring just enough soil-filled cracks to allow for root growth and drainage for the vines.  So naturally, at this cool, Riesling-favoured, elevated site, Jim Barry also planted…Shiraz?  And it worked?  Oh yes.  In fact, in spite of the built-in climatic checks and balances, The Lodge Hill was a clear contrast to its Cab brethren above, a softer, more open, broad-shouldered red, yet one that still maintained its structure and presence.

[Also a clear contrast, as an aside, were the labels of the two bottles:  the vertically inclined Cover Drive versus the horizontally influenced Lodge Hill.  I’m not just talking about the neck stripes, although that’s part of it; the centre label on the Cover Drive is tall and thin, while the same label on the Lodge Hill builds a literal hill out of rows of sideways words.  Maybe it’s a subtle nod to the tall, thin shape of Coonawarra and the foothills of the Clare respectively, but you don’t see many producers willing to vary their labels to that degree.  I need to talk to a graphic designer about this.]

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Back to the wine itself:  The Lodge Hill was darker, thicker and more purple than The Cover Drive, edging closer to black.  Just a classic Australian Shiraz nose:  not overwrought in the slightest, but teeming with blackberry, blueberry, barbecue, hoisin sauce, clove and cardamom aromas, emphatically delicious through and through.  It was noticeably fuller-bodied than the Cab, featuring riper fruit and a higher alcohol (14.5%), but was still laced through with vibrant acid and crunchy tannins.  The look of the wine again foreshadowed its taste, as there was lots of black on the palate, from dark fruits to pavement to star anise/black licorice Jujubes, accented with baking spice, a clear smokiness (almost like briquettes) and (as correctly noted on the back label) a distinct milk chocolate note as you swallow.  This is controlled yet exuberant, crushable yet characterful.  It’s a winner.

90 points

$25 to $30 CDN

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2 responses

14 01 2016
Les

It’s nice to hear about some other Australian offerings besides the typical Shiraz’s that were all the rage years ago.

I’ve always been a fan of Penfolds and enjoy the occasional 19 Crimes Shiraz but must admit other than that I’m not very well versed in Australian wines.

I’m quite curious to try one of these wines out and will definitely keep an eye out for them.

14 01 2016
petervetsch

Thanks Les! Jim Barry definitely fits into the Penfolds mould of being able to bring quality and interest to bottles of a wide range of price points – one of those producers where you feel safe buying just about any bottle they put out. The Lodge Hill in particular is just rocking this vintage. Cheers!!

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