I had a remarkable dinner last week at Au Jardin in the Singapore Botanic Gardens, at which the following wines were served:
· 1999 Domaine Leflaive Bienvenues-Bâtard-Montrachet;
· 2001 Domaine Armand Rousseau Chambertin-Clos de Bèze;
· 2007 Parawa Estate Ingalalla Grand Reserve; and
· 1982 Château Trotanoy.
Can you spot the odd one out?
Funnily enough, the Ingalalla was the “hook” which persuaded me to attend the dinner. According to my host, his friend WM (who is the publisher of a prominent wine magazine in Australia and New Zealand) had turned his hand to winemaking and was producing some very interesting wines, for which he was now looking for importers/distributors in Asia. I had expected that more of his wines (and none of the French) would have been served at dinner, but on occasion, fortune does favour the brave.
WM told us he set out to make and market Australia’s most expensive wine, period, and yes, that includes the recently launched 2008 Penfolds Bin 620 (A$1,000) and Torbreck's 2005 "The Laird" (A$700). The Ingalalla, a Bordeaux blend from WM's Parawa Estate in South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula, has an "ex-cellar" launch price of A$1,100, around US$1,150 at last reckoning. With a production per vintage of only 2,400 bottles and having spent 4 years in a mix of new and seasoned French oak, its assemblage is similarly interesting, with its major constituents being around 35% cabernet sauvignon and 30% petit verdot.
In the middle of WM’s pitch, I felt a slight sense of concern about the following:
· He was not going to market this wine in Australia at all, the reason being his magazine reviewed thousands of wines annually and he felt he had an unavoidable conflict of interest if the wine was available on the Aussie market.
· His target was going to be Singapore, Hong Kong and China. Indeed, he mentioned that the vertical design of the label (the name “Parawa” being spelt vertically down the bottle) was partly intended to mirror the traditional style of rendering Chinese script.
· He had a panel of four Australian Masters of Wine blind-taste the Ingalalla on two separate occasions, along with the likes of Lafite, Latour, Haut-Brion, Mouton-Rothschild and Margaux from the 2007 vintage. WM said the Ingalalla came first on one occasion and second last on the other, defeating only the Margaux. According to WM, he was not claiming that his wine was better than the French, but merely that it could hold its own in such company.
· Objectively speaking, he was aiming for a very elevated (obscene?) price point and relying heavily on the exclusivity factor. WM even had his figures downpat over how much rarer and more exclusive the Ingalalla was than the great names of Bordeaux, such as less than half the production of Le Pin and 1/40th that of Haut-Brion.
I have my views on each of the above points but I leave it to you to be the judge. I note only that the Bordeaux blind-tasting results should not be taken at face value, in that the Ingalalla’s competitors were all notoriously slow-maturing wines from a very mediocre vintage.
The verdict? The Ingalalla is a decent wine, perhaps even a good wine, but it is not by any measure a great wine. Pleasant enough bouquet albeit with a volatile, almost onion-y edge which thankfully blew away later on, dusky fruit which struggled to make its presence felt over the oak, sturdy acidity (petit verdot influence?) but not much by way of tannins, and a smooth, medium-length finish. For me, the lack of tannin and fruit casts doubt over its longevity. I note WM did not suggest that this was a flawed bottle in any way.
WM said he would have preferred to have let the wine air overnight, so I need to give it the benefit of the doubt on that point as we decanted it only 2 hours before dinner. However, WM did tell us that he had tasting appointments earlier that day, so he had the opportunity to present the wine to the restaurant and ask them to decant it well beforehand had he so wished. As three members of our party were high-profile members of the wine trade (and potential distributors of the Ingalalla) and another was a prominent wine journalist (i.e. NOT me), I would suggest that this was not too much trouble to ensure that the wine was showing at its best.
The problem here is that when you set out with the express aim of selling Australia’s priciest wine, people’s expectations are built up, and that is normal human behaviour. We also compare price outliers against our personal tasting benchmarks, and that is also normal human behaviour. I had the pleasure of the 1996 Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste last Saturday - a great wine and drinking beautifully at the moment - for a mere fraction of the cost. For a New World comparison, I felt all of the Colgin wines (see here: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/839331) were far superior to the Ingalalla, albeit for a larger fraction of the Ingalalla’s launch price than the G-P-L but still well under 50%.
I will set out my concerns as to his Asian focus. Yes, Asians (speaking generally, and definitely not in my specific case!) are going through a period of unprecedented prosperity and are increasingly spending large amounts of money on luxury products such as wine. However, they tend to shell out the big bucks either because (a) they are buying a prestigious label which becomes a conversation piece or for “face”/status reasons; (b) the wine has an excellent track record as an investment and will appreciate in value; or (c) they love the wine so much they will stop at nothing to get it. Whatever you think of Penfolds’ strategy in launching its Bin 620 in Shanghai, it could at least rely on the history and success of Grange as Australia’s foremost icon wine. Yet the Ingalalla cannot tick boxes (a) and (b); made by a mostly unknown maker (how many of you have heard of Parawa Estate before this?), this is its first vintage and hasn’t even been released commercially.
As to box (c), there is no accounting for personal taste, so I would invite the reader to taste it and make up his/her own mind as to the merits of this wine. That is, if you have a cool US$1,150 to shell out for a bottle.