Irvine Wines: Masters of Merlot (November 26, 2015)
The Successful Collector – by Julian Hitner
photo courtesy of Irvine Wines
As Merlot makers go, the story of Irvine Wines is unique. It all began in the late 1970s, when South Australian James Irvine tasted Château Petrus for the very first time, a wine long regarded as Bordeaux's greatest Merlot and one of the most illustrious, most prohibitive of its kind in the world. In short, the experience proved pivotal, culminating in Irvine's departure from his long-time profession as grape purchaser for Thomas Hardy & Sons and setting out on his own. His mission: to recreate the same wine that had so intensely inspired him.
From the outset, Irvine's experience with grape buying came in handy, having been responsible since 1951 for acquiring grapes from the Eden Valley for the production of "Siegersdorf" Riesling, one of Hardy's many moderately priced labels. As such, he was more than familiar with the terrain of this markedly cool climate region for quality wine, best known for Riesling of uncanny intensity, zestiness and staying power. In 1980, he and his wife Marjorie put such knowledge to good use, purchasing the 20-hectare Springhill estate in a more southerly section of the region, planting it with Merlot in lieu of Riesling. Combined with purchased grapes from other producers and an expansion of vineyards over the years, the two of them never looked back.
For Merlot, the terroir of Springhill and neighbouring sites could not be more suitable: gravel-rich "podzolic" soils that produce later-ripening fruit as a result of the valley's cool autumn temperatures. Such soils are also ideal for handling drainage at higher altitudes of roughly 375 m and more generous levels of rainfall. Put together, it has enabled the wines of James Irvine to stand out with a marked sense of individuality, structure and cellaring potential.
Quite so, it is these characteristics that Irvine has long since achieved with his Merlots, regarded for over twenty years as among the finest the Southern Hemisphere has to offer. Today, the wines are divided into three categories. The first is the Estate, a satisfying wine of fruity disposition and ease, meant for everyday drinking. The second is the Springhill, a wonderful mid-tier wine of great structure and breadth, with fruit sourced from some of the best sites on the property and elsewhere. The top bottling is the Grand Reserve, a Merlot of unbelievable depth, complexity and, on occasion, provocatively Pomerol-like textures and flavours. Unsurprisingly, this is the wine that has received the lion's share of attention over the years, though only the most privileged of wine commentators are in any position to decide if there is any resemblance to Château Petrus. In any event, there is often a very perceptible sense of claret-type elegance, silkiness and charm to the wines, despite possessing much greater alcohol and weight than its counterparts on the Right Bank.
With the passage of time, a whole slew of wines from other grapes have been added to the portfolio, from Cabernet Franc-blends and Zinfandel to Pinot Gris and sparkling Petit Meslier. On the whole, the more serious of these are interesting, at times remarkably pleasurable, wines. Yet Merlot remains the focus by far, with daughter Joanne nowadays handling the winemaking. Recently, the estate was sold to a neighbouring family, though Jim (now in his eighties) has stayed on as consultant. With all sorts of expansion and renovation projects in the works, Irvine Wines seems well set for the future, its founder having mastered the art of Merlot a long time ago.
James Irvine 2010 Grand Reserve Merlot, Eden Valley, South Australia, Australia: The highlight wine of a recent tasting, the 2010 Grand Reserve Merlot will likely be considered a benchmark for most future vintages. Opaque ruby in colour, it sports wondrous, stylish aromas of briary black and red fruits, black liquorice, dark chocolate, subtle traces of Provençal perfumes and exotic spices. On the palate: outstanding suppleness and sophistication, even elegant after a while in decanter. Masterful Merlot. Now–2035+. (Julian Hitner, The Successful Collector, March 2015)
95 Price Unavailable Private Collection
James Irvine 2005 Royale Deluxe Merlot, Eden Valley, South Australia, Australia: Tasted out of half-bottle, the 2005 Royal Deluxe Merlot (a one-time offering unlikely to be produced again) is the most powerful, most potent outing (logging in at 16% alcohol) James Irvine has ever produced. Opaque ruby-red currant in colour, it showcases super-opulent, slightly port-like aromas of "iron" black chocolate and blueberry compote; giving way to currents, coffee, roasted game, mint, gunflint, delicate cedarwood and a host of exotic spices. Extremely complex, sporting unbelievable dimension, power, luxury and length. Not exactly the most subtle wine in existence, nonetheless an extremely unique and delectable achievement. Examined twice over the past year, with very similar results. Screwcap closure. Now–2026++. (Julian Hitner, The Successful Collector, November 2015)
93 Price Unavailable Private Collection
James Irvine 2009 Grand Reserve Merlot, Eden Valley, South Australia, Australia: One of many great vintages of the last decade, the 2009 Grand Reserve Merlot is one of the most robust wines I have tasted from here in recent years. Opaque ruby-red current in colour, it offers aromas of dark chocolate, black fruits, vanilla pods, mahogany wood and exotic spices. Rather shy when initially examined, eventually revealing a generous mouthfeel of outstanding warmth, structure, tenacity and length. Milder in acidity than most vintages, nonetheless brilliantly balanced as a whole. Strikingly Pomerol-like a few hours after decanting. Now–2028+. (Julian Hitner, The Successful Collector, August 2015)
93 Price Unavailable Private Collection
James Irvine 2012 Springhill Merlot, Barossa, South Australia, Australia: Crafted from grapes sourced from Springhill plots and other sources outside of Eden Valley, the 2012 Springhill Merlot is an exceptional drop. Opaque ruby in colour, it exudes fabulous aromas of black fruits and subtle chocolate, later switching to more subtle nuances of damson plums, dried red currants and spice. Delicious and opulent, with just the right balance of round fruits and supple tannins. Beautiful length. Screwcap closure. Now–2025+. (Julian Hitner, The Successful Collector, September 2015)
92 Price Unavailable Private Collection