Wednesday Wines – Episode 206 – Truly Tremendous Torbreck

Honky 2024

 The New Releases

These notes were taken on 15th February 2024

Torbreck winemaker Ian Hongell was in town a couple of weeks ago to show previews of his new releases.  The first batch of wines was launched on 1st March, but I have held back my article until midway between the 1st of March launch of The Steading, The Struie, Descendant and The Factor and the 1st May launch of Les Amis, RunRig, The Forebear and The Laird so I can group all of my notes together.  In summary, these are some of the most riveting red wines on earth.  Sky high (100-point) scores from a series of commentators back in the Nineties and early Noughties somewhat besmirched the image of this winery.  This naturally made owners of more classically-shaped palates look the other way, but Ian Hongell’s winemaking appointment in 2017 and his relentless augmentation of style and implementation of endless detail in these wines means that while these are admittedly full-flavoured reds, they are also infinitesimally layered and complex.  I find them more expressive and sensual than fleets of Northern and Southern Rhônes and almost all top-end reds from South Africa, California, Chile and Argentina.  Bigger wines can be exquisitely beautiful if they are hewn from strident terroir and possess invigorating and balancing acidity.  This series of wines has all these elements and more.  As an aside, I opened a couple of older vintages of The Struie, The Factor, RunRig and the GSM The Steading for some 100 Best Australian Wines masterclasses earlier this year. These wines brought the house down.  They looked utterly mesmerising and attracted unanimous wonder and acclaim from the various audiences.  And people went further, pulling me aside after the tastings, stating that they never thought that wine could be so moving.  I could not agree more.  I bought the very first parcel of Torbreck wines ever released in the UK (1996 RunRig for my wine list at Bibendum Restaurant), and it was as shocking and memorable as the wines mentioned below.  Back then, admittedly, it was a beautiful blunderbuss.  Today, these wines are forensically assembled and laser sighted.  Do all you can to taste them – you will not regret it.

2022 Torbreck The Steading

Grape varieties – 50% Grenache, 31% Shiraz and 19% Mataro (Mourvèdre)

Vine age and location – Multiple vineyards ranging from 40- to 150-year-old vines in Gomersal, Lyndoch, Greenock, Moppa, Marananga, Seppeltsfield and Ebenezer

Picking dates – 4th April – 5th May 2022

Maturation – 20 months maturation on fine yeast lees in large 4500L French oak foudres. Natural malolactic conversion occurred during time in the barrel

Alc/Vol – 15%

pH – 3.50

Acidity – 5.59 g/L

In many ways, The Steading is the most complex wine to assemble because it is made from some 45 different parcels of grapes.  I have long been a fan of this label, not least because it retails for a snip of the price of some of the starrier names, and yet it always shows trademark Torbreck swagger and élan.  2022 is a sensational vintage for The Steading, and it might be the most profound release of this label to date.  The time-honoured blend of GS&M can sometimes be a confusing puzzle to fit together, but in 2022, it tastes like the puzzle pieces fused of their own accord, each edge gliding seamlessly into place and settling into the whole in perfect symmetry.  With a wet Spring and a cool Summer, this was always going to be a fascinating wine because both Grenache and Mataro adore these conditions.  Unusually, the fanfare of red/pink fruit notes is arresting, with rhubarb, cherry and raspberry tones surfing the aroma’s top notes. Beneath this frivolous exterior, a much darker and more lusty wine lurks.  There is undoubted energy here, carrying the flavour along with considerable momentum, and it flatters the drinker, seemingly ushering you to the glass with an uncommon tempo, but this is an illusion.  This troubadour attempts to woo you before time, and while it is easy to fall into its trap, try your best to resist.  Great vintages of The Steading tend to kick off after they have spent four years (not two) in the bottle, as this time is spent unlocking the deep mulberry and plum notes hidden behind the energetic acidity in the centre of the swirling, silky flavour.  This is a The Steading of considerable class, and if you have yet to join the ‘Torbreck Club’, I suggest you start here – by the time you uncork a bottle of this wine, you will be frothing with excitement, and this wine will rise to every expectation and more.  18.5+/20 (Drink 2026 – 2035)

2022 Torbreck The Struie

Grape variety – 100% Shiraz

Vine age and location – Barossa Valley (79%) and Eden Valley (21%), the average age of vines is 50 years

Picking dates – 15th March – 5th April 2022

Maturation – 18 months in new (25%) and seasoned French oak

Alc/Vol – 15%

pH  3.58

Acidity – 5.72g/L

2022 was a wonderful vintage for The Struie.  I started to write notes about how this was a pretty boy, a Jude Law of a wine, but as the flavour grew in the glass the dimensions expanded and firmed up on the finish, and entirely different ideas formed in my wine brain.  To fully understand this following fanciful description, we must start with this wine’s philosophy – literally its roots.  The notion of blending Eden Valley fruit, taken from vineyards situated at 400-500m, with warmer Barossa Valley sites at 200-300m is not new.  Many try to craft wines that marry freshness and spice with density and grandeur and fail to get the balance right.  I do not want an ugly weld joining these two vehicles.  I would rather experience the vinous equivalent of a top-of-the-range Bentley with its ostentatious frippery removed, roll bars fitted, and four-point racing harnesses and bucket seats in place of the kid leather chaises longues.  Get rid of the B&O stereo – I want to hear the engine.  Ditch the fridge and champagne glasses in the boot and pursue this weight-loss programme with the help of an adrenalin-fuelled mechanic until you have a Titanic engine supported by a lightweight but extraordinarily robust chassis.  Remove any nomenclature on the boot and rename this vehicle The Struie.  It is a perfectly dimensioned weapon – purring, ready to tear away from the blocks with the perfect balance of power and poise.  Welcome to 2022 The Struie.  The tech spec is above, and in place of a 0-60mph time, you have a more meaningful score to alert you to just how much I love this wine.  19+/20 (Drink 2027 – 2040)

Descendant 2021

2021 Torbreck Descendant

Grape varieties – 94% Shiraz, 6% Viognier (co-fermented)

Vine age and location – Descendant Vineyard, planted in 1994 with cuttings from the RunRig vineyards in Marananga

Picking date – 24th March 2021

Maturation – 20 months in second-fill French oak barriques, previously used for RunRig

Alc/Vol – 15%

pH – 3.64

Acidity – 5.87 g/L

I am always struck by the necromancer qualities of Descendant.  It is not unusual for me to score this wine higher than its genetic parent, RunRig.  I prefer to write tasting notes in a notebook instead of typing them into a tablet to capture my raw emotions immediately instead of writing complete sentences.  My notes on these wines were hastily scrawled into a ‘Field Notes’ book – rather apt – and the first few words on The Descendant were, verbatim, ‘off the scale, precise, malevolent, stunning balance, seamless, extraordinarily refreshing’.  I don’t think there is any need to add more, but I will.  The brightness and tension in 2021 The Descendant is entirely captivating.  It brings a sense of drama and dynamism, elevating the experience to a different plane.  While the dense, powerful, regal vintages always make their mark on my palate, I love these more gymnastic years, too.  I feel slightly cowardly not awarding this wine a perfect score because there is nothing I can fault in its perfect assembly.  Still, I reserve the right to adjust upwards in a few years if the mid-palate continues its journey towards textural greatness.  Like The Steading and The Struie, I consider Descendant a great value wine in the Torbreck galaxy, even though it is some ninety pounds because it always offers a cosmic experience.  So, I hope that when the prices are released it manages to stay this side of one hundred quid, because it is one of the most exciting ways I can think of spending this amount of money on a red wine.  19.5+/20 (2028 – 2045)

Factor 2021

2021 Torbreck The Factor

Grape variety – 100% Shiraz

Vine location – Gomersal, Krondorf, Marananga and Greenock

Picking dates – 3rd March – 8th April 2021

Maturation – 24 months in a combination of new (40%), second fill and seasoned French oak barriques

Alc/Vol – 15.5%

pH – 3.59

Acidity – 6.14g/L

2021 The Factor is such a hedonistic wine it defies comprehension.  It is super sexy on the nose and even more hypnotic on the palate, making this one of the most velvety and luxurious wines in the Torbreck portfolio.  The crowning glory in this pantheon of indulgence is the calibre of oak employed and its perfect marriage with the spectacular fruit.  There is a creaminess to this monastically calm wine that confounds the senses, and every molecule of fruit seems to be cradled by effortlessly gentle and soothing oak tones.  Oak is often the culprit in spoiling thousands of potentially great red wines (I see this repeatedly).  Yet Ian Hongell manages, chef-like, to augment this wine with oak orchestration, enabling it to soar in the glass.  I am sure the annual oak invoice at Torbreck is an eye-watering one, but every penny is well spent when you can harmonise and elevate your fruit flavours to untold ‘Michelin-three-star’ complexity and detail.  I am in complete awe of this wine and its haute couture deportment.  It is yet another expression of Torbreck, showing that each vineyard plot, combined with total understanding and vision, can result in the most wonderful experience.  19.5+/20 (Drink 2026 – 2040)

2021 Torbreck Les Amis

Grape variety – 100% Grenache

Vine location – Greenock

Picking dates – 9th April 2021

Maturation – 24 months in French barriques (40% new)

Alc/Vol – 15%

pH – 3.51

Acidity – 4.93g/L

Les Amis is often the most confusing wine in the Torbreck line-up, and the 2021 made me write ‘Rodin’s The Thinker’ in my notebook.  Contemplative, calm, solid, and powerfully proportioned, this wine is a great success because behind the mass of fruit, there is beautiful, cleansing freshness.  A cleverly-judged 30% of whole bunches are used here, and I feel the stem notes have worked beautifully in tandem with the bright acidity in this wine.  The result is an energetic framework that gives the fruit notes rigour and definition.  The grip is rather addictive, and it seems as if the fruit has crampons attached, which anchor it successfully to the palate, making it a rare expression of Grenache that doesn’t slide by without so much as a how do you do.  18.5+/20 (Drink 2025 – 2035)

2021 Torbreck RunRig

Grape variety – 98% Shiraz, 2% Viognier

Vine location – Lyndoch, Rowland Flat, Moppa, Ebenezer, Light Pass and Greenock

Picking dates – 5th March – 10th April 2021

Maturation – 30 months in new (50%), second fill and third fill French oak barriques, completing a natural malolactic fermentation in barrel and resting on fine lees throughout maturation to enhance texture

Alc/Vol – 15.5%

pH – 3.58

Acidity – 5.62g/L

2021 RunRig will make you turn your head while you gawp in disbelief.  This wine has something I have never seen in Runrig before – an immovable mountain of terroir, monolithically anchored in its core.  Standing at the foot of this gargantuan flavour, I could not see the summit.  There is so much ravishing Shiraz skin draped decorously around this totemic terroir it appears wholly demonic and fear-inducing.  But the fruit notes are as refined and finely tuned as ever, providing the taster with a baffling counterpoint between the Dark Side and a Venetian dandy, resplendent in its filigree and finery.  I cannot remember seeing two such opposing characters in one wine before, and every time I went back to the glass, there was more to admire, and these elements fuse and shape-shift into a glorious amalgam of sophistication and power.  Of course, it deserves a perfect score.  This wine is unique and uniquely stunning.  I wish I could attend every opening of 2021 RunRig – oh, to be a fly on the wall, listening to the gasps of delight when people are lucky enough to taste this wine.  20+/20 (2030 – 2045)

Forebear 2019

2019 Torbreck The Forebear

Grape variety – 100% Shiraz

Vine age and location – Hillside Vineyard, Lyndoch planted c1852

Picking dates – 5th March 2019

Maturation – 24 months in new French oak barriques

Alc/Vol – 15%

pH – 3.58

Acidity – 5.95g/L

There are 12 rows of Shiraz, which were planted in c1852 and they made their way into this inaugural vintage of The Forebear.  The Torbreck team started to resurrect these vines in 2014, and when Ian Hongell joined Torbreck in 2017, he saw something genuinely momentous here.  This fruit was previously tucked away in Woodcutters (the ‘estate-level’ Shiraz) while its vineyard transformation was underway, and in 2019, this wine was given its chance to perform solo under The Forebear name.  The verb – to forebear – means to hold oneself back.  As a noun, it means ancestor, which refers to the founders of this vineyard who left Wiltshire in 1848 and settled in Lyndoch.  Therefore, The Forebear is the perfect name for this incredible wine.  Whereas the Laird is a Marananga-based wine, The Forebear is from Lyndoch, and consequently, it cannot be compared to the wine below.  The Forebear is matured in 100% new, tight-grained French oak barriques for 24 months, and the Laird sees three whole years.  The origins and regimes are different, and they suit the fruit perfectly.  There were only 100 dozen made of 2019 The Forebear, and I cannot imagine this yield will change, so this will always be a very rare wine.   As I tasted this wine and watched it evolve in the glass over four hours, I knew I was in the presence of greatness.  As always with a Torbreck wine, there is a flavour transparency despite the density of black fruit, liquorice, tar and butcher’s apron notes.  It is difficult to understand until you spend several hours unlocking its code.  I wrote the word ‘Mordor’ in my notebook – it is that dark – and this might be a barrier to entry for some, particularly those unfamiliar with Torbreck wines, but it is sensational!  I have never tasted the inaugural vintage of a wine to which I have given a perfect score.  I hoped it would happen one day, and it took 38 years working in the wine trade for this to happen, and it happened with 2019 Torbreck The Forebear.  20++/20 (2030 – 2055)

Laird 2019

2019 Torbreck The Laird

Grape variety – 100% Shiraz

Vine age and location – Gnadenfrei Vineyard, Marananga, Planted 1958 

Picking dates – 1st – 8th March 2019

Maturation – 36 months in new French oak barriques coopered by Dominique Laurent and known as ‘Magic Casks’

Alc/Vol – 15.5%

pH – 3.57

Acidity – 6.32g/L

The Laird is used to being top dog at Torbreck and now that The Forebear has arrived it will have to share the throne.  Has this worried The Laird?  Not a bit of it because it has allowed this wine to become even more of a showman.  2019 is a particularly un-Laird-like vintage!  It is finally enjoying its celebrity status instead of acting monkish and reclusive in the glass.  When you wear a massive price tag and appeal to a different level of wine nerd, these feelings are inevitable.  Self-doubt, reflection and nervousness are all part and party of a superstar lifestyle, however, with The Forebear presumably sucking up column inches and taking the spotlight off The Laird for a moment or two, this wine has returned, rightly, to loving life.  As these two opened up in the glass, The Laird sprinted past The Forebear, high-fiving its fans with gleamingly bright fruit and epic length.  Of course, this is an incredible creation, and it is used to attracting nose-bleed scores from the critics, but there is a new lease of life here that has allowed The Laird to relax and finally enjoy its position at the top of the pile (alongside its new stablemate).  But will it retain its position out front?  I wouldn’t bet on it.   The Forebear has very special energy in its core.  One final thought – are wines sentient beings?  I have a few rather whacky ideas along these lines.  For anyone who doubts this could be a possibility, if you taste the last couple of wines in this review, you could be forgiven for believing that they are and also that they know where they stand in relation to each other, appreciating their differences and relishing their familial ties.  I believe.  Do you?   20/20 (Drink 2030 – 2050)

Forebear & Laird Duo 2019