To commemorate the 150th anniversary of Tahbilk, tastings were held across Europe in May 2010. Alister Purbrick, CEO and chief winemaker at Tahbilk, presented a tasting in London of 43 wines, spanning the vintages from 2009 to 1965.
Alister’s grandfather Eric Purbrick began working at Tahbilk in 1931 aged 28; he presided over 55 vintages. Three generations of Purbricks worked together for the first time in 1978, when Alister started at the age of 24.
Having wanted to push Tahbilk’s wines towards a more modern style, Alister was asked by Eric after tasting the 1962 Special Bin, “Well, old boy, if you think it’s so good, why do you want to change our reds?” Alister conceded the point. The wines would continue to be aged in big, old oak barrels with a bit of new oak seasoning.
Some innovations were achieved, though. For the 1979 vintage new equipment was installed and the 1860 Vines Shiraz was bottled as a single vineyard wine for the first time.
Despite his old school approach to winemaking, Eric was ahead of his time in using varietal names on Tahbilk labels, which were introduced in 1965. He used to tell audiences, “We don’t make clarets and Burgundies, Hocks and Chablis, but we do make excellent light and heavy red dries and full bodied whites.”
In the first Tahbilk newsletter, published in April 1971, Eric wrote, “I have found that Tahbilk Marsanne does improve after several years in bottle. I recently tasted a 1965 which showed excellent bottle age with a full bouquet and with that, what I call, Marsanne ‘flinty’ finish.”
The oldest example here was the 1973, which still had a couple of year’s life in it. The 1979 had the characteristic honeysuckle flavour of aged Marsanne, or at least of Tahbilk’s Marsanne. The ’82 was creaking but the ’92 was lovely, retaining enough acidity to keep it refreshing and lively for at least another five years. The low-yielding, frost-affected 2007 vintage was brisker than the 2009, which had relatively lower acidity because of the scorching “Black Saturday” on 7 February 2009. For a wine that ages so well, it remains outstanding value for money.
The “1927 Vines” Marsanne comes from a single block of vines planted in 1927 by Alister’s great-grandfather Reginald Purbrick, who had purchased the Tahbilk estate in 1925 with money made from the sale of the Bacchus Marsh Concentrated Milk Company Pty to Nestlé. The price was £44,879/3/0, now equivalent to $32 an acre. Reginald is the only Australian ever to become a Member of Parliament in Britain – though Welsh-born Julia Gillard is even better qualified!
Perhaps not as forthcoming as the basic Marsanne, the inaugural 1998 old vines was more developed and, for that matter, charming than the 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002.
Tahbilk Shiraz is fruit- rather than oak-driven, with a bit of new oak makeup but not so much as to overwhelm the juicy Shiraz fruit and big, fleshy tannins – the 2006 was a good example of this style. The Eric-inspired winemaking remains largely in place. Open-top vats are used, with no header boards or plunging. Some new French oak is used nowadays but before 1992 older barrels were utilised.
The 1968 Tahbilk Shiraz was senescent, smelling and tasting like old claret from an indifferent vintage. The 1971 still had some verve, though it smelled as though it had been in a damp cellar for a long time. The 1986 and 1998 were similarly styled, with big, fleshy tannins and leathery flavours. The tough 1991 was less appealing.
For a wine of such ancient provenance, the “1860 Vines” Shiraz was pleasingly light on its feet and not at all extracted or cumbersome. The 1996 and 2004 were paragons of what this wine can represent: a middleweight, with some elegance and fleshy but not extracted tannins, supported by tasteful use of oak. It is the only Tahbilk wine listed in the current Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine.
The Tahbilk Bin Series became Reserve in 1985. The Reserve Shiraz was introduced in 1994 as a companion to the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon and has been labelled as Eric Stevens Purbrick Shiraz since 2002.
The 1971 Bin 57 was brown and oxidised but there was enough fruit in the middle and acidity on the finish to maintain it as an interesting drink. Also made from Shiraz, 1974 Bin 60 conserved some sweetness on the mid-palate but was mostly dried out on the finish.
The Reserve 1996 and 1998 were disappointing, the former perhaps tainted by TCA and the latter already veering towards oxidation, though there was a glimmer of brightness on the finish.
Eric Stevens Purbrick Shiraz 2002 showed more oak influence than the previous Bin and Reserve wines but was very congenial, as always with Tahbilk. Even with its 14% alcohol, the 2004 was charming, elegant and temperate.
The 1965 Cabernet Sauvignon was the oldest wine shown at this tasting, with some of the old cellar smell of the 1971 Shiraz. There was a bit of sweetness on the mid-palate but the finish faded into timeworn dryness.
The toasty 1971 was less immediately engaging than the 1976, which had endured better than some other wines of this age. The 1981 was even browner than the older wines. The smooth and flavoursome palate redeemed the disappointment of the ‘92’s nose. The leafy Cabernet character of the 1998 was much more interesting than the neon-purple, oak-sustained 2006.
In 1952, Eric Purbrick introduced the Reserve Cabernet, which subsequently became a series of Bin wines. The 1968 Bin 51 had a similarly warm and appealing nose to the 1984 Bin 71. There was something unpleasant on the finish of the 1976 Bin 57, alas. The sweet and juicy 1998 was much more appealing than the vaguely oxidised 1992. Similarly styled to the ESP Shiraz, Eric Stevens Purbrick Cabernet 2004 had supple fruit and some oak dryness on the finish.
Eric Purbrick had a rhyme that he would recite to amuse audiences:
You’ve heard of a gaggle of geese,
A flock of sheep,
A herd of cattle,
And even a pride of lions.
Well, I’d like to make a toast to
A piddle of Purbricks.
This 43-bottle “piddle of Purbricks” told much of the history of Tahbilk and, by extension, of the Australian wine industry.