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‘Keeping it real’ with a bargain Merlot


Whitey puts a very popular Merlot – available for around a tenner – under the magnifying glass.

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When he followed his rivals into the arid but heavily-irrigated Riverland, Yalumba’s Wyndham Hill Smith knew well the advantage of hanging a word like Oxford around the neck of a bottle of cheap wine. I’m sure a few Australians had heard of that ivy-hung university town back in 1958, but probably a few more were then familiar with the very posh Oxford edition of the King James Bible.

That was a heavy status symbol throughout the Protestant world.

Surely few Aussies have ever been aware that Oxford Landing was actually named after a wrecked paddle steamer.

Twenty years back, Rajan Bacchau made a Chenin blanc he called Oxford in the hills near Mumbai, India, where the monsoon always put his northern vintage coincident with ours. Last time we spoke, he was considering trying for two vintages a year. Calling that Oxford is a bit like calling soap-on-a-rope Avon, but without quite so much Shakespeare.

“We’re Keeping It Real,” the Oxford Landing website assures me. “At Oxford Landing, we like to ‘keep it real’. That means maintaining a sense of perspective and recognising what really matters. Remembering where we came from and being proud of our roots. And making wines that are a true reflection of the place they come from.”

The Smiths came from Wareham, Dorset, which sits on the river Piddle. After he’d packed his wife and kids on The China and sailed to Adelaide’s Port Misery, (winery founder) Sam Smith initially worked as a gardener for the Angases before planting his own vineyard. When I lived in the Barossa in the later ’80s, the old Barossadeutschers in the Greenock Creek Tavern still called Angaston “up with the Englitsch”.

Now called Hill Smith, after that Angaston hill, this great wine family gardens the flat red centre to bring us wines like Oxford Landing Estates Merlot 2017 (13.5% alcohol; screw cap). While I see this selling for between $8 and $10 in the US, my usual measure of the real Oz price, Hungry Dan’s, no longer has it in stock, but I’m sure you’ll find it for around a tenner.

The bottle comes with an expensive shoulder embossing in the actual glass, showing a pair of crossed oars. Security when your ship sinks.

If you consult the internet for tasting notes, you’ll find most vendors of the wine faithfully recite the official Yalumba tasting notes.

“Crimson in colour with purple hues,” they profess. “Enticing aromas of milk chocolate, plum and raspberries with subtle cedar and spices. The medium bodied palate starts with vibrant flavours of plums and although tightly structured, the finish is rich and generous with persistent fruit flavours. Soft, velvety tannins are a feature of the supple palate.”

While my limited sensories are no match for those masters’, I was pleasantly surprised by the wine. It’s similar to a particularly clean Languedoc Merlot like the French were caught selling as Red Bicyclette Pinot noir in the US a few years back. That was never much like Pinot to me, although it seemed to convince E and J Gallo, the US retailer. Not to mention millions of Americans.

Rather than “milk chocolate”, it reminds me of the smell of the nut sundaes in the Tanunda Club, as served to one of the sawdusty – “subtle cedar and spices” – coopers from up the road. It’s lean and strapping – “tightly-structured” – and seems quite dry and astringent. That’ll be the “soft, velvety tannins”.

Plums? Maybe satsuma approaching soft ripeness, but still with some al dente crunch and acidity.

As far as Merlot goes, it’s not much like the benchmark, Petrus, from Pomerol, Bordeaux. You can join the queue for a bottle of the 2016, which lobs on September 1 next year at $5250 the bottle.

Otherwise, pay the price of six or seven cigarettes for the Oxford Landing Estates version and consider yourself lucky.

Just don’t forget to follow the maker’s advice: “Roast lamb with rosemary and garlic, or asparagus fettuccine with tomato cream sauce would be a lovely accompaniment.”

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