It was pretty clear from the first time we put the row of glasses to our mouths. Something special was about to happen.

We had warmed up our judging palates on the first morning of the 2021 Langhorne Creek Wine Show with 35 Shiraz from varying vintages. Then 18 whites. In between, a renowned morning tea of homemade sausage rolls and Portuguese custard tarts.

So it goes in wine show land.

Last week’s event was the first of 2021’s national season of regional and capital city shows after the Creek and many others endured a COVID-related hiatus last year. The judges were pumped to be back on the horse: chair Charlie Seppelt, senior winemaker at the Randall Wine Group and, with wife Skye Salter, who have their own Paralian brand; Kerri Thompson from KT Wines in Clare; myself, and vignerons Turon White and Tom Keelan as associate judges.

We had 190 wines to judge over two days – not a super onerous task in wine show circles, though a pretty decent workout for the gums and teeth in any language.

The class in front of us was Malbec. Nine wines in contention for their own varietal trophy, which says a lot about the important place that grape, in particular, has in the region. No other district goes to such lengths to celebrate it, though it is seen in early rounds of a few other show schedules. Often it ends up in a mixed-bag class with disparate red varieties like Merlot or Mataro.

In Langhorne Creek, Malbec is held in great esteem alongside the regional hero Cabernet Sauvignon and regular big-hitter Shiraz.

Malbec is thought to have been first planted in the region in the 1860s by Frank Potts, the founder of the Bleasdale vineyards and winery; the variety appears in harvest records in the 1890s, destined mostly then for fortified Ports, Sherries and Madeira styles. When the Australian wine industry shifted towards table wines in the mid-20th century, Bleasdale rode the wave, with Malbec among the varieties employed, often as a blending component with Cabernet and Shiraz but also as a solo act from 1961.

A couple of natural advantages aid the quality Malbec displays in Langhorne Creek, Bleasdale winemaker Paul Hotker notes, pointing to the region’s geographic advantage adjacent to Lake Alexandrina and the Great Southern Ocean. The location provides afternoon breezes and cooler nights that help slow down fruit ripening and assist in developing and holding onto the variety’s renowned aromatics.

“Langhorne Creek Malbec thrives in the maritime conditions here,” Hotker says. “Old soils help as well, aiding to build palate weight and richness without needing alcohol or long skin maceration.

“Malbec is all about generosity – they’re not weird and green or hard and edgy.

“They are just rich and full and generous wines that make you happy.”

The key characters of Langhorne Creek Malbec along with its smiley face personality are attractive blue-ish tinges to rich purple colours, lifting violet-like aromas, vibrant mulberry to boysenberry flavours, and a tannin profile that, if well managed, sits neatly into the palate, obvious but not controlling, just waiting there to match up with a great piece of barbecued lamb or beef.

There’s a growing recognition that the variety and the region are perfectly suited to each other.

Lake Breeze winemaker Greg Follett has witnessed it develop into what he calls a “specialty of the Creek”, having used his two blocks – one on the district’s famed floodplain, with richer, rounded and sweeter fruited notes, and another in more sandy country, which aids in the aromatics and structure – as a gun blending tool in many of his reds, often just a tiny percentage to help with colour and vibrancy in his renowned Cabernet Sauvignons and Shiraz, and more critically and regularly in his top-shelf Arthur’s Reserve Cabernet/Malbec/Petit Verdot blend.

“It can have a huge impact in small amounts, adding mid-palate body and a little different tannin feel, and it can be quite floral and pretty,” Follett says.

“The aromatic pop from Malbec is a big part of its attraction.”

For blending, it can add a “little something extra”, Follett says. In some blends, that amounts to a “bit of extra grunt”.

Paul Hotker from Langhorne Creek’s pioneering Bleasdale winery: “They are just rich and full and generous wines that make you happy.”

While the quality of Cabernet and Shiraz-led blends, often with some of that “extra” within, was a seriously fine set to judge at this show, it’s the class of nine single varietal Malbecs that created the biggest stir inside the Langhorne Creek Memorial Hall.

Of those nine, seven wines went into a second round of assessment after receiving at least one 95-plus score from the panel. A couple garnered multiple such accolades.

During that extra round, the scores kept on coming and in the end, every one of the starting nine received a medal, one bronze, six silvers and two golds, with a higher Top Gold score winning the Trophy for Best Malbec.  Such a hit rate is rarely seen.

The trophy-winning Malbec then proceeded to the Best of Show round, facing off against the other top-scoring wines from two days of tastings, including great Cabernets, Shiraz, blends, and other red varieties. This final showdown was hotly contested between two of those wines, the Malbec edging ahead after yet another callback. It then beat a wine from the same producer, a blend in fact that also contained some of that same magic Malbec.

The Champion Wine of Show (on top of winning the best Malbec trophy) was Lake Breeze 2019 Malbec. It was the first solo varietal Malbec Greg Follett has ever produced under his own label, though he had made one previously that he sold to another local producer – it won the show’s Malbec trophy in an earlier year and convinced Follett to have a go himself.

The final-round opponent was in fact his Lake Breeze 2019 Arthur’s Reserve 2019, a Cabernet Sauvignon led blend with a decent shot of Malbec and tiny addition of the Petit Verdot variety. It had earlier won the Best Blended Red Wine Trophy class ahead of 38 other competitors. A 2012 version of the same wine also won the show’s trophy for best museum wine.

Over two days, with five judges and associates, to see these two wines rise to the final taste-off after 190 entries were tasted, many of them several times over in callbacks, following robust discussions and careful voting, was a testament to the democracy of wine show judging and the finest style and quality coming out of Langhorne Creek.

Across the show tasting, Charlie Seppelt nailed it when he stated: “The mood was high, and the results were too. Diversity, grace and structure were at the top end this year.

“Both modern and classical examples of what the Creek does best were highly regarded and awarded.”

And it was the Malbec that garnered the finest praise of all.

“Lake Breeze’s first 100 per cent Malbec was a real highlight,” he said.

“And the quality of the entire Malbec class backed up the case that Langhorne Creek is the variety’s best-suited Australian home.”

TASTINGS

Lake Breeze 2019 Malbec

Langhorne Creek/ 14%/ $30

Look out – vibrant purple colour, attractive aromas melding violets, tar and crushed dark crimson and blueberries, a puff of chalk dust also. To drink, it’s bright and lively, beautifully weighted, backed up and coated with lightly puckering tannins. Everything moreish, modern and above all totally delicious. In the final round for Best of Show judging, I wrote one word in my scoring notes: “Superpower”.

Lake Breeze Arthur’s Reserve 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Malbec

Langhorne Creek/ 14%/ $48

Notice the vintage date here is the previous one to the award-winner above. This has just been released and we won’t get to see the 2019 version until next year. This is every bit its equal, a 93% Cabernet Sauvignon led blend with 5% Malbec and a tiny 2% of Petit Verdot. Cabernet is a hero variety at Lake Breeze and winemaker Greg Follett selects the year’s best 12 barrels for this plush, deeply set wine – and the appealing Cabernet cassis aromas are proof of that, as well as the blue fruits and blue-violet florals of the Malbec. The flavour reverb and amazing length are totally convincing. Huge respect.

Bleasdale 2019 Generations Malbec

Langhorne Creek/ 14%/ $35

This and its sibling Bleasdale Second Innings 2019 Malbec ($22) were among the Malbec Nine of the 2021 Langhorne Creek Wine Show. The Second Innings offers a more medium weight, everyday, drink-now style that still offers fine varietal expression without prejudice. There’s plum and blueberry, herbal edges of dill and fennel, root veggie suggestions of parsnip, all with a dusting of pepper. Lots to like and great value. This Generations has more grunt, a greater swell in the palate and graded tannins that suggest it will last for years in the cellar, as well as drinking superbly now, especially after a few hours in a decanter.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.