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The drive to improve and evolve wine is a trademark of the team at Yalumba, and of one man in particular, as David Pike reports.

AS far as years go, 1968 was a shocker of a vintage worldwide. One of the rare bright spots in the local industry was the introduction of Brian Walsh, the current winemaker in control of the Yalumba team.

A job in the lab at Chateau Reynella over the ’68 vintage kick-started a winemaking career that today positions Brian as one of Australia’s most respected winemakers and wine show judges. Originally heading for a career in physiotherapy, it seems that the lure of the grape was too strong for Brian.

One thing led to another and, after his experiences during the ’68 vintage, Brian ended up back at Reynella, where he found himself the assistant to winemaker Don Hughes, a 1947 graduate of Roseworthy College. It was under Don’s guidance that Brian began his winemaking degree, which has proved an ongoing, evolutionary process.

While Brian is continually looking to raise the bar with the wines under his control, he has never completed a formal winemaking degree. Despite this, Brian Walsh is one of that rare breed of winemakers who possess a wealth of knowledge that I and many others would be proud to have just a 10th of.

Samuel Smith & Son managing director Robert Hill Smith says in the book Yalumba and its People he believes that, in the 1980s the soul and personality of Yalumba wines were yet to be discovered or demonstrated to the public. Brian Walsh’s first task upon his appointment as chief winemaker at Yalumba in 1988 was to rapidly get the wines of Yalumba on track. Australia was quickly moving away from fortified wines and Yalumba hadn’t started to change styles. Over the next few years Brian, together with his winemaking team, introduced the “soul” that Robert Hill Smith was seeking. That soul continues today in the wines of Yalumba – they are wines with personality and, in many cases, show a real point of difference.

I asked Brian to nominate a wine to which he has the greatest attachment – the wine he thought was the best he had made or just a wine he loved drinking. After some deliberation he nominated a wine that, while it “probably isn’t the best wine I have made, was a wine that was a real change in style, it introduced a new flavour to Yalumba”. That wine was the first vintage of Octavius in 1988, the year he started at Yalumba.

“It was a wine that was unique at the time and has continued to evolve since that first vintage and will probably continue to evolve,” Brian says.

“Octavius is a recognisable style and the only wine of its kind in the world – it was a radical change in direction at the time.”

His choice of Octavius from the thousands he has overseen the making of indicates its importance as a wine that helped establish the direction in which Yalumba was to head under his direction … producing wines with soul.

Yalumba Coonawarra Merlot 2000 rrp $25 17/20

Vibrant and bright aromas show on this new release from the Yalumba portfolio. Black cherries, plums and herbal notes combine with a varietal medicinal fragrance bound up in charry oak. The palate shows more of those bright fruit characters, together with a herbal edge. Sweet blood plums and cherries combine with spice and a degree of savory nuances.

This wine is almost a definition of varietal merlot and well worth a look.

Yalumba Mawsons 2000 rrp $18.95 16.50/20

While this wasn’t my favourite wine in the Yalumba line up, it demonstrated very good value for money. But be aware that this may not be to everyone’s taste. It showed fragrant cherry and ripe plum aromas with a touch of chervil, herbal notes and a hint of mocha. On the palate you find pronounced cherry and briary fruits that look quite bright but lack vibrancy and become overpowered with drying tannins on the back palate.

Spice and savory characters on the finish and, to my mind, finishing just a little short at present.

Yalumba Signature series

In 1962, with a glass of Yalumba red wine in hand, Robert Menzies declared that it was the “finest Australian wine he had tasted”.

This provided the inspiration for the creation of a wine and so Yalumba Signature was born. Over the past 36 years the Signature series has paid tribute to ‘the individuals that have made a significant contribution to the tradition of the Yalumba Wine Company’.

The current release of ‘Yalumba Signature’ recognises a distinguished Western Australian – Yalumba’s State manager Ross White, who is described on the label as a man of honour and a bastion of the Samuel Smith and Son sales force. Ross joined the company in 1985 with no previous wine experience but a passion for sales, which he says is still true after 30 years of chasing targets. Ross explained his wine interest came later and the release of the exceptional 1998 vintage Signature will no doubt give him plenty of enjoyable times.

Yalumba Signature Cabernet Shiraz 1998 rrp $34.99 19/20

This wine must go on the shopping list. It is a stunning example of the 1998 vintage. Dynamic and vibrant with enticing aromas that you can really get your nose into. Damsons, brambles and mulberry fruits with touches of tobacco and mocha lead you to the palate that is scrumptious. Ripe vibrant fruit with briary undertones and seductive plummy cassis flavours combine with acidity and dusty tannins to give harmonious integration and balance. You will kick plenty of goals with this absolute ripper.

Yalumba Octavius Shiraz 1998 rrp $80.00 18.5/20

This is a fair dinkum old-fashioned Aussie monster, a massive wine that has more grunt than an HQ Holden.

Brian Walsh explained that Octavius is a wine that is still evolving, with the winemaking team constantly working on the style that has seen slight changes with each vintage since 1988.

The 1998 vintage greets you with brooding blood plums, briary notes and a whack of mocha/chocolate oak and enticing mouthwatering aromas.

The fruit on the palate is ripe and plentiful with viscous notes.

Licorice and sweet plums combine with raspy tannins – and there are plenty of them – to form a wine that shows persistence and length of finish.

Be patient with this wine and, given time, say 10 years, you will be richly rewarded.

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