Torbreck’s ‘The Laird’ – Pursuing Perfection in One of Australia’s Greatest Wines

by Chuck Hayward

So what is it like to drink perfection? It’s a question frequently asked by consumers and the trade. The following story is about tasting 100-point ‘perfection’. And it begins many years ago…

In the summer of 2010, I heard that Torbreck, one of the Barossa Valley’s leading wineries, had released a new wine from the 2005 vintage called ‘The Laird’. The textured black label stood in stark contrast to the winery’s classic white paper label, indicating a significant departure from Torbreck’s usual range of wines. Indeed, ‘The Laird’ was exactly that, a wine geared for the super-premium market, occupied by legends like Penfolds ‘Grange’ and Henschke’s ‘Hill of Grace’ – with a price to match. I needed to know more.

So out went my feelers to gather more information on this new wine. What was it? What did the locals in Australia think? And, more importantly, would there be any available for JJ Buckley’s customers? Australian critics are often quick to knock down anything that smacks of “Parker-like” pretension and they like nothing better than knocking pretenders down a peg or two. But here I was reading words like “seriously good wine” and “striking for its precision and approachability.” Even Alder Yarrow, of (no fan of bombastic wines), declared ‘The Laird’ to be “fantastic”, predicting “none of which will make it to the USA.”

There’s nothing I like more than a challenge. So I redoubled my efforts, contacted both the winery and the importer and secured some of the 60 bottles allocated to the US market. Then something happened. The Wine Advocate’s annual review of South Australian wines came out and ‘The Laird’ received 100 points. As expected, the wine sold out. Quickly. With no more to be had.

More importantly, I never got a chance to try ‘The Laird’ and neither did JJ Buckley’s wine staff. And given the price and scarcity, getting a sample would prove difficult. But as I said earlier, there’s nothing like a challenge. Somehow, some way, our staff would try this wine.

My Big ‘Break’

Six months later, I found myself in Australia as the guest international judge for the Hunter Valley Wine Show. With a weekend stay in Sydney in the plans, here was the perfect opportunity to secure a bottle to bring back to JJ Buckley’s offices. Calls were made, plans drawn up and everything looked good. On my last night in Australia, Stuart Knox, owner of the legendary wine bar, Fix St. James, made the hand off to me. Resisting temptation (while at the same time defying the tendency of gravity to bring bottles in my possession in contact with the sidewalk), my sample, wrapped only in its tissue paper, somehow made it safely through a debauched evening of dining and drinking.

Off I went to the airport, the bottle in my suitcase, safely wrapped in t-shirts and sweaters, along with some classic (and much less expensive) Hunter Valley semillons from Tyrrells andAndrew Thomas. Not a care in the world to be had, I settled into my seat and slept serenely across the Pacific.

About ‘The Laird

So what happens? What do you think. Stained green sweaters, a loaned book with purple pages and a girlfriend who scolded, “I told you so.” And me, trying to figure out the cosmic message behind less expensive wines surviving the trip but the most expensive bottle breaking. In my suitcase. Leaving a stench that declared, “You failed.”

One of the secrets of Torbreck’s success lies in the fact that most of their wines are blended from a number of vineyards, spanning the length and breadth of the Barossa Valley. Sourcing fruit from plots of ancient vines is the secret to making the best wines in the Barossa. Gaining access to the best fruit in the valley requires an intimate knowledge of the land as well as personal connections with the families that have owned these treasured plots for generations. Over 25 different vineyards contribute their fruit to Torbreck’s portfolio, the oldest ones designated to the top cuvees like the famed ‘Run Rig’ or ‘The Steading’.

Malcolm Seppelt comes from a storied Barossa family that traces its lineage back to the valley’s early days. In 1958, he planted 5 acres of shiraz in Marananga, a subregion on the western edge of the Barossa. I first encountered Seppelt’s fruit when his wines were exported to America. At the time, the 1997 and 1998 Gnadenfrei shiraz was just another release from the well-priced, small boutique wineries brought over to America by importers like the Grateful Palate and Weygandt-Metzler. Not much was known about the winery, but (tellingly) Robert Parker declared that Gnadenfrei’s shiraz was akin to a “lush Pomerol.”

The wines from Gnadenfrei were initially made by Rolf Binder and later, Dave Powell was contracted to produce the wines. Coveting the fruit while fashioning the wine for Seppelt, Powell eventually arranged to purchase the crop starting with the 2005 harvest. He decided to use this fruit to make a signature wine and vowed to spare no expense.

One of the distinguishing aspects behind making ‘The Laird’ is its oak regime. Powell sourced barrels made by Laurent Ponsot, owner and winemaker at Burgundy’s Domaine Ponsot. They are both rare and expensive, possessing several unique qualities. Among them are hand-split staves that are twice as thick as the standard. These staves are cured in the open air for 4-5 years – much longer than usual. Sourced from the Allier forest, the wood is tightly-grained and slowly coopered, as you would expect from Laurent.

Otherwise, the vinification is pretty basic. Picked ripe, destemmed, fermented in wood and concrete, finished off in stainless and plopped into those expensive barrels for 36 months. Bottled unfiltered with a black label.

A ‘Laird’ in the Hand is Worth Two in the…Tasting

He recently visited JJ Buckley’s offices to conduct a seminar for our staff. Capping off the long row of white-labeled wines on the table was a solitary black label, ‘The Laird’. At last. It was the 2008, recently awarded 100 points in the Wine Advocate and one of only three bottles flown over for Andrew’s trip. This was a rare preview, since it will not be released until this summer. I reminded Andrew about the story of the broken bottle and, realizing that I subsequently had still not tried the 2006, he produced a bottle from the car.Andrew Tierney is a good mate of mine who I have known for about 15 years. Formerly at McLaren Vale’s Wirra Wirra Winery, this wine industry veteran is now the sales director for Torbreck. It’s a job that sees him on the road for most of the year. And with wines in almost 40 countries, that road stretches across the globe.

What a treat. Not just one ‘Laird’ but two. Two of the three vintages ever made. A 99-point and 100-point wine. Here was a chance to decide if ‘The Laird’ was an icon in the making or one that had already arrived. To the glasses we went:

2006 Torbreck ‘The Laird’
With a focused and intense bouquet, the aromas are slightly coiled up, waiting for the chance to unwind, even after a good, 24-hour decant. Crisp blackberry aromas mingle with espresso, mocha and lovely minerals. The palate really needed the time to breathe, revealing powerful, densely ripe black fruit. There’s a breadth and density here, yet it never goes over the top in terms of texture or intensity. Integrated acidity contributes to the exhilarating sense of restraint. Pure notes of cassis and blackberry abound, underscored by fresh vibrancy and soft edges. The lingering, fruit-filled finish smoothly masks the tannins. There’s the barest sense of viscosity at the core. Definitely a wine for the cellar, where time will help add breadth and length to the palate, while allowing the bouquet to further blossom.

2008 Torbreck ‘The Laird’
The bouquet is quite similar to the 2006. At this point there’s a touch more ripeness and intensity to the classic blackberry jam and smoke aromas, followed by nuances of camphor and stone. This is still a focused and unyielding nose that is not, at this point, very effusive. The bouquet notes continue onto the palate, with a little notch of increased fruit density. The shape of the wine also falls in line with the style of the 2006, both in the weightlessness of the fruit attack and the denser presence on the mid palate. There’s that same purity of fruit, the same tease of viscosity and that long fruit filled finish.  At the same time, the flavors here are more youthful and primary – the complexity will come with time. The 2008 also has slightly more weight and density at the backpalate, and the minerals and tannins on the finish are more apparent.

So what is it about ‘The Laird’ that places it among Australia’s greatest wines? For one, it speaks proudly to the Barossa Valley. Australia’s other shiraz icons clearly represent their appellations (like Jim Barry’s ‘Armagh’ from Clare Valley or the Clarendon Hills ‘Astralis’ from McLaren Vale) there is no doubt that ‘The Laird’ is a true, 100% expression of Barossa.

How it Stacks Up

‘The Laird’ has its own sense of style. This is partly due to the vineyard’s site, but also largely due to Powell’s approach in the cellar. For one, ‘The Laird’ is all about balance and finesse. This is not a rich, thick wine – yet it’s not shy either. Despite an oak regimen that appears heavy handed, the fruit absorbs it all and then some, especially after some aeration. This contrasts with Penfolds ‘Grange’, where the vanillin oak has a greater presence and the palate usually shows much more richness and texture. With respect to site, ‘The Laird’ is a classic Barossa Valley floor wine, with a core of plush, plummy fruit that is almost viscous. This differs from another Australian icon, Henschke’s ‘Hill of Grace’ which is sourced from the cooler Eden Valley and characterized by classic black olive and bay leaf.

If there is any wine that comes close to what ‘The Laird’ represents, it’s Chris Ringland’s shiraz. This is quite interesting, for when Parker first tasted Ringland’s wine, he compared it to a 1947 Cheval Blanc – another Right Bank wine. The flavor, texture and oak presence of ‘The Laird’ is reminiscent of Ringland’s version, more dialed back, the edges slowly shaved away, like a kernel of rice destined for sake, revealing the wine’s essential core in a more understated manner.

What’s most impressive about tasting the two vintages side by side, is to see their stylistic similarity. They are so connected, with the differences arising from the vintage variation and the time so far in bottle. At this point, I prefer the 2006, as it is slightly more open and showing a bit more personality. The 2008 has more fruit, more power, but is more youthful and unevolved at this point. Yet one can sense where this vintage is headed.

Flirting with Perfection?

So what is it like to drink perfection? I have wrestled with that thought many times and recently adopted the US Supreme Court’s phrase, “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it.” To me, a perfect wine leaves you speechless – at a loss for words as you try to describe the flavors and textures that swirl about the palate. The notepad is set aside, the pen put away as the search for words begins. And they don’t come.

Well, if you made it his far, you can probably surmise that ‘The Laird’ doesn’t quite reach the standard of perfection I have just described. But it’s a new project, with only three vintages so far, compared with over 50 for ‘Grange’ and ‘Hill of Grace’. There can be no doubt that this is superlative wine and that Powell is fully committed to ensuring it is ranked among the world’s best. Which is why there is no 2007 or 2011 release. For me, what makes ‘The Laird’ great is that it has its own identity and style, making a unique statement within Australia’s growing collection of iconic wines. Watching Powell shepherd this bottling over the upcoming vintages will be a treat for the mind and palate.