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A tribute to Eric Purbrick; Chateau Tahbilk

Back vintage tasting of iconic Australian Wines with wine collectors as old as the wine they are drinking

By Louis A Coutts

In a most fortunate twist of fate, a little known but extraordinarily gifted young man was persuaded to take time off from the English bar and visit the property of his home in Central Victoria. Eric Purbrick knew little about wine making in 1931 when he returned to Chateau Tahbilk from England and discovered on his arrival that, with the exception of 45 hectares, the family property was devoted to farming and not wine making. The quality of the wine made from this vineyard was said to be so poor that Purbrick found it difficult to get any distributor to sell the wine. It is said that much of the wine was sold by him from a cask on the back of a truck that he drove around Victoria.

Gradually his passion for wine making was matched by his ability and, in the sixties, he experienced a golden decade. In each of the years 1962, 1964, 1965, 1967 and 1968 he produced between three thousand and four thousand bottles of Cabernet from grapes grown on the family vineyard at Tahbilk. To the relatively few people who knew of these wines, they were considered to be rare masterpieces. Purbrick, with his pioneer dedication, had established that Australia could make wines equal in quality to any wines in the world.

There were few such Pioneers but the names of Maurice O'Shea and Murray Tyrrell come to mind. I believe it is fair to say that the wines of these Hunter valley wine makers never reached the heights of the cabernets of the sixties produced by Purbrick. I was one of the relatively lucky few to obtain a few bottles of each of these vintages and I made a conscious decision to keep them for many years and share them with friends when they might be the only bottles left in the world.

So it was on the evening of the 26th June 2011 that I was privileged to share with five dear friends and wonderful wine lovers the 1964, 1965, 1967 and 1968 Vintages of Chateau Tahbilk Cabernet made by Eric Purbrick.

In order to pay homage to Purbrick, I started the evening with a 1973 Chateau D'Yquem. I then served the four wines in reverse order starting with the 1968 and finishing with the 1964. After serving these wines I served a 1978 Chateau Margaux. Accordingly, Purbrick's wines were preceded and followed by two of the great wines of the world.

The evening commenced with the D'Yquem and pate. People talk and write about great vintages and lesser years and there isn't any doubt that quite a lot of the observations have some merit. However, 1973 was not a great year for Sauterne but it was considered to be quite good. I would defy anyone to challenge the statement that this 1973 could not possibly be a better example of the famous Chateau. Clear deep amber colour glistening in the reflected light; a perfume of immensity suggesting honeysuckle on the breeze of a summer's evening and penetrating to the point that one had to step back and wait before tasting the wine. The wine seemed to emanate tastes to the taste buds of superb fruit so beautifully integrated, lingering with intensity. It do the wine a disservice to try and describe its elegant and prodigious beauty other than to say that if there is a greater D'Yquem, it must be extraordinary. This preceded the Purbrick tasting.

1968 Chateau Tahbilk Cabernet Sauvignon

The 1968 presented with a relatively light colour suggestive of Burgundy. Clear and with no suggestion of browning. It belied its age. The bouquet was perhaps troubled by bottle age and only manifested itself into a true Cabernet (Bordeaux) characteristic after some time in the glass at which stage most of the wine had been consumed. Perhaps it would have benefitted from being opened a little earlier but because of the age I left opening and decanting until the serving. The fruit was truly cabernet but delicate and penetrating with great length. It was a wine of outstanding beauty but grading it had to wait.

1967 Chateau Tahbilk Cabernet Sauvignon

The 1967, while similar in style, was another dimension of the wine. Deeper in colour with no browning it suggested a richness which was first detected by the magnificent perfume suggestive of roses. The perfume was soft and floral whereas the fruit of the wine was deep and voluptuous. It was the complete wine with richness of fruit but constrained by finesse and elegance. The length of the wine was extraordinary and could only be described as powerful. The wine was outstanding by any measure and in no way diminished by the Sauturne. While different wines, they nevertheless seemed to be equal in quality.

1965 Chateau Tahbilk Cabernet Sauvignon

If the 1965 had been consumed in isolation, it would have been discussed without fault. It had the same deep colour as the 1967 but the bouquet was not quite as aromatic or, one might say, romantic. The fruit was rich and refined but not with the majestic power of the 1967 but its length, like the previous wine, was intense and lingering.

1964 Chateau Tahbilk Cabernet Sauvignon

The 1964 was a classic Bordeaux style wine. Like the earlier wines, there was no sign of age in the colour but the bouquet, while classic was perhaps indicative of the age. Once again, if this wine had been consumed in isolation its outstanding characteristics would have been identified with little criticism but in comparison, particularly with the 1967, it seemed older and just that little tired. But it would be terrible to take this as a criticism because it is a comment in comparing it with the 1967 which is one of the great wines of the world. What wine wouldn't suffer by comparison?

1978 Chateau Margaux 1er cru, Bordeaux

The 1978 Margaux was quite celebrated on its release because it was the first from the Chateau of the new owners who had made an attempt to re-establish Margaux as a world class wine. The opinion of the wine world was that it has achieved that ambition with a wine of extraordinary power and elegance. It would have been interesting to drink the Margaux in isolation and without having to compare it with the Victorian wines but alas, it had to be compared with Purbricks' masterpieces and it came in second. It was a great wine, with wonderful Bordeaux bouquet characteristics, rather deep in colour (they used a lot of Merlot) and the fruit was femininely delicate but either age, or the comparison with the 1967 Tahbilk resulted in the wine not making the quality statement of the Victorian wines.

Sadly, there was a policy change in the making of wines at Chateau Tahbilk with a commitment to produce commercial wines in quantity. If there had been persistence with the style of Purbrick's cabernet, there is no doubt that the wines today would enjoy the iconic status of Grange and then some.

Copyright ©2011 Louis A Coutts, All Rights Reserved.

About the Author
Louis Coutts is author of the recently released "6-hour MBA" and a management consultant based in Melbourne. He studied management at various American universities including Stanford, Colombia, Kellogg and the University of California and founded the Hawthorne Academy, which provides practical courses in different areas of business.

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