By Philip White
As good as wine tasting gets. Genesis from then to now. And tasted on a root day! Away back on the other side of last vintage I sat down at the laden table of the Castagna family at Beechworth, on the northern foothills of the Victorian Alps. To me, this is as good as wineries get. While I think about thirty of Australia’s 2600 wineries make consistently brilliant wine, Castagna is as close to the top of that thirty as I would care to measure. Or could measure.
No need to remind my long-term readers how I feel about stuff like that. But for those who came in late, a tasting like this at Castagna is such a flash of stately brilliance that I wish I had to walk home from Rome across China to Shanghai or somewhere, just to fully digest these notes. Julian and Adam Castagna first gave me a tasting of barrels. 2012 Shiraz in a new Burgundy barrel? Creamy, creamy in the mouth; crème de cassis; sublime intensity and elegance. Finish? Pickle of granite in acid and mace.
Same wine in a Bordeaux barrel? Still creamy, but much more austere and precise: pencil shavings and more gradually tapered, like Bordeaux.
Same wine in old barrel? More like the most soulful of Castagna. And on we went. Same vineyard picked eight days later with one per cent more alcohol in a new Burgundy barrel? Another beast again. This was architecture more than cooking, the most precise shard of a wine, agro allspice, sandy smashed windscreen tannins. Gehry. “I’d never use Bordeaux oaks on stuff this strong,” Julian said. Same wine in a barrel from another Burgundy cooper? The wine’s much more pungent, sick and creamy on the one hand, yet as edgy as wet hessian or burlap or the wheatbags of hemp seed we could get at Charlicks in the seventies. It was called Racing Pigeon Food.
So there we went, on through the dancing mysteries of Castagna Sangiovese and Nebbiolo in different oaks – trippy – and right to the verge of one of the most exciting tastings this writer can remember in Australia or anywhere: a serious uncorking of a set of Castagna Genesis Beechworth Shiraz, and a day to wallow in them.
My first contact with the Castagna occurred when the 1999 Genesis poked its noble head from a row of hundreds of glasses of masked Shiraz and ended up winning the highest points out of the thousands of everything tasted for the 2001 Top 100 in The Advertiser, South Australia’s major daily. For consecutive years thereafter, Castagna repeated the conquest with one wine after another. Blind tastings; wines I’d never tasted before. They kept winning.
So here’s that wine again.
Castagna Genesis Beechworth Shiraz 1999 (13.5% alcohol; 96++ points). “Not like any other Australian Shiraz,” I scratched out. “creamy, opulent, luxurious, harmonized essence of Shiraz, almost leaden in its incredible authority and weight. The fruit simply melts into a pot of red gold.” And then Julian butts in. “This is off two year old vines,” he says. “I took one bunch off every vine. That’s all. That’s all. I think you’ll see that these wines are of this vineyard,’ he says. “Of this vineyard.”
Castagna Genesis Beechworth Shiraz 2000 (13.5% alcohol; 95 points) shares the 1999s creamy wholesomeness, but it’s sharper in the herbals. If the oak contributed any precise aroma to the ’99, it was mace, made from the peel of the nutmeg. This is the nutmeg itself here in this 2000. While still smooth and harmonious, this wine has feints of soot, licorice and star anise. It’s more slender and sinewy, vivacious and bright than the ’99, and the better one to drink now, as it won’t last as long as that venerable.
Castagna Genesis Beechworth Shiraz 2001 (13.8% alcohol; 94+++ points) smells like a three-year old wine. It reminded me of Gago’s rad Bin 620 Penfolds, with all that brash confidence and luxurious intensity way beyond its short years. I’m not saying it’s aged prematurely, but that it has adult flesh of the finest athletic form far too early for its own good. And I’m begrudging in this praise. It seemed as slender and athletic as the 2000, but then with air made itself more so, with more sinuous, snaky acidity and finer tannins. A most refined and elegant wine on any table. And another one sure to swell with a decade of dungeon.
Castagna Genesis Beechworth Shiraz 2002 (13.5% alcohol; 96+++ points) had more of a pronounced dried herbs touch than its predecessors. It’s also minty, like peppermint, and impossibly youthful and bright. It’s fruit is still fluffy, like a whipped confection. Call me your little whipped confection if you like, as long as you tip this into me. As it settles its minions onto the prairie of the palate, it brings a hint of chocolate crème caramel from a great city restaurant many horses distant. There is no other Shiraz like this. Astonishing. Ravishing.
Castagna Genesis Beechworth Shiraz 2003 was not released. The vintage was not up to standard.
Castagna Genesis Beechworth Shiraz 2004 (14% alcohol; 93+ points) is where the crème de cassis, the jujube fruits, licorice and star anise well together in a sullen sort of a well, giving nuffink away until you get it onto the laughing gear, where all the above are liberated very slowly, like one hostage at a time, surrounded by and scribbled upon by the heavy lead of the 6B carbon pencil. The wine is slightly hot from its alcohol. Profound and confounding. Its heavy lack of primary humour reminds me of Dorris Lessing, but its fine silky tannins draw it out to a prime tension probly beyond Dorris.
Castagna Genesis Beechworth Shiraz 2005 (14% alcohol; 93+ points). Oooh dear. Musk, blackberry, blackcurrant, jujubes, jello, lipstick, tea tin, dried herbs, mace, bay, star anise, cedar, licorice, Marveer … and then, dammit, it smells like a clarinet!!!!!!!!! Not the most intense, but one of the most entertaining of the Genesis suite. The alcohol’s not particularly hot, but because the rest of the wine is more slender, with lower fruit levels, that 14% still seems overt here. Answer? Wait five years. Or pretend it’s an oboe. Whatever it is, and whatever I think, will be two very different things once you have a wine like this in your glass. It will take your heart away.
Castagna Genesis Beechworth Shiraz 2006 (14% alcohol; 96+++ points) is probably one of the great Shiraz wines of history. Anywhere. After many hours of air, it still begrudgingly begins to release shards of fruit of impenetrable depth and compression. It has the usual mace and anise and whatnot, but in a wine of this promise and provenance, who gives a damn? Everything else is here, so why not them? The only disconcerting thing is the tension of its compression: it’s like my buddy George Grainger Aldridge folding his vast frame into an economy seat. There’s a pallet of this put aside somewhere. I hope they keep it buried for another decade, at least. It reminds me of the Paul Jaboulet Ainée 1961 La Chappelle Hermitage.
Castagna Genesis Beechworth Shiraz 2007 was not released. The vintage was not up to standard.
Castagna Genesis Beechworth Shiraz 2008 (14% alcohol; 94+++ points) is heavy metal. Death metal. I know of few wines so strangely, deliciously metallic. It is welder’s flux, with the phosphoric acid of Coca Cola gnawing away at the blood pudding away below. Not swearing it’s there, but you get my drift. Juniper berry tannin. Then there’s a range of fleshy flavours which kinda swoop in heroically like the Valkyrie or something off a Wagner single. Sabayon, fudge, chocolate crème caramel are suddenly there as cushioning agents. Come, sweet agents, cushion me! Which all should serve to warn you that this wine needs to be left snoring for a decade more. Very black magic.
Castagna Genesis Beechworth Shiraz 2009 (14% alcohol; 95+++ points) is a softer, more fleshy wine from the hellfire and brimstone of a vintage which saw many dead across the Alps of Victoria. While the flavours are much tighter and more sinuous than the bouquet would indicate, with blacksnake acid and blackdust tannins, there’s a wallow of softer, much more cuddlepot fruit over the top, making the wine remind me of Welcome To Woop Woop. This is the most approachable Genesis of the more recent years. Which is never to say it’s a pushover.
Castagna Genesis Beechworth Shiraz 2010 (13% alcohol; 96+++ points) The time for rewriting is past. “Impossible to understand,” my notes verbote, “at this its obscene zygotic mystification. Face cream. Blackberry leaf. Carbon and black granite. Tourmaline. Totally barren of sensuality and flesh. Gunbarrells. Not one skerrick of humour. NOT FUNNY AT ALL.”So let that be a lesson to you. My advice is NEVER miss a tasting of Castagna Genesis or anything else from that bonnie vineyard up on the rocky shoulder of Australia itself. Just buy the wine and put it away and hope you don’t die too fast. It is indeed about as good as we get from single vineyard Shiraz. On Earth. If you think I’m wrong, there’s only one reason I can think of. We did this tasting on a root day. Fair dinkum. A root day. We miscalculated. Too much Full Moon.
Journalist Philip White is undoubtedly Australia’s most literate and erudite wine writer. His blog which is always the must-read blog of wine and wine politics in Australia includes his take on Castagna and is worth a read: