Q&A: James Halliday’s dream Champagne pairing
Wednesday, September 16, 2020 in News
Q&A James Halliday’s dream Champagne pairing
James Halliday has at least enough wine left in his cellar until his age reaches the triple digits. The rest? It’s now available for your bidding pleasure. In the final suite of auctions of The James Halliday Collection, James releases the rest of his immense portfolio via three events: Rhône and Champagne, Victoria, and Burgundy and International Riesling.
In celebration, James shares with us his favourite Champagne pairing (no, it’s not oysters!), Australian wines that rival the great Burgundies, and the life-affirming pleasures of German Riesling. Browse and bid on the James Halliday auction catalogue.
On Rhône and Champagne
How do the wines of the Rhône Valley compare to Aussie Shiraz and Grenache?
Northern Rhône produces small amounts of Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, which at their best are sublime wines. Guigal is the greatest producer. The picture changed radically when Robert Parker discovered them in the early 80s. The so-called La La’s (La Landonne and La Mouline, etc.) spend 40 months in new French oak, and can be compared to Grange at a pinch, Shiraz one common denominator, 100% new oak and built-in longevity another. The difference is Grange’s American oak and cheaper price. Here in Australia, there are other great makers using French oak, similar vinification techniques, and similar styles to that of the Northern Rhône, especially in regions with cooler climates. And they are much cheaper than their Northern Hemisphere cousins.
Then there is the Southern Rhône, where Shiraz is replaced by Grenache (and a bucket of up to 12 other varieties that are permitted in Châteauneuf-du-Pape). Here, it becomes more complicated. Guigal makes many thousands of bottles of Côtes du Rhône. I once wrote an article for my newspaper praising it as the best value red in Australia. It was imported by David Farmer of Farmer Bro’s, who rang me back in the day to say he had just placed an order for a container to satisfy the orders for the wine, which was $3.75 a bottle. It is my go-to wine when I want a soft, medium-bodied red that has complexity built on fruit—not oak or tannins. Even after depredations for the Langton auction, I still have vintages from 1976 to 2005 in my cellar, and the value of the wine is as good today as it was back on day one.
What's the greatest bottle of Champagne you have tasted?
The best two bottles were 1928 Krug tasted in the Krug cellar in 1983, the other fresh from the luggage of Christian Pol Roger for a press breakfast in the Hilton Hotel in Sydney in the late 70s. I was the only one to turn up, so I had the bottle of 1921 Pol all to myself and made sure I drank every last drop. I walked back down Pitt Street to my law offices in Circular Quay in a very good mood, but did leave earlier than usual to wind my way home.
What do you love eating with Champagne?
Beluga caviar (eaten in heaven). Not oysters (served in hell).
You have a vast collection of Rutherglen fortifieds. What's so special about this Aussie wine icon?
Rutherglen fortifieds are indeed unique and special, and this is a double-edged sword. It means few people here and abroad have ever tasted them, although Parker did dish out some 100-point reviews a few years ago. The ‘cost of entry’ is trifling, but the broader picture of all fortified wines shows it’s a category with no growth and social taboos. COVID-19 means driving isn’t relevant in Victoria, so if you live there, buy a bottle and experience the thrilling taste for yourself.
The 2010 Bass Phillip Reserve is in your auction. As a wine that you gave 99 points, do you consider this the benchmark for all Aussie Pinots?
Bass Phillip Pinots are the correlative of Leeuwin Estate’s Chardonnay. Viewed over time, each stands tall. Leewin’s style and quality is so predictable you can buy on provenance alone without risk. Pinot is a different animal, prone to finding any chink in the vineyard or winery’s armoury to fail slightly or devastatingly. So you cannot take any Pinot—great or humble—for granted.
Do the best Pinots from Victoria compete with good examples from Burgundy?
We seem happy to recognise our best Shiraz, Chardonnay, Semillon, et al. as world class, but cringe when it comes to Pinot Noir. Over the decades I have participated in or organised countless blind tastings in which Australian Pinots have either come out equal or in front of Burgundies.
On Burgundy and International Riesling
Your two true wine loves in one auction. Is this the portion of your collection that is going to be the hardest to part with?
I have managed to keep enough of each to last until I turn 100, so hopefully the question doesn’t arise!
When did you first travel to Europe for wine?
For the sole purpose of wine? 1981, France, buying and writing about it.
What was your lightbulb moment with Riesling?
Until 1992, more Riesling than Chardonnay was crushed in Australia. Going back to 1962 when the first bottles went into my cellar, there was no Chardonnay and no Pinot Noir, simply because there was none to taste, let alone buy. Moreover, it was possible to taste five-year-old Riesling that made me aware of the greatest virtues of Riesling: it’s transformation from a sparkling, thirst-quenching, lime juice-flavoured essential for any Asian meal, to the honeyed richness of ageing. Sweet, off dry, or dry—Riesling does it all. The oldest Riesling I have shared was a 1727 Rüdesheimer Apostlewein. Not the best by a long way, but drinkable.
What makes German Riesling so special?
Riesling has been grown in challengingly cold and often wet conditions for over 1000 years. Some vignerons have direct family lines going back 300 to 400 years. Think how they must feel about German indifference to their own wine, forcing producers to find export markets.That is why German Riesling for me, especially that from the Mosel Valley, represents the best value of all regions (Cotes du Rhône excepted). Their cost of production is eye-watering, and the resulting wine has every pleasurable aspect dialled up two or more times compared with all except the very best of ours.
What attracts you to Burgundy?
The magic of Burgundy lies in wines from good vintages, good producers, and five to ten years in a good cellar. The more time the better. If the planets align you can utterly lose all sense of time or place in the bouquet of the wine, so much so that you fear to taste it and break the spell. A Riedel burgundy glass is essential in this journey.
Do you have any advice for a budding wine lover who wants to start buying Burgundy? Is there still value to be found?
The vast majority of good Burgundies come from family owned and run estates which are personally involved in vineyard work (it’s where they are happiest), from pruning to bud burst, disbudding, shoot thinning and leaf plucking, hand picking with meticulous care, sorting in the vineyard and in the winery with vibrating sorting tables, and then charting the course of the vinification according to the precepts of the weather over the growing season.
Good Burgundy isn’t cheap, great Burgundy very expensive. Finding ways to limit the cost of tasting is the way to go for those who don’t have limitless pockets. The trick is to find those who, like you, are dedicated to learning through tasting and discussion, the basics of analysing the taste of the wine, and its place in the hierarchy of Burgundy.
When I started on the journey, the internet was 40 years away, so the oceans of information available today didn’t exist. I found friends, attended Saturday tastings staged by the best retailers, went to any dinners in my budget (made easier then because the prices were far, far lower, and overall there was greater interest in Bordeaux).
The 1855 classification of the Médoc into five growths and the far larger production of each wine made Bordeaux more accessible and less expensive, so I also fell prey to its charms until I threw away my vinous short pants and grew up. Burgundy will be even harder to obtain considering the appetite in China for these wines. The final twist of the knife is that there is a tight relationship between price and quality. The cheapest Burgundies are wretched things, and Australian Pinot at the same price is infinitely better.