With a Little Help from My Billabongs (Not a Beatles Song): 1988 Chateau Tahbilk Goulburn Valley Cabernet Sauvignon
On the competent, inviting Tahbilk website, we’re informed that the winery was founded almost 160 years ago, which means it’s old for an Australian winemaker.
The oldest operating American winery is Brotherhood, in Washingtonville, New York, about twenty years older than Tahbilk.
The oldest operating French winery appears to be Château de Goulaine, in the Loire, almost a thousand years older than Tahbilk.
This “elder” Australian winery is in the Nagambie Lakes Region of Central Victoria, about 75 miles north of Melbourne. The Goulburn Valley, designated on the front label of our Odd Bottle, is a sub-region of the Hume region of Victoria. It’s a catchment of the Goulburn River.
This part of Australia is renowned for its viticulture as well as for its abundant seed fruits and stone fruits.
Tahbilk is comprised of about 3000 acres of what the winery calls “rich river flats.” On 500 of these are grown many varieties of grapes, Marsanne being the chief white and Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon the chief reds. The sandy soil is rich with iron (ferric) oxide. Iron is essential in the pigmentation of red grapes. Gravel sub-soil, deposited over time as the Goulburn River changed course, aids, along with the sand, in the necessary drainage in the vineyards.
The name Tahbilk comes from what the aboriginal people called this part of their homeland, Tabilk-Tabilk, which means “Place of Many Water Holes.”
And there is indeed abundant water for irrigation, in this warm inland climate, from the surrounding lakes, creeks, and perhaps the original water holes, billabongs. A billabong is, aside from the brand name of an Australian surfboard, a small lake created when a river has changed its course. In the native Wiradjuri dialect, “billa” meant river and “bong/bung” meant dead, an apt description of a piece of a river cut off and now flowing no longer (and yet it’s of crucial significance to the moderation of heat).
When the winery was founded in 1860, it was called simply Tahbilk. (Perhaps the h was added to make it difficult for people like me to remember how to spell the name — I’ve often typed it as Tabhilk.)
The word “Chateau” that appears on our label was added in the late 1800s in an effort to class up the joint. The word “Chateau” was removed in 2000, in a kind of millennial nostalgia that attempts to recapture the past at the moment of what seems a giant leap into the future. (There was a slightly misunderstood change of centuries in 2000, though even a legitimate change of century’s no bigger than any other annual leap.)
Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, considered by some the greatest of grapes for red wine, first appeared in Australia in 1832 from rootstock. Those first vines died, but Australia has what may be the world’s oldest (130+ years) living/producing Cabernet Sauvignon vines, planted in 1886 in what is now Penfolds Kalimna Block 42, in the northern Barossa.
For Tahbilk, as for most Australian wineries, Cabernet Sauvignon takes second place to Shiraz. But Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the world’s most widely planted vine, is catching up. Since 1966, its production in Australia has increased by over 400 percent, from 620 to 255,000 tonnes (metric tons).
And oh what fine wines can be made from the grape in Australia.
Our almost-30-year-old bottle yielded its cork in one fine piece — supple, proud — but I could see as I was removing it that it would be split into three pieces had not the worm of the corkscrew I’d chosen been so long — needlessly long, even, in this case.
I was opening the bottle in a cabin in the woods, and I went to that particular backup corkscrew, which I’d never used before but trusted from the looks of it (no doubt better to do with corkscrews than with fellow humans). All it says brand-wise on the long black corkscrew is Bistro. I was very happy it didn’t revolt in its no doubt intended (by its marketers) Frenchness (it’s not from France) and screw up (no pun!) the opening of a Cabernet Sauvignon from, of all places — so far as the French might be concerned — Australia that cost a very (for so fine a wine) unFrench $7.99 upon purchase.
The smell of the wine emerged into the tiny cabin-in-the-woods kitchen either directly from the immediate disengagement of the cork from the bottle and thus out of the bottle’s (any bottle’s) small opening on top or, as I preferred to think, from the cork itself.
I used to be very skeptical of Robert Parker when he would describe a wine’s aroma filling an entire room immediately upon the opening of a bottle of wine. But that was before it happened to me. Thereafter I went looking (wrong sense, perhaps) for that room-filling scent/aroma.
The wine poured pale (no doubt from its advanced age), resembling a pinot noir. But its nose was distinctly cabernet sauvignon — an aged Cabernet Sauvignon: red berries from the warmth, the kind of eucalyptus that reminds me of California, but more being in the cool air in (northern) California than of having my nose stuck in a wine glass in (northern) California. Overall in the nose, however, was the smell of age, which is not a smell at all but an impression of fleeting time rising from the surface of the wine, a kind of perfumed maturity, where the perfume has penetrated the skin and surrounds the heart. (To be less poetic about it: earth, musk, mushroom, leather.)
My wine glass was smaller than what I normally use to test wines for The Odd Bottle, because the cabin-in-the-woods cabinet shelf could hold barely a single one of those glasses — in fact, it couldn’t hold even a single one because those glasses are too tall. These were an Italian version of the now classic INAO (Institut National d’Appellation d’Origine) tasting glass (“The finest inexpensive tasting glass in the world” — Robert Parker — which, if you’re interested, you can find here.
In the mouth, the wine showed sweet fruit at its core (sweet from fruit, even after all this time in the bottle, not sweet from sugar). It was not a “big” wine, didn’t buoy the tongue with heft and fill the cheeks with a stolid pleasure. It had more a kind of almost (if only it had been completely) silky presence, thin, but not wholly in the bad way this term is used for wine, thin, like a small stream of, yes, liquid silk released into the body.
It was drunk that first night with grilled-over-wood pork sausages, which had less spice than I’m accustomed to in my beloved sausages, and that was probably an advantage for the Cabernet Sauvignon in its initial audition for The Odd Bottle, though I must say that the impression of sweet juiciness/fruit did make me feel it would have held up to the usual spice from our usual sausage.
The second day it was served with supermarket rotisserie chicken (hey, we were in the woods, and there is no working stove/oven anyway). Now the wine was light and elegant enough to pair with the relatively simple taste of the (“traditional”) bird — so its imitating Pinot Noirness served it in good stead.
And yet…for dinner on the second day the wine proved powerful enough to stand up to steak tips, medium rare, seasoned with salt, black pepper, garlic, and just a bit of chili pepper.
And finally, for lunch on the third day, the wine had to suffer the humiliation of being served with leftover supermarket rotisserie chicken, with which, as if it knew that its numbered days had come to their last hour, it attained a kind of flowery essence, perhaps like flowers at a gravesite, that lovely cheer brought forth not so much to overwhelm sadness as to accompany it and bring balance back into a sad world in which both wine and people have their allotted time.
This was not a great wine. This was a very good wine that was almost surely a very good, perhaps even better, wine when it was twenty years younger. I’m writing about it because one thing I‘ve discovered I do, and want to do writing The Odd Bottle, is to show that there are some (some, not all) supposedly modest (or at least modestly priced) wines that not only survive to between 30 and, say, 40 years old but seem to flourish. I wish I could say they improve, which they undoubtedly can or do, but I have no notes on these wines drunk 30-40 years ago, so I can’t make the comparison.
Chateau Tahbilk was named 2016 Winery of the Year by James Halliday, perhaps the most renowned and widely published Australian wine writer. Its wines don’t seem to be as widely available in the United States as they were when I bought this bottle, probably in 1990. But you can find out just what U.S. stores (and stores in other countries as well) are selling them at the indispensable wine-searcher.
There you’ll see that what recent Tahbilk vintages are available, including those of Cabernet Sauvignon, are selling for between $12 and $20. As I said above, I paid $7.99 for this bottle. In 2017 dollars, that’s $15.30.
In other words, you can get this wine for less money now than I paid then. So buy at least two bottles — try one soon (after it’s rested from any travel upset) and save one for 2046, when it will be as old as this Odd Bottle was when it was opened at a cabin in the woods.