John Duval: World-Class Wines From Barossa
by Ken Gargett
I suspect that many wine lovers might be wondering just who John Duval is and probably thinking that they have never tried anything made by him. However, the chances are very good that most wine lovers have indeed enjoyed wines made by John Duval.
Duval was just the third man to be put in charge of Australia’s most famous wine, Penfolds Grange. He spent 29 years with Penfolds, 16 of those as chief winemaker, so there is every likelihood that most of us have enjoyed his wines, even if we’re not familiar with his more recent operation.
This is the problem that must frustrate Duval enormously. It is simply impossible to write about him without referencing his time at Penfolds and his achievements there.
Who is John Duval?
Duval graduated from Roseworthy College, Australia’s famous winemaking school, in 1973 and immediately joined Penfolds. His had been a family of grape growers at Morphett Vale for five generations prior to this (Duval’s father had grown grapes that were included in Grange). Suffice to say, wine is in his blood.
At Penfolds he worked closely with the creator of Grange, the legendary Max Schubert, and also Don Ditter, the man who succeeded Schubert. Duval became the third maker of Grange, taking over in 1986 and holding the reins until his retirement from Penfolds in 2002 – so two rather brilliant vintages to bookend his time as well as others such as 1990, 1991, 1998, and 1999.
During his time, Duval was responsible for introducing such wines as Bin 138 (which I love), Bin 407 (which is the one Penfolds wine that almost always leaves me wondering why), and most importantly the brilliant RWT, which is now known as RWT Bin 798 (there is only so long one can call a wine “Red Winemaking Trial”), a classic Barossa Shiraz that sees only French oak; it is the anthesis of Grange, which is all American oak.
Duval leaves Penfolds
In 2002, Duval rocked the Australian wine industry by announcing that he had decided to resign from its most coveted role and set up as a one-man band (for Aussie wine lovers, this equated to Michael Jordan giving up basketball and taking up golf). The general consensus was that he had lost his mind. On reflection, it was perhaps less of a shock than it seemed.
Duval is a quiet and modest man, always letting his wines do the talking. The Penfolds role is part winemaker, part ringmaster, and part rock star, and I’d guess that rock star held no real appeal for him. I always remember being in the Barossa for the festival in the late 1990s with the streets packed as the annual parade made its way past. There, jammed in among the crowd, having set up his chairs for the family to watch, was John Duval. I wondered if those around had any idea they were rubbing shoulders with winemaking royalty. For Duval, it was all about no fuss.
The question Duval was most asked at the time must surely have been about his own wines competing with Grange – I suspect he was thoroughly sick and tired of the potential comparison and probably still is. I recall him saying that it would simply be impossible for him to re-create Grange. He’d spent the last 20 years locking down contracts for Penfolds for the best vineyards for a Grange-style wine. What has become apparent is that his personal style of wine is anything but a Grange clone. His preference is very much for French oak, as opposed to American, and the wines have an elegance that is unrivalled for the region yet concede nothing in terms of structure.
John Duval Wines
John’s first release was the Plexus Shiraz Grenache Mourvèdre, a wine that gives enormous pleasure. As with most people in the industry, we are very often asked for a recommendation on a wine list – this has been my go-to suggestion for years and never fails to get rave reviews.
It was followed by a 100 percent Barossa Shiraz, Entity, in 2004.
The limited Grenache, one of Australia’s most exciting, Annexus, was released in 2013, and a Mataro (Mourvèdre for those hipster somms with unfinished screenplays in their bottom drawers under those black turtlenecks), also called Annexus, arrived in 2016. It is an exceptionally strong portfolio.
I’ve tasted most of Duval’s releases over the years and cannot think of one that was not first class. Now, we have the Integro, a Cabernet Shiraz blend, the first vintage was 2017. Duval might not have access to the fruit from the vineyards that contribute to Grange, but his long history has ensured the connections that allow him entry to wonderful old vineyards and first-class fruit.
The next generation
The year 2016 was memorable also as his son, Tim, joined him. Tim Duval, a former lawyer (as one myself, it always amazes me how many end up in the wine profession), not only worked vintages during his studies but also wine retail. Everything suggests that the family firm is in good hands, although I know of nothing to suggest that John won’t be making wines for many years yet.
Recent vintages have been kind to Barossa makers, and the wines we see from 2018 are especially exciting. So when the Duval 2018 Eligo and 2018 Integro arrived for consideration, I expected nothing but superstars and was not disappointed. The wines are about to hit the shelves.
John had long wanted to offer the classic Aussie blend of Shiraz and Cabernet, but has written about how it had to wait until he had identified the ideal vineyards and also had a vintage that worked for him. Two thousand seventeen tends to fall in the shadow of some of the great years around it, but many fine wines were made (I’ve not tasted the 2017 Integro, but was happy to wait for the 2018). John has reflected to the famous Penfolds Special Bins from the legendary Block 42 at Kalimna – often noted as the world’s oldest Cabernet vineyard – as his inspiration.
Although my intention with this piece was to look at Eligo and Integro, not so long ago I did a fair bit of work with top Aussie Grenache – for me, if anything in the world of wine is “flavor of the month” at the moment, the hottest ticket going, if you like, it is great Australian Grenache (it has taken us an embarrassingly long time to realize what gems we had in the vineyards, but winemakers are making up for lost time). Needless to say, the Duval Annexus played a key role in that, so it seems only right to include mention.
Tim has described Grenache “as a critical element to our wines, adding aromatic lift and elegance to our blends, as well as spice notes complemented by a purity of fruit expression.” The Duvals have access to a range of different Grenache sites from the sandier soils of central Barossa Valley, which offer perfumes and aromatic lift to the gnarly old vines from Eden Valley and their spice, concentration, and structure.
As mentioned, the flagship Grenache is the Annexus, in which 90 percent of the fruit comes from a parcel of Eden Valley Grenache planted in 1858 (specifically from the Stonegarden Vineyard) with the remainder from old bush vine vineyards in the northern Barossa. First vintage was the 2013.
Only 250 cases are made each vintage, but for a wine that costs around AUD$80 and comes from vines in excess of 160 years of age, this is surely the greatest bargain since the United States “stole” Alaska from Russia for around two cents an acre.
Briefly, the 2015 showed the softness and complexity of Grenache at its best (95); 2016 was more of the savory style with even better length, a wine with complexity and serious concentration and yet it dances (also 95); 2017 was seamless, well-structured, and with silky tannins (94); and the 2018, my pick, an absolute star with an exciting future (96).
As mentioned, since establishing John Duval Wines in 2003, John has always had in mind the idea to produce a Cabernet Shiraz blend. Finally, the 2017 Integro arrived.
The fruit came from the Stonegarden Vineyard, located to the east of Springton in the Eden Valley, which was first planted in 1858. In 2013, the Duvals were granted access to some Grenache from the vineyard, which became the Annexus, but it also had Cabernet dating back to the 1880s.
In 2017, the Duvals were finally allocated some of its fruit, hence the first Integro. The fruit was matured in French oak hogsheads for 18 months before it was blended with a small component of top-quality Shiraz (10 percent of the wine). Integro was born – the name meaning to make whole, a complete wine. Those who did taste it raved, but given the respective perceptions of the vintages, I have no doubt that even more was expected from the 2018 version.
John Duval Wines tasting notes
Duval Integro Cabernet Shiraz 2018 (AUD$220) – Back to the well for the Cabernet, as it were. Sourced again from the ancient vines in the Eden Valley vineyard, even though yields stubbornly refuse to exceed one tonne/acre. The blend is 92 percent Cabernet and eight percent Shiraz. Fermented separately for eight days on skins in small open stainless steel fermenters with twice daily pump overs, the Cabernet component was then aged in French oak hogsheads (50 percent new, 50 percent third use) for 18 months.
Near black with intensely dark purples. There are floral notes, rose petals, cocoa powder, and purple fruits here. Mulberries, a whiff of dried raisins, bay leaves, rolled tobacco notes, spices, cassis, leather, and blackberries. As one moves to the palate, the leather, mocha, and coffee bean notes emerge more to the fore, and the chocolate, especially dark chocolate, gains in intensity.
Serious concentration here, this is glorious stuff. Great length, balance, freshness, and complexity. Returning to it the following day, everything was still perfectly in place, though the firm tannins had become a bit more apparent at this stage. This is a wine that has two decades of improving ahead of it. After that, it should plateau for many more.
For me, while the Eligo offers a similar timespan, I’d be more inclined to approach it at an earlier stage than this wine. This one really will benefit from time. No question that this sits very comfortably with those Cabernet-dominant Special Bins from Penfolds that originally inspired John, although at a fraction of the price. Small quantities exported to the U.S., UK, and Hong Kong. 98.
Duval Eligo Shiraz 2018 (AUD$130) – “Eligo” means to select the best and that is the principle behind this wine, the Duvals’ flagship Shiraz. Select the very best fruit they can find. Of course, it needs to fit within their aim of a wine that retains both structure and elegance. As has become traditional, they use around 70 percent Eden Valley fruit and 30 percent Barossa, which is sourced from the subregions of Ebenezer and Moppa. The various parcels of grapes received discrete fermentation in small stainless steel fermenters, submerged caps, and twice daily pump overs. A portion of the fruit was left on skins for two weeks for color and structure. The wine then spent 18 months in fine grained French oak hogsheads (55 percent new, the remainder older).
Inky black in color, the nose is intense but rather gorgeous. Spices, blueberries, chocolate, leather, some oak but it is integrating superbly, fresh herbs and cocoa powder. Serious concentration here with a supple, seamless palate. Vibrantly fresh, balanced, lovely length with a soft, gentle finish. The silkiest of tannins. The palate also sees notes of beef stock and soy. Immaculate balance here, glorious flavors. There is absolutely no reason this won’t improve for 15 to 20 years, but it is already drinking magnificently.
I’ll confess to thinking long and hard about the score, because that little voice in my head (and a couple of grumpy winemakers – not John or Tim, I hasten to add) says that as good as this is, the Integro is more expensive, so surely that must mean something? As much as I love the Integro, at the moment this is the wine I found myself coming back to. This was the one I wanted to drink.
In 20 years that may be reversed, but for now this is a wonderfully elegant, classic Barossa Shiraz. I know that giving an Aussie wine a score like this will mean that some people will raise eyebrows (let them!), but if this wine came from a great Rhône winery, or perhaps a Napa one, no one would blink at the score, such is the quality. I think that this is the best wine I have seen under the Duval label. Exported to the U.S., UK, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Germany, Brazil, Canada, Korea, Singapore, Spain, Taiwan, and Japan. 99.
For more information, please visit www.johnduvalwines.com.
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