Alister Purbrick is the current custodian of the Chateau Tahbilk legacy, one of Australia’s oldest family owned and run wineries, with a history – as well as some vines – dating back to 1850. Josh Elias spoke to the Tahbilk patriarch about the past, the future, and the significance of a 1932 penny…
In the moment: the textures, sights and sounds of Tahbilk are meditative.
A community of sheds and stables glued to the ground by the thick thackety thwomp of mud-brick. What was once a slurry of sand and mud – formed by countless hands – providing cool shelter. Coated in a deliciously sticky and shiny meringue of a white limey mixture. From the 1860s to the 1880s these buildings took shape.
A church that is not a Church. Warped floorboards that are bowed yet ‘swoll’. Honour boards with golden names. A room scattered with relics. Show certificates from agrarian times. Maps and journals. Portraits and ghosts. The name ‘Len Evans’.
An entry to the caves descends under the watch of the late Eric Purbrick. A curved brick ceiling. Dampened sounds and a yeasty air. A catalogue of wines in tall oak barrels. The lungs of winemaking, expanding and contracting with each year’s harvest.
Any visit to Tahbilk is immersive. The aforementioned glisten of the white mudbrick buildings. The yeasty scent of the underground cellars that echoes winemaking. The gentle hum of insects in the wetlands. And most symbolically, the plush mid-palate of old-vine shiraz that tastes ripe, plush and generous.
On this visit, our conversations with Alister Purbrick shed light on his personal journey with Tahbilk.
Alister Purbrick graduated from Roseworthy Agricultural College in 1975 and began working for Mildara Wines, now part of Treasury Wine Estates, in Coonawarra just in time for the 1976 vintage.
The age of Tahbilk’s cellar is quite unique; when did you first begin tasting older wines?
AP “I’ve been exposed to older great wines from a really young age. Grandfather loved drinking good wines. Dad loved drinking good wines, and when we were at Roseworthy, we, the students, went hunting. We were going around to hotels in the Barossa asking the obvious question: ‘Have you got any old rubbish down in the cellar that you haven’t sold?’ Funnily enough, there was plenty of it. It would still say ‘a shilling’ or thereabouts on the list and that was all that they wanted for it because they thought it was old and [stuffed]. Some of it was [past its best], but some of it was fantastic. We would have a whole lot of, what we would call ‘dinner parties’, loosely speaking, but really they were just nights with our Roseworthy Crew. We would have an orgy of old, some great, wines – we would really over-indulge…”
When you returned from study at Roseworthy, did you have a new perspective on the wines made by Tahbilk?
AP “When I got home (this came later after I spent the 1976 and 1977 vintages with Mildara, in Coonawarra and Mildura, and the 1978 vintage with Buronga Hill, in Mildura, returning home in April 1978), the first thing I did was grab every wine that was in the museum as it was then. I then tasted and analysed them – just to see if there were any themes around the great wines, or not. It took me a few years to get it all done. I knew what was in the cellar. It was mostly unlabelled but there was a list of what everything was. If I had lost that list, I’d have been in trouble! Then I would do something like a 20-year vertical tasting… I might have done something like a mid-40s, 20-year vertical running through to the mid-60s, just taste and take my notes – I still have all my notes on those wines… It was everything, nose, palate, running right through to the finish, reasonably comprehensive and then I’d just give a rating at the end, a score of out 20. Just as importantly, I’d also rate how far away I thought each wine was from its best.”
When did you first gather an understanding of the palate shape for Tahbilk’s wine style?
AP “What fell out of that was, which is obvious when you say it now but wasn’t obvious at the time, in a particular year that grapes were picked in that 13-14% v/v equivalency zone, that was the optimum quality zone, but also in the years where there were better natural acids which gave better pH balance. And probably slightly on the greener side, so more around 13% than around the 14% because they weren’t adding acid in those days so [the natural acid] was whatever it was… What that showed me was the zone for maximising fruit flavour – that 13% to 14% zone. So [now] we just taste and pick on flavour, then we can get the analysis right by adding tartaric acid – to get the pH right – and replicate what those earlier great wines reflected.
“The other thing I noticed was that there were some potentially great wines – you’d smell them, unbelievable, first part right through to the middle part of the palate – so complex, but then something grabbed you by the throat at the end which were the tannins. So they’d just got the tannin balance wrong as a young wine. [The tannin] was sitting out like a dog’s lame leg which then got me back to [the mindset] where I thought, ok, if we are going to make the fruit the hero – which is what the best wines from out here do – then we still have to get the tannins right. Add a little bit of new oak, that will add another layer of complexity, then get the analysis right and the rest should take care of itself.”
The wetlands appear to be a big focus of Tahbilk’s future. What are the main aims of the project?
AP “Our aim, which we want to achieve by the end of 2020, is to maintain the Carbon Neutral Accreditation but ultimately achieve it without having to buy any carbon credit offsets. That is all through the revegetation which Hayley [Purbrick] has been doing. This year when we had our audit, we were only 240 tonnes of carbon footprint short of being able to balance our carbon footprint internally. We take our environmental credentials pretty seriously for pretty obvious reasons, you know, the legacy that we leave is what future generations have got to work with. Hopefully we can make it easier for them if we are more responsible through our journey.”
They say that “if you want to answer a question, make it a bet” – or something along those lines. Could you kindly detail the bet that you entered into with your father?
AP “With the 1981 Cabernet, only the third vintage for me, I was really pleased with the way that the wine looked, but it was a little bit lighter and more elegant than perhaps what dad and grandfather had been used to. Anyway, I was waxing lyrical to my dad about this particular wine one night about how it was going to take at least 20 years to get to its best. And he said, ‘No way’. And I said, ‘Really?’ He said, ‘If that wine lasts more than 10 years it’ll be a miracle!’ And so I said, ‘Ok, you want to have a bet?” His birth year is 1930, and so we made a bet for a 1930 penny. He didn’t know too much about [its value] at the time, and neither did I, but the 1930 penny is worth a fortune…. So we settled on a 1932 penny. The long and short of it is, the 1981 still isn’t at its best and I’ve got a 1932 penny in my ‘coin collection’ which consists of one coin.”
Josh Elias is a wine educator and wine writer. His record is tarred with success in the Court of Master Sommeliers (Advanced) and WSET Diploma. Formerly Editor of Alquimie, Josh continues to search for enlightenment with varying results. He prefers cloudy Australian wine but can be easily persuaded. Josh is generally unsociable but can be bothered on twitter via @JoshElias.
Tahbilk is a partner of the Wineslinger Awards.