Yalumba’s ‘Caley’ – a vertical tasting

Family-owned Yalumba wines has farmed in Australia since 1849, when Samuel Smith planted his first vines on their patch of the Barossa Valley. I recently met up with the 5th and 6th generations in charge of the company, Robert Hill-Smith and his daughter, Jessica, for a tasting of their ‘pinnacle’ wine launched in 2012, the classic Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz blend, called ‘The Caley’. Selling for around £250 per bottle, its launch pitched it squarely into the elite territory occupied by Australian icons like Penfold’s Grange and Henschke’s Hill of Grace.

The Caley is named in honour of Fred Caley Smith, grandson of Yalumba’s founder, and a horticulturist who travelled the world and was instrumental in developing Yalumba’s vineyards towards the end of the 19th century. Today, Robert says they are best known for their premium reds, but that it is a company that continues to innovate and learn. He admits that the Caley is a determined effort to throw off a reputation of making excellent, reliable wines, but never being part of the Australian elite. “It’s about moving our light from under the bushel, beating our chest a bit, and the 2012 vintage gave us a chance to do that.”

Jessica went on to say that Cabernet and Shiraz were the obvious choices, and agrees that 2012, a “one in 50 years vintage,” was the impetus to finally make their ‘super-claret’, an ode to the old Cab-Shiraz blends from Coonawarra and Barossa that made Australia famous. The winemakers had a blank canvas: “They saw it as a really exciting brief,” says Jessica, especially with the outstanding quality of the fruit. “We wanted a sustainable wine with real DNA to be part of our portfolio,” adds Robert.

There is no specific recipe or source for the wines, but over the four vintages so far, there are a couple of vineyards in both Coonawarra and Barossa, that have become core to the wine, including an ungrafted Shiraz vineyard in Barossa that was planted in 1901 on its own roots and which is dry-grown, without irrigation.

All ferments “begin at least,” with wild yeasts from the vineyard, and ageing is in French oak, about 40% new, coopered on site (Yalumba is one of very few wineries in Australia with its own cooperage). There is some Hungarian oak used too. Cabernet generally dominates the blend for the Caley, but Robert stresses there is no set recipe, the blend being decided according to the fruit given by each vintage. Certainly in these four samples – the complete history of the wine so far – there is considerable variation in style, due both to the climatic conditions of the vintage, and the fruit blend that resulted.

The Wines

(2021) A long, mild season, with slower ripening of the fruit. Dense and deep, a touch of lighter orange on the rim. Just a gorgeous and clasic nose, pencil-shaving and graphite, a deep, mulled plum and blackcurrant fruit, that fatness of mulberry, but so much spice from the Shiraz and barrel. The cooler vintage comes through with very good acidity and intensity, dry and savoury fruit, but such sweet ripeness at the core. Very juicy, very gastronomic, with saltiness and spice into a long finish. A lovely cooler-climate style this.
(2021) Darker, more opaque and less developed in colour, this is much more driven by the ripe, taut, creamy black fruit than by the cedar and spice aromatically, a great creaminess and deep pool of aromas that are much more Shiraz (in fact, this did have an unusually high percentage of Shiraz for this wine, at 45%). Very intense on the palate - different from the 2012 too - with dry, intense plum and plum skins, great concentration and purity, and again that saltiness in the finsh melding with the vanillin from French oak. Intense, delicious.
(2021) Colour-wise, back to that slightly softer red like the 2012. Aromatically this is quite fruit and fragrance-driven, with cherry and blackcurrant, a hint of brighter raspberry and leafy/floral spices, the verdant touch of the Cabernet evident. In the mouth a real welterweight of fruit and substance, loads of fat textured fruit, but then dusty, fine tannins sweep through, tangy fruit-skin acidity and savoury dryness, and masses of spice into the finish. Available in-bond as a three-pack at time of review, approximate single bottle price quoted.
(2021) More youthful colour, but much more deep ruby/black than purple, the nose an amalgam of bright glossy fruit and spice, a slick of vanilla and some background game or meaty, curry-leaf notes. Lovely palate - there is that meaty and meat-stock balsamic edge to this, very dense fruit, concentrated and intense, if relatively straightforward at this stage. Tannins are firm, powerful, but fine, the overall feel still quite smooth, sleek and powerful, with good juicy and, again, salty acidity. One to watch as it develops, with further in-bottle improvement is very likely. Available in-bond as a three-pack at time of review, approximate single bottle price quoted.

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