Wine Review: Three First Drop Shiraz from Down Under

As most of you know, the wine-related part of this blog mainly focuses on Italian wine, although non exclusively as now and then I post about non-Italian wines that I have tasted and enjoyed: so far, I have posted about FrenchPortuguese and New Zealand wines: it is now time to talk about Australian wines.

Australia is one of the largest wine making countries of the New World, coming right after the USA and Argentina. A few official data: in 2012 in Australia there were 91,000 HA of red wine vines (almost 50% of which were Shiraz/Syrah, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) and the South Australia region accounted for almost 60% of the entire red wine production. In terms of white wines, in 2012 Australia had 57,000 HA of white wine vines (almost 50% of which were Chardonnay, followed by Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon) and the South Australia and New South Wales regions combined accounted for over 70% of the entire white wine production. The overall Australian wine production in 2012 was about 1.2 billion liters (Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics)

One of the obvious consequences of so large a production is that out there you may find some excellent Australian wines but also some… less than stellar ones. So, not wanting to go through a potentially long trial and error process, I decided to ask Laura, an Australian wine expert, accomplished cook and last but not least author of the food blog Laura’s Mess, if she would be willing to help me in my quest for quality Australian wineries whose wines I could taste and review, by giving me a few pointers (by the way, should you not be familiar with Laura’s blog already, do pay her a visit because it is a food blog that is definitely worthwhile following, both for the great content and for the beautiful food photography).

Well, Laura went above and beyond what could be considered “fellow blogger courtesy” as she went to great lengths to provide me an overview of Australia’s main wine regions and a detailed description of her favorite producers and wines in each of them. Laura, thank you so much once again for your invaluable guidance in helping me learn more about the Australian wine world.

Anyway, after going through Laura’s terrific survey and cross-referencing the producers that impressed me the most with the reality of what is available in the US market (and the awful lot of good stuff that unfortunately is not), I decided to start my Aussie tasting experience from First Drop, a young winery based in Australia’s prime wine region of the Barossa. This is because they came highly recommended from Laura, they focus on a variety that I like a lot (Shiraz/Syrah), their vineyards are in one of the premium Australian wine regions (the Barossa Valley, in South Australia) and last but not least I managed to find a US online retailer who carries most of their lineup. So I went ahead and placed a sampler order, buying four of their red wines, from entry-level to top of the line, which would hopefully give me a nice overview of the First Drop range.

These are the four bottles that I bought:

  1. First Drop, Shiraz “Fat of the Land” Greenock Cru, Barossa 2009
  2. First Drop, “Two Percent“, Barossa 2009 (a 98% Shiraz, 2% Tempranillo blend)
  3. First Drop, Shiraz “Mother’s Milk“, Barossa 2011
  4. First Drop, “Half & Half“, Barossa 2010 (a 50% Shiraz, 50% Monastrell blend)

Today I will publish my tasting notes of wines number 2, 3 and 4. The Fat of the Land will have to wait both because of my impressions about the three wines that I have tasted (keep reading if you want to know how I liked them!) and because wine number 1 is one First Drop’s top of the line single-vineyard crus, which in the US retails for a not inexpensive $72 price tag and therefore I want to give it a few years of cellar time before enjoying it since it is still pretty young. Now, of course, were First Drop’s US importer to ever send me a sample to try out right away, I would be very happy to oblige… 😉

But let’s now cut to the chase and see how those three First Drop wines that I tasted performed.

As always, for my review I will use a simplified version of the ISA wine tasting protocol that we described in a previous post: should you have doubts as to any of the terms used below please refer to that post for a refresher.

1. First Drop, “Half & Half”, Barossa 2010 ($18)

First Drop, Half & HalfAs mentioned, this is an unusual 50% Shiraz, 50% Monastrell blend. The must ferments for 6 days on the skins, then the wine goes through malolactic fermentation and ages for 15 months in French oak. In the US, it retails for about $18.

In the glass, Half & Half poured ruby red and viscous when swirled.

On the nose, its bouquet was moderately intensemoderately complex and of fair quality, with aromas of cherry, red berries, coffee, black pepper, and hints of animal fur and tobacco.

In the mouth, the wine was dry, with high ABV and smooth; it was acidicmoderately tannic and moderately tasty. It was medium-bodied and balanced, with intense and fair mouth flavors of cherry, red berries, red fruit candy, and dark chocolate. It had a medium finish and the evolutionary state was ready (i.e., fine to drink right away, probably better if you let it rest for a couple more years in your cellar).

Overall, Half & Half was a pretty good, entry-level red in the First Drop range, a wine with no frills: smooth, with medium tannins, easy to drink and quite pleasant in the mouth. One might wish that its bouquet were a bit more intense and complex (maybe some decanting/aeration could have helped, despite the wine’s young age?), but all in all it is a solid, every day wine, given especially its reasonable price point.

Rating: Good Good – $

(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)

2. First Drop, Shiraz “Mother’s Milk”, Barossa 2011 ($18)

First Drop, Mother's MilkThis varietal Shiraz is fermented for 8 days on the skins, then goes through malolactic fermentation and is aged for 18 months in French oak barrels. In the US it retails for about $18.

In the glass, Mother’s Milk poured ruby red and viscous when swirled.

On the nose, its bouquet was intensemoderately complex and fine, with nice aromas of plum, blackberry, sweet tobacco, leather, cocoa and black pepper.

In the mouth, the wine was dry, with high ABV and smooth; it was acidictannic and moderately tasty. It was full-bodied and balanced, with intense and fine mouth flavors of plum, blackberry, tobacco, dark chocolate and black pepper. It had a medium finish and the evolutionary state was ready (i.e., fine to drink right away, probably even better if you let it rest for a couple more years in your cellar).

Overall, I very much enjoyed my bottle of Mother’s Milk (sounds kind of creepy, I know, but that’s the name they picked!) Considering its appealing price point and how young the bottle I had was, Mother’s Milk was a good to very good performer, with intense and pleasant aromas and mouth flavors and a high ABV that was however well integrated into the wine’s structure and counterbalanced by already smooth tannins. Allowed to mature for two or three more years in bottle, I think the wine’s already pleasant aromas and mouth flavors would further evolve into an even more compelling, cohesive red that will be an even better value for money.

Rating: Good to Very Good and definitely Recommended Good to Very Good – $

(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)

3. First Drop, “Two Percent”, Barossa 2009 ($35)

First Drop, Two PercentThis is a 98% Shiraz, 2% Tempranillo blend that ferments for 8 days on its skins, goes through malolactic fermentation and then is aged for 24 months in French oak barrels. In the US it retails for about $35.

In the glass, the Two Percent poured ruby red and viscous when swirled.

On the nose, its bouquet was intensecomplex and fine, with pleasant aromas of cherry, plum, raspberry, cigar box, vanilla, coffee, black pepper and rhubarb.

In the mouth, the wine was dry, with high ABV and smooth; it was acidictannic and tasty. It was full-bodied and balanced, with intense and fine mouth flavors of cherry, raspberry, vanilla, dark chocolate and black pepper. It had a long finish and its evolutionary state was ready (i.e., fine to drink right away, but certainly even better if you let it rest for a few more years in your cellar).

Overall, I loved Two Percent! Considering how young it was, it already performed as a show stopper: a big wine with an elegant, complex bouquet and lush, chewy mouth flavors, a silky smooth texture and perfectly integrated tannins, plus a long, lingering finish that just makes you want more. Definitely excellent value for money. Wow.

Rating: Very Good and definitely Recommended Very Good – $$

(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)

Now I can hardly wait to try that Fat of the Land bottle… 😉

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0 thoughts on “Wine Review: Three First Drop Shiraz from Down Under

  1. Ronnie Sanders

    Hey Stefano, Thanks for trying the First Drop wines. I think this brand is a good introduction to the world of Aussie wines. Australia is an enormous producer of wine and wine styles. I think its important to point out what Australia has going for it. For one, it has the oldest soils on the planet and you can add a zero to the end of the number compared to Europe. They also have some of the oldest vineyards on the planet with many going back to the middle of the 19th century. Most are planted on their own rootstock which is very rare in Europe and the US were phylloxera was prevalent.

    Also, the winemaking culture there is very old, going back to the middle of the 19th century and it was continual unlike here in the US.

    I think the Barossa is a great place to start but its definitely worth delving into other wine regions that are very different than the Barossa. Places like Margaret River in Western Australia that makes very elegant styled Cabernets, similar to Washington State or Bordeaux and world class Chardonnays that can look similar to Burgundy or the best wines from Sonoma Coast.

    Or regions in Victoria like the Macedon Ranges for its killer Pinots and Chardonnay planted on the based of an extinct volcano, or Geelong for its Pinots planted on basalt and limestone or the Yarra Valley with its excellent Cabs, Pinots, Chard and Syrah.

    As far as value, it is true that Australia has become more expensive lately. Their economy has been booming and much of the great wine that gets made there gets consumed by the thirsty locals. We do manage to get some of the great stuff for the US market.

    You can spend a lifetime examining this fascinating country and its wine regions. There is really something for every palate from the big Barossan Shiraz’s to extremely elegant Chards and Riesling from Tasmania, the Yarra and the Clare.

  2. StefanGourmet

    Great reviews, Stefano! I spent all of September in Australia and tried a lot of local wines. I thought it was difficult to find good value compared to what I’m used to from Italy and France, but that’s also because Australia taxes wines a lot. (In fact, Australian wine is cheaper in the Netherlands than it is there.)

  3. laurasmess

    I just commented on Clicks and Corks Stefano but just wanted to echo on Francesca’s blog that I am so glad that you enjoyed the wine you’ve tried so far. Two Percent is definitely a favourite of mine from our local market! It’s been interesting reading everyone’s views on the wines and their labels in particular, I had no idea that it’d become such a talking point. Thanks for writing such wonderful, thorough reviews and for the kind words my friend 🙂

  4. Heather (Sweet Precision)

    Thank you for introducing us to Laura’s blog Stefano! I had no idea that Australia was such a giant in the world of wine production. What fun names! As someone who is by no means a wine connoisseur, I must admit that if I’m standing in a wine aisle looking for something a creative name is sometimes enough to give me the final push to get a bottle! 🙂

    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you, Heather! Yes, Australia is quite a giant in terms of overall wine production, but of course one has to select carefully to find out who the quality producers are. And by all means, several Australian winemakers have earned themselves a reputation for coming up with creative/funny/irreverent names and labels for their wines: when done tastefully, I think it is a refreshing way to demystify the world of wine and to project a light-hearted image to consumers. 🙂

  5. apuginthekitchen

    Great review and I love Laura and her wonderful blog. I am gaining a lot of respect for Auatralian wines and I will look out for the wines mentioned here especially the “two percent”. Very informative and always interesting.

    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you, Suzanne: glad you liked my reviews. Isn’t Laura’s blog great? As to the wines, I am right there with you: the Aussies are doing a very good job at raising their country’s winemaking profile and reputation. I wholeheartedly recommend that you try the Two Percent: if you do, please let me know if you share my conclusions. 🙂

  6. Just Add Attitude

    Hello Stefano,

    I have to say that unlike Tracy I quite like the irreverent wine labels and the quirky names. They are certainly memorable and, of course, that may well be part of a marketing ploy.

    Excellent reviews Stefano although I suspect I may never get to taste the wines you recommend as very few boutique (I assume First Drop is a boutique winery?) Australian wines make it to these shores. 😉

    With good wishes from B 😉

    1. Stefano Post author

      Hi B! 🙂
      Thank you for your comment: as I mentioned in response to previous comments, I tend to be on the same page as you when it comes to wine names and labels. In particular, ultimately I think it all boils down to the quality of the contents of the bottle: if the juice is good, then for me it’s all good 🙂
      As to your question, yes, First Drop is a boutique winery and a fairly young one too (I think they started selling wine commercially less than 10 years ago), which is part of the reason why I am happy to publish a review of their wines and spread the word about their product, which in my view is really solid and has a reasonable quality to price ratio. Understand the difficulties in sourcing them though: I have been lucky to find a US online retailer that carries them after some research. Other Australian boutique producers I looked into are not imported into the US either. Hopefully, if they become better known, their wine will become more widely available.
      Thank you again for your always sensible and thoughtful comments, dear B 🙂
      All the best,

  7. Tracy Lee Karner

    Wonderful reviews.

    I have to admit, I get a little stodgy (I guess I’m old…) about this less-than-reverent names and labels coming out of wineries these days. It’s definitely a creepy turn-off for me. Sometimes it’s such a turnoff, that I just can’t get past the label/name to try the wine.

    Perhaps I’m too easily offended. I guess an industry has to pick its target market. But I wonder–have they really done their demographic homework? Aren’t quite a few of the wine collectors/drinkers with a decent disposable income, stodgy old fogies, like me?

    1. Stefano Post author

      Hehe, as you can see from other comments, you are not alone feeling that way, Tracy! 🙂
      I hear your point and I certainly appreciate your smart, entrepreneurial comment regarding whether going down that road is the right choice based on the expected demographics of their consumer base.
      As I mentioned in response to an earlier comment, generally speaking I have to say that, to some extent, I find the idea of making quality wine in a more light-hearted way than the über-serious and sometimes intimidating way of certain European or even American producers sort of refreshing. I think it helps demystifying wine and making it more approachable. Then of course, where to draw the line between something that is just funny and light-hearted and something that can be offensive to certain people is a completely different story.
      Regardless, please trust me if I say that I have a hunch that in this case, if you could go past the labels/names, you would find the content much to your liking, if I have understood your tastes a little bit by now! 🙂
      Thank you very much for your always thoughtful comments, Tracy.

      1. Tracy Lee Karner

        I appreciate light-hearted. I even appreciate poking a little fun at the stodgies (including at myself). I got a big kick out of the South African Goats do Roam.

        But lewd? No thanks. Don’t like lewd at my table, not in jokes, not on wine labels. Perhaps the winemakers could come up with an optional brown-paper label (like the used to wrap pornographic books in), or give us stickies to cover up the naughty bits. 😉

    2. laurasmess

      Hi Tracy, I just wanted to add my two cents in as an Australian consumer who buys wines in the Australian market. I do not in any way feel that First Drop wineries intended any of their labels to be interpreted as ‘lewd’. The ‘Mother’s Milk’ reference is a tongue-in-cheek play on the fact that ‘Mother Nature’ gives us the grapes to produce ‘Mother’s Milk’, aka wine. You can see it on the graphic on the wine label. And Stefano is right, Australians in general are rather irreverant, light-hearted people who tend not to take things too seriously. No-one that I know here locally has been the least bit offended by these wine labels (regardless of age) and it’s rather surprised me that both Stefano and Francesca’s readers have had such a strong reaction to the labels. To be fair, yes, the First Drop approach to marketing is somewhat non-traditional, irreverent and reflective of Australian culture. However, I do think they’ve done their research, as the tongue-in-cheek labels on their mid-priced range definitely appeal to the average Australian wine consumer (30-65 years of age) who want to pick up a decent bottle for a dinner or barbecue to be shared with friends (believe me, there are many, many labels out there with similar marketing strategies to First Drop and I see them regularly at friend’s houses eg. Suckfizzle, Fifth Leg, Fat Bastard, The Ball Buster… and it’s not just confined to Australia either, I think Americans are doing it too!
      Just so you know, First Drop have also catered for more conservative consumers who like to collect and consume premium wines. If you peruse the wines in their ‘vault’ you will see that the packaging is much plainer and more ‘classic’. So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that First Drop is a boutique wine producer who has very much tailored their marketing strategies to the Australian market, with the exception of a few of their top range varieties. Please try to understand Australian humour and give our wines a go, even if the packaging isn’t quite to your taste! I do think that you won’t regret it! 🙂

    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you, Jeff! I hear you regarding certain Australian wine – I have also had experiences that have left me underwhelmed in the past (not to mention the infamous wood chip practice). However, with so big a production, I guess it boils down to identifying solid producers and of course going through a little bit of trial and error. Personally, I have really been impressed by the quality of the First Drop wines that I tried. 🙂