Wine Words & Video Tape

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Australian terroir: character and personality

Written by JW. Posted in Australia

Noses to the grindstone at London’s Saatchi Gallery

January is certainly antipodean month on the London tasting calendar. Just ahead of Australia Day, Wine Australia put on their annual trade tasting, christened A+ Australian Wine at the Saatchi Gallery in London’s Chelsea [above]. Much has been made of how Oz wine has lost its way in recent years, at least in marketing terms and certainly in the battle of the brands, but as the big conglomerates have lost ground, or at least looked uncertain, the real excitement in Australia is the bevy of superb wines being made both by established names and relative newcomers at the smaller and medium sized end of the business.  

The most interesting estates are prioritising the vineyard over the winery and striving to emphasise a real sense of place in their wines. It’s also partly about how individuals are now prepared to bend the winemaking rules that Australia very much pioneered. It’s this sense of uniqueness and personality that Wine Australia is now grasping as its new strategy. That, in itself, is a cause for celebration. It’s more than just a simple ‘terrior-ist’ agenda. It is recognition that the personality of those behind the wine is important too.

Dean Hewitson: hedonistic wine from Barossa and McLaren Vale

So talking personalities, let’s start with Dean Hewitson who was one of the winemakers at the tasting. Not just because Dean’s quite a character himself or because for a number of years he’s been producing some exceptional reds fashioned from old, low-yielding parcels of vines in the Barossa and McLaren Vale, but also because I lived and worked with him years back when I did a cellar stint at Petaluma. In 1989 the company was then still under the fierce grip of the legendary wine guru Brian Croser, as was much of the industry. Dean, in his early twenties, kindly put me up in the house that he shared with a local vet, a shrewd choice of room-mate for him at the time. He was generous with the wines that he opened at home and enthusiastic in consuming Cooper’s Ale. Although mid-winter, owing to the Croser method there was a surprising amount of winemaking going on at Petaluma then. I remember fermenting Piccadilly Valley Chardonnay in July, the northern hemisphere equivalent of January. The juice had been refrigerated and kept in suspended animation since the crush several months earlier. It’s a far cry from today’s fashion for wild yeasts and warm ferments on solids.

Dean went on to do ten years at Petaluma and found time for three vintages in France, one in Oregon and a masters degree at UC Davis. Whatever your thoughts on Brian Croser, he certainly looked after and nurtured his talent, no matter how ideological he could sometimes be towards his winemaking. Twenty years later and Hewitson has clearly put all that experience to good use and forged his own path successfully. His Mad Hatter Shiraz, presumably named after him, glows with opulence. It’s as hedonistic as the man himself and the grapes he sources.

Giant Step’s Phil Sexton and Ten Minutes By Tractor’s Martin Spedding

Outwardly Phil Sexton and Martin Spedding couldn’t be two more contrasting personalities to Hewitson. Sexton established Giant Steps in the Yarra Valley after moving from Devils Lair in Western Australia. Sexton’s also turned his hand at brewing and pilots a bi-plane he built himself. His real thing though is single vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and he believes in minimal winemaking intervention to express the vineyard individuality. Martin Spedding bought Mornington Peninsula’s boutique winery Ten Minutes By Tractor in 2004, the estate originally founded by three families who all owned a vineyard in Main Ridge on the peninsula. Sexton and Spedding, both equally erudite, held a joint Pinot Masterclass which was fascinating. Anyone looking for Pinot Noir of wonderful purity should search out the wines they both make. The tasting itself pitted Pinot from Mornington Peninsula with the Yarra Valley and there were marked regional differences between the wines from the two regions. Two Tasmanian Pinots were also shown.

The Yarra Valley, slightly warmer with ancient soils and very different topography produced rounder, silkier Pinots than the Mornington Peninsula, which with its cooler more maritime climate, rolling hills and mixture of volcanic and iron soils, made wines that were generally darker, spicier and seemingly more structured. It was almost a case of Cotes de Beaune versus Cotes de Nuits. Yet in both cases there is more approachability, warmth and sensuousness here than you get in young Burgundy to my palate. It’s what makes these Pinots such a joy, and the combination of climate, topography, soil and winemaker influence makes them unique. Amongst the Mornington wines shown Tom Carson’s Yabby Lake Single Vineyard Pinot Noir was excellent, spicy and dense and with an attractive mouth feel. Spedding’s Ten Minutes By Tractor Estate Pinot was delicate and perfumed and extremely round. In the Yarra Valley Sexton’s Giant Steps Sexton Vineyard Pinot was ripe and delicious, and Mac Forbes Woori Yallock Pinot was full of strawberry and candy fruit. Yarra Burn’s Bastard Hill was toasty and spicy with raspberry notes and had good grip. Spare a thought though for Sexton and his fellow Yarra producers who were also victims of something uniquely Australian in 2009. Rampant bushfires in the region tainted the resultant wines with a smoky, bushfire note, and at Giant Steps they’ve had to junk the entire vintage. The 2010-2011 growing season has also been a pretty humid and wet one, associated with La Nina which has had such devastating effects elsewhere in the country this year.

Perhaps the event of the day was Andrew Jefford’s ‘Trusting the Vineyard’ Masterclass, one of the finest expositions on terrior and regionality I’ve heard. Jefford’s currently writing a book on the subject of Australian terrior, which is great news, though given his perfectionism and thoroughness it didn’t sound like it would be finished anytime soon. His thesis [since posted on] was that the raw materials of the vineyard needed to be treated with integrity and that Australia had to overcome chemistry, what Jefford called the ‘tyranny of pH’ and reach out for drinkability and digestibility. The wines, places and people that he chose suited his purposes admirably. They weren’t all off-beat or deliberately unusual but they were all very impressive in their different ways and represented places as diverse as Tamar Ridge [Tasmania], Mornington Peninsula [Victoria], Adelaide Hills [South Australia], Beechworth [Victoria] Perth Hills [Western Australia], Orange [New South Wales], Hilltops [Australian Capital Territory] and Bendigo [Victoria]. Qualitatively the pick of the bunch for me were Penfolds Reserve Bin 08A Chardonnay from the Adelaide hills – as I say they weren’t all offbeat choices – which was all smoky intensity and minerality but with lots of depth and Clonakilla’s Hilltops Shiraz which was a pure and plummy wine with brambly fruit and spice and plenty of grip. There was also an excellent Shiraz from Cumulus in Orange New South Wales. That said all the wines proved a point and full notes on these and others are below.

Australia’s always been winemaking country close to my heart. Not only did I do that stint at Petaluma in 1989 with Hewitson but I returned seven years later and worked the vintage at Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley. James Halliday the then owner was extremely generous to us all throughout the harvest, rustling up three course meals for the cellar rats and sharing both his knowledge and the contents of his remarkable cellar. It was a vintage nothing short of inspirational. A decade-and-a-half later and there’s a whole new army of vineyards, wineries and winemakers out in Oz making great juice. The tastings organised showed just how exciting this time is in Australia right now and, thankfully, how it’s moving in the right direction. Halliday and Croser, in their very different ways, should be pleased and proud.

Hewitson, ‘Ned & Henry’, Shiraz, Barossa Valley 2009: Deep red; intense nose, perfume; some jam; very attractive and seductive; mid-weight palate; still quite fresh with good life and zip at the end; not a blousy fat Shiraz, actually pretty pert. Very good 90+/100

Hewitson, ‘Old Garden’, Mourvedre, Barossa Valley 2008: Mid red; warm nose with leather, spice and some Christmas pudding; very sweet and ripe style on the palate; some spice; very attractive and forward. Not sure what they’d make of this opulent style down in Bandol but it works extremely well here. 90-92+/100

Hewitson, ‘Mad Hatter,’ Shiraz, McLaren Vale, Shiraz 2007: Deep and dense; real richness here on the nose; dark chocolate, blackcurrant; rich and velvety palate almost verging on the cake like. Extremely opulent. 92+/100

Regional Pinot Noir Master class by Phil Sexton and Martin Spedding

De Bortoli Reserve Release Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley, Victoria 2008: Red, translucent at centre; sweet attractive soft nose, strawberries and red fruits, soft; similar flavours on the palate; soft and attractive. Quite forward style. 88/100

Giant Steps Sexton Vineyard Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley, Victoria 2008: Red but more youthful looking; sweeter and rounder, ripe almost candy note; very ripe and opulent styled Pinot with some menthol and spice too; very round palate with length, spices and strawberry tones again. 88-90/100

Mac Forbes Woori Yallock Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley, Victoria 2008: Mid red; some candy and spice on the nose, strong red fruits and some undergrowth/stem notes; ripe palate, some strawberry and candy; very round and nice texture. Good length and very attractive. Excellent 90+/100

Yarra Burn Bastard Hill Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley 2008: Delicate red; very full spicy and raspberry nose with some foresty notes; quite ripe style with some earthy notes and toast too; meaty tones from barrel ferment. Nice grip and life. 20% new oak here. Very good to excellent 88-90/100

Yabby Lake Single Vineyard Pinot Noir Mornington Peninsula Victoria 2009: Youthful red with earthy purple at edge, vibrant; some tomato plant, density, spice and Pinot perfume, some spicy and undergrowth tones at the edge; very good palate; delicate but flavoured, spicy, with good mouth feel. Attractive wine with grip and spice at the end. Good length. 90+/100

Kooyong Estate Pinot Noir, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria 2009: More cherry red, vibrant; real cherry and spearmint nose, some fruit lozenge and redcurrant; clean; quite intense and fresh; nice palate some violet tones and goodish density and real freshness here. Good palate with density and real grip and chew. Excellent. 90+/100

Stonier Pinot Noir, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria 2009: Vibrant purple at edge; sweeter riper notes and some iodine alongside some spice and strawberry; quite a tight style on palate, needs to open; grippy but also with spice. Tight and needs to open. 88+/100

Ten Minutes By Tractor, Estate Pinot Noir, Mornington Peninsula 2009: Earthy fresh purple red; some lift initially with tomato plant and violets [I don’t mind a little bit of tomato plant by the way]; later more spice and violet perfume; palate sweet and concentrated, some real violets here with damsons; quite delicate. Some VA lift here but works; very round palate and gently done with spice and undergrowth. Very good to excellent 88-90/100

Domaine A Pinot Noir, Tasmania 2006: Deep and dark, the darkest at tasting; herbal medicinal notes, spices [not me this style]; quite herbal and intense palate, some density but medicinal style to my palate; menthol and spices, feels a little herbaceous 84-85/100

Pirie Estate Pinot Noir, Tasmania, 2007: Redder, lighter and looser; quite cabbagy Pinot, some Demerara; some strawberry;  palate quite soft and easy Pinot with a nod to a soft Cote de Beaune village; delicacy and some length. Good effort. 87-88/100

Trusting the Vineyard Master class by Andrew Jefford

Tamar Ridge Kayena Vineyard Chardonnay, Tasmania 2008: Palest straw, attractive mineral and pebble nose with a whiff of smoke; elegant but attractive; pebbly round palate which is attractive and appetizing; mineral and butter notes; elegant and round. Only 11.9% alcohol. Good. 87-88/100

Kooyong Faultline Chardonnay, Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, 2008: Pale grey/gold; strong and masculine nose; steely; some apple and a hint of wet wool; some butter; maybe lacks a bit of race on the palate but round. Quite intense and some restraint. 87/100

Penfolds Reserve Bin 08A Chardonnay, Adelaide Hills, South Australia 2008: Pale grey/gold; very smoky nose, oyster shells, pebbles; spot on for me and extremely interesting – like fine white Burgundy – animal and mineral notes too; palate quite bold and crisp with real length and depth. This is very good Chardonnay indeed. 92-94+/100

Giaconda, Aeolia, Beechworth, Victoria 2009: Straw, some marzipan notes; attractive; quite fat and waxy [90% Roussanne, 10% Marsanne] with some apricot notes; round and full flavoured palate with some honey; Good length. Excellent 90/100

Millbrook, LR Viognier, Perth Hills, Western Australia 2008: Pale straw; some honey, lychees and floral tones with limes; round and almost oily on the palate; interesting and good length, maybe lacks a bit of zip. 88+/100

Cumulus, Shiraz, Orange, New South Wales 2008: Mid red, quite satiny note, some leather and liquorice but not leaden footed; very attractive and pure palate, open and very good; satiny fruit and real density. Medium bodied Shiraz with some elegance. Volcanic soils, 14.3 alcohol but good acid, region has high diurnal range preserving acidic freshness. Very good wine. 90-92+/100

Clonakilla, Hilltops, ACT 2009: Mid depth, more purple, good and fresh looking; creamy nose with pepper and plum, some jam but extremely pure and nicely open; pepper and spice on the palate which is also pretty grippy, violets here too alongside plums and damsons. Nice spicy palate with grip. Excellent 92+/100

Sutton Grange Winery, Estate Syrah, Bendigo, Victoria 2006: Dense, deep colour; menthol, herbs, very aromatic and layered; mint and iron notes too; pepper and spice on the palate, density and also pretty dry tannins; some pencil shavings and raw wood note; Some length but tannins dry. Needs food. Certainly structured. Not sure this on the way up or down? Biodynamic. 88-90?/100

Delicious Pinot Noir from the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula

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