Monday, December 13, 2010

Think Global, Drink Local

In my column in The Weekend Australian Magazine in late 2008 I started a campaign urging Australians to drink more Australian wine to counter the surge in imported wines. I called my campaign DrinkUp!; I talked about printing t-shirts with the slogans ‘Drink Australian Made’ and ‘Think Global, Drink Local’; I resolved to lay off French champagne and Marlborough sav blanc in the new year, and only drink Aussie.

I never got those t-shirts printed, of course, because I was only half serious. Winemaker Stephen Pannell, by contrast, is completely serious.

Pannell recently launched a very real web site called All For One Wine inviting fellow winemakers, retailers, sommeliers and ordinary, everyday winelovers to make a pledge to only drink Australian from January 1 until Australia Day.

(Disclosure: I helped scribble some words for the launch of the site and was one of the first to pledge - but this probably won’t come as a surprise to you.)

Pannell was motivated by the fact that, while Australian exports and domestic sales are sluggish, imports grew by almost 19 per cent in the last quarter. He was also frustrated by how besotted many Australian sommeliers and winemakers and wine show judges have become with exotic Europeans, at the expense of our own best bottles. The cultural cringe appears to be thriving in certain sectors of the wine community - hence All For One.

You would think, wouldn’t you, that a push to get Aussies to drink Aussie for a few days would be greeted with open arms, hearts and mouths. And on the whole the reaction has been positive: more than 1,000 people have already pledged. But All For One Wine has also incited a virulent backlash in some quarters.

The Kiwis, for example aren’t very happy at all (predictably, really), and have slammed the initiative as a ‘myopic’ boycott. More surprising has been the reaction from some local winemakers and bloggers, calling All For One Wine naive protectionism and worse. Indeed, for a while there after the web site was launched, a Twitstorm of arguments and accusations raged across the interwebs, with some people (including your correspondent) getting quite hot under the collar about the whole thing.

Which I suppose is the best possible outcome: it’s about time someone rattled the cage and stirred up impassioned debate about the future of Australian wine.

To make the pledge, click here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Maurice O'Shea, creator spirit of Australian wine, captured in oils

Sacramental wine by Garry Shead 2010
courtesy of Australian Galleries

Nothing's truly new.

Amidst all the chatter about 'natural wine', I popped into the Australian Galleries in a leafy inner-Sydney cul-de-sac recently to have a look at Garry Shead's gorgeous exhibition of new paintings, Love on Mount Pleasant. And these fabulous, whimsical, deeply romantic canvases made me think about how the legendary Hunter Valley winemaker, Shead's uncle, Maurice O'Shea, would be right at home with today's breed of eager young natural grape treaders.

Here was Maurice, devoted to his mature, dry-grown vineyard - already 50 years old when O'Shea was at his winemaking peak in the 1930s - fashioning remarkable, long-lived bottled gems in a dirt-floor tin shed with no electricity. Those vines up there on Mount Pleasant were farmed for decades without chemical herbicide or pesticides - we'd call it organic farming these days. And the wines were made with the minimum of fuss: nothing much added or taken away. Great wine. Slumbering in big old vats. On a dirt floor. Very natural. And revered, now. Iconic, even.

In the kitchen by Garry Shead 2009
courtesy of Australian Galleries

Garry Shead's paintings capture Maurice's obsession, his passion, his connection to his terroir. They capture, too - beautifully - a spirit of place: the light of a hot Hunter summer; bright midday glimpsed through windows in the shed; the relief of violet dusk draping itself over the hills. Shead has been painting the place since early visits to see his uncle in the early 1950s; he knows this country.

There's a mythic quality here, too, in the Chagall-like presence of prancing fawns, floating goats, Bacchus himself, Aphrodite in the form of a black swan ... But this ancient European symbolism is projected through a rough-hewn, thoroughly Australian prism. As Gavin Wilson, exhibition curator says in the catalogue notes: 'the artist, through an intensely personal experience, has illuminated a little-known narrative that lies at the heart of our nation’s cultural life.'

Maurice with Bandicoot by Garry Shead 1966
courtesy of Australian Galleries

The exhibition runs until Nov 27. If you're not in Sydney, you can check it out online: Australian Galleries

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Quick! They're hatching!

Here's a message I just received from Sam Hughes, one of the Natural Selection Theory crew. It's about the imminent release of the egg-fermented semillon I wrote about here. It's self-explanatory, really - and a wild ride of a read:

'Testing 1,2 3!
To our friends, lovers, believers, sceptics, fall guys, fly girls, maitre d's, back of houses, he-men, sirens of thy song, the time has come for our en-primeur to come to a close.
Following a leisurely 4000k, 5 day drive through South East Australia, encountering rain fronts, snow drifts, floods, backburns, man sized 4wd spooning and many a beautiful soul, our quest is over.
We have the eggs, and we have impregnated them with a wild vinous child never before seen in our times, and we people, we are proud, damn it - proud and LOUD!
We are putting the final spit of polish to the accompanying 12inch album, and then after a small amount of rest in the eggs, the history of Australian wine shall change forever! No shit!
So as such, our
en-primeur will be closing this Sunday the 31st of October at midnight.
If you'd like to secure your piece of history, we need your payment details asap.
Prices will jump for your 3 pack from $250 to a rrp of around $500 at one minute past midnight monday the 1st of November, so blow us down like the gravity fed, unfiltered, unfined, wild yeast beast that we all would love to be!  There are only 53 sets of said collection produced - so first in, best dressed. Forget a fondue party, the semillon anti terroir terroir party is sure to be the hippest and most happening event on the foodies' social, nu-blog calendar, PERIOD!

After this we will release a one off blend of all 3 soil types and all 3 skin ratios at $250-$300 per 900ml egg plus the album, to be available in mid to late November, this time a limited run of 162 units. That's right, a blend of all 9 components dancing to the wild beat of a natural drum encased in a house the form of a phi ratio sphere - WOW! 
SO to be plainly boring, as stated before, the coming of the end of en-primeur is upon us. I repeat in frank freakness, THE END OF THE EN-PRIMEUR IS UPON US, as are soon the stagnant old ways of the Australian wine industry.
The coming of the egg brings in the birth of a new time, a new spirit, an alternate future to our day and age. This wine, your wine, is unlike any to come from this country before. She is natural, charming, multi faceted, textural and light - yet for a wine of such litheness, extremely serious, multi-lingual and concentrated.
Make no mistake - we are deadly serious about this - this wine represents a faultline in the history of Oz wine culture.
After this nothing shall be the same again. We put our names to this, as we do our reputations: Tom Shobbrook, 2010 Young Winemaker of the Year, Gourmet Traveller Wine; James Erskine, 2009 Sommelier of the Year, Gourmet Traveller; Anton van Klopper, the Godfather of Oz Vinous Grunge & Sam Hughes, your Voice and Keeper of the Eggs.
There are just a handful left of the 55 X 3 packs available, then just 162 bottles of blended benchmark old school new world white.
If you are keen, jump, for these are pure packages of beauty, intellect, spirit and playfulness.
We thank you for your interest and please remember this: times are a changing - help speed it up and be part of this beautiful moment in history.
Let's tie this up, then throw her out into the world beyond!
Till soon,
All at Natural Selection Theory.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Future Makers - an introduction

Here's the foreword from my new book, The Future Makers. It explains why I wrote the book and why I think you should read it:

Something like this ...
Photo: James Broadway
A few years ago, I very nearly opened my own bar. I had this vision of a small, cosy place, crammed with bottles, serving small plates of good food and great wines by the glass. I have also, for a long time, dreamed about planting my own vineyard – again, just a small plot of vines, enough for a few barrels. Thankfully, neither dream has come true: thankfully because I haven’t got a business-minded bone in my body and I don’t know how to drive a tractor, let alone fix one; the bar would have quickly gone bust and the vines would no doubt have died. I’m much better off sticking to drinking and writing about wine, I’ve decided, than trying to make it or sell it.

The point is that when you do contemplate crossing the line from interested observer to active participant you’re suddenly faced with a whole heap of important questions: Where would be the best place for my vineyard? What varieties would I plant? How would I grow my grapes and make my wine? Which wines would I serve in my own bar? And why would I want to go to all that effort when I can buy plenty of lovely wines already?

I soon realised that the answers to these questions came wrapped up in broader considerations, such as the effects of climate change, my aversion to chemically assisted farming and my unashamedly romantic belief that wine should taste of where it’s from. I realised that, if I had my own vineyard, it would be planted with varieties suited to a warmer, drier future; it would be farmed biodynamically; I would make the wines with as few additions and as little manipulation as possible; and I would hope to produce something beautiful, which told a story of its place and time.

I also realised that the wines I would want to sell in my mythical bar – the wines I already buy and drink – come from winemakers thinking along the same lines. Winemakers who ask themselves: What’s special about where I am? Have I planted the most appropriate varieties? Is this the best way to grow my grapes and make my wine? Why am I doing this?

These are the winemakers who interest and excite me: the ones asking why. Because they are making the most characterful, appropriate and delicious wines sensibly, sustainably and naturally. These people – the larrikins and ratbags, the old and the young, the newbies and the nerds – putting the soul back into Australian wine are the people you’ll meet in this book.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Future Makers - changes and corrections

Out now in all good bookshops
Cover photo: James Boddington
Quite a few things have happened since I delivered the manuscript of my book The Future Makers - changes, movements, developments. Those changes are listed here. I have also found a few mistakes in the book that I have corrected here. I will keep updating this section of the blog as things develop and as mistakes are found. If you find any bits in the book that need changing or correcting, please leave a comment.


Page 28: Tjanabi, the Melbourne restaurant owned by Aunty Carolyn Briggs, has closed down
Page 49 and elsewhere: Fosters have changed the name of their wine division to - and I’m not making this up - Treasury Wine Estates.
Page 291 and elsewhere: Toby Bekkers has taken a sabbatical from Paxton in McLaren Vale and is currently living with his family in the south of France. Lucky bugger.
Page 330: Jane Wilson has left the Lowe Family Wine Co in Mudgee to pursue her sustainable farming and organic beef businesses; she will also be launching her own single vineyard zinfandel, Icarus. And Lowe Wines has merged with Louee Wines from Rylstone.
Page 392: the big news in Tasmania is the sale of Gunns’ Tamar Ridge large vineyard and winery holdings to Victorian wine company, Brown Brothers, seeking to expand to cooler regions in response to global warming. This supports two main themes of the book: my strong belief that the future of Australian wine lies in the hands not of faceless corporate giants but in the hands of family-owned wineries; and that Australia’s wine landscape is already evolving as a direct result of climate change.
Page 402: Meadowbank Estate has been sold to neighbouring Frogmore Creek.

Photo: Adrian Lander

Page 1: Yes, I know, there are a few spelling mistakes in the list of wines in the picture ... but hey: it wouldn’t be a real wine bar if there weren’t, right?
Page 56: ‘these six grapes’ should also include sauvignon blanc
Page 94: Mildura is of course in north-west Victoria. Doh!
Page 203: The text should read: ‘Castagna is one of only four Australian members of Joly’s Return to Terroir group’
Page 315 caption: Cape Jaffa is in Mount Benson, not Coonawarra
Pages 340-341: this is a picture of Tamburlaine’s Hunter winery, not the vineyard in Orange

Monday, September 27, 2010

'Back to the future' approach reaps big awards

Some excellent results from the Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine's Winemaker of the Year Awards on Friday Sep 24 - excellent that is if you believe it's time to get back to the future of Australian wine.

Robert O'Callaghan
The Winemaker of the Year gong was shared by the Wynns Coonawarra Estate team of supremely humble grape-treader Sue Hodder and quietly persuasive grape-farmer Allen Jenkins. Over the last decade these two have dragged Wynns back from the brink of blowsy sameness - overripe, overblown, soulless wines - and imbued Wynns with the ethereal elegance that marks out the best from this region.

The Len Evans Award for outstanding contribution went to Rockford's Robert O'Callaghan, who has been stubbornly ploughing the back-to-the-future furrow since the mid-1980s. I have described this enormously influential man elsewhere as the Barossa's philosopher-king: without him, a whole generation of the region's brightest and best winegrowers simply wouldn't have existed. Veteran Best's Great Western winemaker Viv Thomson - a finalist for the big gong - summed up Robert's importance well: 'He is who we are.'

And winner of the Wine Australia Medal ('best new talent') is Tom Shobbrook, making some stunning wines under his own labels - new interpretations of Barossa classics at Shobbrook Wines, and exciting, brave new bottlings at Didi Wine - as well as being part of the Natural Selection Theory crew.

Tom Shobbrook in his shed

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Caulfield Mountain Vermentino

Oct 17, 2010: Tragedy: went out today to tie down the vines and found one had snapped! My 2011 crop (if I get one after all the hail and rain and wind we've had this week on Caulfield Mountain) from the West Wing lieu-dit will certainly be down now by 20 per cent. Not only that but my Balaklavan grower tells me (in an email from Barcelona, where is researching tapas, apparently) that he's discovered a whole new breed of vine pests down at his Valley Floor vineyard: Bunnings catalogues. That'll teach him to plant so close to the post box at the front gate.

Sep 19, 2010: Undervine weeding today, and spraying some nutritious nettle tea. We've had a bumper crop of nettles in the vineyard this year - wonderful, delicious, nitrogen-fixing nettles. Rot a big bundle down in a bucket of rain water for a couple of weeks and you have a fabulous foliar spray.

Getting the horn: Preparing cow horns for burying over
winter in the  cool damp sandy soil of Caulfield Mountain
Sep 18, 2010. Did some slashing in the mid-rows today. Because it's a root day (descending moon) and because it was very drizzly, I also sprayed this season's first application of biodynamic preparation 500 - the horn manure - mixed with some barrel compost. Like a wandering poo-fairy, I also sprayed some 500 love on the neighbours' quince and peach orchard.

Sep 14, 2010. Here's a picture of budburst in the .0005 hectare West Wing 'lieu-dit' of my Caulfield Mountain vineyard. Spring has arrived and the vermentino vines are loving the sunny days - not to mention the fact that a good soaking over winter has saturated my crappy sandy soils.

The House Block is almost there, too, and should be bursting any day now. Buckley's is a more sheltered site - north-facing but protected by an old stand of cypress - and looks to be a way off.

My Balaklavan grower down at the close-planted Valley Floor vineyard (30,000 vines/ha) tells me that budburst is well underway there, but he's had a problem with snails nibbling on the tender shoots. We'll have to try some peppering.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The beginnings of an Australian Wine Gallery

A striking image of pinot lees at the bottom of a tank in the latest, particularly funny and sharp edition of The Bloodwood Bible reminded me of some other abstract images gleaned from wineries ...

Shiraz Bin Barossa
(photo: Adrian Lander)
The Bloodwood Singularity, by Pinot Lees
(photo: Stephen Henson, Bill's long-lost brother)
Years and Years at Yarra Yering
(photo: Max Allen)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Tapestry of terroirs too good for little boxes

600 million year-old Seacliff sandstone and Reynella siltstone
curl under the proposed development site; Chalk Hill and
Paxton vineyards (the green shaded blocks) are on the same dirt
across the road to the left of the picture
(detail from the Geology of the McLaren Vale Wine Region map)
The winegrowers of McLaren Vale are fighting to stop a proposed housing estate on precious vineyard land.

This isn't just another case of a bucolic wine region threatened by greedy urban sprawl. What's at stake here goes much deeper than that - literally.

The inconceivably old country under the proposed Seaford Heights development site is special: far better suited to the deep roots of a splendid vineyard than being smothered in yet more ticky-tacky boxes.

We know this terrain is special because in June the McLaren Vale Grape, Wine and Tourism Association - in conjunction with the South Australian government - published a detailed geological map of the region.

The map shows the history of the rocks and sands, the faults and tears, the rumblings and inundations that have shaped this country over eons. It also shows how the region's vineyards are now draped over this diverse tapestry of terroirs.

The map shows that the jumble of siltstones and sandstones under the controversial development site were formed up to 650 million years ago and that this ancient geological pocket is unique in McLaren Vale.

To wine lovers, of course, phrases such as "unique ancient terroir" start the saliva flowing, and the very high quality of wines already produced from this terroir - in the Paxton and Chalk Hill vineyards just across the road from the development site, on the same rocks - indicate this area has huge potential to become one of McLaren Vale's most prized viticultural sub-regions.

Unless, that is, these ancient rocks are covered in concrete and bitumen.
Australia's winemakers have realised that the key to a sustainable future lies in promoting unique regions and special vineyard sites.

We need to support this crucial development in Australia's wine history and to value the contribution to our shared culture of soul-soothing wines, redolent of the unique ancient soils they were grown in.

We need to protect our special vineyard sites, not cover them in little boxes.

UPDATE: This article first appeared in The Weekend Australian on 4 September 2010. A couple of days later, the local Onkaparinga Council rejected the development application. The application is now in the hands of the state government.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Winemakers: they're everywhere

Winemaker Kevin McCarthy siphoning
 some pop-up nebbiolo for us to taste

Forget trendy pop-up bars or restaurants. Two pop-up wineries appeared in the heart of Melbourne and Sydney during the 2010 vintage, both producing some of the most exciting booze from this year's harvest.

In late March, lunchtime office workers and shoppers bustling through the Southgate complex on the banks of Melbourne’s Yarra River were treated to the unexpected sight of big vats full of nebbiolo grapes, bubbling away inside an empty shopfront.

Winemaker Kevin McCarthy from T’Gallant and chef Simon Humble from Southgate restaurant Tutto Bene were the hearts and minds behind this crazy 'garagista' project. As well as bleeding off some juice for a pink wine and pressing off the bulk of the wine for an earlier-drinking red, the pair also decided to leave some wine in the vat in contact with the grape skins for another three months before pressing, to extract the finest tannins and flavours.

This is extreme winemaking, even by the standards of Barolo, the Italian heartland of nebbiolo. But Sydney wine retailer, artist and musician Sam Hughes took winemaking to an even more extreme place.

This time, the location, fittingly, was an art studio in a crumbling 19th century terraced house directly under the flight path near Sydney airport. As the 747s roared overheard, I looked on in wide-eyed wonder at Sam’s pop-up semillon, made from Hunter Valley fruit.

The wine was fermented in nine large ceramic egg-shaped vessels, each buried in a drum. And when I say ‘buried’, I mean it literally: three of the ‘eggs’ were buried in sand, three in clay and three in crushed shells. Each group of three eggs had sound played to it while it fermented: the sandy group had the high-pitched tone of a finger running around the rim of a glass, the clay group had a heartbeat, and the shells the sound of a single note played on electric guitar. Some of the eggs contained just fermented juice, while some contained whole grapes - skins and pips and all. There was no temperature control, and nothing was added to the wines: no yeast, no acid, no sulphur. In other words, all the modern rules of white winemaking have been gleefully broken.

But the wines I tasted from those eggs were amazing: full of wild fruit flavours and concentrated textural characters I’ve never before seen in Hunter semillon. I think it’s fabulous that someone is pushing the boundaries of wine so very far beyond what is considered acceptable - and, like Kevin and Simon at Southgate, is having an enormous amount of fun doing it.

For more on the egg semillon:
A version of this story was first published in The Weekend Australian Magazine, April 10, 2010. 

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A certified dozen: some highlights of the 2010 Organic Wine Show

Autumn 2009 in Tamburlaine's biodynamic vineyard 
This is a list of some of the wines I thought were particularly delicious as my fellow judges and I sipped and sniffed and slurped our way through this year’s Australia/New Zealand Organic Wine Show in mid-August in Sydney ...

2006 Temple Bruer Chenin Blanc, Langhorne Creek, SA (certified organic) - This beautiful chenin picked up the trophies for Best White and Wine of Show for its very fine, complex aromas of apple and honey, lovely balance of lively acidity and the beginnings of bottle-aged richness creeping onto the tongue.

2009 Kalleske Clarry's Red, Barossa Valley, SA (certified biodynamic) - As it did a couple of years ago, this grenache shiraz mataro blend picked up the trophy for Best Red in 2010: oodles of glossy black fruit ripeness and dark composty richness, held in check by a tight, tangy, tannic finish.

2010 Thistle Hill Riesling, Mudgee, NSW (certified organic) - The 2009 vintage from this vineyard was last year’s big trophy winner; most judges thought the 2010 was a sensational, precise, slatey, Granny-Smith-like riesling - perhaps a little more tart and tight than the 09.

2007 Settlers Ridge Organic Wines Malbec Merlot, Margaret River, WA (certified organic) - A brilliant combo of grapes and place and vintage: lovely balance of gently herbal, dense black fruit and dusty grippy tannin.

2009 Battle of Bosworth Chardonnay Viognier, McLaren Vale, SA (certified organic, some biodynamic practice) - From another previous trophy winning vineyard (for the shiraz viognier): vibrant, full-bodied, full of life and bright fruit.
2009 Hochkirch Riesling, Henty, Vic (certified biodynamic) - A savoury, herbal-tinged riesling with unusual talc-like aromas and a tangy, lean taste of sliced green apples and fennel seeds. Really fascinating.

2010 Krinklewood Vineyard Semillon, Hunter, NSW (certified biodynamic) - This vineyard was a really strong performer at the show: here’s a cracking example of bright young Hunter semillon with great precision and life that needs a few years to fill out and show its best.

2009 Krinklewood Chardonnay, Hunter, NSW (certified biodynamic) - Outstanding: lots of oak and some well-worked winemaking influence, but also has wonderful intense nectarine fruit, purity and line that brightens up the mouth.

2010 Krinklewood Francesca Rose, Hunter, NSW (certified biodynamic)  - An unusual but very effective blend of mourvedre, tempranillo, shiraz and chardonnay, this has lovely brightness, bouncy, vibrant fruit, and good acid tingle.

2010 Tamburlaine Riesling, Orange, NSW (certified biodynamic) - Wines from Tamburlaine’s biodynamic vineyard at Orange were the most consistent medal winners at the show: this is wonderfully vibrant, super-aromatic zesty riesling with plenty of citrus and lime blossom character.

2009 Tamburlaine Syrah, Orange, NSW (certified biodynamic) - A very attractive, bright and lively, white-pepper-spicy syrah with medium body and good persistence.

2008 Tamburlaine Winelovers Grenache, Orange, NSW (in 2008 the vineyard was certified in-conversion biodynamic) - A delicious grenache from a mountainside vineyard in Orange? This was a revelation: very peppery, earthy spice character, medium-weight, properly savoury expression of the grape.

For a full list of results, go to

What? No sulphur?

photo: Natural Selection Theory
Preservative-free wines used to be vinous fringe-dwellers, lurking unloved in dusty corners of Australia’s bottle shops and organic stores. Now you can find excellent preservative-free wines flying off lists in trend inner city restaurants and bars.

It’s all part of a move towards more ‘natural’ wine - wine that hasn’t been buggered around too much with in the vineyard or winery. I’ve reviewed some of Australia’s pacesetters in this field before: Torbreck in the Barossa, who first produced a wonderfully spicy ‘Natural Wine Project’ preservative-free grenache in 2009 (look out for the even better, brighter-tasting 2010); Lowe Wines in Mudgee, whose briary-tasting 2010 preservative-free merlot is out now under the Tinja label and whose 2009 preservative-free merlot is tasting better and better with bottle age; and Gippsland-based Bill Downie, who first made a preservative-free gamay in 2008, and is now selling a very pretty, juicy no-sulphur 2010 pinot noir.

This year sees more newcomers to the natural wine scene; they deserve to be tracked down not just by people who would rather drink wine without preservatives, but also by anybody who’s interested in drinking wine with delicious, interesting flavours.

Because what’s remarkable about many of these preservative-free wines is how they change and reveal more complexity as you drink your way through the bottle.

Take the 2009 Aziza’s Preservative Free Shiraz from Harkham Windarra in the Hunter Valley: over the couple of days it took me to finish this, it kept revealing more and more berry fruit and typical regional dusty soil characters. Similarly with the 2010 Battle of Bosworth Preservative Free Shiraz: typical black jubey McLaren Vale fruit richness at first, but it gradually revealed stunning aromatic dried-herbs and currants.

The most innovative of the new preservative-free wines comes from a mob of renegade South Australian winemakers called Natural Selection Theory. Named (either pretentiously or cheekily, depending on your point of view) Voice of the People Winter 2010, the wine is a dense, slurpy, spicy blend of Adelaide Hills and Barossa red grapes and is being sold through restaurants and bars in 23 litre glass demijohns, with a layer of olive oil floating on the surface of the wine to stop it oxidizing, and a neat siphon system installed to access the deep purple liquid underneath.

Have a look for yourself:


UPDATE: This article first appeared in The Weekend Australian Magazine, July 17, 2010 - just as I was finishing the last of a bottle of utterly delicious 2010 vintage chardonnay from Harkham Windarra in the Hunter Valley. According to winemaker Christian Knott (who also works in Burgundy), this wine had ‘no additions full stop (no acid, no sulphur, no enzymes, no yeast, no fining agents etc)’ and was not filtered.

High quality no-sulphur Australian white wine is rare, but this (all 25 cases of it) is a beauty: redolent of place, it is golden, sun-kissed, with a tang, like chewing on pineapple core, that I associate strongly with Hunter chardonnay. One of the many arguments about not adding stuff to wine is that it helps the grapes speak with integrity and authenticity of where they’re from: this chardonnay lends that argument considerable weight.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The thrilling scent of good viognier

Emily and Ron Laughton, Jasper Hill
Putting a wine with virtually no track record or reputation into a blind tasting alongside critically acclaimed, well-established examples of the same grape variety is either very brave or very foolish. But good winemakers love to indulge in this strange masochistic ritual; they are constantly benchmarking their wines against others, and bizarrely, they often invite wine writers along.

The latest vineyard to play the blind comparison game is Winbirra on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula. As well as the regional staples, pinot noir and chardonnay, Winbirra also - unusually - produce a viognier. Vignerons Jo Pittendrigh and Marshal Caffyn wanted to see how theirs stacked up, so they tracked down ten other examples - including heavyweights such as Castagna, Yarra Yering, Jasper Hill and Yalumba’s Virgilius - and arranged a blind tasting.

Many of these other producers never enter wine shows or comparative tastings, so for me it was a great opportunity to have a good sniff and sip, to see how this most fascinating of white grapes is coming along in some of Australia’s top vineyards.

The good news for Winbirra is that their viognier compared very favourably with the big names: the 2008 had some lovely creamy apricot fruit, while the 2009 was finer, with more of a chewy cashew character - all flavours and tastes that I expect to find in good viognier.

The most fascinating thing about the tasting, though, was how remarkably diverse all the viogniers were - and how the best ones displayed characters that spoke less of the variety and more of the terroir of the vineyard. The 2008 Castagna Viognier, for example, had beguiling floral perfume - like lilies - but also a remarkable, firm spine of minerality so typical of other grape varieties planted in the cool granite soils of Beechworth.

The 2009 Jasper Hill Viognier had oodles of creamy varietal flavour and texture - an honest expression of the hot vintage and minimal intervention winemaking, too - but also had a eucalpyt and cedar tang that is found in so many wines from Heathcote. Likewise, the 2009 Tim Smith Adelaide Hills Viognier had an extraordinary delicacy and pristine brightness to its floral perfume and chalky acidity - characters I associate strongly with white wines from the Hills.

It was great to see that despite its overwhelming, heady varietal perfume and mouthfilling texture, viognier is also capable of expressing an identifiable sense of place in the glass.

UPDATE: This article first appeared in The Weekend Australian Magazine, July 3, 2010. I didn't have space in that article to point out that all my top wines in this tasting - Castagna, Jasper Hill and Tim Smith (made using fruit from Frank and Rosemary Baldasso's Kenton Hill vineyard) - were grown biodynamically.

Going wild in the west; trouble brewing

Vanya Cullen in her biodynamic vegie patch
A dispute is bubbling away in Margaret River that could change the way we think about the importance of wild yeasts in winemaking.

Local developer Murray Burton wants to build a micro-brewery and cellar door complex next to Cullen, one of the region’s best-known vineyards. Cullen, who ferment all their wines using the wild yeasts present in their vineyard, are urging the Busselton shire council to reject the application, arguing that rogue beer yeasts from the brewery would find their way into the grape ferments, and change the unique character of the Cullen wines.

The developer argues that the proposal meets planning regulations and that the beer yeasts will be contained, but in March, council rejected the brewery on the grounds that it ‘may jeapoardise the agricultural use of adjoining land’. The matter went to the appeals tribunal for mediation, an expert witness report was commissioned, and council is due to discuss the matter again this week (see UPDATE, below).

In April, Cullen sent some cabernet grapes to Curtin University’s winery for some fermentation trials to see whether different yeasts produce different results.

The grapes were fermented in four small batches: one was allowed to ferment with just the wild yeasts that came in with the fruit; one was inoculated with EC118, a commercial cultured yeast strain commonly used in Australian wineries; one was inoculated with Safale, a beer yeast; and one with a combination of EC118 and Safale.

The wild yeast ferment took the longest to start, and then proceeded slowly until all the sugar had been converted to alcohol and the wine was dry; the cultured wine yeast started almost immediately and fermented to dryness quickly; the combination of beer and wine yeasts was similar, if a little slower than the straight EC1118; but the beer yeast stopped fermenting the grape juice before all the sugar had been converted to alcohol (a headache if you’re trying to make top-class cabernet).

The wines were tasted blind by the researchers: those which had been fermented using beer yeast had aldehydic, yeasty characters; the one fermented using cultured wine yeasts tasted clean but dull; the wild-fermented wine showed brighter, more elevated fruit characters.

Some scientists believe that naturally-fermented wines show more complex, distinctive flavours because various yeast strains, unique to each vineyard, grow in the slowly bubbling juice, each contributing its own character. It will be interesting to see what the expert report has to say.
UPDATE: This article first appeared in The Weekend Australian Magazine, June 19, 2010. At the meeting the following week, council once again rejected the brewery proposal.

Gathering the Hunter's heritage

Storm over the Brokenback Ranges, Hunter Valley
As you know, I’m a big fan of non-mainstream wines such as tempranillo and barbera and fiano. So when a group of Hunter Valley grape growers and winemakers interested in moving beyond their local stalwarts, semillon and shiraz, invited me to address a seminar on alternative varieties, I leapt at the chance.

Unfortunately, before the seminar I sat down to a tasting of wines from the Hunter’s Heritage Vineyard Register - twenty utterly glorious bottle-aged single-site semillons and shirazes from the region’s oldest vines. It was awesome: the soul-satisfying complexity of the Tyrrells HVD and Meerea Park Terracotta semillons and the soil-drenched depth of the Drayton Joseph, Tulloch Hector and Mount Pleasant OP&OH shirazes all made the most deliciously compelling argument for classic grapes planted in classic Australian terroir. I left the tasting glowing with patriotic pride: these unique traditional wines are nothing short of national treasures.

Which is not, let me tell you, the best frame of mind in which to sit down to a seminar on alternative grapes. Sure, we tasted some very nice examples of Hunter-grown viognier (the Little Wine Co.), pinot grigio and barbera (David Hook) and tempranillo (Audrey Wilkinson). But I couldn’t get the beautiful, lingering taste of those old classic wines out of my mouth. Why, I kept wondering wistfully (and, unfortunately, out loud), when you already make semillon and shiraz so brilliantly why would you bother even trying to do anything else?

The answer, of course, is commercial reality.

The fact is that while traditional Hunter semillon and shiraz may well be wonderful drinks, they’re hard to sell, even in the Hunter - especially in the Hunter. Most of the millions of tourists who flock here aren’t after authentic, savoury wines of terroir: they’re after a nice savvy blanc or fruity red to knock back after a hard day’s golf. And as most of the region’s wineries rely on these tourists to survive, the pressure’s on to comply.

So of course winemakers should be exploring the alternatives. But it would be a tragedy to see traditional Hunter semillon and shiraz sidelined or even killed off by market forces, victims of the region’s own tourism success.
This article first appeared in The Weekend Australian Magazine, Feb 6, 2010. 

Pale, dry and delicious

Photo by James Broadway
The most exciting development in Australian gastronomy over the last decade has been the proliferation of new, deliciously dry, pale-coloured pink wines emerging from our top vineyards and cellar doors.

A big call, I know. But I think I might actually be serious. As much as I love the bold, boisterous flavours of the classic, deep-magenta-hued Aussie rosé (think Charlie Melton’s always-splendid Rose of Virginia, or Angove’s ridiculously good-value Nine Vines Rosé), I think the subtler perfume, the lighter body and - most importantly - the savoury finish of the new breed of pale pink wines makes them more versatile, more food-friendly and ultimately more satisfying.

These wines are often made from savoury-tasting grapes such as pinot noir, sangiovese, tempranillo, mourvedre. They’re paler in colour than the bold pink Aussie wines of old because the grape juice spends less time in contact with the grape skins - hence, too, the more delicate aromas and finer flavours. The wines that are ringing my bells are often given a little more serious attention in the winery: wild yeast ferment, some time spent in barrel, lees-stirring, etc. And these wines are dry: rather than carrying residual sweetness as so many of the old-fashioned rosés do, they finish with a lip-smacking dryness, making a better match for savoury food - calamari and salads and grilled chook and garlicky lamb chops and fish soup and goats cheese - all sorts of things.

If you want to find out what I’m talking about, try the rosé from any one of the following (in no particular order - they’re all good): Bass Philip, Krinklewood, Ngeringa, Dominique Portet, Hahndorf Hill, Sutton Grange/Fairbank, Spinifex, Farr Rising, Greenstone, La Linea, Mac Forbes, Arrivo, Vinea Marson, Castagna, Innocent Bystander, TarraWarra, Bress, Pizzini, Foster e Rocco, Pike & Joyce, Yalumba Y Series, Pondalowie, SC Pannell, Shobbrook, Chalmers and Scorpo.

Phew. See what I mean? A plethora of wonderful, food-friendly wines. How exciting is that?
Have a glance through this list when you next feel like a glass of something truly delicious to wash down dinner. You’ll thank me. You will.
UPDATE: This article first appeared in The Weekend Australian Magazine, April 3, 2010. Since then I have tasted some stunning 2010 dry rosés, including an oh-so-pale, creamy-textured, fennel-scented pinot noir example from De Bortoli in the Yarra Valley and the exquisite, fragile and flowery Francesca from Krinklewood in the Hunter.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Has Australian wine painted itself into a varietal corner?

Next time you find yourself wandering around your local wine shop, try this little exercise: I challenge you to find an Australian wine label that doesn’t tell you what grape variety or blend of varieties is inside in the bottle.

You’ll struggle. Almost every bottle of wine produced in this country has its varietal identity emblazoned on the front, or at least listed on the back ('a blend of 54 per cent cabernet sauvignon and 46 per cent shiraz', etc.).

On the whole, of course, this is A Very Good Thing. The introduction of varietal labelling - the move from 'claret' and 'chablis' to cabernet and chardonnay that started in the 1960s - has made wine much more accessible and easily understood.

But I wonder whether we’ve painted ourselves into a bit of a varietal corner. Single varietal wines have come to be seen as superior to blends - when blending grapes can often produce a wine that is greater than the sum of its parts. And our obsession with knowing exactly what’s inside the bottle can hinder the winemakers’ freedom to blend to a style using different grapes from one vintage to the next - especially in everyday-drinking wines at the commercial end of the market.

I realised just how varietally-dependent I’ve become when I tasted some new red wines recently, all great value (around $16), and all delicious in their own way: Noon’s 2008 Twelve Bells from McLaren Vale; Paulett’s 2008 Stone Cutting from Clare; Larry Cherubino’s 2007 Ad Hoc Mixmaster; and Peter Lehmann’s 2008 Layers from the Barossa.

Once I’d tasted each wine, I naturally reached for the bottle and had a look at the label to find out what grapes were used to make them. And not one was able to enlighten me.

At first I was a bit annoyed and frustrated. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised this is a development that deserves to be encouraged. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know what the grapes were: all that mattered was that the wines were lovely drinks. It made me think that we should stop constantly fixating on varieties and start to value other aspects of wine such as style, regionality, vineyard character and our own pleasure.


UPDATE: This article first appeared in The Weekend Australian Magazine, Feb 27, 2010. Dean Hewitson soon, rightly, got in touch to remind me about his delicious Barossa grenache blend, Miss Harry: 'We haven't put varieties on it for three vintages now. It was accidentally left off and wasn't picked up in the press check. We thought oh well, people are still buying the wine and no-one has complained. Then we thought the French don't do it so we won't either. I'm glad because now with a bit of Cinsault and Carignan being introduced the varietal listing would have read like a war and peace novel.'