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: http://www.naturalselectiontheory.com
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 www.organicwineshow.com.au

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: http://www.naturalselectiontheory.com


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.'