Aussie sweet wines

Wine drinkers associate premium wines with particular grape varieties from particular areas. Thus, in Australia, some of the natural doubles are cabernet and Coonawarra, semillon and the Hunter Valley, rhine riesling and the Clare Valley, and shiraz and the Barossa Valley.

Our biggest source of grapes, long stretches of the Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers, churn out thousands of tonnes of fat, juicy, sweet, grapes. These make everything from bubblies to fortifieds. But the district of origin seldom appears on labels for the simple reason that most of the tonnage, while capable of making sound wines, bears no distinguishing aromas or flavours.

Yet the ‘Riverland’ as this vast grape resource is called, is far from homogenous. A couple of degrees variation in latitude, as the system snakes its way westwards, creates many climatic…and, thus, quality differences. Seppelts, for example, grows broad acres of chardonnay at several points along the Murray. Far from being flung into one vat and branded ‘Riverland’ the various batches head in different directions.

In an interview a few years back, Ian McKenzie, Seppelt’s Chief Winemaker, said there was a two degree latitude difference between the company’s Qualco (South Australia) and Barooga (NSW) vineyards, both on the Murray. As a result, grapes ripen several weeks later at Barooga. And the fruit makes far superior wine.

Barooga, while not a exactly a household name like Coonawarra, Padthaway, or the Barossa Valley, is one of the few exceptions to anonymity along our major waterway.

Perhaps the most reviled of all stretches of the riverland’s grape growing districts was the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, with its centre at Griffith, N.S.W. Here is planted huge amounts of semillon and shiraz, both workhorses of the Australian wine industry.

A decade ago, wine quality from the area was seen as a joke within the industry. And having seen many extremely poor examples of bulk wine from there in the late seventies, I admit to a strong prejudice against MIA wines that lasted in my own mind until only recently.

Better vineyard management and the arrival of state-of-the-art winemaking equipment now means that much of the area’s output of bulk wine is as good as you’ll find anywhere. Taste, for example, McWilliams revamped Hanwood table wine range for a very pleasant surprise.

If the area does prove simply too hot, as seems likely, to make premium dry table wine, first de Bortolis and now others have exploited the hot, humid ripening conditions in developing fabulous sweet wines now winning the palates of consumers and show judges alike in recent years.

De Bortolis were not the first to make a ‘sauternes’ style in the district, but they elevated it to a higher level than anyone else before them, and paved the way for a little niche, both at home and abroad, for Griffith late-picked semillon.

De Bortolis achieved the impossible in having their botrytis semillon acknowledged so widely. The market for dessert table wines in Australia is small and very crowded as every winemaker nurtures a yearning to make the definitive Aussie sweet white. Indeed, there are so many late picked semillons and rhine rieslings around, that few make any impression at all on consumers.

The de Bortoli product, though, could not be ignored. Pick up a bottle, look at the back label, and you’ll see why: the list of trophies and gold medals is longer the original ACT ballot paper (more interesting, too).

De Bortoli’s success prompted a number of other Griffith companies to blow the dust off slumbering brands or develop new ones, many of which already boast outstanding show successes. Stephen Chatterton’s Wilton Estate and the Miranda family are just two Griffith wine makers now winning impressive tallies of show medals for their sweeties.

April 19th, 1992

Griffith lies just four hours drive west of Canberra. It’s a bustling, busy city, population 15,000, appearing remarkably prosperous after whizzing through the depressed hamlets and towns dotting the route from Canberra.

Here twenty per cent of Australia’s wine grapes flourish on vines nourished by water diverted from the Murrumbidgee River about thirty kilometres away. In the intense summer heat, Griffith’s grapes swell and ripen quickly producing masses of sweet fortified wines, bulk table wines, pop wines, and a sprinkling of high-quality, immensely sweet and luscious dessert wines.

This last category, sourced mainly from late picked, botrytis infected semillon grapes, gives Griffith a strong claim to being a fine wine producer: vintages 1982 to 1990 of the style won the area 42 trophies and 170 gold medals.

Whether or not the Griffith sweetie is unique or simply a clever product reproducible wherever hot and humid grape growing conditions prevail remains to be seen. But no other area in Australia presently shows any sign of doing it as well as Griffith does.

At a “famous sweet wines of the world” dinner in Griffith last Friday night, Robert Geddes, head of the Wines of the Riverina Promotion Committee, pitted the local sweeties against the European classics. It wasn’t intended as a competition so much an opportunity to compare different styles and perceive just what the Griffith sweet personality is.

There’s certainly a personality there. It was easy to pick the local wines from the imports in a series of masked line-ups of three and four wines.

The Griffith wines varied considerably, but the shared characteristics were enormous sweetness with an intense underlying caramel flavour, softness and roundness on the palate, a recognisable semillon flavour, and a strong aroma and flavour of “apricot” and “orange” peel imparted by the botrytis cinerea (a grey mould growing on the skin of the late picked grapes, reducing water, concentrating acids and sugars and implanting its own distinctive flavour).

No two of the imports were alike. A Vin Santo from Tuscany made the perfect aperitif and fooled even the local fortified experts who saw in it the characteristics of amontillado sherry. But its gentle, sweet mid-palate fruit and slightly-too-low alcohol said it could not be sherry.

A botrytis chenin blanc from the Loire Valley, 1989 Chateau de Ricaud Coteaux du Layon’s delicacy, pale colour and high acid contrasted starkly with the sweet opulence of the local wines. It was a lovely wine and a first-class example of its style.

Chateau Gillette 1955, from Sauternes in France, showed there’s much more to sweet wines than sugar. Intensity of flavour, a mouth gripping structure, and a drying astringency add up to a great and satisfying drink.

A German 1976 Trockenbeerenauslese, made from the obscure grape varieties optima and ortiga, displayed some of the amazing weight and richness of that great vintage but lacked any real class. And a 1968 Hungarian Tokay Essencia showed only hints of the glories the style achieves.

Of the local wines, Robert Fiumara of Lillpilly Wines makes an attractive noble muscat of Alexandria. But I’d classify this more as a “terrace” wine with its tangy, fresh, sweet muscat flavour. It’s very original but not, in my view, a dessert wine as it lacks the body, structure, and sweetness.

I think it’s more the botrytised semillons making the Griffith name. Of these, two that were served at the dinner leapt out.

De Bortoli Botrytis Semillon Sauternes 1987 takes the style to its most polished form. While this vintage has won at least 4 trophies and 14 gold medals, it’s the sixth in a line who’s tally is 20 trophies and 113 gold medals.

Winemaker, Darren De Bortoli, modestly declines to take full credit for the wine, but says it bears his thumbprint. While very late picked, botrytis infected semillon is at the heart of the wine, its elevation in the winery is all-important. The very expensive and labour-intensive processes of fermenting and maturing the wine in small, new French oak barrels is essential.

Whatever magic Darren works in the winery makes his wine head and shoulder above others from the district, especially in its ability to age slowly. His 1987 looks, smells, and tastes younger than 1990’s from the other wineries.

The only exception I’ve noted is McWilliams. Winemaker Jim Brayne makes outstanding sweeties as we saw in a very young looking 1988 served from half bottles. It may not have the depth and weight of the DeBortoli product, but it is a high quality dessert wine by any measure and bears the Griffith personality.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007

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