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Yearly Archives: 1997
The amount Australians spend on wine each year – around $1.2 billion – seems small beer (sorry) compared to the more than $5 billion we spend on the amber fluid.
Yet beer drinkers take their habit less seriously than wine drinkers do theirs, demolishing oceans of ale with minimal fuss, pretension, or even discussion over its merits.
Despite a plethora of labels that might suggest otherwise, Australian beer drinkers generally stick within a narrow style band that might be summed up as clean, fresh, bland and a touch sweet.
Brand choice, the marketers say, is determined more along tribal lines than by flavour: most beer drinkers will drink what their peer group drinks. Ice beers, a comparatively recent development, are an exception and appear to cross tribal boundaries all across this parched and thirsty continent.
For that reason a six-pack of, say, Hahn Ice, taken into foreign territory may be a safer bet than potential tribal icons such as VB or Tooheys Draught.
Away from the mainstream, there is a growing demand for variety. What the marketers call the premium and imported beer segment is growing at a prodigious rate, but off a small base. Some say this segment may make up, at the most, five per cent of the current market – a still sizeable $250million a year or so.
Again, lagers – albeit with notably more character than mainstream brands – make up the bulk of this market. But there is an increasing variety of beer styles arriving on retail shelves.
While many of these challenge the Aussie lager-conditioned palate, some consumers seem to be in the mood to experiment with and embrace new flavour sensations.
Acknowledging the trend, this year’s annual ‘Sydney Morning Herald’/Age’ ‘Uncorked’, published last Tuesday, devoted two pages to beer reviews by well-known wine critic, Mark Shield.
Shield recommended a truly catholic selection of beers ranging from Foster’s New ‘Extra’ to mainstream international lagers like the German classic, Beck’s, to the beautifully named Belgian ‘Delirium Tremens’ and full-blooded 9 per cent alcohol Chimay ales, brewed by Trappist monks.
I was particularly interested to read Shield’s reviews as I’d just returned to Canberra after four days’ judging at this year’s Liquorland Australian International Beer Awards in Ballarat.
Now Ballarat may seem a strange place to taste 400 beers in mid winter. But it is the only place in Australia offering University courses in brewing. And it is senior lecturer, Rob Greig who, with the help of the Royal Victorian Agricultural Society, has very quickly made this event the world’s third biggest beer competition.
Originally, the awards were seen as a forum for small makers, but Greig and his team adapted the awards to accommodate mainstream as well as exotic brews as the number of entries exploded. This year the ratio of entrants was 34 small to 41 large breweries.
Last year, when I attended as observer there were 288 entries. This year the number leapt 51 per cent to 436 and, according to Greig, another hundred were turned away after arriving too late.
Forty-five breweries from 24 countries entered beers for judging and the number of international competitors leapt 73 per cent to 296 – a sign of how seriously this Australian event is now being taken.
Entries came from Australia, Korea, Singapore, Germany, Thailand, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Vietnam, England, India, Scotland, China, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Indonesia, Tonga, Czechoslovakia, Hong Kong, Philippines, Malta, USA, South Africa and Vanuatu.
To do justice to 331 bottled and 105 draught beers over last Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday Greig assembled 11 judges, working as a single panel on small categories and splitting into two for larger ones.
The judges were Tim Cooper (Coopers Brewery, Adelaide), Roger Bussell (Joe White Maltings, Adelaide), Bill Taylor (Castlemaine, Brisbane), Paul Schrader (Eumundi, Brisbane), Johann Steenberg (South African Breweries, Johannesburg) Peter Manders (Carlton and United Breweries, Melbourne), Barry Axon (Dominion Breweries, Auckland), Richard Benwell (Boags Brewery, Tasmania), Rob Rich (Quest International, New Zealand, myself, and chief judge Colin Dowzer (Brewing consultant, Melbourne).
The beers were split into like classes across open, small brewery, specialty and international sections. And so, systematically, one beer at a time in unmarked glasses, the panels judged lagers, ales, stouts, and wheat beers.
We judged everything from the lightest, blandest low-alcohol lagers to an extraordinary, non-sparkling triple bok that poured like licorice, smelled like Vegemite and weighed in at a colossal 17 per cent alcohol.
But as we knew the beers only by class definition and randomly generated entry numbers we will have to wait until later this month for the Award winners to be announced. I will report the judges’ verdict on June 29, along with comments from my own notes.
Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1997 & 2007
BRL Hardy’s decision to set up shop in the ACT, combined with Ron Bell’s proposed Harcourt Ridge Estate development and Dr Barry Moran’s quadrupling of planting at Doonkuna Estate, should see the region’s wine output jump tenfold from its present 30 thousand cases a year to about 300,000 cases by the time new plantings come into full bearing.
A few years from now, Hardys vineyard/winery/function-centre/cellar-door-sales complex on the Federal Highway – in the vicinity of the showground – will be one of the first things to be seen by visitors approaching Canberra from Sydney.
Visitors arriving via the Barton Highway will not be able to miss Doonkuna’s expanded vineyard plantings of about 24 hectares — more than four times the area currently under vine; and those arriving via Womboin or the airport road will see Ron Bell’s 50 hectare vineyard between Oaks Estate Road and the Queanbeyan railroad bridge.
These big new developments will add volume and ready availability to an already colourful spread of small operations that built what reputation Canberra has as a wine making region painstakingly over the past 26 years.
In 1971 CSIRO scientists, Drs Edgar Riek and John Kirk, established Canberra’s first modern vineyards at Lake George and Murrumbateman respectively.
Riek and Kirk were followed by Affleck Vineyard, Benfield Estate, Brindabella Hills Winery, Brooks Creek Vineyard, Doonkuna Estate, Helm’s, Jeir Creek Wines, Lark Hill, Madew Wines, The Murrumbateman Winery, Surveyors Hill (formerly Park Lane), Ruker Wines, Kyeema Estate, Pankhurst Wines and Yass Valley Wines.
An increasing number of independent grape growers also contribute significantly to local wine production. BRL Hardy estimates their numbers at 36 and claims to be already buying from them about 150 tonnes of grapes a year — almost a third of the region’s production.
Currently Rob and Kay Howell process these grapes at Jeir Creek Winery, Murrumbateman, and the juice is chilled and tankered to Hardys Reynella and Tintara Wineries, South Australia.
When Hardy’s new winery comes into operation, around 1999/2000, local grapes will be crushed there. Assuming a modest harvest of around 10 tonnes a hectare, BRL Hardys 250 Canberra hectares ought to yield 2,500 tonnes a years.
But as the winery will have a capacity of 4,000 tonnes, I think we can see behind BRL Hardy’s decision a wider interest in other regions along the western slopes of the Great Divide.
The Canberra decision apparently fits within BRL’s “newly-emerging region’s strategy”. Not only Canberra, but apparently Young, Tumbarumba, Cowra and Mudgee are also on the shopping list.
With Canberra as a solid marketing base, Sydney so close by road – and BRL Hardy’s other wineries so far away in Victoria and South Australia – it’s not too big a leap of the imagination to see Canberra, eventually, as a major regional processing centre for New South Wales’ grapes. The size of the winery suggests this may be on the agenda.
While BRL Hardy has not yet nominated its vineyard sites, a fear of spring frosts almost certainly dictates a spread of sites – perhaps 6 or 7 on well-drained north easterly aspects – to spread the frost and consequent financial risk of crop failure.
Although no announcement has yet been made, it appears vineyard development opportunities will be offered to small investors with stakes as low as $2000-$3000 per unit.
BRL Hardy intend having a top-notch viticulturist and a wine maker resident in Canberra to oversee vineyards and wine making.
The winery – to be strongly identified with a Hardys Canberra region wine brand – will offer function facilities, tasting and sales facilities for its own wines, and will, as well, be a show place and promotional centre for Canberra’s small independent wineries.
As I understand it, the aim is to produce a steady, reliable stream of high-quality Canberra table wines to retail in the $10-$14 a bottle range as well as very small quantities of ‘flagship’ wines, at around $30, representing the absolute pinnacle of what the area can make.
With the local market satisfied, BRL intends to take the Canberra name nationally and then internationally and foresees a time when local and export markets might each absorb about 100,000 cases of BRL Hardy Canberra wines.
With Canberra so deeply absorbed in its own problems at present, it’s a nice change to see a single enterprise prepared to foster a $30 million investment in Canberra – that’s about $10 million each in vineyards, winery and stock).
An old wine trade adage, probably of British origin, had it that four ‘noble’ wine-grape varieties – the red cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir; and the white chardonnay and riesling – were the source of all the world’s great wines.
Unshakeable faith in those varieties deified wines from the regions in which they originated. And the pantheon of great wines for a time looked immutable: Bordeaux reigned over all other cabernets; Burgundy and Champagne ruled pinot noir and chardonnay; the Rhine and Mosel Rivers defined riesling quality; and no other grape variety, let alone region, brooked a look into this elite group.
Then as a larger world embraced wine growing and drinking, brash new voices challenged the old orthodoxy; new world wines occasionally thumbed noses at the great names (remember Tyrrell’s Hunter Pinot Noir’s award at the Gault Milleau wine Olympics in Paris, 1976 – or Grange 1971’s triumph at the same event?
As the Americans enthusiastically embraced wines from the 1970s, new world chipping away at French mystique gathered momentum. And the British (by now a nation of model wine merchants rather than shop keepers) stayed one step ahead of the Americans in cheering wonderful new world wines along.
The ‘four noble varieties’ myth faded as minds were opened to the vastly expanded palate of wine flavours that emerged during the 1980s. Australian wines made their mark. First as ‘good value’ wines. ‘Bottled sunshine’ someone called them, resurrecting a term used for Lindemans wines in the 1920s.
Then the British noticed shiraz. Grange first. ‘The first growth of the southern hemisphere’ Hugh Johnson called it a decade ago. Then the list of good Australian shiraz grew. Australian wine was moving up-market and it was shiraz driving British recognition of our better wines.
By the early 1990s a steady stream of British retailers flowed through Australia, picking the eyes out of our rich, warm shiraz offerings. Domestic demand began picking up at about the same time. The Americans were perhaps a little behind the British in spotting Australian shiraz. Sure they knew it was ‘good value’ but it was not seen widely as a top-shelf variety. The ‘four noble varieties’ myth still held.
Then, BANG! Grange became ‘Parkerised’. American wine god/guru, Robert M. Parker likened Grange’s opulence and power to that of Chateau Petrus – Bordeaux’s most expensive red wine (perversely a merlot, not cabernet). Shortly afterwards, America’s influential ‘Wine Spectator’ magazine nominated Grange 1990 as its red wine of the year for 1995 – a first for an Australian wine. Not just Australia, but shiraz was gaining a new respect.
Then Australian shiraz won two new accolades. In 1996, Austrian glass manufacturer Georg Riedel launched a purpose-built shiraz glass by pitting the world’s top shiraz wines against one another in a blind tasting attended by 140 people. Australia’s Eileen Hardy Shiraz 1993 conquered in a field that included fancy names from France’s Rhone Valley – home of the shiraz grape.
Monsieur Chapoutier, a leading French producer was so impressed, he bought six cases on the spot, arranged swaps of his own wines for future vintages of Eileen Hardy, and now plans to make and market Australian reds for the French market dressed in dashing, over-the-top Australian-landscape labels, designed by Adelaide’s Barbara Harkness.
Mr Riedel’s release of a shiraz glass adds to the recognition of shiraz as a great grape variety. But it was small change in the evolving Australian-shiraz story when compared to the front cover of last June’s ‘Wine Spectator’.
The headline screamed ‘SHIRAZ Australia hits the big time’ over a monumental colour picture of three top Australian shirazes: Mount Langhi Ghiran 1994, Penfolds Grange 1990, and Henschke Mount Edelstone 1993.
Inside, Marvin R. Shanken editorialised, “To give you an idea of how good these hearty new red wines are, 14 out of 66 shirazes currently available in America scored 90 points or higher on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale. Two of them scored higher than 95. Incredible scores like this don’t come along very often. We recommend that you buy some of our favorites and try them for yourselves.”
The editorial was backed by an extensive shiraz tasting and a cover story by Harvey Steiman, a principal of the magazine, who judged at the Sydney Wine Show in February 1996, then toured our wine growing areas.
The bottom line is that Americans now see shiraz “as a world-class grape worthy of collecting” and that Australian shiraz has moved to the top of the shopping list. Global recognition and the heady prices now being fetched by our leading shirazes suggests that a fifth ‘noble’ grape has arrived thanks largely to the determination and skill of Australian wine makers.
Since when did wine critics become investment advisers? In this month’s ‘Winestate’ magazine, a normally sedate, predictable read from Adelaide, Editor Peter Simic peers into the crystal ball and foresees quite extraordinary price growth for Meshach (Grant Burge’s flagship red) in the months ahead.
Simic publishes bold predictions in a table headed ‘Meshach Investment Profile’. According to Simic’s table, by the end of 1997, Meshach 1988 is set to leap from $70+ to $180+; 1990 from $70 to $150+; 1991 from $70 to $150; 1992 from $50 to $100; and 1993 from $60 to $100+.
And that’s only the 750ml bottles. Magnums, Simic tips, might notch even greater gains: 1990 to spring from $135 to $500; 1991 from $120 to $400+; and 1992 from $150 to $400.
Could Simic be right? Not likely. Sure Australian reds, especially Shiraz, enjoy increasing international demand. But it’s bold stuff touting a relative newcomer like Meshach as a new Grange set to dash into the limelight between May and December 1997.
We’re perhaps better off taking the more conservative view that 1) this is wine, made to drink and enjoy and 2) if it really were that easy to double and triple our money we’d all be millionaires.
Meshach is an exceptional Australian red. It’s the best Grant Burge can muster from one of the largest private vineyard holdings in the Barossa. From the first vintage (1988) Meshach made its mark and the evolution seen in subsequent vintages tends to confirm the early promise.
But it takes time to take on a blue-chip status. First the style of the wine needs to mature in the wine makers hands. Then older vintages need time to fulfil all the early promise. Meshach seems headed that way, but let’s see a few more vintages first.
Penfolds Grange and Henschke Hill of Grace are the outstanding examples of early promise and time-proven performance leading to international blue-chip status and, finally, heady prices.
Now, if you’d bought substantial quantities of either wine at the comparatively modest prices of the sixties, seventies, eighties or early nineties, you could now make a killing. Many people have.
But now’s boom time and that’s the time to be wary. Whether buying wine as a drinking or financial investment (or both) timing is of the essence and provenance is your security.
The time to buy is at release when the retailer specials are on, or you might get lucky and find historically-priced stock in an out of the way bottle shop.
When vintages sell out, the secondary markets take over and that’s where your fate as an investor lies. If you’re the one paying top price at auction, with investment rather than drinking in mind, just remember Alan Bond, Channel 9 and Kerry Packer!
We saw with the release of Grange 1990 just two years ago how some buyers grabbed retail stock at $140 and only months later turned that into $300 (less about 20 per cent commission) at auction. Those who bought at $300 are the Alan Bonds.
Retailers became canny after that and prices moved from cost-plus-margin to what the market could bear.
So that when the 1991 was released last year, retailers tended to eke out small quantities at a ‘normal’ retail price to loyal customers, while offering the bulk of their stock at market price.
The same mentality may prevail with the release this week of the 1992 Penfolds Grange and its cellar mate Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707 1994.
Interestingly, Penfolds themselves have once again refrained from profiteering. They’ve taken a modest (given such strong demand) increase on Grange of around fifteen per cent – a clear signal in my mind that they view retail prices of around $250-$300 for current vintages as unsustainable.
The Penfold selling price, in theory, allows for a retail price of around $175 a bottle. But if, as seems probable, retailers view market value as closer to $300, then that’s where the price will be.
The 1992 fits squarely into the usual deep, ‘sweet’, solid, Grange mould. It just needs another fifteen years in bottle to blossom. From the international perspective, it’s worth $175 a bottle, but beyond that it looks overpriced, in my opinion.
From the same international perspective, Penfolds Cabernet Sauvignon Bin
707 1994 looks tempting even at a full retail price of $80 (it’s almost certain to be discounted below that). I think it’s as good as Grange.
The difference is that Bin 707 has not yet acquired Grange status. I think it will. And there’ll be a few bottles salted away at Chateau Shanahan. But I’m not looking for a Simic-like price doubling this year. I’m thinking more of dinner parties around 2010 when it’ll be ready to drink. Isn’t that what wine’s for?
Has the cork at last had its day? Wine makers are fed up the high incidence of ‘corked’ wine. And if the cork industry can’t solve the problem, it could find corks replaced by a new generation of synthetic seals.
The unpleasant, musty-cork smell and flavour permeating so many wines comes chiefly from a compound…2, 4, 6 trichloroanisole (TCA)…formed, I’m told, when cork is bleached with chlorine. When this nasty little molecule remains in the cork, even in the tiniest quantities, it can be leached into a wine sealed with the cork within a day or two of insertion.
Our noses are sensitive enough to detect TCA in concentrations of around four parts per billion. So sensitive are we to it, tests designed to help Australian winemakers detect problem corks rely on the winemaker’s nose rather than on any laboratory equipment for detection.
‘Corkiness’ varies in degree. In big concentrations it infects wine with unmistakable and strong mouldy and musty aromas and flavours. If you drink wine regularly, chances are you’ve encountered this problem. I wonder how many perfectly good wines we’ve sent to Coventry in our minds because of a cork problem.
In smaller concentrations TCA may just dull a wine: the aroma and flavour may seem less lively in a familiar tipple, or a new wine not live up to expectations. As well, we all have different sensitivity to it. This seems partly inducible.
Not surprisingly wine makers and wine show judges are amongst the most sensitised of all and have been outspoken in criticism.
So much so, says James Halliday that one Portuguese cork grower angrily berated him. Corkiness, he fumed, was an Australian wine making fault. It had to be, he claimed, because we are the only ones that make so much fuss about it.
Such unsustainable views aside, it is a big problem for consumers and industry alike. Why is that in 1997 a science-based industry, of which Australia is world leader, relies on a wad of bleached tree bark as a seal.
There are many answers. Perhaps the biggest is fear of changes that might drive consumers away. Remember Yalumba’s bold move into Stelvin caps in the late seventies?
Take your most delicate riesling. Protect it from the vagaries of cork with a synthetic screw on seal. No corkscrew needed. Perfect. It was an utter disaster. Consumers stuck with the good old faulty cork.
And despite odd articles predicting Stelvin’s inevitable return, no maker dared stray from tradition.
The problem was never ignored but it was never properly addressed either. Now the explosion of global bottled-wine consumption demands a solution to a problem that taints an estimated 1.4 million bottles of wine a year globally.
Cork failure – whether through TCA taint or disintegration – probably presents more of a marketing challenge than a technical one. But at last one of our major wine companies is taking its solution to the world.
Recently, Southcorp Wines trialled ‘supremcorq’ a synthetic cork look-alike in 250,000 bottles of its Lindemans Cawarra Range in a promotion explaining why the new seal was there and seeking consumer feedback.
92 per cent of respondents ‘accepted synthetic closures as equal to, or better than, natural cork”, said Bruce Kemp, Southcorp chief.
Even as the trial progressed, Southcorp Wine’s sister company, Southcorp Packaging, was perfecting its own cost-effective, synthetic wine bottle closure to be marketed under the proprietary name ‘Aegis’.
Not surprisingly, the first customer is Southcorp wines, using Aegis in a trial run of over one million bottles of Lindemans Cawarra, Matthew Lang and Woodleys Queen Adelaide wines – all at the budget end of the market.
But the product has been produced with an eye to the huge US market and already the food grade polyethylene seal has been approved by the FDA.
Hopefully, with proper educational material to inform drinkers why a reliable seal is replacing the flawed one that’s been around since the seventeenth century, tradition might be broken.
There appears no doubt that the new seals will perform better in the short term. And, especially on delicate whites where fresh fruit flavours are desirable, it is hard to accept any argument for continuing with cork.
There are legitimate concerns over the ageing of top quality wines and longevity of the new synthetic seals and whether or not they might have their own taint waiting to emerge.
These concerns can only be addressed over time. But for right now – with most wine being consumed within a few hours of purchase – there is a compelling argument to accept a seal that brings wine to the glass in exactly the condition it was in when the vigneron bottled it
One of the Barossa’s ugliest wineries makes some of its loveliest wines.
Richmond Grove Winery – previously Leo Buring’s Chateau Leonay, previously Orange Grove – blights the landscape on the northern edge of Tanunda township within cooee of Peter Lehmann and Veritas wineries.
It was here that John Vickery, a Roseworthy College graduate, made his first wines for Leo Buring in 1955, and here that he honed the skills that made him Australia’s leading riesling maker.
In the early years under Leo Buring, John saw the high quality of riesling grapes from the Barossa and more especially from Buring’s Florita vineyard at Watervale in the Clare Valley to the north.
However, wine making equipment was rustic in the early days and Vickery’s greatest riesling-making achievements came after Lindemans purchased Chateau Leonay in 1962, a year after the death of 85 year old Leo Buring.
Over a tasting of thirty rieslings back to 1963 in the Barossa last week, Vickery said refrigeration, air-bag presses and bulk carbon-dioxide reticulation systems arrived in time for the 1963 vintage.
These were not all the tools required to make great riesling, but they were sufficient to reduce the risk of oxidation and conduct the controlled, slow, cool ferments that best capture the riesling grape’s delicate aromatics and flavours.
Ferments were still conducted in concrete tanks and there was no centrifuge to separate grape solids from juice prior to fermentation.
However, the gentle extraction of the finest, sweetest juice with air-bag presses, the use of refrigeration and a combination of carbon dioxide blanketing, with additions of ascorbic acid all improved flavour retention to ‘a marked degree’.
Vickery’s thumbprint can still be seen in those 1963-1970 rieslings. And had a better seal than cork been available all those years ago, all wines of that period might still offer vibrant drinking today.
As it was, several continue to drink magnificently. Leo Buring DWV 12 Eden Valley Rhine Riesling 1966 – of which Vickery said, “… it was always looked up to as the classic, the epitome of Eden Valley riesling… and it still shows breeding” – still delivered wonderful, intense ‘lime’ flavours. What a delight to drink, even though past its peak.
Leo Buring DWW 22 Eden Valley Rhine Riesling 1967 was just superb – fully mature, vibrant, and with a dimension of flavour never seen in young wines. It probably sold for $1 or so on release (a reminder that today’s rieslings as just as big a bargain).
From the 1971 vintage stainless steel tanks and centrifuges gave Vickery even greater control over wine making at Chateau Leonay. This had a beneficial effect not just on limited-production show wines but on cheaper, mass produced rieslings as well.
For me the greatest wine of the tasting was Leo Buring DWB 15 Eden Valley Rhine Riesling 1972. At 25 years of age it still looks, smells and tastes young and fresh but with an extraordinary intensity. It still pops up at auction from time to time for around $100.
Such magnificence overshadowed the two wines preceding it in the tasting: Leo Buring Bin 33 Black Label, vintages 1972 and 1973. But both are still alive and well (especially the 1972) and stunning when you think these were the bargain-basement whites of their day.
Wines of the seventies contributed greatly to Vickery’s impressive white-wine show-award tally (to date) of 50 Trophies and 400 Gold Medals and, at the Barossa tasting, these Leo Buring riesling wines put a particularly big smile on my face: WD E17 Eden Valley 1975 and DW G 37 Watervale 1977.
The eighties, generally, showed weaker than the seventies and Vickery confirmed that there were some problems in the vineyards in that era, particularly in a lack of irrigation.
But Leonay DW U13 Watervale 1991 (the last of the Leo Buring wines made at Chateau Leonay before Southcorp sold the winery to Orlando-Wyndham and the name was changed to Richmond Grove) showed its class.
Vickery joined Orlando Wyndham in 1993 and from 1994 we have enjoyed his special riesling touch in Richmond Grove wines from Watervale and the Barossa Valley.
One of my highest scored wines of the day was Richmond Grove Watervale Riesling 1994, a delicate white pulsing with the vibrant, fresh, intense flavours unique to this sub-region of Clare.
John Vickery’s legacy goes beyond the modestly priced Richmond Grove wines we enjoy today. He revealed the riesling grape’s great potential in Australia. And, in turn, greatly influenced how riesling is made in this country.
To a large degree, we can thank Vickery for the amazingly high riesling quality we enjoy today. And we can thank god that it remains bargain-priced as our other top wines move out of reach.
March 23rd, 1997
As I write – waiting for the hotline from Coonawarra to ring – grape growers and wine makers sweat as they wait to hear where the line might be drawn around our most famous wine region.
Locals were expecting the Geographic Indications Committee’s (GIC) interim determination on Wednesday March 19. By the time this article goes to press the statement may have been issued.
From the time of the interim determination’s issue, interested parties have three months to speak up.
Were there no obstacles to setting the boundary (proposed to the GIC by a joint committee of Coonawarra’s Grape Growers and Winemakers Associations) a final determination could then be gazetted, followed by another three months commentary period, followed by entry of the region into the Register of Protected Names.
Even then, the matter may be taken further – to the Administrative Review Tribunal and, finally, to the Federal Court.
With so many shades of opinion and conflicting interests surrounding where Coonawarra’s boundaries ought to be, it was not surprising to find on a visit there last week a reluctance by locals to spell out the details that wine drinkers want to know.
No one had a map showing the new boundary and no one was willing to talk on the record about who the objectors to the boundary were likely to be. But much of the boundary debate is old news.
As I understand it, the boundary proposed by Coonawarra’s grape growers and wine makers retreats considerably inside the 32 kilometre (north-south) by 16 kilometre (east-west) rectangle decided on by the Viticultural Council of the South East in 1984 and reaffirmed in 1991.
I understand that the boundary retreats marginally south of the old northern boundary, tapers fairly sharply towards the south (mainly on the eastern side, less so on the west) rather than following the old rectangle, reaching a point just south of Peter Rymill’s new vineyard to the south of Penola township.
The proposed boundary almost certainly embraces more than just the central ‘terra rossa’ soil strip associated with Coonawarra’s great wines.
Wherever the line is drawn, someone’s going to be just on the wrong side of it. Not and easy task, and so much at stake.
It looks as if Brian Croser’s ‘Sharefarmers’ vineyard is to remain outside the region. Will he protest? He has certainly argued strongly to be included. And ‘Sharefarmers’ wines now feature the word ‘Coonawarra’ on the label.
The vineyard was planted in 1983 quite literally across the road from the northern boundary declared in 1984.
Writing to me in 1992, Croser said, “… the implication left hanging in the public mind is that the only true terra rossa is in the main Coonawarra strip, that the whole of the strip is terra rossa and that all vineyards planted outside the main strip are planted on black soil. … The Coonawarra controversy is not an argument of quality. It is an argument of land and wine prices…”
Clearly, Croser has much at stake in the debate. But what if he were admitted to Coonawarra. Would Mildara Blass then want ‘Robertson’s Well’ vineyard included? It’s just a little north of ‘Sharefarmers’.
And if Robertson’s Well were let in, might not Koppamurra, BRL Hardy, Yalumba, Alambie, the Meyer family and other vineyard owners in the vicinity want in, too?
Then there’s the Mulligan and Tyrrell’s St Mary’s Vineyard on the Cave Range, about 15 kilometres west of Coonawarra. ‘The Australian & New Zealand Wine Industry Directory’ gives the vineyard location as Coonawarra. Does this mean that Mulligan and Tyrrell, too, intend staking a claim?
Whatever the outcome of the controversy, as a wine seller, marketer, consumer and commentator, I wish to go on record as supporting a tighter rather than looser boundary for Coonawarra and, eventually, the definition of a classic red sub-region within that boundary.
Coonawarra’s reputation and value spring from the unique, strong but elegant red wines produced from quite a limited area over a considerable period.
Other geologically and climatically similar areas nearby show equally exciting promise. But these areas are not yet proven. And in the eyes of consumers here and overseas, they are not Coonawarra.
The vast Limestone Coast, on which Coonawarra is just one dot, is about to become the biggest premium wine region in Australia. By 2001 its output should reach about 6.5 million dozen bottles – 1.6 million more than second ranking Barossa’s 4.9 million case production.
Coonawarra should account for one third of that, Padthaway for another third. The other third, including those on the periphery of Coonawarra, must find and build their own names.
March 30th, 1997
The raging boundary debate – still unresolved by the way – doesn’t distract Coonawarra from its main task – making sensationally good red wines. And despite big increases in planting, there still is not enough to go around.
The faces of disappointed traders are longer than the queues of smiling cellar-door customers. Boots are filled while order books remain empty. For the trader, the request for “just a pallet or two” earns a vacant look from the vigneron and an apologetic “next year” or “maybe three or four years from now”.
Standing in the mild autumn sun, four weeks from vintage, Kirsty Balnaves and wine maker Peter Bissell tell me there are buyers willing to pay now for this year’s and next year’s grapes.
For the Balnaves family the choice is no longer one of who gets the grapes but of whether or not to sell the grapes at all. Like so many wine-grape growers across Australia, the Balnaves turned to wine making several years ago as demand for high-quality regional specialties grew.
Initially part of the crop was contract-made into wine to be sold under Balnaves label through one of the smartest-looking cellar door outlets in Coonawarra (immediately to the south of Bowen Estate).
In 1996 an equally smart, state-of-the-art winery joined the cellar-door facility. And the Balnaves lured Peter Bissell from Wynns Coonawarra Estate to make the 1996 vintage and ‘finish’ the 1995 reds, then undergoing barrel maturation.
Balnaves wines were always reasonably good. But as drinkers we will very quickly see benefits flowing from having a wine maker of Bissell’s experience on hand. It gives so much more control than contracting the job out.
Even though Bissell didn’t make the 1995 reds, it’s clear that he’s been very selective in putting together the final blends. The results, to my taste, are greater concentration of flavour, more vibrance and a better structure than was apparent in earlier vintages, despite the general weakness of the 1995 vintage.
And the 1996s, though still in barrel, show a brilliant sweetness and strength, reflecting both the superior qualities of the vintage, and Bissell’s winemaking skills and experience in Coonawarra.
Bissell relates each barrel of wine back to its precise origin on Balnave’s 42-hectare vineyard. Over time, this should give a clearer understanding of the relationship of site to wine quality.
This, in turn, will influence vineyard-management practice and, ultimately, wine quality. As Doug Balnaves said, “Now we’ll be able to see the effect on wine of all the different things we try in the vineyard.”
For the drinker it’s reassuring to know that Balnaves direction is to be a highly selective expression of one vineyard towards the southern end of Coonawarra’s terra rossa strip.
Indeed, as other growers turn to wine making (Majella and Wetherall, for example) and yet others segment production and branding according to vineyard site, we are likely to see Coonawarra revealed in all its shades and hues.
Much of Coonawarra’s production goes into multi-vineyard blends like the Wynns Coonawarra Estate Range reviewed here several weeks back. Such blends offer tremendous value to consumers and set a style standard for Coonawarra overall.
What the smaller makers and individual vineyard wines offer are variations on that theme – partly derived from the vineyard site; partly from vineyard management; and partly from winemaking practice.
But, in the long run, site is likely to be the most important – certainly the most enduring – contributor to wine style, even within the apparently homogenised, flat, tightly clustered vineyards of Coonawarra.
There is more variation than you would think just zipping through Coonawarra’s 15-kilometre length at 110 kilometres and hour.
The emergence of more cellar door facilities and an increasing number of grower labels makes the journey there more enjoyable and rewarding than ever before. We can now smell and taste the variations both small and large and buy wines that may never see a bottle shop outside the region.
To all the familiar old brands we’ve seen added to the palate of flavours in recent years Balnaves, Wetherall, Majella, Punter’s Corner and a new red from the Leconfield cellar “Richard Hamilton Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon” based on a new 4 hectare vineyard on the main road next to Hollicks.
As well there are the individual vineyard wines, Limestone Ridge and St George from Lindemans, and the super Coonawarra’s like Wynns John Riddoch Cabernet and Michael Shiraz and Hollick’s Ravenswood. These are blends, but pretty much from the same very special blocks each year.
As Coonawarra’s global status grows this tendency to identify wines with an individual block or blocks of grapes seems likely to increase. But there might also be immense pressure to increase output of some labels by blending wine from the fringes of Coonawarra or elsewhere.
In my view this must inevitably lead to the definition of high-quality sub-regions within Coonawarra to protect consumers and hard-earned reputations.
Hunter based Tyrrells Winery is one of a handful of large-scale, family-owned wineries to have prospered during the intense rationalisation of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
In that period 80 per cent of Australia’s wine-production capacity coalesced into the hands of just four producers: Southcorp Wines, BRL Hardy Ltd, Orlando Wyndham Group Pty Ltd and Mildara Blass Ltd.
Of the family-owned companies large enough to be household names, McWilliams and De Bortoli appear to be the largest. But Brown Bros, Tyrrells, Rosemount and Miranda are all widely distributed and offer a broad range of products. Each company, of course, has its own personality.
Tyrrell’s identity is closely tied to the Hunter. The family’s been making wine there since 1858, and the winery has one of the most lovely sites of any – on a gentle slope set against the rugged Brokenback Range.
But Tyrrells is no longer tied only to the Hunter. The large scale Long Flat and Old Winery brands demand wider grape sourcing. The Old Winery brand, driven by strong export as well as domestic growth, demands reliable sourcing of high-quality material. Hence, Tyrrells acquisition or establishment of vineyards in other areas.
Bruce Tyrrell says the company owns 140 hectares of vineyards in the lower Hunter, 93 hectares in the upper Hunter, 25 hectares on the Liverpool Plains at Quirindi, NSW, 16 hectares at Heathcote, Victoria, 40 hectares in McLaren Vale, SA, and the 24 hectare St Marys Vineyard near Coonawarra.
These contribute to one of the most varied, interesting and best ranges of wine produced by any Australian wine maker. The Tyrrell flavour spectrum takes our palates from the reliable $6.99 Long Flat Red and Long Flat White to the profound, idiosyncratic wonders of the $35 a bottle Vat 1 Semillon, Vat 9 Shiraz, Vat 6 Pinot Noir, and Vat 47 Pinot Chardonnay.
The Long Flat wines offer tasty reliable drinking. Some may find the ‘dry’ white a touch sweet. But its sheer popularity says that’s what many folk want. The red, offers rich, soft fruit flavour – not to sniff and savour – just tasty pleasant quaffing.
The Old Winery range (around $13) offers much richer flavours. As a whole, quality suggests a sophistication of wine making and fruit sourcing that is normally the domain of the larger companies.
Old Winery Semillon 1996 delivers generous pure Semillon flavour and a lively freshness; Chardonnay Semillon 1996 is fatter, with chardonnay’s buttery richness and semillon’s ‘lemon’ tang; Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 1996, a Hunter/McLaren Vale blend is a scrummy, juicy drop combining the ‘lemon’ crispness of semillon and the fleshy zip of McLaren Vale sauvignon blanc; Chardonnay 1996 (mainly Hunter with dabs from Quirindi and South Australia) is flavour packed and great value.
Old Winery Shiraz 1995 shows more complexity and character than many reds at the price. Fermentation in open vats, hand plunging of skins, maturation of various components in small oak and large vats and the inclusion of McLaren Vale and Coonawarra material, all add to the wine’s earthy richness. This is a big softy to drink now.
Old Winery Pinot Noir 1996 is one of the few mid-priced pinots worth drinking. Too often this recalcitrant grape makes insipid, raspberry-cordial wines. But Tyrrell’s decades of pioneering work with this variety (honing the top-shelf Vat 6 Pinot Noir) has had a trickle down effect on the cheaper version. A Hunter, McLaren Vale, Barossa, Coonawarra, Mudgee blend, it delivers the lovely aroma and flavour of pinot noir, while retaining real red-wine character, albeit of a lighter style.
Old Winery Cabernet Merlot 1996, a McLaren Vale, Hunter, Coonawarra blend, features intense ripe-berry flavours, still in the first flush of youth. It’s drinkable now, but another year in bottle should tame the primary fruit flavour and let a little more red-wine character develop.
Tyrrell’s greatest wines, though, continue to be the specialty whites and reds from the lower Hunter Valley. These are unique – and spectacularly good.
Tyrrells Vat 1 Semillon 1996, austere and tightly structured should evolve into the marvellously ‘honeyed’ and ‘toasty’ glory of the about to be re released 1992 – a great example of the legendary but often elusive Hunter semillon style.
Vat 47 1996 is surely one of the loveliest chardonnays on the market. The story of its evolution was told in this column last year. It’s a great wine by any measure with amazingly rich-but-fine fruit and beautiful oak.
Vat 9 Shiraz 1993 captures the earthy, highly distinctive Hunter style perfectly and, as well, there is now a range of superb lower Hunter individual vineyard wines: Fordwich Verdelho 1996, Moon Mountain Chardonnay 1996, Shee-Oak Chardonnay 1996 and Lost Block Semillon 1996.
Bruce Brown, Southcorp’s New South Wales’ Viticultural Manager, says his company’s New South Wales annual grape intake should jump from 12,500 tonnes to 52,000 tonnes over the next five years, underlining just how important vineyards along NSW’s Great Divide are to be to the fine wine industry next century.Eliminating grapes from other areas from those figures, Southcorp’s increased crush from the Great Divide could be in the order of 20,000 tonnes a year – equivalent to 1.4 million dozen 750 ml bottles.
That’s only Southcorp’s figures. They’re a major player, but by no means the biggest in two (Mudgee and Cowra) of the three really large areas now emerging as the hottest viticultural spots on the Great Divide: Mudgee, Molong-Orange, and Cowra.
By my estimates, five years from now should see an annual output of around 1.75 million cases of wine from Mudgee, 900 thousand from Molong-Orange and 1.5 million from Cowra. As well, we can expect significant contributions from Forbes, Young, Harden, Gundagai, Canberra District, Tumbarumba and possibly other as yet unexplored sites.
The unprecedented vineyard expansion appears to be driven mainly by a global shortage of premium red wine and Australia’s continued export success (exports reached $550 million in 1996).
While major wine companies have pumped tens of millions of dollars into vineyard expansion in recent years, the success of the industry has attracted investors from many new sources.
In some cases, existing landowners (like the Cowra O’Deas and Tumbarumba Bells) saw a brighter future in grape growing than in wheat and Simmental cattle and tobacco respectively.
They and other families have been prepared to risk upfront capital investments in the order of $20,000 a hectare in the belief that high-quality wine grapes offer good long-term returns.
Larger investors have spotted opportunities, too. I reported last year on Mudgee Vineyards’ 200 hectare planting – the first of three similar size blocks in the Mudgee area with another 400 hectares to be planted somewhere between Mudgee and Harden.
Then, after another visit to Mudgee two weeks back, Bruce Brown showed me what the entrepreneurial spirit could achieve. We drove west from Mudgee to Wellington, then south through Mumbil and Stuart Town.
After kilometres of wide brown land, we reached “Little Boomey”, just north of Molong. Here, amongst the sheep paddocks, rolls a vast, brand new, bright green vineyard.
It’s a big development by any measure. Rod Lyon, vineyard manager, says 153 hectares were planted in 1995, 124 in 1996 and there are plans to establish another 180 this year.
Ian Britton, Business Development Manager for Central Highlands Management (the company managing Little Boomey) estimates an annual wine output of around 450,000 cases by the time all vines come into bearing.
Following global consumption trends, the plantings are in a ratio of about 80 red to 20 white. Red varieties, in hectares, are: cabernet sauvignon 149, merlot 47, shiraz 176 and whites: chardonnay 53, marsanne 10, sauvignon blanc 10, verdelho 10, semillon 10.
By Britton’s reckoning, the Molong-Orange area currently has around 500 hectares of vines in the ground with another 380 due to go in this year. Assuming average production of 14 tonnes of grapes to the hectare, that gives the region a wine-production potential of around 900 thousand cases a year.
Little Boomey was the brainchild of Peter Poolman, who had been on the land at Canowindra and Wagga before launching an agri-business consultancy.
Spotting an opportunity in wine grapes, Peter bought Little Boomey (after expert advice gave it the nod as a vineyard site), then marshaled the financial and technical resources to develop it.
Ian Britton tells me Southcorp’s chief wine maker, John Duval and head viticulturist, Andrew Pike and others gathered on a rise overlooking the vineyard site, all excited by its potential.
The Southcorp involvement was crucial, not just in confirming the potential of the site but also in signing contracts on the grapes.
The land is owned by Peter Poolman’s company ‘Snowleaf’ and managed by a subsidiary, Central Highlands Management. Capital for the development was raised from hundreds of smaller investors in a tax-driven scheme that sees ownership revert to Poolman’s company after investors lease vines for 15 years.
The locals, of course, are delighted by the development. It has become a major employer in the area. And it shows that there may be money to made on the land despite the decline of wool and wheat. As well, we can assume much of Little Boomey’s output will eventually head to export markets after considerable value adding in the wine making, packaging and marketing processes.
February 23rd, 1997
A NEW ITALIA IN A SOUTHERN LAND
Is it fanciful to imagine New South Wales’ Great Divide a hundred years from now as a new Italia – a sunburned southern landscape dotted with vivid green vineyards on hill tops and slopes, from Mudgee in the north to Tumbarumba in the south?
The vision appears to be taking shape as vineyards large and small push sheep, cattle, wheat, cherries, tobacco and vegetables from a remarkably varied landscape.
There’s suitable land galore. And, although water is a limiting factor, wine makers can choose a site to suit production of particular grape varieties and wine styles.
From Mudgee to Tumbarumba, a spread of about 3 degrees of latitude, countless soil types, aspects, altitudes ranging from about 100 metres to 900 metres, and, in Tumbarumba’s case, the proximity of the Snowy Mountains, gives wine makers a remarkable range of climates to produce an equally varied palate of grape flavours.
Mudgee’s full-bodied reds and whites, grown at about 450 metres, contrast with the intensity and elegance of those emerging from the slopes of Mount Canobolas, Orange, 900 metres above sea level.
And the reds and whites from nearby Little Boomey, Molong (discussed here last week), grown at 600 metres, are sure to be different again. Shiraz, in particular, should do particularly well here, where it wouldn’t have a chance on cool Conobolas.
A little to the south, Cowra’s broad-acre vineyards sit between 300-350 metres. The extra heat at this lower altitude means earlier ripening than we see at Orange and generally fuller bodied wines. Generously flavoured chardonnays have been the area’s main output until now, but verdelho is proving another reliable variety.
The jury is still out on Cowra reds, but with renewed efforts by the area’s largest producer, Richmond Grove, and other growers, we may see good, full-bodied styles emerging.
Just a short drive south to Young, with vineyards at 500-540 metres, reds thrive. Mc Williams wine maker Jim Brayne says the area’s shiraz “… is absolutely sensational.”
Who can argue? McWilliam’s 109-hectare Barwang Vineyard consistently makes outstanding cabernet sauvignon and even better shiraz. The current release 1994′s have been voted, respectively, best value red in Australia (Penguin Wine Guide) and best New South Wales red.
McWilliams is by far the biggest producer in Young, but we noted recently the strong performance in the Canberra District Wine Show of Robert Provan and Pam Gillespie’s Demondrille Vineyard. And Brian Mullany, cousin of our editor, established, between 1990 and 1996, 40 hectares of vines, mainly contracted to Southcorp. There are others, too, and these will be covered in a future article.
South again to Gundagai, and we find Tom Robertson’s 6 hectare chardonnay vineyard planted at about 200 metres. The first vintage, 1996, was so impressive Southcorp decided to release a special Gundagai Chardonnay under Hungerford Hill’s New South Wales regional label. Watch for it.
It may be a while before vines prove a stronger tourist attraction than the dog on the tucker box. But viticultural guru Dr John Gladstones hints of a vinous future for the area ” … Localities with best temperatures for viticulture would include the ridge of hills running from Gundagai to a little west of Cootamundra… “. There are vine prospectors searching them thar hills as I write.
Pushing south from the Murrumbidgee Valley towards the Snowies, past Tumut and Batlow, we find yet another viticultural environment around Tumbarumba.
Southcorp’s 28 hectare vineyard, developed as a specialist sparkling wine source by Ian Cowell in the early 1980s, sits on a fertile plateau, 720 metres above sea level, a few kilometres north west of Tumbarumba.
Excess vine vigour and spring frosts present severe challenges to vineyard manager, Shane Howard. This season, for instance, 60 per cent of the crop was wiped out by a November frost.
However, when the gods smile, the vineyard produces wine with the exceptional intensity and finesse produced only under cool ripening conditions. Wine maker Ian McKenzie says Tumbarumba produces stunning pinot noir and chardonnay sparkling wine. And I’ve tasted promising samples of table wines made from the same varieties.
You can get a glimpse of the vineyard’s special qualities in Hungerford Hill Tumbarumba Sauvignon Blanc 1996 – a lovely wine that easily bears comparison with the best from Marlborough, New Zealand.
There are private growers in the area, too, including Frank and Chris Minutello, Ian and Jane Bell’s brand new 12.5 hectare planting at 430 metres on their Willow Vale property in the beautiful Maragle Valley, and Denis and Jane Boyd at Pine Grove on the river flats near Tooma.
All these and many more developments along the Great Divide promise a whole new spectrum of flavours for next century’s wine drinkers.
Thanks to a global shortage of premium red wine, prices are likely to continue rising. But before ever-bigger price tags tempt us to temperance, there is some compensation in ever-increasing quality and the widening palette of flavours offered by Australian wine makers.
An early January tasting of 107 Australian reds led to these conclusions:
1. Quality generally is outstanding. 69 of the 107 reds tasted rated bronze medal or higher scores. 24 achieved silver or gold medal ratings.
2. Some quite strong regional identities are emerging and we are seeing affinities for particular grape varieties from some regions.
3. Vineyards along the western slopes of New South Wales’ Great Dividing Range are becoming a source of premium reds. Two of the best wines in the tasting came from Orange and Mudgee respectively. There were strong showings, too, from Cowra and Young.
4. We may yet see premium reds from the Riverina area. Two Creswick Estate reds (Shiraz 1995 and Cabernet Merlot 1995) scored well as flavoursome, affordable reds. They were not up with the best, but they offer value and better quality than we normally associate with the region.
5. Oak plays a major role in the flavour and structure of our reds. Oak is generally well used to complement flavour and aroma, but sometimes it intrudes on fruit flavour and regional character.
6. As a generalisation, 1995 vintage reds are shadows of their normal selves. There are a few beauties, but try before you buy.
Not surprisingly, producers generally seem to be taking advantage of the wine shortage. It is difficult to find a decent red that is not fully priced.
However, with the big companies now publicly owned and seeking respectable returns to shareholders, the price gap between their wines and those of smaller makers appears to have closed. The big companies continue to make some of the best wines, but they are not selling them at a discount.
Luckily for consumers, while producer margins appear fatter than ever, retailers still fight for every sale they get. Thus, the better known a brand is, the more likely that retailers will cut margins on it to flag what good value they’re offering.
It pays to shop around! And when it comes to the classics (eg: Wynns and Penfolds reds) the best time to shop is immediately after release. This is when retailer discounting peaks. Despite rationing of these wines, they are invariably offered at or near cost by the most aggressive sellers.
Penfolds Bin 28 and Bin 128 1993, for example, now retail for around $17 a bottle. But when they were released earlier last year, several outlets discounted them to $11.99 when bought by the dozen.
With small-maker wines, it is not uncommon to find cellar door prices below those of retail stores. A quick phone call to the cellar may save you money.
In my January tastings, I tried to assemble only wines currently available from their makers. Hence, many old favourites were not included. These then were my selections from a pleasingly varied bunch.
The absolute knock-out wines in terms of sheer strength and concentration of flavour were: Tollana Eden Valley Show Shiraz 1993; St Hallett Old Block Barossa Shiraz 1993; Reynolds Orange Cabernet Sauvignon 1994; Rosemount Estate Orange Cabernet Sauvignon 1993; Plantagenet Mount Barker Cabernet Sauvignon 1994; Rosemount Estate Reserve Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 1994; and Rosemount Estate Mountain Blue Mudgee Shiraz Cabernet 1994.
Just a whisker behind and offering similar style diversity were: Redman Coonawarra Cabernet Merlot 1993; Majella Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 1994; Oakridge Yarra Valley Cabernet Merlot 1994; Hungerford Hill Young/Cowra Cabernet Sauvignon 1994; Barossa Valley Estates Moculta Shiraz 1995; Evans and Tate Margaret River Merlot 1994; Mc Williams Rosehill Hunter Valley Shiraz 1991; Hardys Bankside McLaren Vale Shiraz 1994; Rosemount Estate McLaren Vale Shiraz 1994; Barwang Young Shiraz 1994; Barwang Young Cabernet Sauvignon 1994; Mildara Robertson’s Well Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 1994; and Mitchelton Goulburn River Shiraz 1994.
Amongst the less expensive commercial reds, McWilliams Mount Pleasant Philip Shiraz 1991 stood out for its idiosyncratic, gamy, earthy Hunter style. It’s one to love or hate. I loved it. my two tasting companions hated it. But for those who love stinky, old-style Hunter reds this one’s a bottle-aged bargain at $10-$12.