Mitchell — a great Clare Estate

Mitchell’s of Clare have made extraordinarily good wines consistently since 1975, when Jane and Andrew Mitchell kicked off the venture. I first tasted the wines in the late seventies and have enjoyed them every year since – on the tasting bench, with meals and on all-too-rare visits to the winery. It’s a sustained and impressive performance.

The Mitchell’s drew inspiration from Andrew’s father, Peter McNicol Mitchell, who’d arrived in Clare to grow grapes in 1949. “His hard work”, writes Andrew on one of his back labels, “provided the ideal foundation for the vineyard, cellars and winemaking philosophy which Jane and I have spent most of our lives developing”.

From a small start in 1975, the Mitchell’s now crush 500–700 tonnes of grapes annually, equivalent to around 35–50 thousand dozen bottles. This makes them pretty big as small winemakers go. But they’ve stuck to their knitting and produce nothing but Clare Valley wines, principally from their own vineyards but with some material from local growers.

The Mitchell’s riesling and shiraz (Clare’s signature varieties) always rank with the best from the region. But they produce several other convincing styles, including semillon, cabernet sauvignon and a unique grenache, sangiovese, mourvedre blend.

The current releases include two rieslings, Watervale 2008 from the Mitchell’s Watervale vineyard in southern Clare, and McNicol 2005 from a cooler, higher site (500 metres versus 420 metres) to the north.

It’s the first release of the McNicol 2005 so for comparison we opened it alongside a bottle of the 2005 Watervale. They were both fresh and lively but the Watervale was half a shade deeper in colour than the McNicol and a little rounder, softer and more mature on the palate – a delicious wine, but notably different from the brisk, taut, very concentrated McNicol.

Given similar winemaking approaches, the subtle aroma and flavour differences express the two different sites. Presumably that’s driven largely by altitude and, hence, ripening temperature. But different soil types probably play a role, too – stony quartzite at the McNicol site and red loam over limestone at Watervale.

The McNicol represents excellent value at $42 for a beautiful five-year-old riesling. The 2005 Watervale is no longer available. But the 2008 is outstanding – in the Mitchell’s comparatively full, ripe and richly textured style. Like the 2005 it should continue to drink well as it matures over years – perhaps for a decade.

Semillon’s long and, at times, successful history in the Clare Valley probably had its heyday was when it was labelled ‘white burgundy’. It continues to make a delicious wine but for reasons unknown the word ‘semillon’ now seems to turn wine drinkers off.

It’s a pity because several Clare growers, including Mitchell and Mount Horrocks, make appealing, satisfying versions. The just-released Mitchell Watervale 2007 uses wild-yeast ferment and French oak to great effect. The technique captures the appealing lemon-like varietal character of the variety, builds a rich, smooth texture and inserts a sympathetic note of oak flavour. It’s vibrant and enjoyable now and ought to age well for many years. And showing semillon’s versatility, Mitchell Noble Semillon 2006 ($20 for 375ml) shows the variety’s sweet but dazzling face, overlaid with apricot and marmalade-like notes of botrytis cinerea (noble rot).

The Mitchell reds all come with a little bottle age. That’s rare and it adds a lot to their enjoyment. The modestly priced GSM, for example, comes from the excellent 2005 vintage. It’s an unoaked blend of grenache, sangiovese and mourvedre sourced from very old hand-pruned vines. Exuberant grenache forms the base but it’s restrained by small amounts of savoury, tannic sangiovese and mourvedre – resulting in a lively, fruity, maturing red with a fine-boned but assertive tannic bite. $22 is a small price to pay for a wine of this calibre.

The two shirazes in the release are from the 2006 and 2001 vintages. Mitchell Peppertree Shiraz 2006, from Watervale, is crimson-rimmed and fragrant with succulent varietal flavour reminiscent of ripe-black-cherry (with a little black-pepper in the background).

The screwcap sealed McNicol Shiraz 2001 ($45) reveals its extra five years bottle age in its colour (red, not crimson like the 2006) and that indescribable, satisfying shift from ‘grape-like to ‘red-wine-like’. A deep, sweet fruitiness remains (that’s the core of the wine) but there’s now a mellow edge that adds immensely to the drinking pleasure. But it’s only just entering that mellow phase, so it’s likely to give pleasure for another decade or more.

The Mitchell wines are well distributed, so they shouldn’t be too hard to find. They’re also available at cellar – a must-visit if you visit the Clare Valley. See www.mitchellwines.com

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009

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