Yearly Archives: 1992

Book review: The Great Domaines of Burgundy By Remington Norman with a foreword by Michael Broadbent, $90, Kyle Cathic Ltd, London, 1992

The lights at Chateau Shanahan burned late on deadline eve this week. Remington Norman’s just-released The Great Domaines of Burgundy, a guide to the finest wine producers of the Cote d’Or (286 pages, Kyle Cathic Ltd, London, 1992) proved the best, if somewhat heavy reading since Hugh Johnson’s The Story of Wine was released two years ago.

While Johnson’s studious book takes a broad look at wine from the earliest times to the present, Norman’s focuses in considerable detail on just one region – Burgundy – in the present time.

And while it is packed full of facts and figures, a little turgid in parts, its origins are firmly from the British romantic school of wine writing. The hallmarks of this school (the contemporary head of it being Hugh Johnson) are a scholarly approach underpinned by a deep love of the topic that wells up time and again. These are writers who love wine, love discourse on it, but, finally, see it as product to be drunk and enjoyed.

In contrast, we have the harsh, put-a-spot-light-on-it-dissect-it-and-give-it-points-out-of-a-hundred approach of the Americans. Winemakers love and fear the leader of this school, Robert M. Parker, as a high score from him virtually guarantees success in the U.S. market.

Parker is confident and fearless enough to rate every wine he comes across on his own absolute scale of 100 points. To some, the concept of an individual achieving credible results, especially on such a small scale, is ludicrous. So, from Parker we see page after page of turgid tasting notes and a point score that falls short of being the absolute measure of quality it claims to be. $5 and $10 chardonnays, for example, come uncomfortably close in score to great White Burgundies at $100 – not a true measure of the quality difference.

On the positive side, Parker’s fearless approach, which I suppose is in the democratic ‘free speech’ tradition of American journalism, admits unknown wines and helps in breaking down the worst aspects of the myth that all French wines are necessarily better than all other wines. Winemakers of the new world, including those from Australia, owe some of their success in the United States to Parker.

Yet I read Parker and don’t feel inspired to go out and enjoy a good bottle as I do after reading Johnson, Broadbent, Forbes, or Arlott (yes, the late cricket commentator), to name just a few of the British romantics.

Remington Norman’s book deals with a topic dear to his heart – dear to the heart of anyone fortunate enough to have drunk good genuine Burgundy, either red or white. That’s a luxury now with world demand and a weak dollar having pushed the price of the best well over $100 a bottle. But Burgundy’s importance to wine lovers goes beyond

its own production as virtually every pinot noir and chardonnay made anywhere in the world is modeled on Burgundy.

While it’s a serious and substantial book to be devoured by Burgundy lovers, the reader unfamiliar with Burgundy will also come to grips with this most complex of all wine-growing regions. Perhaps the only criticism I can make in this regard is that while the maps of Burgundy’s many communes are good, there is no map showing where Burgundy sits in France. That would have been very helpful for beginners. Still, it’s no great difficulty to look up Beaune or Dijon in an Atlas.

An excellent foreword from Michael Broadbent precedes a pithy introduction from Norman. Then follows a commune (parish) by commune description (with maps) of the Cote d’Or (the central strip of Burgundian vineyard from Dijon in the north to Santenay in the south).

Each commune description is followed by a fairly detailed analysis of ‘Domaines’ associated with that commune. As ‘Domaines’ (winemaking operations with ownership of vineyards) are generally seen as the makers of the greatest Burgundies, descriptions of 111 such adds up to a fair snapshot of modern Burgundy.

For beginners, the last forty pages should be read before proceeding into the commune and Domaine descriptions. Here you’ll find chapters on appellation, climate, soil, the two Burgundian grape varieties, pinot noir and chardonnay, vine maintenance, oak barrels and maturation, winemaking, marketing of Burgundy, tasting, as well as a bibliography, vintage guide from 1945 to 1991 and a glossary of terms.

It’s not only a good read, but attractively laid out as well, with magnificent colour photography from Jenny Price. The Great Domaines of Burgundy has a recommended retail price of $90 and I’m told by the distributors that it’s been ordered by Angus and Robertson, Collins, and Dymocks.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007

Sparkling wines

With the long expected fall in the Australian dollar now on us, we can kiss many imported wines good bye. Real non-vintage Champagne, for example, can still be sniffed out, occasionally, on special for between $30 and $35 a bottle.

In that price range, though, we’re looking at someone’s distress sale and invariably at stock brought into the country a long time ago – quite often long enough for the Champagne to have lost one of its key ingredients – freshness.

By my calculation, the landed cost to an importer of non-vintage Champagne, after sales tax and licence fee, is now about $37 a bottle. Add to that two profit margins, the wholesaler’s and the retailer’s, and it’s hard to see the average price falling under $70 a bottle in normal circumstances. Even distress sales are likely to see prices move quickly from the present $30 -$35 to $40 -$45 a bottle range.

It’s easy to predict that Champagne sales, already flagging, will now collapse totally, wiping out all the peripheral brands and leaving what’s left of the market to the strong, well capitalised Houses with equally strong distributors.

That, of course, opens a large window of opportunity for producers of high quality Australian and New Zealand sparkling wine. The window has been ajar for a few years now, and our makers have been piling through it, but now it’s open wider than ever.

But, more than a weak dollar, Australian winemakers created their own opportunities. Large investments in dedicated vineyards and hard-won winemaking skills are behind the steady rise in quality of our best sparkling wines.

Over the last few years increasing numbers of consumers have come to view Australia’s better ‘methode champenoise’ wines on a par with non-vintage French Champagne. The French cause has not been helped, either, by the sometimes-variable quality of its non-vintage product. A year in Australia’s hot climate does nothing for a delicate wine like Champagne. And with the bigger Houses buying a good deal of Champagne ‘sur latte’ (already made and bottled) from Co-operatives, I feel Australia has sometimes got the short end of the stick anyway.

By early October, well ahead of the silly season, I plan to assess all of our top bubblies in a single comparative line-up and will report back immediately.

In the meantime, a tasting conducted by wholesalers Tucker and Company in Sydney this week offered a glimpse of very good Australian, New Zealand, American, and French bubblies widely distributed amongst the retail, hotel, and restaurant trade in Australia.

With Veuve Clicquot now controlling the Cape Mentelle (Margaret River, W.A.)-Cloudy Bay (Marlborough, N.Z.) group you’d expect a reasonable flavour from its widely publicised new ‘Pelorus’ 1988 methode champenoise from New Zealand. At $31 I believe it’s overpriced in relation to the best Australia makes, but the wine is distinctive with quite full, rounded pinot noir flavours. (David Hohnen tells me the blend is about 60 per cent pinot noir, the balance chardonnay).

For sheer intensity of fruit flavour Croser 1990 leaves Pelorus, and just about any other bubbly, in its wake. Where Pelorus bears a superficial resemblance to the French product, Croser is totally, utterly Australian despite its being, like Pelorus, a 60 per cent pinot-40 per cent chardonnay blend.

Croser’ 1990 shows yet again just how magnificent the 1990 vintage was in South Australia. And it bears Brian Croser’s winemaking hallmarks…cleanliness, finesse, and delicacy. You can enjoy Croser 1990 now for its pure fruit flavours. But later releases will, I believe, be even better as the wine takes on greater ‘champagne’ character from further maturation in contact with the yeast lees. (I tasted evidence of that in a 1987 vintage especially disgorged for the tasting). Croser, a-state-of-the- art bubbly is worth its $26 a bottle.

Croser’s Argyle Brut 1987, from his venture in the Willamette Valley (Oregon, U.S. A.) doesn’t pack the same punch as his Australian wine, but it’s a first vintage and bound to increase in flavour with later vintages. However, coming from such a cold climate, we should always expect the wines to be more delicate than those from the Adelaide Hills.

The French put in a good showing, too. Bollinger Cuvee Brut Champagne (non vintage) sits on the high side of the pre-devaluation price range at $59. But it is an extraordinary wine – absolutely classic non-vintage French with great freshness, finesse, and an amazing intensity of pinot noir flavour.

If your taste runs to Rose, then Bollinger’s Loire Valley connection, Langlois Chateau’s Cremant Rose Dry NV is terrific value at about $16.

The outlook for Christmas, I’d say, will be Australian bubbly all round unless we grab the best of pre-devaluation French stock now.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007

Riesling’s decline a boon for consumers

It’s only in the past few years the tonnage of chardonnay crushed for winemaking edged ahead of riesling. Yet, in consumer interest expressed through sales of varietally labelled bottles, chardonnay has streaked ahead.

A Nielsen survey of bottled white sales in NSW, Victoria, and South Australia for the twelve months to April, shows chardonnay with 32.1 per cent of the market compared to riesling’s 23.2 per cent – a gap far wider than plantings of the two varieties dictates.

Riesling’s decline in popularity, though, has a beneficial fallout for drinkers. Vast plantings of riesling vines, many in prime growing areas, are still in the ground. So, it follows that the fruit goes somewhere. The stern laws of supply and demand, then, virtually guarantee the consumer a good deal.

It’s no mistake that prices of popular riesling brands such as Wolf Blass, Siegersdorf, and Seaview have tumbled in real terms in the past few years. And when the big brands tumble, wines from the middle-sized producer immediately follow suit, and, with time, even the boutique producer comes under pressure. Thus, an oversupplied market has virtually guaranteed a favourable result for the drinker.

In a masked tasting last week two of the popular wines mentioned above, Seaview and Siegersdorf, were included as benchmarks in a field of rieslings from small wineries. The exercise was planned to identify small makers turning out decent wines. A few did stand out, but it was also clear that Siegersdorf is excellent and totally reliable drinking at around $8 a bottle and Seaview, for $4 to $7, is one of the great white wine bargains of our troubled times.

Before saying more about Seaview and its amazing qualities, there were three small-maker rieslings worthy of a mention. Two local wines, Madews Rhine Riesling 1992, from Queanbeyan, and Lark Hill Rhine Riesling 1991 from the Bungendore escarpment, were outstanding.

Madews wine, about to be released, shows an uncommon intensity and length of flavour with very sharply defined varietal character. The Lark Hill was considerably softer with a pleasing touch of sweetness. The third small-maker wine came from Plunketts Vineyard high up in Victoria’s Strathbogie Ranges.

I was unable to make contact with the Plunketts during the week to find out more about the 1989 Whitegale Rhine Riesling. But the appealing thing about it was the influence of a very cool growing climate on its smell and flavour. In brief it more resembled the gentle, sweet wines of the Rhine Valley than the big, ripe wines we grow here.

Now back to Seaview’s 1991 Rhine Riesling and the reasons for its excellence.

In the tasting, all judges ranked the wine highly. What we all noted were its clean, fresh flavour, very clear rhine riesling flavours, high, crisp acidity, delicacy, and a lingering, dry finish that left the mouth refreshed. All of us ranked it highly and, likewise, we were all surprised to see the label after the points had been awarded.

We were surprised, because cheap rhines normally have telltale aromas and flavours of muscat where the winemaker stretches the blend with a legal addition of other floral grape varieties. As well, mass produced wines don’t normally have such good solid acids giving the wine the backbone this one has.

A call to winemaker Neville Falkenberg confirmed our judgement of the wine. And the news that it has just picked up a gold medal in Brisbane shows there’s something special about it.

Falkenberg’s opening comment tells it all, “. there’s so much good material available”, he said, referring to the Penfold Wine Group’s vast plantings of Rhine Riesling. Not only have they broad acres in the absolute plum Eden and Clare Valleys, but also in the very good Barossa, Coonawarra, McLaren Vale and Padthaway regions, with sprinklings as well in Victoria.

As Falkenberg says, when you’ve got all those fantastic grapes coming in, the last place it will end up is in wine casks.

With few up-market Rhine Riesling brands capable of earning bigger consumer dollars in the group’s portfolio, there really is no alternative to putting those excellent grapes in large-volume commercial blends and taking what the market will pay until times get better.

Falkenberg also points out that Seaview Rhine Riesling has declined from its peak production of around 100,000 cases to an average now of 30,000. Hence, the current blend, he tells me, is predominantly Eden and Clare with a touch of Barossa.

That extra ‘zing’ in the 1991 comes from a naturally low pH level from early picked components in the blend. This is one to buy up and drink over the next five years as it matures.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007

Wine education kit

Judging by the number of high school, college, and university students ringing me for information, Australian winemaking and marketing is a fruitful (and fascinating) ground for research projects.

Answering all the questions is made easier (school, college, and university teachers and librarians please note) with the release this week by the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation of a Wine Industry Education Kit.

In his covering letter with the kit, Chairman George Paciullo says the kit is available free on demand to senior high school and tertiary students, libraries, Austrade representatives and Australian Government officials serving overseas.

The kit won’t get you through a PhD, but it’s a good starting point for most Australian-wine orientated projects. And the wine enthusiast with no academic ambitions whatever will find it of interest.

There’s a brief overview of Australia’s wine history and its size and value today; a broad picture of exports; a glimpse of world wine trade and Australia’s share of it; a look at viticulture and viniculture in Australia; an outline of grape growing and winemaking’s value to the rural economy, the value-added nature of the industry, and the positve impact of exports and import substitution on our balance of trade; social issues are addressed but far too briefly in my view; an introduction to local and global laws and regulations; and the role of various industry bodies are outlined. Finally, there’s a glossary of reference material.

On a global scale, Australia’s wine industry is tiny. In 1990, we accounted for less than one per cent of the world’s wine exports and consumed only one quarter of a per cent of the world’s imports. But to optimists, that’s one reason to believe we can go on with our phenomenal export growth. Brian Croser, Chairman of the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia and head of Petaluma Wines, for instance, told me earlier this year he believes growth in absolute volume will continue (which means a lower rate of growth in percentage terms).

Indeed, the picture for exports and import substitution appears rosy when compared to the situation ten years ago.

In June, 1982 imports of wine to Australia outweighed exports. About 9 million litres worth $23.5 million dollars came in while 8.4 million litres worth $13.9 million went out.

A similar pattern continued through the early eighties, with import litres peaking at 13.1 million in 1985. Imports in those years were fuelled by a shortage of certain varieties in Australia, but more importantly, a very strong Aussie dollar. It’s no surprise that imports peaked in 1985, because that’s the year our dollar peaked against European currencies, reaching, for example, more than 8 French Francs to the dollar. It collapsed in the same year, which no doubt explains why 1986’s litre imports were down by 600 thousand while the value went up by almost $13 million.

If the collapsing dollar broke the back of imports in 1985, it was also the spur our exporters needed. And it took just two years to build up a big head of steam. In 1986, the year after our dollar fell, export litres grew by a quarter to 10.8 million. But the value, $20.5 million, was still dwarfed by imports of $53.1 million.

A year later our wine industry had become a nett exporter for the first time since before the second world war. In the twelve months to June, 1987 exports totaled 21.1 million litres worth $44.6 million. In the same period, imports dropped to 7.6 million litres valued at $41.6 million.

Exports continued to boom through the late eighties and are still going strong. In the year to June, 1991, we sent 54 million litres of wine, with a value of $177.3 million, overseas. Imports for the same period were 9 million litres, valued at $46.8 million. And the figures for 91/92 may a touch better. That’s a phenomenal turnaround for an industry that’d been beaten on its home turf for half a century.

Australia’s wine industry avoided the excesses of the eighties, investing solidly (about a billion dollars) in the plant and vineyards now delivering the goods. It employs 5,000 people, contributes $400 million dollars to Government coffers, and most important of all, delivers a terrific product to us drinkers.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007

Who owns what in the Australian wine industry

Four companies – The Penfold Wine Group, BRL-Hardy, Orlando-Wyndham, and Mildara-Blass…by my estimate make seventy six per cent of Australia’s wine. Add to that the production of another three…McWilliams, Yalumba, and DeBortoli…and you’ve accounted for something like 91 per cent of our output. The remaining 9 per cent of the market is shared by about 600 producers.

The major conglomerations are quite recent occurrences: late in 1990, South Australian Brewing Holdings (SABH) acquired Penfolds when John Spalvin’s Adsteam group struck trouble. Penfolds had only recently added the Lindemans, Rouge Homme, Leo Buring, Matthew Lang group to its Penfold, Kaiser Stuhl, Tollana, Tulloch, Wynns, and Seaview brands.

After acquiring Penfolds, SABH merged it with Seppelt (including Hungerford Hill and Woodleys) under the new banner, The Penfolds Wine Group. With, by my estimate, 32 per cent by volume of the Australian wine market, Penfolds is the country’s largest maker.

In June this year Thomas Hardy and Sons Pty Ltd merged with Berri Renmano Ltd (itself an earlier marriage of two Murray River co-operatives). Under its new name, BRL Hardy Ltd, the group accounts for about 20 per cent of the Australian wine market. The portfolio includes brands earlier acquired by Hardys: Chateau Reynella and Stanley Leasingham.

BRL Hardy hopes to raise $70 million when it lists on the Australian Stock Exchange later this month.

BRL-Hardy’s 20 per cent is just a tad ahead of the 18 per cent market share enjoyed by the Orlando Wyndham Group. Orlando was acquired by the British group, Reckitt and Coleman in 1970, and passed briefly into local ownership under a management buyout in the late eighties. Shortly afterwards, the management team relinquished control to the French Group, Pernod Ricard. The French joined Orlando to Wyndham Estate and its brands, Montrose, Craigmoor, and Richmond Grove in February 1991.

Next of the big four is Mildara Blass Ltd formed in mid 1991 by the merger of Mildara Wines with Wolf Blass. By volume, its market share is just 6 per cent. But as it is not involved in the cask market (sticking entirely with bottled product) its share by value is in the order of 12 per cent. Mildara’s most successful brands are Yellowglen champagne and Jamieson’s Run.

Three family companies…McWilliams, Yalumba, and DeBortoli, rank next in size. It’s anyone’s guess as to their market shares, but combined they produce around 15 per cent of Australia’s wine. My best guess puts McWilliams at 5.5 per cent, Yalumba at 4.5, and DeBortolis at 5.

Where did DeBortolis come from? This little Griffith-based family company, barely known a few years ago as a bulk producer, made its mark amongst connoisseurs and judges with its brilliant late-picked dessert semillons. As well as making wine in Griffith, the family is now the biggest processor of grapes in the Yarra Valley and handles sizable tonnages from Victoria’s Strathbogies region as well. Dean DeBortoli and his winemaking son, Darren, are proving themselves vigorous and imaginative operators.

Let’s hope they’re efficient as well! Because even with an apparent renewed growth in domestic wine consumption, a recession-induced margin squeeze is forcing makers to look at ways of reducing costs. This has been one of the great precipitators of amalgamations as one of the best cost savers for big operators has been shutting down wineries and consolidating production in fewer centres.

This time last year big producers were about ready to shoot themselves. Ray King, head of Mildara Blass, tells me that March, April, and May 1991 were disastrous for sales of bottled wine across the industry. Now he sees a ray of hope. Sales began to show growth late last year and seem to be continuing. And the feeling seems to be that the big winners amongst producers are BRL-Hardys, Orlando-Wyndham, and Mildara-Blass.

But the biggest winners of all are we wine drinkers. It seems to me wine sales are moving up in response to price wars sparked by the recession and last year’s short, sharp slump in sales of bottled wine.

With better-quality-than-ever-before grapes going into our wineries (some 600,000 tonnes this year) and immense pressure on producers to keep prices down, it seems we’ll be drinking well for some time. Red drinkers beware though. The Penfolds Wine Group tips a shortage of good red material. And they should know.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007

Chianti update

In Tuscany last year I was fortunate to taste many tank and barrel samples of wonderful 1990 Chiantis. Next to the lighter 1989’s they were deep, fragrant, and voluptuously fruity.

Chianti Classicos were richer and fuller in flavour again, as were Chiantis from the hills of Florence and Siena, the only other delimited areas we had time to visit. The first of the basic 1990 Chiantis reached Australia late last year and tasted almost as good here as in Tuscany.

Chianti can be a profoundly good wine…one to decant, sniff, savour and discuss with a grand meal, but most falls into the category of simple good quaffing, especially with food.

Delightful as Chianti is with food, it seldom makes its way onto restaurant wine lists, unless the establishment happens to describe itself as Italian. Even most of these offer second-rate Italian wine and distinctly un-Italian food. They’d have us believe all Italians eat is pasta smothered in creamy sauces or mean, thin, dried out veal wallowing in tomato paste.

In Tuscany you’re more likely to be served a fabulously rich, week-old stew of wild boar or a big, juicy slab of ‘bistecca alla Fiorentini’ (Florentine T-bone…you must try one if you thought only Australia and Texas knew about steak) with your Chianti.

Canberra, however, is poverty-stricken in regard to Italian restaurants and wine lists. So, to enjoy the delights of Chianti it’s down to the local bottle shop and back home to cook. Unless, like me, you stumble into Roberto’s Trattoria at Manuka.

I won’t be taking any Italian visitors to eat there, the food’s just alright. But they’ve a wine list with prices close to what you’d pay in a retail store. And included in the selection is a one litre Chianti Colli Senesi 1990, from the maker Chigi Saracini, for just $14.95. Three of us made short work of a litre flask with delicious char-grilled quail. I think it was the best value-for-money wine I’ve ever had in a restaurant.

That Chigi Saracini wine demonstrates just how much better Chianti is now than it was ten years ago and what a wonderful vintage 1990 was for the region.

The Consorzio del Gallo Nero, a producer consortium enforcing quality control in the Chianti Classico area, wrote in the November edition of Decanter magazine, “1990 is not simply a good vintage but one of the best vintages in the last twenty years.”

In those twenty years the vineyards and wines of the Chianti Classico zone (the heart of Chianti country between Florence and Siena) have undergone massive changes for the better.

In 1972 the zone’s 11,840 hectares of vines produced 17.8 million litres of Chianti Classico. Of those plantings, 3914 hectares were specialised, freestanding vineyards. The remaining 7,926 hectares were in cultura promiscua or promiscuous culture…a leftover of the feudal, labor-intensive land occupancy system where olive trees, vines, and other seasonal crops were all thrown in together.

Although vineyard figures are not available, wine production reached an impossible 45.9 million litres just seven years later in 1979. Little wonder Chianti Classico won a reputation for feebleness which it is still shaking off.

Government regulation under Italy’s denomination of origin (DOC) and, later, DOC and guarantee (DOCG) laws, combined with vigorous work by the Gallo Nero consortium saw the region transformed. By 1988 the area of vines under promiscuous culture had fallen to only 480 hectares with specialised plantings at 6,358 hectares. That total of 6,838 hectares produced 30.1 million litres of Chianti Classico in 1988.

Of course, there’s more to Chianti than Chianti Classico. The classico zone covers the central production area and what many regard as the only true Chianti. Surrounding the Classico zone, large areas may make Chianti, which is generally lighter and simpler than Classico.

And pretty well completely surrounding the Classico zone the law defines six sub regions which may append their names to Chianti. These have strong historical claims to making wines distinctive to their areas.

The regions are Chianti Colli Fiorentini, Chianti Colline Pisane, Chianti Colli Senesi, Chianti Colli Aretini, Chianti Montalbano, and Chianti Rufina.

Chianti is in a state of flux, and I’ll explore the major issues in a later column. In the meantime, watch for the 1990 Chiantis. And stand by for the phenomenally good 1990 Classicos when they hit retail shelves late this year. And next year we can look forward to the even better ‘Riservas”.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007

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

Canberra’s wineries celebrate 21 years

Canberra’s local wineries this week showed a mature self-confidence in bringing Australia’s leading wine writers to the district. With generous help from Australian Airlines and the Canberra Tourism Commission, our local vignerons acted as one, flying the influential guests in and then busing them around on Monday and Tuesday.

That’s not the thing to do if you’re at all apologetic about the area’s wines. Certainly, the winemakers could not have mounted a public relations venture on this scale just a few years back without expecting brickbats and bouquets in equal measure.

Well, the scribes jetted home on Tuesday night leaving their hosts to ponder what the verdict will be. But speaking to the writers at The Vineyard Restaurant on Tuesday, and tasting a wide range of local wines, it’s hard to imagine the locals earning anything but praise.

I find it amazing when wineries as small as Kyeema and Clonakilla consistently turn out high quality wine. I was particularly impressed by a 1990 Shiraz from Kyeema. Andrew McEwin has made not just a sound red, but one with a lovely, fleshy depth of fruit flavour and good firm structure. Kyeema offers no cellar door service yet, but Andrew can be contacted after hours on 254 7557.

And what a delight it was to taste a terrific Rhine Riesling 1991 from David Madew’s Queanbeyan vineyard. The last batch of Madew wines tasted a few years back were badly flawed. Now, with the professional services of winemaking consultants, Oenotec, quality has been transformed. A couple of Madews reds also scrubbed up quite well on the night.

Christine and Allan Pankhurst are on a winner with Pankhurst Chardonnay 1990 (available mail order from the winery). It’s a full-flavoured dry white with fruit nicely backed up by oak flavours. Dr Roger Harris (of Brindabella Hills Winery) made the wine. But grapes were sourced solely from the Pankhurst vineyard. With the vines only three years old, we can expect future vintages to show even greater depth and concentration of flavour.

While on the subject of local chardonnays, Dr Edgar Riek from Lake George winery dropped in recently bearing a huge smile and an unlabelled white. The smile grew as the bottle emptied. Edgar’s mystery wine, a 1991 chardonnay, is the first made for him in the Hunter Valley by Murray Tyrell using Lake George grapes. It’s the most polished local chardonnay I’ve tasted to date. Again, it speaks volumes for the potential of chardonnay in the area.

At Lake George winery with a visiting Italian winemaker last August, Edgar produced for us a particularly good Cabernet Merlot 1988. He made this lovely, supple drop himself. It was the sort of wine you could drink by the bucketful. Which is about how much of it he made.

A similar blend topped my scoring at the Vineyard Restaurant last Monday. Lark Hill’s Cabernet Merlot 1988 is surely one of the best reds yet made in the area. Proprietors of Lark Hill, Sue and David Carpenter, tell me the last of it’s just been sold to the Australian Embassy in the Netherlands.

Another Lark Hill wine looking good at the restaurant was the 1986 Auslese Rhine Riesling. Where so many Aussie sweeties are just that, this little gem showed rich fruit flavour and fresh, lively acid…a few years bottle age had done it nothing but good.

Murrumbateman Winery…now something of a landmark on the left side of the Barton Highway on the way to Yass…never really made its mark as a winemaker under its old ownership. New management’s changing that. A 1991 Rhine Riesling served last Monday was clean, fresh, and easy to drink…better than anything else I can recall in the winery’s long (in Canberra terms) history.

The visiting scribes enjoyed nineteen local wines at the dinner, every one a medal winner. It was, literally, a showcase of Canberra’s show winners. A few old favourites like Helm’s Rhine Riesling 1990, Clonakilla Shiraz 1990, and Brindabella Hills Estate Cabernet 1990 opened particularly well on the night.

Many other wineries participated in the event and I hope that neither they nor readers take it as a criticism that their wines are not mentioned here. Other commitments kept me off the bus. My comments are therefore limited to what I tasted on Monday at Murrumbateman.

After twenty-one years, Canberra’s wine industry seems to have reached a new level of maturity. There are now over ninety hectares of vines planted and more going in. Qualified winemakers, working with modern equipment, consistently make wines good enough to win medals in open competition. As Ken Helm says, our winemakers now ring show organisers and ask not if they’ve won any medals but how many.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007

Coonawarra not as flat as it looks

If you lived and died in Coonawarra, you could well believe the world was flat…an endless plain dotted with vines, gum trees, cows, windmills, wires, wineries, cars, and the odd jogger.

But, to a grape grower, the almost imperceptible undulations in the flat landscape – and where your vineyards lie on them – may mean the difference between making medium-grade champagne base or one of the best, most powerfully concentrated reds in the world. For in Coonawarra, some of the greatest vineyards lie alongside some of the least.

Growers worked out…are still working out…many of the complexities by results. Success with grape vines this century often came on sites where fruit trees prospered last century. But there are also previously untried plots turning out marvelous wines.

That odd jogger, painfully recalling last night’s 1954 and 55 Wynns Coonawarra Estate Clarets – not to mention the Cognacs – finds it hard to spot the differences in the lie of the land. Heading north for several kilometres on the main road out of Coonawarra, vineyards either side spring from a red soil (‘terra rossa’) liberally sprinkled with varying size chunks of white limestone, presumably dragged to the surface during cultivation.

Had the jogger continued a few more kilometres and not turned back to his motel room, he may have noticed that the cloud enveloping southern Coonawarra and the town of Penola was not to be seen in the north.

Vic Patrick, vineyard manager for Mildara and previously with Wynns – two of the biggest vineyard owners in the area – believes this cloud cover makes a big difference between Coonawarra’s northern and southern vineyards. In an interview during winter, 1990, he expressed the view that while cabernet seemed to do well north or south, shiraz did not. He believed that cloud cover in southern Coonawarra in the vicinity of Penola prevented shiraz from ripening properly.

Presumably the cabernet, an earlier ripening variety, reaches maturity before cloud cover becomes a problem.

Peter Douglas, Chief Winemaker at Wynns Coonawarra Estate, spends a great deal of time in the vineyard at this time of year walking up and down rows, tasting grapes. He believes in chemically analysing grapes to help determine the best picking times but his own palate is the final judge. And he, too, notes the big north-south differences identified by Patrick.

A few hours driving, walking, and tasting in Coonawarra’s vineyards with Douglas demonstrated what huge flavour differences exist from block to block. While we stuck only to shiraz and cabernet, I’m sure similar variety exists amongst any grape type grown in the area.

Douglas took us to the vineyards after a lunchtime question as to the source of grapes for Wynns top-of-the-line John Riddoch Cabernet – an amazingly powerful and concentrated red described in last week’s column. Douglas had been asked if John Riddoch was simply the cream of the cabernet grapes from Wynns quite vast Coonawarra holdings or whether it was derived from a particularly favoured spot.

His answer was yes to both questions. Yes, John Riddoch comes from the cream of the crop but, in fact, most of that comes from the same few plots each year. The chief one, he said, contained the oldest Cabernet vines in Coonawarra, having been planted by David Wynn after founding Wynns in 1951

That vineyard came as a surprise after passing others rampant with leaves and tendrils and drooping with huge, purple grape bunches. Vines on the original Wynn block appeared stunted and less vigorous. Grape bunches were sparser, the bunches smaller, and even the berries themselves quite tiny. But the flavours, although the grapes were yet several weeks from harvest, were of rich cassis.

Douglas explained there were many factors accounting for the unusual flavour intensity of these grapes. The soil was shallow and well drained and the vines so lacking in vigour that yields limit themselves to around half a tonne an acre…an accountants night mare unless the resulting wine can fetch $30 a bottle.

The site is in northern, sunny Coonawarra. And as Douglas points out it straddles the main limestone ridge which gives its name to the adjoining Lindeman Vineyard which makes another of the area’s top-notch reds.

Just seven kilometres south of the Wynns Coonawarra Estate vineyard we tasted cabernet from lusher looking vines. Douglas estimated these grapes at perhaps two degrees Baume less ripe than the ones we first tasted…and sure enough a green herbaceousness came through in the flavour. But to the eye we were in the same place…hard to believe seven kilometres could make so much difference.

Short as the distance was, Douglas said harvest would be two weeks later there than seven kilometres up the road.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007

O’Leary puts Hardy’s red back on track

South Australia’s 1990 reds are spectacularly good. That was the one sure thing learned visiting a handful of wineries and tasting dozens of reds over there a few weeks back.

At Hardy’s Tintara winery in McLaren Vale, winemaker David O’Leary opened a dazzling array of 1990 reds from the humble $6 a bottle Hardy McLaren Vale Hermitage to the top-of-the-range Reynella Stonyhill Cabernet Sauvignon, Hardys Collection Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, and Hardy Eileen Hardy Shiraz.

The 1990 McLaren Vale Hermitage is one of the greatest friends the wine drinker will ever find when it is released in a few weeks time. It perfectly demonstrates many of the points made in last week’s column about good vineyards and winemakers’ skills maturing at about the same time.

With a keen appreciation of McLaren Vale’s ability to produce robust reds from the shiraz (or hermitage) grape, O’Leary, with encouragement of the marketing department, set about making the real thing in volume and on a low budget.

With so many new vineyards coming on tap, he had no trouble sourcing grapes from the McLaren Vale area. In fact, about ninety five per cent of the local shiraz goes into this one brand. The balance, the cream of the crop, goes into Eileen Hardy and Reynella.

Gone are the days of picking grapes early to make lighter reds. O’Leary uses only fully ripened shiraz even in the mass-produced budget wine. And while the grapes for this are crushed in a continuous press, not the old basket presses mentioned last week, about half of the total undergoes fermentation in open concrete vats.

These open fermenters allow the fermenting wine plenty of contact with air: two funnels per tank plunge through the wine three to four times a day forcing warmer wine from under the cap of skins to the surface. As well, the wine is drained off sending the header boards and skins (the cap) to the bottom of the vat, breaking it and allowing hot spots to cool as the wine is pumped back over, refloating the cap.

During this process, the wine absorbs oxygen, producing mellow flavours and introducing a firmer texture and structure.

Meanwhile, the other half of Hardys McLaren Vale Hermitage undergoes anaerobic fermentation in modern stainless steel Vin0matic fermenters. Fermentations is at a lower temperature than in the open vats. As a result this portions captures more of the pure fruit aromas and flavours.

After fermentation, both components are blended together and placed in five to six year old oak barrels for a twelve-month maturation period. The wine’s sleep is disturbed several times as it is drained out and put back into the barrels (racked). This aerates the wine and allows winemakers to remove sediment.

By the time it is bottled, the wine retains some of the aromatic characters of the anaerobically handled portion with its lively fresh fruit characters on the palate. But the aerobic part finishes the wine giving it the firm mouth feel…or structure…that all red wine drinkers look for.

In the better reds, where more time (and therefore money) may be spent in production, O’Leary leans ever further to aerobic handling. In his view the wines are simply better to drink.

Thus, the Reynella Stonyhill and Eileen Hardy reds, for example, are crushed in the old basket presses, fermented entirely in open vats, finish off their ferments in small oak barrels, and are regularly racked during maturation.

The quality of these wines from the 1990 and 1991 vintages is nothing short of sensational. There is no doubt in my mind that the Reynella Cabernets are at least the equal of the fabled, long-lived reds produced from the same vineyards under the Chateau Reynella label in the 1960’s. Chances are the new wines are even better, but only a decade in the cellar will tell for sure.

While the 1990 Reynella would have to rank as one of the best and most complete Australian cabernets I’ve ever tasted, the 1990 Eileen Hardy Shiraz is also bound to make its mark.

Here we see that Padthaway, renowned for its whites but tending to make lighter reds, has at least one great patch of shiraz. O’Leary spent three years down at Padthaway where the Hardy winemaking team identified a low yielding block that consistently produced outstanding berries.

Blended with a small amount of Clare shiraz, grapes from the selected Padthaway block have produced one of the best Eileen Hardys yet in the great 1990 vintage.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1992 & 2007