Yearly Archives: 1993

Consumers’ export headache is in rising domestic wine prices

According to the latest estimates (mine), 99 per cent of people reading this column today suffer mild to severe hangovers. If you wonder why the wine that caused it, especially if it was a good red, cost so much more this year than last, then a few real figures just released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) provide an explanation.

Booming exports are the culprit. That’s what’s behind higher prices on good-quality wine and even why you may have difficulty finding stocks of your favourite cask.

It’s hard to imagine now, but until the late 1980s the value of wine imports exceeded those of exports, even though imports never made up more than about three per cent by volume of the wine we drank.

Exports took off with a bang after the devaluation of the mid 1980s, growing to 102.8 million litres worth $293.2 million in 1992/1993. Those exports exceeded imports of $47 million by $246.2 million, a massive figure considering we had been nett importers of wine less than a decade earlier.

One or two good years of exports might have little impact on local prices. But sustained strong growth (and more expected) strains supplies to the limit: we exported 54.2 million litres in 1990/91, 78.7 in 1991/2, 102.8 in 1992/93, and reached 114.2 in the first quarter of the current financial year.

In 1990/91 exports represented 15 per cent of total sales by local producers of 350 million litres; in 1992/93, exports were 25 per cent of total sales of 414 million litres.

Those broad figures, though, take into account all styles of wine. In fact, exports are strongly skewed towards table wine, which make up 93 per cent of the 1992/93 litreage. Table wines constitute 79 per cent of domestic sales by Australian wine makers. Exports of table wines, then, account for 28 per cent of all table wine sales by Australian makers. And that’s why the domestic market is being made to pay more for what stays at home.

Despite the weakness of our dollar, the return per litre of wine exported fell by 14 per cent from $3.32 to $2.85 between 1990/91 and 1992/93. It recovered marginally for the first quarter of this year to $2.92. But still, we must ask the question, are domestic price hikes subsidising exports?

Certainly strong exports are forcing shortages of good red wine. I get the feeling from exporters that’s mainly because the pommies (they account for almost half of our exports) have taken strongly to our rich, ripe reds. British wine merchants and writers are common currency in Coonawarra, the Barossa, and McLaren Vale, the main sources of those delicious wines. I’ve seen them there and even been beaten to the punch by them on a few choice parcels of red.

Australian wine drinkers, unlike their fellows in the U.K. and U.S., won’t be rescued from rising domestic-wine prices by imports. Distance, a weak dollar, a high level of duty on imports, and entrenched parochialism, all defeat any hope of relief from the outside world

Wine imports still puddle around at between 2 and 3 per cent by volume of consumption. Although what we import has a greater per litre value than what we export: $5.99 a litre (before freight, duty or taxes) in 1992/93 and $5.14 for the first three months of this year compared with $2.85 and $2.92 for exports in the same periods.

Our imports show a weighting towards sparkling wine, making 30 per cent of the total. Local sparkling wines constitute just 11 per cent of sales of domestic wine sales. This heavy weighting to imported bubbly also suggests a reason for the high value per litre of wine imports as the bulk of it is very expensive real Champagne.

The ABS statisticians believe wine sales are on the decline. But measuring the trend has been made harder by strong swings in sales before and after the budget fiasco. Sales were up 18 per cent before the budget, fell 24 per cent in the month following, then bounced back 19 per cent in October.

Thankfully, making sense of those gyrations is their problem. My personal trend estimate is well and truly up, silly-seasonally adjusted that is.

Brown Bros restores historic All Saints Winery

All Saints Winery, Rutherglen’s most notable wine landmark, has been dusted off, refurbished and re-launched by new owners, Brown Bros of Milawa.

Importantly for wine drinkers, the re-launch goes more than skin deep. It embraces not just refurbishment of the famous castle and design of shiny new labels but vineyard rehabilitation, improved wine-making practice, the use of museum stocks in blending the winery’s unique muscats, tokays, and ports, and a philosophy that ensures Rutherglen-only grape sourcing for the wines.

Brown Bros acquired All Saints Estate early in 1992 after it had been passed in at the receiver’s auction on the site on December 17, 1991. All Saints found itself in receivership just two years after a syndicate, led by the late Mike Fallon, took control from the Sutherland-Smith family that’d owned it since 1864.

That was the year river trader, George Sutherland-Smith, acquired 420 hectares of land fronting the Murray River. All Saints thrived as he established vineyards along the riverbank and learned the art of winemaking. Business must have been good. For this descendent of generations of carpenters and joiners built a large castle of red bricks dug and fired on the property. It was modeled on the workplace of his forbears, the castle of Mey in the parish of All Saints, Scotland.

Over the next century, the castle and its magnificent elm-tree drive became entrenched as landmarks of the Rutherglen wine-growing region. But by the late1980s the business appeared to be fraying at the edges, evidenced by an overgrown and littered drive and a ramshackle state of affairs in the winery.

Wine critic James Halliday, normally a Clark Kent of the pen, wrote, “…it grieves me to be unable to find something truly complimentary to say. The plain fact of the matter is that the table wines are simple, dull, and ordinary… a very close and hard look needs to be taken at both the quality of fruit coming out of the vineyard and the wine-making techniques employed to deal with the fruit.”

Fallon’s team hit All Saints with a dazzling burst of energy on Boxing Day, 1989. A team of wine makers began an appraisal of every barrel and bottle of wine in the place that day. Sub-standard material was removed. The winery and driveway were cleaned and a rational marketing plan hatched.

But time and fate were against Fallon who had enjoyed such enormous success as Marketing Director for Wolf Blass. In better times he may have succeeded. But All Saints became caught up in the recession and, by all accounts, was strangled by debt. Fallon died suddenly early in 1991 and it was only months before the business found itself in receivership.

I attended the receiver’s auction which cleared a great deal of stock as well offering the Estate for sale. With local wine maker, Chris Pfeiffer, I spent a day scrambling over barrels tasting every wine offered for sale as well as many being kept for the new owners… a store of aged fortifieds being essential to continued production.

Large volumes of young fortifieds were sold off, De Bortolis and Brown Bros being notable buyers on the day. But from what I tasted, most of the very best casks of old material stayed in the winery. These passed to Brown Bros with their acquisition of the Estate.

In the two years since then, Brown Bros have spent a million dollars on All Saints.

With advice from the Historic Buildings Trust of Victoria, the castle has been fully restored; the cellar-door sales area has been upgraded; Chef Michel Renoux, serves local produce in the new Le Cafe Brasserie and 600-seat capacity Great Hall convention centre; and considerable landscaping work has been completed around the winery.

More importantly, Jim Baxendale’s viticultural team has been nursing the estate’s formerly neglected 140 hectares of vines back to health. As well, wine maker Neil Jericho takes responsibility for the All Saints range now made in Brown Bros state-of-the-art winery at Milawa.

All Saints’ new Heritage, Classic, and Show Reserve ranges are pure Rutherglen products, sourced predominantly from the Estate’s own vineyards.

A trophy in Adelaide for the Show Reserve Tokay tells us Neil Jericho knows how to us the museum fortifieds. That and a resolve to keep grape sourcing estate-based, gives wine drinkers reason to believe a revived All Saints is a good thing.

National Wine Show judges got it wrong

If you’re confused about which sparkling wine to buy for Christmas, don’t worry. You’re in good company. Even our top wine judges can’t make sense of the increasing array of sparkling wines available to us.

It’s clear from the results of the 1993 ACI National Wine Show of Australia, announced here in Canberra two weeks ago, that the judges, including a Chairman who presides over the biggest sparkling wine cellar in the southern hemisphere, cannot pick $10 bubblies from $20 bubblies on the tasting bench.

The Kit Stevens Trophy for best bottle-fermented sparkling wine was awarded to Killawarra Premier Vintage Brut 1990, a very rich, sparkling white burgundy style retailing widely at $9 to $11 a bottle. It was the top-scoring wine in its class of 37 mostly more expensive wines and went on to win the trophy in a taste off against gold medal winners from other classes.

In its own class, this modestly-priced bubbly vanquished, amongst others, both the 1989 and 1990 vintages of Salinger ($27), Hardy Classique Cuvee Pinot Chardonnay 1990 ($28), Andrew Garrett Randall Pinot Chardonnay 1989 ($18), Yalumba ‘D’ 1990 ($27), Yellowglen Cuvee Victoria 1990 ($27), and Yellowglen Vintage Brut 1990 ($20).

Taken at face value, the results should send us sprinting, wallets and purses open, to the nearest retailer. Alternately, we could see the results as erratic – simply more evidence that the notion of awarding points out of 20 to each wine in a big line up and producing any meaningful result is nonsense. Accept that last proposition, and we have to wonder about the future of wine shows.

The result certainly must puzzle the Penfold Wine Group. It provided 22 of the 37 wines in the class. Yet two vintages of the wine it regards as the company’s flagship methode champenoise, Salinger, fared poorly considering its retail price of around $27. The 1989 scored just 43 points out of 60 (an aggregate of three judges awarding points out of 20) while the 1990 earned a silver medal with 51 points.

My own hunch, and we see this over and again at wine shows, is that judges tend to note fuller, richer wines, while glossing over more elegant, restrained entries. So what we end up with from the judges is not an absolute, objective measure of quality but a simple vote of personal preference, based on sniffing, sipping, and spitting a lot of wines in a short period of time.

The fact that judges cannot split cheap bubblies from expensive ones also highlights a growing homogeneity. Very few of the sparkling wines entered in premium classes in our wine shows are made from anything other than pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier, the varieties used by the French in the Champagne region.

Entering a wine based on semillon, riesling, chenin blanc, or ondenc in one of these classes is the kiss of death, not because of poor quality but simply because they’d be different. Anything that stands out in a wine show is usually cut down.

Why do our sparkling-wine makers use such a narrow palate of grapes in the better sparkling wines? In white table wine we enjoy the varied flavours of chardonnay, semillon, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, riesling, traminer and several other lesser varieties. But for bubbly we’ve stuck with the classics.

I think the answer is partly that the classics make good bubbly and partly that the show system tends to perpetuate fashions. At the moment only pinot-chardonnay blends win gongs, so almost everyone makes pinot-chardonnay bubblies. It’s a hard cycle to break into, despite ample evidence world wide that pinot-chardonnay blends are not the be-all and end-all of sparkling wine.

Germans make exquisite Sekt from the riesling grape; French vignerons in Vouvray (Loire Valley) offer superb, long-lived bubblies from chenin blanc; in Piedmont there’s the delicious and sweet Asti spumante from the local moscato grape; and throughout Italy drinkers enjoy bubblies made from a multitude of grapes unknown in Australia. (One that struck me was a verdicchio/garganega blend). And, of course, the Spanish make terrific bubbly from a pot pourri of grapes.

In Australia we can still taste the unique flavour of ondenc in Seppelts Hans Irvine blend; the richness of semillon in JY Tulloch Hunter Cuvee Brut (the judges gave it the thumbs down); and the fruity delicacy of Clare Valley Rhine Riesling in Brian Croser’s Pine Ridge Brut NV (Croser doesn’t bother to show it. He knows the judging system too well).

Unfortunately, we won’t see many of the world’s more interesting bubblies this Christmas. And if we were, we probably couldn’t afford them. For wine drinkers the banana republic is here as our weak dollar diminishes the choices available to us. For variety, then, be bold. Forget what the judges think and follow your own palate. There’s no reason to believe their opinions are better than yours or mine.

Sake, Japan’s unique rice wine

Japan has more Sake breweries (3,200 plus) than Australia has wineries (700 plus)! It exports Sake to 67 countries, although the bulk of production stays at home for simple quaffing with food and for traditional ceremonial usage. It is brewed throughout Japan, but the biggest production centres are at Nada near Kobe and Fushimi in Kyoto.

Australians drink little Sake. Even so, most retailers carry at least one brand, often in dusty boxes, on the top shelf, just out of reach. The commonest brand here, Gekkeikan, became so through the strong distribution of Milne Liquor Agencies, a division of Swift and Moore.

The arrival of Japanese cuisine in Australian capital and provincial cities seems to have done little to promote the national drink. Even Sydney’s Suntory Restaurant, a benchmark for Japanese food, scratches its head in wonder when it comes to Sake.

On a visit there recently with James and Tomoko Horne of Deakin, we asked to sample a range of Sakes but settled for the one and only brand available. It was a cool night, and served at about body temperature, the Sake’s soft, rich flavours complemented the food as well as sparking a party atmosphere.

The body rapidly absorbs alcohol from a warm, strong drink like Sake. At 15-16 per cent alcohol, it’s more than three times stronger than beer, about 25 per cent stronger than most Australian table wines, but a touch weaker than sherry or port.

No doubt the first Sake fermented itself spontaneously only to be harnessed, over time, by a grateful population. Just when Sake making became fully controlled by humans, no one knows, but it appears to have been part of the Japanese way of life for a thousand years or more. Gekkeikan, the brand mentioned above, claims to have been in the business since 1637.

James Horne, a frequent visitor to Japan, tells me there are numerous qualities and styles of Sake, as you’d expect from so many makers spread over a varied landscape. An official classification exists, sorting it into two quality grades, first and second-class. Professional Sake tasters, chosen by the Alcoholic Liquors Council (under control of the National Tax Administration Agency) determine the classifications.

It seems top grade Sake comes from a combination of non-sticky type big grain rice and hard water.

Freshly harvested rice is rich in starch, a non-fermentable carbohydrate. It has to be polished, washed, steeped, steamed, and cooled, to produce “Koji” a mash now containing fermentable sugars.

The “Koji” is mixed with water, yeast and more steamed rice to form “Motto” a seed mash that kick starts an alcoholic fermentation. After the “moto” has been doing its job for a day, more water, “koji” and steamed rice are added over two days.

This mix forms the main mash (“moromi”) which undergoes a slow fermentation at 15 degrees Celsius over a period of twenty-five days.

With fermentation complete, the fresh Sake is separated from the sediment by filtration, followed by cold stabilisation, further, filtering and blending, pasteurisation, storage, and a final blending, filtering, and pasteurisation prior to bottling.

There are two main style produced commercially: the full-bodied and dry traditional “Karakuchi” and the lighter, sweeter “Amakuchi”. The latter apparently being mainly a post-war phenomenon to attract a younger drinker with a sweeter tooth.

In response to competition from other alcoholic beverages, Sake makers now also offer both low alcohol (12 per cent) and high alcohol (19 per cent) Sakes to cater for a wider range of tastes.

Traditionally Sake is consumed at about body temperature. It is warmed placing a porcelain serving jug (“Tokkuri”) in hot water, then served in small (about 18 ml) porcelain cups (“Sakazuki” or “Choco”). I notice Gekkeikan offers complete serving sets through liquor outlets.

Although Sake is quite rich, it is also delicate and goes well with sashimi, raw fish, tempura, fritters, and tofu.

In Japan, Sake was traditionally the toast on all ceremonial occasions. In fact, the Japan Sake Brewing Association still pressures politicians, diplomats, and businessmen to use it at official functions as a symbol of Japanese culture.

Traditionally, too, it was a social drink, the obligation being to keep your fellow drinkers’ cups filled and then toasting with a cry of “Kampai” – a ritual drug taking we Australians can relate to easily.

These days, Sake is served chilled, on the rocks and mixed with soft drink. But there are a million blander drinks for that sort of use. I somehow think it’s best enjoyed in the traditional manner with traditional food.

Mitchelton Riesling – the outsider with pedigree

There are three good things about Australian rhine riesling: it’s plentiful, it’s cheap, and it’s very, very good. The best, often retailing at modest prices on release, show tremendous staying power, drinking well ten years and more after bottling.

Even if South Australia grows 30 thousand of the 40 odd thousand tonnes crushed for wine making each year, it does not have a monopoly on quality. Those marvellous Clare, Watervale, and Eden Valley rieslings have a peer in Mitchelton vineyard, located on a peculiar bend of the Goulburn River near Nagambie, central Victoria.

That riesling should be grown there at all, in an area not previously noted for that variety, came down to decision, now proven visionary, by Colin Preece.

Preece, a distinguished table and sparkling wine maker of the fifties and sixties at Seppelt’s Great Western, selected the Mitchelton vineyard site in the late sixties after an extensive search through southeastern Australia on behalf of the Shelmerdene family.

As Stephen Shelmerdene wrote to me: “Such was Colin’s vision and enthusiasm for riesling that extensive plantings were made in 1970 and 1971, well before the white wine boom. Colin believed that the specific micro climate of the vineyards – surrounded on three sides by the deep, very cold, constant-height Goulburn River, a site very conducive to autumn fogs , providing suitable conditions for botrytis cinerea – would put Mitchelton in a very strong position to demonstrate the quality of riesling in Victoria.”. His judgement was spot on, although he did not live to see it vindicated.

Instead, Don Lewis, a young man selected and trained by Preece, presided over the making of Mitchelton’s first riesling during the massive floods of 1974. Don cannot recall the quality of the wine. But he well remembers the 1975 Mitchelton Rhine Riesling, a multiple gold-medal winner.

But times were tough for the wine industry with producers battling for margin in a glutted market. The going was particularly tough at Mitchelton as the owners struggled to fund an extravagant and still mind-boggling underground concrete and brick cellar and landmark observation tower.

During a period in receivership, Mitchelton sold most of its riesling as grapes or bulk wine. Most of the 1976 went as grapes to Brown Bros. However, a small portion was bought by Brian Croser, then lecturing in wine making at Riverina College of Advance Education.

Using a discarded Maralinga rocket fuel tank as a fermenter, he turned Mitchelton’s 1976 grapes into the first Petaluma Riesling. By this time Croser was an accomplished riesling maker, having put Hardys Siegersforf on wine shelves and restaurant lists all over Australia. Stephen Shelmerdene tells me Malcolm Fraser loved the inaugural Petaluma riesling and secured a quantity for the Lodge.

By 1978 Mitchelton’s financial trauma was over. For an undisclosed sum, believed to be just a fraction of the building cost, Melbourne’s Valmorbida family acquired the winery, tower and Mitchelton brand. The Shelmerdenes retained the vineyards.

At the Adelaide Show in 1978 Mitchelton’s 1978 Rhine Riesling earned a gold medal and the Clampett Trophy for best current vintage dry white of the exhibition. Lewis sees this as the turning point for his Rhine Rieslings. And, as he pointed out last week at a dinner celebrating his twentieth vintage, every one of his rieslings since then, including the 1993, has won at least one gold medal.

Gold medals, of course, don’t tell the whole story. They tell us mostly that a young, fresh wine, at a certain point in time, in the judges’ opinions, scrubbed up well against its peers. It’s only by drinking a wine, and seeing it at various stages of development can we form a valid opinion.

In the case of Mitchelton’s Rhine Rieslings, it’s very hard not to put them in the top flight of Australian rieslings. Young and old they stack up well, with the best mature vintages appearing stunningly good.

I’ve been fortunate to taste all the vintages 1978 to 1988 in one tasting and to have encountered most of those and all of the more recent vintages several times at dinner parties and other tastings. In recent months I’ve seen the 1978 and 1982 tasting as fresh and rich as ever.

At Don’s twentieth vintage dinner, the 1993, now labelled as Mitchelton Blackwood Park Riesling (Blackwood Park being the vineyard name) tasted extraordinarily good. Don views it in the same light as the legendary 1978.

I agree with Don. At $10 to $11 a bottle you get more flavour per dollar than you’ll ever find in chardonnay at the price. But it may not be the last word on Riesling, as 1993 appears to be an exceptional year for that variety, especially in its homeland of Clare, Watervale, and the Eden Valley.

Alambie puts pressure on wine prices

A few weeks back I mentioned in a general article on high-quality cheap wines, the sudden appearance on the scene of the Alambie Wine Company and its brands, Salisbury Estate and Castle Crossing.

These are hardly household names yet, but they may well be in a very short time as this hungry, efficient, and very smart enterprise fills a gap created by price rises from bigger companies.

We should all cheer. The emergence of Alambie put a lid on domestic prices just as the export boom appeared to be unleashing a round of increases.

The seeds of what is now the Alambie Wine Company were planted twenty-five years ago when Peter McLaren established a 40-hectare vineyard at Nangiloc near Mildura on the Murray River.

McLaren, an agricultural scientist, planted not only vineyards but citrus orchards as well and claims his McLaren Management Pty Ltd is Australia’s largest horticultural farm management company.

With wine as with fruit McLaren sees total integration of production, manufacturing and marketing as crucial to success here and overseas. Strong exports of fresh citrus fruits to Asia and of wine to the UK, Sweden, and the USA earned his company the Austrade Primary Products and Commodities Award in the Governor of Victoria Export Awards earlier this month.

In wine making the concept of ‘total integration’ means simply that McLaren manages the vineyards from which he sources grapes, makes and packages the wine himself, and then takes it direct to the market place.

If it sounds simple, the first two steps especially add immeasurably to wine quality.

Any wine maker will tell you quality begins in the vineyard. Most might also add that Mildura is not their first choice of sites for high-quality table-wine grapes. Well, it is broadly true that Mildura’s wines can never scale the greatest heights, but they can provide very good everyday drinking at a keen price.

Indeed, much of the prejudice against Riverland wines gets back to the feeble flavours resulting from over cropping. And that’s where Alambie is different.

Without irrigation, grapes could not survive Mildura’s hot, dry climate. Pump plenty of water on and vines thrive… yields of 20 tonnes of grapes to the hectare are not unheard of. Plump grapes like that, of course, have little flavour. Modern wine making turns them into clean, fresh, but neutral wine cask material.

But over 25 years McLaren, in conjunction with CSIRO scientists, has developed vineyard management to a sophisticated level. Crops are lower than the area average, but viable economically because the quality is stunningly higher. That means better wines that finally retail for $5 to $9 a bottle rather than cask wine going out at $1.50 a litre.

With other investors McLaren now manages about 400 hectares of vines in the region. The development of minimal pruning techniques over the past 20 years not only cuts costs but increases fruit quality and produces healthier, disease-resistant vines. Mechanical harvesting also cuts the other big management cost to the bone.

As well, soil management, water control, vine selection, pest and disease control, and trellising design have all contribute to sustainable vine cultivation, lower costs, lower chemical use, and higher quality.

Vineyards are managed through to harvest with specific wine styles in mind and of course that’s done in conjunction with the winery manager, Bob Shields.

Acquiring the winery and the services of Shields were perhaps McLaren’s greatest coups, allowing him to process all of the grapes coming in from his fellow investors under one roof.

Bob Shields is an old accomplished hand when it comes to making wine from Mildura grapes. For years he was one of the leading technical people at Lindeman’s giant, state-of-the art winery just down the road at Karadoc. Here, with Philip John and Phil Laffer he helped develop mass-production techniques. Perhaps the most notable product being the outstanding Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay, a phenomenally good wine for the price now made in million litre lots and sold worldwide.

All that know how moved to Alambie with Shields and the innovation goes on in his new winery. The winery, he points out, cost just $2 million in a distress sale, but has a replacement cost of around $8 million.

Shields seems delighted with the quality of the fruit coming in, all to his specification. His work on chardonnay shows up in the outstanding Salisbury Estate 1993. I tasted it beside the similarly priced ($6-$8 a bottle) Lindemans Bin 65 this week. The Lindemans is a good product, but I rated Salisbury higher.

With wines like this pushing into export markets at keen prices, I think competing wine producing nations have a lot of catching up to do.

Barossa shiraz, grenache and mourvedre

A little band of Tanunda grape-growing wine makers, dubbed the ‘Rhone Rangers’, lead the way in hand crafting wonderful, rich wines with a true Barossa thumbprint. They work mainly with grape varieties originating in France’s Rhone Valley but established in the Barossa in the mid nineteenth century.

Shiraz, the most widely planted Rhone variety, of course, needs no introduction. We’ve all enjoyed robust Barossa reds and ports made from it. But the Rhone Rangers have also seized upon another work horse variety, grenache, and are doing wonderful things with it both in its own right and in blends with shiraz and the even more obscure mourvedre (aka mataro).

On its own, Barossa grenache makes a most distinctive wine. It’s a variety achieving exceptional sugar levels – sufficient to produce table wines of 17 per cent alcohol (Barossa shiraz usually sits between 13.5 per cent to 15.5 per cent). This high sugar level makes for an ideal fortified-wine component but gives wine makers a real challenge when it comes to producing a full-bodied table wine.

Pick grenache at a more civilised alcohol potential, and the colour is too pale. In fact, as you can see and taste in Charlie Melton’s Rose of Virginia, Barossa grenache readily makes a lovely, crisp, fresh rose with a welcome touch of tannin in the finish.

Peter Schulz of Turkey Flat Vineyard says the making of fuller-bodied grenache starts in the vineyard. He says you must have mature vines managed for low yields. By ‘mature’ he means a minimum of twenty years. But in practice, the best wines being made from the variety often come from vines much older than that, some dating back to last century.

Given the right fruit – small berries with deep colour and rich, concentrated flavours – a wine maker has some chance of coming up with a decent red. Schulz has his wine made up the road from his vineyard at Robert O’Callaghan’s Rockford winery.

Now there’s a maker leading the way with grenache. According to Schulz, the secret is to make grenache to its full 17 per cent alcohol potential – thereby capturing all its unique flavour – then diluting it back to a more approachable 13 or 14 per cent.

Try Rockford or Turkey Flat grenache and you’ll be struck by the vibrant colour, notably lighter than shiraz of the same strength, and by the richly-scented floral aroma. That lovely floral character comes through on the palate as well. Despite that, these are solid reds, quite firm and sufficiently astringent to carry robust food.

While Rockford and Turkey Flat offer straight grenache, suitable material is scarce and most makers tend to serve it up blended with shiraz just as the real Rhone Valley people do in France. Charlie Melton’s Nine Popes is an excellent example of a grenache-shiraz blend with a touch of mourvedre..

If grenache offers novel flavours, shiraz still makes the ultimate Barossa reds. Though a multi-district blend, Penfolds Grange Hermitage has at its heart the phenomenally opulent aromas and flavours derived from shiraz grapes grown on very-old low-yielding vines from the Kalimna vineyard, northern Barossa.

Many other wineries now produce rich Barossa shiraz off old vines. Each offers a unique variation on the main theme.

Some of the best I encountered there recently were: Veritas Hanisch Vineyard Shiraz, Rockford Black Shiraz, Burge Family Draycott Hermitage, St Hallett Old Block Shiraz, Turkey Flat Shiraz (from a small block of vines planted in 1847), Charles Cimicky Signature Shiraz, Charles Melton Shiraz, Rovalley Old Vines Shiraz, Bethany Shiraz, Heritage Rossco’s Shiraz, Greenock Creek Shiraz, and Grant Burge Meshach 1990

Coonawarra an Barossa grape growers turn to winemaking

In Australia, the multi-district blend is a fact of life for wine drinkers. With ease and speed our winemakers shift grapes, juice, and bulk wine over thousands of kilometres. Such flexibility results in large volumes of consistently good wines at reasonable prices.

If the rule for big-volume wines is varied grape sourcing, there are exceptions: Mildara’s Jamieson’s Run red and Wynns Coonawarra Hermitage are examples of mass-production from within a single region – even if the grapes are sourced widely within that area.

Even as we shift up market, many of our wines are cross-regional blends: Penfolds Grange Hermitage, Bin 707 and Bin 389 and Lindemans Nyrang Hermitage are examples of high -quality reds blended across regional and, in the case of Nyrang, state boundaries.

But as our taste for wine grows more sophisticated, it’s easy to see consumer interest at the middle and top of the market focusing more strongly on the distinctive flavours delivered by individual vineyards.

This infinite flavour variation based on vineyard location, of course, is the spice and life of wine buffs and always has been. Australia is peculiar in having developed multi-regional blends for its top-shelf brands.

Traveling through major wine-growing areas in the past few weeks there were everywhere signs of growing emphasis on regional and individual vineyard identity.

It’s hard to point to the source of it, but consumers, merchants, growers and makers all have a hand in it. And, finally, the interest springs from the emergence of wine styles peculiar to an area.

In Coonawarra, source of perhaps the most exciting reds in all of the new world, we’ve seen in recent years the emergence of a band of individual growers making small batches of phenomenally good reds.

The well-established Bowen Estate, Hollicks, Brands, Redmans, and Leconfield vineyard-wineries have been joined by Rymill (simply brilliant wines) and Zema Estate (in my view, inconsistent to date, but beautifully located and getting better).

As well, a number of growers without wineries now turn a portion of their fruit (and they don’t pick the worst batches for themselves) into wine. This is partly to spread their risks. But when you talk to them you sense an immense pride in their vineyards and a desire to build a brand, and, hopefully, a better living.

Mike Wetherall, Doug Balnaves, and Brian Lynn (Majella) are all primarily grape growers now making sensationally good wine in small batches. None of them have wineries: Wetherall makes his at Hollicks, Balnaves at Leconfield, and Lynn at Brands.

The other thing they have in common is that you’ll have to go to Coonawarra to buy a bottle! It’s well worth it if you’d like to experience the subtleties and shades of this great wine growing area.

And if you do go to Coonawarra, you may trip over the odd English Master of Wine buying for a supermarket chain. They’re everywhere. And if the main focus is big-volume value-for-money wines, they are also actively seeking small parcels of distinctive wine from small individual vineyards.

They’re in Coonawarra, and they’re in the Barossa as well. On a call to Rolf Binder at Veritas Winery, we were hot on the trail of a British buyer. He’d bought a parcel of a wonderful shiraz made from very old vines and was talking about making specific small batches of other Barossa hallmarks for the U.K. market.

Rolf, with his sister Christa, are just two of a growing number of Barossa growers beginning to focus strongly on table-wine styles peculiar to the area.

They represent a new generation, descended from the Barossa’s original German settlers. For previous generations, grapes were just one farm item to be sold to wine makers.

The new generation’s been to Roseworthy, worked in winemaking with big companies for a decade or more, and is now bringing advanced technical skills back to the farm. Why sell the grapes, they say, when we can make our wine and give it our own identity.

These new makers turn out a full range of wine, but the great specialties are the absolutely delightful, full-bodied shirazes and grenaches made from very old, bush-pruned vines. St Halletts, Rockford, Turkey Flat, Charles Melton, and Bethany are a few of the wineries at the hub of this discovery of a regional and vineyard identity.

If the world’s interest in wine continues, there’s a bright future for those emphasising an area’s unique wines. With time, I guess names of our better wines will be vineyard names, just as we’ve seen in France.

If there’s one thing we can learn from the French, it’s that a strong regional identity provides a marketing umbrella under which thousands of small makers may prosper, each with his own vineyard thumbprint.

Bright spot in a bleak landscape

Since the Federal budget’s fifty five per cent tax hike on wine, I’ve traveled widely through major wine growing regions: the Hunter Valley, Cowra, and Griffith in New South Wales, Great Western and Mildura in Victoria, and Coonawarra, Padthaway, and the Barossa Valley in South Australia.

Beneath all the refreshing hustle and bustle of activity, runs a deep vein of gloom and uncertainty. The Government’s ill-considered, anti-investment tax grab was bad enough but the ensuing uncertainty regarding its passage into law undermines the confidence of one of Australia’s few rapidly expanding rural industries.

What a contrast between depressed, wheat-and-wool-dependent Narrandera (6 families forced off the land in the week we passed through, we were told) and grape-growing areas like Griffith, Coonawarra-Padthaway, and the Barossa Valley, all buzzing with activity.

What we’re seeing in viticultural Australia is an unprecedented expansion, driven by rising exports, and underpinned by domestic sales and a supreme technical competence, acquired over the past twenty years, in vineyard and winery.

All that technical wizardry means quicker returns for investors, provided the market is there for the finished product. In twenty years, we’ve climbed so far up the learning curve that planting a vineyard and making good wine from it can be achieved within four years, given adequate capital.

A good example is Orlando-Wyndham’s 222 hectare Richmond Grove Cowra Vineyard mentioned in this column last week. It was planted in 1989 and produced its first commercial wines in 1992.

Even more striking in this age of cost cutting and gloom is to drive through the vast limestone plain stretching from Mount Gambier to Padthaway and across to Robe in southeastern South Australia.

The area embraces Coonawarra and Padthaway but other plots, big and small are going in all over the place. At June 30, 1992, Coonawarra had 1,913 hectares of vines in bearing and another 555 planted. At the same date Padthaway had 1,687 bearing and another 128 in the ground. More have been planted in the year since the ABS released these statistics.

While smaller plantings are sprinkled throughout the area, several major projects are up and running or under way. Brian Croser’s 25 hectare ‘Sharefarmer’s’ vineyard just over the Coonawarra boundary is in full production and being extended.

That’s dwarfed by Mildara’s new plantings under the direction of Vic Patrick. Vic’s wandered up and down the limestone plain for twenty years, enthusiastic about the region’s grape-growing potential.

Just north of the Coonawarra boundary, earthworks have commenced on Mildara’s 120 hectare red vineyard on a high bank of terra rossa soil to the east of the main road. Further east, a 320-hectare chardonnay vineyard is under development and a little higher in the Narracoorte Ranges, another beautiful 120-hectare bank of terra rossa is to be planted to red varieties.

Patrick sees the two red blocks as outstanding and, while they are outside Coonawarra’s boundaries, sees no reason why they won’t produce wine at least as good as Coonawarra’s. Vic’s view is encouraged by the quality of grapes from the long-established Koppamurra vineyard not far from Mildara’s new holdings.

Further north, towards the edge of the limestone plain near Bordertown, Bob Hesketh’s and Mark Swann’s 200-hectare Cuppacup vineyard, leased by Penfolds, reached full production this year.

And in Padthaway, the eye sees vast spreads of young vines, the most conspicuous being Orlando’s 110 hectare fresh planting on the Lawson’s Vineyard.

All these new vines in the ground represent money invested to the tune of $20,000 a hectare for development (not including land) plus another $5,000 a hectare in maintenance before the first grapes are harvested.

New investment accounts for a great deal of the prosperity now apparent in our leading grape-growing areas. But it’s not prosperity in the sense of seeing fat, cigar-munching millionaires cruising around in limousines. It’s a prosperity employing people directly and in all the peripheral industries supporting grape growing and wine making.

Investment in vineyards necessitates further investments downstream: as extra grapes come on stream, wineries need increased crushing, fermentation, and storage capacity; bottling and packing lines must be expanded; bottle production rises; graphic designers and printers employ more people; and there are more people needed in transport, distribution, sales and marketing.

In many areas, farmers distraught with low returns on traditional activities are turning to grapes for a viable future. Given the breadth, depth, and long-term nature of investments already committed and under contemplation, the wine industry is quite justified, in my view, in its anger over the proposed increase in wine tax. No one fully understands its impact, but the feeling is it will be wide, deep, and finally throw happily self-reliant people onto the welfare list.

Cowra’s grape industry gets going

The boom in wine drinking over the past twenty years gave us not only 700 small, estate-based wineries, but numerous broad-acre vineyard developments designed for efficient production of above-average quality premium wine-grape varieties for high-volume, high-quality brands.

Coonawarra and Padthaway, covered in this column recently, are by far the biggest and most significant of these in both quantity and quality, producing over 3 million cases of wine annually.

Another, at Cowra, just two hours drive from Canberra, was established by Tony Gray in 1972. The area’s grape-growing potential had been identified by John Stanford acting for a group of investors. Gray acquired land and planted 36 hectares according to Stanford’s plan when the original investor group went broke.

It proved an ideal location. By the Lachlan River in central Western N.S.W. in a benign climate with plenty of water, it quickly and efficiently produced biggish crops of high-quality grapes.

Len Evans and Brian Croser recognised the quality early. Thus, Gray’s Cowra vineyard provided fruit for Croser’s first Petaluma chardonnay in 1977. At the time Croser was lecturing at Riverina College of Advanced Education (now Charles Sturt University), Wagga, where he made the wine.

In 1981 Evans, by now a partner in Petaluma as well as head of Rothbury Estate, in a controversial boardroom decision, acquired the Cowra vineyard for Rothbury. Some say this decision saved Rothbury’s bacon by severing it from a reliance on unpopular Hunter Valley reds and allowing it to meet an exploding demand for chardonnay at a modest price.

As an indicator of the scale of Rothbury’s Cowra investment, the vineyard produced 1,000 cases of chardonnay in 1981, 42,000 in 1990, and about 60,000 in 1993. The rapid growth in production reflects grafting over of the other varieties to chardonnay rather than expanded plantings.

The action at Cowra did not stop with Rothbury. Gray’s Cowra Vineyards Pty Ltd (CVPL) went on to plant a further 73 hectares of vines adjacent to Rothbury’s Holdings, with another 10 established by CVPL’s vineyard manager, Greg Johnston. That’s how Cowra found broad acres of grape vines nestling up to its suburbs.

This cluster of vineyards almost in the town was joined later by a 29 hectare planting about 20 kilometres downstream on the Lachlan’s beautiful plains. David and Elizabeth O’Dea established the vineyard on their 364-hectare ‘Windowrie’ hoping for better returns than those generated by breeding Simmental cattle and wheat farming. The O’Dea’s now plan on extending the vineyard to 121 hectares over the next four to five years.

But Cowra can thank Brian McGuigan for its biggest vineyard. While head of Wyndham Estate, Brian foresaw sales outstripping grape supply. With viticulturist, Brian Sainty, he identified Cowra as a potential low-cost source of grapes for making soft, fruity, easy-drinking wines.

A small-investor scheme designed to fund the development failed to get the tax office nod and, as well, became caught up in the collapse of Wyndham’s parent company. Wyndham was acquired by Orlando and the merged Wyndham-Orlando Group decided to proceed with the Cowra development. Thus, Brian Sainty’s ambitious plans bore fruit.

In a development Sainty claims is unprecedented in Australia, 222 hectares were planted on 56 blocks to 11 grape varieties in one year, 1989, complete with a computerised irrigation system that allows Sainty to tailor-programme watering needs for each block.

Between 1972 and 1993, Cowra’s area under vines grew from nil to 343.6 hectares. In 1993 dollars that represents an investment in land, trellising, vines, and irrigation systems of around $9.1 million dollars.

Greg Johnston and Brian Sainty conservatively estimate plantings will grow to 810 hectares by 2000, bringing capital investment in the area to $20 million of today’s dollars.

By my estimate, grape production from Cowra’s existing vineyards is sufficient to make 326,000 dozen 750 ml bottles: 184,500 white, 103,500 red, and 38,000 sparkling.

My best guess is that the 1993 grape crop was worth $4.5 million to producers and that after it has been turned into wine and bottled, will leave the cellar with a value of perhaps $30 million. What other primary industry adds such value to its raw product?

By 2000, if all goes to estimate, the grape crop should be worth $10 million and the wine $70 million.

Perhaps by then Cowra might even have a winery! At the moment, every grape grown in the district heads off to wineries outside the area. Still, there are a growing number of very good Cowra wines to be enjoyed at modest prices. More on those next week.