A one liner, attributed to Gough Whitlam struggling with a flaccid microphone, “The harder I try, the limper I get “, applies as well to wine making.
Too much wine we read about and find in stores and restaurants seems overwrought… swamped rather than enhanced with intrusive flavours by wine maker wizardry gone berserk.
Wizardry can work, as we see with better quality reds matured in oak, and the very best chardonnays fermented and matured in barrels, put through malolactic fermentation (converting malic to lactic acid, thus softening the wine and adding an aptly described ‘buttery’ character) and matured on dead yeast cells. (lees)
All this works wonderfully on top-quality wine in the hands of an accomplished wine maker. But when grapes fall below par, or the wine maker’s judgement fails, a round wheel is rendered square. What might have been fruity, pleasing, and simple becomes angular and harsh while trying to be sophisticated.
Wine makers understand this. They know that, finally, wines are made in the vineyard. Success for them is likely to come quickly with simpler fruity wines like riesling. But making wine styles requiring greater manipulation, reds and chardonnays matured in oak for example, require a judgement that comes only with time.
Sometimes wine makers, even those successful with wizardry, surprise even themselves with just how lovely some of the easier-to-make wines turn out.
I saw this in January, visiting Bruce Tyrrell in the Hunter Valley. We tasted a run of wines, new and old, ranging from the simplest to the most highly manipulated.
No one doubts Murray (Bruce’s father) Tyrrell’s wizardry, seen in his pioneering efforts with chardonnay and, even more so, with the recalcitrant pinot noir grape. He led the Australian charge on oak-matured chardonnays, honing and polishing the style a little more each vintage.
Try the 1991 and see how two decades work paid off. 1991 was a great vintage in the Hunter. Combine the unusually richly flavoured fruit of a wonderful year with Tyrrells’ wine-making skills, and the result is extraordinary: a chardonnay that’s rich and powerful, but restrained and tightly structured at the same time and with a now time-proven ability to improve with bottle age. This is a good example of wizardry improving on nature.
The same could be said of Tyrrells Futures Selection Hermitage 1987. If you are one of the thousands to have paid in advance for this wine a few years back, sit back and smile because it is a brilliant example of a great regional specialty. Wine making wizardry guilds it with complexity and structure, but after six years the strong regional character pushes through.
If ‘futures’ buyers smile at the prospect of drinking this rich, earthy red, Bruce and Murray Tyrrell wear the biggest smiles of all. For as Bruce told me, the ‘futures’ offer funded the purchase of a big property in Quirindi and the establishment of a vineyard there. Sounds like good business to me.
The sophistication, though, of the Vat 47 Chardonnay and Futures Selection Hermitage were swept aside by the sheer mouth-watering joy of swallowing Bruce’s Vat 1 Semillon 1987. Here there was no oak, no wine-maker induced flavours, just the naked pleasure of the grape, fermented, bottled, and aged six years.
Besides, it was five o’clock, it was hot, and I was thirsty. Little wonder the purer, fruitier wine won the day. But then, Vat 6 was no simple wine. Simply made, sure. But the intensity of flavour, bottle age, and silky-smooth gentleness lifted it above the ordinary. No wine maker wizardry here. Just a great vineyard and sympathetic husbandry.
Bruce Tyrrell has the greatest respect for Hunter semillon. He sees it blended with chardonnay as heaven on earth for wine drinkers. We glimpsed this in his Old Winery Chardonnay Semillon 1992. For a mass-produced wine (25,000 cases) it certainly delivers voluptuous, medium-dry drinking.
Bruce sees the combination of the two varieties as the ideal Hunter blend. “If I could make only one wine, semillon chardonnay would be it”, he told me. It seems the austerity and steely backbone of young Hunter semillon makes the perfect foil for the soft and at times overwhelming richness of Hunter chardonnay. Skillfully blended, the sum of the parts are greater than the whole.
And the blend requires little wine maker manipulation, delivering pure and lovely wine, to quaff with delight. More often than not, isn’t that what we look for in a wine?