Yearly Archives: 1993

Penfolds Grange and Bin 707

Penfold’s release of Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707 1990 with Grange Hermitage 1988 reveals publicly what the wine makers have felt for years about its greatness. The sheer quality of the wine allows the marketers to position it firmly alongside Australia’s greatest red.

It also underpins a strong price performance at auction, suggesting that over time, perhaps a decade, Bin 707 will be on a par with Grange.

If that turns out to be the case, then Bin 707 is the better financial investment of the two: Grange now appears fully priced on a world scale at around $100, while Bin 707 can be picked up for $30 to $35 a bottle. Buying Bin 707 for $30 now is probably a bit like buying Grange for $20 in the early eighties – a bargain.

Whatever way prices go, as an investment in drinking pleasure you cannot go wrong with either wine. All it takes to reap the rewards is a cool dark place for the bottles and patience enough to leave them alone for another decade.

Bin 707 vintages 1976, 1980, and 1983 were all described in last week’s column. The 1986 justifies all the hype that surrounded the vintage and the sheer voluptuous sweetness of flavour makes it the best of the decade in my books. It is a most remarkable wine but nowhere near its peak.

Against these the 1990 is a baby, slowly showing its character: elegance with smooth, highly concentrated ripe berry flavours integrated with sweet oak and firm, drying tannins. Time is all it needs to blossom. You’d have to rate it as one of the greats, capping the decade in which Bin 707 took shape.

Unlike Grange, Bin 707 has changed dramatically. Early vintages, starting with the first in 1964, were sourced entirely from very old vines on the Kalimna vineyard. From 1967, fruit from other Barossa vineyards was included.

From 1970 to 1975 production ceased, then started again in 1976. From 1979, fruit from Coonawarra was included in the blend.

During the eighties, Coonawarra came to dominate Bin 707. Hence, the transformation in style from the robust, chocolaty warmth of Barossa to the concentrated, elegant berry flavours of Coonawarra. Fruit for Bin 707 comes from two Coonawarra vineyards planted by Penfolds in 1969 and 1971.

However, Bin 707 is not pure Coonawarra. The winemakers still blend in a little amazingly rich cabernet from those very old Kalimna vines. But Coonawarra is at the heart of it for one simple reason: that’s where cabernet sauvignon grows best.

While Grange has undergone no fundamental style change like Bin 707, fruit sourcing has altered since the first batch was made in 1951. Morphett Vale and Magill were the sources of those early Granges. Urban sprawl knocked out the Morphett Vale vineyards and over time fruit from Kalimna, Clare and McLaren Vale found it s way into the blend.

Grange has been fine-tuned rather than changed, the style always featuring enormously robust shiraz flavours. Kalimna provides the mother wine for modern Grange. It is seasoned with shiraz from other areas and often a touch of cabernet… the 1988, for example, contains 6 per cent shiraz.

Grange and Bin 707 have much in common. Both are made in quite small quantities (my guess is between 5 and 10 thousand cases a year of each) from the very best fruit available: in the case of Grange the best shiraz; for Bin 707 the best cabernet sauvignon.

Full ripe flavours are essential to both styles. And fermentation techniques are designed to extract maximum colour and flavour. Both wines finish their fermentations in and mature for about 18 months in new American oak barrels.

Those barrels add a distinctive, unique flavour to Penfolds top wines. A great deal of effort goes into quality control of the barrels.

American oak is shipped as green timber sawn to stave length. Cooper’s A.P. Johns season it for two seasons in their yards before making barrels. Penfolds dissemble some to check the degree of roasting and take shavings to test for TCA, the molecule responsible for corkiness in wine.

Another component of the unique Grange flavour comes from the presence in higher than normal concentration of volatile acidity (VA). There’s a touch in any oak matured wine, but Grange carries a little more because it’s in the fruit to begin with, then increases during barrel fermentation. As the name suggests, VA makes the aroma dramatically more powerful– part of the spice of Grange.

Grange 1988 contains all the classic aroma and flavour elements of the style – a blue chip wine investment for prolonged cellaring and ultimately great drinking.

Keatings wine tax unbearable

The Federal Treasurer, Mr Dawkins’ increased wine tax might seem just another impost on the household budget. Instead, it has the potential to undermine a potentially great export industry by wrecking the domestic market. As well, it almost certainly precipitates a decline in investment by large companies and bankruptcies (and hence more unemployment) amongst smaller wine makers, wholesalers and retailers not sufficiently capitalised to cope with another massive government-imposed financial burden.

Where wholesale taxes rose generally from 20 to 21 per cent in the budget, wine was treated to a 55 per cent jump from 20 per cent to 31 per cent on all wholesale transactions after midnight last Tuesday. That massive slug triggered a run on existing retail stock not subject to the new tax. Some of that may be around for a few weeks, but anything new automatically goes up in price.

As well as the federal tax increase, states and territories get a bonus because liquor licence fees come after sales tax. Thus, under the old regime a case of wine costing a retailer $50 was subject to 20 per cent sales tax plus 13 per cent licence fee, bringing the nett landed cost to $67.80. The federal cut was $10 and the Territory’s $7.80, making the total tax $17.80 or 26.3 per cent of the cost price.

Under the new arrangement that $50 case of wine lands at $74.02, an increase of 9.2 per cent. The federal take rises from $10 to $15.50 (55 per cent), and the Territory’s from $7.80 to $8.52 (9.2 per cent). The total tax increase is therefore $6.22 (35 per cent), rising from $17.80 to $24.02 or 32.5 per cent of the cost price. Thank you messrs Dawkins and Keating.

These higher taxes translate to retail price rises of around 50 cents on a $5 bottle, $1 on a $10 bottle, and about $1 on a 4 litre wine cask. Perhaps that doesn’t seem a very great burden. But with household incomes not rising, the simple truth is that a good proportion of wine drinkers not able to afford the extra will trade down to lower quality at the same old price, move to beer and spirits, or simply drink less. Quite simply, higher prices reduce demand.

As consumers resist price rises, already-slim margins along the production, distribution and retail chain come under even greater pressure. Reduced margins, along with an increased need for working capital to service the higher taxes, add to the already great stresses at work in the industry.

What we’re seeing in the wine distribution chain are the same forces that moved grocery market share so dramatically from independents to the major chains in the last decade. We’ve all read of Davids Holdings and Foodlands manoeuvres to create a third retailing force through Australia-wide amalgamations of wholesalers and associated independent retailers.

Higher taxes will probably force the demise of many small liquor retailers before these plans take shape. Squeezed between lower margins and wine suppliers demanding shorter credit terms (in most cases it’s the winery that has to pay sales tax 30 days after selling goods to the retailer) many will go under. When that happens, financially weak suppliers get dragged under, too.

Will the government then boast that it snapped not only the twig of inflation but also the backs of small businesses imprudent enough not to have planned for a 55 per cent tax increase?

Bigger, well-capitalised businesses will bear the tax burden better than teetering or collapsing small ones. As well as being able to fund stock, large retailers feeling consumer resistance to higher prices have the leverage to ask suppliers to share the margin squeeze.

Large wine makers creating Australia’s dramatic export push appear horrified at the savage tax hike and the margin squeeze that’s to follow. Exports are not subject to sales tax. But without a healthy, profitable domestic market there is nothing to underpin the huge investment in vineyards demanded by export growth. Even before the tax hike, domestic sales were flat and margins under pressure.

The day after the budget, both Bruce Kemp and Perry Gunner, heads of The Penfolds Wine Group and Orlando-Wyndham respectively, expressed doubts about planned vineyard expansions in Australia. It will be a tragedy if a heavy-handed tax grab curtails the $600 million dollar investment that had been expected over the next five years.

It will be tragic, too, to see small businesses wiped out not by inefficiency but by government burdens too great to carry.

Coonawarra discoveries and myths debunked

Visiting and phoning Coonawarra gathering information for the last few weeks’ articles on the boundary debate, a few myths were debunked by locals. As well, after comprehensive tastings of Coonawarra reds last year, and a visit to the area in May, I reckon there’s a rising new star in Peter Riddoch Rymill’s ‘Riddoch Run’ vineyard.

One myth currently doing the rounds, fanned by Australia’s best-known wine writer, James Halliday, is that the marvelous Wynns Michael Hermitage derives its immense concentration of fruit flavour from a wine making technique known as ‘juice run off’.

Was it Voltaire who said, “Just because facts are ignored does not mean they cease to exist.”? In this case, Halliday, and lesser scribes mimicking him, simply ignore the facts, or don’t bother to find out what they are in the first place. Visit the winery, taste the latest vintage of Michael out of new oak barrels, talk to the wine maker, and careful fruit selection – not wine maker interference – emerges as the source of flavour.

Juice run-off’, says wine maker Peter Douglas, gives tannin and colour but not flavour. It involves running off juice from a fermenter so that the ratio of skins to liquid increases. As all of a red wine’s colour and most of its tannin comes from the skins, the process results in densely coloured, very tannic reds with very little fruit flavour.

The reason for the latter is that the juice that’s run off is the first and easiest portion to be extracted from grapes. It happens to be the highest in sugar (which is where the alcohol comes from) and the richest in flavour.

Douglas says Wynns experimented with juice run off in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s but were not happy because it resulted in the loss of berry flavours. He admits that the company’s flagship red, John Riddoch Cabernet, was made this way in 1984. It is a good wine, still going strong, but lined up against the other John Riddochs, it is the weakest.

None of the company’s top wines have been made using juice run off since then. “The answer to richness is ripeness”, Douglas told me. The top wines, John Riddoch Cabernet and Michael Hermitage, are made from the ripest, tastiest grapes coming into the winery. Invariably these come from low-yielding old vines on shallow terra rossa soil over limestone.

Another myth living on is that Coonawarra’s big producers (and the rumour-mongers invariably point the finger at the Penfolds Wine Group) vastly over crop their vineyards. Nothing could be further from the truth.

David Murdock, Penfold’s viticulturist in Coonawarra, believes there was a great deal of over cropping, particularly by Wynns when it was owned by Allied Vintners, in Coonawarra in the late 1970’s. But it backfired. Accountant s might have liked the idea of harvesting 15 tonnes of red grapes from every hectare, but nature failed to oblige.

David says that at those crop levels, grapes simply don’t ripen beyond a potential alcohol of 10 per cent and make feeble, light-coloured wines indeed. We saw Coonawarra’s like this in the 70s and they were widely rejected by consumers.

These days Coonawarra’s serious makers (and that’s almost everyone) manage vineyards for quality. And that means ripeness. Thus, Murdoch says his group aims for overall red yields in the vicinity of 10 tonnes to the hectare. At this level, grapes come in with an alcohol potential of 13 to 13.5 per cent. He says some parts of the vineyard give slightly higher yields, and others as low as 4 tonnes to the hectare.

Murdoch’s experience fits with Australian Bureau of Statistics figures which show for the 1992 vintage an overall yield for Coonawarra of 11.7 tonnes per hectare for shiraz and 9.4 tonnes for cabernet sauvignon.

This modest yield delivers the great, wonderful mouthfuls of rich fruit flavours that sets Coonawarra apart. And while there are so many excellent wines being made there, I was struck by the superb fruit quality in wines being made from Peter Riddoch Rymill’s Riddoch Run vineyard.

The 100-hectare vineyard lies on a terra rossa outcrop towards the northern end of Coonawarra to the west of the main road. Peter sells three quarters of his 1,000 tonne output to Orlando and puts the rest through his own efficient little winery.

Wine maker John Innes captures the spectacular fruit flavours brilliantly. Just taste Rymill Riddoch Run 1991 shiraz and cabernet and see what I mean. The shiraz in particular stands out. I think what we see here is a rare, wonderful and unique vineyard site. Perhaps it’s more evidence that the very finest reds, especially shiraz, come from the northern end of Coonawarra.

Coonawarra Boundary controversy

Langhorne Creek, Coonawarra, and Canberra have something in common. If viticulturally disparate, their winemakers and grape growers are the last in Australia to define regional boundaries for agreements shortly to be signed between Australia, the EC and the U.S.A..

The agreements culminate three years of negotiations on the terms of entry of Australian wines into these potentially huge markets. The Americans and Europeans insist that if regional names are to be used in conjunction with our wines, then boundaries must be defined clearly.

The onus of definition was passed by the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation, a party to the bi-lateral negotiations, to state and regional wine-maker and grape-grower groups. This resulted in the definition of about 380 regions, with only the three named above still embroiled in controversy as the signing date approaches.

By far the most important of the three, in terms of quality, economic value and Australia’s image overseas is Coonawarra, the narrow strip of vineyards running north for 15 kilometres from Penola in the southeastern corner of South Australia.

It produces around 20,000 tonnes of grapes a year, the equivalent of 1.5 million dozen 750 ml bottles. Only 80 kilometres up the road, on a similar geological formation, Padthaway produces slightly more again than Coonawarra.

Between them, these two areas produce just under 10 per cent of Australia’s wine. But by my reckoning, the combined output of 3.3 million cases a year amounts to almost a third of Australia’s 10.9 million case output of table and bottle-fermented sparkling wine in 750 ml bottles. If it were possible to separate premium from ordinary wine in those figures, my guess is that the region’s input might be as much as fifty per cent.

A good part of the southeast’s output disappears into multi-regional blends including some of our more glamorous sparkling wines. But for premium-quality reds and whites, considerable value attaches to the name Padthaway and, in the case of reds, even more to Coonawarra.

This is what regional definition finally gets down to: people grow grapes and make wine in an area. The wines show distinctive characteristics. With time those characteristics become associated with the name of the area. The area planted expands. In effect the wine style defines the region. But at what stage should expansion stop. What are the limits to the area that makes the distinctive style of wine? These are questions only adequately answered over a considerable period of time.

Formal definitions of distinctive areas are to some extent based on historic performance. Burgundy with its myriad little vineyard names is a great example of that. But for newer, and especially rapidly expanding areas like the southeast, there is far less performance and information on which to base boundaries.

At the heart of it, boundaries are to protect consumers. The wine drinker expects certain things from a regional denomination and should get it. But boundaries also have profound economic consequences, affecting the value of existing interests as well as the pattern and extent of future investment.

In the case of Coonawarra those interests are substantial. By my estimate the capital value of vines and wineries total in excess of 100 million dollars. These assets are hard at work earning dividends for shareholders and export dollars for Australia.

July 18th, 1993

In the dispute over Coonawarra’s boundaries we drinkers are the final arbiters. We’re the ones handing over our money. In the long run, there’s a strong correlation between price and quality. We’ve all discerned the unique qualities of Coonawarra’s rich, elegant reds and paid a premium for them. We should now scream from the sidelines, urging the area’s grape growers and wine makers to be conservative with the boundary. Draw a tight line around this special little strip of vineyards. Don’t let any outsider persuade you otherwise.

Brian Croser, one of those in favour of a larger Coonawarra, said to me on a visit to his winery last year that Coonawarra would finally define itself with the wines it made. However, with the need to formally delimit the area to meet terms of entry requirements for the EC and USA, we have no choice but to act now. Doesn’t that mean defining Coonawarra by the wines it has made to date, not on what an expanded Coonawarra might do tomorrow?

Peter Rymill-Riddoch, descendent of last century’s pioneer Coonawarra grape grower, John Riddoch, kindly allowed me to read the geological chapter in his forthcoming book on Coonawarra. The fifteen-kilometre strip sits on a marine limestone deposit of an inter-dunal lagoon stranded in an ice age about 700,000 years ago.

Geologist David Farmer, after studying topographic maps of the area, believes Padthaway, 80 kilometres to the north, is on the same long-receded coastal formation. It seems, too, that the whole southeast, in a south-north arch from Mount Gambier to Padthaway and west to the coast, consists of a series of fossilised sand dunes and inter-dunal lagoons stranded as the ocean receded in successive ice ages.

Coonawarra is just one of numerous sites where marine limestone-deposits rise sufficiently for the soil to drain freely. Within the narrow confines of Coonawarra, soils vary considerably, but those producing the best red wines are the highest, best-drained locations where the soil has weathered to a red colour. This is the famous terra rossa. But even in Coonawarra terra rossa does not form a continuous strip. The planted area is a complex patchwork of red, brown, and black.

What no one disputes is that the many islands of terra rossa sprinkled across the whole southeast may make excellent wines. Already we’ve seen good results from some of these. By all accounts St Marys Vineyard, 15 kilometres west of Coonawarra, planted on an isolated pocket of terra rossa that Peter Rymill tells me is probably one ice age younger, makes wine with some of the ripe-berry flavours we see in Coonawarra. And for many years Koppamurra, further to the north, has made very good reds, sometimes regarded as Coonawarra.

Vic Patrick of Mildara Blass says there is unprecedented interest in grape growing in the area with planting under way south to Mount Gambier and right across to Cape Jaffa on the coast. His own company has 570 hectares of mainly terra rossa soil ready to plant to the north of Coonawarra. He is adamant that this is not and should never be called Coonawarra.

Part of the argument of those wanting a larger Coonawarra is that being on terra rossa soil should be the determinant. They point out that much of the present Coonawarra’s plantings are on non-red soil. But as Peter Rymill states, defining the present area by soil mapping would be prohibitively expensive. As well, it would be impracticable to throw out vineyards that are already in.

Coonawarra’s present boundaries are quite crude, having been defined by the Viticultural Committee of the South East in 1984 as the ‘hundreds’ of Penola and Comaum. Viticultural Coonawarra embraces only about 5 per cent of the land within the area and the vast majority of land remaining is simply not suited to grape growing.

There are some who would expand the boundaries and others who would see them tightened.

Naturally enough, established growers and makers along the main road want no extension of the area. In fact, the major players want the boundaries rained in to include only the cigar-shaped 15-kilometre strip enthusiasts know as Coonawarra.

Bruce Kemp, Chief Executive of Penfolds Wine Group, largest of Coonawarra landholders, told me his company took this view. This was repeated, too, by Vic Patrick speaking on behalf of Mildara Blass. Ian Hollick and other smaller growers I spoke to were in accord.

The loudest dissenting voice is that of Brian Croser of Petaluma, who envisages a larger Coonawarra. His company owns the Evans Vineyard within Coonawarra and the Sharefarmers vineyard just outside the current boundary.

As well, we have Messrs Mulligan and Hooper of St Marys vineyard, 15 kilometres to the west of Coonawarra but on similar soil types, searching for a regional name but not wanting to be part of Coonawarra.

Just what Coonawarra is seems a little blurry at the moment, but we should see the matter come to a head soon, perhaps in a surprising manner, as the legal implications move like a mist, blurring what seems straightforward. More next week on developments in our greatest red-wine producing area.

Wines that inspire

The Australian wine industry exists because waves of European immigrants brought with them vines, technology, and a belief that a land so sunny must make good wines. With time, wine styles modeled on European originals diverged as vines and wine makers adapted to a new and very different landscape. Despite international success of our wines, it is pure folly to write off the importance of those original models or to assume that all of our wines have long since overtaken the ones they imitated.

It’s good to be confident and proud of our achievements; it’s bad to believe we know it all. There is a vast difference between cultural cringing and paying homage where it’s due – something we can do only if our frame of reference is big enough and we take time to stand back and assess not only at our own achievements, but those of our competitors as well.

Writing in the Melbourne Age on June 22, Mark Shield confused the two when he wrote “The other day, I was at a dinner where some famous French wines were being served. They were great and in their midst was an Australian wine, Mount Langi Ghiran cabernet sauvignon 1990, which was equally great but different. The label snobs were steadfastly ignoring the Langi and they were aghast when I said I preferred to drink it instead of the French wines. ‘But theses are First Growths!’ My answer was ‘so what?’

It’s not the first time I’ve been condemned to play the role of fool on the hill, and it won’t be the last. And then, I’m among the biggest cringers when it comes to things other than wine. One day we’ll all grow up.”

While Shield is right to drink what he prefers, those First Growths (the top rated reds of Bordeaux, home of cabernet sauvignon and merlot) simply cannot be dismissed so lightly. Backing Mount Langi in that line up seems to me a bit liking pitting the family sedan against a formula one racer – except with wine there are no starting and finishing lines – only opinions as to which is best.

In the case of the First Growths, there is a very long and weighty body of opinion to support their case. Most telling of all is the fact that the very best wine makers of the new world – those with very broad frames of reference – have no qualms in acknowledging just how wonderful these Bordeaux reds are. They see qualities in these wines that still elude them in their own efforts to make a great cabernet or merlot.

I think it’s no accident that after a visit to Brian Croser, tasting ever-better Petaluma Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon-merlot blends, he invariably opens a lovely old Bordeaux to drink with the meal.

Croser’s mentor and former partner, Len Evans, is much the same. Len has one of the great palates of the world. He tastes widely of all the planet has to offer. He loves Australian wine. And he’s one of its greatest and most generous promoters. The same can be said of Croser.

Yet both gentlemen seem to prefer Bordeaux to Australian cabernet. They’re not suffering from cultural cringe. They’re men who’ve drunk widely enough to have formed solid opinions and share a vision that one day we might makes reds as profoundly as good as the best Bordeaux – not only a vision, but actively pursue the making of great wines while openly admitting the inspiration provided by French classics.

Only a few months back, I was fortunate to taste wines from the Yalumba museum cellar with Evans. It was wonderful to see him putting wines quickly into perspective.

Amongst the cabernets it was a Chateau Margaux 1982 (one of Bordeaux’s First Growths) that stood far above the others. Clearly he indicated we may aspire to this quality in Australia, but we’re not there yet.

Yet when we tasted France’s best shirazes (from the Rhone Valley) Len was adamant that here our winemakers had nothing to learn. In his view our best shirazes are at least the equal of France’s best.

As with shiraz, we have little if any catching up to do with those other secondary varieties, semillon and sauvignon blanc (except when they’re blended as a sweet wine, in which case Sauternes still leaves us for dead).

But with chardonnay, pinot noir, and Champagne, despite rapid progress, the realists still dream of the French originals while honing their own products ever finer.

Creating the Farmer Bros National Wine Show Trophy

Bill Moore of the Royal National Capital Agricultural Society and Ian McKenzie, Chairman of Judges, put their heads together with David Farmer recently to come up with yet another innovative change to Canberra’s National Wine Show of Australia.

Since 1982, the show has allowed the judging of a special class for chardonnays in their third year or older. The winner carries off the Farmer Bros Trophy – the top ranked and most widely publicised award of the Show.

However, in recent years Farmer has been a critic of his own award. He saw its major shortcoming as a failure to attract entries from many accomplished wine makers, particularly smaller producers in evolving cool climate growing areas.

Farmer says the award was never intended for simple workmanlike chardonnays with a few years bottle age. His intention was always to reward a chardonnay with something of the power, elegance and longevity of the great White Burgundies of Montrachet and Corton Charlemagne vineyards of France.

I well remember the seminal years of the award and its planning from the late seventies until its introduction in 1982. In those years Dr Edgar Riek (of Lake George Vineyard) was the driving force behind the National Wine Show. He and David met regularly and were even known to enjoy a few drinks together on a hot day. I was fortunate to sit in on those meetings.

Edgar was always keen to improve the Show. He saw long before others did that wine shows were no longer simple agricultural affairs, but public forums and, increasingly, marketing platforms to launch or enhance wines lucky enough to win gold medals and trophies. He liked bouncing ideas off David with his coalface experience of retailing.

Edgar was keen for Farmer Bros to sponsor a major trophy and David equally keen that were he to do so, it would have a lasting benefit to consumers, the winner, and the industry as a whole as well as to the sponsor.

He didn’t want any connection with another farce like the Jimmy Watson Trophy in Melbourne. In his view, unwarranted commercial value accrued to a wine not yet through pre-bottling maturation.

It was the dawning of the chardonnay era in Australia. After years of shortage, this perhaps greatest of all white-wine grape varieties was finally popping up here, there and everywhere. There was not enough to go around but, equally, it had moved from the hands of only enthusiasts into the commercial realm.

David developed his palate and love of wine mainly out of Australia. As a geologist in South Africa and Canada, he’d spend holidays in the early seventies in France, Germany, and Spain enjoying the great European classics. In those days you did not have to be wealthy to drink French country wines, and even the great wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace, and the Mosel and Rhine Valleys were not out of reach. The dollar was strong, and America’s millionaires had not yet moved away from Bourbon and Scotch.

Later, David left Geology to join with brother, Richard, in liquor retailing. So from 1975 he turned a by now well-honed European-orientated palate to the Australian scene. With his early support of Brian Croser’s original Petaluma Chardonnay, it was not surprising he and Edgar Riek finally decided on a Farmer Bros Trophy for an Australian chardonnay.

June 27th, 1993

The point has been made several times in this column that Australia’s Wine Shows, source of all those glossy medals festooned on wine bottles, need constant change if results are to mean anything to consumers or makers. Last week, I gave background to changes being made to one of the major trophy classes this year at Canberra’s National Wine Show of Australia.

Since its inception in 1982, the Farmer Bros Trophy has been awarded to medal-winning chardonnays in their third year or older. Entries burgeoned in recent years, but David Farmer has been worried that too many were over the hill. They met the age criteria for entry, but simply were not up to the standard envisaged. More importantly, many of Australia’s and New Zealand’s top chardonnays were simply not entered.

David took this problem to Bill Moore, president of the Royal National Capital Agricultural Society, which runs the show, and Ian McKenzie, Chairman of Judges. Together, they’ve changed the rules. Hopefully, we will now see all the best chardonnays lined up together and get a better view of the state of the art. The changes are also certain to be studied by other show societies, especially innovative Adelaide, as the realisation sets in that things cannot be run the same old way forever.

In previous years wines were eligible for the Trophy tasting if they were in their third year or older, had won a medal, and the maker had fifty dozen in stock. At first, those criteria kept entry numbers low. It was early days for chardonnay in Australia and New Zealand.

By 1991 entries had expanded to 100 wines. In that year judges awarded medals to 33 wines but commented, “… extremely disappointing class with many tired, over-oaked, over-extracted wines showing phenolic breakup. Perhaps as much a comment on the strides made in handling chardonnay in recent years as anything else.”

In 1992 there were 86 entries, 45 being awarded medals. But the judges were still not happy, commenting, “… many wines too mature and lacking freshness.” It might also be added, many major names were missing from the line up. It was a Melbourne Cup without the thoroughbreds.

The 1993 Canberra Show Schedule, mailed this week to 700 wineries in Australia and New Zealand, spells out the new rules and hopes to rope in those thoroughbreds not previously on the starting line.

Wines no longer need to have won medals to be entered. Entries simply have to be “named commercial wines, future, current or past releases” from the 1991 vintage or older. There is no minimum quantity requirement (an enticement to small makers) and “points and awards will not be published in the Catalogue of Results which will show only the list of Exhibits in random order and the Trophy winner.”

Hopefully this last requirement will clinch entries from top makers building brands outside the Show System. Those building a reputation without relying on show awards, see little to gain and much to lose in the normal system. Unless they fluke the top award, there’s always the chance of a low score which, if published, becomes a black mark against the brand.

Petaluma is a good example. Chief Executive, Brian Croser, chairs the Adelaide Show, but refuses to enter his own wines. He sees a conflict of interest in judging them. Equally important, Petaluma now has nothing to gain in open competition where the results are published for all to see. This is no reflection on the quality of Petaluma. (But it says volumes on the reliability of show judging).

Padthaway and Coonawarra in vintage 1993

Vignerons in Coonawarra hardly believe their own good luck. The fourth successive outstanding vintage now sits in tanks and casks in a region normally prone to wide quality variations from year to year – including about two real duds every decade.

The news from Padthaway, about eighty kilometres to the north, is perhaps even better, with white wines this year better than anyone I visited remembered in the district’s twenty-five year viticultural history.

Just how good the vintage turns out in these areas can’t be gauged properly until next spring when malolactic fermentations finish. (The new wines are high in malic acid, more so this year than usual. After primary fermentation ends, winemakers inoculate wines to induce malolactic fermentation. Malic acid is converted to lactic acid, total acidity diminishes, and pH rises, effecting aroma, flavour, and structure of the wine).

Even then, the merits of the reds will be debated for decades. But the superior quality of the whites seems to be in no doubt. Winemakers at Rymill Estate, Wynns, Lindemans, Hollicks, and Leconfield – taking in both the north and south of Coonawarra – were unanimously excited.

This is the first vintage they can recall where white wines were not in need of acid adjustment – a rare thing in Australian wine making where a hefty dose of tartaric acid gives most of our wines zip and life to balance high alcohol levels. The long, cool ripening that left grapes with such healthy natural acidity, also delivered wonderful, rich fruit flavours.

I tasted a good representation of Coonawarra and Padthaway whites at both the Rouge Homme and Wynns wineries. Both wineries belong to the Penfold Wine Group, largest vineyard holder in both districts, and which between them crush and ferment the group’s entire grape output from the region.

It’s hard not to be impressed with the quality, even of secondary material headed for the $2.99 a bottle Matthew Lang brand. Wynns’ wine maker, Peter Douglas, smiled as we approved a very tasty, crisp rhine riesling from a 100,000 litre tank. I don’t know how competitors here or overseas can ever match this sort of quality at the price.

Then there was the soft, rich, and delicious chardonnay, in a similarly large tank, headed for the modestly priced Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay. Word has it the blend for this export champion will reach 6 million litres from the 1993 vintage. And with components of the quality tasted in Coonawarra going into it, little wonder the Americans love it so dearly.

And so on it went, working up through tanks and barrels earmarked for the very top brands… fine, intense aromas, rich, concentrated flavours, and quite tight, firm structures imparted by high natural acids. Across all varieties… rhine riesling, semillon, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, verdelho, and chardonnay… Coonawarra and Padthaway hit the jackpot in 1993.

Chief wine maker for Seppelts (part of the Penfolds Wine Group), Ian McKenzie, confirmed these impression on a visit to Canberra this week. He said Padthaway whites, overall, get the highest ranking he’s seen.

While everyone sees 1993 reds as very good, opinions vary as to how good. At Rymill Estate in the north of Coonawarra, wine maker John Innes, over a barrel sample of 1993 Cabernet says it is “perhaps even better than the 1990.” That and 1993 shiraz showed sensational depths of rich, ripe, sweet fruit flavours.

Surveying his quite vast selection of tank and cask red samples at Wynns, Peter Douglas rates the vintage as outstanding, but not quite of the very first order like the 1986 and 1990.

A few kilometres south Ralph Fowler of Leconfield, cannot contain his excitement about the vintage. In March where they wondered if the grapes would ever ripen, a long, mild, sunny spell saved the day. His best cabernet, from the front 20 rows of vines planted by old Sydney Hamilton in the late seventies, show all the power, richness and elegance that makes Coonawarra our only world-class cabernet area.

Ralph has a few more tricks up his sleeve as we see in tanks of merlot and cabernet franc, produced as blenders to enhance cabernet sauvignon. I’m convinced judicious blending of these varieties will lift Coonawarra’s reds another notch.

Still, it will be some years before we drink these lovely 1993 Coonawarras. In the meantime, one red, to be released in October this year, according to wine maker Greg Clayfield, struck me as sensational – another world-class Coonawarra. Lindemans St George Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1990 is powerful, elegant, and destined for greatness with long-term cellaring. Don’t miss this one when it’s released.

Keeping it simple

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?

On Gerald Asher and wine writing

The English have probably thrown up more good wine writers than anyone else. Not surprising given that London has for so long been the centre of the world’s wine trade. Thumb through the major English wine publications and you’ll find a level of commentary and judgement we don’t enjoy here. But even so, it’s riveting stuff. And a good deal of it, naturally enough, is pitched at the already well-informed reader.

But every now and then there emerges a wine writer of greater stature. Someone who not only exercises good judgement on the topic, but also has the literary skill to enthuse as well as inform the reader. In Australia, probably only Len Evans ever achieved that. Perhaps there’ll be a few more gems from him in the years ahead!

Some of the most easily digested essays on wine that I’ve read flow from the pen of Gerald Asher. I’m not a regular reader of the American Gourmet magazine, but his wine column illuminated the occasional issues to come my way. Recently a friend handed me a book, Gerald Asher on Wine, a collection of his essays, many adapted from Gourmet articles. I’d read it all before, but what compulsive reading it was after the turgid fare we’re still served up in our glossies.

Asher began his career in the wine trade in London shortly after the second world war, In Asher’s words, “The wine trade was regarded as a convenient refuge for those of good family who were ill equipped for the intellectual challenge of law or medicine, yet insufficiently rich to be placed in private banking in the City. He who had every right to be modest in his expectations was thus kept from the shame of idleness, but, in the process, depressed the expectations of the rest of us. For nearly five years my salary had remained unchanged. Proud of my accomplishments, I asked the managing director if he would review it. He was taken aback. ‘Young man,’ he said, turning me down, “if I were to grant an increase, it would merely encourage you to ask again another time. There’d be no holding you.’”

And there was no holding him. For Gerald Asher it was the spur to setting up in the wine trade on his own. He set about building a prosperous business, quite different from the traditional London wine merchants. Instead of concentrating on the great classic wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy, he went in search of the distinctive county wines of France, discovering cheaper wines of high quality.

Thus detached from conventional wisdom, he searched diligently to arrive at his own definitions of which wines represented both quality and value. His judgement must have been good, because the business prospered. Presumably this was the period in which he learned to pen his enthusiasm for the lesser wines of France. How else would sales have been so good.

The experience gained in visiting the cellars of hundreds of producers all over France, combined with his earlier classical training, gave Asher a unique perspective on wine and how it meshed the soils, climate, food, and people of the regions from which they were produced. His independence of experience and thought also led to another breakthrough in business. He began exporting both the lesser and classic wine of France direct to the United States, and not through London as was traditionally the case. No doubt there was much ‘tut-tutting’ amongst the gentlefolk of the trade.

The market there was attractive enough to win him as a permanent resident in 1971, to New York initially, but finally in San Francisco close to California’s wine industry. Trade in the United States he found far removed from the gentlemanly pastime it was in Britain: “I had to supply mug shot, finger prints, and personal history to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, whose representative visited friends and acquaintances in the course of their enquires. It was clear that I was to consider myself henceforth a potential criminal, at very least. Indeed, I was soon to realise that the laws relating to the sale of wine – irrational, demeaning, and absurdly varied from state to state– make certain that everyone involved with the wine and spirit trade of this country will at some time, knowingly or unknowingly, commit an offense… “

Undeterred by the bureaucratic monkeys on his back, Asher’s wine knowledge was further enriched by the incredible vigour of the then rapidly expanding Californian wine industry. Working in the trade, and most importantly selling to the public, Asher managed to keep his feet firmly planted on the ground. His essays breathe an enthusiasm for wine.

And though a magazine like American Gourmet is read by the well-healed with an above-the-ordinary-interest in wine, his words are for everyone, not only those versed in wine lore.

If you can find this volume, published by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, New York, 1986, grab it and prepare for a late night. You won’t want to put it down.

Australian vintage 1993

For all but the coolest areas vintage 1993 is now crushed and sitting in casks, tanks, or even bottles. Early dire predictions of major shortages proved correct. But the recent burst of warm, sunny weather saved the day in premium areas, ripening to perfection smaller crops of very high quality grapes, both red and white.

Robert Hill-Smith of Barossa-based Yalumba says there couldn’t have been a stronger contrast between grapes harvested from warmer areas early in the season and those coming in from cooler areas during April.

Those early-season grapes rolling in from hot stretches of the Murray River proved a wine maker’s nightmare. Sugar and acid levels were both low (an unusual combination), meaning a tendency towards low-flavour, flabby wines. It took every bit of wine maker ingenuity to bring the wines up to par.

As the ripening season progressed, in many areas there was nail-biting anxiety that grapes, especially red varieties, might not ripen at all. Tahbilk’s Alister Purbrick, for instance, harvested outstanding whites then watched in dismay as a burst of wet weather triggered an outbreak of botrytis cinerea, a form of rot wonderful for some white varieties but devastating to reds.

Then, bingo! The sun shone as it had refused to throughout a patchy spring and summer, the grapes dried out, the rot stopped in its tracks, and over two glorious weeks, sugar levels crept up to a perfect ripeness with beautifully balanced acidity.

The story was similar across much of southern Australia. After months of anxiety, those areas where grapes ripen late, because of location at high altitude or low latitude, finally gathered an even-later-than-normal crop of exceptional quality.

Brian Walsh, Yalumba’s chief wine maker, told me over a few glasses in the Barossa last Tuesday, to expect some exceptional wines from the 1993 vintage. It seems reds generally and riesling and chardonnay amongst whites were outstanding. Robert Hill-Smith claims “quality is as good as we’ve ever seen.”

Up in the Adelaide Hills, Brian Croser seems even more exuberant, claiming 1993 as the best vintage in his twenty-four years’ winemaking. He made similar claims about the 1990 vintage. Given Brian’s sober approach to things, perhaps there really is something to crow about in 1993. Certainly a 1993 cabernet component of Yalumba Signature Reserve looked, smelled and tasted unusually rich and powerful.

Robert Hill-Smith estimates the shortfall in requirements of major companies at around 60,000 tonnes. That shortage is forcing a scramble for bulk wine. This, on top of high vineyard management costs imposed by a disease-prone season, is pushing up production costs. Already bigger companies are looking to recoup these through higher wholesale prices.

Sauvignon blanc seems to be in particularly short supply, especially with New Zealand makers here scouring the bulk wine market hoping to make up for their own disastrously small vintage.

The other notable shortage… being felt even before this year’s reduced yields… is of top-quality red wines. In recent times we’ve seen popular reds simply not lasting the full year on retail shelves… Penfolds recently released 1990 reds, for example, are likely to be gone by September, even with trade allocations split over April and July.

With Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignons the shortage is perennial. It would be hard to name one that’s available year round. And from better-known small makers like

Hollicks, Bowen Estate and Leconfield, a vintage sell-out within a few months of release is the rule rather than the exception.

If the estimate of a 60,000 tonne grape shortfall is true, then it seems logical to anticipate higher wine prices. That conclusion is supported by quite solid wholesale price rises already effective.

But in the past price rises have always been followed by price collapses as consumers simply refused to pay more or switched to up-and-coming brands that were cheaper. The domestic market is weak enough already with total wine consumption falling within a clear pattern of declining alcohol intake.

Consumers, naturally enough, resist price rises. And in the past they have always thumbed their noses at wine producers attempting any such thing. But things are a little different this time.

Retailer margins are at an all-time low and simply cannot be further compressed. Thus, any wholesale increases will flow instantly to the consumer. As well, exports are booming, providing an outlet if domestic sales fall.

But on the other side of the coin, production is poised to rocket in coming years. With the price per litre of wine exports falling, and a possibility that French and Italian producers may flex their muscle against the cheeky Australians, the current upward pressure on wine prices may prove very short lived.