Yearly Archives: 1994

Murrumbateman’s Jeir Creek Winery

In October, fields around Canberra showed a little green fuzz instead of the usual rampant spring growth. Teasing drizzle underlined for local vignerons their absolute reliance on dam, river or bore water to produce a crop every year. Canberra’s rainfall pattern, as for most of the continent, just does not favour vignerons.

At the time, some were in good shape. For Roger and Faye Harris at Brindabella Hills, for instance, water from an irrigation bore seemed as sweet as ever and showed no sign of drying up. Vines flush with spring growth suggested all was well. But for Rob and Kay Howell at Jeir Creek Winery, Murrumbateman, the outlook was bleak.

The vineyard looked good. Under a warm spring sun, 10,000 vines sprinkled over 6 hectares showed delicate green shoots. But the dam was almost empty and Rob talked of budgeting $10,000 for buying water essential to maintain vine growth. The Howell’s simply could not afford to lose this year’s crop.

Then the rain came, mostly in dribs and drabs as we’ve seen in Canberra. Murrumbateman, however, struck it lucky with five inches recorded over the last two months, according to Ken Helm. As a result vines are surging ahead with new growth of up to 4 centimetres a day recorded in one vineyard.

Now we’re laughing”, Rob Howell told me on the phone, “we’re in for a potentially big crop.” But he’s not writing the $10,000 water bill out of the budget yet. Several hot, dry months to endure before vintage with a dam only part full don’t inspire confidence.

Uncertainty is the lot of the vigneron. And vintage differences are a big part of what all the fuss over wine is about. For all the scientific control within wineries, and all the prudent vineyard management, what the vineyard produces remains significantly at the whim of nature.

In 1993 warm, wet conditions promoted the growth of mildew; followed by a 1994 vintage blighted for local makers by a freak spring frost that nipped a horrifyingly large portion of chardonnay in the bud; and then a 1995 vintage first seeming threatened by drought then shaping up as a cornucopia. Hopes are up at Jeir Creek and for Ken Helm’s estimated 21 vineyard owners within 6 kilometres of Murrumbateman.

As Rob Howell says, the weight of vineyards and, more importantly for drinkers, the concentration of cellar-door outlets in the vicinity, makes Murrumbateman something of a hub in a wine district spread over literally hundreds of kilometres, from Yass to Bungendore to Lake George to Bredbo.

Jeir Creek you’ll find a few kilometres to the right of the Barton Highway up Gooda Creek Road, before Murrumbateman Village. The winery and cellar-door/maturation shed sit behind the vineyard, all on gently rolling country — a tranquil and quite lovely setting, conveniently close to Canberra.

Rob and Kay, like so many small-scale operators (there are 800 in Australia at last count) committed themselves to wine making in 1984 after a long passion with the product.

Planting at Jeir Creek commenced in 1985 and progressed through until 1992 when a final chardonnay planting brought the total area under vine to 6 hectares — small but, nevertheless, one of the biggest single holdings in the Canberra district.

Chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, riesling and sauvignon blanc are the dominant varieties planted, with a tiny patch of pinot noir. But following the success in the district, and strong demand for red wine, the Howells intend planting 2 hectares of shiraz.

Jeir Creek, for the Howells continues to be an extra career rather than alternative one. Like so many other small makers, the venture is funded by full time daytime jobs. Rob’s career has been in surveying and mapping — topics he now teaches at Bruce C.I.T. while Kay works in childcare.

Rob says the aim is to move full time into wine making but there are several more capital hungry stages to pass through before that’s possible. A new mezzanine level in the winery is about to go in (as a tasting cellar-door sales area), then there’s 2 hectares of vineyards, an air-bag press to increase juice extraction and quality; and finally, a proper sandstone cellar-door sales facility.

All that takes money, labour, time, and expertise.

In the Howell’s case it’s resulting in a small range of high quality wines, of which the sauvignon blanc and a sweet botrytised semillon-sauvignon blanc blend have become house specialties.

From my own tasting of bottled, tank, and barrel samples two months ago, I can vouch for the quality, and especially recommend the 1994 Riesling, 1994 Sauvignon Blanc and 1994 Bredbo/Jeir Creek sweet semillon/sauvignon blanc.

It’s well worth making a day of it and heading out to Jeir Creek.

National Wine Show results raise issues

all they are worth. And because marketers began feeding show results to drinkers as definitive quality statements, organisers responded by altering shows in varying degrees in recognition of a growing responsibility to consumers.

Consumer-orientated changes introduced by wine shows range from judging wines within price points (Adelaide) to conducting winery audits to ensure that what the drinker drinks is what the judges judged (Canberra).

Even so, Canberra’s chairman of judges, Ian McKenzie, believes the fundamental purpose of wine shows is not to enlighten the consumer but to “improve the breed”. Wine shows, he points out, are still run by agricultural societies as part and parcel of wider agricultural exhibitions.

Ian sees this year’s National Show (“… the grand final of the Australian wine show system… ”) as one of the strongest in quality across the board — the percentage of gold medals awarded being higher than ever and with a notable lift in competition from New Zealand in the riesling and chardonnay classes.

He sees over-oaking of whites as mostly a thing of the past, attributing the increase in wine maker skill, in part, to the prohibitive cost of oak.

The only weakness he noted was a tendency for wine makers to over-react to strong demand for traditional full-bodied reds by simply making wines “too extractive” — wine maker jargon for reds made apparently fuller by extracting extra tannins from grape skins, a procedure that adds grip, not flavour.

For wine makers, ‘improving the breed’ comes not just in heeding the judge’s decisions, but in attending the exhibitors’ tasting following the show. Here, in a furious four-hour session, they compare their own wines with those of rival makers, especially the medal winners. Final judgments, though, tend to be independent of what the catalogue of results said.

Consumers ought to take the same skeptical view as exhibitors. For the fact is there are sufficient anomalies in any list of wine show awards, Canberra included, to say no medal’s worth should be taken at face value.

Take, for example, the large-volume sparkling class for vintage and non-vintage sparkling wines. The judges, led by Domaine Chandon’s Dr Tony Jordan in this instance, really should be made to stand in the corner. Either that or we accept Minchinbury, Carrington, Great Western, and Seaview at $4-$7 as better wines than Salinger 1991 ($30).

And why a gold for Mildara Jamieson’s Run 1992 in one class and nothing in another? Or what does Orlando wine maker Robin Day make of a silver medal for Jacobs Creek Chardonnay 1993 and nothing, in the same class, for the twice-as-good, twice-as-expensive St Hilary? That’s not to mention numerous other excellent wines overlooked.

Glaring errors like these do nothing to improve the breed or inform consumers.

On the other hand, if we look through the list of trophy winners, it’s difficult to quibble. At the most, we might have a few different preferences. Note, too, the industry giant is stirring. Southcorp, accounting for about one third of Australia’s wine production, picked up half of the trophies — and I find it hard to argue against any of them.

To do in two hours what three panels of judges did in one week being not possible, I explored fairly whimsically through the exhibitors’ tasting to spot the interesting ones.

In the current vintage riesling class, so often the source of good value, Aussie wines showed their predictable colours. But it was the New Zealanders offering a delightful new range of aromas and flavours. From now on include Marlborough Rieslings on your shopping list.

If you thought Pinot Noir was the domain of small makers, pop in to cellar door sales at Seppelts Great Western winery and grab a few bottles of Drumborg/Tumbarumba Pinot Noir 1992 ($19). This is a fantastic wine, made by Ian McKenzie, using the best fruit from Seppelt’s Drumborg (southern Victoria) and Tumbarumba (Snowy Mountains, NSW) vineyards. Ian rates the not-yet-released 1993 its equal and the 1994 as even better.

Pam Dunsford’s Chapel Hill McLaren Vale Coonawarra Cabernet 1992 stood out for sheer lush fruit flavour; and the Schrapel family’s Bethany Shiraz 1992 shows the Barossa’s red specialty in all its rich glory.

Amongst sparkling wines, Salinger 1990 finally got what it deserved — a trophy for being the best. But for a glimpse of future flavours in Australian sparkling, take a sniff and sip of Dominique Portet’s Tasmanian Taltarni Clover Hill 1991. Superb stuff, finally getting to the heart of what intensity of flavour, combined with delicacy is all about.

Helm’s Winery, Canberra

For a local wine maker turning out less wine in a year than a good-average retailer sells in a week, Ken Helm captures an astonishing amount of radio, television and newspaper attention. And like anyone who dares speak up, Ken cops as much flak as he does praise, usually from fellow wine makers too mean minded to give credit where it’s due.

Industry folk still scratch their heads wondering how an outspoken bloke from an obscure winery in Murrumbateman managed to shift the limelight away from the captains of industry during last year’s wine sales tax debacle. As Ken recalls, when he raised his hand to be heard, convinced that very small wine makers had been dealt out of negotiations, one professional lobbyist remarked, “Ken, even if you win, don’t expect to make any friends out of this.”

The lobbyist was only partly correct. If Ken alienated some within the industry, others viewed him as a saviour. And, more importantly, he won the hearts of thousands of consumers unaware, until Ken stuck his big moustache in front of national TV cameras, that Canberra had a wine industry.

Ken was a founder of that industry, setting up at Murrumbateman in 1974, at about the same time Harvey Smith planted what is now Lady Janet Murray’s Doonkuna Estate, and three years after CSIRO colleagues Drs John Kirk and Edgar Riek established vines at Murrumbateman and Lake George respectively.

Ken grabbed the promoters mantle early in the piece, my first recollection of him being in 1979 when he presented a paper — on the local wine-making experience, written by himself, Dr J.Kirk and Mr G. Bond — at an ANU Wine Symposium.

At the time, Ken had made few wines. But he was five years into a commitment destined take him from the CSIRO into full time wine making and spruiking.

Some of the very early Helm vintages won medals. My own recollections of those formative years are of generally decent wines with the odd peculiarity or failure. But Ken moved up the learning curve quickly and by the mid eighties had established a reputation for making good wine always and one or two outstanding wines every year.

Quality has been good enought for Ken to earn 7 Trophies as well as 10 gold, 5 silver, and 76 bronze medals for his efforts.

In common with other local makers, Helm makes wine on a tiny scale, battling always for the capital to plant and grow grapes, make, hold and package wine, and provision the winery with the right equipment.

Where larger wineries provide wine makers with all the latest bells and whistles, Ken works with comparatively rustic equipment, making his quality achievements all the more remarkable.

I visited Helm in late October gathering information for this gradual series on local makers (the individual stories to appear over the next six months or so). How’s this for Ken’s opening remark, “The district will make reds as good or better than Coonawarra”, backed up with a press release crowing over his 1990 Cabernet Merlot’s outpointing Penfolds Bin 707 at the National Wine Show in Canberra.

That’s Ken. It matters nought to him that the world sees Coonawarra as our best red area, nor that the judges may have erred that year (I mean what committee makes good decisions, anyway). Simply, Ken believes in the district and in his own wines and never misses a promotional opportunity.

Ken’s current releases include a rich, lush unoaked Cowra-Murrumbateman Chardonnay 1994; a yummy blended dry white, very rich on traminer aroma and flavour; a terrific Murrumbateman Rhine Riesling 1994; a full-bodied but soft and easy drinking Murrumbateman/Lake George Cabernet Shiraz 1993; and the house specialty, Cabernet Merlot 1993 (Murrumbateman and Hall), a most appealing, fragrant, deeply flavoured red.

Ken and Judy generously put on a tasting of four Rhine Rieslings and five Cabernet Merlot vintages. They’d all aged well and should give us all the confidence to stash a bottle or two of Helm’s wine in the cellar. But I found the 1991 Cabernet Merlot particularly appealing. (Ken tells me this wine subsequently went down well with Len Evans and others at an industry gathering in Canberra on the eve of the National Wine Show presentations.)

Better, a taste is worth a thousand words. Take a drive out to Murrumbateman, turn right at the Helms sign, and enjoy not only the wine and the company of the wine maker but also the gentle, green countryside.

Bruce Kemp, Southcorp head, speaks on Aussie wine exports

Bruce Kemp, head of Southcorp Wines, dropped a few home truths about the direction of Australia’s wine industry at the National Press Club recently. The crux of it, for wine drinkers, is that the era of undervalued wine is over.

Profits from domestic sales are needed to fund rapid vineyard and winery expansion demanded by strong export and domestic growth. To put it in Mr Kemp’s words, “It’s most important that we strike a balance in the quality/price equation — we have to maintain quality while preserving margins, both domestically and internationally, to create funds for much needed expansion.”

Just five years ago, no one could have taken seriously a wine industry head saying he was going to keep prices up. That was in the days of wine surplus and cut-throat competition amongst big makers. But the surplus is gone and the big makers have since joined forces. Now we all know, through the higher prices we pay for wine, that makers (domestically at least) are well and truly “preserving margins”.

Higher prices, Kemp pointed out, have not deterred local wine drinkers. “… during the recession, bottled sales stalled as cask sales soared, Australian tastes are now changing to bottled wines.” In the last year, the switch to bottled wines has been dramatic: bottled red consumption grew by 10.2 per cent, white by 9.5 per cent and sparkling wine by 2.1 per cent. That last figure, because it includes all the bargain bubblies, hides a very strong growth in more expensive bottle-fermented sparkling wine.

If that trend continues, we will need more premium grapes. According to Bruce Kemp, the Wine Federation of Australia predicts an increased local demand for premium bottled wine of 42 million litres by 2000. To service that demand, our makers will need an extra 64,000 tonnes of grapes from a new 5,200 hectares of vineyards. And that’s just to meet domestic growth.

The rate of export growth appears even more dramatic, running at a compound annual rate of 27.1 per cent for ten years. In 1983/84 we exported 8.9 million litres of wine, growing to 124 million litres worth $365 million in 1993/94.

Bruce Kemp views Australia’s $1 billion export target by 2000 as “a mission, not an end in itself … it puts the focus on what is needed to achieve the target.”

An additional 25,000 hectares of vines need to be added to the present 62,000 hectares to provide an additional 300,000 tonnes of premium grapes. Altogether, Kemp estimates the investment in vineyard and winery expansion to meet projected growth at home and abroad at around $1.2 billion.

And money is pouring into vineyard developments across Australia. Southcorp, as the country’s biggest maker, leads the way with a $100 million dollar expansion over the next three years: $64 million to vineyard development and $36 million to winery consolidation and expansion. And that’s not counting the long-term contracts to buy from new plantings undertaken by independent growers — an effective way, as Bruce Kemp puts it, to spread the risks as well as the rewards of an expanding industry.

Southcorp seems particularly well placed to grasp its share of growing markets. The company embraces the vigorous and formerly independent winemaking cultures of Wynns-Seaview, Penfolds, Lindemans, and Seppelt. With those businesses came not only brands but perhaps the best suites of vineyards and wineries in the world.

Southcorp’s 3,500 hectares of vines last year fed total sales of $352 million (including $106 million from exports). According to Bruce Kemp, Australia produces just 2 per cent of the world’s wine. But Southcorp ranks as the eight or ninth largest globally, accounting for about 0.6 per cent of world wine production.

Largely, Australia’s newly export orientated wine industry is making opportunities for itself. But as Bruce Kemp points out, some of the biggest risks stem from the rapid growth now underway. We’ve got to keep quality up and prices reasonable both here and overseas. And both quality and price are under pressure as fast growth pushes up grape prices and creates temptations for imprudent wine makers to stretch the blend.

There are just too many competitors from both the old and new world hungry for our markets for us to risk dropping quality. Good quality at the right price is what made our international reputation.

History in a bottle

In the early seventies Lindeman head Ray Kidd began cellaring large quantities of premium wines for later release. The cellar became a treasure trove for consumers (through periodic releases of perfectly-cellared classics) and for the wine industry because of the sheer scale and scope of wines held. This massive wine museum continues to provide great insights into the potential of many regions, but especially of the Hunter Valley, Clare-Watervale, Padthaway, and Coonawarra.

The sublime skills of Lindemans wine makers under Ray Kidd, however, were not matched in the marketing department. And the original Classic Release Scheme, hatched in the late seventies, ignored fundamental changes that had taken place in the retail trade.

Classic Wine Stockists” were appointed to carry the special cellar releases. These were widely sprinkled across Australia, but the majority of liquor retailers missed out. Most probably didn’t care and were incensed not that “Stockists” got a supply of the classics but that they bought Lindemans other premium wines at a substantial discount over the rest of the trade — a discount that, as far as I could gauge at the time, was not being passed on to consumers.

(Such an artificial arrangement could not last in a newly-freed, aggressive market. I well remember a short but pointed phone call from Richard Farmer to Ray Kidd in which the Trade Practices Act was mentioned. Before long the first discounting “Stockist” joined the fray.)

Today’s Classic Release Scheme operates in a far more open market in which most liquor outlets have access to stock, albeit in small quantities, and complete freedom to price it as they will.

Speaking at this year’s release, held on the verandah of Dr Lindeman’s Cawarra homestead at Gresford, wine maker Phillip John recalled the impressive scale of early cellarings. By the mid eighties, the original air-conditioned, humidity-controlled cellar at Nyrang Street Lidcombe in Sydney’s inner western suburbs was full. And there was talk of building another next door to accomodate the constant inflow of wines.

At about this time Phillip Morris New York (owner of Lindemans at the time) questioned the wisdom of so doing. The expansion did not proceed.

Instead wines were classified into “Classics” (the absolute gems) and “fine, aged premiums” prior to a major culling and transferral of the classics to Karadoc, near Mildura. About 200,000 cases made the trip.

John says there was some talk of selling off all the stock after Penfolds bought Lindemans in 1990. But then Penfolds itself was swallowed by South Australian Brewing Holdings (now Southcorp). They’ve decided to keep the cellar and, so, Ray Kidd’s dream is to be fulfilled with annual releases of true classics. Here are my reviews of this year’s releases:

Lindemans Hunter River Sparkling Shiraz 1986 (about $35)

If, unlike me, you enjoy sparkling burgundies, this one is first class. It does offer unusual richness and flavours unique to Hunter shiraz in a great vintage.

Lindemans Hunter River Chardonnay Reserve Bin 5881 (about $31)

A lovely old white, at the venerable old age of 13 showing sweet, honeyed aromas similar to those in old Hunter semillons. The palate has the rich, lush, roundness of chardonnay but with that lovely honey-like sweetness of age.

Lindemans Hunter River Semillon Bin 6855 1986 (About $35)

Simply glorious — a beautiful, delicate, gently ageing white.

Lindemans Padthaway Chardonnay 1986 (about $37)

A very good aged chardonnay in the rich Aussie mould but to my taste not in the league of the 1986 semillon and a style now surpassed by vineyards further south.

Lindemans Coonawarra St George Cabernet 1985 (about $45)

A great red from the vintage when all the development work on St George paid off.

Lindemans Coonawarra Limestone Ridge Vineyard Shiraz Cabernet 1982 (about $45)

The judges love it but some, like me, are put off by the “sweet mulberry” aroma that Phillip John tells me is caused by a compound called dimethyl sulphide. Wine makers now go to great lengths to eliminate it.

Lindemans Reserve Porphry Bin 6436 1983 (about $35)

As good as Australian sweet wine gets.

Lindemans Hunter River Shiraz Bin 5910 1980 (about $42)

Lean, taut, deeply flavoured Hunter Shiraz not yet fully mature.

Lindemans Hunter River Shiraz Bin 7200 1986 (about $37)

One of those rare, truly great reds unique to Lindemans Hunter vineyards with intense, earthy Hunter aromas, rich palate and quite tight structure. Will cellar much longer.

Lindemans Vintage Port Bin 5532 1978 (about $85)

A unique port, far removed from the blood and thunder Aussie style. Elegant but rich, made chiefly from Corowa gran noir grapes with a touch of Adelaide Hills shiraz.

Canberra District wines

Canberra’s wine industry was born twenty three years ago when two CSIRO scientists, quite independently of each other, established vines in the district. Dr Edgar Riek planted ‘Cullarin’ on the gentle slopes at the base of the escarpment overlooking the Federal Highway just a few hundred metres from Lake George. At the same time, Dr John Kirk established Clonakilla Vineyard at Murrumbateman.

Both seminal vineyards flourished over time. Edgar Riek chose never to establish cellar door sales, instead selling his grapes to other makers in and out of the district, while making and bottling small quantities of superb wines in the vineyard.

John Kirk continues to hand craft terrific estate-grown wines and these are available at the cellar door and at some retail outlets and restaurants.

The area under vine has increased steadily, if slowly, in little pockets scattered mostly outside the ACT boundary ever since Kirk and Riek led the way. There are no broad-acre ventures as we see in areas like Coonawarra, Padthaway, or McLaren Vale, or, closer to home, at Cowra and Young. Rather, viticultural Canberra consists of a series of isolated vineyards with no major aggregations and, therefore, no large-scale production.

As far as I can see, the largest grouping of vineyards is the little Pankhurst-Harris-Lane cluster high up above the Murrumbidgee River at Hall. But I understand there are several mooted 20 hectare-odd plantings in the wind between Yass and Murrumbateman and possibly at Sutton, as well.

If these proceed the district may yet develop the mass to survive long term as a viticultural region.

Under the terms of our recent trade agreement with the EC, Australian wine growing regions need to be formally defined before a district of origin may be included on labels. Appropriate Federal legislation has been passed and the unexpectedly difficult task of defining production regions is under way.

Although the ‘Canberra District Wines’ boundary has yet to be recognised under the new law, local vignerons recently presented a proposal to the Geographic Indications Committee of the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation (AWBC), the body appointed by Parliament to control the process.

Dr David Carpenter of Lark Hill Winery, perched high up on the escarpment between the Federal Highway and Bungendore, tells me the boundary was fixed, in accordance with AWBC guidelines, “with reference to natural features.”

In Canberra, in the absence of a unifying geological structure dictating where vineyards might lie, that means rivers and mountains in proximity to our widely scattered vineyards. David says the proposed boundary is the Great Dividing Range to the East, the Yass River catchment area to the North, the Murrumbidgee River to the West, and to the South “a little river just over the ACT border.”

Take a drive around that quite large area — or simply look at a map, and it seems clear that Canberra’s vignerons’ major link is, as David Carpenter puts it, “some uniformity of climate with variations according to altitude.” He points out that altitude varies from about 550 metres to 860 metres above sea level.

That variation alone ensures a wide variation of wine styles from the district. Throw in the vastly different aspects, soils, and bedrocks of all the hills, gullies, and flats where vineyards lie, and it’s hard to imagine a distinct regional style emerging as it has say in comparatively homogenised Coonawarra or Padthaway.

The AWBC wants to define larger regions as well as specific districts. Just as the French break, say, Bourgogne into the sub regions Cote de Nuits and Cote de Beaune, and within those sub-regions into communes, and finally into individual vineyard names, Canberra appears set to be a sub-region of a larger Southern Tablelands zone embracing also Cowra and Young. (Just as Coonawarra and Padthaway are to be sub-districts of the Limestone Coast region).

For the future, as the district wineries and vineyards mature, it is quite possible that further sub-divisions might occur. Perhaps by 2020 we may have within Canberra District, distinctive wine styles (and names) for Murrumbateman, Hall, Yass, Sutton, Bungendore Escarpment, and Lake George.

For the present we have an industry producing high-quality table wines from professionally managed vineyards and increasingly high-tech wineries that probably sell more outside the district than they do within it. I’ll be telling the modern Canberra winery story over the next few weeks.

October 30th, 1994

Canberra’s wine production from locally-grown grapes (reckoned in conjunction with Ken Helm, a pencil, and the back of an envelope) runs at about 30,000 cases a year. That’s an appreciable increase on the 12,000 cases estimated in this column six years ago. And the volume appears likely to grow by 15 per cent a year for the next three or four years as new vineyard plantings come on stream.

The rate of growth may seem impressive. But the total really is small when we consider that production is spread over 17-odd wineries. Consider, too, that individual vineyards in nearby Young and Cowra produce far more than the combined Canberra District.

The fragmented nature of our local industry, and the minute scale of each individual operation, tells us that the Canberra industry has not, in any broad sense, come of age despite the high quality of wines.

Rather, we have a fragile wine industry, struggling for capital and almost totally reliant on the sheer hard graft of individuals and families devoting their lives and total wealth to a dream.

Unlike Young and Cowra, Canberra has no major players, no broad acres, no critical mass to underpin the industry and give it a power to endure beyond the lives of the individuals now involved.

As Ken Helm says, the life of the Canberra small vigneron has been one of long hours, and sleepness nights wondering how the bills might be paid, sustained by hope and a belief that the area can make top-notch wines. Ken now sees a light at the end of the tunnel as demand strengthens and prices firm.

Were wine simply a commodity, the locals might disappear from the map, unable to compete with better capitalised, more efficient makers elsewhere. But the romanticism of wine, and the desire by some drinkers to know the vineyard, the maker, and distinctive flavours produced by an area, keeps literally hundreds of small Australian wineries afloat— including our local ones .

Canberra’s wineries report increasing visits from Sydneysiders, thanks to improved roads and consequent ease of getting to Canberra, and stimulated by the promotional efforts in Sydney of, in particular, Helms, Lark Hill, and Madews. Melbourners look to Canberra as well, and the most visible brands there appear to be Clonakilla and Doonkuna Estate.

Bit by bit over the last few weekends, I’ve been visiting local wineries, chronicling what’s planted in the ground, stored in the cellars, and on offer to drinkers. I don’t have a complete picture yet, but I estimate about one third of local production sells outside Canberra, the rest — some 20,000 cases a year — selling to locals either direct from the winery or through restaurants and bottle shops.

The wineries are widely scattered, planted on numerous different soil types and, while marketed as ‘cool-climate’, actually vary from the warmish sites 540 metres above sea level at Hall, to the distinctly cool Lark Hill Vineyard 860 metres up on the Lake George Escarpment near Bungendore.

Murrumbateman has the biggest grouping of wineries: Ruker Wines, Murrumbateman Winery, Doonkuna Estate, Helms, Jeir Creek, Clonakilla, Yass Valley Wines and Kyeema Estate. And there is one, Benfield Estate, sitting all on its own at Yass .

At Hall, Park Lane and Brindabella Hills operate cellar door sales full time, while Allan Pankhurst, President of the Canberra District Vignerons Association, provides grapes to various local makers while having his own brand contract made at Lark Hill.

Towards Bungendore, Lark Hill has as its neighbours Afleck and Brooks Creek (formerly known as Shingle House under Dr Max Blake).

Queanbeyan’s one and only vineyard, belonging to the Madew family, recently went under the bulldozer. But the supply of excellent wines seems set to continue as the Madews have bought Geoff Hood’s Westering Vineyard at Lake George where I understand the vineyard is to be expanded and the winery and cellar door facilities upgraded.

Next door to Westering (on the Canberra side) Dr Edgar Riek maintains ‘Cullarin’, one of Canberra’s two original vineyards, selling most of the grapes to others while making some of the most exciting wines in the district. I think Edgar and trade visitors drinks most of what he makes, but wines under his Lake George label sometimes grace retail shelves and restaurant wine lists.

November 6th, 1994

Drive away from Canberra on the Barton Highway and turn left at the ‘wineries 10 kilometers’ sign near Hall. On a mild spring morning — a flush of green in the paddocks, blue Brindabellas serene in the distance beyond the Murrumbidgee Valley — you could almost be tempted to plant a vineyard.

Roger and Faye Harris did in 1986. Not so much for the scenery, but because a granite ridge 100 metres above the Murrumbidgee appeared well suited for wine-grape growing.

As Roger writes, the site enjoys “… brilliant sunshine in abundance, and cool nights in the ripening season which contributes to the development of intense berry flavours … red and yellow duplex soils are of low fertility but very well drained and vines thrive without excessive vigour. Their roots can penetrate the crumbly granite underlying the soil and once established the vines are very drought hardy.”

2.6 hectares of vines now test that last proposition. While those vines took root, the Harrises built and equipped a winery and cellar door building and made the first “Brindabella Hills’ wines. Roger added a Charles Sturt University degree in Wine Science to his Adelaide Chemistry Ph.D., finally quitting his job with the CSIRO to work full time in the new business.

While I’m sure Roger and Faye don’t wish to be type-cast, they share common threads with other Canberra District wine makers in their struggle to establish Brindabella Hills: pouring a life’s wealth into a dream; learning to be agriculturalist, manufacturer and marketer; and the sheer hard yakka of working two full-time jobs in the early years before finally casting adrift into uncharted waters.

Like most Australian wineries, Brindabella Hills concentrates on the classic French wine-grape varieties, semillon, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot plus the great German grape, riesling.

The latter seems to have done extraordinarily well. A note just received from Roger says the riesling won a silver medal in the tough Adelaide Show and bronze at Stanthorpe.

While it’s too early to draw firm conclusions about which grapes do best in the area, Roger has already concluded from his own measurements that growing conditions are somewhat warmer than first anticipated. That’s one reason he’s considering grafting shiraz, a proven variety in our warmer areas, onto his pinot noir vines. (These make decent wine at Brindabella Hills but lack the fleshy richness the variety produces in cooler climates like the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula).

He’s encouraged in that thinking by the lovely, sweet, intense cherry-like flavours found in wines made of shiraz grown at a similar altitude and in similar granite soils around Young. (Even closer to Hall, try Jan Murray’s Doonkuna Estate Murrumbateman Shiraz 1991 for those familiar rich, soft flavours).

To make wines as well as he does, Roger needs to be something of a magician. His counterparts in large wineries enjoy all the refrigeration, filters, membrane presses — in fact, every piece of modern equipment they want. Without the same capital resources to equip Brindabella Hills, Roger relies more on a sound understanding of wine chemistry, eternal watchfulness, and just enough of the right equipment.

Regardless of constraints in the winery, Roger’s wines from the very start were, in my view, above average for the district. As wine drinkers, we can confidently order any Brindabella Hills wine knowing we’ll get value for money.

Small makers have higher production costs per case than large producers and there was once a very large gap between small-maker cellar door price and large-maker retail price.

But the gap appears to have narrowed in recent times as bigger makers have jacked up domestic prices. To me that makes the $11.50 to $14 a bottle asked for a Brindabella Hills wine very reasonable indeed.

The best way to buy wines from the Harrises is to motor out to the winery, taste the lot and buy what you like. For me, the Rhine Riesling 1994 ($13 a bottle, $11.50 when bought by the case) is the stand out. After that I move to the lovely 1992 Shiraz ($14.50/$13) made from grapes grown on the Nioka Ridge vineyard, Young, and 1993 Chardonnay ($15.50/$14), a barrel-fermented and matured Young/Canberra blend.

Roger and Faye also believe wine drinking can be fun and offer the tasty Picnic Creek Les Trois Blancs at $6 a bottle, and Bulk Pinot Noir/Cabernet Franc blend at $3.50 a litre.

Pinot noir reflections

The good news about Australian pinot noir is the superb quality now available from our best producers; the bad news is that good pinot noir will always be dearer than wines of comparable quality made from other grape varieties.

Australian grape growers and wine makers during the 1980’s learned to mass produce high-quality dry table wines from all the classic varieties except pinot noir.

Lindemans Bin 65 Chardonnay, a million litre blend, conquered world markets before its huge success here at home. Like Woodleys Queen Adelaide, Yalumba Oxford Landing, and many others, its success stems from a grape that gives rich flavours wherever it’s grown… in these cases from high-yielding vineyards along the Murray River. It didn’t happen overnight, mind you. It took a decade to get vineyard management and wine making skills right. But these now form the basis of many of our export successes.

Good, cheap rhine rieslings were with us long before chardonnay arrived on the scene. Widespread plantings of riesling pre-dated those of chardonnay by a century. With the arrival of refrigeration in wineries in the 1950’s, mass production of high-quality, delicate rieslings spread quickly.

Notable pioneers in this field were, incidentally, Sydney Hamilton and Count Von Seeck at the Ewell winery (now disappeared beneath suburban Adelaide) and Colin Gramp of Orlando. Gramp’s first major success with cold-fermented riesling arrived with the Melbourne Olympic games in 1956.

In the early 1950’s Colin brought to Australia from Germany two things that changed the face of the Australian wine industry: temperature controlled, sealed fermenters, and a young wine maker, Gunther Prass.

Using Eden Valley rhine riesling grapes, Gramp and Prass made a delicate, slightly sweet white which they then refermented in a sealed vat. They’d invented Barossa Pearl. It was launched at the Olympics and became one of Australia’s most successful wines, recruiting a new generation away from beer and spirits to table wine.

Now, cheap rhine rieslings, all cold fermented, are the wine drinkers best friend when it comes to flavoursome, everyday quaffing. Try rieslings like Seaview and Leasingham and Hutt Creek, available for $5 to $7, and you’ll see what I mean. Pay a little extra, and you move into spectacular quality with wines like Mitchelton at around $10.

Cabernet sauvignon, like chardonnay, was a relatively late arrival on the mass-production scene. Widespread plantings started in the late sixties, then boomed through the 1970’s and 1980’s. As broad acres came on stream in Coonawarra, Padthaway, the Murray River and with significant areas in McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley, production and quality lifted while prices fell dramatically in real terms.

Our mass-produced cabernets must surely now be the best in the world. Show me a red as good as Seaview McLaren Vale Cabernet 1992 retailing at around $8-$9. Then there’s Hardys Nottage Hill at $5 to $7 (lighter than the Seaview, but a lovely drink nevertheless) and Seppelt Black Label at $7-$9. These are just a few examples. And though wholesale prices have risen, retailer hoarding has so far protected the consumer from the full effects.

Shiraz has been with us since the 1830’s. Just as rhine riesling provides a huge mass of good cheap white, shiraz is the red-drinkers friend when it comes to value. On its own, or blended in Australia’s unique shiraz-cabernet combination, it provides an ocean of deep, rich, satisfying drinking.

Along with riesling, chardonnay, cabernet, and shiraz, our wine makers have now conquered mass production of semillon, sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc, colombard and a host of other varieties making up commercial blends.

Pinot noir, I suspect, will never join this list. Of all the varieties capable of making profound wines, it simply refuses to be mass-produced. The good ones have three things in common: they come from vineyards with tiny yields; the winemakers literally control every step of production from hand-picking of selected bunches to putting the final product in bottle; and the vineyards are in cool areas.

Small yields push costs up not just through having less grapes for capital invested, but also through the high labour costs of keeping vine vigour and yields under control. To some extent this applies to the very best wines made from any variety.

But pinot noir seems to be the most uncompromising of all. Shiraz, cabernet, riesling, and chardonnay all give good flavour from comparatively high yields. Pinot alone makes miserable, thin wines if the vigneron takes his or her eye off the vineyard for just a few moments. But the good ones from the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, and Tasmania and occasionally from other cool growing areas deliver some of the velvety richness we see in good Burgundy.

October 2nd, 1994

Jancis Robinson, in Wines Grapes and Vines (Mitchell Beazley, London, 1986) tells us pinot noir is one of the most mutatable of all grape varieties. Thus, on its home turf in Burgundy, France, exist more than 1,000 different clones of this one variety. What she doesn’t tell us, and all pinot lovers know this already, is that it makes one of the most intoxicating of all red wines. Perfumed, luscious, velvety smooth and seductive in every way, pinot is not a wine to enjoy in moderation.

I rediscovered its glories on a long and warm Sunday afternoon at Chateau Shanahan recently with a run of 1982 Burgundies. Ruchottes Chambertin Clos des Ruchottes and Charmes Chambertin from Domaine Armand Rousseau and Clos Vougeot from Domaine Georges Roumier delivered the sweet, sensuous, decaying wonders only old Burgundies offer. Thankfully they were acquired when the Australian dollar was stronger and Burgundy not in such great demand. Alas, to repeat the exercise in a few years with, say, the 1990s is well beyond my pocket.

That means looking to the better Australian Pinots for similar pleasure in the future. And while we cannot say for sure which ones might age so gracefully, there are some pretty smart wines on the market, all from quite cool growing areas.

If the pinot focus has shifted to cool Southern Australia, it was a road blazed by Murray Tyrrell. He introduced Australian wine connoisseurs and opinion makers to Australian Pinot with Vat 6 back in the 1970’s. His efforts were given a great fillip when the 1976 won its class in the Gault-Milleau wine olympics in Paris in 1979.

While the award focused attention on Tyrrell’s achievement, it hardly sent Australian wine drinkers on a pinot noir shopping spree. The fortunate few who tasted the 1976 could have no argument that Murray Tyrrell’s success with this very difficult variety was a major achievement in Australian wine making. But the fact was that Australian red-wine drinkers preferred fuller-bodied styles. And if they encountered a pinot during the seventies and eighties, it probably tasted more like raspberry cordial than wine.

If the average quality of Australian pinot in the 1970’s and 1980’s was ordinary, it wasn’t for lack of trying, and there were isolated successes. Tyrrell’s success was perhaps all the more notable because he achieved it in the Hunter Valley, by popular wisdom an area too warm for the variety. It was not achieved by luck but by smart vineyard management, and smart winemaking inspired by Murray’s love of the original pinot, French Burgundy.

Nevertheless, Tyrrell’s the only one to make a go of it in the Hunter, the other successful pioneers being further south. Guill de Pury at Yeringberg in the Yarra Valley consistently turned out terrific pinot in minuscule quantities from the late 1970’s. And his neighbours at Mount Mary and Yarra Yerring succeeded, too.

Now, of course, there are any number of quite good pinot noirs coming out of the Yarra Valley, with particularly notable achievements from James Halliday’s Coldstream Hills as well as Yeringberg — the newly released 1992, for instance, offering that wonderful decaying opulence that sets pinot apart from other varieties.

Gary Farr’s Bannockburn pinot, from Geelong, offers a particularly robust expression of the variety, although my taste runs more to the delicacy of the Yeringberg style. Elsewhere on the western side of Port Phillip Bay, Scotchman’s Hill shows flashes of class.

Some studies suggest the Mornington Peninsula, wedged between Port Phillip and Westernport Bays, may be the best site in Australia for pinot. Stonier’s Merricks winery and others encourage that view. In the West, Wignall’s King River Winery (near Albany) shows promise.

And, of course, there’s Tasmania. where a number of sites may produce the goods. I particularly like Freycinet Pinot, and enjoyed last weekend a Julian Alcorso1991 from the Derwent, under Cellarmaster’s Famous Maker Label.

In 1993, Australian winemakers crushed 10,000 tonnes of pinot and by my estimate more than half of that went into sparkling wine. But it’s the one variety where small makers have the edge on the big companies. The Pinot story is still being written in Australia. It’s far less advanced than for other grape varieties. And I believe the only thing we can say with certainty is that the best are yet to come and they will come from relatively cold growing areas.

Two Dogs – will it be a repeat of the wine cooler?

There’s a touch of deja vu in a new drink from Adelaide. The phenomenal rise of ‘Two Dogs (why do you ask?)’, a fermented alcoholic lemonade now available in Canberra, parallels the growth of California Cooler in the United States between 1981 and 1985.

For Michael Crete and Stuart Bewley, California Cooler turned to gold dust. The concept of Cooler was as old as wine itself. But by 1981 what started as a beachside hobby mixing wine coolers for friends had become a small business. Mixing wine, sugar, water and fruit flavours in a 15 gallon beer keg, the two siphoned California Cooler into hand-labelled, used beer bottles.

Energetically pursuing a huge demand for the new product, Crete and Bewley stunned the American alcoholic beverage industry growing from zero production in 1980 to 7,800,000 case in 1984. During summer of 1985 they accepted a cash offer for the business from the Brown-Forman conglomerate. $55 million down with another $83 million to come was just too good to refuse.

As Cooler sales exploded from 400,000 cases to 14.3 million cases in the U.S.A. between 1981 and 1984, Australian wineries joined the fray here. We can all remember the hoopla as countless cask and bottle coolers hit the market. Most faded as quickly as they burst onto the scene, but the Cooler survives yet, with West Coast the market leader.

Two Dogs’ parallels Cooler in three aspects: its invention by individuals, not corporations, its explosive growth from nowhere, and its combination of tangy fruit flavours with alcohol. But the two are fundamentally different. Cooler blends wine with water, sugar and fruit (or fruit flavours).

Two Dogs’, as I understand it, is fermented much along the lines of ginger beer, incorporating fresh lemon as the flavouring agent.

Duncan MacGillivray, brewer, former owner with Robert Hill-Smith of the Lord Nelson pub-brewery in Sydney, developed ‘Two Dogs’ for his Bull and Bear Ale House in Adelaide last October.

It was one of those accidental things, he says, where an orchadist neighbour wondered out loud what to do with lemons too big or too small for the market. A few experimental brews using the surplus lemons saw alcoholic lemonade on tap at the Bull and Bear. Patrons loved it. And it was not long before MacGillivray found himself supplying kegs of ‘Two Dogs’ to other hotels.

Two Dogs’ became too big for Adelaide and before long folks were woofing it down across Australia as MacGillivray licensed the rights to various small brewers.

It has stepped up another notch now with 25,000 to 30,000 cases a month to be brewed at Patritti Wines in Adelaide and packaged in 375 mL glass six packs at Coopers Brewery.

National distributors, Inchcape, launched the bottled product in Sydney, Melbourne, and Canberra this week, but it had been available in Liquorland stores for several weeks before the official launch.

There’s bound to be a rush, of course. And there are bound to be look-alike products hit the shelves before long. Competitors, whether brewers, distillers, wine makers or cider makers, naturally wary of any newcomer taking a slice of the declining alcoholic beverage market, won’t sit back doing nothing.

Carlton United’s Matthew Percival views ‘Two Dogs’ as a fashion item just as Coolers and pop wines were in the past. Percival remembers his time at Lindemans when the liquor trade, led by Richard Farmer, killed stone dead the launch of a wine Cooler in tetra packs, simply refusing to touch alcohol dressed up as fruit juice.

Although Percival says calling ‘Two Dogs’ lemonade worries Carlton for the same reason, my guess is a deeper concern is the fear of losing market share to a new product.

In any case I see no foundation for concern about the name. The packaging makes it look like beer and the word ‘alcoholic’ appears in large letters above ‘lemonade’.

With widespread distribution assured and the backing of Liquorland, Australia’s largest liquor retailers, it seems there will be no repeat of the Cooler-in-tetra-pack affair. At worst the name lemonade might disappear, leaving “Two Dogs’ as a memorable brand name anyway. (Or try it diluted fifty per cent — one dog).

Whether it endures or fades depends on its surviving the first flush of novelty. There is a fair chance of that given our hot climate and the refreshing tang of lemon.

Hunter Semillon and the McWilliams Mount Pleasant contribution

The hot and humid lower Hunter Valley, north of Sydney, produces delicate, long-lived semillons. What a paradox. Shouldn’t the wines be high in alcohol, low in acid, soft and early maturing? That’s what the northerly latitude ought to dictate.

Whatever the cause (some say it’s because late-season cloud cover inhibits ripening) we get low-alcohol, austere-but-delicate young whites that age gracefully into soft, honeyed unique dry wines. And because semillon is unfashionable, and the flavours usually too delicate to cope with maturation in expensive oak barrels, it comes with a modest price tag as well.

McWilliams Elizabeth 1988, perhaps the biggest selling of the lower Hunter semillons, specials for less than $10 a bottle. It tastes terrific — the natural grape flavour having been enhanced greatly by six years’ bottle age. You won’t find that in the rieslings, sauvignon blancs, and chardonnays on offer at a comparable price.

The low price reflects consumer attitudes rather than McWilliam-family charity. Like Lindemans, the other big Hunter semillon producer, Mc Williams appears unable to ignite consumer passion for its great regional specialty. Hunter semillon has its followers. But they’re used to bargain-basement prices. Long may it be so.

The semillon grape adapted quickly to the Hunter Valley and appears to have been one of the best performing table-wine varieties by the middle of last century. Many varieties were tested and re-tested over 160 years and the experience of the last few decades confirms semillon, verdelho and chardonnay as the best suited whites – the same conclusion reached by last century’s growers.

McWilliam’s Hunter winery sprawls at the foot of Mount Pleasant, flanked by rolling vineyards. It’s one of the prettier Hunter locations, perhaps not quite as spectacular as Tyrrells but not dissimilar either with the pure-Aussie, eucalypt-clad ranges as backdrop.

The property was established by the legendary Maurice O’Shea in 1921 after completing viticultural and oenological studies in France. His mother (a French woman) bought the property and he planted it , named it, and began making wine there when he was 24 years old.

Although McWilliams bought a share in Mount Pleasant in 1932 and took full control in 1941, O’Shea stayed on as manager and wine maker until his death at the age 58 in 1956.

O’Shea developed phenomenal skills as a table-wine maker at a time when few Australians were interested in drinking them. Red wines he made in the forties and fifties still drink well today: I have fond memories of a 1945 consumed in 1990 and of a magnificent 1954 Richard Hermitage drunk at Mount Pleasant with wine maker Phil Ryan just a few weeks back.

Unfortunately, I’ve not tried any O’Shea whites, although semillon vines he planted in the 1940s still contribute to McWilliams Hunter wines today.

On the visit to Mount Pleasant, Ryan organised a tasting of various young reds and whites from tank, barrel, and bottle. There’s a lot at Mount Pleasant to look forward to: ‘Mount Pleasant’ and ‘Maurice O’Shea’ (McWilliams’ top Hunter label) chardonnays of exceptional quality — wines showing beautiful fruit flavours combined perfectly with oak; and shirazes of stunning quality under both those labels from the 1991 vintage.

But again, the wines that stood out to me for individuality were the semillons. The young wines showed promise, and the older ones delivered it.

It was particularly exciting to taste at lunch, after the formal tasting of young wines, six vintages of older semillons: two from the 1975 vintage and one each from 1979, 1981, 1984, and 1989. It was exciting because here was a line up of great wines within the budget of most wine drinkers. All too often these events are fun but futile because you know the pleasure cannot be repeated.

Three of the wines were commercially-released ‘Elizabeths’ — the 1975 fully mature and lovely, the 1981 honeyed and full, and the 1989 more mature than I’d expected but good nevertheless (I prefer the current-release 1988).

And for those who’ve followed the odd release of Mount Pleasant ‘Anne’, there are more on the way. But future releases will be under the ‘Lovedale’ label. As it turns out ‘Anne’ was always sourced from the Lovedale vineyard (near Cessnock airport) planted by O’Shea back in 1946 and still bearing fruit for today’s wines.

I found the Lovedale wines finer and more intensely flavoured than the Elizabeths. The 1984, to be released later this year, strikes me as a perfect example of aged Hunter semillon with the strength and freshness to thrill drinkers for another decade or more.

To get an inkling of what a great Aussie specialty is about, try a bottle of Elizabeth 1988. To taste the same thing at its very best, taste Lovedale 1984.

O’Leary and the top shelf quality trickle down phenomenon

If it wasn’t for expensive wines, cheap wines would not be as good as they are. There is a direct trickle down effect as wine makers apply to lesser wines skills learned in making tiny quantities of the very best. It happens with reds, whites, and sparkling wines and is more common in large companies than small simply because of the scale of operations.

It’s no accident, for instance, that Seppelts Gold Label Chardonnay regularly stuns critics with high quality and low price. It’s a wine that evolved directly as a result of large scale experimention with chardonnay from all over southern Australia in Seppelts Great Western Winery.

The wine makers there enjoy not only diverse fruit sourcing and lots of it, but access to a generous budget for new oak barrels. In every vintage for over a decade now Ian McKenzie and his team have produced literally hundreds of combinations and permutations of fruit sourcing and fermentation and maturation techniques every vintage.

There’s always an eye to making the very best show wines, but the trickle down effect means higher quality for mass produced wines like Queen Adelaide, Gold Label, Black Label, and Corella Ridge chardonnays — the latter three, in my opinion, leaving similarly-priced competitors for dead.

Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet stands out, too, as an example of good grape sourcing combined with development of top-shelf wines leading to superior flavours at the budget-end of the range.

Hardys Nottage Hill Cabernet Sauvignon is another very good, cheap red to have emerged in recent years, but has not yet attracted the publicity enjoyed by Koonunga Hill. Its high quality could not have been achieved if the winery was not also making top-quality, more expensive reds.

The latest vintage, 1992, caught my attention a few weeks ago when a local wholesaler began offering it around the retail trade at a good price. As a result, you’ll see it in numerous stores around Canberra for $6 to $8 a bottle. At the bottom end of that range it offers outstanding, affordable everyday drinking.

Because it was so good at the price, I rang the wine maker to see how it was made and to uncover why it had the edge over most similarly-priced red. Good grape-sourcing was at the heart of it, but the trickle-down effect was also at work.

And we must also acknowledge the contribution of the wine maker, David O’Leary, and the practice of maturing the entire blend in small oak barrels — a process not common in the production of reds reaching the consumer for under $6 a bottle.

Modern Nottage Hill (no resemblance to the Nottage Hill of the 60s and 70s) achieved high quality rapidly. The first blend, a Coonawarra Cabernet, was made in 1986. Since then it’s been predominantly cabernet, though grape sourcing has shifted north from Coonawarra to Padthaway and McLaren Vale.

O’Leary says of the 1992, “It’s close to the ideal Nottage Hill.” The ideal being a red with the rich, berry flavour of cabernet sauvignon and a solid, chewy structure — traditionally firm but capable of early consumption and with the depth to improve with short-term cellaring — all within a tight budget.

Seventy per cent of the 1992 blend is Padthaway cabernet — giving the pure berry aroma and flavours so clearly defined in grapes from both Padthaway and neighbouring Coonawarra.

Fourteen per cent is cabernet from Buronga, on the Murray River. This component is soft and fast maturing, largely explaining the wine’s early approachability.

The balance of the wine is shiraz (with a tiny touch of merlot) from McLaren Vale. This component, says O’Leary, gives structure — wine-maker jargon for the firm, gripping feel good reds have in the mouth.

O’Leary captures pure fruit aromas and flavours using stainless-steel vinamatic fermenters for most of the blend but puts a component through old, open concrete fermenters to enhance structure — a facility that would not exist were he not using it for the company’s best reds.

Another legacy of making so many top Hardy and Reynella reds in the same winery is a large supply of used, small oak barrels.

All of the Nottage Hill blend matures 10 to 12 months in these barrels. That adds not just a modicum of oak flavour but, through the slow uptake of oxygen, mellows the wine and makes it more complex.

That’s why when you taste Nottage Hill 1992 you get the full flavour of a real red — not the simple, soft fruitiness normally found at the price. It’s a product of the great Padthaway Vineyard combined with O’Leary’s genius and enhanced by the open fermenters and oak barrels available only because he also makes the likes of Eileen Hardy and the Chateau Reynella reds