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