Yearly Archives: 1995

1995. A year of change in Australia’s wine industry and retailing

For wine drinkers, 1995 got off to a rotten start. The vintage came in a few hundred thousand tonnes of grapes under estimates, sparking a new round of price hikes that quickly worked its way from grapes to the finished product.

There was a shortage of wine anyway, and many wineries found themselves suffering financially for lack of stock despite a fairly strong increase in producer margins. The shortage was probably one of the reason why Mildara Blass acquired Tolleys and its very substantial vineyard holdings. The ranks of independent makers continues to thin!

Now the year ends with the leading wine industry earner, Mildara Blass, about to be acquired by Fosters. Nobody knows what their game is yet, but retailers are anticipating a tightening of credit terms in the new year.

Perhaps it was a case of “if you can’t lick em, join em”. For 1995 goes down as the year the brewers finally lost their long battle to see wine taxed at the same punitive rates as beer. Wowsers and treasury boffins seemed to side with the brewers, but the outcome of the ‘Winegrape and Wine Industry in Australia’ enquiry, instigated after an attempt at increasing wine taxes in the 1993 Federal Budget, was to keep wine taxes where they are. The wine industry had at long last been recognised for being unlike the brewing industry (some would add in its electoral impact as well as structure).

It was good news for an export industry trying to maintain a healthy domestic market in the face of shortage and rising costs. In any event, the decision may have crystalised big new investments in vineyards, and wine making and storage plant.

Internationally it was a solid year for Australia’s reputation, despite a tailing off in exports. Penfolds Grange 1990 was named wine of the year by America’s ‘Wine Spectator’; Penfolds Kalimna Bin 28 1992 was named red wine of the year by London’s ‘Wine and Spirit’ magazine; and the same publication named Stephen Henschke international wine maker of the year.

In Canberra, it was a year of great change for wine retailing. After almost twenty years dominating the local market, Farmer Bros went under to be replaced by Liquorland in two of its sites and Liquorland’s Vintage Cellars at Manuka; and its mail order business was taken over by Sydney-based Cellarmaster Wines which continues to prospect the Canberra market with glossy brochures bearing David Farmer’s smiling face.

Lloyds took the opportunity to open new outlets at Kingston and Dickson; Cand Amber moved into Civic; Jim Murphy opened his colonial-looking duty free in his existing outlet at Fyshwick markets; and there has been a general lift in the standard of wine merchandising in major grocery outlets.

For local wine makers it was a good year, too. They were spared the crop shortfall suffered in other areas and, in fact, recorded the biggest harvest on record.

And in the National Wine Show of Australia last month, our tiny operators mixed it with the big boys to walk off with four silver and two bronze medals. Helms Classic Dry Riesling 1995, Doonkuna Estate Shiraz 1992 and two different Lake George Tawny Ports won silver medals; the two bronze medals were won by a Lake George Fortified Sweet White and a Riek and Bootes Fortified Sweet White.

And for all the waffle in the wine press and talk of our tastes moving upmarket, the latest figures show that 79.6 per cent of all bottled wine we drink sells for less than $10 a bottle. Only 16.6 per cent costs between $10 and $15 a bottle. Which means that a mere 3.8 per cent of all the bottled wine retailed in Australia fetches more than $15 a bottle. In short, the wines most written about are the least sold.

And while we’re on the top shelf, I see that our latest James Bond, Pierce Brosnan, keeps Bollinger Grande Annee 1998 in his Aston Martin. A push of a button and it’s cold Bollie for all. But to us old hands that’s Bond on a budget. From memory, Sean Connery drank Dom Perignon. And it’s equivalent from the Bollinger cellar is Bollinger R.D. — a very definite step up from Grande Annee!

Exotic stuff indeed. But perhaps we should be seeing in the New Year with something from the southern hemisphere: Pelorus 1991, Salinger 1991, Taltarni Clover Hill 1993, Jansz Brut Cuvee, and Seaview Pinot Noir Chardonnay 1993 head my list. Happy New Year.

Penfolds seek ‘white Grange’

Last week, internationally circulated United States magazine, ‘Wine Spectator’, named Penfold Grange 1990 as wine of the year. Editor Marvin Shanken wrote, “Grange earned its No. 1 spot on the annual Top 100 because of its impeccable quality. Of special note is the unique structure and flavor profile that comes from this unusual grape variety. Grange clearly demonstrates how great an Australian wine can be. … this our eighth wine of the year and the first one that’s not from France or California… ”

By chance, a group of writers was at Magill Estate, birthplace of Grange, as the news broke. Ironically, we were tasting whites — not reds — with John Duval, maker of the now famous 1990 Grange. The bustle of a camera crew seeking a comment from John barely distracted our assessment of Penfolds search for the definitive Australian white wine — dubbed the “white Grange” project by the press.

Penfolds dislikes that term. But they see a need for Australia to make a white to be held in the same reverence as Grange. They are not alone in the belief nor in the search. Len Evans, patriarch of the modern Australian wine industry frequently laments the quality lag between our whites and reds and sends strong messages to wine makers to lift our game. “The overseas writers get tired of writing about Bin 65” he quipped recently, referring to the need to excite the opinion makers in our major export markets.

During his spell as Chairman of Canberra’s wine show, Evans was a strong supporter of the Farmer Bros Trophy (now the James Busby Trophy, sponsored by Liquorland). The trophy encourages makers of rich, highly complex oak-matured chardonnays capable of extended cellaring — wines that might become flagships for Australian whites at home and overseas. What Evans and others perceive is that if our best wines have a mystique to them, there is a rub for Australian wine at the business end of the trade — something the French understand and have exploited for centuries.

Hundreds of Australian wineries, each in its own way, strives to make the definitve Australian white. Most are confined by what their own small vineyard holdings produce and constrained by the quality nature delivers each vintage.

But some truly wonderful wines have emerged over the years. Leeuwin Estate‘s Margaret River Chardonnay, for example, may not have the same cache as Grange, but it fetches $50 a bottle, cellars well and trades solidly through the auction system — a truly objective measure of perceived quality.

As well, we see wonderful Rieslings emerging from Mount Barker, the Clare, Eden and Goulburn Valleys and quite powerful chardonnays from across the continent, with highlights throughout the Mount Lofty Ranges, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Pemberton, Margaret River and Tasmania. Hunter semillon deserves a guernsey, too, but has been around for so long we should heed the lesson and leave it for the converted.

Southcorp Wines, owners of Penfolds, has greater scope for experimentation than its tiny colleagues. It owns over 5,000 hectares of vineyards, with very large concentrations in key areas and, as well, sources grapes widely from contract growers.

It employs some of Australia’s best wine makers and has the capital to fund experimentation on a large scale. Finally, it has an outlet for experimental wines through blending into commercial releases after appraisal, or bottling for separate release where the quality warrants it.

For its ‘premium white’ project, Penfolds conducts numerous trials each year, chiefly at its Great Western Winery, Victoria, under Ian McKenzie and at Nuriootpa Winery, Barossa Valley, under John Duval. Separate wines are made using high quality grape batches (both chardonnay and semillon) from across Southern Australia and involve every possible combination and permutation of wine making technique and maturation — including the use of a wide variety of oak barrels for both fermentation and maturation.

Despite being several years into the project, John Duval says his team is still open minded on the subject of grape variety and districts of origin. When the right wine comes along, as well as being of exceptional quality and capable of improving with extended cellaring, it has to be a commercial prospect. And that means having the capacity to make a saleable volume to the right standard every year.

Next week we’ll look at progress and see what a startling effect all this has on the quality of commercial wines.

December 24th, 1995

If we look to the past in quest of Australia’s definitive white wine, riesling and semillon appear hot prospects. Both have some claim to being at the point of the quality pyramid. And semillon, especially as produced from time to time in the lower Hunter Valley, adds a strong note of individuality.

But when it comes to whites, the past, great guide as it was in recognising shiraz as the source of definitive Australian reds, ignores the late arrival and glorious blossoming of chardonnay. It may seem hard to believe, especially for younger people now discovering wine, but the chardonnay grape — arguably the greatest white wine variety — didn’t rate a menion in the 1980 Australian Bureau of Statistics figures. But in 1996 it looks set to pass the 105,000 tonne mark (7 million dozen bottles) — putting it way ahead of any other table wine variety except for the ubiquitous sultana grape (154,000 tonnnes), backbone of our cask wine industry.

Shiraz, cabernet sauvignon, semillon and riesling have been left in chardonnay’s wake, with anticipated 1996 weigh ins of 84,000; 74,000; 55,000; and 52,000 tonnes respectively.

Sheer volume, of course is no proof of the supremacy of a variety. We have only to taste sultana wine for proof of that. But amongst the huge volume of chardonnays now being made in Australia there are some real gems, suggesting that this is where we will find our national showpiece.

Despite the strong case for chardonnay — from both quality and commercial perspectives — Penfold quest for its great white remains “open minded as to source of grapes, grape variety, style and age at release”, in the words of Chief Wine Maker, John Duval. “But when we find it, it will be a wine that repays cellaring and it must be something we can make every year.”

The search focuses mostly on semillon and chardonnay, varieties compatible with the aromas and flavours that come from new oak barrels. And when it comes to oak, Penfolds mastered its use with red wines decades ago. Indeed, the mother company, Southcorp Wines, claims to be one of the biggest, perhaps the biggest, purchaser of new oak barrels in the world. There’ s no boasting in that — just a belief that quality finally wins the consumer.

Integration of fruit and oak flavours has been a distinguishing feature of Penfolds red wines since Max Schubert developed Grange in the 1950s. Grange was just the first and now a whole family of Penfolds reds bears the indelible thumbprint of that great wine making genius.

Duval sees a similar process now bringing fruit and oak flavours together in Penfolds whites as his team searches for the ultimate in quality. The search starts, of course, in the vineyard. But the last few vintages has seen a refinement of wine making techniques —including 100 per cent barrel fermentation; complete malo-lactic fermentation (a secondary fermentation that converts harsh malic acid to softer lactic acid); and extended wine contact with dead yeast cells (lees) — producing beautifully balanced, richly fruity wines with a good balance of oak.

There’s nothing startlingly new in all that as many wine makers have been working along similar lines for years. What‘s different about the Penfolds effort is the sheer scale of the operation and the wide range of variables, including different oak trials and widely varied grape sourcing that can be tested every year.

Put to the taste test, there has been, quite simply, a phenomenal lift in the quality of Penfolds commercial whites wines in just three years as a direct result of the search for the great Australian white. What’s learned in the trials has an immediate trickle down effect.

The wines show a strong family resemblance — just as the reds do. The challenge for both wine makers and marketers now is to differentiate the various wines in the collection — a process that may partly look after itself with widely varied grape sourcing.

Amongst the purely experimental blends, drawn from casks for a recent tasting, it was clear that Duval and his team are working with a tremendously varied palate of flavours ranging from the most pungent Adelaide Hills semillon; to gloriously fat, peachy McLaren Vale chardonnay, to intensely flavoured but steely austere Tumbarumba Chardonnay.

I suspect, though, that chardonnay, not semillon, will ultimately assert itself as the great white and, in the tradition of many Penfolds red wines, might be a multi-regional blend, probably from cooler southern and high altitude vineyards

Australia and South African wines go head to head in South African Airways Wine Shield

As the Springboks defeated England at Twickenham last weekend, South Africa and Australia fielded 100 wines apiece in the inaugural South African Airways Wine Shield at Capetown. Unfortunately, the host nation copped a drubbing, winning just three categories to Australia’s eight — a not unexpected outcome.

As an observer, the official result was far less interesting than the tasting itself. Australia may have jetted out of Johannesberg with the SAA Shield but the result was not the whitewash it appeared to be.

In each of the eleven classes of wines judged, an equal number of South African and Australian wines were entered. There were 30 cabernet sauvignons, 10 pinot noirs, 10 shirazes, 30 dry reds of any variety, 10 rieslings, 10 sauvignon blancs, 30 chardonnays, 30 dry whites of any variety, 10 dessert wines, 10 methode champenoise, and 20 fortifieds. And for the trophy taste off, 22 wines — the top Australian and South African from each of these 11 classes — were lined up at end of the second and last day of tasting.

There were nine judges — 3 South Africans, 3 Australian and 3 non partisans — tasting the wines blind then ranking all the wines in each class in order of preference. The judges worked independently of one another and no discussion was permitted until score sheets had been handed in.

Australia was represented by Andrew Caillard MW of Langton’s Wine Auctions; Huon Hooke, writer and author; and James Halliday, author/winemaker. South Africa was represented by internationally known writer/wine judges Michael Fridjohn and John Platter and accountant-turned-wine-maker Gyles Webb of Thelema Winery.

These national sides were balanced by Zelma Long, President of Simi Winery, California; Robert Joseph of London’s Sunday Telegraph and founding editor of ‘Wine’ magazine; and Dr Paul Pontellier, former Professor of Enology at the University of Santiago and now director and wine maker of Chateau Margaux, Bordeaux.

As well there were associate judges from Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom plus press observers from The Australian Financial Review, The Melbourne Age and The Canberra Times (yours truly). This group tasted and assessed the wines blind at the same time as the judges, but our scores were not counted in the tally.

Australia won the cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, shiraz, open dry red, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, methode champenoise and fortified classes, while South Africa triumphed in the riesling, open dry white and dessert wine sections. The top scoring Australian and South African wine from each class were re-tasted as a separate class to determine trophy winners.

The Vintage Cellars Trophy for top scoring South African wine of the show went to KWV Jerapigo 1953, a rather pleasant old fortified grape juice; trophy for best Australian wine of the show went to a new star from the Mornington Peninsula, Paringa Estate Shiraz 1993, a blockbuster of a wine. The New World Wine Trophy went jointly to KWV Jerapigo 1953 and Australia’s Coldstream Hills Reserve Pinot Noir 1994.

Those were the arithmetic results. But a study of how individual judges ranked the wines showed enormous variations — one person’s top wine in a class being another’s least — and highlighted the largely subjective nature of the tasting. The results were in some ways absurd: most tasters thought there were better South African wines there than the old Jerapigo and who would seriously argue that pinot noir is Australia’s long suit in reds?

To me, the pinot noirs made a comparatively poor showing. But there were two very strong wines from Australia on my score sheet, Coldstream Hills Reserve 1994 and Lenswood 1994, and one South African, Cabriere 1994.

As you would expect there was a very solid array of shirazes, my top three were Penfolds Grange 1990, Jasper Hill Georgia’s Paddock 1994, and Henschke Hill of Grace 1991 in that order. One South African shiraz, Stellenzicht 1994, from a brand new winery and vineyard near Stellenbosch, impressed for its massive aroma and flavour — good enough to prompt a visit to the winery after the show. Could be a winner in the making .

For me there was little joy amongst the sauvignon blancs as wines from both countries tended to deliver the special pungent aroma of the variety but not the juicy, fleshy flavour it is capable of. Shaw and Smith, Stafford Ridge and Brokenwood Cricket Pitch scrubbed up reasonably well for Australia, with Stellenzicht 1995 and Thelema 1994 rating well for South Africa.

More on the SAA Shield and South Africa over the next few weeks.

December 3rd, 1995

In the Cabernet Sauvignon class of the South African Airways Wine Shield (held in Capetown two weeks ago) Australia and South Africa entered fifteen wines apiece. The official placings were Australia first, second and third — the accolades going to Mildara White Label Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 1993, Peter Lehmann Barossa Cabernet Sauvignon 1993 and Cullens Margaret River Cabernet Merlot Reserve 1993 respectively.

Nine judges determined the outcome by ranking the thirty wines in order of preference. Thus, a judge’s favourite cabernet scored 30 points, the second favourite 29 points, and so on. There was a wide disparity of preferences and, perhaps, the only valid conclusion to be drawn, after tallying the nine independent ratings, is that the Australian wines drew more applause than the South African wines.

On my score sheet (it was a blind tasting, the identity of the wines being revealed a day after the event) I rated Cyril Henschke 1992, Yalumba Signature Reserve 1991, Penfolds Bin 707 1992, and Wynns Coonawarra Estate John Riddoch 1992 in a tight group at the top of the pack.

But, in my view, there were a number of very good South African wines mixing it with our wines at the next level down. Some of these are imported into Australia and are worth trying if spotted on retail shelves or wine lists.

Thelema wines showed well in several categories and its Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1991 was a terrific, rich, firm wine, even in this company. Thelema vineyard backs onto the steep, spectacular slopes of the Simonsburg Mountains at Scared Pass, between Stellenbosch and Paarl.

Proprietors Gyles and Barbara Webb commenced planting in 1984, choosing to plant between 600 and 750 metres above sea level to achieve suitable ripening conditions for a range of classic French grape varieties, including cabernet sauvignon.

Kanonkop Paul Sauer 1991, a blend of cabernet and other Bordeaux varieties, is another outstanding Simonsburg Mountain wine, from a vineyard sited beneath a rounded granite peak (kop) that once accommodated a cannon (kanon) used for signaling the arrival of ships (and hence trade opportunities) in Table Bay, Capetown.

Australia outgunned the South Africans three nil in the chardonnay line up, too. The official results saw the really big, gutsy wines winning, with Hardys Eileen Hardy 1994, Leeuwin Estate Art Series 1992 and Penfolds Barrel Fermented 1994 ranking first second and third.

But the judges were all over the place — my top wine, Tyrrells Vat 47 1994, for instance, ranking number four with James Halliday and number 26 with Chateaux Margaux’s Paul Pontellier. In general, the South African wines were less full-bodied than ours and some I rated very highly.

I put Bouchard Finlayson Kaaimansgat 1995 in the top rank with Mulderbosch 1994 and Thelema Reserve 1994 a notch behind and looking good against some of Australia’s big names.

The open red class was one of the most interesting as it allowed both sides to trot out its more exotic wines. For the South Africans that meant an airing for the country’s signature red variety, pinotage, a pinot noir–cinsault cross created on the Cape in 1925.

Officially, Australia’s Paringa Estate Mornington Peninsula Shiraz 1993, Tim Adams Aberfeldy Shiraz 1993 and Jim Barry The Armagh 1992 topped the list.

But again, individual preferences varied widely. My top three were Wolf Blass Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon 1991, Penfols Magill Estate Shiraz 1991 and Wendouree Shiraz 1992.

Against the sheer power and opulence of these wines, South Africa’s more restrained styles stood little chance and, in truth, it was almost impossible to make any valid comparison of what were in many cases non-comparable styles.

Amongst the South Africans, I particularly liked Plaisir de Merle Merlot 1995; Ryman Pinotage Reserve 1995; Kanonkop Pinotage Reserve 1993; Warwick Estate Trilogy 1991; Simonsig Pinotage Reserve 1991; and Yonder Hill Merlot 1993.

The better Pinotages, in particular, are a unique Cape style and subsequent encounters with the variety over meals suggests a great future as the unique aromas and flavours provide an attractive alternative to shiraz, cabernet and pinot noir. Kanonkop appears to be an accepted local Pinotage leader and I can vouch for the happy marriage of Kanonkop 1990 Pinotage with rare Ostrich steaks.

Verbal war erupted over the serving of a full blooded Australian sparkling shiraz in the methode champenoise class. The South Africans saw it as bowling underarm. But the British and Australians leapt to its defence as we’ll see next week.

December 10th, 1995

What would it mean if a panel of judges were asked to compare perfect, ripe samples of peach and mango, then decide which was the better fruit? It wouldn’t mean anything, of course. We’d simply learn which fruit a majority of judges preferred. For with different fruits, as with different wines, there is no absolute measure of quality and, at times, not even any basis for comparison.

We were confronted with a peaches versus mangos situation in Cape Town when organisers of the South African Airways Wine Shield allowed a robust, deep-red Australian sparkling shiraz into the methode champenoise class.

We were to rate twenty wines in the class — 10 each from South Africa and Australia. Seventeen bubblies were white and two were pink. But the lone red sparked a long debate in our table of one Englishman, five Australians and three South Africans.

The debate polarised around two viewpoints. South Africa’s Tony Mossop saw red: it was under arm bowling, not cricket and not really methode champenoise in his opinion. England’s Oz Clarke, actor turned wine writer and author, filled the room with his big, friendly voice: here we had, in his view, a wonderful, warm, ripe, unique wine style and he was definitely rating it top wine.

A day later the wine was identified as Seppelts Show Sparkling Shiraz 1985 (formerly sparkling burgundy), a benchmark in Australia, and a style appreciated by the widely experienced U.K. palates. But it was not in any way comparable to the white bubblies and it’s easy to sympathise with the disquiet felt by the South Africans. To put it against the whites just because it was sparkling seems no more logical than pitting shiraz against chardonnay in the table wine classes. In any event, the Seppelt wine didn’t rate in the top three.

The judges ranked Australia’s Seaview Pinot Noir Chardonnay 1992 as top sparkling wine, followed by JC Le Roux Chardonnay 1990 (South Africa) and Hanging Rock NV (Australia).

Certainly the modestly-priced Seaview wine is pretty good, and great news for wine drinkers. It consistently knocks off far more expensive bubblies in wine shows. In this instance it beat Jansz Brut Cuvee, Salinger 1991, Croser 1993 and Taltarni Clover Hill 1993 — all $20 plus wines.

That is, it outscored the big names but not in everyone’s books (perhaps not even in any one judge’s books). I was particularly attracted to Domaine Chandon’s Brut Rose for its delicious, delicate fruit; to Jansz Brut Cuvee for its intense but fine fruit; and to Pongracz and JC Le Roux Chardonnay 1990, both made by the Bergkelder — a central wine making facility for several estates — at Stellenbosch.

If these wines ever come to Australia, try them for a change. The JC Le Roux, showed a wonderful richness that comes with age but without the heaviness that we often see in older wines; and the Pongracz appealed for its soft, fruity, easy-on-the-gums flavours.

In the open white class, I was suprised to see amongst the twenty entries (ten from each country) only two South African Chenin Blancs. Accounting for about twenty per cent of all the countries plantings, chenin blanc is about to be overtaken by the combined output of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. These two varieties were virtually non existent in South Africa in 1980 and now total about 19 per cent of the area under vines.

West Australian wines shone in this class, the vibrant fruitiness of Cullens Reserve Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 1993 and Cape Mentelle Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 1995 coming to the fore on my score sheet. And from left field, there was a knockout Pinot Grigio 1994 from Mornington Peninsula winery, T’Gallant.

On the South African side, Thelema Sauvignon Blanc 1995 (Simonsburg Mountain, Stellenbosch) leapt out with its pungent aroma and lean, dry palate; and Perderberg Chenin Blanc 1995 (from the Perderberg Co-Operative, Paarl) was a lovely, modern, light wine, very dry and a quite distinctive flavour.

The fortified wine class was really an opulent display of both countries’ high achievements. Historically, both have been fortified specialists, the transition to table wine production having taken place largely in the last thirty years.

KWV Jerapigo 1953 really was a knockout and I rated it in a tight little group of fabulous, very old wines from both countries. My South African choices were: KWV Jerapigo 1953, KWV Red Muscadel, KWV Muscadel 1968, and Monis Marsala 1983. And from Australia: Penfolds Grandfather, Seppelt DP 90, Hardys Vintage Port 1977 and Baileys Winemakers Selection Old Liqueur Tokay.

Corkiness in wine. It’s just a smelly little molecule called TCA

I wonder if those same Canberra CSIRO sleuths who identified methoxypyrozine as the magic ingredient in sauvignon blanc might solve the problem of ‘corkiness’ in wine. There’s a fortune to be made if tainted corks can be sniffed out before they reach the bottle.

The unpleasant, musty-cork smell and flavour permeating so many wines comes chiefly from a compound — 2, 4, 6 trichloroanisole (TCA) — formed, I’m told, when cork is bleached with chlorine. When this nasty little molecule remains in the cork, even in the tiniest quantities, it can be leached into a wine sealed with the cork within a day or two of insertion.

Our noses are sensitive enough to detect TCA in concentrations of around four parts per billion. So sensitive are we to it, tests designed to help Australian winemakers detect problem corks rely on the winemaker’s nose rather than on any laboratory equipment for detection.

Corkiness’ varies in degree. In big concentrations it infects wine with unmistakable and strong mouldy and musty aromas and flavours. If you drink wine regularly, chances are you’ve encountered this problem. I wonder how many perfectly good brands we’ve sent to coventry in our minds because of a cork problem.

Corkiness knows no boundaries. I’ve found it in everything from $2.99 Rieslings to priceless old Granges.

Ian McKenzie, joint Chief Wine Maker for the Southcorp Wine Group and Chairman at last week’s National Wine Show here in Canberra, tells me he systematically surveys Australia’s wine shows for corkiness.

It runs at 4-5% and the worst infestations were recorded in Canberra last year two thirds of wines with conglomerate corks were contaminated. As a result producers appear to be using these corks less.

In smaller concentrations TCA may just dull a wine: the aroma and flavour may seem less lively in a familiar tipple, or a new wine not live up to expectations. As well, we all have different sensitivity to it. This seems partly inducible.

At Penfolds Nuriootpa winery, according to winemaker Mike Farmilo, winemakers are sensitised to TCA by exposure to dilute solutions in pure water. He says an accute sensitivity is necessary because a slight taint hidden beneath the raw power of a young red doesn’t go away and becomes more apparent with time. Hence the need to spot trouble early. And sensitivity is also needed for winemakers to participate in screening potential new cork supplies.

Yet concentrations of TCA repugnant to initiated palates may pass unnoticed with others.

Winemakers and show judges become so attuned they can pick TCA with certainty where, in normal drinking circumstances, the rest of us might notice nothing amiss. This sensitivity rises to the fore in the uncluttered and analytical atmosphere of our wine shows.

In the April, 1986 edition of The Australian Grapegrower & Winemaker, J.M. Amon and R. F. Simpson estimate that cork-taint affects 1-2 per cent of all bottled wine in the world. From my own experience on the tasting bench (based mainly on Australian wines) I would say that is a conservative estimate and McKenzie’s rate of 4-5 % appears to be more likely.

For the industry it is a major problem and considerable resources now study it. Alternative closures might finally be the answer. But a good deal of wine’s appeal comes from the romance and imagery surrounding it — and much of that centres on the cork and its removal.

Wine makers generally seem to believe that despite its shortcomings, cork is still the best. So any move to alternative closure looks a long way off.

As consumers we should be aware that any reputable retailer or restaurateur will take back bottles tainted by TCA. In fact, corkiness gives one of the few legitimate grounds we have for rejecting a bottle in a restaurant. Perhaps it’s the only objectionable fault we’re likely to encounter in a modern Australian wine — because its eradication is largely beyond the control of any one wine maker.

Classics from a great cellar

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.

The humidified, temperature controlled cellar was located originally at Nyrang Street, Lidcombe in Sydney. But in the late 1980s, after a severe culling, about 2.4 million bottles made the trip across the Hay Plain to the company’s Karodoc Winery, outside Mildura.

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. It also demonstrates quite clearly the benefits of long-term cellaring of wine at a constant low temperature (14-16 degrees celsius).

Ten and twenty year old whites and reds emerge from Karodoc with a startling vitality. The same wines stuck under a house, suffering seasonal temperature swings, never seem to have the same appealing combination of maturity and liveliness.

In recent months I’ve tasted magnificent bottles of 1959 vintage Lindemans Hunter River Burgundy Bin 1590 and 1956 vintage Bin 1270 Hunter River Porphry. Both wines were moved in the mid 1980s direct from the Lindemans Cellar to the similarly cool Farmer Bros Manuka cellar (currently being refurbished to accommodate consumer wine tastings by new owners, Liquorland Vintage Cellars).

Sadly, those two legends of the fifties, both with production measured in mere hundreds of cases, are no longer part of Lindemans annual Classic Wine Releases. But drinkers wanting perfectly-cellared wines of the eighties can look to each year’s release from Karodoc. Then it’s up to our palates to spot the legends of the future.

Of the current releases, trotted out in the boardroom of Southcorp Wines (owners of Lindemans) a few weeks back, several struck me, if not as legends in the making, then as idiosyncratic regional specialties offering terrific drinking.

Lindemans Nursery Vineyard Coonawarra Rhine Riesling 1985 is my favourite of the release. It was made by John Vickery, a riesling specialist responsible for some of the greatest whites made in Australia. The Eden and Clare Valleys were John’s home turf when it came to the riesling grape, but he obviously sniffed a winner in the small riesling crop harvested from Lindemans “Nursery” vineyard in 1985.

In Coonawarra, riesling tends to be grown in secondary sites — which the “Nursery” vineyard certainly is not. It sits squarely on prized ‘terra rossa’ soil. However, the riesling vines that produced this brilliant 1985 are no more. In local parlance, they were “pruned with a chainsaw” and red varieties grafted to the stumps.

Commercially, that was the right decision and there can be no arguing against the virtues of Coonawarra reds. But to taste a Coonawarra riesling from a great vineyard, made by the best wine maker and matured under perfect conditions for a decade, raises the question of what the area’s potential for whites might be.

In short, the wine is exceptional. It’s light in colour for its age — a glowing straw yellow with green flashes; the aroma and flavour are pure magic, capturing the essence of the riesling grape; it is delicate and rich at the same time — a wine to savour and serve with the most delicate food.

In the 80s one leading critic was saying Lindemans had lost the plot when it came to Hunter River semillon. But, in truth, nothing much had changed in a decade. Only the ‘Sunshine’ vineyard, an impossibly difficult, sandy site had been dispensed with and there were a few new sites at Broke. But semillon grapes from low-yielding vines around the Ben Ean Winery, Pokolbin, remained at the heart of the wine.

The same gentle Wilmes air bag press was at work, and winemaking techniques were unchanged. In fact, all it took to produce top-notch, idiosyncratic Hunter semillon was a good vintage — and there were only three of them, 1983, 1986 and 1987 in the eighties according to group wine maker, Philip John.

Lindemans Hunter River Semillon Bin 7071 1987, one of the Classic Releases, showcases the special qualities of the style. It’s low in alcohol (10.5%) and only now at eight and half years of age showing a great depth of distinctive flavour that ought to silence the old critics and give us wine drinkers a real treat.

I’ll be looking at two more distinctive Hunters and other aged wines from Coonawarra and Watervale next week.

November 12th, 1995

Lindemans Coonawarra Pyrus 1985 and Coonawarra Limestone Ridge Shiraz Cabernet 1985 — wines much talked about on their release in the late 1980s — were re-released from the company’s Karodoc cellar recently. At around $50 a bottle they offer consumers a rare opportunity to savour fully-mature Coonawarra.

I remember the pair as babies, deep crimson things, being nursed through barrel maturation at Rouge Homme Winery. Wine maker Greg Clayfield, with colleagues Philip John and Philip Laffer, were chuffed. After a decade’s developmental work on the company’s top Coonawarra reds, they’d finally been given a proper budget for new oak barrels.

Maturation in new oak lifted the wines to an exciting new level. The wine making team knew it, and could hardly wait to trot out the new vintage of the two established blue-chips — St George and Limestone Ridge — and unveil the brand new Pyrus, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, malbec and cabernet franc.

W.C. Fields hated sharing the stage with children. He might have sympathised with St George and Limestone Ridge in 1986. Barrel samples of newcomer Pyrus won the Jimmy Watson Trophy at the Melbourne Show in 1986, upstaging its distinguished cellar mates, and setting the scene for a dramatic release.

When the moment came, Clayfield, John, and Laffer threw down the gauntlet to Bordeaux, model of cabernet-based reds. They imported Bordeaux big guns, Chateaux Lafitte Rothschild, Mouton Rothschild, Haut Brion, Latour and Margaux 1985 and stood them up in a blind tasting chest to chest with the Coonawarra trio.

The tasting was meant to demonstrate that the best of Coonawarra was up to the best of Bordeaux. But what it really showed was how remarkably different are wines from the two areas, and that when you get to this level, each wine has strong, recognisable idiosyncracies.

Knowing what was in the line up, it was quite easy to identify each and every wine. From there it was simply a matter of opinion as to who liked which wine best. As groups, the Bordeaux reds were firmer and more astringent; the Coonawarras lush and soft — especially Pyrus and Limestone Ridge — while St George dipped a toe into Bordeaux mould.

Seven years on from the tasting, St George continues to improve and reveal its great richness; Pyrus remains juicy, soft and delicate and seems to be at its peak; Limestone Ridge, also at its peak, delivers rich, luscious shiraz flavours backed with the sweetness of American oak.

Pyrus and Limestone Ridge, each in its own way, express Coonawarra’s sweet berry flavours, fashioned in the distinct soft, juicy style developed by Lindemans in the 1970s and 80s. Maturation for a decade under perfect cellaring conditions has brought each to its peak.

And what became of the Bordeaux? In recent times I’ve tasted only the Chateaux Margaux 1985 — and it is slowly, year after year, revealing new layers of sweet perfumes and flavours. It’s a real aristocrat and tells me that for all the magic we’ve worked in Coonawarra in the last twenty years, there’s still a challenge ahead. Comfortingly, we’ve made great strides in the area since 1985, so the gap closes a bit each vintage.

Bin 7400 Shiraz 1987 is the lone Hunter red of Lindemans Classic release. Unlike the Coonawarra reds, it has no string of Trophies and gold medals, but then that’s the fate of idiosyncratic Hunter shiraz — often an ugly duckling that may take a decade or more to reveal its real nature.

The area of dry-grown shiraz in the lower Hunter Valley has shrunk in recent years, and what is left produces really top notch wines only a couple of times a decade. But when we savour wines as good as Bin 7400 1987 or the occasional gems from Rothbury, Draytons, Tyrrells and Brokenwood, we taste unique world-class wines.

Thanks to Lindemans policy of maturing the best wines for later commercial release, we wine drinkers have continuing access to some of the great gems of Australian wine making at prices that do not always reflect the high cost of storage.

This one giant cellar has shaped opinion on the ageing potential of Hunter, Clare, Coonawarra and Padthaway wines both through its conquest of the Wine Show system and commercial releases. But will any company serve the same role for the promising new wine-growing areas that have opened up over the last twenty years?

Tis the season to drink bubbly

Ten years ago it was hard to pick the quality difference between many of the $10 bubblies appearing on the market and the mass-selling $5 brands. However, quality arrived in the $10 bottle during the 1990s and consumers are moving away from the mass brands to slightly more expensive, more flavoursome products.

While total sales of domestic sparkling wines are in decline (down 3.7 per cent January-July 1995 versus the same period in 1994) wine makers report healthy growth in the around $10 segment.

That trend reflects the continuing decline in per capita consumption of alcohol across Australia and a move, amongst wine drinkers at least, to better quality. Sales of cask wine are in decline, while bottled reds and whites are enjoying increases of 11.8 per cent and 10.7 per cent (1995 versus 1994) respectively.

In the sparkling wine category, the lift in quality this decade reflects an abundance of suitable grape material coming on stream and follows tremendous leaps in wine-making technology achieved during the 1980s — all of which demonstrates the tremendously long lead times between concept and achievement in the wine industry.

In the case of sparkling wine, serious efforts at improving techniques and sourcing the right grapes began in the late 1970s. Pioneers like Norm Walker at Seaview and Ian Holme (founder of Yellowglen) were employing the classic French Champagne varieties, pinot noir and chardonnay, in sparkling wine by the early 1980s.

But the arrival of large scale production using those grape varieties was a decade away and, as consumers, we can thank those prescient wine makers who planted broad acres in Coonawarra and Padthaway in the 60s, 70s and 80s for much of the improved quality we enjoy today.

At the cutting edge of quality, where invariably wines are modelled on those of the France’s Champagne region, fruit sourcing has moved solidly to growing areas notably cooler than in Coonawarra and Padthaway.

Yarra-Valley based Domain Chandon sources grapes from southern Victoria and Tasmania; Seppelt looks to both southern latitudes and alpine areas of New South Wales and Victoria; Petaluma’s Brian Croser sticks to the Mount Lofty Ranges overlooking Adelaide; Cloudy Bay and Deutz make strikingly contrasting styles from Marlborough at the northern tip of New Zealand’s South Island; and Jansz employs only Tasmanian grapes.

What these and other premium makers seek is the richness with delicacy achieved only from grapes ripened slowly in mild conditions, and the overlays of flavour that come from following French techniques: gentle extraction of the best juice from the best grapes; secondary fermentation in the bottle (producing the bubbles) and a comparatively long maturation of the wine in cool cellars with the sediment of fermentation still in the bottle.

There are two major inputs to wine aroma and flavour from this maturation period. Firstly, prolonged maturation at a low temperature in the absence of oxygen produces subtle, pleasing changes; and secondly there is a further overlay caused by contact of the wine with the expired yeast cells as they undergo an enzymatic breakdown (autolysis).

Ask a wine maker from the Champagne region about the input to aroma and flavour of yeast autolysis and you will hear that it’s completely misunderstood and grapes are what the flavour is all about. Most of the so-called ‘yeastiness’ attributed to Champagne has more to do, they say with the grape pinot meunier (the third permissible variety) or bottle aging after removal of the yeast cells. The role of autolysis, they say is subtle and part of a larger comlex.

According to Ian McKenzie, Chairman of Judges at the Canberra Wine Show and overseer of the phenomenal changes at Seppelts Great Western Cellars for two decades, our understanding of French technique and its adaptation to Australia was largely complete by the middle of the 1980s. The biggest contributor to sparkling wine quality since then has been growing availability of good grapes — and the improvement is far from over yet, he says.

Development of those top shelf bubblies has a trickle-down effect. What’s learned in developing the best wines, improves the quality of everything underneath it. And, in the case of Seppelt, a flood of new grapes has even meant that what’s now going into mid-priced wines was Salinger material five years ago.

But, of course, sparkling wine does not begin and end with Champagne look alikes. The world makes numerous tasty bubblies from grapes other than the French classics. And the long and costly traditional bottle fermentation process is not necessarily the best way to make sparkling wine in all circumstances. More on this next week.

October 29th, 1995

Perhaps we were glimpsing the future direction of Australian top-shelf sparkling wine when Dominique Portet’s Clover Hill 1992 won the Trophy for best sparkling wine at the Adelaide wine show last week.

Clover Hill (the name of both the wine and Taltarni’s 20 hectare Tasmanian Vineyard from which it comes) has that rare combination of delicacy and deep, sweet fruit flavour — that elusive, special flavour sought by our sparkling wine producers and which stems from the vineyard, not wine making techniques.

If the search for the very best takes our wine makers to cool growing areas to the south or in the alps, the fact remains that most of Australia’s grapes come from comparatively warm areas. And these areas are the source of most of our sparkling wines.

Table wines from these areas reflect our warm climate: grapes ripen to high sugar levels and these in turn make very rich, comparatively high-alcohol wines (fermentation converts grape sugars to alcohol). It was the rich, tasty, heady nature of our wines that led British commentators to dub them “bottled sunshine”.

If nature allows us to make such well-loved rich wines so readily, why then are sparkling wines sourced from the same areas so much lighter and more acidic? The answer is that our wine makers are so mesmerised by the French model that they may be overlooking a great opportunity to make sparkling wines that truly reflect our beautifully sunny climate.

There are parallels here with wine maker attempts to emulate the ‘elegant’ wines of France in the 1970s and 80s. At the time Max Schubert, maker of Grange, quipped that if they wanted elegance, they should grow grapes in cooler areas. Instead, some makers produced reds using early-picked grapes from warmer areas. The experiment failed. Instead of elegance, they produced thin, tart wines that were rejected by consumers.

I see an element of this in many current-release sparkling wines: they’re fresh, lively, and have an overlay of the autolysis character described in last week’s column. But where’s the grape flavour? Too often it’s missing. What you get, once your palate is past the froth and bubbles, is the taste of green, unripe fruit, with its coarse edge. Free of faults and flavour.

But sparkling wine doesn’t have to be a feeble French look alike. There is life beyond French method and the traditional French grape varieties.

It was a bulk-fermented Eden Valley Rhine Riesling, labelled as Barossa Pearl and released in 1956 , that gave post-war Australia its first popular taste of the grape; more recently, Brian Croser used Clare Valley Rhine Riesling in the now defunct Farmer Bros Cuvee Clare. Canberrans loved the stuff because it not only bubbled, but tasted of grapes.

And there is the example of wine maker Mike de Garis of Cellarmaster Wines. Rather than follow his colleagues down the thin and tart path, he took ripe Riverland Chardonnay, bulk fermented it and released it as Pelican Point Chardonnay Cuvee. Delicious fruity stuff, it was — a sparkling table wine.

McWilliams have done something similar with its new Kanandah brand — a blend of Riverina Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, bulk fermented, then bottled fresh and fruity.

Sparkling burgundy is perhaps the greatest example of letting rip with our wonderful fruit flavours. Numerous wine makers now take ripe Aussie shiraz, make a rich, full-bodied table wine from it, mature it in barrels for a year, then bottle it for a secondary fermentation. Why can’t we do the same with other red and white grape varieties.

This could open up tremendous marketing opportunities for the makers as well as giving our tired palates new thrills. The original sparkling wine, Champagne, is not just a general wine style, but very much a strong expression of distinct regional aromas and flavours.

Our own wine makers rely increasingly on table-wine district of origin in appealing to the consumer. Sparkling wine could be part of this regional appeal, just as the better sparkling burgundies are already doing. The key, though, is in letting the grapes ripen, instead of picking them green and trying to make them into something the can never be.

The original and distinct flavours of German Riesling Sekt, France’s Sparkling Vouvray or Italy’s Asti Spumante are three contrasting examples of non-Champagne sparkling wines — a hint of what we might achieve.

With the international successful of our table wines, it seems timely to break away from our narrow, French orientated focus when it comes to sparkling wines. Let’s embrace the diversity of our wine making regions and multitude of grape varieties spread across our sunny land and start making bubblies that say “Australia”.

Winter family pushes south to Mount Gambier

Australian wine makers continue pushing into every likely corner of the continent in search of the perfect wine grape. Vineyards flourish across southern Victoria, south to the bottom of the Mornington and Bellarine Peninsulas, westo Drumborg, and even to Portland. Real money is pouring into Tasmania, too, setting the apple isle up as a great future source of cutting-edge wines.

In the West perhaps the most promising new grape growing area is at Pemberton, south east of Margaret River. Influenced by Dr John Gladstones, John Horgan, brother of Leeuwin Estate’s Denis Horgan, established Salitage Winery and a 52-hectare vineyard. He and others now demonstrate with extraordinary wines that selection of vineyard sites using climatic and geological data can be fruitful.

In South Australia, the push for the sunny but cool ripening conditions that produces the best wine grapes has been both upwards and southwards. Those opting for altitude straddle the Mount Lofty Ranges from the foothills behind McLaren Vale in the south, spreading north through Piccadilly, Lenswood, Eden Valley and Clare Valley.

South Australian vignerons seeking a lower latitude, had no choice but to head towards the Limestone Coast, south of the Murray River. Coonawarra was the first and most prominent development, joined later by Padthaway, and in recent years by many quite large developments in the general region of these two major plantings.

Some of these, at Mount Benson, Robe, and Cape Jaffa, add a maritime influence to the growing environment and, over time, we will see how wines from these areas differ from those further inland around Coonawarra and Padthaway.

Within Coonawarra, it was accepted wisdom a few decades back that grapes would not ripen south of V and A Lane — a point well north of many subsequent and successful vineyard developments.

Still, the town of Penola marked the southern end of Coonawarra until Peter Rymill Riddoch, a descendent of pioneer John Riddoch, planted a vineyard on an outcrop of terra rossa soil several kilometres south of Penola this year — a sign of great confidence from an experienced grape grower. Rymill believes grapes ought to ripen this far south.

Sixty kilometres further south, well beyond Coonawarra’s boundaries, Martin and Merrilee Winter made a bold but considered move in 1988, planting 6 hectares of grapes just south of Mount Gambier.

They not only ventured further south than anyone in memory but planted on volcanic soil instead of the terra rossa sought by other growers.

They wanted a growing climate slightly cooler than Coonawarra’s, believing that the slower, cooler ripening would produce an extra intensity of grape flavour. They were also aware of some risk that an early autumn might shut down the vines before the grapes ripened.

Martin, a geologist by training, with Coonawarra viticulturist Ian Hollick as mentor, selected a site that ought to minimise frost exposure and maximise ripening potential.

He believes ‘terra rossa’ soil is not the real issue in selecting vineyard sites in the area. He says climatic issues are the most important and that good drainage and soils producing little vine vigour are important. Martin and Merrilee’s vines sit on a shallow layer of volcanic loam (10-12 centimetres) over 1.5 – 2 metres of calcareous sand, over limestone

Under these comparatively austere conditions vines are healthy but not well enough nourished to produce large amounts of foliage. Instead, they concentrate on producing berries. Here the Winter’s have a parallel with the better vineyards in Coonawarra: invariably the best fruit there comes from non-vigorous vines on shallow soil on well-drained sites. These vines, too, focus on ripening grapes rather than creating foliage.

Merrilee studied viticulture and now manages the vineyard, planted about 70 per cent to Cabernet Sauvignon, the balance being mainly chardonnay, with a little pinot noir and cabernet franc.

Yields have been very low but of high enough quality for pinot noir and chardonnay to find their way into premium sparkling blends at Seppelts Great Western Winery to the east, over the border in Victoria.

The Winter’s send cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay to Brands Winery, Coonawarra, for vinification under Bruce Gregory and Jim Brand. Early vintages suggest a good future for the vineyard, although we’ll have to form a judgement over the next decade or so as the vines mature.

From what I’ve seen the Winter’s cabernet has the area’s very deep colour and sweet berry aroma but lacks the fleshy depth of Coonawarra. But that probably has more to do with the age of the vines. The one and only Winters Chardonnay I’ve tasted (1994) shows an unusual concentration of flavour and a high, gripping natural acidity that suggests an outstanding future for that variety at Mount Gambier. Both wines are worth trying now and it will be interesting to see how things develop over the next few years.

Griffith sweeties give semillon a sweet name

Winedrinkers associate premium wines with particular grape varieties from particular areas. Thus, in Australia, some of the natural doubles are cabernet and Coonawarra, semillon and the Hunter Valley, riesling and the Clare Valley, and shiraz and the Barossa Valley.

Our biggest source of grapes, long stretches of the Murrumbidgee and Murray Rivers, churn out thousands of tonnes of fat, juicy, sweet, grapes. These make everything from bubbly to fortified wine. But the district of origin seldom appears on labels for the simple reason that most of the tonnage, while capable of making sound wines, bears no distinguishing aromas or flavours.

Yet the ‘Riverland’ as this vast grape resource is called, is far from homogenous. A couple of degrees variation in latitude, as the system snakes its way westwards, creates many climatic – and, thus, quality differences. Seppelts, for example, grows broad acres of chardonnay at several points along the Murray. Far from being flung into one vat and branded ‘riverland’ the various batches head in different directions.

In an interview a few years back, Ian McKenzie, Seppelt’s Chief Winemaker, emphasized the two degree latitude difference between the company’s Qualco (South Australia) and Barooga (NSW) vineards, both on the Murray. As a result, grapes ripen several weeks later at cooler Barooga. And the fruit makes far superior wine.

Barooga, while not a exactly a household name like Coonawarra, Padthaway, or the Barossa Valley, is one of the few exceptions to anonymity along our major waterway.

Perhaps the most reviled of all stretches of the riverland’s grape growing districts was the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, with its centre at Griffith, N.S.W. Here is planted huge amounts of semillon and shiraz, both workhorses of the Australian wine industry.

A decade ago, wine quality from the area was seen as a joke within the industry. And having seen many extremely poor examples of bulk wine from there in the late seventies, I admit to a strong prejudice against MIA wines that lasted in my own mind until only recently.

Better vineyard management and the arrival of state-of-the-art winemaking equipment now means that much of the area’s output of bulk wine is as good as you’ll find anywhere. Taste, for example, McWilliams revamped Hanwood table wine range for a very pleasant surprise.

If the area does prove simply too hot, as seems likely, to make premium dry table wine, first de Bortolis and now others have exploited the hot, humid ripening conditions in developing fabulous sweet wines now winning the palates of consumers and show judges alike in recent years.

While not the first to make a ‘sauternes’ style in the district, De Bortoli elevated it to a higher level than anyone else before them, and paved the way for a little niche, both at home and abroad, for Griffith late-picked semillon.

De Bortolis achieved the impossible in having their botrytis semillon acknowledged so widely. The market for dessert table wines in Australia is small and very crowded as every winemaker nurtures a yearning to make the definitive Aussie sweet white. Indeed, there are so many late picked semillons and rieslings around, that few make any impression at all in the mind of the consumer.

The de Bortoli product, though, could not be ignored. Pick up a bottle, look at the back label, and you’ll see why: the list of trophies and gold medals seems longer than the original ACT ballot paper (more interesting, too).

De Bortoli’s success prompted a number of other Griffiths companies to blow the dust off slumbering brands or develop new ones, many of which already boast outstanding show successes. Stephen Chatterton’s Wilton Estate and the Miranda family are just two Griffith wine makers now winning impressive tallies of show medals for their sweeties.

What they have all done is to take one of the area’s most prolifically grown grape varieties, semillon, and exploited the warm, humid growing conditons to fashion a wine that towers above dry table wines made from the same variety. Before De Bortolis seized the opportunity, Griffith semillon was useful but undistinguished.

In Griffiths’ warm autumn semillon ripens to very high natural sugar levels. High humidity, thanks to some extent to all those irrigation channels, encourages the development on grape skins of ‘botrytis cinerea’, a parasitic fungus or mould. The mould (known also as ‘noble rot’, ‘edelfaule’ and ‘pourriture noble’) whithers the grape without breaking the skin, thus concentrating the juice (and adding its own lovely fGrGavour).

Sometimes confusion reigns

As Australia defines it wines regions in law, the Geographic Indications Committee, according to its permanent member, Ian Mackley, intends to use the law to enforce label integrity.

Enforcement, he says, will attempt to stamp out the rare, but when it does occur, misleading use of a winery address to suggest a prestigious district of origin.

Fortunately, fraudulent and misleading labelling appear to have been uncommon in Australia. Stupidity, bad judgement, poor label design and inadequate marketing have been far more prevalent, especially during the late seventies and eighties as wine consumption really exploded.

There were fewer established brands then than now, and often, rather than risk the launching of a new name, marketers expanded production, at the expense of quality, of known products.

In hindsight, there are many examples of good brands snuffed out, or temporarily corrupted. Remember Seppelts Moyston Claret. Originally it was a powerful, long-lived red from the Great Western district, Victoria. But it was ruined as a name as it stumbled from one identity to another.

Seaview was another brand to suffer as volumes grew, and grape origin shifted out of McLaren Vale in the late seventies and early eighties. However, it has been totally revived, first of all in quality under the ownership of Penfolds (now Southcorp) then in regional identity. Recent vintages are all sourced from McLaren Vale and the brand is back where it belongs. That integration of brand with region gives consumers a reason to buy and the maker the opportunity to earn a better return.

Leo Buring was another brand to lose direction. Numerous new Buring labels joined the discount fray in the eighties so that eventually nobody new what Burings stood for. The idea of a brand, after all, is to reassure the consumer — to signal a consistent quality message and identity.

Burings, too, recovered, again under Southcorp ownership. The brand now stands for a small range of high quality Barossa and Eden Valley reds and whites.

Overall, wine branding now seems clearer than what it was ten years ago. Labels generally carry more useful information than they used to. But some confusion still exists.

In some ways this article is an open letter, on behalf of wine drinkers, to Jean Louis Lepeltier, energetic new head of Orlando Wyndham wine group. Some aspects of the group’s revitalised Richmond Grove brand confuse me. And if they confuse somebody in daily contact with the industry, how confusing must they be to the casual wine drinker?

Firstly, this is not a complaint about the quality of Richmond Grove wines. The wines offer good value and several notable highlights. My only complaint is about identity.

Originally Richmond Grove was associated with the Hunter and several of its labels still have that association. Then, Orlando Wyndham’s remarkable Cowra Vineyard was named Richmond Grove and a Richmond Grove Cowra label hit the market.

Later still, Orlando Wyndham acquired Leo Burings old Chateau Leonay winery on the outskirts of Tanunda in the Barossa Valley. And as the vendor, Southcorp wines, kept both the Buring and Chateau Leonay names, Orlando renamed the winery Richmond Grove. So now we have Hunter Richmond Grove, Cowra Richmond Grove, and Barossa Valley Richmond Grove.

And there’s more confusion. The brands new livery includes on the neck label a picture of the old Chateau Leonay with the words “Barossa Valley Winery”.

So, I can now walk into a retail store and buy quite a range of Richmond Grove wines with this “Barossa Valley Winery” label: there’s a Coonawarra Cabernet, a Watervale (southern Clare Valley) Rhine Riesling, a Barossa Valley Rhine Riesling, and now a multi-region Pinot Chardonnay NV Brut. The Cowra wines, though, have their own label.

It should be said again that the wines are good. And the rieslings, made by John Vickery in the Barossa winery, offer exceptional quality and value.

And there is no question as to Orlando Wyndham’s honesty. If the label is confusing, there has certainly never been any hesitation when it comes to providing region-of-origin details for any of the wines, on request.

They own great vineyards and employ some of the most distinguished wine makers in the country — John Vickery and Phil Laffer, for example.

I suppose my point to Mr Lepeltier is that not everybody has time to go looking for details of origin. And some of us seeing “Barossa Valley Winery” on a front label might assume that to be the origin of the wine in the bottle.

Yunghanns family creates Deakin Estate as budget cousin to Katnook

A terrific new wine brand, Deakin Estate, is about to hit retail shelves across Australia after twenty-two years in the making. The story began in 1973 when the Yunghanns family (owners of Katnook Estate, Coonawarra) established vineyards on the Murray River 35 kilometres from Mildura, Victoria.

At the time, consumption of table wine was growing but not yet at the phenomenal rates that would be recorded later in the decade and into the early 1980s. The Younghanns were therefore anticipating a trend rather than following one. As well, the industry was far more fragmented then than now and the family was content to grow and sell grapes.

The early plantings were a mixed lot but the Yunghanns had the prescience to establish chardonnay on a scale not before seen in Australia. In 1980 the family built its Riverland winery just as the industry began screaming for chardonnay. With the largest single chardonnay holding in the country, the family had a ready market both for grapes and bulk wine processed in the new winery.

In 1989 the Riverland winery launched its own Sunnycliff brand onto the market. Wines under the label were consistently good, but only patchily distributed and marketed. Now the brand has been scrapped to make way for the new Deakin Estate range which joins Katnook Estate and Riddoch under the new Wingara Wine Group banner.

The wines reflect twenty two years’ evolution in the vineyard; introduction into the winery of the very best equipment; and appointment of accomplished wine maker Mark Zeppel, a dux of Roseworthy College and former wine maker to Penfolds and Warrenmang.

The new Deakin Estate wines are the product of winery and adjacent vineyard working together with the end product in mind.

In the vineyard, dual-purpose varieties have given way to premium table-wine varieties. And the viticulturists have learned a lot in two decades. Yesterday’s overhead sprinkler systems are being replaced by drip irrigation.

This dramatically reduces water use and allows greater control over vine health and, finally, successful ripening of grapes to desired sugar levels. As Wingara Wine Group Chief Executive, David Yunghanns, told me, “We get only eight inches of rain a year. Ideally we’d have none, then we’d have complete control of the vines.”

The ideal, he says, is to work towards even ripening of bunches. One past viticultural practice, minimal pruning (essentially trimming combined vine canopy like a bush rather than pruning individual vines) led to uneven ripening with both green and ripe berries in the one bunch.

Retrellising and opening up the canopies seems to be achieving substantial lifts in grape quality. The viticulturists are also playing close attention to sections of the vineyard that have traditionally yielded the best fruit.

They believe they can lift quality across the vineyard through an understanding of conditions that produced the best fruit in the past.

And because the winery sits amongst the vineyards, grapes can be moved into the winery within half and hour of harvesting — a tremendous boon to quality as it reduces the risk of oxidation or other spoilage.

In the winery, Mark Zeppel moved away from the old practice of mass fermentations and bulk blending. Fermenting and then storing smaller parcels according to quality gives him the best blending options for the Deakin Estate range.

The wines are highly polished expressions of the region’s ripe, fruity early-drinking styles. They don’t pretend to be anything other than that — tasty, fresh wines at a very affordable $7 to $8.50 a bottle.

The range, a Chardonnay 1995, Colombard 1995, Sauvignon Blanc 1995 and Cabernet Sauvignon 1994 is to be released nationally on September 1. The chardonnay offers full, ripe flavours; the colombard is lighter, crisper and drier; the sauvignon blanc is full and gentle but without the strong varietal flavour we see in cooler areas; and the cabernet is packed with sweet, ripe-berry flavours.

The range squarely challenges the big wineries. And that’ s a great thing for wine drinkers faced with increasing wine prices. Until recently, only the major wineries had a big showing in the affordable $7 -$9 price segment. The arrival on the scene of DeBortolis, Miranda, the Alambie Wine Company and now the Wingara Wine Group’s Deakin Estate with nationally distributed brands gives poor wine drinkers greater choice and some bargaining power.