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?