Yearly Archives: 1995

Dr Edgar Riek, Canberra’s great wine pioneer

That deadly stretch of the Federal highway, starting at Brooks creek, has two bright points. One is the spectacular view of Lake George as you drop off the escarpment through Geary’s Gap. The other is the little cluster of vineyards on the left just as the road heads away from the lake.

Driving that way last Monday afternoon at about 3.30 the lakeside road was already in the shadow of the escarpment. Then the hills dropped back from the roadside and there were Dr Edgar Riek’s and David Madew’s vineyards, on gentler slopes between the road and escarpment, enjoying a dose of rare winter sunshine.

Edgar Riek was out pruning. Good reason, I thought, to break the journey and pay my respects to one of Canberra’s wine pioneers and hopefully taste the 1995 wines.

Edgar, a CSIRO scientist, planted Lake George in 1971 the same year that Dr John Kirk, a colleague at the CSIRO, established vines at Murrumbateman. Both men have made major contributions to the Canberra wine scene and to the broader Australian wine industry.

Edgar Riek’s passion for wine started long before table wine was widely consumed in Australia. He was a founding member of the Canberra Wine and Food Society, still operating out of the Forrest clubhouse that Edgar and other enthusiasts built several decades ago.

Riek, an etymologist, was bitten deeply enough by the wine bug to purchase the sun-drenched Lake George site and try his hand as vigneron. As there was little information at the time as to which table wine varieties might grow best, Edgar planted forty grape types including several native American and Chinese varieties.

3.25 hectares of vines now share the 7.25 hectare site with a Bay tree, commercial prickly pear, sundry nut and fruit trees, and the odd peacock — a bird that goes down particularly well with Edgar’s pinot noir, especially when it is cooked by Josephine Farmer.

As the vineyard took root in the 1970s, Edgar became a driving force behind the Canberra Wine Show, building it from nothing to being what many in the industry regard as the most important wine show in Australia. Thanks to Edgar’s efforts, the wine industry views Canberra with a rare fondness.

Edgar acknowledges very strong support in the formative years from Murray Tyrrell (who these days buys part of Edgar’s crop) and Ray Kidd. Kidd was head of Lindemans at the time and supported Edgar’s introduction of museum classes into the show by trotting out a wide range of old wines from the Lindeman/Leo Buring cellars.

As Edgar’s vision of Canberra as the peak Australian wine show developed, he was further helped in his thinking by David Farmer during regular Friday afternoon think tanks, and received strong support from Len Evans, enthusiastic chairman of judges at Canberra.

Under Riek, Canberra introduced foreign judges, a qualification that wines have a medal from another show to qualify, and an auditing system to ensure that what the judges saw was also what the consumer was offered. This was a radical step at the time as it formally recognised the commercial importance of wine show awards.

This Canberra initiative provided consumer protection and went beyond the old notion of seeing wine judging merely as a means to ‘improve the breed’ within the context of an agricultural exhibition. Improving the breed still is an important element of wine shows. But Edgar and his colleagues, including current Chairman of the Show Committee, Bill Moore, understood the consumer connection and acted on it.

Edgar stepped down from the wine show committed several years back and now, at age 75, tends his vines and makes small batches of very good, highly distinctive wine in a couple of sheds in the vineyard.

The vineyards are impeccably groomed, all neatly hand pruned by Edgar (300 hours work between May and August), weed free, and with neatly mowed green stubble between the rows.

Over the years, Edgar has made virtually every wine style possible out of pure curiosity and to see what the vineyard does best. Unlike most wine makers, he has the capacity to stand back and see shortcoming in his own wines and the vision to make further improvements.

He makes each year about two buckets full of a delightful pinot grigio (also known as pinot gris); a wonderful and powerful ‘sauternes’ style semillon that needs 10 years cellaring; various cabernet blends; a richly-perfumed, silky, lush merlot; and increasingly Burgundy-like chardonnay and pinot noir.

These last two are what Edgar now sees as both a challenge and a strength of his vineyard, It has taken more than twenty years, but the chardonnays and pinot noirs of recent years have gone leaping and bounding ahead. They are wonderful, idiosyncratic wines and a joy to drink. Edgar’s wines are hard to find, but both Georges and Lloyds carry some stock.

Emerging single vineyard wines

The market may not yet flooded with wines named after individual vineyards, but the trend is there. An increasing number of our top reds and whites now acknowledge the fact that where the grapes grow is what gives the wine its character. And even when it’s not acknowledged, a particular vineyard is often at the heart of consistently outstanding wine.

Penfold’s Kalimna vineyard in the northern Barossa Valley, for example, provides the ‘mother’ wine for Grange but the source is not trumpeted on the label. It is, after all, just one of several components. But Grange wouldn’t be Grange without Kalimna shiraz at the heart of the blend.

Some of Penfolds Barossa neighbours, though, find the use of individual vineyard names a great plus in marketing their best wines. Australians relate easily to the simple honesty of a place name. And foreign wine drinkers grasp the idea of geography as a guide to wine quality through long exposure to the French appellation system.

A few years back Bob McLean of St Hallett began making a wine using shiraz from his ‘Old Block’ vineyard. Why throw the best into the blending vat, he thought, when there are drinkers ready to pay a premium for better quality. The result is an annual few thimbles full of a distinctive Barossa red that sells out instantly here and in the very fussy U.K. market.

McLean’s marketing success springs not from glossy ads or hype but from one simple fact: ‘Old Block’ vineyard consistently produced outstanding grapes long before its name appeared on the bottle. Performance led to recognition.

On the other side of Tanunda from St Hallett, brother and sister wine-making team, Rolf and Christa Binder make a small, exciting range of wines from vineyards in the Western Barossa. The reds, in particular, bear a rich Barossa thumbprint and sell quickly to appreciative wine drinkers in Australia and the U.K. They particularly love the Binder’s ‘Hanisch Vineyard’ shiraz.

Which is not surprising. It not only tastes good, but lack of widespread recognition keeps the price well below the going price for wines of similar quality. Given the tiny fixed output and individual character of ‘Hanisch’, there seems only one future direction for the price.

Down in Coonawarra, a quick visit to Nibs cook-it-yourself restaurant led to the Lynn family’s Majella vineyard. By chance, as we drooled over Majella 1991, old Mrs Lynn introduced herself and spun the family story — and there was a Canberra connection.

During the 1940s she’d worked in the Supply Minister’s office, under the Curtin and Chifley Governments, “as minutes secretary to the Minister’s Secretary”. She later married George Lynn, a farmer, and settled in Coonawarra, raising fat lambs and children.

In 1968, the fat lambs were turfed off the ‘Majella’ block to make way for the childrens’ ambitions. That was the year Brian Lynn, encouraged by Bill Redman, persuaded his father to plant vines.

Over time, wine-grape sales became increasingly important. And the inclusion of grapes from the block in some of Coonawarra’s most expensive wines, encouraged Mrs Lynn and her son Brian Lynn, from 1991, to turn their best shiraz into wine they could sell themselves. Hence, the birth of Majella, one of the best (and scarcest) Coonawarra Shirazes you’ll ever taste.

If you want some, you’ll have to ring Brian in Coonawarra. He has a special feeling for Canberrans, and even flies a Raiders flag in his living room.

At Padthaway, an hour’s drive north of Coonawarra, Orlando bought ‘Lawson’s Vineyard’ in 1980. Orlando’s wine makers were staggered by the quality of shiraz coming off the vineyard, especially as the area’s reputation, at the time, had been built on its whites. Again, the sheer quality of the vineyard’s grapes gave birth to Lawsons Padthaway Shiraz. The just-released 1991 has already won a trophy and four gold medals.

Lawsons sells for around $30 a bottle — the going price for top-shelf reds. Which makes Stonyfell ‘Metala’, another great single-vineyard a great bargain at $11-$15 a bottle.

Metala’ vineyard, at Langhorne Creek (near Lake Alexandrina), was planted in 1891 and many of these original vines survive today. The reputation of the vineyard grew largely through the wonderful reds made by Jack Kilgour during the thirties, forties and fifties. The wine acquired the vineyard name in the 1960s under wine maker Brian Dolan, whose son Nigel makes the spectacular modern version under the ownership of Rothbury Estate.

O’Shea Award symbolises McWilliams transition from sandals to Reeboks

The Australian wine industry dispenses endless diplomas, trophies, medals and awards (gongs, for short) to its wines. Adding a little twist, in 1990 McWilliams came up with the idea of awarding one, annually, to a person or group for making an historically significant contribution to the Australian Wine Industry.

The Award, named after the extraordinary Maurice O’Shea, founder of Mount Pleasant Winery and wine maker there from 1921 until his death in 1956, has been won in the past by the late Max Schubert (Grange and red-wine making techniques); Len Evans (everything); Ron Potter (wine-industry engineering innovations); the late David Wynn (Coonawarra, Adelaide Hills, flagons, the wine cask); and Jacobs Creek (Australia’s first large-scale global wine brand).

Last Friday, in front of 450 guests at Sydney’s Regent Hotel, James Halliday, (former lawyer, founder of Brokenwood and Coldstream Hills Wineries, wine maker, international wine-show judge, columnist and prolific author) accepted the 1995 Maurice O’Shea Award from Don McWilliam, Chairman of McWilliams Wines.

Halliday’s contribution speaks for itself, and the standing ovation he received with the award dismisses the need for further comment. What intrigues me, though, is how awarding the award highlights enormous changes at McWilliams over the last few years.

Only a few years back, the public face of McWilliams was an anachronism. In an era of burgeoning table-wine consumption, McWilliams continued to underpin its profitability selling ‘sherry’ and ‘port’ in a rapidly declining fortified-wine market. As late as 1990, McWilliams projected the values of the 1950s and 1960s. As James Halliday put it, everyone wondered when McWilliams chubby little Friar Tuck might kick off his sandals and strap on the Reeboks.

For what the trade knew, but consumers at large did not, was the great depth of winemaking talent within McWilliams, not to mention the tremendous wealth of top-quality table-wine grapes at its disposal.

By 1990, the inaugural year of the Maurice O’Shea Award, McWilliams vigorous table wine making culture within, aided by a thirsty market, appeared on the brink of sweeping aside the old order.

Five years on, under Chief Executive, Kevin McKlintock, the old fortified customers are being serviced quietly in the background, but the public push is where the market is: with table wines.

The wine makers walk around as if they can hardly believe their own good luck. Like anyone, they enjoy recognition.

Wine makers Jim Brayne and Phil Ryan presided over a tasting on the morning after the O’Shea Award, presenting a phenomenally good, diverse range of wines from the company’s vineyard holdings in the Yarra Valley, Young, the Hunter Valley, the Riverina, and Coonawarra.

Such geographical diversity ensures a wide spectrum of wine flavours, especially as the wine makers seem determined not to impose a house style across all districts. Tasting the wines confirmed Jim Brayne’ s view that not only is quality improving thanks to improved vineyard-management and wine-making practice, but that flavours inherent in grapes from different areas lead the makers to appropriate wine-making methods. This, in turn, tends to heighten regional characteristics in the wines.

Lillydale Vineyards wines (Yarra Valley), for example, deliver flavours akin to summer berries grown in cooler areas — strong but exquisite and delicate at the same time. Watch for the 1995 Sauvignon Blanc, a wine of dazzling freshness and wonderful fleshy vibrance.

The warm but overcast lower Hunter makes wines like nowhere else on earth. Semillon-based whites from the area need no introduction, but watch in future years for McWilliams Lovedale Semillon 1995, sourced from a vineyard, near Cessnock airport, planted by Maurice O’Shea in 1946. Low in alcohol, concentrated but steely-austere at the same time, it is wonderful. So is the Maurice O’Shea Shiraz 1994, a few years from release yet. And I also recommend Mount Pleasant Rose Hill Shiraz 1991 as a fine example of a great regional specialty.

Hilltops Cabernet Sauvignon 1993 and Shiraz 1993 from the Barwang vineyard at Young show a rich and fleshy charm not unlike the area’s cherries.

But when it comes to red wine, McWilliams biggest winners in the future are bound to come from Coonawarra. Given McWilliams recent move to full ownership of the Brand family vineyards and winery, and substantial vineyard expansion, we can expect easier access to these most attractive, reasonably-priced wines, The current-release 1993 Brands Coonawarra reds share a lush, irresistible richness that seems to be a hallmark of the vintage.

This sprint through only a few highlights of the tasting doesn’t’ do justice to McWilliams. But as a consumer as well as a commentator, it is all good news seeing one of the few remaining independent wine makers making such exemplary wines. Let’s hope they, too, don’t get gobbled up by the giants.

When the best cabernet is a shiraz!

A little over a year ago I reported on an American tasting that rated an Australian shiraz as the best cabernet in the world and promised a re-enactment of the tasting here in Canberra in conjunction with Alby Sedaitis of Barocca Cafe and Cafe Chaos fame.

On a smaller and more intimate scale we re-assessed some of the top 1982 wines tasted by the Americans and drew somewhat different conclusions.

Results of the original tasting, conducted by international wine society, Les Amis du Vin dispelled, in my mind, any lingering belief in the sanctity of wine-show results or the infallibility of wine-guru palates.

They provided palpable evidence of the subjective, unreliable, and often meaningless nature of wine judging. As well, the automatic supremacy of cabernet amongst red grape varieties came under challenge.

The masked tasting, conducted by the Chicago chapter of Les Amis in February 1994, lined up many of the finest French and American cabernet sauvignons from the 1982 vintage.

After the wrappers came off fifty judges wondered how a ring-in won the day. As Chapter Director Paul H. Ernst reported, a shiraz was “the hands-down, consensus favorite of the entire tasting.”

How could grubby-old, workhorse shiraz lick the glitziest names in the glitziest of all red grape varieties, cabernet sauvignon? What was it doing there in the first place?

Ernst wrote, “… this year’s ringer was the 1982 Penfold’s Grange Hermitage… no one overtly identified the wine, the combination of cassis-like fruit and green olive character contributed by the oak, sufficed to stump the majority of attendees. Its relative maturity and round, elegant fruit were certainly some of the elements that resulted in it being… the favorite.”

Why the ringer was included, I don’t know. But anyone who attends masked tastings appreciates just how difficult it is to spot the unexpected. When we’re told there are twenty-four cabernets to assess, we assume that’s what’s in front of us. Trickery’s the last thing we expect. So, it’s not surprising that no one identified one big, rich shiraz amongst twenty-three big, rich cabernets.

Still, assessing the 1982 reds, not spotting the odd one out, was the theme of the tasting. And because the press release focused on scores, presumably the organisers believed the results had some significance beyond being simply a tally of preferences on the day. Were they telling us it was a valid and definitive ranking of the wines tasted when they couldn’t tell cabernet from shiraz?

For the Canberra tasting, we reduced the field from 24 wines to just 6, all with impeccable reputations. And instead of fifty judges, there were 6 who first tasted and discussed the wines seriously, then over a long Sunday lunch cooked by Alby, laughed and talked the bottles through one by one.

Perhaps the most striking feature when you taste wines of this quality, is the strong individuality of each wine. This was the case even with three of the Bordeaux wines, Chateaux Mouton Rothschild, Margaux and Latour, produced in close proximity to each other.

The second striking feature was the extraordinary difference between the French wines and the Australian ones — and not just because Grange 1982 is a shiraz. It and Penfolds Bin 820 Coonawarra Cabernet Barossa Shiraz 1982 stood apart from the comparatively austere French wines for their sheer opulence and rich fruitiness.

Of the French, in brief, Chateau Mouton is the model cabernet: powerful and austere at the same time; Margaux is the model of elegance, finesse and complexity, an intriguing mix of perfume, power, and delicacy; Latour is model Claret, offering infinite complexity of aroma and flavour, with sweet fruit lurking beneath huge tannins that need years more to tame; and Cheval Blanc, more cabernet franc and merlot than cabernet sauvignon, offered an utterly beautiful range of fragrances and sweet, wonderfully supple flavours.

It’s hard to see now how the Americans missed Grange as a ring in. The 1982 is a great wine and, to my surprise, easily held its own in this company. I maintain my belief that it is an underrated vintage that’ll still be here when those who criticise its longevity are in nursing homes.

Penfolds Bin 820 remains a wonderful wine, a rich, silky blend of cabernet and shiraz. It, too, seems long from the early demise predicted for it by some critics five years ago.

Defining Australia’s wine boundaries

Almost three years ago, Australia committed itself to kissing European geographical names goodbye. Some, like white Bordeaux, Beaujolais, Cava, and Frascati have already gone. They were all Johnnies-come-lately of little commercial value to our producers anyway. Others — Champagne, Moselle, and Port, for instance, although doomed, linger on.

Increased table wine consumption brought with it the widespread use of naming better quality wines according to grape variety/s. By the time we made our promise to the Europeans, we were ready to drop many European place names with nil or minimal consumer confusion or, in the case of better quality wines, had steered clear of them from scratch.

I don’t think many of us missed the word ‘Claret’ (a protected French name for the red wines of Bordeaux) when it was replaced by grape names on the country’s biggest selling red label, Jacobs Creek. And it’s easy to see popular ‘Champagne’ brands like Minchinbury, Carrington, and Great Western powering on, sans the froggy name, purely on reputation and packaging.

But what about the poor wine cask drinker? Somehow ‘Murray’ or ‘Murrumbidgee’ fails to evoke the same image as ‘Moselle’, our own misspelling of a German river, denoting a fruity, sweetish, light table wine. Or, to take another German river, how about riesling and Rhine riesling. Now there’s confusion!

There is a riesling grape variety. It originated in Germany where it makes sublime, delicate whites along the Rhine/Mosel/Saar River system. But, in Australia, we began using ‘riesling‘ promiscuously from last century. In South Australia, ‘Clare Riesling’ was a synonym for the very pedestrian crouchen grape. In New South Wales, ‘Hunter Riesling’ meant the totally unrelated semillon variety. And, in a generic sense, still used on wine casks today, ‘riesling’ denotes a light, fresh, dryish white, of no particular grape variety.

Hunter riesling’ and ‘Clare riesling’ died out with the rise of varietal labeling. But generic ‘riesling’ persists on wine casks largely because it is so difficult to find an alternative that means anything to the drinker.

Just to confuse things, the pure of heart and mind, wine makers Brian Croser and Geoff Weaver amongst others, removed the offending word ‘Rhine’ from their riesling labels before Simon Crean’s signature had dried on the EC agreement.

To the Europeans, riesling should denote just two things: the riesling grape variety and wine made from it. When Croser made the leap with his Petaluma label, it actually confused many followers, and it’s not hard to see why.

Because ‘riesling’ meant different things to different people, it had become standard practice to name wine made from the riesling grape as ‘Rhine Riesling’ to differentiate it from generic ‘riesling’. When Croser embraced the new order, I received numerous phone calls (and other retailers tell similar stories) from consumers worried that without the ‘Rhine’ Petaluma Riesling might be a mongrel.

Of course, there was nothing to worry about. It was and is the same 100 per cent riesling from Petaluma’s Hanlin Hill vineyard high up in the Clare Valley. But the incident shows that even sophisticated consumers place high value on names and can be suspicious of change.

On the other side of the coin, our phasing out of European place names paves the way for them to acknowledge Australian regions. But as the agreement highlighted, none of our wine regions, so well known by Australian wine drinkers, had any firm standing in law. True, under an industry-led label integrity programme from the early 1980s, there had been some attempt at regional definition. But at the time of our agreement with the EC, the only legally defined boundaries were Australia and, presumably, the States and Territories.

Thus, the Federal Government amended the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation Act empowering it to set boundaries. The process has been under way since 1992, guided by the AWBC’s Geographic Indications Committee (GIC), and as Zones, regions, and sub-regions are defined, they become recognised and protected under international trademarks law.

The exhaustive process involves the GIC and the wine and grape growing industries initially, with avenues for public commentary, review and appeal.

To date no regional or sub-regional areas have been registered, but a compendium South Eastern Australian zone, embracing most of NSW, SA, and Victoria, was first off the rank and underpins much of our EC export push. Subsequently 8 New South Wales and 6 Victorian zones were registered, covering all producers in those states.

Defining broad zones along geographic and climatic guidelines has been complicated enough. Getting down to regions and sub-regions, the names most likely to be useful to medium and small makers and most useful to Australian consumers, is a story on its own and will be covered here as it unfolds.

July 30th, 1995

Ian Mackley, the ‘independent presiding member’ of the ‘Geographic Indications Committee’ (created by Parliament to steer the wine-area naming process) says that legally enforceable boundaries are “… the last link in consumer protection” and essential for the enforcement of truth on wine labels.

The naming process now underway, or at least the urgency to get it done quickly, was forced on us by bi-lateral agreements negotiated with the EC and U.S.A. The agreements, vital for continued export success, included recognition of each other’s ‘geographic indications ’. The only problem was that Australia did not have any.

So, parliament empowered the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation to draw the boundaries in conjunction with grape growers and wine makers. The definitions were not to be imposed from above, but to be drawn from the ground up, based on geographic and historical data.

Australia was the first boundary to be defined (although it cannot be used as a geographic indication in the EC or USA), followed by the States and Territories. The next step is to determine Zones — larger areas that might embrace several established wine growing regions. Once Zones have been established, regions within those zones may apply for recognition; and sub-regions within regions may follow.

The enormous South Eastern Australian zone, as mentioned last week, covers the major wine-growing areas of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia and was established to give exporters a Geographic Indication for multi-district export blends.

New South Wales has been carved up into eight zones: Big Rivers, Northern Rivers, Central Ranges, Western Plains, Hunter Valley, Southern New South Wales (includes Canberra District and Young), Northern Slopes, and South Coast.

Victoria, too has been finalised with six zones: Gippsland, North West Victoria, Central Victoria, Port Phillip, North East Victoria, and Western Victoria.

Queensland and Tasmanian grape growers and wine makers were happy, for the time being, with only a State boundary, but zones and regions will almost certainly emerge in the years ahead.

South Australia is still ironing out a few problems but zones will hopefully be set in the next few months.

Western Australia recently had its interim determination published, proposing five zones: Great Northern, Esperance, South West Australia, Central Western Australia, and West Coast. But these are subject to public commentary/objection before finalisation.

As it is a public process, interim determinations are published in newspapers and the Government Gazette; interested parties then have time to comment or object on a proposed boundary. If objections are received, then the GIC reconvenes and may stand firm or alter its determination. GIC decisions may be taken to the Administrative Appeals tribunal and from there to the Federal court.

To minimise spurious applications for regional geographic indications an area must have at least 5 independent grape growers each with a minimum of 5 hectares of vines and a minimal regional output of 500 tonnes of grapes a year (around 35,000 cases).

Applications should be based on a combination of soil types, temperatures, harvest dates, use of water, State and Local Government Planning Acts, history of grape growing, and proof that the region is known to the outside world.

If consumer protection is a benefit in the long run, there are also large commercial stakes and these are the most likely source of legal fights as the GIC moves down to regional and sub-regional determinations.

Hence, the considerable public speculation about where Coonawarra’s boundaries might lie. My belief is that this is the hottest spot of all because the stakes are big and, whatever the proposed boundary, aggrieved parties seem certain to come roaring out of the wood work.

It now seems certain that Coonawarra, along with Padthaway, Koppamurra and Mount Benson will be regions within a zone to be called the Limestone Coast.

Consumers know Coonawarra for its rich velvety reds, sourced from a narrow, fifteen-kilometre strip of vineyards. However, since 1984 Coonawarra has been defined by State survey boundaries embracing an area twenty times the size of the area actually under vine. As well there are well-established vineyards just outside even these absurdly large boundaries.

I’ve heard that the locals will be applying for a comparatively tight boundary more in line with the reality of viticultural Coonawarra. Such an outcome will not only lock in high land prices but possibly injure those with established vines inside the old boundaries as well as those perched on the wrong side of the old line.

Yes, Coonawarra is an interesting one to watch, not only because it may be the most controversial, but because the real Coonawarra provides such wonderful wines to we drinkers.

Australia’s 1995 vintage

Before the laser age they said a tree was best measured when it was down. But to get the measure of a wine vintage, there are no precision aids, just personal judgement. And since no vintage is all good or all bad, it takes time, perhaps a decade or two in the case of the best reds, for a clear picture to emerge.

Vintage 1995, if for nothing else, could be remembered as the year winemaker fell short by a quarter of a million tonnes short of grapes. But it was also a year of great contrasts, likely to produce a few fabulous wines but mostly good average quality. It was also a vintage that set back the financial plans of some by two years or more while giving grape growers who escaped crop losses windfall prices.

Rothbury Estate Chief Executive, Dennis Power, tells me crops in the Hunter Valley were the lowest in memory with losses from some vineyards as great as 70 per cent. He says surprisingly good whites and blockbuster reds of a once-in-a-lifetime quality compensate a little for the otherwise devastating losses.

Power’s neighbour, Bruce Tyrrell, reckons the Hunter’s total harvest at 40 per cent down on previous years. Then, with a touch of black humour, tells of a mechanical harvester operator setting off into a vineyard that normally yields 15 tonnes, coming back with 0.78 tonnes — and writing it in the register as 780 kilograms. It sounded better he said.

In the West, Paul Lapsley, Chief wine maker for Houghtons, reports a smaller than average year with the Swan and Moondah Brook bringing grapes to maturity rapidly under hot, dry conditions that favoured Chenin Blanc and Verdelho. Margaret River, affected by two years of drought, suffered volume declines, too, but semillon and cabernet quality appears very good.

From the Mount Barker and Frankland River area, Lapsley rates shiraz and sauvignon blanc as very good. And having tasted Merv Lange’s Alkoomi Frankland River Sauvignon Blanc 1995 last week, I cannot argue.

Tasmania, according to the folks at Heemskerk, probably crushed more grapes than average. And being a cool vintage, sparkling and white grapes fared well, particularly chardonnay, while red varieties struggled to ripen.

From the Yarra Valley, Domaine Chandon’s Wayne Donaldson loved the vintage from a sparkling wine-maker’s view. Cool ripening conditions saw red table-wine varieties struggling to ripen, but pinot noir and chardonnay destined for bubbly met quality and volume targets. But as the Yarra varies so much, there are bound to be tales both happy and sad from its many makers.

Southcorp wine maker, Peter Taylor, offered a thumbnail sketch of several regions within his domain: the Barossa was down in quantity but made outstanding shiraz; McLaren Vale may have been down a little and made average wines; Langhorne Creek was down and the fruit just average; and the Eden and Clare Valleys, while down in volume made outstanding shiraz.

From the all-important Limestone Coast, Wynns wine maker, Peter Douglas, estimates combined crush for Coonawarra-Padthaway a healthy 50-60 thousand tonnes (around 4 million cases) with great quality contrasts. Coonawarra and Padthaway whites were outstanding, while reds overall were average.

Collectors will not see any Wynns John Riddoch, Michael Hermitage or Penfolds Bin 707 from the 1995 vintage, Douglas says, but there are good quantities of Wynns Black Label Cabernet and Penfolds Bin 389 now in barrel. And he rates Padthaway as the best source of South Australian cabernet for 1995.

Down in Rutherglen, Robin Pfeiffer reports a small vintage that might have been a disaster had it been bigger! Drought-stressed vines set small grape crops early in the season. Then cool conditions replaced the heat and persisted. Because of the small grape load, vines found the energy to deliver full ripeness. That would not have been the case, she says, if the crop had been a normal size.

Ian McKenzie of Seppelts Great Western Winery reports spectacular central Victorian shiraz and says he’s fighting to keep it out of some pretty prestigious blends over in the Barossa.

In our own backyard, Canberra district seems to have struck its biggest and best vintage yet, according to Ken Helm.

As they say, it was a season of contrasts. But the smart money at this early stage seems to be on Hunter, Clare, Barossa, Eden Valley and Central Victorian Shiraz and on Coonawarra and Padthaway Chardonnay.

Seeking value wines under $10 as shortages push up prices

Some months back I wrote of the massive shortfall in the 1995 vintage (around 250,000 tonnes of grapes) and how it would translate to higher wine prices. After much looking over shoulders at competitors, major companies are now posting wholesale price increases on most products from July 1.

The price increases are in part to recoup dramatically higher vintage costs — mainly by way of vastly increased grape prices but also because fixed costs are much the same for a small vintage as for a large one, hence a higher production cost per case in small years like 1995 — and in part to retard consumption until supplies catch up with demand.

Producer price increases are always multiplied by Federal and State ad valorem taxes and retailer margins. However, (and the timing could not be worse for the industry or wine drinkers), the Federal tax grab also increases by 8.3 per cent on July 1.

Thus, if a producer raises the wholesale price on a wine from $50 to $55 a dozen, the nett effect on price to the consumer will be more like a dollar a bottle than the fifty cents implied by the ten per cent price hike: add 24 per cent Federal Sales tax, 13 per cent Territory licence fee, and a 33 per cent retail mark up to $50 and you have a retail price of $7.76.

Move the wholesale price to $55 and increase the Federal take from 24 per cent to 26 per cent, and the shelf price becomes $8.67 — an increase of 91 cents, or 12 per cent.

In this environment, it does pay to stock up a little, not just to save money but to preserve our drinking standards. For one noticeable effect of creeping wine prices in the last couple of years has been a reduction of wine quality at given price points.

Increased demand and higher production costs mean, quite simply, that the $4.99, $5.99 or whatever wine you buy today is not as good as one bought at the same price point two years ago. Simple arithmetic, really, but not a reality in our previously oversupplied wine market.

In the last two weeks I have tasted about two hundred under-$10-a-bottle Australian wines (ie, before the coming price rises). In general, red-wines offer better value than the whites. And if faulty wines are few and far between, ‘bland’ seems the commonest tasting note, especially amongst white wines. However, there are some wines that deliver really good value for money.

This is my pick of recently-tasted under-$10 reds, in no particular order: Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz Cabernet (both the 1992 and 1993 vintages can still be found with retailers); Wynns Coonawarra Estate Hermitage 1993; Lindemans Nyrang Hermitage 1993; Seaview McLaren Vale Shiraz 1992; Seaview McLaren Vale Cabernet Sauvignon 1992; St Hallett Gamekeepers Reserve 1994; Mildara Coonawarra Hermitage 1993 (but not the 1992); Orlando Russett Ridge Coonawarra Cabernet Shiraz Merlot 1993; Jacobs Creek Cabernet Shiraz Malbec 1993; Richmond Grove Coonawarra Cabernet 1993.

And the whites: Krondorf Chardonnay 1994; Rothbury Estate Trident 1994; Wynns Coonawarra Estate Rhine Riesling 1994; Leo Buring DW T18 Eden Valley Rhine Riesling 1994; Penfolds Semillon Chardonnay 1994 ( simply phenomenal at the price); Wolf Blass Chardonnay 1994; Wyangan Estate Chardonnay 1993; Richmond Grove Watervale Rhine Riesling 1994; Jacobs Creek Chardonnay 1994; Deen De Bortoli Vat 2 Sauvignon Blanc 1994; Taylors Clare Valley Chardonnay 1994.

With the disclaimer that vintages and prices move quickly, all of these wines are reasonably well distributed and subject to retailer discounting from time to time. The shrewd shopper should buy and drink well from this list.

And a closing note on the 1995 vintage vintage. It was not only a small vintage but one of mixed quality as well. Ian McKenzie, Group White Wine Maker for Southcorp says it tended to be the warmer areas that were down in volume (Hunter, McLaren Vale, Riverina, Murray River, and Barsossa Valley) while the cooler areas suffered less.

Ian says the group has picked, from its Tumbarumba Vineyard, NSW, the best chardonnay he has ever seen outside of Burgundy, France. Now, that’s really saying something because Ian has probably processed a wider variety of chardonnay than any other wine maker in Australia.

Central Victoria, he says, produced outstanding shiraz where Padthaway performed with chardonnay. Unfortunately, Coonawarra, just an hour south of Padthaway, hit hard times after a run of good vintages. Wet, cool weather closed in and many red grapes simply refused to ripen — which probably means lots of Coonawarra shiraz in our 1995 bubblies and more reason to stock up now on decent reds.

Mania as 1990 Penfolds Grange released

Grange mania struck this month. Even before the press releases and samples went out, Penfolds sales office and retailers began fielding calls from across the world. “Got any 1990 Grange?” is the only question asked. Most callers haven’t bothered asking for the price.

Not that the price matters if you can’t find the wine. But if you can find it and do want some, forget the official recommended retail of $130. One leading Sydney discount retailer sold his allocation at $150 within a few days of release and says he’s asking $200 for the next allocation in July.

One Double Bay retailer reports having sold a 1990 Magnum for $1500!

The big spenders (some wanting as much as 25 dozen) began ringing around the Canberra trade, too. But there was little joy there, as a quick survey shows our retailers to be looking after the punters (if we can call Grange buyers that) by limiting sales to a bottle or two.

Jim Murphy’s Market Cellars, Georgas Liquor Stable, Cand Amber, Liquorland and Farmer Bros all had stock remaining and were rationing it when I rang this week, and they were all pricing 1990 Grange at $140 to $150 a bottle. (Apologies to traders not mentioned but, don’t worry, the buyers will find you.).

Since Grange caught on in the sixties, and even more so now that its allure has spread, not only wine buffs but inveterate collectors and investors have been dragged into the increasingly expensive chase each year.

Yet, anytime anyone ventures the view that Grange has peaked in value, it moves up again, and the investors are rewarded on paper, if not in cash. For I suspect most of the Grange bought as an ‘investment’ somehow never finds itself under the auctioneer’s hammer.

It was a commonly held view in recent years as Grange hit $70, then pushed through to $100 that a natural barrier had been hit because our best-known red had finally reached parity with the second-to-top Bordeaux wines.

But the precipitate lift in price for the 1990 vintage pushes Grange beyond that rank, if not to the very top level. (Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1990, for instance, sells for around $300 a bottle). The lift follows years of hype for reds in general from that vintage; an uprecedented lift in global demand for Australian red wines; and strong recognition of a big, distinctive wine with a strong Australian accent in the U.K. and U.S.A. markets.

What we have witnessed over the last decade is the arrival of Grange on the global scene, and the recognition of its unique qualities. It may not yet be up there in price with Chateaus Lafite Rothschild, Mouton Rothshild, Latour, Haut Brion, Margaux, and Petrus of Bordeaux, nor with Burgundy’s Le Chambertin and Romanee Conti. But it has, like those enduring wines, individual aromas, flavours and cellaring propensity like no other wine on earth. Hence, its escalation from top-shelf to blue-chip status.

How do we rate Grange when it moves from cellar to pedestal? I guess many of us who cellared it in the past have to kiss it goodbye now as it flits out of reach. But, as a drink, 1990 Grange ranks with the best.

I’ve been blessed to taste all the Granges back to 1951, some vintages many times over, and most several times. The 1990, or a component of it, I first tasted from barrel towards the end of 1990 with its creator, Max Schubert. Max was old and suffering from emphysema then, but his enthusiasm for the inky-purple, embryonic Grange 1990 infected everyone sharing the experience with him.

In May this year, wine maker John Duval, unveiled the finished wine at Kalimna cottage in the Barossa Valley on the eve of its public release. It’s a wine that defies tasting notes, offering Grange’s unique, opulent ripe flavour, masses of it, with that extra succulent depth we see in great years. It lacks only one thing: maturity — and I look forward to a re-taste in my dotage sometime next century.

Released with Grange in about one fifth of the volume and at a slightly lower price, was a red I rank in the same league: Penfolds Coonawarra Cabernet Barossa Shiraz Bin 90A 1990. Retailers seem to be hiding it for themselves, but this is a sublime red modeled on the legendary Bin 60A 1962 (still drinking well) and Bin 80A 1980 (just reaching maturity).

Bin 90A combines the strength and elegance of Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon with powerful, earthy shiraz grown on the Koonunga Hill Vineyard in the Barossa Valley and, in my view, will become a collector’s item of the twenty first century.

A feast of Seppelt fortifieds at Sydney Regent’s Kables Restaurant

It’s time to break out the sherry, port, and muscat. Forget any notion about drinking them only as aperitifs, with soup or after-dinner. Fortified wines do have food matches. And, used sensitively during a meal, provide us with an interesting new spectrum of wine flavours.

Good fortifieds offer not just fruit, oak, and spirit flavours but maturity, ready to go. For, unlike table wines, released within a year or two of vintage and needing years of cellaring to be at their best, fortifieds are bottled at maturity. And, in the case of Australia’s better fortifieds, that means blends containing material dating back decades — and in some cases even a century.

Yet the declining market for fortified wines keeps prices comparatively low: top-shelf reds, perhaps three years old, now fetch $35 to $45 a bottle. Spend that much on a port or muscat, and you’ll get an incredibly complex, satisfying wine whose many components might have an average age of thirty years (ie: years spent in oak barrels prior to bottling). Even ten and twelve year old blends retail for under $20.

Perhaps it was frustration at knowing how good but little-known his wines are that prompted Seppeltsfield’s James Godfrey to team up with Serge Dansereau, Chef at Kable’s Restaurant in Sydney’s Regent Hotel this week.

At a dinner last Tuesday, one in the Regent’s series of wine and food matchings, Serge and James altered my perception of fortified wine forever. Even though the chef at Chateau Shanahan doesn’t contemplate offering four courses accompanied exclusively by fortified wine as they did, just two or even one course offers a stunning departure from the normal fare.

Dansereau’s entree of rockfish, scampi, yabbie tails, olives, basil and tomato-garlic dressing could easily have matched any number of dry whites. But Seppeltsfield Show Fino Sherry D.P.117, light and fresh as it is, delivered a unique, pleasantly tart bite and an underlying richness. It was an absolutely delightful combination that should work as well with any good, fresh Fino Sherry, Australian or Spanish.

(Ian McKenzie, well-known wine maker and Show Judge, told me at the dinner that recent changes to Federal regulations now allow lower strength fortified wines to be made. That’s great news for sherry lovers because it means, according to McKenzie, we will soon see on the market light, fresh Fino Sherries of around 15 per cent alcohol instead of 17.5 per cent. If the beautiful Spanish versions of that strength are anything to go by, then we can look forward to drinking an attractive new style of sherry that suits our climate so well.)

Amontillado Sherry and soup might be an old and proven combination. But Dansereau’s White Minestrone, based on a luscious veal-bone/ham-bone/bacon-bone stock worked better with Seppeltsfield Show Oloroso Sherry D.P. 38 than with the Show Amontillado D.P.116. Normally an Australian Oloroso is just too sweet for soup, but this combination proved mouthwatering and deceptively simple.

For a comparison of old and new, the main course, veal shank with kipfler potatoes, sauteed zucchini and shallot jus, was served with a big, traditional shiraz-based vintage port (Seppeltsfield Vintage Port GR 123 1984) and a lighter one made from the Portuguese variety touriga (Seppeltsfield Vintage Port GR 124 1987).

Meat as rich, soft and sweet as shank demands an assertive wine flavour — normally I’d settle for a full-bodied red of great age — perhaps a Hunter Shiraz or real Burgundy.

In this instance, the shiraz port weighed a little too heavily on the food, while the lighter, more fragrant touriga matched well. And if you believe the old saying that the glass tells the story, then most people in the room thought the same.

Seppelts won’t be releasing the touriga port for several years, but a similar veal shank (or lamb shank) match might be found in a Portuguese late bottled vintage port — the trick being to find something with age but that’s not too heavy.

Seppeltsfield Show Rutherglen Muscat DP 63 was a natural accompaniment to warm macerated date tart — no surprises there, but as yummy as it sounds. No surprises either in the superb Seppeltsfield Show Tawny Port DP 90 (some components dating back to last century) nor with Seppeltsfield Show Brandy VSOP (average age 28 years) — both are simply great and unique Australian products to be savoured to the last drop.

In fairness to other fortified producers, the wine/food matches here could be executed as well with wines from other makers — although the Seppelt Show series sit with just a few others at the top of the quality triangle. I guess the real point is that there is life beyond table wine and we should embrace it.

Godfrey presides over Seppeltsfield fortified treasure trove

Wine maker James Godfrey presides over one of the world’s great treasuries of aged fortifeds. At Seppeltlsfield, in the Barossa Valley, he sits on an unbroken line of vintages stretching back to 1878. As well, he husbands countless multi-vintage fortified blends — making new wine, blending new with old, and deciding final blends for the market — everything from humble Mount Rufus Tawny to sublime Show specials like Seppeltsfield D.P. 90 Port to delicate Fino Sherries to blockbuster vintage ports.

Godfrey recalls being thrown in the deep end at Seppeltsfield, arriving as a qualified wine maker little experienced in the complexities of fortified wine making and blending.

Not that table-wine making is easy, but fortified production presents unique challenges. Few fortified wines come from a single vintage, single grape variety, or single vineyard as table wines so often do. And fortifieds require long wood ageing and blending of multiple components of different ages to achieve a consistent style from year to year.

Imagine being handed a glass of port blended from components, five to fifty years old, and being asked to continue the blend, starting with appropriate top ups this vintage. Sounds more like detective work than wine making.

Yet, in a nutshell, that’s what Godfrey does — makes hundreds of component wines each year, fortifies each with spirit, pops them in oak barrels, and nurses each one towards an outcome that might be five or fifty years in the future.

Blends of the past, of course, are the key to the future. And wine makers at Seppeltsfield work with a confusing palate of aromas and flavours, each a variation on the grape variety and its origin, the type of fortifying spirit used, and the type of oak along with where the oak sits and how long a wine stays in it. These are just the basic components which lend themselves to endless combinations through the blending process.

A typical Seppeltsfield port might contain wine made from six grape varieties, each with its own aroma, flavour, and ageing characteristics: white muscadelle and red grenache, mourvedre (mataro), cabernet sauvignon, touriga, and shiraz. Sourcing any of those varieties from more than one region further compounds the blend.

Muscadelle ages quickly, tastes neutral and soft, and, thus, makes a great equaliser for bigger wines. Grenache, especially from Seppeltsfield’s very old, low-yielding vines, ages reasonably well, and adds a spicy aromatic edge and a full, fruity palate. Mataro, mainly from the Barossa, ages rapidly, and adds sweetness to a blend. Godfrey calls it the ‘merlot of fortified’. Shiraz ages forever and adds terrific robust flavours that easily match quite strong spirit flavours. Because it takes so long to age, it plays only a small role in young tawnies but gives the backbone to the older ones. Cabernet sauvignon adds a distinctive fruit character as a minor component in blends. It ages well and it seems that no matter what spirit is used to fortify it, the fruit flavour always wins in the end.

Fortifying spirit, added in sufficient quantity to a fermenting wine, brings the ferment to an abrupt halt and adds another flavour to mingle with grapiness and sweetness of any unfermented sugars.

Like grape varieties, spirits come in many flavours and become part of the aroma/flavour palate used by wine makers. Godfrey works closely with Barossa distiller, Tarac, to get exactly the styles he needs for each grape variety.

Flavours range through the clean, light, neutrality of marc spirit (made from grape skin and seeds), to floral grenache-based spirit, to oily/fatty, wine-based low-strength spirit, to the ‘over the top’ styles used to fortify vintage port.

And although most fortified wine is aged in old barrels to avoid the overt oak flavours that are desirable in many table wines, the type of oak, its size, and where it is stored exercises a profound influence on wine flavour, especially over long periods of time.

Godfrey experiments with this flavour aspect, too. In one such test, he filled three barrels of the same oak with new fortified wine in 1987 — a 480 litre puncheon, a 280 litre hogshead, and a 180 litre quartercask. These were stacked at the highest, hottest level in one shed. A second hogshead was filled with the same wine and placed in cool storage. Making a long story short, by 1995 when I tasted samples from each cask, significant aroma and flavour differences had emerged,

The elements described so simply here are what the wine maker sees on day one. Time and blending alters the flavour palate immeasurably. And when we finally drink a D.P. 90 Port, or its like, we smell and taste the fruits of perhaps fifty years’ labour.