Yearly Archives: 1996

Rosemount joins the rush to Mudgee

Rosemount Estate, that remarkable wine company belonging to the Oatley family, has a knack of spotting trends and exploiting them to the fullest. Starting in the 1970s it rode the white wine boom and built what was to become an enduring global brand with Rosemount Estate Chardonnay to the fore.

By the mid eighties, as everyone else scrambled for Australia’s meagre chardonnay supplies, Rosemount had already acquired or planted over 100 hectares of it – sufficient by my reckoning to produce over 80,000 cases a year.

Much else was achieved beside, but it would be fair to say that in the seventies and eighties, an era marked by overproduction, discounting and low producer margins, Rosemount stands out for having built brands that fetched a premium in the market place.

As demand for red wine picked up in the nineties, Rosemount looked for permanent red-grape sources beyond its traditional Hunter base and the limited resources of a Coonawarra vineyard acquired in 1981. Thus it acquired Ryecroft in McLaren Vale in 1990 and announced a major planting project at Langhorne Creek, near Lake Alexandrina, in 1993.

Rosemount had also been impressed by the quality of red grapes sourced from Mudgee (about 300 kilometres north west of Sydney) since the mid 1980s. Shiraz and cabernet sauvignon from older plantings, made exceptionally deep, intensely flavoured wines.

The exceptional quality of Mudgee’s reds and, no doubt, the area’s proximity to Rosemount’s home base (two hours drive through the ranges to Denman on the upper Hunter) prompted the Oatleys to acquire vineyards in the area.

In 1995 Rosemount took over the Davenport family’s 20 hectare Mountain Blue Vineyard, source, says wine maker Philip Shaw, of some of the best Mudgee shiraz he’s worked with over the years.

Prior to its acquisition by the Davenport family, the site – on a crown of quartz overlaid by rich, red soil – had a long association with Mudgee’s pioneering Roth family.

Bob Oatley believes Mudgee’s first vineyards, planted by Adam Roth in 1858, were on this same quartz crown. Today’s vineyard was established by Roth’s descendents about 30 years ago.

Following the Mountain Blue purchase, Rosemount acquired other land, including the site of the Hill of Gold Winery, bringing total Mudgee holdings to 180 hectares, 140 of it vineyard, or destined to be so.

Shiraz is the star of the area, but cabernet sauvignon is another proven performer and new plantings now underway include chardonnay and merlot, as well. (Mudgee was quite likely the first Australian area to cultivate chardonnay last century).

Bob Oatley rates Mudgee’s reds as ‘absolutely outstanding’ – hence the big investment in the district and the decision to make a top shelf red bearing the Mudgee name, a wine that literally gave birth to itself, because it was too good to blend away.

Rosemount Mountain Blue Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon 1994 hit the shelves this month after winning a trophy and 7 gold medals in a year.

It’s fully priced at $35 bottle but passes muster. Opaque, brilliant, cherry-skin red/black colour with vibrant crimson hues, exceptionally intense aromas and flavours and a firm, gripping structure make it an extraordinary red.

Most importantly, it has a ‘Mudgee’ thumbprint. Wine maker Philip Shaw sees its intensity of fruit flavour and firm structure as unique, totally different from McLaren Vale’s fat opulence, Coonawarra’s intense berries or the Barossa’s tender juiciness.

Those characteristics have always been there in Mudgee’s reds. The difference now is that we have a major international player able to polish a Mudgee wine to the highest possible level and parade it for the world to see.

Rosemount’s decisive move into Mudgee coincides with another even bigger investment in the area.

Orlando Wyndham recently announced the impending sale of its Hunter winery to McGuigan Bros after the 1997 vintage, and its intention to invest $10 million in expanding Montrose Winery in Mudgee.

While a good deal of that investment sets Montrose up as a multi-regional processing centre, it will almost inevitably lead to greater awareness of Mudgee among wine consumers.

And, given a wide move to regional labeling at the premium end of the market, we can bank on greater emphasis being placed on Montrose’s Mudgee range in the future. Its excellent but little known reds should have a bright future.

And there’s more. Mudgee may be the northernmost and biggest grape grower of the western slopes, but there’s a diversity of activity heading south along the Great Divide through Molong, Orange, Young, Cowra, Gundagai, Tooma and Tumbarumba! More on those areas in February.

Shiraz – ubiquitous, varied and lovely

To the old adage “a wine’s first duty is to be red” Australians might add that it should also be shiraz. A blinkered view, perhaps. But there’s no denying the diversity and sheer richness and drinking pleasure delivered by the shiraz grape in Australia.

The judges at this year’s National Wine Show, held at Natex in early November, seemed to think so. And at the exhibitors’ tasting preceding the presentation of trophies last Friday, shiraz, to me, was the highlight of the 1700 wine smorgasbord spread out on trestle tables in the Coorong Pavilion.

There were dozens of shirazes sprinkled through the various classes – medal winners from other wine shows – present in Canberra for the final, peak event of the year, judged by six Australian and three visiting judges under Chairman, James Halliday.

In class 40 (1994 and older shirazes) the judges awarded medals to 25 of the 28 wines – an extraordinary strike rate of 6 gold, 11 silver and 8 bronze medals.

Class 40 included shirazes from 11 regions across New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Though the judges rated Yalumba ‘The Octavius’ 1993 (Barossa Valley) top of the class with 56 points out of 60, five other gold medalists sat on 55.5 points.

On another day, in other circumstances any of those, or indeed several of the silver and bronze medalists might have pushed to the front.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Michael Shiraz 1993, for instance, carried off the trophies in Sydney earlier in the year, only to be trumped by Octavius in Canberra.

Just as it did in Sydney, the $18 a bottle Seppelts Chalambar Shiraz 1994 (central Victoria) won gold in Canberra, thumbing its nose at the similarly pointed $70 Wynns Michael and $43 Yalumba Octavius.

That opens up the whole question of style, personal preference and value for money. Forget any notion that the judges have defined quality once and for all!

At this quality level, regional and wine making idiosyncrasies shine through in every wine. The Octavius, for example (named after the very small oak casks – octaves – in which it is matured) shows concentrated Barossa shiraz character very strongly overlaid with oak. Love it or hate it, it’s distinctive.

Wynns Michael, too, shows quite strong oak aromas and flavours, underpinned by Coonawarra’s luxurious, deep, sweet berry flavours. The difference between Michael and Octavius is so marked you can easily identify one from the other at a sniff.

If I were to pick just one shiraz from class 40 for long-term cellaring, it would be Wynns Michael. But for drinking now, I’d head straight for silver-medalist Peter Lehmann Stonewell Shiraz 1991. What a glorious Barossa red.

Or, another value-for-money selection, already gracing a dusty corner of Chateau Shanahan, Penfolds Coonawarra Bin 128 1993, a silver medal winner, retails for around $15 but appears on special for $11.99. That’s value.

The Canberra judges marked Bin128 just half a point behind the already legendary Eileen Hardy Shiraz 1993, and on a par with Henschke Mount Edelstone 1993.

The magnificent, earthy McWilliams Maurice O’Shea 1991 (Hunter Valley) just scraped in for a bronze – overshadowed by its more sumptuous Victorian and South Australian competitors.

In class 37 (dry red, firm finish) Orlando Lawson’s Vineyard Padthaway Shiraz 1991 took on a distinguished field, mainly of cabernet sauvignons, to win top gold and a trophy as the best table wine in museum classes.

Fortunately, there’s more Lawson’s 1991 on retail shelves than in the museum. 1991 is the current release of this single-vineyard wine which first appeared in the 1985 vintage.

Lawson’s vineyard sits on the eastern side of the Padthaway-Coonawarra road, on an elevated site where sand appears to have drifted in from the east to cover the terra rossa soils and limestone that typify most of Padthaway and Coonawarra.

With wine maker Philip Laffer, I recently tasted a sequence of Lawson’s from 1990 to 1996. It’s an evolving wine style, showing considerable wine maker induced variations from year to year as the Orlando team learns how best to deal with this remarkable vineyard.

The common thread is a remarkable fruit richness and supple, smoothness – characteristics multiplied in the exceptional 1991 vintage. Senior judge, Brian Croser later commented that Lawson’s 1991 was a controversial wine. Some judges disliked the level of winemaking influence in the aroma and flavour; others loved it.

But then, great wines are often controversial. More on shiraz and the wine show next week.

Limestone Coast, Barossa Valley and and grower cooperative

November 3rd, 1996

The Barossa Valley and the Limestone Coast (Coonawarra-Padthaway) – respectively one hour’s drive north and four hour’s drive south of Adelaide – are Australia’s largest premium grape-growing areas.

The two regions are set to contribute about 131,000 tonnes (9 million dozen bottles) of Australia’s estimated 927,000 tonne 1997 wine-grape harvest.

ABARE estimates put the Barossa Valley’s production about ten per cent ahead of the Limestone Coast’s. But vineyard development has been so rapid in the last few years, nobody I speak to in the industry believes the official figures. And I will take bets that the Limestone Coast streaks ahead of the Barossa over the next decade.

Whatever the real figures, there is no disputing the crucial role the Barossa and Limestone Coast play as the high-quality, big-volume producers of the industry.

Despite similar grape output volumes, the two regions could not be more dissimilar climatically, geologically and geographically. The Barossa is a warmer, hilly, diverse, more ancient landscape with vineyard ownership fragmented amongst some 500 growers.

By contrast, the Limestone Coast is cooler, flatter, geologically more homogenous, newer (Coonawarra and Padthaway rose above sea level perhaps only 700,000 years ago) and vineyard ownership is very much dominated by vast broadacre plantings owned by the large wine companies.

Coonawarra’s grape-growing history stretches back one hundred years to the founding of the Penola Fruit Colony by John Riddoch. From then on it revealed glimpses of the glories to come.

However, its identity emerged to a broader audience only after David Wynn purchased Riddoch’s Chateau Comaum Winery in the early 1950s and created Wynns Coonawarra Estate.

Padthaway, the other large slab of the Limestone Coast, saw its first vines planted by Seppelts around 1964 (they called the area Keppoch) and the area now produces about as much wine as Coonawarra (roughly 30,000 tonnes each per annum).

Originally a source of cheap but good wine that disappeared anonymously into mass blends, Padthaway increasingly puts its name on labels as premium-wine markets expand and mature. Numerous other sites are now under development around the Limestone Coast.

The Barossa’s winemaking history started in the mid 1840s when the first commercial vineyards were planted by August Fielder, the Aldenhoven brothers and Johann Gramp (from which sprang Orlando).

Shiraz vines planted in 1847, adjacent to Jacobs Creek just outside Tanunda, are still productive today. Although probably used originally to make a sweet port style, today’s tiny yields make a wonderful dry Shiraz under Peter and Christie Schulz’s Turkey Flat label.

According to the Barossa Wine & Tourism Association, “… wine maker Carl Sobels, who had 30 years’ experience in Europe, was one of the most influential early winemakers in the Barossa Valley, producing some of the first wines for export. In the 1850s he was advocating the production of light table wines rather than sweet fortified wines.”

Fortunately for today’s red wine drinkers, shiraz, mourvedre and grenache, grown in the Barossa’s warm climate, proved sufficiently versatile to fulfill the needs of changing fashion. These varieties are as at home in port making as they are in red-wine production. Thus, they survived.

The Barossa was home, too, to the large-scale introduction of cold-fermentation techniques in the early 1950s. The technology “led to great advances in table wine production.” Although Hamilton’s Ewell winery near Adelaide had used the technology since the late 1930s, its introduction by Orlando’s Colin Gramp around 1953 marked the beginning of our modern wine industry.

Gramp brought the technology and one of its bright exponents, Guenther Prass, to the Barossa from Germany. Together, Gramp and Prass developed Barossa Pearl, the light, fresh, medium-sweet sparkling wine that captured Australian palates from the moment of its release during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

Barossa Pearl was Guenther Prass’s first big contribution to Australia’s wine industry. He went on to head Orlando during its ownership by Reckitt and Coleman and during his time at the helm moved the company’s sphere of operation well beyond the Barossa and built some of our most enduring and valuable wine brands – without acquiring a single winery.

We can thank Prass for Jacobs Creek, Coolabah Wine Casks, Carrington Champagne and the up market brands, Steingarten Riesling, St Helga Eden Valley Riesling, St Hugo Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon and St Hilary Padthaway Chardonnay.

In the late eighties, Prass moved to Hardys where he had a hand in the creation of the now popular Sir James Cuvee Brut and the resurrection of Nottage Hill.

Now, at 70, he’s returned to the Barossa, heading Barossa Valley Estate a winery belonging to the last of the big grape-grower co-operatives. More next week.

November 10th, 1996

At Angle Vale on the hot, flat plain between Adelaide and the Barossa, an old but revitalised winery offers Australian wine consumers some of the best value wines on the market.

Barossa Valley Estates (BVE) crushes, and turns into wine, over 3,000 tonnes of Barossa Valley grapes each vintage. Three quarters of it appears under four comparatively new labels – Barossa Valley Estates, Moculta, Ebenezer and E & E – and the balance heads south in bulk to BRL Hardy, one of our largest wine makers.

The winery and labels belong to the Valley Growers Co-operative, a grouping of Barossa Valley grape growers formed in 1985 in response to grape surpluses and depressed prices.

The sixty-five growers forming the co-operative weathered perennial surpluses into the 1990s but now face a rosier future. Strong growth in both Australian and export markets put an end to the grape surplus. And, of course, they own prime sites throughout the Barossa, a now internationally recognised region.

The winery has benefited, too, through its connection with BRL Hardy. The connection came via the Berri Renmano Co-Operative which was joined with Hardys in a public float in the early 1990s.

BRL Hardy continues to give technical help to the winery as well as providing thorough national distribution.

BVE’s luxurious E & E Black Pepper Shiraz drew publicity from day one, and like so many of our best Shirazes now enjoys an international following. But the whole range, from top to bottom, offers real Barossa flavours at reasonable prices.

At numerous blind tastings this year, BVE wines rated highly in my notes. (In fact, the stand out conclusion after tasting about 2000 wines so far this year is that BRL Hardy, if I can take the liberty of including BVE as part of its range, is the big quality achiever. Watch out Southcorp! You’ve got a competitor!)

BVE’s range starts with a Classic Dry White and Classic Dry Red at around the $6-$8 mark.

1996 BVE Classic Dry White – a fruit-salad blend of chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, palomino, pedro ximenez, semillon and traminer – provides tremendously fresh, zesty drinking. It’s all Barossa. And it’s all right.

BVE Classic Dry Red 1995 shows more Barossa personality than the white. It’s no blockbuster, but it has the lovely, gentle, ‘sweet’ fruit aroma and flavour and lovely, easy drinkability that typify the area. The equally seductive 1996 (a grenache, merlot, shiraz, ruby cabernet blend) comes onto the market before Christmas.

BVE Classic Semillon Chardonnay 1996 offers exceptional drinking at the price. Barossa semillon gives the fleshy chardonnay flavour a gorgeous ‘lemon’ tang.

BVE’s Moculta range (named after village of Moculta – birthplace of Max Schubert – in the northern Barossa) retails in the $10-$12 range. .

BVE Moculta Chardonnay 1995 is a typically big, generous, soft, warm-climate Aussie Chardonnay. The 1996 vintage, due on retail shelves before Christmas, to may palate, offers more vibrant, pure chardonnay flavours.

BVE Moculta Cabernet Merlot 1995’s gentle perfume and fine, supple palate might go well with the Christmas ham, but the real red action is in the Shiraz.

BVE Moculta Shiraz 1995 is a delight. It has, as wine maker Fiona Donald puts it, “the Barossa’s sweet, concentrated fruit on the palate.” There’s terrific regional drinking here and the price is right.

BVE’s Ebenezer range (another Barossa Village name) has one white at $16-$17 retail and two reds at $17-$18.

BVE Ebenezer Chardonnay 1995 combines ripe-fruit and strong barrel-ferment flavour with a lovely, soft, creamy texture. It’s very good, but it lacks the magic of the reds.

BVE Ebenezer Cabernet blend 1993 is a highly individual wine, delivering a sweet, fruity, oaky, massive aroma before romping over the palate with all the same elements. It doesn’t pussy foot around. If you like ‘old fashioned’ reds that wear work boots, not dancing pumps, this is it. Yummy.

BVE Ebenezer Shiraz 1993, a lovely, warm, earthy red delivers that magic, deep, sweet Barossa shiraz flavour in a more concentrated and solid form than we see in the Moculta version.

E & E Black Pepper Shiraz 1993 presents Barossa shiraz in stunning, concentrated form. And, yes, it does smell of black pepper! Sourced from old, low-yielding vines in the elevated northeastern Barossa, it provides luxury Christmas drinking at around $30 a bottle.

E & E comes, too, in a sparkling version (1992 is the current vintage) which provides yet another and refreshing expression of Barossa shiraz.

Plotting the Coonawarra shiraz spectrum

In Coonawarra, they used to say shiraz wouldn’t ripen south of V&A Lane – a dusty road, cutting the main north-south highway towards the southern end of the famous fifeteen kilometre ‘terra rossa’ strip.

Some disagree: Who can argue, for example, that Doug Bowen’s shiraz, from the Bowen Estate Vineyard – a kilometre south of V&A Lane and weighing in at around 14 per cent alcohol by volume – is unripe.

While for others the old adage rings true: Rosemount Estate, about two kilometres south of Bowen, recently dispensed with shiraz to reserve its precious Coonawarra soil for cabernet sauvignon. In a recent interview for this column, Rosemount General Manager, Chris Hancock, said that shiraz was just too difficult.

Then, abutting V&A Lane on the north, we have Majella Vineyard, producer of one of the most robust and loveliest Coonawarra Shirazes of all, and reputedly a past source of Wynns Coonawarra Estate Michael – Coonawarra’s most expensive shiraz and perhaps the most powerful as well.

Just two kilometres north west of Majella, both shiraz and cabernet sauvignon flourish in Lindemans Limestone Ridge vineyard. The velvety opulence of Limestone Ridge reds is generally attributed to the ripe, lush character of the shiraz component. But, hey, this is only two kilometres north of V&A Lane – and just 6 kilometres from Rosemount where they’re tearing shiraz out because it won’t ripen.

Confusing isn’t it? And this is flat country – I mean really flat, not a hill in sight so aspect can’t be the culprit – and yet a few kilometres this way or that creates notable differences in grape and, hence, wine flavours.

Skipping about 8 kilometres from Limestone Ridge to Coonawarra’s far north, we come to Peter Rymill’s vineyard and yet another expression of shiraz flavour.

Peter, a great grandson of John Riddoch (founder of the 1890s Coonawarra fruit colony and the region’s first grape grower) makes a solid, tannic shiraz of extraordinary richness and incredibly strong, peppery and sweet fruit flavours. Luckily, the Rymill label is comparatively new (Peter used to sell most of his grapes to other makers) and the wines can be found for $14-$16, which to me represents outstanding value in today’s market.

I visited Rymill’s wine maker, John Innes, at the winery in May and made this note on the currently available 1993 Shiraz: “Deep plum colour with crimson rim; powerful, peppery/spicy/pungent aroma with a ripe earthiness; huge, juicy, rich palate that’s peppery and opulently sweet – a powerhouse.”

Perhaps we can discern a Coonawarra flavour trend here: ranging from unripe in the far south to a lush, velvety softness just north of V&A Lane, to power and strength in the far north. Well, not quite. There’s more to the story.

Two kilometres north of the Limestone Ridge Vineyard, just behind Coonawarra ‘village’ some of the area’s oldest vines continue to make shiraz of strength but with an ethereal delicacy quite unlike anything from Limestone Ridge, Majella, Bowen or Rymill – any thought of a neat even spectrum of flavour, strengthening as we head north goes back to the mental blending vat.

In 1896, a Captain Stentiford planted vines on his property, named after the trading ship ‘Laira’. A plot of the original shiraz vines survives on the site, bought by Eric Brand in the 1960s (hence the label, Brands Laira Vineyard).

The Brand family sold an interest in the vineyard and winery to McWilliams in 1990 and McWilliams moved to full ownership in 1994. The expertise of McWilliams wine makers, Jim Brayne and Bruce Gregory gave a big fillip to Brand’s wines, which had shown early promise in the sixties and seventies, only to languish in the eighties.

Some of the earlier Brands Laira shirazes were sensational and established a reputation for the vineyard.

Those early wines combined fruit from both the 1896 vines and adjacent younger plantings. As young wines they displayed a unique fragrance and, while quite rich, there was always an elegance and tenderness to the fruit flavour.

During the 1980s, Brands began processing, and selling under a separate label, shiraz from the 1896 plantings. As a result, drinkers could glimpse the vineyard’s exceptional character in a particularly concentrated form. But a similar character shines through in the standard Brand’s Laira Shiraz.

On a frosty July evening at Chateau Shanahan, we opened the newly released 1994 vintage and thought it captured the whole spirit of what the French call ‘terroir’ – the combination of climate, soil, aspect and grape variety that stamps single vineyard wines with individuality.

Its flavours were all Coonawarra, but the fragrance and tender, juicy fruit flavours were all Brand’s Laira – a truly remarkable vineyard.

Whither Australia’s wine industry

The Australian wine industry has a vision “… that by the year 2025 the Australian wine industry will achieve $4.5 billion in annual sales by being the world’s most influential and profitable supplier of branded wines, pioneering wine as a universal first choice lifestyle beverage.”

Presented in an elegantly written document, “The Australian Wine Industry Strategy 2025” – released at Wine Australia two weeks ago – the vision comes at a time of unprecedented investment, growth and change in Australian wine production. But “you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet” is the other message.

Suggesting as it does that Australia’s wine output might double in the next thirty years – after having almost tripled in the preceding thirty – the vision prompts further crystal ball gazing on behalf of wine drinkers? There are mixed portents.

Who can quibble at the prospect of twice as much wine? Not me. The table’s set and the glasses are polished and waiting at Chateau Shanahan. There’s nothing but good news to announce as old areas expand and the bold and brave move on and out. Who knows what the wine map might look like in 2025:

Canberra’s broad-acre plantings have converted last century’s obscure brands into household names across Australia (and an ageing Ken Helm, having outlived his critics, says, “I told you so.”)

Coonawarra and Padthaway’s 100,000 tonne grape output makes up less than a half of the total from the recently re-named Coorong Plains (formerly Limestone Coast). But prices of their wines now outstrip those of Bordeaux in New York and London.

Riverland’ is no longer a dirty word to wine lovers. Judicious watering, conservative vine management and a shift to lower-latitude stretches of the Murray – in the vicinity of Seppelts Barooga, NSW, vineyard – mean an endless supply of rich, warm wines at the right price.

Two of the big four wineries that controlled 80 per cent of production in 1996 have been absorbed, along with many other middle and small-sized wineries, into just three massive producers (one of them a newcomer) controlling 90 per cent of the market.

Rationalisation of wineries accelerated a similar concentration amongst retailers during the late 1990s and early 21st century. By 2025 wine retailing is dominated by the large national chains, each now with its own direct marketing arm.

Direct marketing exploded with the increasing effectiveness and reach of interactive electronic media. This changed the retail game considerably and resulted in increased competition for the consumer dollar. In this state of flux, new opportunities were created.

The dark horse to emerge from the ruck was Cellarmaster Wines. Privately owned and the fifth largest winery (in dollar value of sales) in 1996, it went public then punted all on emerging electronic marketing in the late 1990s. It burst into the new century as the nation’s third largest producer, selling every drop direct to the public!

The other two massive producers were faced with a conundrum and failed to resolve it. If they followed suit and exploited the new media to sell direct to the public, they would certainly alienate retail customers. They hesitated and the horse bolted!

Electronic marketing also saved the bacon of small makers, threatened initially by the demise of independent retailers. By 2025 their numbers swell from the 888 of 1996 to over 2000. These entrepreneurs continue to pioneer new growing areas, carving a niche for themselves by selling direct to discerning drinkers worldwide over the interactive cable systems.

Australia’s last wine cask was produced in 2015, completing a long-term consumer trend towards better quality wine and lower alcohol consumption. More people enjoy wine more often – and reap the health benefits of moderate consumption.

But a reaction to social and legislative pressure for moderation in all things led to the founding of what many thought was a crazy fringe group – the Drinkers Party – drawn largely from the ranks of retired political journalists and wine writers. The group demonstrated a surprising clout in returning a representative to the upper house of the New South Wales parliament in the 2024 election.

Back in 1996, many wine drinkers express concern at Fosters’ swallowing Rothbury, and at Southcorp’s digestion of Coldstream Hills — the latest victims in the rationalisation game. But the game is not over yet.

Rationalisation will inevitably continue. But the sheer pace of growth, which the “strategy 2025” suggests might continue for another generation, promises great diversity for the future. Old habits and ways might die, but the sheer vigour of the wine industry combined with the open competitiveness of distribution and retailing – now being spurred on by new technology – gives us wine drinkers every reason to believe the future may be as rosy as the past.

Wine Australia wows Sydney

Australia’s wine industry set up shop in Sydney last weekend. Between Saturday and Tuesday 270 wineries, representing 40 wine regions from across Australia, dispensed wine and information to 20,000 visitors at Darling Harbour exhibition centre.

By the time Prime Minister John Howard officially opened Wine Australia at 11.15 am on Saturday, exhibitors were thoroughly primed by three days of pre-event dinners and functions including the Wolf Blass Foundation International Wine & Health Conference.

For some, the starting gun cracked on Friday night when Len Evans hosted the annual McWilliams Wines Maurice O’Shea Award Dinner. 570 guests squeezed into the Regent Hotel Ballroom to applaud as Australia’s most celebrated wine award went to Hazel Murphy, a London-based Yorkshire woman for her part in lifting Australia’s presence in the UK wine market from almost nil 10 years ago to around 8 per cent now.

The Award was named after the extraordinary Maurice O’Shea, founder of Mount Pleasant Winery and wine maker there from 1921 until his death in 1956. O’Shea was a perfectionist, crafting fabulous reds many of which still drink well after half a century in bottle.

In winning the award, Hazel joins a humbling list of previous winners including 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); Jacobs Creek (Australia’s first large-scale global wine brand) and James Halliday (wine maker, author and show judge).

The O’Shea dinner, booming exports, and Wine Australia coincided with a new wave of takeovers within the Australian Wine Industry – Rothbury and Coldstream Hills both having gone to new owners during the week, following prolonged takeover bids.

At the O’Shea dinner, Len Evans announced the completion of Foster’s grab for Rothbury Estate, of which Len was chairman and a major shareholder. In Len’s words, “I shall be at Cessnock CES next Tuesday seeking the position of Chairman.”

Len also announced that Coldstream Hills – an even smaller public company than Rothbury and headed by James Halliday – had finally passed to Southcorp Wines.

On the perils of going public, McWilliams Chief Executive, Kevin McKlintock (heading one of the few remaining big family companies) mused privately that whether you performed well – as Mildara Blass had consistently before its acquisition by Fosters – or poorly – as Rothbury had – you were a target.

Not that consolidation of ownership was an issue for those attending Darling Harbour the next day. Crowds surged through the display areas from the time the doors opened at 11am until closing time at 8pm.

For $30 a head Sydneysiders, overseas and interstate visitors (including many familiar Canberra faces), moved happily from region to region, tasting glass in hand, to sample what was undoubtedly the biggest and best range ever of Australian wine under one roof.

Exhibitors were generous to a fault. Top shelf wines were there aplenty. I saw Peter Douglas, Wynns Coonawarra Estate wine maker, dispensing the rare and wonderful John Riddoch Cabernet and Michael Hermitage. Across the isle Douglas’s Coonawarra neighbour, John Parker, served his magnificent Coonawarra First Growth.

Visitors tasted State-by-State, region-by-region, winery-by-winery — working around the continent, tasting a wide spectrum of wines from Queensland to Tasmania, from New South Wales to Victoria, to South Australia to Western Australia.

In the Vintage Cellars store in the forecourt, James Halliday, Jeremy Oliver and John Duval autographed books, while at other venues throughout the exhibition centre, numerous experts conducted well-patronised workshops, talks, etc on just about everything you ever wanted to know about wine.

The Prime Minister passed through rapidly, led by Len Evans. And Mildara Blass’s Hugh Cuthbertson was seen guiding Jeff Kennett through the outstanding Victorian display. Word is that Mr Kennett offered to double the space available when Wine Australia opens in Victoria in 1998!

Visiting UK wine writer Robert Joseph seemed stunned. “It couldn’t have been done better,” he told a crowd at Tucker and Company’s Great Australian Wine Dinner, held at the Opera House. “No other country could have put on this show because the wine makers would never have joined forces.”

This collaboration, Joseph said, was unique in the world and was one of the reasons for our international success: “Your wine makers compete but share the task of improvement. If wineries don’t share, the whole thing could be pulled apart.”

More next week on what’s in store for wine drinkers in the next century.

Grange conundrum

The annual Penfolds Grange-release bun fight started before the official 1991-vintage launch on June 3. Grange’s long march onto the world stage has been marked by controversies of a different kind at every phase of its ascent to glory.

Once again wine writers joined the fray, even offering, somewhat naively I thought, spurious consumer advice on what the retail price should be, based on its wholesale price.

What the Sydney Morning Herald’s Huon Hooke and The Australian Financial Review’s Tim White overlook (in coming up with prices of $144 and $165 respectively) is that few humans (even retailers) feel inclined to sell something for less than it’s worth.

In the Australian liquor retail jungle, a survival-of-the-fittest mentality prevails. Fear of lost sales, paranoia – even loathing – of competitors translate, despite the current wine shortage, into low prices. Astute wine drinkers can find any number of leading brands selling at or near cost seven days a week simply by shopping around.

But the slash and burn retail mentality stops short of Grange. It’s scarce. It’s rationed! Most retailers get just a few cases, if that. So up goes the price.

The only glimmer of hope for genuine wine drinkers (as opposed to wine speculators) is a retailer desire to maintain good will. A number I’ve spoken to say they have a shelf price (their best guess of market value) and a lower price on perhaps a bottle or two for good customers. They’ll drop around $50 a bottle to keep highly valued customers happy. But there’ll be few mates’ rates and little opportunity for speculators to pick up a bargain.

And what will happen to the speculative gap – somewhere in the vicinity of $100 – between a ‘normal ‘ price were Grange not so scarce – and its present level of around $300?

One retailer told me that very wealthy, knowledgeable wine drinkers wouldn’t touch Grange at that price. Those rich drinkers see at least equal quality – and far better value – in top Bordeaux and Burgundy reds at around half the price of Grange.

Add to this a tendency in export markets, so I’m told, for Grange to sell at a ‘normal’ retail price, and we might surmise that the speculative gap is a mainly Australian phenomenon sparked, perhaps, by folks who have no intention of drinking it!

So, if the price gap between speculative Australian prices and non-speculative foreign prices becomes wide enough, the bubble might be pricked by a rash of repatriated Grange — and we’d end up with an international price somewhere around that fetched by the Bordeaux First Growths.

On the other hand, Grange fever may spread globally. International acclaim grows almost daily. And the quantity available is tiny. Even so, speculative markets invariably burst. But when they do, solid assets have a floor value and the shrewd investors move in when prices dip below that. Hard to say where it is with Grange, but I doubt it will be below that of Bordeaux’s top wines.

And what about those of us just looking for a good drink? What can we aspire to with Grange totally out of reach?

Well, there’s the just-released Penfolds Cabernet Sauvignon Bin 707 1993 – a sensational red for long-term cellaring – known affectionately within Penfolds as Grange Cabernet. To my taste it’s in a quality league with Grange, which makes it a bargain for between $45 and $70 (it’s anybody’s guess these days!).

Or for a more modest $30 (or so) try Seppelts Dorrien Cabernet Sauvignon 1991 or Drumborg Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1991. It’s rare to see reds of this age released. And, the rich, ripe former, coming from the warm Barossa Valley, contrasts totally with the elegant, austere latter, from the very cool Drumborg Vineyard (not far from Portland, South Western Victoria).

Or, for something completely different, exceedingly scarce, and pretty well available only from the wine maker, try Majella Coonawarra Shiraz 1994. To me it’s one of the very best of a new wave of top wines, sourced from individual vineyards.

The Majella vineyard was planted by the Lynn family in 1968 and until 1991 all the grapes were sold. But the sheer quality of wine produced from Majella grapes persuaded brothers Brian and Anthony to send a little of the best to wine maker Bruce Gregory up at Brands Winery.

I discovered that fabulous 1991 at Nibs Restaurant Coonawarra in 1993. It sold for less than $15. Even the 1993 sold for just $15.99 at cellar door. And the brilliant 1994 should still be under $20 upon release. To me this is where the smart red-drinkers money is – honing in on future champions early.

It’s Eureka for some at Ballarat beer awards 1996

Confused by the growing range of beers available? Then relax – because the experts have set up a judging forum to help us pick winners from the ever-growing range on retail shelves and drinks lists.

Last weekend in Ballarat and Melbourne, a panel of experts – including five brewers and a maltster – judged an international field of 288 beers. Instigator and Chief Steward of the Liquorland Australian International Beer Awards, Rob Greig, kindly allowed me to sit in as observer – albeit one who remembered the time when choosing beer was easy.

In the old days, when it came to picking a cold drink on a hot day, where you lived mattered more than what you liked. If you lived in Sydney it was Tooheys, Tooths or Reschs. Melbourners had a handful of brands, including Fosters and Victoria Bitter, all from within the Carlton United portfolio. Queenslanders clung to Castlemaine XXXX. South Australians preferred West End and Southwark. Western Australians swore by Swan, Emu and Hannans. And Tasmanians sipped Cascade and Boags. Canberrans alone were likely to be faced with a wider selection.

These days it’s an infinitely more varied menu, not just of brands, but also of styles. Now we’ve added ‘light’, ‘ice’, ‘cold’, ‘gold’ – and other adjectives – to the old list of lager, ale, porter and stout. And what are we to make of brands like ‘Dog Bolter’, ‘Loaded Dog Steam Beer’ and ‘Redback’.

The wider variety of beers now available is part and parcel of our changing alcohol consumption habits. We drink less beer per capita. But we drink better beer. We drink more imports. We drink more boutique beers. More women than ever before drink beer. More Australians than ever before drink beer.

Burgeoning interest in beer in all its varied forms brought together the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria (organisers of the Melbourne Wine Show) and the University of Ballarat. In 1984 they introduced the ‘National Beer and Brewing Awards’. The University became involved because it offers degree and post-graduate courses in malting and brewing.

In 1995 the awards took a great leap forward when New Zealand brewing giant Lion Nathan (owners of Tooheys, Castlemaine and Swan) decided to participate. Their beers joined a field of 201 competitors, including entries from Papua New Guinea, Canada, Indonesia, Malta and Tonga, as well as a solid core from Australia and New Zealand. The awards had become an international event.

This year, Rob Greig and his colleagues moved into a higher gear again, attracting 288 entries from 19 countries: Singapore, Korea, Tonga, Denmark, Philippines, USA, Vietnam, New Zealand, India, Malta, South Africa, Thailand, UK, Czech Republic, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, Nederlands and Australia.

Surprisingly, Carlton United, Australia’s largest brewer, doesn’t participate. Wondering why, I rang the external affairs department for a comment. Terry Bowe’s response: “We regard the beer awards as a forum for small boutique breweries. We never have been involved.” I’m still trying to work that one out! Lion Nathan and Dominion boutiques?

The beers were judged by Tim Cooper (Coopers Brewery, Adelaide), Roger Bussell (Joe White Maltings, Adelaide), Bill Taylor (Castlemaine, Brisbane), Paul Schrader (Eumundi, Brisbane), Barry Axon (Dominion Breweries, Auckland) and Richard Bennell (Boags Brewery, Hobart) under the guidance of Chief Steward, Rob Greig (University of Ballarat) and Chief Judge, Colin Dowzer (Brewing Consultant, Melbourne).

The judges spent last Friday, Saturday and Sunday in a Ballarat University laboratory tasting packaged beers before moving into Melbourne Show ground on Monday to attack 84 kegs of draught beer.

Beers are judged in classes, much as wine is, to ensure the comparison of like with like. In the open classes Australian and New Zealand beers run head to head in Lager, Ale, Stout, Reduced Alcohol, Draught Ale, Draught Lager, and Draught Stout categories. The small brewer class is judged under similar categories (with no reduced alcohol products). And the international entries are broken into Lager, Ale and Stout sections. There are separate classes for Wheat Beer and Low Alcohol Beer (as distinct from reduced alcohol).

Rob Greig sees the beer awards bringing benefits to consumers and producers, much as wine shows do. The event provides a promotional platform for the industry, especially for major award winners. And the impartial nature of the judging helps consumers navigate through a confusingly broad field.

Results of the judging are to be announced in Melbourne on June 28 after which I will run a class-by-class report with some personal commentary as I have kept my score sheets from the Ballarat tasting last weekend. If you have access to the Internet, you will be able to access the results on the University of Ballarat’s home page on (click on upcoming events to find Liquorland Australian International Beer Awards).

Winemakers push for quality

Across Australia the cry is for quality grapes. As our wine makers cram the biggest vintage ever into bulging tanks, vintage talk, surprising as it might seem, centres on quality, not quantity. Grape growers who once boasted of big crops now compare baumes (a measure of sugar, or ripeness) over post-vintage beers.

Wine makers are driving the push for quality grapes. Quality bonuses or penalties for a lack of it are now commonplace when it comes to grape buying. And since quality tends to rise in proportion to diminishing yields, grape growers need to earn more per tonne to make ends meet.

Southcorp, our largest wine maker, maintains grape-quality control in some areas by paying growers on a per-hectare-of-vines rather than on a per-tonne-of-grapes basis. Others opt to pay a bonus for high Baumé, exact a penalty for lack of it, or pay bonuses on some more elaborate quality measuring criteria.

The wine-maker push for quality comes from the consumer and from strong local and external competition. In Australia, there is a trend to drink better wine. Cask consumption is gently declining while sales of bottled wines are on the increase.

Quality is about to be further lifted as tens of thousands of tonnes of premium grape varieties come on stream following extensive replanting in recent years. The first wave of these hit the industry this year – the most notable being a massive surge in the volume of chardonnay grapes available. The final count is not yet in but may be in the vicinity of 145,000 tonnes – an increase of 30,000 tonnes on the previous year’s 115,000 tonnes.

In brief, the chardonnay shortage is well and truly over. Australia’s chardonnay crop was negligible at the beginning of last decade. Now we have enough to make more than 10 million cases a year. That represents a vineyard investment, by my estimate, of more than 200 million dollars, mostly in the last ten years.

A white-wine surplus now seems upon us and if next vintage is as big, then we will might finally see a drop in grape prices and a tendency for reduced margins – and hence lower prices – right through the production chain.

But price relief will not be evenly spread as the surpluses tend to be in lesser varieties from the bulk-production Murray River and MIA areas. With all that extra chardonnay available, the bulk white varieties, sultana and muscat gordo blanco, traditionally used in wine casks and grown en masse in these areas, may get pushed aside – and there is a chance we will see chardonnay going into wine casks.

McWilliams wine maker, Jim Brayne, told me there were large surpluses of sultana in the MIA. And, in a move typical of this hard-nosed, innovative industry, the wine makers saw a challenge, not a problem. The result is very cheap, oak-chip-fermented sultana-based dry white now being snapped up by English supermarket buyers with a nose for a bargain.

Chateau Tahbilk’s Alister Purbrick, sees export opportunities arising from the white surplus. Alister has strong export involvement through interests in Stratmer Vineyards and Woodcroft wines – specialist, export orientated contract wine makers with extensive grape contacts across Victoria and South Australia.

Alister believes rising chardonnay volumes and lower grape prices could re-open to Australian wine makers the 2.99-pound to 3.99-pound segment of the UK market. What that means, of course, is that there is still a chance that what seems like a surplus could evaporate.

It’s a different story with red wine. Overall it has been a big, high-quality vintage. But stocks were severely depleted following several years of high demand and small vintages in 1993 and 1995. Many companies have been releasing red wines a year earlier than they’d like to.

Bigger red crops will come on stream. But large-scale red plantings began a few years after the chardonnay push that led to today’s bumper harvests. It will be the turn of the century before really big red tonnages hit our wineries. And most wine makers I’ve spoken to see the shortage of high-quality reds lasting into the new century.

For all the industry’s efficiency and ingenuity, the imponderables – moving exchange rates, nature’s fickleness and growing international competition – cloud our view of the future. A predicted surplus may disappear offshore or it may flood domestic retail shelves with bargains.

All we can say with certainty is that quality is on the rise; there should be some white-wine price relief this year; and keep stockpiling your favourite reds for the time being.

Seppelt culture thrives inside Southcorp

It’s easy to imagine when wine company’s merge that a new, homogenised culture evolves. But in the case of Southcorp, where several major companies coalesced over a period of five years, the individual winemaking cultures appear, if anything, stronger and more entrenched. The smaller cultures refused to be swamped by the larger.

Seppelts, that formerly staid old South Australian family company, for instance, not only weathered its amalgamation with Penfolds, Tollana, Kaiser Stuhl, Wynns, Tulloch, Lindemans and Seaview, but now blossoms on a base established by the Seppelt family a generation and more ago.

Under wine maker Ian McKenzie, the old culture has been carried forward, underpinned by a distinctive Seppelt wine making style and, more importantly, by continued use of Seppelt-owned vineyards acquired or planted over the past century.

Seppelt’s reputation was built largely on great fortified wines produced at Seppeltsfield in the Barossa and sparkling wines from Great Western, Victoria. But by the time of Seppelt’s acquisition by South Australian Brewing Holdings in the early 1980s, the Seppelt family, most notably Karl Seppelt, had laid a base for exciting table wines that only now are making a mark in the minds of consumers.

With remarkable prescience – for who could have foreseen in the early 1960s how enthusiastically beer-drinking Australians would embrace wine in the years ahead – the Seppelt family pioneered new areas, establishing table-wine vineyards at a time when we drank little wine, and most of that was fortified.

Perhaps the smartest move, in retrospect, was establishing broad acres at Padthaway, an hour’s drive north of Coonawarra. Not a single vine stood there when Seppelts arrived in the sixties. Thirty years on, Padthaway produces around 30,000 tonnes a year (4 million dozen 750ml bottles) of premium wine.

If Padthaway, with its big yields of high quality grapes, brought home the bacon quickly, two other vineyard developments championed by Karl Seppelt were several decades in the making.

Who has ever heard of Drumborg, a dot on the Victorian map, well south of Great Western and roughly in the vicinity of Portland? Having heard of it, who would plant a vineyard there a decade before the search for cool climate grapes took hold.

The Seppelt family did. But as Ian McKenzie told me on a visit to Great Western last week, “They didn’t have the viticultural know-how to make it work at the time.”

Thirty years after its establishment and with great viticultural expertise to hand, Drumborg, one of the most southerly vineyards on the mainland, now regularly produces exceptionally high quality pinot noir and chardonnay for Seppelt top-shelf sparkling wine, Salinger.

As well, in exceptional years, Drumborg produces superb one-off sparkling wines and fine table wines with aromas and flavours far removed from those we see from warmer vineyards to the north.

Drumborg pinot noir sometimes leaps from sparkling-wine to table-wine quality and, about one year in three, cabernet sauvignon ripens fully to make a memorable full-bodied but elegant, refined red. More on that later.

The other Seppelt family vineyard now making its mark after two decades is at Partalunga, high up in Mount Lofty ranges (a range of hills running from McLaren Vale in the south to the Clare Valley in the north).

Partalunga was on better-trodden ground than cold Drumborg and the only real challenge now, given the great chardonnays and cabernets emerging from the vineyard, is a marketing one. In a crowded market, even trophy winners don’t always get the consumer’s attention.

Before Drumborg and Partalunga were conceived, Seppelts developed a reputation for making long-lived, highly distinctive shirazes made from vineyards in Great Western. Under wine maker Colin Preece, these wines achieved a legendary status.

From these were spawned an equally distinctive sparkling burgundy whose youth and freshness in great age stunned wine critics following the discovery of a treasure trove of old vintages at Great Western in the early eighties.

The shiraz tradition, both still and sparkling, is alive and well at Great Western. Seppelts release two central Victorian Shirazes, one labelled simply as Seppelts Great Western Shiraz, the other as Seppelt Chalambar shiraz.

And the sparkling burgundies, now labelled as sparkling shiraz, are still made much as they were in Colin Preece’s day.

In fact, demand for still and sparkling shiraz has spawned a large new vineyard development at Elmhurst, about half and hour’s drive from Great Western. We’ll look at that and a range of Seppelt Victorian wines next week.