Yearly Archives: 1998

Langton’s Classification: Tyrrell’s Vat 47 Chardonnay one of the few white elites

Whoever it was who called white wine foreplay, must’ve had a Langton’s Fine Wine Investment Guide at hand. As if to confirm that white wines are fun, but lead to something more satisfying, Langton’s classification cites just seventeen whites amongst our sixty-three highest priced, most frequently traded Australian wines in auctions.

In what Langton’s call the ‘Outstanding A’ category, a holy trinity of reds (Penfolds Grange, Henschke Hill of Grace and Mount Mary Quintets) perches on the very pointy part of the high-price pyramid.

Not a white in sight! Not even the $150-a-bottle Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay gets a guernsey. It can’t get in for ten years under club rules that favour long-term performance over one-night stands.

On the next level down, in the ‘Outstanding’ category three whites – all Chardonnays – stand beside nine reds. Leeuwin Estate Art Series Margaret River, Piccadilly Valley and Tyrrells Vat 47 Hunter, all have pedigrees stretching back into the seventies – about the time the chardonnay phenomenon started in Australia.

Tyrrells Vat 47, the oldest of the three, kicked off (from memory) in 1971, gradually carving a reputation for itself. Only in the last three years has the cellar-door price broached first the twenty dollars a bottle a mark and then thirty dollars – still quite modest in comparison with Leeuwin’s seventy dollars, or the one to two hundred dollars a French white Burgundy fetches

Vat 47 looked good in the seventies, put on weight in the eighties as Californian wine-making styles influenced the Tyrrells, then trimmed down again from 1987 before settling into the stunning quality we’ve seen in the nineties.

While the eighties vintages appear to be fading, some of the seventies Vat 47s power on, as Bruce Tyrrell demonstrated at Len Evans’ house after the recent Hunter Valley wine show.

Asked for a good old white Burgundy (the French region famed for its chardonnay) for the occasion, Bruce showed up with a 1973 Vat 47. Evans demurred at serving it masked alongside a bottle of 1982 Corton Charlemagne (one of the very greatest French chardonnay vineyards). Bruce insisted. Evans poured.

Well, it was an experienced wine group gathered. And they decided that the two chardonnays served in unmarked glasses were, in fact, very fine examples of Corton Charlemagne.

I guess we might call that another blow for French mystique and reason to question our views on Australian chardonnay – not just on how well it ages but on current wine-making practices that might influence ageing potential.

Bruce Tyrrell says he was greatly influenced by a tasting of all the Vat 47s in 1992. The less manipulated 1970s wines were ageing gracefully, while the fatter 1980s simply grew fatter. “I could’ve switched the wines around and no one would’ve noticed”, recalls Bruce referring to the deceptive youthfulness of the 1970s wines.

By the time of the tasting, Bruce had already altered wine-making practice, having totally eliminated malo-lactic fermentation from the 1988 vintage onwards. Malo-lactic fermentation reduces totally acidity in a wine and converts malic acid to soft lactic acid.

The process can give a soft, creamy texture to chardonnay. But it also introduces an aroma and flavour resembling butterscotch – quite a strong characteristic in many   of our better quality chardonnays.

Tyrrell’s view is that in the Hunter’s warm climate, Chardonnay grapes develop ample, ripe flavours and that acid levels, if anything, tend to be too low, not too high. In contrast, cooler areas experience higher grape-acid levels and produce wines that often benefit from the mid-palate boost given by malo-lactic fermentation.

Since abandoning malo-lactic fermentation, Tyrrells see greater freshness in Vat 47 Chardonnay and has great confidence in the cellaring capacity of recent vintages. Only time will tell, of course. (Chateau Shanahan’s experience supports the Tyrrell view).

Of course plenty of other factors influence how chardonnay ages: age of vines, vineyard management, climate, soil, clone of vine, timing of harvest, crushing and juice handling techniques, fermentation temperature, type of oak and maturation regime are vitally important.

But, just as an intrusive oak character marred some chardonnays of the eighties, excessive malo-lactic character (a cloying butterscotch aroma and flavour) spoils my pleasure of some of today’s generally much better wines.

In some ways this is a quibble on a quite a valid wine-maker technique to reduce acidity and increase flavour. But I do wonder if, when it’s overdone, it reduces the ageing capacity of some wines. Could this be the next area for fine-tuning by our chardonnay makers now that oak usage is pretty well under control?

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1998
First published 20 September 1998 in the Canberra Times

Chardonnay a perennial favourite. But beware the unoaked versions

Twenty years ago Australia’s chardonnay plantings were too small to be noted in official statistics.

In 1988 we harvested 21,800 (1.5 million dozen bottles) tonnes of chardonnay — just one eighth of 1998’s record 173,000 tonnes (12.1 million cases).

1988’s chardonnay harvest accounted for just five per cent of Australia’s wine grape production; 1998’s represented eighteen per cent of the total harvest and half of premium white production.

Even in 1988 people spoke – as some do today – of chardonnay going out of fashion. But for all the talk, the flow of chardonnay continues to increase – suggesting that as long as people drink dry white wine, chardonnay might remain number one.

Clearly, consumers prefer it to riesling, semillon and sauvignon blanc, the other leaders in Australia’s white-wine popularity stakes. Perhaps the reason for chardonnay’s sustained success lies not just in an inherently pleasant flavour, but also in its tremendous versatility and, ironically, that at the cheaper end of the scale it makes pleasant whites that don’t make the mistake of having too much flavour.

(You only have to taste beer to see what I mean by that last remark. Modern, mass-produced lagers appear to be ‘de-brewed’ – literally stripped of any distinctive malty or hop aromas and flavours in order to please the widest range of palates and offend none).

If the very cheapest chardonnays tend to blandness it’s not such a bad thing. At least they’re clean, fresh, very, very cheap and don’t have the distinctive flavours of sauvignon blanc, semillon and riesling that turn some drinkers off.

A short step up from commodity chardonnay we find distinctly more colourful beasts like Lindemans Bin 65 and Rosemount Diamond Label. These globally loved whites were decades in the developing.

Besides showing good varietal flavour from a continuously evolving range of vineyards, each benefits in its own way from considerable wine-maker added aromas and flavours. Philip John at Lindemans Karadoc winery and Philip Shaw at Rosemount’s Denman winery between them know (or invented) every chardonnay trick in the book.

Unoaked chardonnays have been with us a long time, although the proliferation of brands and popularity with marketers is a relatively new phenomenon. The first brand to make a virtue of not having contact with oak, as far as I can recall, was a 1977 Saxonvale Chardonnay, released alongside its oak-matured cellarmate.

My impression of the new-age unoaked chardonnays is that they were a reaction to the worst of the over-oaked chardonnays of the 1980s. This was a period of learning by wine makers and, not surprisingly, many wines tasted more of resin and fresh timber than they did of the grape.

However, the unoaked craze is well and truly sprinting, even if the majority of the runners, to my palate, come close to water. My advice is to approach with caution. Region of origin, wine maker reputation, vintage and price should all be watched. Above all, since these wines come to the market without expensive oak maturation, they should be offered at a discount not a premium.

These three, tasted recently, appealed to my palate, offering various expressions of rich, clean, crisp varietal flavour: Antipodean Eden Valley Unwooded Chardonnay 1997, Goundrey Unwooded Chardonnay 1998, and, at the budget end of the market, the new Lindemans Cawarra Chardonnay 1998 (predominantly from the old Seppelt Barooga vineyard on the Murray River in New South Wales).

Unoaked’ is not the only adjective to excite chardonnay marketers. It’s been joined recently by a ‘gentle press’ product, Sarantos, from Kingston Estates (referring to the common practice of using only the finest cut of juice in making some premium products) and ‘malo’ unwooded chardonnay from the old master, Brian McGuigan.

Malo’ refers to the also common practice amongst chardonnay makers of reducing malic acid by inducing a secondary fermentation and converting malic acid to lactic acid. The result is a softer wine with, quite often, a distinctive ‘butterscotch’ aroma and flavour derived from the malo-lactic ferment. McGuigan’s wine certainly has buckets of this character, although I was hard pressed to spot any chardonnay flavour.

This merely highlights the fact that chardonnay is perhaps the most highly-manipulated of any grape variety. It’s flavours mix and match readily with a number of wine-maker inputs and this only adds to the diversity created by nature. More on this next week.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1998
First published 13 September 1998 in the Canberra Times

Marlborough New Zealand — pinot noir will have its day

Marlborough, New Zealand, rates amongst the world’s great wine growing regions even though it was first planted to vines just twenty five years ago.

Its great specialty — pungent, in-your-face whites made from the sauvignon blanc grape — enjoy an international following, shading even France’s Pouilly-sur-Loire and Sancerre, the wines on which they were modelled.

If you’ve seen the label of leading Marlborough producer, Cloudy Bay, then you already have some feeling for Marlborough’s Mountain-framed, broad Wairu Valley fanning north to the sea on the South Island’s northern tip.

The Wairu River cuts through the valley’s deep, basaltic gravels. These gravels, sometimes bursting to the surface, sometimes covered in river silt, host the area’s vines and in places resemble the Medoc in France’s Bordeaux region.

Looking across this huge valley and its subsidiaries, it’s staggering to envisage the massive glacier that must have ground mountains to rubble, in the process creating a unique, stony vineyard site at just the right latitude to make delicate, intensely-flavoured table wine.

According to Dr John Gladstones (Viticulture and Environment, Winetitles,1992) Marlborough’s heat-retaining, stony soils and cool, equable climate  ‘should theoretically result in outstanding delicacy and aroma retention in fruit and wines”.

Gladstones’ theoretical studies indicate a rosy future not just for Marlborough’s already proven sauvignon blanc and chardonnay but for “pinot noir (frost allowing) and pinot meunier …. for champagne-style wines in cool seasons, and for still dry red wines in warmer seasons”.

His theories tend to be supported by the experience of wine makers in the area. With twenty five years’ practice, collective wisdom says a definite yes to sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot noir (for sparkling wine); no to cabernet sauvignon; yes, sometimes, to merlot and riesling; and yes to a bright future for pinot noir as a table wine, especially in warmer seasons.

As an example of the latter, compare pinot noir usage in cool 1997 and warm 1998: only 23 per cent of 1997’s 1522 tonnes went to table wine; in 1998 70 per cent of the 2262 tonnes made the grade, largely because warmer weather produced riper flavours and deeper colours.

On average, though, carefully managed pinot noir vineyards ought to produce fruit suited to table wine production in most years. The key, various makers tell me, are careful clonal selection and restricting yields to not more than 6 tonnes per hectare.

With sauvignon blanc yields sometimes double that (and selling for around $15 a bottle), we may safely assume that Marlborough pinot noir will never be cheap. But it could be very good, judging on some of the wines tasted there.

Selaks, Cloudy Bay, Hunters, Babich and Montana all make good pinots, ranging from the delicate and fine-grained Cloudy Bay to more sumptuous styles from the warmer 1998 vintage (Selaks and Babich). What these wines show is that Marlborough captures the elusive but lovely aroma and flavour of pinot as few other areas do.

The reason appears to lie in the climate more than in any other single factor. Pinot noir, they tell me, develops its best flavours under mild growing conditions and cool temperatures during ripening.

Using ‘summation of day degrees above 10 degrees’, a broad measure of solar energy available to vines during the growing season, we can see that Marlborough sits at the lower end of the spectrum at 1101. Compare this to Coonawarra’s 1337, Canberra’s 1424 and Bordeaux’s 1392.

In fact Dijon, in the heart of France’s Burgundy region and home of the pinot noir grape, has a heat summation not dissimilar to Marlborough’s at 1164. And it’s mean daily temperature of 16.1 degrees Celsius in September sits close to Marlborough’s March daily mean of 15.8.

This is vastly oversimplifying a complex subject, but it supports the view of Marlborough as a pinot noir region.

Montana, New Zealand’s largest wine maker, with around 800 hectares of vines in Marlborough, embraces this view, having recently planted 100 hectares of pinot noir in its new Kaituna Vineyard, at the foot of the Kaituna Hills in the Wairu Valley.

This vineyard alone is big enough to transform the pinot noir market in New Zealand. And we can look forward to increasing quantities of Marlborough pinot noir arriving in Australia as Montana, Corbans, Villa Maria, Selaks, Cloudy Bay and others expand production and hone their skills with this delightful variety.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1998 & 2007

Pinot noir to follow sauv blanc as New Zealand’s specialty

When I first toured New Zealand’s wine regions in 1984, viticultural Marlborough was just eleven years old, yet its unique, pungent sauvignon blancs were already on the way to international success; crook wines were easy to find; and dozens of enthusiasts, reflecting the trend in California and Australia, were spreading the vine into every likely site on both Islands.

Visiting there two weeks back — as the biggest and one of the best vintages ever settled in bottle, tank and cask – Marlborough had overtaken Hawkes Bay and Gisborne as the largest and most important wine region; crook wines had been shoved aside by a broadening palette of exciting flavours; small makers continued their pioneering efforts (numbers are up from 131 in 1990 to 284 in 1998); and makers of all sizes prepared ambitious plans to take New Zealand wines to the world.

As New Zealand’s wine industry matures, the palate of flavours it offers continues to diverge from that offered by Australia’s wine makers. While we work largely with the same grape varieties, dramatically different climates, based largely on New Zealand more southerly latitudes, dictate a dramatically different mix of those varieties.

Hence, Australia’s wine makers work predominantly with chardonnay, semillon, riesling in whites and with shiraz, cabernet sauvignon and grenache in reds. Reds ripen and thrive in all but the most marginal of our wine-growing regions. Conversely, pinot noir, which needs a cool ripening period to bring out its best flavours, shines only in our most southerly or highest vineyards.

In New Zealand the pattern is different. Yes, the ubiquitous chardonnay sits comfortably just about anywhere. But shiraz and grenache perform poorly and cabernet shines only in a few select, carefully-managed locations.

Sauvignon blanc from Marlborough is arguably the best in the world. And pinot noir appears not only well suited to the climate but, in my opinion, may emerge as New Zealand’s second specialty after sauvignon blanc.

In fact it may well eclipse sauvignon blanc given the universally more appealing flavour of good pinot and the poor quality and high price of its main competitor, the red wine of France’s Burgundy region.

Gisborne, the ‘warmest’ of New Zealand’s big growing regions and source of its budget wines, lies at a latitude of about 39 degrees – placing it well south of Melbourne.

The region focuses almost exclusively on white wine production. Chardonnay, at 6,065 tonnes nosed ahead of hybrid muller thurgau’s 5,677 tonnes in 1998, followed by  various muscat varieties totalling 3,610 tonnes,  sauvignon blanc at 1,169 tonnes and semillon at 1,137 tonnes. Gisborne’s future probably remains tied to the fortunes of the small local market given the generally pedestrian nature of its wines.

Just south of the 39th parallel , Hawkes Bay, home of the vine since 1851, produces marginally less wine grapes than Gisborne (22,751 tonnes versus 23,649 in 1998) including the majority of New Zealand’s cabernet sauvignon (2,881 of 4,220 tonnes), most of which probably confirms Australians’ worst fears of New Zealand cabernet.

However, within a shale-soil area known as the Ngatarawa triangle, superb cabernets (Villa Maria was the best I tasted) are emerging. If it’s not the new Coonawarra or Bordeaux, Hawke’s Bay does have some similarity to those two regions in terms of solar heat available to vines during the growing season.

Time will tell if anything world class is to emerge from Hawkes Bay, but at this stage there’s outstanding drinking to be had from Villa Maria, Vidal, Trinity Hill and Te Mata reds.

South of Hawke’s Bay, around the Martinborough area (north east of Wellington, just below 41 degrees south) pinot noir (246 tonnes) and chardonnay (201 tonnes) dominated a local harvest of 804 tonnes of wine grapes in 1998.

Here, thanks largely to cooler ripening temperatures and wine-maker passion, we begin to see marvellous flavours from the notoriously difficult pinot grape. Hand-made products like Ata Rangi and Martinborough Vineyard pinot now attract high prices and sell out instantly in New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom. Dry River and Mulberry Hills appear to be building similar reputations.

A quick hop across the water to Blenheim on the south island takes us to one of the most exciting wine areas in the world – Marlborough, noted to date mainly for its sauvignon blanc (accounting for 10,286 tonnes of the 25,558 tonnes of wine grapes crushed there this year) but with tremendous potential, I believe, for pinot noir.

To be continued next week.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1998 & 2007

New Zealand winemaking heads south

New Zealand’s wine industry has undergone profound changes in the last thirty years. Forced by a shift from fortified to table-wine production, its centre of gravity has moved south away from Auckland.

Unlike in Australia — where major growing areas like South Australia’s Riverland, the Barossa and McLaren Vale were able to shift fairly easily from fortified to table-wine production — New Zealand wine makers virtually abandoned the Auckland area to expand or establish plantings in more suitable climates to the south.

In 1998 Auckland’s vineyards contributed just 866 tonnes of grapes to a national crush of 76,536 tonnes, ninety four per cent of which came from just three regions: Gisborne (23,649 tonnes), Hawkes Bay (22,751 tonnes) and Marlborough (25,558 tonnes).

Gisborne, local wine maker Denis Irwin once told me, is New Zealand’s easternmost vineyard. It’s vines, near the shores of Poverty Bay, are the first in the world to see the sun each day.

Gisborne’s reputation rests largely, as Michael Cooper writes in ‘The Wines and Vineyards of New Zealand’, on its ability to produce big volumes of table wine at the right price.

Vines were established at Hawke’s Bay, on the west coast, several hours’ drive south of Gisborne, in 1851. Although the landscape is periodically re-arranged by cataclysmic earthquakes, the region remains an important quality producer and — though it goes against Australian pre-conceptions of New Zealand wine — Hawkes Bay produces some very good reds.

I have fond memories of touring New Zealand in the early eighties, savouring Vidal and Te Mata Cabernet Sauvignons after weeks of nothing but sauvignon blanc.

Important as Gisborne and Hawkes Bay are, New Zealand’s international reputation rests predominantly on wines made from one grape variety from a region that was not planted until the 1970s.

Montana established broad-acre plantings on the gravelly Wairau River Plains in the vicinity of Blenheim, Marlborough in 1973. This sunny but cool region burst onto the international scene with sensationally pungent, fruity sauvignon blancs within ten years of those early plantings. And in just 20 years it overtook Gisborne as the country’s largest wine producing region.

I think it was a 1980 Montana Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc that caused a sensation at Canberra’s National wine show in 1981. It set the scene for New Zealand’s continuing dominance in the sauvignon blanc class.

A few years later it was Selaks (albeit with a Hawkes Bay sauvignon blanc under a Farmer Bros label) carrying off the Canberra trophies.

Then David Hohnen of Cape Mentelle, Margaret River, established Cloudy Bay, Marlborough. Hohnen showed his competitors, if not how to make Sauvignon Blanc, certainly how to take it to the world. He also head hunted Selak’s winemaker, Kevin Judd.
But there’s more to New Zealand wine than three big vineyard areas and sauvignon blanc. And the industry shape is markedly different from what we have in Australia.

In 1998, premium white grape varieties made up about 36 per cent of Australia’s total grape crush and premium reds 31 per cent. And the premium white/red gap is narrowing rapidly. By 2000 the combined red/white should increase to 72 per cent of the total from today’s 68 per cent.

In New Zealand, premium wine grapes make up a larger proportion of total output than in Australia (84 per cent versus our 68 per cent in 1996) and whites totally dominate the quality landscape: premium white grapes accounted for 66 per cent and reds 18 per cent of the total crush in 1998.

New Zealand production has been rising rapidly. It leaped from 55 thousand tonnes to 78 thousand between 1986 and 1998. Given New Zealand grape yields varying 8.2 to 12.2 tonnes per hectare in recent years, total crush on 2000’s 8,700 hectares should be between 71,300 and 106,100 tonnes .

If sauvignon blanc dominates our consciousness of New Zealand wines, it’s not the only variety drawing international acclaim. Cool ripening conditions, abundant sunshine and a wide variety of locations suggest a particularly bright future for riesling, chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot-noir-chardonnay-based sparkling wine as well.

In the 1996 Canberra National Wine Show two New Zealand wines outclassed all that Australia could throw at them. Corban’s Amadeus Brut 1992 carried off the Kit Stephens Trophy for best bottle-fermented sparkling wine. And Martinborough Vineyard (located near Wellington) took the Rydges Hotels Trophy with its 1994 Reserve Pinot Noir.

The latter wine enjoys a cult following globally as do Tim and Judy Finn’s Neudorf Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and the Rieslings and Gewurztraminer of Weingut Seifried, the Finn’s neighbours at Moutere, near Nelson on the north western side of the South Island.

In brief, New Zealand now provides the world with one of its best value, most interesting and affordable dry whites — Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and through the work of small pioneers is making tiny volumes of quite exquisite, elegant dry reds and whites . I’ll report on those mid August after a flying visit.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1998 & 2007

South Australia — still the wine state

Despite the massive  re-shaping of Australia’s wine landscape now under way, South Australia remains — and looks set to remain — not just our biggest wine producer, but our biggest premium-wine producer.

The massive explosion of vine planting and re-writing of our wine map shows in preliminary data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), indicating that 32,773 hectares (37 per cent) of Australia’s 88,474 hectares of grape vines in the ground at the end of 1997 had been planted since 1991.

There’s been unprecedented activity in all states, led by South Australia with 15,530 hectares or 47 per cent of those new plantings. Victoria comes in second with 7,881 hectares (24 per cent) followed by New South Wales with 6,986 (21 per cent), Western Australia with 1,543 hectares (5 per cent), Queensland with 583 hectares and Tasmania with 245.

New plantings since 1991 expressed as a per centage increase, not surprisingly, show big growth for the States starting on low bases: Tasmania up 103 per cent to 482 hectares, Queensland up 75 per cent to 1,359 hectares and Western Australia up 64 per cent to 3,958 hectares.

But we begin to see the scale of expansion with New South Wales up 55 per cent to 19,738 hectares and Victoria up 46 per cent to 25,102 hectares.

South Australia’s new 15,530 hectares bring its total to 37, 376. Given its high starting base, that’s a massive lift of 71 per cent in just 7 years.

But if they say you can’t be all things to all people, South Australia’s wine industry is not listening. An exceptionally diversity of geology and climate means that ‘The Wine State’ is just that.

It has the hot stretches of the Murray River producing bulk table, sparkling and fortified wines for the budget and middle market sectors.

It has Coonawarra, Padthaway, Langhorne Creek, McLaren Vale, the Adelaide Hills, the Barossa Valley, Eden Valley and Clare Valley producing  (collectively) cutting-edge Cabernet, Chardonnay, Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Grenache and sparkling wine.

Many of those same regions, plus the Adelaide Plains, back up with commercial quantities of high-quality, mid-priced table wines for world markets.

And it has world-class fortified material emerging, especially from the warm Barossa, McLaren Vale and Clare Valley.

Grape production figures confirm why South Australia is still ‘The Wine State” as we move into the era of high-quality, regional wines.

If we arbitrarily chop out the 192,275 tonne grape output of the warm Murray River and Adelaide Plains in 1997, South Australia’s remaining areas still produced 179,258 tonnes, equivalent to around 12.5 million dozen 750ml bottles. But we ain’t seem nothin’ yet!

The 150 year old Barossa-Eden Region, long the biggest-volume premium producer is about to lose its crown to the Limestone Coast, embracing Coonawarra and Padthaway.

In 1997, wine makers drew 57,983 tonnes of grapes (4 million dozen 750ml bottles) from Barossa-Eden and 48,512 (3.4 million dozen) from the Limestone Coast.

By 2002, wine makers estimate their intakes will reach 79,763 tonnes (5.6 million dozen) from Barossa-Eden and 99,630 (7 million dozen) from the Limestone Coast. In other words the Limestone Coast’s output will have doubled in five years, making it by far our most valuable premium-wine growing area.

By then total South Australian wine-grape production will have risen to 635,470 tonnes (44.5 million dozen), with the Adelaide Hills contributing 10,624 (0.7 million dozen); Clare Valley 28,946 (2 million dozen)); Langhorne Creek 40,381 (2.8 million dozen); and McLaren Vale 55,694 (3.9 million dozen).

South Australia’s five year grape projections from 1997 to 2002 reflect the massive global swing to red wine consumption (triggered partly by the ‘French paradox’ and other positive links between moderate consumption of red wine and health.

Figures released by South Australia’s Grape Industry Board and Grape Advisory Committee (based on wine-maker actual reported usage for 1997 and estimates for 2002) predict that while white-grape usage will increase 33 per cent from 205,950 to 274,135 tonnes, reds will explode by 118 per cent from 165,583 to 361,325 tonnes.

All those extra grapes have to be made into wine and the wine has to be drunk by somebody. The first part requires huge new investments in wine-making and storage equipment.

Assuming all goes well in that department, there’ll be one heck of a lot of wine splashing around the world (not just Australia) by 2002 — perhaps bringing a little price relief.

Provided demand for premium wines remains buoyant, the new century offers a brilliant future for South Australia as it builds on its old strengths and develops the new. From a drinkers point of view it’s good to know that the best is yet to come from a totally renewed ‘Wine State’.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1998 & 2007

Redman elegant Coonawarra reds — relief from the inky, oaky monsters

The enjoyment of two new-release, elegant, slightly-austere Coonawarra red wines (Redmans Cabernet Sauvignon 1996 and Shiraz 1996) has me pondering the direction of (some) Australian red-wine making.

Are too many Australian reds becoming too big, too bold and too oaky? Is regional and varietal character being swamped and blurred by oak, tannin and forbiddingly-high alcohol content?

Many of our mid-priced commercial reds — even some of our top-shelf products — seem headed in this direction — in utter contrast to the pristine varietal and regional character displayed by those lovely Redman wines.

This polarisation — from understated and elegant to the big, bold, international style pioneered by Australia — is not limited to our own shores.

The success of Australian and other new-world wine producers is at least partly responsible for the international style popping up in  Bordeaux, France. Prior to a visit there in April, my travelling companion, London-based author and wine consultant Anthony Hanson MW, wrote,

One can identify two distinct wine-making schools in Bordeaux at present. The first focuses on the well-established view that red Bordeaux wines are noted for elegance, fruit, harmony, longevity, trueness to geographical origin, faithfulness to the character of each vintage etc. The second uses new technologies and new-barrel ageing to the maximum, to produce wines each vintage which will impress by their depth of colour, their open immediacy of aroma, their richness on the palate from day one, and their mouth-coating, pungent tannins…”

Good wines exist within either style. Amongst these, perceptions of ‘quality’ depend on personal preference rather than on any objective measure. Equally, poor examples of each exist, too.

Within the ‘elegant’ style the worst wines tend be thin or, at the worst ‘green’ and astringent, where the worst ‘international’ styles, as Hanson suggests, tend to big colour,  wih big oak and big tannins swamping grape flavour.

Looking at both styles from Coonawarra and Bordeaux, I think it’s fair to say that Coonawarra tends to be more even than Bordeaux and generally lacking the extremely bad examples of both styles with more highlights in the ‘international’ style and less in the ‘elegant style.

Another observation, is that the more alcoholic, tannic and oaked the wine, the more blurred its identity.

In Bordeaux, for example, an oaky, tannic, dense Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere might have come from anywhere. The fact that it was a Grand Cru wine from the commune of St Emillion may help sell it, but even the experienced palate might be challenged to place its origin.

By contrast, another Grand Cru St Emillion, Chateau La Tour Figeac, showed the region’s distinctive perfume, sweet fruit, and austere, drying tannins. It could hardly have been anything but St Emillion.

In a similar way, Redmans wines stand out as distinct, elegant examples of Coonawarra. There’s a deliberate philosophy behind their making; a clear understanding of what the alternative styles might be; and a long family familiarity with Coonawarra and its wines.

Bruce Redman intentionally makes the ‘elegant’ rather than the international style and says he approaches wine making much the way his father Owen — and before that Owen’s father — the legendary Bill Redman did.

The Redman’s 34 hectares of mature vines, towards the northern end of Coonawarra, are hand pruned and trellised to avoid the ‘hedging’ effect common with mechanical pruning.

Bruce says this gives his berries good sun exposure and hence a measure of protection against disease while developing ripe flavours a tad earlier than shaded grapes — an important factor in Coonawarra where autumn rain often threatens a late crop.

Timing of harvest is the key to the Redman wine style. Bruce says that in Coonawarra ripe flavours develop in grapes at comparatively low sugar (and hence potential alcohol) levels. Where some wine makers aim for grapes with an alcohol potential of 13.5 per cent or more, he picks on flavour backed up by chemical analysis.

Thus, the Redman wines often sit at around 12.5 per cent alcohol while delivering lovely, delicate, ripe-berry flavours.

In the winery, ferments are conducted in small open vats and the cap of skins is hand plunged three times a day to aid colour and flavour extraction. This gentle technique, combined with a warm ferment (20-25 degrees Celsius) gives good flavour, colour and tannin extraction without harshness.

Oak maturation plays an important role in mellowing grape tannins and adding structure to the wine, but a five year life cycle for each barrel and the use of just 10 per cent new oak in shiraz and 30-50 per cent in cabernet, means that oak flavour is always subservient to fruit in the Redman wine.

There are many other lovely expressions of Coonawarra. But in my opinion Redman provides a far more sympathetic treatment of the region’s grapes than the ‘international’ approach.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1998 & 2007

Rothbury Estate — part two of two: Foster’s Mildara Blass takes over

Last week we looked back over Rothbury Estate’s origins, from its idealistic start in 1968, at its early struggles, at enforced pragmatism that saw production focus shift from Hunter Valley shiraz to Cowra
chardonnay, at its public float and, finally at its takeover by Mildara Blass and the fresh breeze blowing through what now appears to have been a stale old business in need of a good shakeup.

Adam Eggins, now in charge of the Rothbury winery, says that after the takeover by Mildara Blass, two senior wine makers were dismissed and two juniors promoted. Then the juniors jumped ship just before the 1997 vintage.

At the time, Eggins was group sparkling-wine maker, based at the Yellowglen Winery in Victoria. He was asked to take up the reins in the Hunter.

Freshly-recruited red-wine maker Robert Guadagnini (ex Brown Bros) and Eggins saw the 1997 vintage through, then focused on a re-vamp of the winery.

Eggins says that  in terms of winery fittings “Rothbury didn’t do much in the last ten years of its life” (before the Mildara Blass takeover).

Much of the equipment was old, inefficient and poorly-suited to the small-batch production Eggins sees as necessary for the new vision. Indeed, several outdoor wine-storage tanks had no refrigeration and held wine, Eggins says, at potentially-damaging temperatures of up to forty five degrees celsius.

Red fermentation vats were the wrong shape to maximise colour, tannin and flavour extraction as well as being poorly located within the winery; and white fermenters were too large to handle individual-vineyard grape batches.

Juice chilling  and pressing facilities were inadequate and fermentation solids and skins were being pumped (and therefore compressed with potential wine-flavour implications) over considerable distances to presses.

Refitting of the winery is under way. $1.3 million dollars has been invested to date and another $1.4 million is to be spent this year. Eggins says, “It’s all about long-term investment for potential national and international brands. We spend to accommodate the quality required”.

Investment is geared towards the production of discrete parcels of wine from numerous vineyards. Part of that strategy has seen the discarding of the old forty tonne fermenters in favour of ten tonne units.

Rothbury’s new vision is based on historical connections in the Cowra, Mudgee and Hunter Valley regions of New South Wales. And if some of the sentimentality has gone from Rothbury, the passion to make great wines is alive, well and (n my view) has every chance of success under Mildara Blass wine makers Adam Eggins and Robert Guadagnini.

The pair have not only the passion and skill to make great wines, but a hard-nosed marketing team, top viticulturists, good vineyards, adequate capital and the right wine-making equipment to create long-term success.

Rothbury’s range now focuses on three price points and three regions. There’s the $10  ‘NSW regional range’: Cowra Chardonnay, Mudgee Cabernet Merlot and Mudgee Shiraz; the $15 ‘Hunter Valley range’: Hunter Semillon, Hunter Verdelho and Hunter Shiraz; and the $20 Brokenback range: a  Shiraz, Semillon and Chardonnay from the company’s vineyard at the foot of the Brokenback Range in the Pokolbin district of the lower Hunter.

Eggins’ sparkling-wine experience transfers beautifully to semillon, the Hunter’s highly-individual, wonderful white. Both sparkling wine base and Hunter semillon require gentle handling and controlled ferments to capture delicate flavours.

Eggins’ first efforts with the variety, from the 1997 and 1998 vintages, show the benefits of that gentle touch. And, of course, the single-vineyard Brokenback wines, from old, low-yielding vines on sandy soil, show tremendous varietal and regional flavour.

Perhaps the challenge will be greater for Robert Guadagnini as he comes to grip with the idiosyncratic Hunter shiraz. I don’t like the 1995 Reserve Shiraz, I think it is overoaked. But Robert inherited that from the previous owners and was involved only in the final maturation, blending and bottling stages.

The base reds from the 1998 vintage appear outstanding — particularly, full, rich and fleshy for Hunter wines. The trick for Guadagnini will be in getting the oak-maturation stage right. Balancing oak and fruit seems to be particularly difficult in the Hunter. I strongly suspect that little, if any, new oak should be used. Still, that’s Robert’s call. He’s a good wine maker and he’s certainly talking to other more experienced makers in the area.

Despite the worst fears of some that the wines might all end up in giant blending vats, Rothbury’s focus is back on regional wine specialties including the highly idiosyncratic Hunter styles. The dust from the
takeover has barely settled yet, but I’d say Rothbury is in good hands.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1998 & 2007

Rothbury Estate — part one of two: the Len Evans’ years

In 1996, Foster’s-owned Mildara Blass acquired Rothbury Estate, just four years after it went public.

Foster’s advances had not been welcomed by Rothbury Chairman, Len Evans. Many small shareholders shared Len’s wariness. With a soft spot for Len’s exuberance and fond memories of the wine-loving origins of the venture, they wondered where the hostile takeover might take Rothbury.

Would it become just another brand to sit alongside Wolf Blass, Yellowglen and Jamieson’s Run in the Mildara Blass portfolio? Would production of the small-volume, idiosyncratic Hunter wines continue? Would the popular mail-order wine club continue?

Indeed, Rothbury Estate’s history and personality were so strongly linked to Len, it seemed hard to imagine a Rothbury — let alone a better Rothbury (and that’s what’s emerging) — without him.

Len seemed to combine a romantic view and love of wine with hard-nosed, pragmatic entrepreneurial skills. As a founding father of Rothbury, Len watched his baby crawl, totter, stumble, walk and grow.

From being a Lower-Hunter specialist in 1968 Rothbury became a non-listed public company
in 1974, shifted its focus from the Hunter to Cowra in purchasing a large chardonnay vineyard there in 1981 and, after a public float in 1992, became the centrepiece of an operation including Baileys and St Hubert’s wineries in Victoria.

Prior to the float, St Hubert’s and Bailey’s belonged to the Goodman Fielder Wattie Group. When Rothbury purchased these two wineries, GFW Ingredients, a subsidiary of Goodman Fielder Wattie, acquired 19.7 per cent of the new company, making it the largest shareholder. Len Evans remained the second biggest holder with a 15 per cent stake, and another founding father, Daniel Chen, was the third biggest with 11.3 per cent.

From Rothbury’s 11 founding investors in 1968, Len Evans assumed the role of marketing director, while Murray Tyrrell looked after the vineyards. The company planted about 340 hectares, all in the lower Hunter. Gerry Sissingh made the wines. But only those passing muster with the selection panel — Len Evans, Rudy Komon, Gerry Sissingh, and Murray Tyrrell — emerged under the Rothbury label.

Rothbury’s initial production was predominantly red, a direction dictated by a short boom in red-wine drinking in the late sixties. Unfortunately for Rothbury, consumer preferences moved quickly to whites, putting the unprepared company under severe financial pressure.

Rothbury’s bacon was saved by a controversial 1981 board decision to buy an established vineyard in Cowra. It allowed Rothbury to meet an exploding demand for good-quality but inexpensive chardonnays.

It turned out that the wine-buying public was little interested in the lower Hunter’s great specialties, shiraz and semillon, varieties making up the majority of Rothbury’s Hunter plantings. Len Evans takes the credit for seeing where demand lay and persuading the board to grab Cowra.

The Cowra vineyard had been established by Tony Grey in 1972. It proved an ideal location. By the Lachlan River in central Western N.S.W. in a benign climate with plenty of water, it quickly and efficiently produced biggish crops of high-quality grapes. Evans recognised the quality early.

He was instrumental in sourcing Cowra grapes for Petaluma Chardonnay from the first vintage in 1977 until the vineyard’s acquisition by Rothbury in 1981. At the time of the purchase, Cowra was planted to a number of varieties including 12 hectares of chardonnay.

In that year Rothbury made just one thousand cases of its first Cowra chardonnay. Production increased steadily as more chardonnay went in and other varieties were pulled out. Forty two thousand cases were made in 1990, by the mid nineties production was running at about sixty thousand cases a year.

Rothbury’s production turned even more to whites with the acquisition in 1988 of Denman Estate’s vineyards in the upper Hunter. Then as tasted swung back to reds again in the nineties, Mudgee shiraz and cabernet became important.

By the mid nineties Rothbury’s Hunter plantings were down to just 63 hectares producing around 500 tonnes in good years. That was only 10 per cent of the group’s total crush, reflecting just how far from commercial reality the original Hunter dream had been.

Some might say the dream evaporated completely with the arrival of Mildara Blass in 1996. Heads rolled. And, shock horror, the flagship Hunter Reserve Shiraz was slaughtered — falling from around $30 to $15 a bottle in Sydney and Canberra retail outlets.

In fact, the old vision has been replaced by a new one. In some respects it’s more hard nosed than the old one. But, ironically, the dream of making great Hunter wines probably has more chance of succeeding under the new regime than it did under the old. That’s next week’s story.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1998 & 2007

Aussie wine’s global focus — part three of three

This third and final of three articles on the recent expansion of overseas wine interests by Australian producers starts with one of the earliest ventures and ends with two of the newest.

In 1990 when the then family-owned Thomas Hardy and Sons acquired Domaine de la Baume in France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region, Australia’s wine industry knew little of the optimism, growth and profitability we expect today.

Producer-led discounting, even of red wines, fed steadily into the equally aggressive retail chain and from there into the welcoming cellars, cupboards and glasses of appreciative wine drinkers.

Indeed, the flatness of the domestic market was one of the driving forces behind Hardys acquisition not just of Domaine de la Baume, but also of Casa Vinicola Barone Ricasoli, in Chianti, Italy, and of two wine merchants in London.

Some time later, Bill Hardy wrote that  the family was “keen to continue expanding in order to offer increasing returns to our shareholders and interesting job opportunities to our staff”.

Europe was obviously high on our list of areas for potential investment as it is the major wine producing and consuming region in the world and has a very positive image for its wine. Europe was also of interest because we were a little uneasy about the strengthening of the EEC scheduled for 1992. We felt that we would be in a more favourable situation as a producer of wines within the EEC than as an outsider trying to sell products into the EEC. We had also noted the first cracks appearing in the Eastern bloc countries and there appeared the likelihood that the European market would expand with the opening up of these countries”.

And so the acquisitions of early 1990 gave Hardys “a distribution base in the most influential wine market in the world [UK] and production bases in the two major wine producing countries of the world.”

However, difficult times lay ahead and the vision was not to be realised immediately. When the Berri Renmano Co-operative and Thomas Hardys finally merged into the listed BRL Hardy several years later, the English and French connections remained but the Italian was  never taken into the fold.

Whiclar and Gordon Wines, Thomas Hardy’s U.K. distribution arm, became BRL Hardy Europe Ltd. By this time the decrepit la Baume winery had been gutted, re-roofed and filled with gleaming new stainless steel wine making equipment able to process, first 800,000 and, later, 1.6 million litres of wine annually.

The focus was on cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot and sauvignon blanc grapes sourced from the company’s own small vineyard and from contract growers within the vast Languedoc-Roussillon region.

The aim was to produce varietal wines, under the ‘Vins de Pays d’Oc’ appellation, for world markets. The appellation is specific to the very large Languedoc-Roussillon region, spread along the Mediterranean coast and its hinterland.

Hardy’s La Baume wines have to date enjoy little success in Australia but, according to Bill Hardy, made early and solid inroads into the less parochial, value-orientated U.K. and Scandinavian markets.

The French themselves, observes Hardy, seem a long way from recognising the quality potential of an area traditionally seen as a “producer of simple, light low-alcohol wines” — a perception being eroded gradually by the Australian influence.

That influence now includes not just BRL Hardy but Australia’s largest producer, Southcorp Wines. With Les Vignerons du Val d’Orbieu, Southcorp formed a 50:50 joint venture company — Penvale — to produce the La Perouse label for distribution in the U.K., U.S. and, later, the Chinese markets.

While Southcorp has made no capital investment in the winery or vineyards, viticulturist David Morrison works with French grape growers and the Southcorp wine making and marketing team are involved in fruit selection, wine making and style decisions.

Southcorp has also established a beach head in California through two new ventures. In a 50:50 deal with Paragon Vineyards, the Independent WineCompany was formed to produce the new Seven Peaks label.

Paragon will the Seven Peaks wines in its Edna Valley winery and Australian wine maker, Ian Shepherd (formerly of Seppelts Great Western) will move in.

And his role could expand rapidly as Southcorp’s second venture comes to fruition. Last year Southcorp bought land at Pasa Robles on California’s Central coast and is developing 250 hectares of vineyards to feed the new Seven Peaks label and to create a new brand totally owned by Southcorp.

This and the other endeavours mentioned over the last few weeks are just some of Australia’s off-shore adventures adding to the truly global influence of Australia’s extraordinarily vigorous wine-making culture.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 1998 & 2007