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