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