Yearly Archives: 2004

The rise of Wrattonbully — unique new Aussie wine region

You’ve never heard of a champion race horse with a bad name’. Attributed to viticulturist Vic Patrick during a prolonged, and at times rancorous, debate over the naming of Wrattonbully wine region.

Wrattonbully, the biggest of several new wine regions on South Australia’s Limestone Coast, sprawls for forty kilometres along the Naracoorte Tableland, touching Padthaway to the north and Coonawarra to the south.

Hemmed in by these venerable winemaking neighbours, Wrattonbully exploded into existence in the nineties, the product of high hopes and a global red wine boom.

Deterred by rising land prices and a lack of suitable sites in Coonawarra, winemakers moved decisively to Wrattonbully in 1993, attracted by lower land prices, soils and climate similar to those of Coonawarra and clean underground water.

Where two vineyards, covering just 20 hectares, existed in 1993, scores of broad acre plantings, totalling about 2600 hectares, had been planted by 2003.

In Australia’s bumper 2004 harvest, these new vines produced 28 thousand tonnes of grapes, equivalent to about two million dozen bottles of wine – an extraordinary volume for an area that barely existed a decade earlier.

Wrattonbully’s impressive growth is perhaps best seen in the context of the Limestone Coast overall. This vast area, taking in all of South Australia west of Victoria and south of Lake Alexandrina, now wears the crown as Australia’s largest premium wine growing district.

The Limestone Coast’s combined 2004 grape output of 172 thousand tonnes (13 million dozen bottles equivalent) easily outweighs the 87 thousand tonnes (6.5 million dozen bottes) of the combined Barossa and Eden Valleys, the next largest premium area.

Within the Limestone Coast, Wrattonbully holds the greatest concentration of grapes after its older neighbours – Coonawarra, established in 1891 (62 thousand tonnes in 2004) and Padthaway, established in 1964 (51 thousand tonnes).

Like Padthaway, much of Wrattonbully’s output goes to high quality cross-regional blends. Wolf Blass Yellow Label Cabernet Sauvignon and Hardys Sir James Brut de Brut, for example, both carry Wrattonbully material blended with fruit from other areas, and go to market without a regional appellation.

But many grape growers and winemakers, seeing the exceptional quality potential in Wrattonbully, won’t settle for anonymity.

They see Wrattonbully as one of the best wine growing regions in the country. Its soils and climate, the outstanding winemaking achievements of nearby, similar Coonawarra and Padthaway and even its own short winemaking history all support this belief.

As in Coonawarra, Wrattonbully’s vineyards tend to be located on shallow terra rossa soils over limestone. These soils are composed partly of weathered limestone but also contain wind-born material. In Wrattonbully, some vineyards have a shallow layer of grey, sandy loam over the terra rossa.
Some growers say that these are the best sites for vines; others insist on terra rossa without the sand overlay. Could both be correct? We’ll know in thirty years.

Despite the similarities between the two regions, there are important differences, too. Wrattonbully lies to the north of Coonawarra on a tableland elevated about 50 metres above the plain and to the east of the Kanowinka fault.

According to geologist David Farmer, about 780 thousand years ago “the country to the west of the fault fell about 40 metres, perhaps under the sea. It was against this cliff face that the Southern Ocean deposited the dunes comprising the West Naracoorte Range” – near the western edge of today’s Wrattonbully. It was perhaps another 100 thousand years before what is now Coonawarra rose above sea level.

Meanwhile Wrattonbully remained high and dry to the east of the range, weathering and, later, collecting in its near-surface caves, the bones of trapped mammals and reptiles. These provide the wonderful 500 thousand year fossil record seen today at the Naracoorte caves, within the wine region boundary.

The caves are part of the limestone bedrock noted for thick layers of calcrete – dissolved and redeposited limestone – near the surface along ridges. Over the past ten years bulldozers ripping the calcrete prior to vine planting uncovered numerous caves (see separate story) and dragged to the surface enormous limestone boulders – like the 37 tonne monster marking the entry to Hardy’s Stonehaven vineyard.

According to Greg Koch, vineyard owner and contract vineyard manager, stone breaking and removal adds up to $5000 a hectare to establishment costs in Wrattonbully.

However, the ready availability of choice sites and land prices considerably below those of Coonawarra attracted investors throughout the nineties and into the new century.

On this rugged, undulating tableland, then, sit 2600 hectares of vines on a diversity of sites that should, in general, be slightly warmer than Coonawarra and sufficiently elevated to avoid the vintage fogs that sometimes hamper vintage in Coonawarra and Padthaway.

Wrattonbully’s grape-growing history includes two little vineyards planted decades ahead of the recent expansion. These give a glimpse of its potential.

In 1969, Patrick and Susie Pender planted the ‘Riddoch’ vineyard at the southern end of the district. Its grapes were sold to various winemakers over the years, but from what I can gather, wine made from the site was generally referred to as Coonawarra, including one that I personally bought and labelled Farmer Bros in the mid eighties.

The Penders sold to the Meyer family who, in turn, sold the vineyard (no longer called Riddoch) to Petaluma. Since the purchase, says Petaluma’s Brian Croser, shiraz from the vineyard goes to a Bridgewater Mill shiraz blend, while the excellent but tiny quantity of cabernet sauvignon is included as a legal out-of-district component of Petaluma Coonawarra – one of the region’s elite reds.

Nearby, in 1974, John Greenshields established the Koppamurra vineyard. In adopting the general regional name (local farmers still call the area Koppamurra, not Wrattonbully) he unwittingly set the scene for a recent protracted dispute over the regional name. Wrattonbully it became, but not without acrimony.

In January 2003, Tapanappa Wines Pty Ltd – a partnership between Brian Croser, Jean-Michel Cazes of Château Lynch-Bages, Bordeaux, and Société Jacques Bollinger, the parent company of Champagne Bollinger – purchased the vineyard.

Croser had advice that the vineyard was perfectly suited to dry-land viticulture and was impressed by the keeping qualities of Geoff Weaver’s Ashbourne Cabernet Sauvignon 1980 — sourced from the vineyard and made at Petaluma.

The first two vintages of Tapanappa wine now sit in barrel at Petaluma. Croser seems deeply impressed by the fruit quality. All three red varieties – cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot – ripened fully in both the 2003 and 2004 vintages.

He described the merlot as ‘very big and blocky’, the cabernet as having ‘violet and rose floral character, more finesse and silky tannins’ and the cabernet franc as ‘inky and very complex’.

As these vines are fully mature, low yielding and dry grown it suggests Wrattonbully could be suited to a range of varieties.

However, as almost all of the vines in Wrattonbully are much younger and yet to deliver their best flavours, other winemakers report varying results.

Yalumba’s red winemaker, Peter Gambetta, says that Wrattonbully reds in general looked good in the first vintages but merlot had the WOW factor, performing well in a number of different vineyards.

The variety now receives special attention in the vineyard and winery and is distributed by Yalumba under the Smith and Hooper Wrattonbully label. As I write, there’s a very concentrated ‘Limited Release’ 2001 retailing at about $50, and a standard, more fruit driven 2002 at around $17.

Smith and Hooper Wrattonbully Cabernet Merlot 2002 (about $17) won a gold medal at the recent Limestone Coast Show. And Yalumba’s budget Wrattonbully label, Mawsons (about $12), offers a Cabernet Sauvignon 2002, with a Sauvignon Blanc due in 2005.

Gambetta and Yalumba’s Wrattonbully vineyard manager, Peter Freckleton, both seem excited about the upcoming first vintage of tempranillo, a Spanish red variety, from their vineyards.

At Hardy’s Stonehaven Winery, winemaker Sue Bell rates Wrattonbully cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and chardonnay ahead of merlot and believes that tempranillo may be very good. Sue’s current release Stonehaven Limited Vineyard Release Wrattonbully Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 won a silver medal at the Limestone Coast Show and her Stonehaven Limestone Coast Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (100 per cent Wrattonbully) won a bronze medal.

Unlike Hardys and Yalumba, Southcorp owns no vineyards in Wrattonbully but sources from contract growers. Southcorp winemaker, Greg Tilbrook, says that cabernet sauvignon looks the best variety to date, making the grade for Penfolds Bin 407 in 2003 and 2004.

Griffith based Casella Wines no doubt favours cabernet, too, after winning the Jimmy Watson trophy with its Yellowtail Premium 2003, sourced from a vineyard managed by Greg Koch.

Coonawarra-based Ian Hollick clearly backs shiraz after his Wrattonbully Shiraz – Coonawarra Cabernet 2002 won a gold medal and trophy at the Limestone Coast Show.

And a few good wines are emerging from Wrattonbully grape growers. Greg Koch’s Redden Bridge ‘Gully’ Shiraz 2002 and ‘The Crossings’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 won silver and bronze medals respectively at the Limestone Coast Show; winemaker Pat Tocaciu produces Patrick ‘The Caves’ Vineyard Riesling 2003 and Pavy Cabernet Sauvignon 2001; and the Stone Coast Vineyard Shiraz 2002, made by Scott Rawlinson, won silver at the Limestone Coast Show.

With most of her vineyards still under ten years of age Wrattonbully is a work in progress, producing bread and butter, good average quality wines alongside smaller quantities of high quality regionally labelled product. It’ll take another ten years to see what her real specialties are. But there’s every hope, given the regional pedigree, that we’ll see great rather than merely good wines in due course.

Ken Schultz and the Stone Hill Vineyard cave
Ken Schultz says he was conceived and born in the room that’s now his office in a limestone house amongst Beringer Blass’s Wrattonbully vineyards. Establishing the Stone Hill vineyard in the early nineties, Ken found a nervous bulldozer driver teetering on the opening of an extensive cave. A little research showed that the cave had been sealed in 1917. A thorough exploration by Ken’s boss, Vic Patrick, and others found that it meandered 270 metres under the vineyards and included a touching memorial of the past – a beautifully hand-carved in limestone ‘F. J. Charter 1911’ – a local who died on the battlefields of France in 1917. A bit of creative paving work by Ken’s vineyard team, and the addition of subtle lighting, prepared a large chamber, 10 metres below the vineyard and 130 metres from the entry, for the occasional dinner or lunch under the vines.

Fifty years of Wynns Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon

A tasting of 50 years of Wynns Coonawarra Estate cabernet sauvignons last week highlighted what a long, twisting, sometimes profitless and often frustrating struggle lies behind the emergence of significant wines.

The ‘estate that made Coonawarra famous’ remained largely unknown, under various guises, for sixty years before the inspired marketing of the Wynn family gave an identity and, ultimately, fame, to the area’s unique, elegant table wines.

That Coonawarra could produce good wine had been glimpsed since the earliest days.

In 1899, W. Catton Grasby, editor of ‘Garden and Field’ wrote ‘As long as grapes mature properly, the more gradual the process the better, so that the conditions are as favourable, if not more so, at Coonawarra than anywhere else in Australia for making very high-class, light, dry wine. The results are bearing out the theoretical statement of what should be, and Coonawarra claret promises to have a very high and wide reputation—indeed, there is no doubt but that it will be a beautiful wine of good body, fine colour, delicate bouquet, and low alcoholic strength”.

Grasby’s words followed a visit to John Riddoch’s Coonawarra fruit colony and, presumably, a tasting of the first few vintages made in Riddoch’s imposing, triple-gabled, Coonawarra Wine Cellars.

Grasby notes the first vine plantings in 1891 and an expansion of the area under vine by 1899 to about 140 hectares — 89 owned by ‘blockers’ on the fruit colony and 51 hectares belonging to Riddoch — consisting principally of shiraz and cabernet sauvignon with smaller plantings of malbec and pinot noir, the latter not faring well.

According to James Halliday (‘Wine Compendium’ 1985), production from these vineyards exceeded 300 thousand litres per annum from 1903 until 1909 with John Riddoch actively seeking markets for the wine in Australia and in Great Britain.

However, after Riddoch’s death at about this time, Coonawarra’s famous estate turned to distilling its ever-accumulating wine stocks — a practice that continued through two changes of ownership until Woodleys purchased the triple-gabled winery and 58 hectares of vineyards in 1946.

Woodley’s owner, Tony Nelson, installed as winemakers, at what was now ‘Chateau Comaum’, Bill and Owen Redman – from whom he’d been buying Coonawarra wine for many years. Although the arrangement fell over a few years later, at least, after a break of 37 years, Coonawarra’s original winery was once again making table wine.

In 1951 Samuel Wynn and his son David bought the vineyards and Chateau Comaum, renamed it Wynns Coonawarra Estate, and installed 22-year-old Roseworthy graduate Ian Hickinbotham as manager. The Estate was set to make Coonawarra famous.

At last week’s tasting in Coonawarra, Ian recalled ‘the stink of failure’ that hung over the area’s tiny wine industry when he arrived in late 1951.  And he recalled the disdain felt for it by a remote community riding the Korean war wool boom.

As the first qualified winemaker to arrive in Coonawarra since John Riddoch hired Ewen Ferguson McBain in 1898, Ian confronted the challenges of isolation, labour shortages and the most rudimentary winemaking equipment. Roads and transport were poor, there was no electricity and the winery still relied on steam power to drive its pumps.

In that first year Ian brought to Coonawarra six Roseworthy students to help with the pruning, all batching with him in a little shack near the winery.

A gifted Aussie rules player, Ian then called on 70 mates from the local footy club for the heavy work of pulling the cuttings from the vineyards.

By vintage time, David Wynn had fixed the labour problem by bringing in a group of Italian immigrants. A mixed lot – professionals, craftsmen, workers and even a chef – they proved themselves cheerful and skilled as grape pickers and cellar hands.

As soon as the manual press began turning, they bust into song’ Ian recalls. And that set the tone for the 1952 vintage.

Although most of the 1952 vintage was sold in bulk, it also marked the birth of the famous label depicting John Riddoch’s triple-gabled, limestone winery.

Indeed, Wynns labels were a generation ahead of their time, boldly branded, declaring region of origin, wine style and vintage on the front label, and emphasising the region with a clear map on the back label.

Samuel and David put their judgement on the line in choosing little known, isolated Coonawarra back in 1951. That they were on the money shows in the string of superb, long-lived wines created from 1952 on. It’s a fascinating story that’s still delivering benefits to drinkers today – as we’ll see next week.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1954 to 2004
5 December 2004

In 1951, the same year that Max Schubert created Grange, Samuel Wynn and his son David bought Chateau Comaum from Tony Nelson’s Woodleys wines. As we learned last week, this was some 60 years after John Riddoch founded the Coonawarra Fruit Colony, it was more than 50 years after the construction of the famous triple-gabled winery and followed 37 years in which the bulk of the winery’s production had been distilled.

Despite the comparatively slow evolution of the region’s winemaking and the primitive facilities available (electricity, for example, arrived in Coonawarra just a few months before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon) the Wynns made superb, age-worthy wines from the very beginning.

In tastings of Wynns Coonawarra shiraz back to the 1953 vintage in 1997 and of cabernet sauvignons back to 1954 just two weeks ago, some of the oldest wines performed best of all. And in both tastings the seventies vintages appeared weaker, in general, than the other decades – coinciding with the period when Wynns belonged to Allied Vintners.

In both tastings, too, the eighties showed a strengthening performance. The nineties exploded onto the scene with the powerful but atypical 1990, followed by the sublime 1991. The shiraz tasting stopped at the 1995 vintage. But the cabernet line up revealed the strength and elegance of the 1996 vintage, another outstanding and powerful wine in the 1998 vintage and then a return to typical Coonawarra elegance in 1999.

With the exception of the 1992, all of the nineties cabernets showed consistently ripe fruit character (unripe, green notes mar some Coonawarras) and velvety smooth tannins. The intensity of fruit and silkiness of the tannins seemed to lift towards the end of the nineties, culminating in a run of exceptional wines in the bottled 2000, 2001 and 2002 vintages and barrel samples of the still-maturing 2003 and 2004 vintages.

At the shiraz tasting we also tasted the legendary 1955 ‘Michael’ – a fabulous old red that lent its name to a new flagship shiraz created in the 1990 vintage and produced in most years since. In that 1997 tasting, the 1990 was a blockbuster, needing years more in the bottle, while the 1991 stood out for its intense, sweet fruit and elegance.

On the evening before the 50 years of cabernet tasting, we saw the all the vintages of the cabernet flagship  ‘John Riddoch’. It was a bit like having the honeymoon before the wedding. From this line up, the inaugural 1982 vintage, made by John Wade, towered above the others – a very great Aussie red that’s still evolving.

Winemaker Sarah Pidgeon tells me that of the Black Label cabernet sauvignons tasted two weeks ago by our panel of 30 tasters — made up of present and past winemakers, a viticulturist, local and international writers, Bruce Redman (representing the family that kept Coonawarra winemaking alive in the first half of last century) and a few company executives – 1954, 1991 and 1996 rated as the top three wines.

That was my own rating, too. But, there were many other wonderful wines, rating bronze, silver and gold medal scores. Indeed, very few failed to make the grade.

Wynns cabernet vintages that appealed strongly to me, in chronological order were: 1954, 1955 (a cabernet shiraz blend labelled as ‘Claret’), 1959, 1962, 1965, 1966,1968, 1970, 1971, 1973, 1976, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002.

The tasting revealed the inherent worth of Coonawarra cabernet and the reliability of Wynns Black Label as a realistically priced red for the cellar. But the impressive strength of the more recent vintages showed that the average quality ought to be higher in the future and that the quality of future great vintages – successors to the 1996, 1991, 1954 and 1982 John Riddoch – may move a notch or two higher.

The quality of Wynns Black Label rests on the company’s unequalled vineyard holdings in Coonawarra — about 950 of the 5600 hectares planted in the region. Cabernet plantings alone stand at 450 hectares and the Black Label is drawn primarily from 240 hectares of vines over 30 years of age – a key quality factor.

Chief winemaker Sue Hodder attributes the more even and complete ripeness seen in recent vintages to a major vineyard rejuvenation project now well under way among those older plantings. And those lovely, velvety tannins, she says, spring from that ripe fruit in conjunction with a slightly more aerobic approach to winemaking and the use of extended skin contact.

That may seem arcane to the casual sipper. But it translates to a tasty quality boost to a wine that already had the capacity to age 50 years.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2004 and 2009

Wine review — Wynns Coonawarra John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon 1982–1999

Tasting notes of Wynns Coonawarra Estate
John Riddoch Cabernet Sauvignon magnums 1982–1999
Redfingers Restaurant, Coonawarra
November 15th, 2004

These are my notes made on the eve of a fifty-years-of-Wynns cabernet tasting. Wynns booklet, ‘Reflections’ covers the full sequence of wines from 1954–2004 tasted the following day.

Deep colour, youthful for its age, with some signs of browning at the rim; wonderful aroma and palate, showing cedary oak and mellow aged notes over a core of elegant, sweet, varietal fruit. A superb, complex ageing red in complete harmony and with many years left in it. Developed well for several hours after opening. 19.5/20

Medium to deep still youthful colour; lifted and attractive berry-like aroma but simple and one dimensional in comparison to the 1982; the palate reflects the aroma with its pleasant, soft and varietal berry flavours. An attractive, easy drinking John Riddoch at its peak. 17/20

Medium to deep colour showing distinct brown hues at the meniscus; the aroma reveals leathery, aged character over rich, underlying fruit; the palate is solid and chewy with a surprising depth and layers of rich, varietal fruit and firm tannins as well as the bottle-aged leathery characters. 18/20

Medium to deep colour with only the slightest hint of ageing; lifted varietal aroma with a hint of leafiness; powerful, intense and lifted palate reflecting the aroma – a wine showing great freshness, lift and vitality for its age. Has years to go. 18.75/20

Medium to deep colour and quite youthful; spicy oak and leathery, aged character dominate the aroma; this carries to the palate which also delivers leafy, varietal cabernet flavour, although these appear to be drying out. 16/20.

Medium to deep colour, still a youthful red at the meniscus; strong and bright ripe-berry cabernet character shows on nose and plate. This is a youthful, balanced and appealing John Riddoch still on the way up. 18/20.

Always has been and still is a powerhouse – atypical of Coonawarra yet the essence of Coonawarra at the same time; the colour is very deep and youthful; the aroma and palate are brooding and deep but, clearly, this is varietal cabernet with the mid palate richness of Coonawarra – almost a syrup in its richness. Needs more time. 19/20.

After the blockbuster 1990, this is perfumed, elegant refined – classic Coonawarra, combining elegance and strength; lovely ripe-berry varietal flavour seamed with cedary oak and held together by supple, persistent tannins. Looking young. 18.5/20.

Medium to deep and still youthful colour; berry cabernet aromas with a leafy edge; the palate shows the same leaf-edged berry flavour in an elegant and tight structure. Looking young but without depth or complexity after the 1990 and 1991. 17/20.

Medium to deep, still with youthful crimson hues at the rim; slightly vegetal aroma, followed by a big and tannic palate layered with fruit and oak. In its own right, an appealing, maturing wine, but flanked by the 90, 91 and the 96, looks a little clumsy. 16/20.

Deep colour with youthful crimson rim; cedary, oaky nose and quite powerful palate on which oak, at this stage, tends to overshadow the fruit. 17/20

Deep colour with vibrant crimson rim; subdued nose but lifted and powerful palate with layers of superb fruit, cedary oak and firm but elegant structure. A wine of great intensity, complexity and harmony with the power and elegance of great cabernet. Needs time. 18.75/20

Deep colour with crimson rim; green-bean character hovers over the berry cabernet and although the wine shows Riddoch-like power, this underlying greenness detracts. 17.5/20

Dense, crimson-rimmed colour; the aroma is dominated by oak, although there’s ample, dense fruit underlying it; the palate, too, is huge in the oak, fruit and tannin departments, with oak a little dominant at present. These elements will probably all marry with time, but this John Riddoch is not ready to enjoy yet. 17.5/20.

Deep, crimson-rimmed colour; elegant and sweetly-perfumed ripe-berry aroma with cedary oak complexity; intense palate with deep, sweet berry flavours cocooned in cedary oak and supple, velvety tannins. This is classic Coonawarra cabernet needing time to reveal all of its complexity. 18.5/2

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2004 & 2007

How will wine’s future be sealed — cork versus the rest in Australia for 2005

The battle for the top of the bottle seems to be diversifying as the pure-cork monopoly crumbles.

Vinpac International – the packaging subsidiary of Beringer Blass – estimates that plugs will hold 85 per cent of the wine-seal market in 2005 and screw caps 15 per cent.

Interestingly, whole corks should fill just 25 per cent of wines bottled in Australia next year – exactly the same as the projected market share for synthetic plugs.

Technical corks’ (those granulated plugs with whole-cork discs on the ends) are headed for a 35 per cent market share.

And watch out for ProCork – an Aussie invention that sees corks or cork agglomerates coated with a polymer membrane designed to block 2, 4, 6 TCA, the main agent responsible for cork taint. According to Vinpac, “ProCork is being taken up at a rapid rate”.

Screw caps are poised to capture 15 per cent of the market.

These are the Vinpacs projections in the battle for the bottle in Australia in 2005:

  • Whole natural cork 250 million
  • Technical Cork 350 million
  • Synthetic plugs 250 million
  • Subtotal plugs 850 million
  • Screwcaps 150 million
  • Subtotal non-cork 400 million
  • Total seals 1 billion

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2004 & 2007

Tyrrell’s goes screw cap

Bruce Tyrrell rolled through town last week presenting new-release Tyrrell’s private bin wines to local collectors. Later, he hosted a terrific retrospective tasting of Hunter Vat 1 semillon, Vat 47 chardonnay and Vat 9 shiraz at Tasso Rououlis’s Benchmark Wine Bar.

The wines, from Dennis O’Connor’s cellar, revealed the idiosyncrasies of the lower Hunter Valley; the vagaries of weather conditions back to 1991; and, of course, the Tyrrell mastery of these lovely regional styles – a subject touched upon in last week’s column.

During the tasting we learned, too, of an impending switch from cork to screw caps on all of the Tyrrell top-end wines from the 2004 vintage. Tyrrell says he’s had enough of cork failure, a particularly big problem for a company that encourages extended ageing of its wines and regularly re-releases back vintages.

It’s not cork taint so much”, said Bruce, “but random oxidation that’s the biggest problem”. In a recent inspection of 4000 dozen bottles of white wine from the 1986 to 1996 vintages, Bruce and his team tipped 600 dozen down the drain – not through any inherent wine problem, but because some of the corks had simply failed to provide a barrier against air. That’s random oxidation.

But the problem is not limited to white wine. It’s just that in whites it’s more obviously manifested in a too deep colour, dull, flat aroma and flat, drying-out palate. Reds suffer, too. But often unless the drinker is familiar with a wine and knows what it should taste like – or happens to have two bottles open, one good, one bad – the problem is less apparent.

Bruce and his winemaker, Andrew Spinaze, commenced trialing alternative closures in the mid eighties, initially testing a range of synthetic plugs on the flagship Vat 1 semillon – chosen for its delicacy and capacity for long-term ageing.

Spinaze says that after three months in bottle all samples, including those under cork, smelled and tasted the same. But after 18 months all of the synthetics had failed while the cork delivered its usual variable quality – some wines perfect, some not bad, some oxidised and some cork tainted.

From1998 Spinaze began sealing a portion of Vat 1 semillon under screw cap. The performance of these wines against cork-sealed bottles precipitated the decision to change.

Says Spinaze, “We were always aware of cork’s shortcomings. But we had some reservations about how our top wines would age with the alternative. We knew they would be different. And they are. But the cork failure rate is too high”.

The decision followed two important tastings this year, one in Canberra, one in the Hunter.

In Canberra, Bruce and Andrew joined Lester Jesberg, Len Sorbello and Ray Wilson of Winewise, a highly respected independent wine periodical, in a tasting of Tyrrell’s Vat 1 and Futures semillons from the 1986 to 2002 vintages. Tyrrell and Spinaze brought along screw-cap sealed samples of the 1998 and 2000 vintages to compare with Winewise’s cork-sealed samples.

Jesberg recalls that for some vintages several cork-sealed bottles had to be opened to find a good one. In the end, though, it was the screw cap sealed 1998 that blew everyone away.

A few months later in the Hunter, Tyrrell and Spinaze presented eight masked bottles of the 1998 Vat 1 Semillon – four screw-cap sealed, four cork sealed — to judges at the local wine show.

Cork fared poorly: one bore the unpleasant musty notes of cork taint; one was badly oxidised; one was slightly oxidised but pleasant and one was spectacularly good.

All four screw-cap wines opened in perfect condition. But, says Spinaze, some tasters, himself included, favoured the style of the best cork-sealed wine by a tiny margin. Others disagreed. However, the concessus was that the screw cap sealed wines were not only outstanding and ageing well but utterly reliable and indistinguishable from bottle to bottle.

So, says Andrew, “the question had become why wouldn’t we put them in”. Hence, the screw-cap roll out to Tyrrell’s very best wines began recently with ‘Stevens’ Semillon 2004 (a wine released at five years’ age), moved on to the Vat 1 Semillon 2004 and embraced the legendary Vat 47 Chardonnay 2004 late last week. And, Bruce assured me at the Benchmark Wine Bar tasting, all of the 2004 Private Bin reds are getting screw caps, too.

Murray Flannigan, well known smiling face of Tyrrell’s Private Bin Club, reports strong, if not unanimous, support for the move amongst collectors in his own straw poll.

As more leading producers abandon cork, the question becomes is the screw cap perfect? The answer is no. But it’s the best alternative to date. And its acceptance opens the door for other innovative solutions. Where are they all?

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2004
First published 3 October 2004 in the Canberra Times

Rich, luscious viognier, straight or blended

In the wine industry the lead-time from vision to realisation can be twenty years. It takes that long for vines and winemaking skills to mature. Indeed, in some cases, it may be even longer before consumers perceive the benefit of a visionary decision made decades earlier.

For example, when Karl Seppelt established vineyards at Drumborg, first landfall north of the Antarctic in Victoria’s cold Portland region, and at Keppoch (now called Padthaway) in 1964, he was twenty years ahead of the market. In Drumborg’s case, the lag was probably more like forty years, as I believe we are yet to see the best of that remarkable vineyard.

And so it is with viognier, the Rhone Valley’s most highly regarded white variety, now attracting serious intention in France, Australia and California – an interest that appears to have stirred in all three countries about twenty years ago.

Yet production figures tell us that, in Australia at least, viognier occupies a small but well publicised niche.

According to the Winemakers Federation of Australia, our vignerons crushed about 400 tonnes of viognier in 2000, 700 in 2001, 1300 in 2002 and 1910 in 2003. With a reported 540 hectares in the ground, we can expect future annual production in the vicinity of 5000 tonnes (350 thousand dozen bottles) a year – small change compared to riesling’s 30 thousand tonnes (2.1 million dozen) or chardonnay’s 250 thousand tonnes (17.5 million dozen).

I quote these figures not to deny the importance of viognier, but to underline the fact that wine consumption is not nearly as prone to fashion swings as is sometimes suggested. Almost invariably wine ‘fads’ are more about winemakers and adventurous drinkers gradually expanding the sensory palette available to all of us rather than introducing any popular shift in taste.

In viognier’s case, that sensory experience can be sensational, offering a unique spectrum of aromas and luscious flavours and a silky, viscous texture. However viognier’s charms are not easily captured

Australia’s interest in viognier seems to have begun in the late seventies. According to a Yalumba paper, Heathcote winery in central Victoria probably trialed the variety prior to Yalumba’s acquisition of cuttings from Montpellier, France in 1979. Yalumba propagated these cuttings and planted 1.2 hectares on the Vaughan vineyard, Eden Valley, in 1980, claiming this as the first commercial viognier planting in Australia.

Viognier seems to have made its way to France from Bosnia in about 280 AD. Once widely cultivated, it fell from favour, the total area planted falling to 29 hectares by 1958 before its renaissance in the 1980s.

Although widely planted in Provence and the vast Languedoc-Roussillon region in the south, viognier’s most profound expression is found in the sumptuous whites of Condrieu and Chateau Grillet in the northern Rhone Valley. It also plays an important supporting role to shiraz in many of the reds of neighbouring Cote-Rotie.

These wonderful whites and reds serve as inspiration to new-world winemakers. Like most global benchmarks, the best Rhone wines cost a packet but they do find their way into Australia and have done for twenty years. The best known and distributed, and also amongst the very best are those of Marcel Guigal.

To taste Guigal’s Condrieu (100 per cent viognier) or Chateau d’Ampuis Cote-Rotie is a fast track to enlightenment. (The wines are imported by Negociants Australia, the import distribution arm of Yalumba).

However, Australia has made great progress with viognier as a straight varietal white and in tandem with shiraz. A benchmark of the dry style is Yalumba’s ‘The Virgilius’ made from those old vines in the Vaughan vineyard. It retails for $60, when you can find it. For around $50 you can savour the superb – and even scarcer – Clonakilla Canberra District Viognier.

But there are many more affordable versions available of which Yalumba Eden Valley, Stonehaven Limestone Coast and Kingston Estate Empiric give the true, sumptuous ‘apricot’ flavours.

And what is to my taste the best Australian shiraz viognier blend, is made right here in the Canberra region at Clonakilla, Murrumbateman. Clonakilla’s Tim Kirk was a pioneer of a style now being trialed by many producers around the country, with varying degrees of success.

Well executed, these are supple and lovely wines. I’ll visit this emerging blend later in the year after extensive tastings.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2004 and 2009