Yearly Archives: 2007

Wine review — Pol Roger, La Chablisienne, Madfish, Clos Pierre & PHI

Pol Roger Champagne Brut NV $54-$65 & Vintage 1998 $80-$100
As the world’s most famous wine region struggles to meet demand for its product – around 330 million bottles annually – the Christmas scene remains wonderfully competitive, if volatile. Last week, for example, the value buys, to my taste, were Pol Roger NV and 1998 vintage at  $53.90 and $79.90 respectively, down $10 to $20 a bottle on their regular prices. The NV is slightly deeper coloured than the vintage version, with round, soft palate and delicate, crisp finish. The pale, bright-coloured 1998, though, captures all of Champagne’s magic – a unique combination of intense, delicate flavour, balancing pinot noir’s power and backbone with chardonnay’s ethereal elegance.

La Chablisienne Chablis 2005 $29.99
& Chablis Premier Cru Cote de Lechet 2002 $47.99

Like the Champagne region, Chablis offers just one, highly distinctive regional specialty. In Champagne, at a cold 49-degrees north, it’s delicate bubblies made from pinot and chardonnay; in Chablis, just two degrees to the south it’s bone-dry, delicate chardonnay – perhaps the most recognisable chardonnay in the world. It’s the northernmost point of Burgundy but, thankfully, its whites don’t fetch the heady prices of those made to the south. In this pair from the La Chablisienne cooperative we see two brilliant variations on the regional theme – the fresh, textbook-Chablis 2005 and the slowly maturing, deeper, more complex version from the Cote de Lechet vineyard. Imported by Coles and available at 1st Choice and Vintage Cellars.

Madfish Western Australia Pinot Noir 2006 $19
Clos Pierre Reserve Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2006 $29.99
PHI Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2006 $54

It’s not hard to find a good Aussie pinot these days. And it’s such a wonderful Christmas drink. But the starting price for good examples is a little higher than it is for shiraz or cabernet. Two sub-$20 versions that measure up are DeBortoli Windy Peak Victoria 2007, and a tad more mature, Madfish WA 2006 (available only at cellar door). For another $10, Close Pierre Reserve 2006, made for Woolies’ Dan Murphy outlets by Burgundian Pierre Naigeon, is twice as good, in my opinion, and an absolute bargain. Kooyong Mornington Peninsular Estate 2005 is exciting at around $40 and PHI 2006 at $54 is one that grows in interest with every sip.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007

Chateau Shanahan tastes Oz and Kiwi pinots

With Christmas drinking in mind, the Chateau Shanahan team recently tasted a range of pinot noirs. It’s a great variety. And because it’s medium bodied, soft and supple, it suits the foods we eat at Christmas – ham, pork, turkey and even seafood, especially the more robust kinds like lobster and salmon.

Our samples came unsolicited from wine companies. And we topped up the range with purchases from Canberra retail stores. What I offer below is a warts and all view of what we tasted.

As you can see there’s a bias towards more expensive wine – but, hey, it’s Christmas. And, as well, pinot’s a little more expensive than other varieties at all quality levels because it costs more to make. That said, there are lovely examples at under $20, even if the real magic kicks in at around $30 – after that the sky’s the limit.

We limited our tasting to wines from Australia and New Zealand – poor Burgundy, home of pinot – didn’t get a look in. But even so, we covered only a fraction of the good pinots now on offer, such are the rich pickings with this variety.

The recommended wines should be readily available at fine wine outlets around Canberra. And one tip – for the greatest enjoyment try to keep the serving temperature at around eighteen degrees as Aussie room temperature is too much for pinot. Merry Christmas.

Long Flat Destinations Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2006 $12-$16
Although overshadowed, understandably, by the big guns in our tasting, we’d still rate Long Flat as providing only fair value. There’s some pinot flavour and structure, but it’s not going to turn pinot agnostics into true believers.

Little Rebel Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2006 $18
This was our first encounter with Little Rebel and we’ll not be rushing back for another.

De Bortoli Windy Peak Victoria Pinot Noir 2007 $15-$19
Yes, it is still 2007 and here we are drinking wines that were on the vine a few months back. Despite its youth, there’s some nice, ripe varietal flavour here and it provides good value towards the lower end of the price range. I suspect in another six months ageing it’ll have moved into a more savoury pinot mode.

Madfish Western Australia Pinot Noir 2006 $19
This is Howard Park’s second label. They sourced the fruit from Denmark and though it’s not classic pinot country, this is an above average effort. It’s fragrant and silky and gives more of the pinot experience than we expected. It’s available only from the cellar door. See

Philip Shaw No. 8 Orange Pinot Noir 2006 $39.95
Pinot needs a cool climate and our best versions tend to come more from high latitudes – like Gippsland, Yarra, Mornington and Tasmania – than high altitudes. Stephen George’s Ashton Hills, from the Adelaide Hills, is an exception and Philip Shaw’s heading that way up at Orange.  This one’s got a beautiful aroma, bits of pinot stalkiness and savouriness and is more about subtlety and structure than volume. Very, very promising (and enjoyable).

Blind River Marlborough Pinot Noir 2006 $39.99
Blind River is in the cool Awatere Valley, to the south of the Wairau Valley, site of Marlborough’s earliest plantings and still its heartland. While this one had some pleasing aromas at first, over time it developed intense and, to our palates, not all that pleasing, acidic, berry flavours. Sorry, but we’re not enthusiastic.

St Huberts Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2006 about $29
This one didn’t quite click with us and seemed more like a big, warm red wine than subtle, silky pinot. It’s fault free but to us lacked the pinot magic.

Coldstream Hills Yarra Valley Reserve Pinot Noir 2006 about $85
The deep, youthful colour, fruit sweetness, velvety smoothness and beautiful oak seem, at first sniff and sip to align with the hefty price tag. This is unquestionably a wine of substance, complexity and ageing ability. But the caveat we had is one of style. Has this moved too far into a generic red wine style? It impresses for size and weight, but it’s not a style we enjoy drinking.

Coldstream Hills Yarra Valley Amphitheatre Pinot Noir 2006 $90
This is literally a hand made wine – just three barrels having been produced from the A Block of Coldstream’s Amphitheatre vineyard. There’s a juicy, velvety, seamless richness and texture to it and it will clearly age for many years. But as for the ‘Reserve’ Coldstream above, it’s not a style that’d we’d buy for our own cellar, nor one that we want to drink now.

Clos Pierre Yarra Valley Reserve Pinot Noir 2006 $29.99
Burgundian winemaker, Pierre Naigeon, owns this brand but sells it exclusively to the Woolworths’ owned Dan Murphy chain. He makes the wine at De Bortoli’s Yarra winery. It was a sleeper in our tasting, appealing, at first for its lighter colour (ah, yes, that’s pinot), pleasant fragrance subtle, easy palate. With time the fruit sweetness became more accentuated but held in check by fine, drying tannins. It grew in interest over the course of the tasting and still impressed two days later. This is a bargain and an excellent introduction to pinot at a fair price.

Stonier Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir 2006 $26
In our tasting the two Stonier wines stood out at first for their comparatively pale colours – not a bad sign in pinot, especially when, as this wine did, it’s followed by varietal perfume and flavour and fine, silky, supple texture. This is a very attractive wine indeed and the price is about right.

Stonier Mornington Peninsula Windmill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2005 $60
Geraldine McFaul made this distinctive, single-vineyard wine using a high proportion of whole bunches, including stalks, in the ferment. There’s a distinct stalky note to the aroma and palate. But that’s only one of many parts in this exceptionally complex, fine, delicate and irresistible pinot.

Wither Hills Marlborough Pinot Noir 2005 and 206 $41
Founder Brent Marris recently moved on, leaving winemaking in the hands of his long-term offsider, Ben Glover.  Ben says that he uses ‘feral yeast strains’ for his ferments and perhaps this is responsible for the distinctly funky edge to the Wither Hills pinots. They’re on the robust side of pinot with beautifully ripe but pure varietal character. They appeal strongly. Both vintages can be found on Canberra retail shelves. We have a slight leaning to the 2005.

Carrick Central Otago Pinot Noir 2005 $63.69
Steve Green’s Carrick winery rubs shoulders with two of Central Otago’s other pinot stars, Felton Road and Mt Difficulty. It’s been a Chateau Shanahan favourite since our first visit in 2003 and the 2005 strengthens our regard for it. It covers a fair bit of pinot’s spectrum with musky, floral high notes, a stalky edge and more-ish savouriness.

Neudorf Nelson Pinot Noir 2005 $44.99
Nelson’s at about the same latitude as Marlborough, at the top of New Zealand’s south island, and a couple of hours’ drive to the west. It’s hop-growing country, but for several decades now Tim and Judy Finn have been producing very fine chardonnay and pinot noir. From experience the pinots age very well, but the current-release 2005 has terrific drink-now appeal, too.

Tower Estate Tasmania Pinot Noir 2006 $58
Hunter based Tower, founded by the late Len Evans, makes regional specialties from around Australia. I think Len would’ve loved this, the last vintage fermented at Tower before his death last August. Tassie’s cool climate shows in the wine’s intense, delicate flavour and very fine-boned structure.

PHI Lusatia Park Vineyard Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2006 $54
This is the second vintage from a joint venture between the De Bortoli and Shelmerdine families. Fruit comes from Stephen Shelmerdine’s Lusatia Park vineyard, high in the south east of the Yarra Valley. And Steve Webber makes the wine at De Bortoli Yarra Valley winery. This was one of the standouts of our tasting, a seductive drop.

Kooyong Mornington Peninsula Estate Pinot Noir 2005 $39.49
This one passed the bottle test at The Journeyman Restaurant, Berrima, on election night gliding down beautifully with pork belly. A few weeks later at our masked tasting it showed pure class – and at this price provides great value in the pinot stakes.

Copyright © Chris Shanahand 2007

Beer review — Peroni & Floris

Peroni Nastro Azzurro 330ml-6pack $18.99
Unlike some so-called imports, Italy’s Peroni beer, now part of SABMiller but, is still brewed in Italy and maintains a distinctive style. When I think of Italy, I think of products like Campari with its sweet core and tart, dry finish. Peroni is like this – lager in style but deliciously tangy and dry.

Floris Chocolat 330ml $5.90
Belgium’s great specialties – wheat ale and chocolate – come together in this exotic brew. It’s a modest 4.2 per cent alcohol and combines the refreshing qualities of beer with the seductive aroma and taste of chocolate. It’s an oddity for sure, but one that might make good company for the Christmas pud.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007

Wine review — Coriole, Hewitson & Lustau

Coriole McLaren Vale Sangiovese 2006 $20 and Fiano 2007 $23
Coriole’s Mark Lloyd planted sangiovese in 1985, a decade or so after Carlo Corino in Mudgee, but well ahead of a wider move to Italian varieties in Australia. The Coriole style has evolved considerably over the years and shows great maturity in this 2006. It’s a terrific expression of the variety, capturing its exotic ripe-cherry aroma and taut, sinewy structure. This is a savoury, tasty world away from the Aussie, oaky, fruit bomb style. And after a visit to VinItaly, Verona, in 2001, Mark planted the white fiano variety, from Campagna. It manages to be savoury, tart, lush and dry – all in the same delicious mouthful.

Hewitson Barossa Valley Miss Harry 2006 $22
Like the Coriole Sangiovese reviewed above, but for different reasons, Dean Hewitson’s Miss Harry makes a great match for Christmas ham and Turkey. Where the Coriole wine focuses on savouriness and fine, drying tannins, Miss Harry is in the soft, Barossa mould. She has some of the lifted, ripe aromatics of grenache, tempered by earthy shiraz and spicy mourvedre – giving an overall earthiness to the aroma and generous flavour. But even at 14.5 per cent alcohol, she’s not hot or astringent as the fruit’s rich enough to handle it. Dean says he sourced the fruit from dry-grown old vines, some dating from the nineteenth century.

Lustau Manzanilla Papirusa Sherry 375ml $14.99
Manzanilla, the palest, most delicate of the flor fino sherry family, comes from the Spanish seaside town of Sanlucar de Barameda. The humid environment encourages an extra thickness in the film of yeast cells (flor) on the surface of the sherry maturing in barrels. While this layer contributes distinctive ‘sherry’ character, the extra thickness protects the wine from air and accounts for the dazzling freshness of good Manzanilla – like this one. There’s a slight salty tang, a subtle, pungent ‘sherry’ note and a bone-dry, delicate, mouth-watering finish. At just 15.5 per cent alcohol it’s a superb aperitif and great with Christmas seafood.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007

Snapshot of the Aussie wine industry

As we move towards vintage 2008 Australia’s wine industry is in dramatically different shape than it was last year.

In spring 2006 as vines budded for the 2007 vintage, I was in the Barossa and Langhorne Creek hearing daily of cancelled grape contracts as large winemakers, with storage tanks full, anticipated a third consecutive bumper grape harvest.

Then, out of the blue, frost struck eastern Australia, decimating the embryonic 2007 crop. Drought wrought further damage and, in the end, vignerons crushed 1.4 million tonnes of grapes – half a million tonnes down on the 1.9 million tonnes each of 2005 and 2006.

The oversupply became a shortage overnight. And as the drought continued, vintage 2008 seemed almost certain to be even smaller 2007’s.

At a wine industry conference in Melbourne last month the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation’s Laurie Stanford projected the 2008 harvest at 1.22 million tonnes and predicted an even smaller crop in 2009.

By my estimate the projected 2008 harvested might leave our winemakers about half a million tonnes short of replacing current consumption of Australian wine (1.1 million tonnes for exports; 0.6 million tonnes domestic).

So, with exports still bubbling along and domestic consumption growing modestly, where does that leave Aussie wine drinkers? Will we go without? Will we have to pay more?

The answers you get depend on whom you ask.

Tony Leon, General Manager of the Woolworths owned Dan Murphy brand, was in Perth opening the chain’s seventy-third outlet when I called. A projected turnover of $1.5 billion this year makes Dan the dominant force in Aussie liquor retailing, and a good litmus for the market.

Leon says we won’t go dry, but things will change. One way or another, he reckons, there’ll always be wines at the prices people want. But the day of the $1.99 and $2.99 cleanskin are over. These will jump by $1 to $2 a bottle.

And he believes that strong premium brands are likely to increase in price. For example, the Penfolds Bin Range reds, probably won’t be seen at under $20 next year – and certainly not at the $15 and $16 we enjoyed in 2007.

While Leon predicts that import volumes will increase substantially in percentage terms, their absolute volume will be small. ‘They won’t move the needle’, he said. But he also expects to see imports in some wine casks.

He expects our insatiable thirst for sauvignon blanc to continue into 2008. And to meet demand the next cleanskins of this variety will be from Chile and France – as there’s none to be had in Australia’s bulk market.

And what wines will we want most in 2008? In red wine, says Tony, we want straight shiraz or straight cabernet sauvignon. But we’re developing a taste for pinot noir, but the rapid growth in demand is off a small base.

Similarly there’s a buzz about the white pinot gris. It could grow from about one per cent to three per cent of white wine sales.

Canberra’s Jim Murphy, of Jim Murphy’s Market and Airport cellars, expects that the strong Australian dollar will curb imports to the USA and that this, in turn, could take the pressure off domestic supplies.

Jim says that there have been no price rises yet in the important $5-$10 a bottle range nor in the $15-$30 sparkling wine range – a sweet spot for the Christmas trade. With Christmas deals now done and dusted this suggests stable prices until the New Year.

He adds that there are enough small and medium wineries now to allow him to pick and choose what to stock.

A closer look at the grape supply figures, though, suggests where the price pressures might come in the new year, even if they’re not showing yet.

The real pain for growers is in the Murray Darling basin, source of something like seventy per cent of our wine grapes. These are the backbone of our cask industry (representing a little under half of domestic wine sales), and also of our under-$10 bottled wine market and much of our export push to date.

Most of next year’s grape shortfall will be because of water shortages in the basin. This year, for example, South Australia capped water allocations at 16 per cent, rising to 22 per cent in December.

The ABC reported a few weeks back that ‘many growers say that is not enough’. It went on to report that one Barmera grower vowed to use 40 per cent and said, ‘God help whoever comes out here on my property to tell me you’re not going to do that.’

Meanwhile that River Murray shortage is forcing larger wine companies to change focus. We may well see imported wine in wine casks. And Hardy Wine Company’s Sheralee Davies told me that their could be some rationalisation of their cask products and that there’d be a global push on top end and regional products – from the $15 Oomoo McLaren Vale range to flagships like the $60 Eileen Hardy Chardonnay and $100 Thomas Hardy Cabernet Sauvignon.

Premium growing regions, it seems, won’t be as badly hit as the Riverland and many may deliver normal crops, thanks to late but effective spring rains.

In Canberra, Tim Kirk of Clonakilla, Murrumbateman, and Jim Lumbers of Lerida Estate, say that fruit set suggests a healthy vintage. And Anne Caine, President of the Canberra District Wine Industry Association, reports good fruit set across the district, thanks to June rain and recent follow up falls.

What we’ll also begin to see increasingly in 2008 and beyond is the effects of concerns about global warming.

Increasingly, the industry will measure its carbon footprint and take steps to reduce it. This will be driven partly by international retailers, partly by legislators, partly by consumers and partly by producers themselves.

We’ve already seen the introduction by Foster’s of premium wine in PET bottles into the Canadian market and to a lesser extent in Australia. At one-tenth the weight of glass these deliver major savings in transport and recycling costs.

And Hardy’s has introduced one-litre tetra packs into its UK Banrock Station range. These will hit Australian shelves next year.

At the recent Wine Industry Outlook Conference, delegates learned of a new carbon-footprint tool developed by Australian company, Provisor. Wineries from Australia and other countries have agreed to adopt the tool as a means to giving standardized assessments across the industry.

What we can say for 2008 and beyond is that we won’t go dry; we’ll drink more imports; we’ll see a lift in basic wine quality; competition will keep a lid on prices, as it always does; and we’ll see a rapid greening of the industry – partly to survive, partly to gain competitive advantage and partly in response to consumer and government demands.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007

Rutherglen’s glorious tokays and muscats

Rutherglen’s luscious, luxurious Tokays and Muscats may not the underpriced secrets they used to be. But they are, at least, as stunningly, deliciously brilliant as ever and readily available.

They’re wines to savour slowly and, like good Cognac or single malt Scotch, half the pleasure is in the aroma. And that means that one glass goes a long way.

I’ve had the fortune to judge some of our greatest fortifieds at many wine shows over they years, notably at Cowra with Rutherglen legend, David Morris, leading the panel. But the greatest display I’ve seen was in Rutherglen just after the local wine show a year or two back.

Show Chairman, Chris Pfeiffer, organised a couple of wine workshops for about sixty winemakers and grape growers in town for the celebrations and the old muscats and tokays proved irresistible.

After a morning’s warm up on shirazes and shiraz blends, we moved to the serious business of fortified wines. Industry luminaries David Morris, of Morris Wines, and James Godfrey, of Seppeltsfield, led the session. But with venerable old Rutherglen families like Buller, Killeen, Gehrig, Campbell and Chambers in the audience, we were never going to go short on experience.

Before slipping into the truly luscious stuff, a little foreplay on a range of fino, amontillado and oloroso sherry styles seemed appropriate. Samples of fortifying spirits and current vintage base wines showed the building blocks. But a taste of mature Australian and Spanish versions of the three styles reminded us of how rewarding it is to drink these extraordinary wines.

Fino, the most delicate of the sherry family, matures at length in old oak barrels under a protective layer of ‘flor’, or yeast cells. The pale lemon coloured wines that emerge give no hint of their often-considerable age. However, the intensity and complexity of aroma and flavour are remarkable in their special savoury, tangy way.

And with the removal of Australia’s ‘minimum 17 per cent alcohol’ law in 1995, the best local versions – bottled at around 15 per cent alcohol – have a delicacy equal to that of the original Spanish styles.  Two that appealed strongly on the day were the readily available Seppelt DP 117 Fino (made by James Godfrey) and, from Spain, Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla – a particularly delicate, sub-category of fino. Lightly chilled, these are superb aperitif wines.

Of the richer, darker Amontillado styles, the older Australians – Seppelt DP898, Seppelt DP102 and Morris 35 Year old – showed the wonderful, drying nutty finish of prolonged barrel ageing. These are simply glorious. The Spanish Gonzales Byass Elegante Amontillado was a touch lighter in colour with a lovely, honeyed rich palate and very fine, dry finish. Amontillado is the classic consommé or soup wine.

The old Oloroso’s were remarkable, the Aussies showing medium brown colour with the distinctive olive-green meniscus of great age. These were intensely rich and sweet with powerful, aged nutty flavours and grippy drying finish. Fruitcake, nuts and a roaring fire is all these need. Of the two Spanish versions, I preferred Hidalgo Secco Napoleon – a subtle but intense dry style of some delicacy.

Palates suitably titillated, we moved to Rutherglen’s great Tokays and Muscats, working through contrasting samples of current vintage wines, various blending components and, finally, the finished, bottled product.

Within a familial regional theme, both the Tokays and Muscats show considerable style variation from make to maker. This became increasingly clear as we stepped up through the formal quality grades comparing the Morris and Seppelt product.

Even the current vintage base wines, barely fermented and fortified, showed an essentially different winemaking approach: the Seppelt samples, largely because the maker opts for a low pH winemaking approach, were significantly paler than the Morris wines and notably firmer, and less rounded in the mouth. This is neither good nor bad – just a style difference.

Now, Rutherglen Tokays and Muscat have four formal classifications. The progression is: Rutherglen, Classic Rutherglen, Grand Rutherglen and Rare Rutherglen. While these are based on richness, complexity and flavour, increasing age is, perhaps, the biggest single quality factor behind increasing quality. Broadly then, ‘Rutherglen’ will be the youngest commercial material and ‘Rare’ the oldest.

However, the wines are skilful blends containing components of varying age, from various sized oak barrels, from various parts of the winery. This can be complex, as David Morris demonstrated with samples from the 1993 vintage drawn from barrels at different heights in the stack.

The winemaker’s art is in blending numerous components, some of very great age (we tasted one syrupy-rich 70 year old sample) to produce consistent bottlings from year to year.

In the end, though, whether you prefer the slightly more subtle fruit character of Tokay or the powerful grapiness of Muscat, Rutherglen’s fortified specialties reliably grow in intensity and interest as you move up the formal scale.

At the tasting, however, just as we’d exhausted our superlatives on Seppelt and Morris ‘Rare’ Tokays and ‘Muscats, the organisers knocked our socks off with extraordinary ‘Museum’ bottlings. These are truly heavenly and deserve to be savoured drop by drop from brandy balloons that capture their profound, aged, luscious complexity.

While you won’t find the museum wines in bottle shops, you could get lucky at a cellar door tasting in Rutherglen. But you can buy the wonderful ‘Grand Rutherglen’ and ‘Rare Rutherglen’ versions in bottle shops. They are great and unique Aussie wines that go beautifully with Christmas pud, fruitcake and nuts.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007

Oz Berliner Weisse — tastes like it should be good for you

The Germans call Berliner Weisse ‘arbeiter sekt’, the workingman’s champagne. And  a few months back I lamented not having seen the style in Australia.

But Wig & Pen brewer, Richard Watkins, reminded me (over a glass of his locally brewed version) that he’d offered it on tap about two years ago.

That batch, he said, had been a pure, challengingly sour beer with fresh mango or blackcurrant added at the tap to offset the sourness. A few die-hards tried it straight, he recalls, but invariably came back for the fruit.

In Berlin, it’s found in many bars, typically flavoured with woodruff or raspberry, giving an alarmingly green or red hue.

It’s a wheat ale made sour by the addition of a lactobacillus culture that produces lactic acid. And it’s this  interplay between sourness of the beer and sweetness of the fruit seasoning that makes Berliner Weiss unique and refreshing.

Watkins’ new expression of the style is a fifty-fifty malted wheat, malted barley blend with the fruit incorporated into the brew rather than mixed in at the tap.

Richard says that he added Italian filtered, pureed elderberry (hence, no pips, no  skins) early in the brew to encourage the ferment and dryness and after the ferment to add a touch of sweetness.

And rather than use a lactic culture, he simply added the desired amount of lactic acid.

The result is an idiosyncratic take on a traditional German regional beer style. As visiting beer author Willie Simpson  said, ‘It tastes like it should be good for you.’

Dan Rayner’s Beer Ape (Australopithecus Cerevesiae) pint $7.50
Archaeologist Dan Rayner won the local amateur brewing comp with a robust American pale ale style. And the Wig & Pen now offers a one-off batch brewed to Dan’s recipe. It’s a terrific expression of this in-your-face style with rich malt and aromatic, citrusy/resiny hops aroma, flavour and bitterness.

Wig & Pen Berliner Weisse pint $7.50
‘God, that’s not what we’re getting?’, a nervous drinker asked, eyeing three ruby-red, crimson-frothed beers. What he saw was the Wig’s new Berliner Weisse – a sour, tart, brew, mollified by elderberry’s startling colour, intense berry flavour and just enough countervailing sweetness. It’s a seasonal specialty that tastes like it should be good for you.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007

Beer review — Dan Rayner and Wig & Pen

Dan Rayner’s Beer Ape (Australopithecus Cerevesiae) pint $7.50
Archaeologist Dan Rayner won the local amateur brewing comp with a robust American pale ale style. And the Wig & Pen now offers a one-off batch brewed to Dan’s recipe. It’s a terrific expression of this in-your-face style with rich malt and aromatic, citrusy/resiny hops aroma, flavour and bitterness.

Wig & Pen Berliner Weisse pint $7.50
‘God, that’s not what we’re getting?’, a nervous drinker asked, eyeing three ruby-red, crimson-frothed beers. What he saw was the Wig’s new Berliner Weisse – a sour, tart, brew, mollified by elderberry’s startling colour, intense berry flavour and just enough countervailing sweetness. It’s a seasonal specialty that tastes like it should be good for you.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007

Wine review — Misteltoe, Tulloch & Chrismont La Zona

Mistletoe Hunter Valley Silvereye Semillon 2006 (8.1% alcohol) $17
You might call this a Hunter semillon for people who don’t like Hunter semillon. The classic style tends to low alcohol and a bone-dry austerity in youth. Although time adds meat to the bone, its appeal remains limited. But Silvereye captures the fresh, lemony flavour and crisp acidity of semillon, without the austerity. It’s simple enough to do. All someone had to do was to do it. And Ken Sloan did. He made the wine, then arrested the fermentation before the yeasts consumed all the natural grape sugar. The resulting wine smells and tastes of semillon. But the residual sugar gives it a delicious sweetness.  See

Tulloch Upper Hunter Semillon 2007 (11.5% alcohol) $12.80–$16
Tulloch Hunter ‘Julia’ Semillon 2006 (10% alcohol) $22.40–$28

While based at Pokolbin, in the Lower Hunter Valley, Tullochs sources fruit from the distinctly different Upper Hunter Valley, too. The younger of the two semillons expresses this difference. It’s still ‘Hunter’ semillon in its lemony freshness. But it’s slightly rounder and softer than many and has great drink-now appeal, especially with delicacies like fresh seafood. ‘Julia’, from the Pokolbin property, is in the classic, somewhat austere Lower Hunter style. It’s taut, intensely flavoured, bone dry and destined to take on mellow ‘toasty’ character with age. The lower prices given above are ‘club’ prices. See

Chrismont La Zona King Valley Marzemino Frizzante (12.5% alcohol) $18
Try Marzemino Frizzante for something different: a slightly effervescent (frizzante) red made from the Italian variety Marzemino. It’s totally unlike traditional Aussie red sparklers – which tend to be older and more serious-red-wine-like. Marzemino’s flavours, to me, seem more summer-pudding like with lots of tangy berry character. The light bubblies zest this up even more. And a touch of residual sugar balances those delightful berry flavours and acidity. I tried it recently with Thai food and it worked well. The makers also suggest it as company for light cheese or tortellini skewers with pesto. See

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007

Alcohol and wine flavour

Although alcohol does not have a taste’, writes Professor A. Dinsmoor Webb (Oenologist, UC Davis, retired), ‘it has an effect, not just on the human nervous system, but on how a wine tastes. The alcohol content in a perfectly balanced wine should be unfathomable, but wines that are slightly too high in alcohol can have a hot aftertaste. As a general rule, wines described as ‘full bodied’ are high in alcohol, while those described as ‘light’ are low in alcohol.’

Professor Webb’s words imply that there’s an optimum alcohol content for each wine. Indeed, over the last few years, many Australian wines, reds in particular, have copped criticism for going over the top.
And last week at the Australian Wine Industry Outlook Conference, Dan Jago, director of beer, wine and spirits for giant UK retailer, Tesco, warned Aussie makers of a swing towards lighter red styles.

It’s a topic widely discussed amongst winemakers, partly in response to perceived consumer resistance to reds weighing in at fifteen per cent or more alcohol by volume. The alcohol is quite often accompanied by masses of sweet fruit, mountains of tannin and enough oak to rebuild the ark.

The issue is not limited to reds, nor solely to Aussie wines. I once tasted, for instance, a sherry-like Californian chardonnay bottled at a breathalyser blowing 16.5 per cent alcohol. It was awful.

And it’s not only consumers driving the alcohol discussion. Many winemakers and wine show judges question the drinkability of excessively big wines. A couple of years back, for example, Jim Brayne, McWilliams chief winemaker told me, ‘The wheel seems to be turning. High quality shiraz and chardonnay seems to be coming down in alcohol as winemakers seek finesse and palate structure rather than just volume’. ‘Wine judges are rewarding the finer wines, too’, he added.

To understand the relationship between flavour and sugar (and, hence, alcohol), it’s worth looking at wine grapes through a vigneron’s eyes. The vigneron approaches grapes with a wine style in mind. Two of the key parameters in deciding when to harvest grapes to achieve the desired style are sugar ripeness and flavour ripeness. These are related but not in a linear way.

Now, sugar ripeness determines the alcohol content of a dry wine and in most Australian growing regions achieving sufficient sugar levels is not a problem. However, as winemakers tend to harvest for a particular flavour profile, it’s not uncommon, especially in warmer areas, for sugar levels (and therefore alcohol potential) to climb very high before flavour ripeness is achieved.

So, let’s look at the Hunter examples. Jim Brayne says that semillon in the lower Hunter develops ripe fruit flavours when the alcohol potential is around ten to eleven per cent. Indeed, the better Hunter semillons today continue to be made at about this level. In contrast, says Jim, semillon grown in the much warmer Griffith area, develops ripe fruit flavours at much higher sugar levels and therefore the wines are more alcoholic

Now, with Hunter shiraz, things have changed. Jim says that in the old days the Hunter’s lousy vintage weather often left shiraz stranded on about 11 per cent alcohol. These wines were light, thin and green. Improved viticulture, says Jim, means that even in poor seasons today’s Hunter shiraz reaches respectable sugar and flavour ripeness levels.

Some makers, however, boost alcohol in poor seasons by running off juice, concentrating it by removing water, then adding the concentrated juice back for fermentation.

Interestingly, in good seasons, sugar levels achieved in the Hunter shiraz today are similar to those achieved in good seasons in the old days.

While there is evidence that some modern yeasts extract more alcohol than older strains, it seems the ultimate alcohol content of any given wine is dependent on the grape variety, the region, the season and winemaker decisions about time of harvest.

If, indeed, we experience a wider swing to elegance and finesse, we’ll see subtle declines in alcohol content because winemaker in any given region still have to harvest within the fairly narrow flavour ripeness spectrum. I don’t think we’ll see again, for example, the thin, green 11 per cent alcohol Coonawarras peddled about in the early eighties.

For those seeking elegant, comparatively low alcohol wines, the answer may be found in cool areas, or in regions where through some peculiarity or another, a particular variety (like Hunter semillon or Clare riesling) achieve flavour ripeness before the sugar level explodes.

That said, wines of comparatively high alcohol content are not unique to Australia and can be just as easily found in France, Italy, Spain or pretty well anywhere you look. Whether nature provides or humans add the sugar that ultimately becomes alcohol matters less than the impact that the alcohol has on a wine’s flavour.

As the good professor said above ‘the alcohol content in a perfectly balanced wine should be unfathomable.’ I’ve had beautifully balanced, elegant, Aussie reds weighing in at 15 per cent alcohol and hot, hollow ones of only 13 to 14 per cent.

What that means, of course, is that alcohol content on its own tells you little about the overall quality of a wine. And given our growing export success it suggests that in working towards lower alcohol content, we shouldn’t sacrifice the ripe, fruity flavours that people love.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007