How are we to judge wines like Curly Flat that come out of the blue, grab the attention of critics around the world, clean up at wine shows and sell out quickly at $30 and $40 dollars a bottle?
Slowly, sustainedly and over many bottles over many years is my answer.
But first impressions count, too. And thinking back over more than thirty years in the trade, few new comers have hit the wow button as Curly Flat does.
That first impression came in June last year when Phillip and Jeni Moraghan, Curly Flat’s owners, showed their full sequence of chardonnays and pinot noirs from the first vintage, 1998, through to the then not-released 2005s.
Apart from a microbial blemish in one of the reds, it was a good to exciting line up with the best, to my palate, being the 2004 vintages of both the chardonnay and pinot noir (see Top Drops).
Even more importantly, the wines grew in interest over lunch prompting a resolve, fulfilled in January, to visit Curly Flat in Victoria’s Macedon region.
The name, says Phillip Moraghan, salutes Michael Leunig’s imaginary ‘Vineyard at Curly Flat’ where, ‘The locals have never bothered to describe the taste or construction of their wines but after drinking a couple of glasses they are inclined to become very eloquent in describing the way it makes them feel”.
Inspired by the wines of Burgundy – and how they made them feel — Phillip and Jeni decided in the late eighties to make their own pinot noir and chardonnay in Australia. After an eighteen-month search, they selected a very cool site, suited to the Burgundy varieties, in the Macedon Ranges, on the southern side of the Great Divide.
Between 1992 and 2000 they planted fourteen hectares of land to pinot noir (69 per cent), chardonnay (26 per cent) and pinot gris (5 per cent).
The Moraghans chose four different clones of chardonnay and five of pinot noir to encourage complexity in the wines. Now, as the vines mature, the fruit from each plot is handled, fermented and barrel-matured separately.
This gives Phillip a rich palette of flavours to work with in the winery and, over time, builds a history of how each plot and clone performs. As well, having so many small barrel components means a better final blend as barrels that don’t make flagship grade can go to the second label, Williams Crossing.
But the essence of Curly Flat’s wine flavours lies in the vineyards. These were purpose chosen for chardonnay and pinot noir; they’ve been trellised to best capture their flavours; and Phillip’s vineyard team pays fanatical attention to maintenance – especially in labour-intensive shoot thinning and green harvesting to reduce yields.
The combination of site selection, clonal selection, vineyard management, small-batch fermentation and maturation and an uncompromising approach to blending appear to be the elements that put Curly Flat chardonnay and pinot noir ahead of most.
Getting back to how we judge it, well, it’s judged every time someone takes a sip. And on that basis I’m prepared to pay the asking prices. Surely these are realistic considering the effort that goes into the making and the quality delivered.
But as to where Curly Flat sits in the world hierarchy of pinot and chardonnay, that’s a matter for many judgements, by many people over a lengthy period of time. And the verdict will ultimately be expressed in the price.
Curly Flat Pinot Noir 2004 $46 & Williams Crossing Pinot Noir 2004 $20
Curly Flat’s two pinot noirs come from five pinot clones spread over six distinct sections of the vineyard planted in 1992, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998 and 2000. Small batch making of the separate clones and separate blocks, followed by maturation of each component in French oak casks of varying provenance and age, produces a surprising diversity of styles. Those components considered not up to scratch go to the delicious, lean, dry and savoury Williams Crossing label (a great bargain), leaving the best barrels for Curly Flat – a succulent and serious red that deserves to be on every pinot lover’s radar. See www.curlyflat.com
Curly Flat Chardonnay 2004 $35 & Williams Crossing Chardonnay 2005 $15
Curly Flat’s chardonnays come from four clones planted on four vineyard sub-plots in 1993, 1996, 1997 and 2000. The various batches undergo a variety of winemaking approaches and, except for a small tank component, are matured – and for the most part fermented — as separate components in French oak barrels of varying ages and from different coopers. The best barrels go to the Curly Flat blend – a convincing top-shelf white in which high natural acid binds together intense fruit flavour and barrel-derived complexities. At less than half the price Williams Crossing delivers more up-front, drink-now fruit flavours, but still punches above its weight. See www.curlyflat.com
Curly Flat Lacuna Chardonnay 2005 $24
Ferment all of your chardonnay in barrels and you risk missing a part — a lacuna — one high, pristine flavour note that ties all the others together. For winemaker Phillip Moraghan it’s the pure-fruit component used to tune up what’s in the blending vat. Hence the name and source of this zesty, fruity chardonnay fermented in stainless steel tanks. What isn’t used to spruce up the Curly Flat flagship goes to the Lacuna label – an unoaked chardonnay displaying distinctive, cool-climate, grape-fruit-like varietal character accompanied by the subtle flavours and texture derived from maturation on spent yeast cells. See www.curlyflat.com
Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2007