Yearly Archives: 2008

Wine shows — what do they mean?

What do wine shows mean? What goes on behind all those white-coated judges we’ve seen recently on TV news – in September’s Canberra Regional Show, October’s International Riesling Challenge and this month’s National Wine Show of Australia?

Who are the judges? What attracts them to serve without pay, not just in our three high-profile local events, but also in the dozens of Aussie and international wine shows, challenges and awards conducted every year?

Can we rely on their judgement? Are the award-winning wines that we buy exactly the same as those tasted by the judges? And does anyone judge the judges? What’s in a wine show for producers? And what’s in it for drinkers?

The answers we get sometimes depend on whom we ask. The late Len Evans, perhaps the most influential figure in modern Australian show judging, believed that wine shows existed primarily to improve the breed – a view consistent with the origin of our wine shows in agricultural societies.

If we ask producers, we’ll get a mixed response. They’ll say they’re in it for the medals, for benchmarking against other wines – or perhaps a combination of both.  Of course, desiring medals and wanting to promote award winners probably enhances the  ‘improving the breed’ argument.

The important question from a drinker’s perspective is the reliability of show results. Do they make a good shopping guide? My answer, with a few caveats, is that the best Aussie shows are pretty good but, as there are anomalies in any one show’s results, a little scepticism is healthy.

Thankfully, Australia’s shows have been free of major scandal and to my knowledge no one has ever been convicted of outright fraud. But there have been rumours in the past, some from good sources, of ‘award winning’ wines being different from the ones tasted by judges.

Aware of the potential damage that such scams might cause, the industry has this decade attempted to boost judging and auditing standards. The move has been driven by a wine show committee established in 2001 by the Australian Society of Viticulture and Oenology.

The committee (chaired by Canberra-based Nick Bulleid MW has made recommendations on audit protocols, the impartiality of judges, trophy judging, wine show standards and how awards should be used. The ASVO also maintains a register of judges giving details of their credentials. This is now a crucial tool for wine show organisers. See for more details.

So, who are the judges? They’re mainly winemakers. But in the past decade we’ve seen increasing numbers drawn from the media and the retailing, wholesaling and wine-waiting trades.

While there’s no formal qualification system for judges, there’s an apprenticeship of sorts. Those aspiring to come on board need considerable tasting experience before becoming ‘associate’ judges – assessing wines alongside judges and being mentored and assessed for their ability. Their scores are not counted. The apprenticeship might last for years or for one or two shows, depending on ability.

Aspiring judges these days increase their chance of success by completing the Australian Wine Research Institute’s four day advanced wine assessment course. And their chances rise again if they can win one of the 12 places on offer for the annual Len Evans Tutorial (see for details).

Len established the tutorial to give judges and aspiring judges an international perspective and an appreciation of the world’s great wines. Len died two years ago, but the tutorial lives on, guided by his closest disciples. And the ‘scholars’ from past tutorials are now key judges in the major shows.

While the tutorial is clearly a force for good in the show system, it’s not, on its own, going to perfect show judging standards. Perhaps its biggest contribution comes from preaching a global perspective, as Len did. More on wine shows, and the results of the National, next week.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008

Beer review — Otway Estate Prickly Moses

Otway Estate Prickly Moses Wheat Beer, Pilsner, Summer Ale 330ml $4.20
Today’s beers all come from Victoria’s Otway Ranges. The wheat beer is zesty, lemony, fresh and light but without any of the complexity of the Belgian originals (***); Pilsner starts and finishes with hops but there’s little depth to it (***); and the Summer Ale offers straightforward, fresh, tropical notes (**).

Otway Estate Prickly Moses Red Ale, Stout 330ml $4.20
A little more alcohol and malt lifts the flavour of these styles. The Red Ale, in the Celtic style is all about smooth, sweet malt with very little hops influence (***); and the stout is reminiscent of strong, fresh-ground coffee in both the aroma and flavour – an opulent brew with lingering, bitter, roasted-grain finish (****).

Something brewing in the Aussie alps

Kevin and Alison O’Neill created the Snowy Mountains Brewery brand in 2004. Although the beer has been brewed at AIB near Camden (and at Geelong and Mildura, too, following its success), the couple always planned to build a brewery in Jindabyne, connecting the ales tangibly with their alpine-inspired names – Crackenback Pale Ale, Bullocks Pilsner, Razorback Red Ale and Charlotte’s Hefeweizen.

But alas for Kevin and Alison, it looks like Chuck Hahn, of Sydney’s Malt Shovel Brewery (owned by Lion Nathan), will be in the Aussie Alps before them.

Chuck expects to be brewing in Jindabyne’s Banjo Paterson Inn between January and March 2009. He says he’s established the Kosciusko Brewing Company and, assuming development and licensing approval, should be serving the first of his Kosciusko beers long before 2009’s first snowflakes appear.

He says the beers will have local names and be brewed to the local taste – kicking off with a refreshing pale ale style and following with something stronger and hoppier for the ski season. Chuck says visitors will be able to see the copper kettles from the bottle shop and to view the beer cellar through portholes in the floor.

Ben Granger-Holcombe of Snowy Mountains Brewery says that his company still hoped to open a brewery in Jindabyne but that plans had not been finalised.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008

Wine review — Joseph Perrier, Gratien & Meyer, Eileen Hardy, Waterhwheel, Wyndham Estate and Jacob’s Creek

Joseph Perrier Cuvée Royale NV Brut Champagne  $45.90–50
Saumur Brut NV (Gratien & Meyer) $18–20

Here’s a couple of lovely French bubblies imported by Woolworths (Dan Murphy) and Coles (1st Choice and Vintage Cellars) respectively. Joseph Perrier is the real thing and its flavour strongly reflects the company’s holdings of pinot meunier near its Marne River press house in the village of Cumieres. It shows meunier’s brioche-like aroma and flavour and round soft texture. It’s an old favourite and to my taste beats the pants off other cheaper Champagnes like Mumm. For delicious, fresh, pure fruit flavours try the light, crisp and well-priced Saumur (Loire Valley) bubbly, a blend of chenin blanc, cabernet franc and chardonnay.

Eileen Hardy Chardonnay 2006 $60–69
Eileen Hardy Shiraz 2004 $95–105

Hardy’s flagship red and white hit their top form comparatively recently even though the red has been with us since 1970 and the white since 1986. The red began as robust, long-lived McLaren Vale shiraz. Its style shifted with the wind for decades, then more recently settled into the present style – a generous, extraordinarily intense McLaren Vale shiraz (from three vineyards) with a fine, elegant texture. It’s a super-refined version of the original and looks to have very long cellaring potential. The chardonnay, born in 1986, became finer over the years and is now one of Australia’s leading examples of the fine, complex, cool-grown style.

Waterwheel Bendigo Memsie 2007 $13–15
Wyndham Estate George Wyndham Shiraz Cabernet 2005 $18–20
Jacob’s Creek Three Vines Shiraz Cabernet Tempranillo 2007 $12–15

Here’s a trio of tasty, not-too-expensive reds. Memsie, a blend of shiraz, cabernet, malbec and petit verdot, is the second label of Waterwheel of Bendigo. It’s a medium-bodied red with juicy, rich fruit flavour and a satisfying tannic bite, courtesy presumably of cabernet, malbec and petit verdot. Wyndham’s George Wyndham, a South Australian blend, is more robust and mature, combining earthy soft, generous shiraz flavours with the tannic backbone of cabernet sauvignon. Jacob’s Creek, the gentlest and softest of the three mixes old Aussie favourites shiraz and cabernet with Spain’s tempranillo – the result: ripe, easy fruit flavours with an interesting spicy note and dry, soft finish.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008

Redman — 100 years in Coonawarra

Fourteen-year-old Bill Redman arrived in Coonawarra in 1901with his older brother, Dick. They’d heard that work was available at John Riddoch’s cellars, says Bill’s grandson, Bruce. ‘Bill was small and they put him to work in the cellar (he could fit into barrels’, adds Bruce, ‘but his brother was bigger and was put to work in the vineyards’.

Dick left Coonawarra, but Bill remained, buying land from John Riddoch’s executors in 1908 and ultimately becoming one of the significant wine figures of the area.  ‘He learned by apprenticeship, not study’, Bruce comments, and made wines very similar in style to those made by Bruce and his brother Malcolm today as the family celebrates 100 years of Coonawarra winemaking.

Bill’s long life linked today’s winemaking with the earliest pioneering times of John Riddoch. As his vineyards planted in the early 1890s came on stream, John Riddoch appointed Ewen F McBain as winemaker in 1898. He was the first qualified winemaker in Coonawarra and became mentor to the young Bill Redman, promoting him to chief cellarman in 1907 or 1908.

Bruce says that Bill made his first wine in 1909 and continued to learn by trial and error. Presumably by the time his son Owen joined him in 1936, Bill’s approach to Coonawarra grape growing and winemaking was well established – though his most celebrated wines, the legendary, extraordinarily long-lived Woodleys Treasure Chest series, were made between 1946 and 1956.

By this time Owen had returned from World War II and the family’s Rouge Homme wines had been in production since 1950. Although we know Coonawarra today as mainly a cabernet sauvignon region, Bruce recalls that his grandfather considered the area’s ideal red was a blend of two-thirds cabernet and one-third shiraz.

In 1965 as large wine companies clamoured for red wine, the Redmans sold the Rouge Homme winery, vineyards and name to Lindemans. Immediately afterwards, though, Owen Redman purchased about nine hectares of old shiraz vines from another district pioneer, Arthur Hoffman, and in 1966 (the year that Bill stepped down), made the first wine for the Redman label.

A straight shiraz, it was released as ‘Redmans Claret’, following the generic labelling style of the day. Owen introduced a straight cabernet sauvignon in 1970 and it was not until 1990 that his sons, Bruce and Malcolm, introduced a cabernet sauvignon merlot blend to the range.

Bruce, the family’s first qualified winemaker, took over from his father in 1982 (Owen died in 1989, just ten years after Bill’s death) but maintained the winemaking style developed by his grandfather and father.
Bruce says that he still follows the principles drummed into him by the older generations: keep the winery spotlessly clean, pick grapes on flavour (neither green nor over ripe, but just right) and not the hydrometer; and let the wines make themselves, without a lot of manipulation.

This approach across the generations has given the Redmans an unusually consistent style in a region that’s passed through many winemaking phases. Having tasted a Bill Redman wines from 1919, several from the 1940s and early fifties; Owen’s wines of the sixties and seventies; Bruce’s wines from 1982 on; and all of the Wynns’ 1950s and 1960s, my feeling is that these were all of a style – medium bodied and elegant, with delightful berry fruit flavours, no obvious oak flavours and an ability to age.

Redmans stuck with this style, not deviating to the shocking green, unripe styles adopted by some makers in the late seventies and early eighties; nor to the sweet and sour styles that resulted from misguided pruning practices of the eighties; nor to the too-ripe, too-tannic, too-oaky styles that emerged in the late eighties and into the nineties.

Indeed, the Redman 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 that century-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 tend to be lower in alcohol than most Coonawarra wines and deliver lovely, delicate, ripe-berry flavours. But, adds Bruce, in unusually hot years like 2005 and 2008, there’s little choice but to harvest at higher sugar (and hence alcohol) levels as the wines would otherwise have green tannins.

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. ‘We use oak as a tool to enhance fruit flavour’, says Bruce. He adds that Redmans have always used oak, that what they have used over time has reflected what they could afford – but that even now new oak makes up only 10–15 per cent of the total, with the new French oak being used for the cabernet and the new American barrels for shiraz.

And in a salute to the heritage, in 2002 Bruce assembled a special blend for release in this, the centenary year. He says he started with Bill’s old two-thirds shiraz, one-third cabernet blend in mind, but arrived at a blend that’s half cabernet and one quarter each of shiraz and merlot – a variety not available to his father and grandfather.

Bruce reckons that too much good red is drunk when it’s too young, but winemakers can’t afford to hold onto it. Hence this blend, just 200 cases of it, arrives to market at good maturity. It’s a superb drop, in the intense, fine Redmans style. It’s available for $70 at the cellar door. And there’ll be follow up vintages.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008

Beer review — Brakspear & O’Hanlon

Brakspear English Pale Ale 500ml $7.80
This lovely, mid-amber coloured ale appeals for the delicious interplay of hops, malt and fruitiness.  It’s a rich, but subtle, balanced style – modest in alcohol at 4.2 per cent, yet complex and though hoppy and bitter, not overwhelmingly so. It’s brewed in England using English malted barley and Fuggles and Golding hops.

O’Hanlon’s Royal Oak Traditional Bitter 500ml $9.80
Royal Oak, a robust, pungent, bottle-conditioned brew from Devon, contrasts strongly with the subtle, aromatic Brakspear Pale Ale above. It’s deeper in colour and more aggressive in aroma and flavour. There’s an appealing malt richness and alcoholic warmth. And the hops focus is more on lingering bitterness than on aroma and flavour.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008

A chat with Chuck Hahn — two birthdays next year

Brewer Chuck Hahn says he’s planning for two anniversaries next year. It’ll be 20 years since he launched Hahn Premium from his then independent Camperdown brewery. And it’ll be 10 year since the birth of James Squire Original Amber Ale, made in the same brewery but now owned by Lion Nathan and renamed The Malt Shovel.

Both brews have had a tremendous influence on Aussie beer drinkers. Hahn Premium filled a need, but faltered under private ownership. Then Lion Nathan’s acquired it and went on to build a significant national brand, albeit in a slightly watered down version of the original.

Lion acquired Chuck along with Hahn Premium and the small Camperdown brewery. But after a few years as the group’s chief brewer, Chuck handed the reins to Bill Taylor and returned to Camperdown to brew James Squire.

Over time the range expanded to include a true Pilsen style; a porter; one-off seasonal specialties, like raspberry wheat beer; a porter aged in rum barrels; an ale seasoned with Aussie pepper berries; the now top-selling Golden Ale and the just-released James Squire Sundown Lager.

Chuck’s planning a distinctive ale to mark next year’s double anniversary. And he’ll be opening a new brewery, too. But that’s a story for next week.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008

Wine review — Penfolds, Pizzini & Eperosa

Penfolds Koonunga Hill Autumn Riesling 2008 $17.99 cellar door
Penfolds have kept this delicious, retro-packaged riesling out of the retail scrum, offering it only at their cellar door outlets in Nuriootpa, Barossa Valley, and Magill, Adelaide, and in some restaurants (where it’s more like $35). They do this with a number of outstanding wines, so it’s worth a visit if you’re visiting South Australia. The label and press blurb say nothing about grape origin, but this is clearly from top growing areas – presumably Clare and Eden Valleys. It’s low in alcohol (11.5%) and it’s intensely flavoured and perfume, yet delicate. A tiny touch of traminer in the blend adds to the flavour complexity.

Pizzini King Valley Il Barone 2004 $43, Nebbiolo 2004 $45, Coronomento Reserve Nebbiolo 2003 $135
Pizzini’s new-release Italian 2008 white varieties, the dry Pinot Grigio and Arneis, and sweet Brachetto, are on the money as usual. But there’s even more excitement in the reds made entirely, or partly, from Piedmont’s nebbiolo grape. At its best nebbiolo is beautifully perfumed and strong but elegant with a firm, tannic backbone – characteristics displayed by these three Pizzini wines. Il Barone, combining shiraz, cabernet, sangiovese and nebbiolo is a lovely blend. But the true nebbiolo magic appears in the exciting Nebbiolo 2004 and, even more so, in the reserve version, Coronomento. This is a truly great Australian wine.

Eperosa Barossa Valley Synthesis 2005 $31, Totality 2005 $38, Elevation $35
Eperosa is one of a number of tiny producers presenting tasty snapshots of every little corner of the Barossa Valley. The move is being driven by viticulturists and winemakers familiar with this very complex and old grape-growing landscape – and not happy seeing wonderful fruit sent off to anonymous blends. Eperosa belongs to viticulturist Brett Grocke. He makes his reds in batches of just 100 to 200 cases. ‘Elevation’ is a soft, elegant shiraz, with liquorice like flavours, from vines grown above 300 metres. ‘Totality’ is a beautifully fragrant, spicy, savoury blend of mourvedre (aka mataro) and shiraz. And ‘Synthesis’, combining grenache, mourvedre and shiraz, is led by grenache fragrance and fruitiness.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008

Dry statistics, river of wine

Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shed light on our wine-drinking habits and on our performance as a wine-exporting nation. And they make us think beyond the averages, reminding us, as W.I.E. Gates noted, of the man ‘who drowned crossing a stream with an average depth of six inches’.

We know, for example, that we drink about 480 million litres of wine annually, averaging well over 20 litres per capita. But the stats don’t show the spread of consumption through the population. We can only guess, therefore, at where the metaphorical wine stream flows deepest (some people consume 140 to 280 litres a year – half to one bottle a day) or where it flows not at all. As Len Evans once quipped, when he commenced writing about wine in the sixties, Australians drank only a few litres a head – leading him to the conclusion that statistically he’d been consuming the equivalent of a small village at the time.

In another sense, there’s an extraordinary precision in the ABS figures. I’m thirsty even thinking of the 479,732 million litres that we enjoyed in 2007–08. Most of that – 426,421 million litres – came from Aussie makers. But spurred no doubt by the then strong dollar, imports hit a record 11 per cent of the total at 53,311 million litres.

Even with the favourable exchange rate, though, we can see that some exporting countries fared better than our exporters did in their terms of trade. And behind those favourable terms of trade lies the benefits of regional specialisation.

This is well illustrated in the figures from France and New Zealand. In the year to June 2008, we imported a bit over seven million litres of French wine worth $142.9million. That’s equivalent, by my calculation, to $20.16 a litre – and that’s before the addition of wholesale and retail margins. While we don’t have a breakdown of French wines by style, we do know that imports of sparkling wine from all countries averaged $16 a litre. Presumably much of this is France’s great regional specialty Champagne.

The value of French imports is undoubtedly boosted, too, by other high-priced regional classics from Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Rhône Valley.

By far our largest volume of imports in the year, though, were from New Zealand – 23.9million litres worth $209.4million. The average price of $8.77 a litre is more than double the $4.18 per-litre value of our exports to them. With that sort of advantage, they don’t need to win the rugby. Give or take a little high-priced pinot noir, the Kiwi charge was led by sauvignon blanc from Marlborough. This has gone from zero a generation ago (the first vines were planted there in1973) to being one of the world’s great wine specialties.

Indeed, our average price of $3.75 per exported table wine litre compares poorly against Italian and Spanish imports averaging $5.69 and $6.23 per litre respectively. South Africa, though, seems to be our new source of cheap wine with an average price of just $2.19 a litre.

As a nation we prefer local white wine (203.9 million litres) to local reds and rosés (150.2 million litres). But red and rosé drinkers appear to be somewhat fussier than white drinkers. In 2007–08 Chateau Cardboard accounted for 37 per cent of red and rosé sales compared to 54 per cent for whites.

If that’s all a little too dry, I’ll leave you with one more thought, attributed to Mrs Robert A. Taft, ‘I always find that statistics are hard to swallow and impossible to digest. The only one I can remember is that if all the people who go to sleep in church were laid end to end they would be a lot more comfortable’.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008

Beer review — Williams Bros Grozet & Green King

Williams Bros Grozet Premium Beer 500ml $9.90
There’s an echo of sauvignon blanc in this pale-coloured, tangy Scotch beer, as the brew contains gooseberries and a twist of bogmyrtle. But the fruit influence is subtle – meaning that what you taste is principally a high quality, traditional malt beer with refreshing fruit notes rather than hops bitterness.

Green King Strong Suffolk Vintage Ale 500ml $9.00
Think of butterscotch pudding, coffee beans, toffee, golden syrup, malted grain – all things rich, roasted and sweet rolled into one strong, idiosyncratic, six-per-cent alcohol beer that’s been aged in oak for two year. It’s powerful but well proportioned – an ale to sip with food and served too cold

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008