Those Majella magicians — Coonawarra’s pure terroir

Majella, one of the great Coonawarra estates, built its reputation on rich, complex, elegant reds, built to satisfy and last. Then three years back Majella’s owners, Brian ‘Prof’ Lynn and his brother Anthony, released an early-drinking style, The Musician, a vibrant and aromatic cabernet shiraz blend from the 2004 vintage.

It was a jaw dropper at the time, offering pure, brisk Coonawarra flavours at a modest $17 a bottle. Subsequent vintages continued in the same mould. But they’ve been topped, in my view, by the just-released 2007. It’s the juiciest, loveliest red you can imagine – a wine that says heaps about modern Australian winemaking, regional specialisation (in this instance Coonawarra cabernet) and the French notion of ‘terroir’ – and what it might mean in an Australian context.

Regional specialisation (Coonawarra cabernet, Canberra shiraz, Clare Riesling, Mornington Peninsula pinot noir, and so on) touches on the ‘terroir’ concept. But for the French that’s only a starting point. True believers in terroir say not only that wine flavour comes from a complex interplay of geology, soil, climate and culture but that the discerning palate tastes all this in wine. Some even say, less plausibly, that it’s possible to taste the soil in the wine.

At the other extreme, some see terroir as bollocks. They might accept climate’s role in wine flavour, but argue that it’s largely human intervention in vineyard and winery that determine a wine’s flavour. But to them, I say show me the chardonnay that tastes like Chablis but wasn’t grown there; show me the luxury Champagne look-alike that tastes like the real thing; or show me a red that tastes like Majella’s Magician but isn’t from Coonawarra.

These distinctive, inimitable and easy-to-discern examples give terroir credibility. It’s also what fascinates many wine lovers; is the basis of France’s wine naming system; and has become the international language of fine-wine.

It’s also become Australia’s official export branding push as regional specialities, individual ‘icon’ wines and single vineyard wines attempt to build on ‘brand Australia’, established largely on cheaper, multi-regional varietals over the last twenty years.

And this is where a wine as strikingly regional and varietal as Majella’s Musician can have an impact beyond the small volume in the market. How could this be? And does it mean that Majella’s $17 drink-now blend is better than its long-cellaring $28 shiraz or cabernet, or the $66 flagship Malleea?

The answer is no. The more expensive wines are unquestionably better, especially in the long run. But most people buy wine for immediate enjoyment – something that the highly aromatic Musician provides in buckets.

What makes it different from the other wines then, if it’s from the same vineyards and made in the same winery by the same winemaker?

The answer probably lies more in the winery than in fruit sourcing, though that plays a role says winemaker Bruce Gregory.

All of the grapes come from the Majella vineyard, located at the southeastern end of old Coonawarra. The Lynn’s planted their first vines here in 1968 and extended the vineyard during the nineties boom.

Bruce says that cabernet for the Musician tends to come from the younger vines (a relative term here, as they’re more than ten years old) while older plantings provide the smaller shiraz component.

Bruce grades each batch of grapes as they come in during vintage. But all of the reds undergo a similar fermentation regime for the first five to seven days.

At this stage Bruce presses the reds earmarked for premium products into oak barrels to complete their ferments. Magician components, on the other hand, remain in stainless steel tanks.

Bruce says that this creates an important difference between Musician and the other wines. As ‘barrel fermentation builds palate structure at the expense of aroma’, he explains, the premium blends become denser and more complex while Musician retains its high-toned fragrance. The vibrant fruit character shows in the palate, too.

With fermentation complete, the Magician components go for maturation older oak barrels for about a year – an important step in stabilising the wine, softening the tannins and adding some complexity without inserting much oak flavour or aroma.

The final blend includes, as well, a small proportion of oak-fermented wines that’d earlier been earmarked for the more expensive labels. This builds palate richness without taking away the aromatic highnotes.

While Musician is a blend of cabernet sauvignon and shiraz, cabernet dominates the aromatics and flavour. Bruce says that shiraz makes a subtle difference to the aroma. If you smell the final wine, he says, you smell cabernet, but it’s not the same as the cabernet component on its own.

On the palate, though, shiraz adds structure and fleshes out the mid palate, which can be a little lean in straight cabernet. But, again, it’s a subtle, if crucial, influence.

The result is a wine that may seem simple and delicious but is really out of the ordinary. It’s finally about the fruit of an exceptional vineyard in one of the world’s great cabernet growing areas.

Over time the other Majella reds, especially the cabernet and Malleea, reveal unique Coonawarra aromas and flavours in full glory. But Magician, in stripping out some of the winemaking artefacts, delivers it all right now.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008