Hilltops — making winning reds

Along the Great Divide in New South Wales, wine growing regions are striving to establish their identities in the minds of consumers. Mudgee, Orange and Cowra seem to be struggling in that regard. But Canberra has a foot in, thanks to its shiraz and riesling; high, cool Tumbarumba’s reputation for sparkling wine and chardonnay continues to grow, especially among producers; and Hilltops (Young) can’t seem to help making top-notch shiraz, very good cabernet and a small, impressive range of reds made from Italian varieties.

Regions define themselves by the wines they make. On that basis Hilltops rates among Australia’s best red-wine growing areas. The sheer juicy pleasure of Eden Road’s Jimmy Watson Trophy winning Hilltops Shiraz 2008 ($16.50) gave a glimpse of what to expect.

A virtually unoaked wine, one delightful mouthful opens the window on Hilltops shiraz – displaying the charm of the fruit, little altered from how it was in the vineyard. Quality moves up a notch, though, when winemakers select the very best fruit and use the transformative magic of oak maturation.

This can be seen in the graceful shiraz made by Celine Rousseau at Ted Ambler’s Chalkers Crossing and in the beautiful wines from Grove Estate and Moppity Vineyards.

Grove Estate Cellar Block Shiraz Viognier 2008 ($38) shows the amazing fruity, silky depth of the regional style. It’s unique – and irresistible. Made by Tim Kirk at Clonakilla, it’s not dissimilar in style to his own highly successful Hilltops shiraz, sourced in part from Grove Estate.

Grove’s Brian Mullany attributes fruit quality to small yields, dry, warm days and cool nights during ripening in February and March. He writes, “Our cropping levels have been very low for the past five to ten years. Our vines have been producing around four tonnes per hectare with yields as low as two tonnes per hectare some years”, comparing this to the 15–20 tonnes per hectare of a Riverland vineyard.

The concentration of fruit flavour shows through as well in Grove’s other red varieties – cabernet sauvignon, sangiovese, barbera and nebbiolo. These are all made by Richard Parker at Long Rail Gully, Murrumbateman.

Grove’s current release The Partners Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($25) has clear varietal aromas and flavours with fleshy, generous mid-palate fruit offsetting firm, drying tannins. It’s an excellent wine but doesn’t push the excitement button to the extent the shiraz viognier does.

Dry, savoury and great value, The Italian 2008 ($20, reviewed last week) combines the Italian varieties sangiovese and barbera. A promising wine; we’ll stand back and see where this goes in future.

But the excitement buzzer rings again as we taste three reds made from Piemonte’s noble nebbiolo. This is the grape of Italy’s aristocratic Barolo and Barbaresco. Even the Italians have trouble enough with this variety, as all too often the wines smell wonderful but collapse on the palate, overwhelmed by mouth-dessicating tannins. The best, though, are magnificent – highly fragrant and elegant with tight tannins cocooning delicious fruit flavours.

Grove’s nebbiolos fall into latter category. The Reserve 2006 ($30), a Winewise trophy winner, shows some maturity now – a seamless, taut, savoury style with a lovely core of sweet fruit.  Sommita 2007 ($45), a trophy winner at the Sydney International Wine Competition, is fuller and more concentrated, with the firm tannins of the 2007 vintage. And Sommita 2008 ($45) is simply glorious, showing the ripe, buoyant fruit qualities of the 2008 vintage. Making elegant, deeply flavoured nebbiolo of this calibre is a major achievement.

Jason Brown and his parents John and Robin (owners of Candamber liquor stores) bought the a large Hilltops vineyard from receivers in 2004 and set about restoring the neglected vines. They later subdivided the property and Jason and wife Alecia now operate their portion of it, the 68-hectare Moppity Vineyard. Jason Brown says he was attracted to Moppity by the site and the age and clones of vines in the vineyard. Between 2006 and 2009 the Browns increased production under the Moppity label from 1,000 cases to 15,000 cases.

They offer two ranges of wines, all produced from their vineyard – Lock and Key, a fighting brand, at under $15 a bottle, and the premium Moppity Vineyards ($20) Moppity Vineyards Reserve ($45) labels.

The first vintage of the reserve shiraz, 2006, won the top gold medal in its class in London International Wine and Spirit Competition; and the currently available 2007 has a gold medal and trophy – it’s a sensational wine.

Moppity Park’s two cabernets – Lock and Key Hilltops Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($15) and Moppity Vineyards Hilltops Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 ($20) are rich but elegant – Lock and Key, on the lighter, leafy side but still with delicious berry fruit flavours and firm tannins offers tremendous value; Moppity is riper, with more body and depth. I’ve not yet tasted the 2007 Reserve, containing a splash of sangiovese.

The three shirazes – Lock and Key Hilltops Shiraz 2008 ($15), Moppity Vineyards Hilltops Shiraz 2008 ($20), Moppity Vineyards Hilltops Reserve Shiraz 2007 ($50) pretty well seal the argument for Hilltops shiraz. The medium bodied Lock and Key is as good a red as you’ll ever find for the money; Moppity Vineyards ramps up the fruit concentration, but is still refined and elegant; and the Reserve shows the greater power, savouriness and firm tannins of the 2007 vintage – a brilliant shiraz.

This is only a snapshot of a region making its mark in a crowded market. Shiraz may be the signature variety. But Hilltops cabernets are good, if not as exciting as shiraz, and there’s the emerging world of Italian red varieties – including Grove’s outstanding nebbiolos and Brian Freeman’s delicious rondinella-corvina blends mentioned last week.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010