Stentiford’s Coonawarra Shiraz — a scarce and stunning wine

McWilliams recently released the 2006 vintage of a distinguished, if little known red wine – Brands Laira Stentiford’s Old Vine Coonawarra Shiraz. The wine’s story stretches back more than a century, involves some of Coonawarra’s oldest vines and provides unique drinking at $75 a bottle – a modest price for a scarce wine of such individuality.

It comes from a surviving 1.65-hectare patch of vines tended by retired sea captain Stentiford during Coonawarra’s first decade as a wine-producing region.

In an interview some years back Diana Clayfield, Stentiford’s great grand daughter, said the captain’s records show that he rented the land for a time before purchasing it in 1896, naming it “Laira” after his square-rigged ship.

The records, however, say nothing about why a retired seaman from England chose to settle in out-of-the-way Coonawarra. Diana said she still wondered why he did such a thing.

We know that he extended the vineyard to 28-hectares, but not when the original vines went in. However, winemaker Peter Weinberg says the vineyard’s first recorded sale of grapes to John Riddoch was in 1896 – suggesting a likely planting date of 1893.

Most of the vines are long gone. But the 1.65-hectare remnant of Stentiford’s vines survived all the difficult years to be cherished now by the present owners, McWilliams, and a small but appreciative group of wine drinkers.

Across the years the vines almost certainly contributed to some of Coonawarra’s legendary reds. And almost certainly, from the 1890s and for the first two thirds of the twentieth century, grapes from the vines were simply sold to other winemakers under the successive ownership of Stentiford, Tom Ahrens and Eric Brand.

I’m not sure of the exact date, but Eric, a baker, bought the vineyard from Ahrens, along with other orchard and vineyard land from Bill Redman, after marrying Nancy Redman and moving to Coonawarra in about 1950.

According to James Halliday, only a little over two of the 24 hectares originally purchased by Brand was under vine, the remainder being orchard and, until 1966, Eric remained a grape grower, not a winemaker.

In another interview some years back Eric’s son, Jim, recalled that in the family’s first vintage, 1966, about half of the shiraz came from the old Stentiford plantings. Of this wine, James Halliday wrote in 1985, “Anyone who has the 1966 or 1968 wines in the cellar will readily understand just why this variety was able to carry the reputation of Coonawarra for more than fifty years”.

Grapes from the old vines continued to be joined with those from new plantings on the “Laira” vineyard until 1981, when the Brands decided to make and bottle wine from the Stentiford vines separately.

The Brands repeated the practice in 1982, 1984, 1986 and 1990, the year McWilliams took a half stake in the business. Under the new co-ownership, “Original Vines Shiraz”, as it was called, appeared again in 1991. And after McWilliams full take over in 1994, the wine was made in 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000. And since then, says current winemaker Peter Weinberg, “in particularly exceptional vintages”.

And just where is this ancient vineyard? Look at a map of Coonawarra. You’ll see Brand’s Laira Vineyard sitting in the middle of a particularly distinguished sector: adjacent and to the north its neighbours are Redmans and Lindemans St George Vineyards; to the west is a Treasury Wine Estate’s vineyard, source of material for the sublime Wynns John Riddoch Cabernet; and to south the Zema Estate and Lindemans Limestone Ridge Vineyards.

These are some of the earliest-planted sites in Coonawarra. And, as long time Coonawarra wine maker, Greg Clayfield (brother in law of Diana) quipped, “they didn’t plant the worst land first.” To this, Bruce Redman added, “It [the Stentiford vineyard] is on some of the best terra rossa soil in Coonawarra”.

The vines were originally planted in rows seven feet apart and independently staked. Prior to the Brand family’s arrival, every second row had been removed — increasing the row spacing to fourteen feet – and the vines had been trained to a single-wire trellis.

Later, about half the vines were converted to a double trellis to open the leaf canopy. This resulted in slightly higher yields of better quality fruit. Even so, the average yield is low and Peter Weinberg says total production reaches no more than 500 dozen in a good year.

The vines are hand-pruned, hand harvested and the fruit processed in five tonne fermenters before maturation in new French oak barrels of varying sizes for about 22 months.

The resulting wine is a finely crafted expression of a distinguished Coonawarra vineyard, featuring rich but elegant Coonawarra berry flavours with a special sweet lift in the aroma and an exquisite delicacy and tenderness on the palate.

While some of the early vintages tended to mask the superb fruit with a too much extract or oak, it could always be glimpsed. But over the last decade the winemakers finessed the style. The process now extracts less colour and tannin, the wine spends less time in oak, and the oak is finer and beautifully in tune with the delicate fruit. The just-released 2006 is simply stunning – and it’s barely begun its long journey. The sweet fruit is there, peeking through the fine tannins and elegant, taut structure.

It’s one of those rare wines that stop you in your tracks – especially when you know the story, good husbandry and luck behind the venerable old vines that produced it. Its retail price of $75 is just $10 a bottle above the asking price ten years ago – indicating limited appreciation of how good it is.

But its gold medal at last year’s National Wine Show of Australia and little bit more song and dance from McWilliams surrounding this year’s release may change that.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010