Tertini puts Southern Highlands on the wine map

Julian Tertini's Yarraandoo vineyard, Southern Highlands, NSW

Wine regions build reputations by making outstanding wine. Mediocre wines don’t cut through in a crowded market; and poor wines kill reputations. The Southern Highlands region (around Mittagong, Bowral and Berrima) struggled with its reputation for many years, largely because so many of its early wines showed green, unripe flavours.

Indeed, wine quality in the region varied so much a decade ago, newcomer Julian Tertini, founder of Freedom Furniture and Fantastic Holdings, used “Berrima Valley” on some labels – to protect his own name should the region as a whole fail.

But just 11 years after establishing Tertini, Southern Highlands remains on the labels. And, extraordinarily for a small operation that made its first wine in 2005, Tertini claims 285 trophies and medals so far. The honours include a gold medal for the 2009 pinot noir in the National Wine Show 2011, gold medals for the Reserve Pinot Noir 2009 in the 2012 Boutique Wine Awards (open to Australian and New Zealand wines) and the NSW Wine Awards 2012.

In the latter event, the 2009 Reserve won the best pinot trophy in a taste-off against Tertini 2010 pinot noir.

Like other vignerons in the area, Tertini included cabernet sauvignon and merlot among his first plantings. Thankfully, he also planted pinot noir, riesling, chardonnay and arneis in the Yarraandoo vineyard – on the western side of the old Hume Highway, near the Wombeyan Caves road.

Others had included shiraz in the mix, all on expert viticultural advice that proved to be spectacularly off the mark.  “It was a stupid mistake”, says Tertini’s Robert Kay.  He says cabernet, shiraz and merlot don’t ripen, leaving pinot noir to date as the sole red variety ripening reliably across the district.

The failure of cabernet, merlot and shiraz, in particular, highlights the massive difference between growing conditions in the Southern Highlands and Canberra.

Despite being further north than Canberra (and potentially warmer), with vineyards at comparable altitudes, a strong maritime influence counters the effect of latitude. More cloud, more rain and more humidity mean a cooler and less hospitable environment for grapes.

Robert Kay says the area can be overcast for weeks, “and the cloud cuts down the heat”.  He attributes the region’s growing strength to improved vineyard management – particularly an ability to counter moisture-related vine diseases – and a shift to suitable cool-climate varieties.

But even with the right varieties, vigilant spraying and non-stop vineyard work vineyard, nature takes a toll on local crops. Every year Southern Highlands vignerons face conditions comparable to those faced by Canberra’s in 2011 and 2012. And in those two difficult seasons, the highlands suffered even bigger crop losses than normal.

The financial losses to producers can be huge. They face increased vineyard management costs, but lower crops mean less wine and ultimately reduced sales in the years ahead. Every tonne not harvested equates to around 70 dozen bottles of wine not produced or sold.

Because of severe crop losses in the last three vintages, says Robert Kay, Tertini intends in future to make wine from the Hilltops region as well as the Southern Highlands.

In Tertini’s vineyard pinot noir and riesling perform best, and now comprise a majority of plantings. Smaller areas of chardonnay and arneis (a northern Italian white variety) also look good and there’s hope for experimental plantings of lagrein, a northern Italian red variety. And across the district, says Kay, sauvignon blanc and pinot gris generally work well.

Riesling showed great promise from the first (and gold medal winning) vintage in 2005. The wines begin life austere and acidic, though very delicate, and with bottle age develop a delicious lime-like varietal flavour. Tertini therefore release their rieslings several years after vintage.

On a recent tasting at the winery, a museum release, Tertini Cross Roads Berrima Valley Riesling ($33 – a trophy and two gold medals), looked sensational. At six and a half years, it’s youthful and fresh but with a seductive honeyed note of bottle age boosting the succulent, pure, bracingly dry limey flavour.

The cellar door also offers the 2008 vintage ($38 – almost sold and out and not available for tasting), winner of five trophies and 10 gold medals, and the trophy and gold-medal winning 2009 vintage ($30).

The latter offers a delicate floral and lime aroma and flavour. Though it lacks the sheer juicy intensity of the 2006, it’s youthful and fresh and certain to build with bottle age. However, a soon-to-be released Reserve Riesling 2009 ($35) offers similar flavours and delicacy but with greater concentration.

The Piedmontese white variety, arneis, succeeds in Tertini’s vineyard, too. But it lives up to its “little rascal” nickname with miserly grape yields (about half that of riesling) and very small juice extraction rate per tonne of fruit.

The current release Tertini Reserve Arneis 2010 ($35), partly barrel fermented, provides excellent, full-bodied, crisp and savoury drinking – with exotic sappy, racy, melon-rind flavours.

Like the rieslings, the pinots (2008 $28, 2009 $55 and 2009 Reserve $58) show a family style – delicate and restrained. I’ve tasted several vintages over the years and, indeed, these were the wines that broke my longstanding doubts about the region’s wine. They’re outstanding – and reviewed in next week’s column.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan
First published 7 Novemer 2012 in The Canberra Times