Shaw Vineyard Estate Canberra District Merriman Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 $65
When Australia rode on the sheep’s back some of the finest merino wool grew on Merriman family land around Murrumbateman, New South Wales.
The district remains a producer of fine wool, but shiraz now gives Murrumbateman an international reputation, earned initially by Clonakilla’s benchmark shiraz–viognier.
What then are we to make of five trophies won not by shiraz, but by cabernet sauvignon grown on the old Merriman property?
Graeme and Ann Shaw’s flagship red, Merriman Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, won three of its five trophies at Australian cool-climate wine shows and two more at the 2018 International Wine Challenge London.
While it’s fair to say the cabernet line-ups in the Australian shows were limited. But the London event – where the judges awarded Merriman a trophy as best Australian cabernet – included gold medals to heavyweight rivals Lindemans St George Coonawarra 2015 and Wynns Coonawarra Estate Harold 2013.
That result alone makes Merriman worthy of a close look, if not to declare cabernet a serious rival to shiraz in the Canberra district. The wine’s a deep, brilliant, crimson colour; the aroma and palate both show the ripeness and depth of the exceptional 2015 vintage – one of those rare seasons where flavour depth and ripe, firm tannins coincide. French oak adds another harmonious dimension to the substantial wine’s flavour and structure.
Ata Rangi Martinborough Pinot Noir 2015 $75 Coriole McLaren Vale Sangiovese 2016 $27 Earlier this year I organised a masked tasting for a group at Burrawang Coastal Club on the NSW south coast. After a mood-lifting Champagne Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut we settled into dinner and a bracket of three contrasting dry rieslings – Dr Loosen Blue Slate Mosel 2016, Jacob’s Creek Barossa Steingarten 2010 and Gallagher Canberra District 2017.
Gallagher alone offered the familiar flavour (to the group) of young Aussie riesling. Ernie Loosen’s Mosel showed a decidedly unfamiliar power and structure to many of the tasters. And the beautiful maturing-but-fresh Steingarten appealed widely.
After this tasty and uncontroversial trio, the pairing of two unlikely red partners – New Zealand pinot noir and Australian sangiovese – unsettled the group. What could these be?
The wines shared few common traits and in a masked tasting where I offered no initial cues, tasters’ first impressions began with only their senses, strongly influenced by the assertive tannin structure of the pair. But with a few clues, the group soon differentiated between the wines and eventually discerned we had two varieties from two countries.
These were highly distinctive wines. Over time the Ata Rangi’s varietal flavour increasingly asserted itself. But the deep, layered, savoury tannins, albeit in a silky smooth style, separated it distinctly from the general run of softer Australian pinots. And it split the audience: some didn’t care for it; others, including an avowed pinot lover, savoured it to the last drop. The Lloyd family’s Coriole Sangiovese also found lovers and haters. Its deep, sweet fruit came overlaid and cut through with sangiovese’s strong, savoury tannin that gave the wine an appealing earthy, rustic character. We later noted the wine had won a gold medal in the 2017 Australian Alternative Varieties Show in the ‘youthful, fresh, juicy’ category. The Lloyd family began their sangiovese journey in 1985, so it’s little wonder to see such a gem at a modest price.
Ravensworth Canberra District Estate Sangiovese 2016 $38 Another maker coaxing the earthy, rustic, savoury tannins out of sangiovese is Bryan Martin. Martin and his wife Jocelyn, own a small vineyard near Murrumbateman, a NSW village within the Canberra District wine region.
The couple’s Ravensworth wines, made by Bryan at Clonakilla Winery, include grapes from other growers in Canberra and surrounding districts. But with the first stage of their own winery recently established, the Martins now also release estate-grown wines, including this sangiovese.
Martin’s winemaking technique captures the unique flavour of the variety but also enhances those delicious, grippy, savoury tannins. The result is a distinctive and complex sangiovese with layers of flavour and texture. Martin says the wine spends 4–6 months on skins, one year in ferment vats another in 2800-litre oak barrels (foudre).
Sassafras Tumbarumba–Canberra District Chardonnay Savagnin Ancestral 2017$30 Paul Starr’s sparkling white combines chardonnay from Tumbarumba with savagnin grown at Murrumbateman in the Canberra district. Both sites lie on the western side of the Great Dividing Range in southern New South Wales. Tumbarumba is slightly cooler than Murrumbateman and has produced very high quality wine from the variety over several decades. Savagnin, on the other hand, is a comparative newcomer to Canberra and unproven, though early signs are hopeful.
Sparkling wines made by the ancestral method are far removed in style from those made by the traditional method. Ancestrals like Sassafras come to the market young and fresh without the manipulation and prolonged maturation that adds layers of flavour and texture to traditional styles like France’s Champagne or Australia’s upmarket bubblies.
Sassafras ancestral therefore relies solely on the inherent quality of the fruit. As Starr writes it’s ‘made by the ancestral method, using the original grape sugars and yeast, it was carbonated in this bottle. Like a bottle-conditioned ale or cider, there will be a small amount of yeast at the bottom, so chill upright.
The pale-lemon colour wine, at just 11.5 per-cent alcohol, presents melon- and citrus-like flavours on a fresh, teasingly acidic, dry palate, with a mild farewell grip from the grape tannins.
It’s a straightforward, easy drinking style with a pleasing tartness for those who like it that way.
Sassafras Salita Canberra District–Hilltops Sagrantino 2016 $30 Umbria’s sagrantino grape tends to make inky-deep reds with very strong tannins. Paul Starr’s version shows a lighter colour than the Italians I’ve tried, but it packs a load of sweet, plummy fruit flavours and an even greater load of those famous tannins. The sweet fruit and assertive tannins battle for dominance at first. But finally the tannins take over making the wine a bit aggressive for unaccompanied drinking. However, the wine’s savour and grip become attractive company for savoury or meaty foods. It’s good to see our winemakers testing these unfamiliar varieties.
Piedmont’s nebbiolo grape at its best makes lighter coloured reds with floral perfume, intense flavour and assertive tannins that, in conjunction with the fruit, give savour and length. But buying nebbiolo’s a minefield as they’re expensive but all too often ordinary or simply too tannic to be enjoyable. I’ve found this to be the case even with wines from the variety’s heartland in the Piedmont towns of Barolo and Barbaresco.
However, the good ones are unique and beautiful wines to savour. In the last few weeks I’ve come across three successful Australian versions and one decent original from Barolo, Italy.
Ravensworth Hilltops Nebbiolo 2016 $45 Canberra winemaker Bryan Martin buys nebbiolo grapes from Brian Mullany in the slightly warmer Hilltops region, a two-hour drive north of the Capital. In 2016 Martin combined the favoured MAT3 nebbiolo clone, noted for its big bunches and small berries, with smaller batches of other unidentified clones.
Martin de-stemmed the bunches and moved the uncrushed whole berries to a 1,000-litre open-top cuve, made from French Allier oak by Italian cooper Garbellotto. After the wine’s long skin maceration and fermentation, Martin clamped a lid on the vat to allow further skin contact while excluding oxygen.
Eight months after the berries went in, Martin moved the wine unfiltered to 2,000-litre oak foudre for 14 months.
I tasted the wine from cuve a few months after vintage and noted the brilliant crimson colour, floral aromatics, intense raspberry-like fruit flavour and fine but assertive tannins. Some months later the same wine, now in foudre, impressed for its finesse and silky tannins.
Another year on and the bottled wine delivered on its earlier promise: limpid, youthful colour; floral and savoury aroma; subtle but assertive palate, revealing deep, sweet underlying fruit flavour bound with savoury, soy-like character and firm but smooth tannins.
This is a very good, distinctive nebbiolo and I suspect it will age well. But it’s early days yet for the variety and only time will tell. However, you can be sure Martin won’t rest on his laurels, nor will grower Brian Mullany. We can look forward to a gradual tweaking of the style in the years ahead.
Longview Adelaide Hills Nebbiolo Riserva 2015 $50 Made from a selection of clones planted in 1995, Longview captures the essential character of the variety. Of medium hue, with brick reds rather than the crimson we might see in shiraz or cabernet of the same age, the wine delivers a range of delicious herbal, fruity, savoury characters. The texture is remarkably sensuous, albeit with nebbiolo’s signature farewell bite.
Giaconda Beechworth Nebbiolo 2011 $98–$110 A friend, Ross Hanna, included this in a recent masked tasting wedged in between the robust and excellent Illuminati Zanna Montepulciano d’Abruzzo 2011 and the more comparable Patrizi Barolo 2013, reviewed below.
What a performance from winemaker Rick Kinzbrunner making a wine of this dimension in eastern Australia’s cold, wet 2011 vintage. Clear varietal floral aroma and red-fruit flavours come with silky texture, underlying savour and long, firm-but-fine tannic finish.
Barolo (Patrizi) 2013 $60 After much disappointment grabbing Barolos off the shelf, it’s good to see a clean, fresh version of the style. A pretty wine, because of its floral scent and appealing fruit flavour, it went to another level when strong, savoury tannins took over, giving the wine real Barolo character. A genuine and enjoyable expression of the style, showing more muscular tannin than the Aussie versions.
Clonakilla Canberra District Syrah 2016 $120 Clonakilla Syrah comes from T&L block, the warmest site on the Kirk family’s Murrumbateman vineyard. From its earliest vintages the block, planted in 1999, ripened early than its neighbours and produced a distinctive, comparatively robust shiraz, albeit within the medium-bodied Canberra District spectrum. On first opening the 2016 showed its impressively fresh, bright floral and fruity character, set against fine, silky tannins. As the days rolled by, deeper, savoury flavours, including a charry oak character, pushed through, accompanied by assertive but still very fine tannin. The wine grew in dimension over five days on the tasting bench, pointing to a long and pleasant evolution in bottle.
Clonakilla Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2017 $40 Clonakilla sources its chardonnay grapes from two growers in neighbouring Tumbarumba, 130 km from the winery to the south-west as the drone flies (220 km around two mountain ranges by car). These cooler growing sites suit the chardonnay grape, which gives intense, citrusy varietal flavour and high natural acidity. Barrel fermentation and maturation builds the mid palate, adds to the taut structure and gives subtle nutty nuances that complement the delicious fruit flavour. The growers: Steve Morrison (Revee Estate); Heather and Rob Johansen.
Clonakilla Canberra District Viognier 2017 $50 2017 vintages continues the finessing of Clonakilla’s oak-fermented viognier style. Noting a tendency for viognier to fatten up with age, winemakers Tim Kirk and Bryan Martin fine tuned vineyard and winemaking practice, finally settling on fermenting and maturing the wine in demi-muids – larger oak barrels with thicker staves (hence less oxygen transmission) than in traditional, smaller barriques or hogsheads. Recent vintages present viognier’s distinctive apricot and ginger varietal character with a little tannic grip and a touch of spice from the barrels – but without the variety’s sometimes viscous, oily texture. It’s a really lovely and distinctive wine.
Clonakilla Canberra District Ceoltoiri 2017 $40 Ceoltoiri is Clonakilla’s take on Chateauneuf-du-Pape’s multi varietal red blend. The pale to medium colour belies the wine’s depth, combining seductive aroma with fresh, bright berry flavours and bags of spice. Like all the Clonakilla reds, the vibrant fruit comes with a layer of savoury flavours, fine tannins and smooth texture. This is a long way from big traditional Australian reds from warmer climates. But I’ve found rusted on fans of these styles also love the much lighter bodied Ceoltoiri. Why is this? Turns out it’s not so much the colour and body they enjoy, but juicy, ripe fruit flavours – which both styles have in common. Ceoltoiri achieves this without heaviness.
Clonakilla Canberra District Pinot Noir 2017 $50 Can any vineyard excel at both shiraz and pinot noir? For Clonakilla, whatever, the final verdict, it won’t be for a lack of trying. Tim Kirk’s shiraz-viognier and syrah (reviewed above) easily sit among the world’s best shirazes. Other Canberra District shirazes, too, rate highly in the Australian context. But Canberra pinot noir, while good, hasn’t yet drawn comparison with the best Australian versions in my notes. Clonakilla 2017 moves the quality needle in the right direction, albeit without bending it. Nevertheless, it’s a serious pinot backed by Tim Kirk’s ardour. He writes, ‘This pinot noir is lovingly made in tiny quantities. It’s a blend of fruit from the T&L block (clones 777, 115, Abel, Pommard) and the old, unidentified clone planted by John Kirk [Tim’s father] in 1978’.
In this vintage a limpid wine displays attractive stemmy–stalky aroma and flavour, most likely attributable to the inclusion of whole bunches in the ferment. Mouth-watering varietal fruit flavour lies under this winemaker-induced character and it’s wrapped in fine, firm tannins that interplay with the whole-bunch character.
Cellar door and release date for these five wines is Tuesday 1 May 2018.
When I began wine retailing in 1976 Australians already drank impressive volumes of Champagne. Indeed for a time we were the only country buying more vintage than non-vintage product.
Australia now imports around eight million bottles a year, though the mix favours non-vintage Champagne, a change driven partly by direct retailer imports and aggressive discounting by importers of some of the big houses. As well, consumption is now more widely dispersed through a society far more affluent and wine savvy than it was 40 years ago.
Along with the shipping containers over the decades came a steady flow of Champagne personalities looking as if they could hardly believe their own good luck.
Heads of houses, sales reps and titled family members spruiked – and continue to spruik – their wares across the country. They’re part of a great machine that markets, and tenaciously protects, not just individual brands but the Champagne brand as a whole.
And it’s a very big luxury brand by any measure. According to Comite Champagne, in 2016 the region sold 306 million bottles worth 4.7 billion Euros. Exports accounted for 48 per cent of volume and 55 per cent of value. Australia ranked sixth biggest market by volume, behind the UK, USA, Germany, Japan, and Belgium. All of those countries, Belgium excepted, have vastly bigger populations than Australia’s 24.8 million people.
Little wonder then the Champenoise regularly visit our shores.
One of note, I recall, was the gracious, generous, hard-working Christian Pol Roger from the Champagne house of the same name. He’s retired now, but visited Australia over quite a long period.
On one visit in the mid 1980s, we asked and he accepted our invitation to a tasting at the Farmer Bros Wine and Spirits warehouse in the inner Sydney suburb of Waterloo.
We promoted Pol Roger’s visit through our monthly wine newsletter and a full-page advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald. Here was an opportunity, we said to customers, to meet the famous Mr Pol Roger and pick up a magnum or two at a great price.
Mr Pol Roger worked tirelessly through a busy Saturday, talking to customers, pouring wine, and signing magnums – a task well removed from the usual smaller scale trade tastings he traditionally hosted. His labours proved a huge success for us commercially, for the Pol Roger brand and for the many customers who met him and enjoyed his Champagne.
Visiting Champagne heads customarily dispense largesse to the trade, as we well knew from long experience. They’ll wine you, dine you and leave you with a good impression of their product.
On this occasion, however, we insisted Christian be our guest at Berowra Waters Inn – an invitation he accepted graciously but with some surprise. Under Gay Bilson, the waterside restaurant, located in one of Sydney’s remote and dramatic sandstone gorges, was then at its outstanding peak.
Bilson had recently converted her wine list to an all-Australian affair, with one exception, a house Champagne. From memory (possibly unreliable) it was Louis Roederer, though certainly not Pol Roger.
We also knew from experience visiting Champagne heads understandably prefer to drink their own product. I therefore took the precaution of phoning Gay Bilson ahead of the dinner and asking if she’d adopt Pol Roger as house Champagne for the evening.
She understood the situation and obliged. On a balmy Sydney evening we drove Pol Roger to Berowra. Delighting at the beautiful bush, sandstone and water setting, Pol Roger stepped into the aluminium skiff for the short ride to the restaurant. Bilson greeted us at the door, Pol Roger Champagne was poured and we sat down to a memorable Bilson meal in the unique setting.
More than 30 years later the Champagne folk continue to arrive, the latest being a Canberra visit by Francois Colas, representing Champagne Bruno Paillard, a comparative newcomer to the region’s ranks.
Bruno Paillard founded the company in 1981 and for the first 10 years bought grapes from growers. From 1984 he began acquiring vineyards, initially in Oger, and now owns 33-hectares spread over 17 villages.
Colas says the company now controls two thirds of its grape sourcing and buys the rest. Grapes come from 35 villages.
Bruno Paillard continues to run the business while gradually handing control to his daughter Alice.
The wines are very much in Champagne’s ‘built’ style. Fruit flavour underpins the blends. But winemaker inputs add many layers to texture and flavour. For Bruno Paillard these influences include barrel fermentation of 26% of all varietal components; extensive use of older reserve wines (up to 50% in the non-vintage), prolonged ageing on yeast lees, followed by six-months to three years maturation after disgorgement.
Champagne Bruno Paillard Premiere Cuvée NV Pinot Noir 45%, chardonnay 33%, pinot meunier 22% Disgorged June 2017. Minimum three years maturation on lees An impressive NV (or multi-vintage as Paillard calls it), showing the benefit of extended ageing on lees. Many NVs on the market show simple fruit flavours and lack the depth of those aged on lees. Paillard’s offers delicious fruit flavours coated in Champagne’s lovely add-ons, in a fine, lean, taut style.
Champagne Bruno Paillard Assemblage Vintage 2008 42% chardonnay, 42% pinot noir, 16% pinot meunier disgorged June 2015 From a great Champagne vintage, the wine combines freshness, the structural and flavour characters of long maturation on yeast lees, and delicious underlying fruit character. Pinot flavours push through while the chardonnay is probably behind a zingy, fresh, lemony finish.
Champagne Bruno Paillard Blanc de Blancs 2006 Chardonnay. Disgorged March 2015 A little over 11 years old on tasting, Blanc de Blancs belied its age with a shimmering med-lemon-gold, green tinted colour. The freshness suggested by the colour came through in the aroma and palate as a vibrant pear-like character. However, the backbone derived from lees ageing, along with a subtle almond-like character, contributed to the lingering, satisfying finish.
Bruno Paillard Nec Plus Ultra 2002 From five grand-cru vineyards. Chardonnay 50%, Pinot Noir 50% Made only in great vintages. Disgorged 2014. A beautiful, elegant Champagne, layers of flavour, firm but fine structure with finesse.
Champagne Bruno Paillard Rosé Premiere Cuvée Pinot noir with a splash of chardonnay. Three years on lees. High level of reserve wines, a blend of 25 vintages from 1985 A powerful and fine rosé built on pinot noir varietal flavour and the variety’s firm backbone, augmented by its three years on lees.
Tyrrell’s turns 160 this year. Marking the anniversary, Bruce Tyrrell, his son Chris, winemaker Andrew Spinaze and vineyard manager Andrew Pengilly held a tasting of Vat 47 Chardonnays, vintages 2004 to 2017.
The 14-vintage sequence revealed Vat 47’s continuing style evolution and the profound impact of the screw cap – ‘Perhaps the greatest step forward…[it] saved Vat 47’s reputation from the damage done by dud corks’ says Bruce Tyrrell.
Tyrrell said, ‘Chardonnay’s moved on across the country but Vat 47 has never stood still. It’s not stuck in the past’. He said the vintages on tasting deliberately started with the 2004 (the first vintage sealed with screw cap), and revealed other influences, including a gradual shift from partial basket pressing in 2007 to 100 per cent in 2013.
At the same, Tyrrells had been eliminating several vineyard sources from the blend. By 2013 sourcing had retreated solely to the Short Flat Vineyard across the road from the winery –site of the company’s original 1960s chardonnay plantings.
‘There’s a day will come now that Vat 47’s off a single vineyard that there’ll be a gap in a future vertical tasting. We won’t elevate a wine just to have a Vat 47’, says Bruce.
Changes to fruit sourcing and winemaking over the last decade were driven by a desire, ‘to improve the Hunter Valley style or be left behind by the cooler climate areas’, write Bruce Tyrrell and winemaker Andrew Spinaze. ‘We are not a cool climate area and you cannot change your identity but you can modify your style’.
Winemaking changes included the introduction of basket pressing (improving flavour and texture and increasing natural acidity), elimination of pectin enzyme additions, increased spontaneous fermentation and ongoing work with French barrel cooper Francois Frères to ‘create a barrel that suited what we are trying to achieve in our final style’.
Future tweaking will likely come more from work in the vineyards than in winemaking. Says Chris Tyrrell, ‘There are so many great chardonnays we need to lift the bar and focus on the best blocks [in the Short Flat vineyard]’.
Message in a bottle
What a contrast to earlier vertical tastings of cork-sealed Tyrrell’s whites, where random oxidation, caused by corks, marred many bottles. Every bottle opened bright, fresh and with vivid, green-tinged colours. The older wines presented beautiful nutty and honeyed characters of age, while remaining fresh and vital. The spectrum of aromas and flavours faithfully captured the character of each vintage.
For example, the neighbouring 2007 and 2008 vintages reflected the full flavour of a hot vintage and the more subtle, citrusy character of a cold, wet year respectively. Likewise, the 2012, from another cold, wet vintage, allowed some of the winemaking inputs to push above the fruit character, without overwhelming it.
The current release 2014 showed its gentle, melon-like varietal flavour on a mouth-filling but tightly structured palate. However, in a flawless line-up among many beautiful wines, two wines topped my scoresheet: 2009 and 2013.
Here’s a couple of earlier pieces on Vat 47 plus one on the introduction of the screw cap.
BentSpoke Brewing Co co-owner Richard Watkins today issued a statement denying industry rumours the company had been sold. Mr Watkins said there had been no sale of the company and there were no plans for such a sale.
He said, ‘It’s flattering to hear some people think we’re worth $49 million, but there is absolutely no substance to the rumour that we have sold all or part of our business. Here at BentSpoke we are a family business and we value our independence. We value our place in our local community as a brewer, as a beer wholesaler and retailer, as an employer, and as a place where friends can meet. We also take a huge amount of pride in being able to make the kind of beer we want to make, and to make it the best way we think it can be made. When you consider all of that, and bear in mind that our business is growing rapidly, we’re just not interested in giving it up, at any price’.
Mount Majura Vineyard Canberra District Mondeuse 2017 $29 Interesting wines begin not in the vineyard, as conventional wisdom has it, but in the mind of the winemaker. The grape variety mondeuse entered Frank van de Loo’s mind in 2002 and 2004 during tastings in France’s Savoie region. He planted the first small plot of the variety in 2010 and subsequently expanded it to 0.4 hectares. That little plot of vines now produces a unique red that was but a thought bubble just four years ago. Medium bodied in the Canberra mould, it offers delicious, ripe fruit with striking spice, herb and black pepper character.
Mount Majura Canberra District Graciano 2017 $29 Frank van de Loo planted the Spanish varieties tempranillo and graciano at Mount Majura earlier this century. Tempranillo became the vineyard’s signature red while the smaller production graciano graces blends as well filling its own special niche. As a very late ripener it’s at risk of not maturing in the Canberra climate. However, the balmy 2017 autumn ripened the variety in late April. The resulting medium bodied wine captures graciano’s floral aroma, soft tannins and plush, pepper-tinged vibrant fruit flavour. It’s another red of great individuality.
Mount Majura Canberra District Lime Kiln Red 2017 $25 Named after the site of an old lime kiln near the vineyard, Mount Majura’s new red combines shiraz (50%) with mondeuse (25%), touriga (20%) and tempranillo (5%). Frank van de Loo says, ‘With such a collection of interesting varieties in the vineyard and winery, new blending trials are irresistible fun’. The blend takes spicy-fruity Canberra shiraz as a base, then throws in floral, spicy, peppery and herbal notes of the other varieties. It’s medium bodied, soft, smooth, and a delight to drink now.
Mount Majura vigneron Frank van de Loo welcomes another trouble-free Canberra vintage. Located about 100km inland with vineyard altitudes between about 550 metres and 860 metres, the volume of the district’s harvest varies widely across any given decade. Frost, wind, hail, and sustained cold weather have all at times reduced the region’s harvest and at times wine quality.
But as vintage gets underway for earlier ripening varieties, clear blue skies, warm days and cool nights – following a generally benign growing season – means ample crops of ripe, disease-free grapes in 2018.
Most reds remain on the vine with harvest due to commence in the next few weeks. Picking of riesling, the district’s signature white variety, is imminent in some parts of the region. The vintage will likely stretch into April or even May for some varieties and sites.