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Victoria’s King Valley — thirty diverse kilometres

On Sunday 1 July winemakers from two neighbouring but very different Victorian regions – Rutherglen and the King Valley – present their wares in Canberra. The annual Taste of two regions will be held at old parliament house between 10am and 5pm, admission $25 per person.

Rutherglen (to the north of the King Valley) spreads along the Victorian side of the Murray River. It’s a hot region famed, historically, for magnificent, luscious fortified wines and thunder-in-the-brain reds, notably durif – a serendipitous cross between syrah and peloursin.

These days it makes a full range of table wines, including somewhat less threatening reds.

In its heyday as a fortified wine producer, Australia’s major winemakers sourced large quantities from the area, which spread across the Murray to Corowa, New South Wales. The Seppelt family operated a winery in Rutherglen township, while Lindemans developed its great fortifieds from the Felton and Southern Cross vineyards across the river.

A little to the south, on the Oxley Plains, Brown Brothers flourished on its fortified wine production, too, but also made high quality reds. Their later search for more elegant modern styles opened up the southern, cooler end of the King Valley to grape growing.

The valley stretches northwards from the sub-Alpine country around Whitlands, at a chilly 800 metres above sea level, gradually descending and comparatively narrow, before fanning out over the hot Oxley plains around Brown Brothers, Milawa, at around 170 metres.

Growing conditions vary greatly in this thirty kilometre long valley. Varying altitudes, rainfall, latitudes, soils and aspects produce a correspondingly wide spectrum of grape and wine flavours.

The mean January temperature at Milawa in the north is 22 degrees Celsius; in the south at Whitlands it’s just 19 degrees. Grapes ripen in early March at Milawa but not until late April at Whitlands.

In short the area produces everything from thumping big, alcoholic fortifieds and reds, to delicate sparkling and white wines.

While the Valley’s winemaking began in the late nineteenth century, most activity remained at the warmer northern end around Milawa until the 1970s.

Milawa owes its prominence on the winemaking map to Brown Bros whose presence, from 1889, sustained the industry in the region and, ultimately, sparked the southward vineyard expansions into the higher, cooler southern end of the valley.

Growing demand for high quality table wine drove the spread south and upward towards Whitfield, Myrrhee, Whitlands and Cheshunt. Brown Bros led the way, developing its own high altitude Whitlands vineyard and encouraging local landowners to diversify into grapes.

The first independents — Guy Darling and John Leviny — established vines between Moyhu and Whitfield in the higher, cooler northern sector in 1970.  Both sold grapes to Brown Brothers. Indeed, older readers may recall Guy Darling’s Whitfield vineyard name – Koombahla — appearing on Brown Bros labels in the late seventies and eighties, before Darling established his own brand.

During the eighties and nineties, other landowners, including several Italian descended tobacco growers, commenced growing grapes, originally to sell to Brown Brothers or other winemakers.

However, during the recession of the early nineties Brown Brothers reduced its grape intake. This shock, grower Arnie Pizzini (Chrismont Wines) once told me, was the catalyst that drove him and other growers to adopt a broader, more independent approach to marketing their product.

During the late nineties, driven partly by the export boom, the numbers of independent growers increased, as did the number converting all or part of their production into branded product.

The late nineties, too, saw the arrival of the large independent makers De Bortoli and Miranda, both Griffith based and both Italian descended.

By this time the Valley had acquired a distinctively Italian flavour as the Corsini, Pizzini, Cavedon, Dal Zotto and other families planted indigenous Italian varietals, including sangiovese, arneis, barbera, marzemino, prosecco, barbera, nebbiolo, dolcetto, primitivo (aka, in California and Australia, zinfandel) and verduzzo.

These joined the usual mix of French and German varieties plus a sprinkling from Spain (tempranillo and verdejo), Russia (saperavi) and France’s little known petit manseng and increasingly popular pinot gris (often marketed under its Italian name, pinot grigio).

This diversity of landscapes, climates, grape varieties, growers and makers means the King Valley gives wine drinkers an exceptional range of taste sensations – subtly different in the case of the mainstream varieties like riesling, chardonnay and shiraz but totally removed from our usual fare when we encounter sangiovese, nebbiolo, barbera, verduzzo, prosecco and the like.

In this instance the principal driver of difference was the Italian connection – the sons and daughters of post-war immigrants.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 16 May 2012 in The Canberra Times, and online in The Melbourne Age and The Sydney Morning Herald

Vintage 2011 — rain, disease fail to dampen grape output

Widespread predictions of a dramatic, disease-driven collapse in grape production this year proved way off the mark. The Winemakers Federation of Australia estimates a total wine-grape intake of 1.62 million tonnes in 2011 – one per cent up on 2010 and marginally short of the five-year average of 1.63 million tonnes. Production remained well short of the 1.8 to 1.9 million tonne peaks of vintages 2004 to 2006.

Winery intake of sauvignon blanc of just 86 thousand tonnes (up nine per cent on 2010) underlines New Zealand’s dominant role supplying Australia’s top selling white variety.

For the first time since 2007, white production outstripped red – perhaps reflecting greater disease damage to late ripening red varieties. Intake of red grapes declined from 858,111 tonnes in 2010 to 779,283 in 2011; white intake increased from 744,901 tonnes to 839,453 tonnes.

Paralleling white’s overall resurgence, chardonnay (404,610 tonnes) shoved shiraz (322,676) aside as our number one variety. Chardonnay intake increased around 23 per cent from 329,441 tonnes. Shiraz intake plummeted 84 thousand tonnes, or 21 per cent, from 406,775 tonnes in 2010 – almost certainly a direct effect of disease.

Thick-skinned cabernet sauvignon, our second most popular red variety, proved more resilient than shiraz, its intake increasing from 227,197 tonnes in 2010 to 231,869 tonnes in 2011.

This comparative success supports anecdotal evidence of a strong cabernet vintage in, among other places, the Barossa, Canberra and the nearby Hilltops region.

Winery intake of merlot, our number three red variety, mainly a blender, increased marginally from 111,684 tonnes to 113,1190 tonnes.

Intake of pinot noir, used in production of both red table wine and clear sparkling wine, declined by eight per cent from 38,830 tonnes to 35,790 tonnes. But the preliminary estimates don’t indicate which style is likely to be most affected by the shortfall.

Volume of Australia’s surprise fifth ranking red, petit verdot, dropped from 19,789 tonnes to 17,359 tonnes. You’ll see this Bordeaux variety occasionally as a straight varietal. But it’s generally a blending component with the cabernet cousins – cabernets sauvignon and franc, merlot and malbec.

After petit verdot, a comparative newcomer to mainstream Australian winemaking, comes another of our great survivors, grenache. It succeeds in fortified and table wines. It’s part of the warm-climate grenache-shiraz-mourvedre trinity, and appears increasingly in its own right. Grenache intake rocketed 53 per cent from 10,497 in 2010 to 16,069 tonnes in 2011. Such a big leap suggests new plantings coming into production. But we don’t know the answer at this stage.

After grenache, production of other niche varieties falls away markedly. For example, winery intake of mourvedre, subject of three reviews today, totalled only 4,437 tonnes in 2010 and 5,296 tonnes in 2011. Like petit verdot, it’s mainly a blender – but we have some wonderful old vines in our warmer areas and it can make a marvellous wine in its own right.

And that much-talked-about “alternative” variety, tempranillo (two reviews today), seems just a blip on our vineyard radar at 2,422 tonnes intake in 2010 and 3,045 tonnes in 2011. I do, however, predict a much bigger future for this variety given the high quality, distinctiveness and easy-drinking appeal of the wines it makes.

Another niche red attracting attention, sangiovese, increased from 3,526 tonnes to 4,150 tonnes.

The white side of our ledger looks decidedly weaker than the red side – in that we have not a single big mover and shaker after chardonnay.

While intake of number two ranked sauvignon blanc grew nine per cent, from 79,053 in 2010 tonnes to 86,043 tonnes in 2011, the variety’s suited to only a small portion of Australia’s current, comparatively warm producing areas. We have neither a Marlborough nor close runner to chardonnay as cabernet is to shiraz.

Our old workhorse, semillon comes in a tad behind sauvignon blanc at 82,243 tonnes in 2011 – up on 2010’s 78,960 tonnes. Semillon’s a great partner to sauvignon blanc in blends but has only limited appeal in its own right. Despite all the talk, and unquestioned quality and uniqueness of Hunter semillon, it remains a niche regional specialty.

Perhaps the surprise among white varieties is pinot gris (or grigio) at a respectable 43,217 tonnes (down from 44,778 tonnes in 2010) – putting it ahead of pinot noir.

The great, noble riesling maintains its perennially niche position, popular taste blithely ignoring wave after wave of publicity for it. Volumes changed little, from 32,188 tonnes in 2010 to 32,720 this year. It remains Australia’s great wine bargain.

Another surprise, albeit on a small absolute scale, is the near doubling intake of muscat-a-petit-grains-blanc from 13,952 tonnes in 2011. The Winemakers Federation attributes this to growing popularity of moscato styles.

Two varieties widely used in cheaper popular blends made solid contributions to the national grape crush, even if their names seldom appear on labels. Muscat gordo blanco contributed 54,459 tonnes and colombard 58,694 tonnes this year.

Widely talked of savagnin (originally misidentified as albarino) fails to rate a mention in the federation’s estimates. But its aromatic sibling, gewürztraminer, contributed 12,116 tonnes.

That useful warm region white, verdelho, grew from 13,588 tonnes to 14,323 tonnes in 2011, while viognier (sometimes blended with shiraz) declined from 12,464 tonnes to 10,729 tonnes.

Sultana, once the sultan of our cask wine industry, continued its long-term decline, with winery intake falling from 2,575 tonnes in 2010 to 1,713 tonnes in 2011.

But chenin blanc hung in there, declining marginally year-to-year from 6,857 tonnes to 6,770 tonnes.

Anecdotally, the late, cool vintage seems to have produced some marvellous wines – intensely flavoured and high in natural acidity. This promises to be very good for regional specialties. On a large scale, though, writes WFA president Stephen Strachan, “the vintage is too big. It may seem harsh, but a harvest in excess of 1.6 million tonnes (despite the rejections) is out of step with the realities of sustainable production and the market opportunity for premium Australian wine”.

In other words, there was little rejoicing in many quarters at the bigger than expected crop. And for growers who lost everything to disease, the pain is severe.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011
First published in The Canberra Times 29 June 2011

Chilly climate at ANU wine symposium

Chateau Shanahan holds in trust eight crystal wine decanters for the son of the late Professor Tony Barnett, Chair of Zoology at the Australian National University from 1971 to 2003. Barnett and his wife Kate collected the decanters over many years.

Barnett developed an appreciation of wine as a student at Oxford University in the 1930s. He often spoke of a friendship with distinguished British wine writer, Edmund Penning-Rowsell, author of the magnificent “The Wines of Bordeaux”.

Each decanter surely represents a chapter in Barnett’s long life. We even have a hunch about which one hosted his much-talked-about, last bottle of Chateau Cheval Blanc 1947, one of the great Bordeaux’s of the 20th century.

This fragile old link to Barnett’s university life in the UK provides a symbolic connection with University House’s seventh wine symposium held on 20 and 21 May.

Just as Oxford sparked Barnett’s interest in wine, the House’s first symposium, in the 1950s, owed much to the long, traditional link between English universities and fine wine. But the interest now has a global focus and a strong Australian accent – as I witnessed at the memorable 1979 symposium and at last month’s event.

The 1979 event featured luminaries and winemaking stars of the day, including Professor Helmut Becker of Geisenheim, Germany, and Max Schubert, Wolf Blass and Cyril Henschke from Australia.

Just three years in the industry, I recall meeting for the first time many leading industry figures, including James Halliday. A lawyer, vigneron, author and columnist, Halliday had already become an influential opinion maker. He returned this year as the symposium’s after dinner speaker. We’ll return to his topic later.

A generation later, University House’s 2011 symposium recognised the Canberra district’s 40th anniversary. Brian and Janet Johnston launched the second edition of “Wines of the Canberra District: Coming of Age”, delegates tasted Canberra wines at the end of day one, toured our vineyards on day two, the dinner featured local wines, selected by Nick Bulleid and Nick Stock, and speakers wove Canberra into their presentations.

Brian Croser (Tapanappa Wines) and Dan Buckle (Mount Langi Ghiran) talked, respectively, on Canberra’s two proven specialties, riesling (“the noblest white”) and shiraz (“past present and future”).

Writer Nick Stock put alternative varieties in perspective. And Libby Tassie followed up with more technical aspects of growing these varieties.

However, climate change will be long remembered as the first, last and lingering topic of the symposium – as much for the topic as for debate about the debate.

Professor Andrew Pitman, head of climate science at the University of New South Wales, presented the first paper “Climate change and its local effects in Australia”. And to the surprise of those expecting a tame after dinner talk on Canberra district wines, James Halliday concluded the symposium by questioning the extent of human-induced climate change.

Halliday declared that he was making a sales pitch for a new book, “Wine, Terroir and Climate Change”, by Dr John Gladstones. He quoted his own words from the book’s cover, “For anyone interested in the future interaction between climate, climate change and viticulture, this book simply has to be read. Dr John Gladstones’s painstaking research is the foundation for his equally carefully constructed conclusions that robustly challenge mainstream opinions”.

The packed hall fell silent. After charting his own scepticism about climate change, Halliday said he’d been mesmerised by Andrew Pitman’s view the day before that sceptics had no place on the face of the earth. Halliday then summarised Gladstones’ conclusions and said, “His views of climate change will be vigorously debated, but not by me”.

I listened in fascination as I’d begun reading Gladstones’ book the day before the symposium – turning direct to the climate change chapters towards the end.

The day before, like Halliday and probably others, I’d been irritated by Andrew Pitman’s brook-no-dissent invective. Before presenting the science, Pitman told us, repeatedly, that we simply had to believe the experts. I’m not a scientist, so I expect scientists to guide me through the complexity of climate change — especially the enormous areas of uncertainty. Instead, Pitman muddied his science by insisting on us having faith in the experts.

Much of the uncertainty relates to calculating the extent and timing of temperature rises and separating anthropogenic from natural changes.

In a Canberra Times article prompted by Halliday’s talk, astronomer Brian Schmidt wrote, “I believe that science makes progress by continually challenging itself, looking for failed predictions, inconsistencies, or alternative ways of approach a problem. Few scientists become famous by towing the party line, it is by finding fault with the status quo, and improving it that scientists make their mark. So it is no wonder that there is not unanimity in any area of science – climate change is no different. The vast majority of scientists who study climate change believe anthropogenic CO2 is leading to a warming of the Earth, but there are still some who challenge this assertion. Long may this continue – but only if these challenges are based on a fundamental understanding of the science at hand, and not some anecdotal or highly limited form of phenomenological evidence”.

Now, Halliday based much of his symposium speech on Gladstones’ book – not on anecdotal or phenomenological evidence.

After a detailed discussion of the natural and anthropogenic influences on climate change, Dr Gladstone concludes, “that warming by anthropogenic greenhouse gases has been much over-estimated. The widely publicised claims of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and other greenhouse proponents have depended too much on computer models unable to encompass the complexity of real climates; on uncertain data, dubious assumptions and in some key cases biased statistical procedures; and particularly in ignoring the historical record of past climate warmth. Much of the thermometer record of warming over the last 100–150 years, which the IPCC ascribes more or less exclusively to greenhouse gases, has more likely other causes”.

He further concludes that “greenhouse gases can have caused no more than 0.2ºC of warming [over the twentieth century], which equates to only 0.4–0.5ºC temperature rise for each successive doubling of atmospheric CO2 or its combined greenhouse equivalent”.

As a somewhat confused non-scientist seeking guidance on climate change, I hope that scientists might therefore review and comment on Dr Gladstone’s research and conclusions. He might be right. But he could be wrong, too. I simply don’t know.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011

Jacques Lurton’s Kangaroo Island adventure

In 2000, renowned French “flying winemaker”, Jacques Lurton, established an 11-hectare vineyard on Kangaroo Island. His business at the time made wine around the world, with Lurton and his winemakers, including Australians, hopping from one country to another.

In 2007 Lurton sold out to his brother and partner to concentrate on his own French and Australian brands. By then, says Lurton, he’d experienced 60 vintages across 25 regions in 10 countries.

An oenology graduate from the University of Bordeaux, Lurton worked initially for his father, a major vineyard owner in Bordeaux. But in1984 he visited Australia for a vintage with McWilliams in Griffith, New South Wales. Then in 1985 he joined Brian Croser at Petaluma in the Adelaide Hills – developing friendships with influential Australian winemakers, including Croser and his then business partner, Dr Tony Jordan.

The Australian connections endured. Over the coming decades Lurton employed 10 Australian flying winemakers, and visited Australia at least once a year from 1984.

In Canberra last week he said because of the strong connection “I decided to make my own investment and, ideally, live half of my time here”. With the help of McLaren Vale based David Paxton, Lurton eventually selected Kangaroo Island.

He subsequently planted 11 hectares to cabernet franc, grenache, shiraz, malbec, viognier, semillon and sangiovese, and established a winery on a site, “about in the middle of the island”.

By the time Lurton parted the flying winemaker business in 2007, he’d acquired from cousins in Bordeaux a six-hectare merlot vineyard, La Martinette. And in the Loire Valley he’d established long-term relationships with sauvignon blanc growers in Touraine and Pouilly.

Therefore the Jacques Lurton brand (see now includes two Loire sauvignon blancs, Touraine Sauvignon and Pouilly Fume; one Bordeaux merlot, Domaine de la Martinette; and a range of Islander Estate Vineyards wines from Kangaroo Island.

Partly because of his Bordeaux background, Lurton selected cabernet franc as a flagship variety, originally to pair it in a blend with sangiovese. He says, “I’ve worked with cabernet franc in the Loire Valley and, in Bordeaux, at St Emilion and also a little bit in Pomerol. It makes fragrant, fresh and elegant wines and they age well”.

As well, he adds it’s tough variety and easy for grape growers to look after. Aptly for Australian growers, it resists heat well, he says, citing its success in Bordeaux’s searingly hot 2003 vintage.

He says cabernet franc originated in Navarra Spain. But it’s now widely planted in south-western France, including Bordeaux, where it’s used mainly as a blending variety — as it is here in Australia.

Kangaroo Island cabernet franc appeals to Lurton because it “avoids the herbaceousness” of the cold-to-marginal Loire climate and cooler Bordeaux vintages.

Lurton’s first flagship Kangaroo Island red in 2004 included a fairly high proportion of sangiovese with the cabernet franc. But observing how the sangiovese matured more rapidly than the cabernet franc, Lurton wound back the sangiovese to just six per cent in the just-released 2005 and even further in subsequent years. There’s also a smidge of malbec in future vintages, he says.

For trademark reasons he also changed the name from Islander Estates Yakka Jack (named after a local soldier settler) to The Investigator, after Matthew Flinders ship, an early white visitor to the island.

In Canberra for the launch last week, Lurton lined up The Investigator 2005 ($60) with three French cabernet francs – giving us a snapshot of very different styles, two from the Loire, the other from St Emilion, Bordeaux.

St Nicolas de Bourgueil Les Malgagnes 2006, from a biodynamic vineyard at Bourgueil, Loire Valley, showed cabernet franc’s gently plush, ripe-berry elegance – an otherwise alluring, elegant wine, marred by a touch of brettanomyces (a spoilage yeast).

Chinon Clos de L’Echo (Couly-Dutheil) 2005 bounced in like a heavyweight after the elegant Bourgueil. Densely coloured and opulent of cabernet franc, it showed traces of herbaceousness despite its fifteen per cent alcohol. Lurton attributed this to alcohol extracting unripe tannins from the seeds and skins. But the herbaceousness was a minor blemish in an otherwise delicious, albeit big, wine.

Le Petit Cheval St Emilion Grand Cru 2003, second wine of legendary Chateau Cheval Blanc, supported Lurton’s views on cabernet franc in hot years. His cousin, Pierre, runs Cheval Blanc and in the severe heat of the vintage found little but cabernet franc suitable. The blend ended up at 95 per cent cabernet franc, five per cent merlot – a big shift from the usual 60:40 ratio.

What a wine, though: limpid and complex, combining fully ripe cabernet franc berry character with age and oak – a fragrant, soft, elegant and delightful drink with a distinct Bordeaux stamp, despite the heat.

And finally, to Lurton’s The Investigator 2005 – a limpid, bright, youthfully coloured wine, featuring fragrant, ripe-berry varietal character, soft, gentle palate and elegant, persistent tannin structure. It’s an exciting wine indeed, based on one quick tasting. We’ll review it fully after we can put it to the full-bottle test.

The Investigator and other Jacques Lurton wines, including Old Rowley, reviewed today, are distributed in Canberra by Bill Mason’s Z4 group.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011

Wine review — Cape Grace, Langmeil and Zema Estate

Cape Grace Margaret River

  • Chenin Blanc 2010 $20
  • Shiraz 2007 $34
  • Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 $48

We recently visited Cape Grace Wines, a 6.5-hectare estate established by Robert and Karen Karri-Davies at Wilyabrup, Margaret River, in 1996. Robert looks after the vineyard, Karen the marketing and contract winemaker Mark Messenger makes the wines on site. Their chenin blanc 2010 offers an attractive, chalk-dry alternative to mainstream varieties at a modest price. The 2007 Shiraz reveals yet another fine-boned face of the variety with its spiciness and fine tannins (the soon to be released, plush and supple 2008 shades it, though). And the graceful cabernet combines olive and blackcurrant varietal flavours with cedary oak. Available at

Langmeil Eden Valley Dry Riesling 2009 $19.50
Langmeil’s Paul Lindner sources the fruit for this beautiful wine from old, dry-grown vines high up in the Eden Valley, on the Barossa’s eastern flank. At a modest 11.5 per cent alcohol, with residual sugar of around seven grams per litre, it offers soft, fresh easy drinking. It’s the sort of wine that disappears quickly. But with every sip it grows in interest, revealing the pristine, delicate-but-intense flavours of this great variety. While the 2009 vintage is all but sold out the soon-to-be-released 2010 promises to be at least as good.

Zema Estate Coonawarra

  • Cluny Cabernet Merlot 2006
  • Shiraz 2007 $23–$25

Cluny – a blend of 60 per cent cabernet sauvignon, 25 per cent merlot, nine per cent cabernet franc and six per cent merlot – offers the bright, fresh aromas and flavours of ripe berries, in the unique Coonawarra mould. The palate’s medium bodied, elegantly structured and with four years’ bottle age, it’s ready to enjoy now and over the next four or five years. The shiraz, too, is medium bodied and built on bright berry flavours – but with varietal pepper and spice accent. These are beautifully made wines, allowing Coonawarra’s elegance and berry flavours to star.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

Exploring the great south west

From the comfort of Google maps, Western Australia’s southwest looks a doddle. A nice little green chunk in Australia’s bottom western corner, criss-crossed by decent roads, with wineries sprinkled, albeit sparsely, across almost the entire landscape.

Close up, though, it’s a large swathe of country – three hours drive from Perth to Margaret River, via Capel; more than an hour and half from Margaret River southeast to Pemberton; another half hour up to Manjimup; and from there two and a half hours southeast to Denmark on the coast.

And Denmark, a pretty seaside town, makes a beautiful base for exploring the vast Great Southern wine region. But visiting even a handful of its 60-odd wineries, widely dispersed across hundreds of kilometres, eats up large slabs of time. And then there’s the five-hour drive back to Perth airport when the tastings end.

Even for the traveller hell bent on wine tasting, the landscape throws up its own natural distractions – from the awe of so much bush, dotted here and there with farms and vines; to the towering Karri and Red Tingle forests, to the endless seascapes. This is the wild west – a unique, sparsely populated setting for so many fine wines and a growing local-food culture.

Margaret River wine region sprawls about 100 kilometres from north to south (almost two hours drive end-to-end), from Cape Naturaliste to Cape Leeuwin. It’s bounded by the Indian Ocean to the north, west and south, with a man-made eastern boundary stretching about 27 kilometres into the hinterland, parallel to the sea. The boundaries enclose around 270 thousand hectares, of which only about 5,360 hectares – perhaps two per cent of the land surface – were covered in vines by 2008.

Margaret River township sits roughly in the middle of the official wine region. But its reputation rests largely on the long-established strip of vineyards immediately to the north around Wilyabrup and Cowaramup (for example, Vasse Felix, Cullens and Moss Wood) and a few more, notably Leeuwin and Voyager Estates and Cape Mentelle, just to the south of town.

In 1967, Dr Tom Cullity planted Margaret River’s first vines, at Vasse Felix (now owned by the Holmes a Court family). In 1999 the area produced 13 thousand tonnes of wine grapes (equivalent to roughly 900 thousand dozen bottles), and output almost tripled to 36,600 tonnes (around 2.5 million dozen) by 2008.

The production peak coincided with the global financial crisis. At the same time Australian wine exports tanked and New Zealand’s sauvignon blanc surplus flooded the eastern states – sparking a price war that continues to affect Western Australian semillon sauvignon blanc blends.

Some producers left unwanted fruit on the vines. However, Nick Power, CEO of the Margaret River Wine Industry Association, says that only a few owners removed vineyards during the glut and the broad response to oversupply has been “to re-work vines and or graft over to more suitable varieties for the vineyard. For example cabernet sauvignon and shiraz south of Margaret River [town] is being grafted to sauvignon blanc or semillon”.

Proving the benefit of regional specialisation, though, Power reports, “some wineries are planting – as cabernet sauvignon is in heavy demand and forecast to be so for a few years to come”. In the wider market, cabernet continues to run a distant second to shiraz.

Certainly as we tasted around, cabernet blends proved to be the predictable highlights, if not the only bright spots on the scene. But with 140 wineries and six breweries now operating in Margaret River, a vignette is the best any casual visitor can hope.

Arriving too late in the day for cellar door visits, our tasting began at Must wine bar, in the main street. Offering dozens of Western Australian wines by the glass or half glass, it allowed us to sip a few old friends and discover, on the sommelier’s recommendation, a couple of nice new drops, including Bellarmine Pemberton Riesling 2010 and Thompson Estate Margaret River Andrea Reserve Cabernet Merlot 2005.

Must’s food focus, too, is on local produce, beautifully prepared – including succulent asparagus and delicious pork cutlets and chorizo.

The food theme continues among the wineries, too, with any number of eateries attached to cellar door. The offers range from the simple, largely outdoor, casual setting at McHenry Hohnen, to the luxury of big-money estates like Voyager, Leeuwin and Saracen.

The McHenry Hohnen Farm Shop serves as cellar door, restaurant and outlet for pork and lamb farmed by David Hohnen – founder of Cape Mentelle, Margaret River, and Cloudy Bay, Margaret River. Hohnen’s wife, Sandy, runs the shop and his daughter Freya and partner Ryan make the wines.

When Hohnen sold Cape Mentelle to Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, he had the good sense to keep the vineyards he’d planted in the region from around 1970. These now provide fruit for the graceful McHenry Hohnen wines.

We tasted and loved the wines, but raided the meat fridge, packed with tasty bits and pieces of fresh Arkady Farm, grass-fed, Wiltshire lamb and Jarradine Farm free-range pigs (a composite herd of Tamworth, Berkshire and Duroc breeds).

It’s obligatory to lunch in the grandeur of Leeuwin Estate, sipping the opulent and legendary chardonnay (a match for the rich XO butter sauce that, alas, outweighs a delicate, fresh marron) and watching Kookaburras feed their young on fat worms from the vast green lawn.

And what an utter contrast it is motoring up the road to Rob and Karen Karri-Davies tiny (6.5 hectares of vines) Cape Grace Wines, in the Willyabrup Valley. Nothing posh here – just a humble winery and cellar door set among the bush and wildflowers. Rob Karri-Davies attends the counter serving the very good, estate-grown wines – notably a 2007 cabernet sauvignon and yet-t-be-released 2008 shiraz – made by Mark Messenger.

We see here that a chalk-dry chenin blanc offers an interesting alternative to mainstream varieties.

And at Vasse Felix we glimpse in three glasses the spectrum of Margaret River’s ubiquitous semillon-sauvignon-blanc-blend styles: The crisp, fruity, straightforward $20 Classic Dry White 2010; the similar but weightier, more complex, partially barrel-fermented Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2010; and the delicate, texturally rich, delicious Semillon 2009 – about one third of it barrel fermented.

We taste, too, the highly-regarded Heytesbury Chardonnay 2008 and note how it’s going down the funky, “struck-match” style loved by some show judges (more on this in a later article). We also enjoy a taut, pure, dry, savoury Tempranillo 2009, one of the few non-estate-grown wines in the line up.

But the highlights are the big-value 2008 Cabernet Merlot, convincing 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (with nine per cent malbec) and the stunning 2007 Heytesbury, a cabernet sauvignon, petit verdot, malbec blend. This style is Margaret River’s greatest wine achievement, and it’s true signature.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

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

Flat out like a lizard drinking — Bluetongue fires up its kettles

Last week at Warnervale on the NSW central coast, Dermot O’Donnell and his crew commenced brewing at Bluetongue’s new $120 million facility. Tomorrow they’ll officially launch the first beer off the production line, Bluetongue Premium Lager, in a ceremony at the brewery.

Originally a Hunter-based boutique operation, Bluetongue now has the capacity to brew 50 million litres a year, expanding to 100 million litres a year over time. By my estimate that’s equivalent to eight and a half 330ml bottles for every person aged 15 years or over, heading towards 17 bottles

While current capacity represents perhaps one fortieth of Australian per capita beer consumption, the new facility gives the owners, Pacific Beverages (a joint venture between Coca Cola Amatil and SAB Miller), the platform to increase their estimated 10 per cent share of the fast-growing premium beer market and boost profits by brewing SAB Miller’s international brands, including Peroni and Grolsch, locally.

The new facility, combined with Coca Cola Amatil’s distribution, puts Pacific Beverages in a unique position to exploit fast-changing beer tastes. James Tait, corporate affairs director at rival Lion Nathan, recently said that the average Australian drinker now enjoys about seven beer brands on a regular basis – compared to three brands ten years ago.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

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

Wine review — Penfolds, Shelmerdine, Chapel Hill and Katnook

Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2008 $25–$30
Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2006 $80–$90

Bin 28 and St Henri are contrasting, cellarable examples of warm climate shiraz. Bin 28 is the fuller, rounder and softer of the two. It’s robust and comes with the Penfolds signature – ripe, meaty fruit flavours intermingled with robust but soft tannins, with proven cellaring potential. St Henri, a blend of shiraz with 11% cabernet is beautifully fragrant and medium bodied – deeply and deliciously fruity. But taut, assertive tannins woven through the fruit suggests a long, long life ahead. Typically for St Henri, this could mean peak drinking from about 15 years’ age. For exampel, a still-vibrant 1983 tasted recently had years, perhaps decades, of life in it.

Shelmerdine Heathcote Shiraz 2007 $29–$32
Shelmerdine Merindoc Vineyard Heathcote Shiraz 2007 $59–$65

These are exciting reds from two vineyards owned by Stephen Shelmerdine. The first is a blend from the Merindoc and Willoughby Bridge vineyards at the southern and northern ends of the district respectively.  It contains a tiny drop of viognier, co-fermented with the shiraz, and it’s in the taut, savoury style with quite firm, fine tannins. It really captures the unique deep, dark-fruit, savoury Heathcote style without going over the top on alcohol. Also modestly alcoholic and savoury is the stunning, smooth textured, fine-boned Merindoc, sourced entirely from this cool southern vineyard. It’s extraordinary – made by Sergio Carlei.

Chapel Hill The Parson’s Nose McLaren Vale Shiraz 2009 $14–$16
Katnook Founder’s Block Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 $18–$20

In the great discount mill these true regional varietals might fall even further in price. Chapel Hill Parson’s Nose, made by Michael Fragos, captures the ripe, vibrant, plummy richness of McLaren Vale shiraz – and even offers a little savoury bite in the finish. It’s a straightforward wine, made for current drinking, with the accent on fresh varietal flavours. A couple of hundred kilometres further south in Coonawarra, Wayne Stehbens, captured cabernet’s cassis-like varietal flavour and firm finish in Founder’s Block. Like the Chapel Hill wine, the focus is on bright fruit flavours for current drinking.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010