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Mourvedre – venerable survivor

Venerable survivor -- mourvedre vine, planted 1853, Roland Flat, Barossa Valley

The release of the 2011 Penfolds Shiraz Mourvedre Bin 2, an old label from the 1960s resurrected in the 1990s, and a “march mataro madness” campaign by Barossa wine merchant David Farmer, begs the question of what this great old variety really is. There’s not a lot of it grown in Australia – in 2008 just 785 hectares, mostly in the Barossa Valley – yet it’s survived here since the 1830s. And even if we’ve not heard of it, we’ve almost certainly enjoyed mourvedre (aka mataro), acknowledged or not in red blends or as an anonymous component in Australian “port”.

Descriptions of mourvedre contradict one another. Can it really be soft and fruity but also tannic and iron-hard; both low in acid with little colour and searingly acidic and opaque? The answer appears to be yes. Consider these contrasting accounts of Spanish and Australian mourvedre/monastrell/mataro from Jancis Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine and Rolf Binder’s Veritas Winery website.

Jancis Robinson: “The wine produced from monastrell’s small, sweet, thick-skinned berries tends to be heady stuff, high in alcohol, tannins and a somewhat gamey almost animal flavour”.  Rolf Binder: “A mataro berry is about 1.5 times larger than a shiraz berry so bleeding off juice increases the juice to skin ratio” – in short, Binder bleeds juice off to increase extraction of tannin and colour, something his Spanish peers don’t’ need to do.

Robinson also writes that in southern France “mourvedre is considered an improving structural ingredient – a sort of vinous RSJ” – suggesting its firm tannins give the backbone lacking in the companion varieties, shiraz, grenache and cinsault.

Barossa vigneron Dean Hewitson offers two possible reasons for southern French mourvedre’s comparative toughness. The first, and most likely, he believes, is that varieties are mixed in the vineyard in the Rhone Valley but they ripen at different times. Therefore if a grower harvests a plot of ripe grenache, the mourvedre mixed in it with it will be unripe, with hard tannins.

The second is that the devastation of European vineyards by phylloxera in the late nineteenth century may have resulted in significant clonal differences between Australia and Europe. Barossa plantings are all pre-phylloxera and may be “clonally softer in tannin”, suggests Hewitson.

But then as we digest that, Penfolds notes, based on Barossa fruit, seem more consistent with Robinson’s, “Mourvedre is dark in colour, smells of Provençal herbs and spices and has plenty of tannin stuffing. This is a wine varietal greatly valued by Penfolds winemakers for its blending attributes; toning down the exuberant qualities of shiraz, while adding overall complexity and palate grip”.

Because mourvedre buds and ripens very late, it needs plenty of late season heat. Little wonder, then, that it’s at home in the hot Barossa and Spain, but pushes only into southern France, and even there can struggle to ripen.

In Australia as in France and Spain, mourvedre plays mainly a support role to other varieties, historically for “port” and increasingly for red table wine. In the mid eighties the so-called Rhone Rangers led the Barossa revival of grenache-shiraz-mourvedre blends. This group, including Charlie Melton, Rocky O’Callaghan and Bob McLean, Chris Ringland and Rolf Binder, took the unique beauty of the Barossa’s very old vines to the world.

Mourvedre played a key role in the blends. But they weren’t the first to gain recognition, as Penfolds Shiraz Mataro Bin 2, made from 1960, remained popular until its discontinuation in the seventies. Penfolds resurrected it in 1980 and 1981, then discontinued it, shipping the remainder to the UK. Production of Bin 2, now labelled as shiraz mourvedre, commenced again in 1990.

In The Rewards of Patience, edition four, 2000, Penfolds claims Bin 2 opened the UK market to Australian wine, “Originally, Bin 2 was a result of experimental work on the medium-bodied, soft-finishing ‘Australian Burgundy’ style, traditionally based on shiraz. The addition of mourvedre may also explain Bin 2’s success with British wine drinkers, as this variety has the effect of moderating the richness of shiraz, making the wine leaner and more European in both style and structure”.

Mourvedre seems set to continue its supporting role to shiraz and grenache. But Hewitson and Binder have both made jaw-dropping straight varietals as thrilling as any red on the market.

However, Dean Hewitson cautions, “It’s a matter of understanding when it’s a blending grape and when it’s not to blend”. He sources mourvedre from a dozen or so vineyards across the Barossa, several of them more than a century old, but still uses it principally as a blender, “to add complexity to Miss Harry [his grenache, shiraz, mourvedre, cinsault blend] and dimension to Ned and Henry’s [shiraz with a splash of mourvedre]”.

He adds that mourvedre’s not as forgiving a variety as shiraz or cabernet and it needs to be from a very special site – typically in sandy soils – to stand on its own.

Hewitson made his first straight varietal in 1998 from eight rows of mourvedre vines, remnants of a larger vineyard planted by Friedrich Koch in 1853, near the North Para River at Roland Flat, Southern Barossa. He believes the vines to be direct descendents of the collection brought to Australia by James Busby in1832.

Those remaining vines, he says, witnessed all the fads and fashions of the Australian wine industry, from fortified to table wine, and even contributed fruit to Orlando Carrington Blush bubbly in the eighties. The mourvedre plantings had been more extensive, but the Koch family replaced them progressively with more fashionable varieties until Hewitson contracted the last eight rows in 1998.

From 1996 Hewitson propagated new vineyards using cuttings from the best of the old vines. These gradually increased the volume of mourvedre available for blending and, after ten years, contributed fruit to a second straight mourvedre, Baby Bush.

Hewitson believes we’ll see more straight mourvedre in the near future. He suspects recent sales of Baby Bush and Old Garden to fellow Barossa makers to be for benchmarking their own products.

We’ll have to wait and see. But even if more flow into the market, it’ll be a tiny volume. Mourvedre accounts for less than one per cent of Australia’s red plantings, and these vines produce only six to seven thousand tonnes of grapes a year.

Production may be small, but it’s a key variety, a great blender, sensational on its own on occasion and now, I’m told, the best grapes fetch very high prices. In the Barossa this means a small army of makers, many of them quite small, hunting down those very special, very old parcels.

On glug.com.au, David Farmer notes the long history of the variety in the Barossa Valley and warm inland regions. He warns of the marketing danger of using two names for the one variety, especially given the difficulty of pronouncing “mourvedre” and the much longer usage of “mataro” in Australia.

He writes, “To persist with the term mourvedre risks failure as no one is confident in pronouncing it. At Glug we will stick to Mataro as it is a tough, honest sounding and avoids a name which is far too French for our taste. The Barossa Valley Wine Show and Penfolds should do likewise. To get the Australian red wine drinker interested in this wonderful variety will require serious effort and using dual names is a disaster”.

Farmer notes that of the 43 straight or blended mataros listed on Dan Murphy’s website, 20 use “mataro”, 22 use “mourvedre” and one uses the Spanish, “monastrell”. Clearly, winemakers remain split on which name to use, though I suspect the pendulum has swung to “mourvedre”, especially among the young.

In Wine grapes: A complete guide to 1368 vine varieties, including their origins and flavours (2012), Jancis Robinson lists the variety as “monastrell” and says the evidence points to it being of Spanish origin, with the first known mention of it in the 1380s. She says the variety probably found its way to southern France in the sixteenth century.

Call it what we will, mourvedre remains an important niche variety. Farmer observes from the hot Barossa, as wine writers lean increasingly towards cool-climate wines, “our job is to make customers aware of long established varieties like mataro, grenache and carignan and the flavours they develop in a warm climate”.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2013
First published 3 April 2013 in The Canberra Times

Gongs for Nick O’Leary Canberra shiraz and riesling

Winemaker Nick O’Leary recently attracted the national limelight, yet again, on Canberra’s great specialties, shiraz and riesling. Nick O’Leary Riesling 2012 won the top-scoring gold medal and trophy at the NSW Wine Awards in October. At about the same time, O’Leary’s shiraz 2011 and Bolaro shiraz 2011 earned gold medals at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show – against shirazes from all over Australia.

Bolaro (O’Leary’s new reserve shiraz) shared the top spot with Best’s Great Western Bin 1 Shiraz 2011 – which went on to claim the Jimmy Watson trophy as the best one-year-old shiraz in the show.

O’Leary’s success underlines the real legacy of Hardy’s all-too-brief presence in Canberra: the winemaking and vineyard knowledge O’Leary shares with fellow former Hardy winemaker, Alex McKay; and dozens of small independent grape growers attracted into the business by Hardy contracts.

The big dollar items – motivated largely by ACT Government largesse – count for nothing on the Canberra wine scene. The Kamberra winery at Watson remains a white elephant. And who’s heard anything lately of the 80-hectare vineyard just upstream from the lower Molonglo sewage farm?

Canberra-raised O’Leary credits his first wine mentor, the late Jim Murphy, for fanning his enthusiasm for wine. Working at Market Cellars, O’Leary frequently tasted old shirazes and rieslings from Murphy’s private collection. “Jim was hard but fair as a boss and not shy in opening good wines for his staff”, recalls O’Leary.

Later the young O’Leary enjoyed work experience alongside his uncle David O’Leary (now of O’Leary Walker) at Annie’s Lane winery in the Clare Valley.

But the real wine knowledge came after he joined Hardy’s Kamberra winery as a cellar hand under winemaker Alex McKay. He worked his way up the ranks, becoming vintage assistant winemaker, cellar supervisor then night-shift winemaker.

It was a nursery of learning”, says O’Leary, as the winery processed a range of varieties from Canberra, Tumbarumba, Hilltops and Griffith. Kamberra participated in a number of winemaking trials within the larger Hardy’s group and McKay, exposing McKay and himself to large-scale tastings across numerous wine styles.

Hardy’s departed Canberra shortly before the 2007 vintage. But O’Leary found it easy to stay on, despite the risks of embarking on his own business. He’d been making small batches of his own wine from 2004. And he’d developed a relationship with Amy Affleck, daughter of Affleck Wine founders, Susie and Ian Affleck. From 2007 he made wine for the new Nick O’Leary label from their winery out on the Bungendore escarpment.

The Afflecks continue to make their own estate-produced wines there. But in time for the 2010 vintage, O’Leary completed major upgrades to the winery, particularly in adding refrigerated storage for 60–70 thousand litres of wine.

The wines have been in the front ranks right from the beginning. And this gets down not just to good winemaking, but nurturing relationships with the 16 grape growers he and Alex McKay source their raw materials from.

The recently successful wines, and another yet unreleased, tell the story of that relationship and how good husbandry in the winery completes the circle.

Nick O’Leary Canberra District Riesling 2012 $25
O’Leary sources the grapes principally from Wayne and Jennie Fischer’s Nanima vineyard, Long Rail Gully vineyard and Four Winds vineyard at Murrumbateman, with the balance from the Karelas family’s Westering vineyard, Lake George. He says he harvested 60 per cent of the fruit before the big rains and remaining grapes on the first sunny day afterwards – a narrow window before the fungal disease botrytis cinerea took over.

Selective hand picking ensured largely sound fruit arrived in the winery. There O’Leary gently pressed the whole bunches, avoiding extraction of phenolics, then cold-fermented the wine using a neutral sparkling-wine yeast. The latter means no extra aromatics to interfere with the naturally floral character of Canberra riesling.

Demonstrating the variability of show judging, the wine won, in the space of a few weeks, a bronze medal at the Canberra Regional Show, nothing at the International Riesling Challenge and the top gold and trophy at the NSW Wine Awards.

Tasted at leisure, it reveals floral and lemony varietal aroma and similar flavours on the intense but delicate palate. The high natural acid of the vintage accentuates the flavour intensity and suggests good cellaring ahead.

O’Leary holds a reserve 2012 riesling in the cellar for release later this year at around $40. He says it’s a 50:50 blend of material from Westering and Nanima vineyards. The latter comprises two new clones, Geisenheim and Pewsey Valley, established on a separate block at the request of O’Leary and McKay.

Nick O’Leary Canberra District Shiraz 2011 201 $28
O’Leary says this wine demonstrates the benefits of good vineyard management and liaison between the growers and makers. Good growers, especially after the destructive 2011 season, realised the need for intense vineyard management and crop reduction to suit the season. At Nanima vineyard, “driving force of the wine”, a well-drained site helped, but “great also great management” produced the goods, says O’Leary. The Fischers shoot thinned, and at veraison dropped half the fruit off the vines, enabling greater flavour concentration and quicker ripening. He sourced the remaining high quality grapes from Wallaroo Wines, Hall, and Long Rail Gully, Murrumbateman. The wine contains about five per cent viognier, though this is not obvious in the aroma or flavour. Judges awarded a gold medal in Canberra as well as Melbourne.

This is magnificent cool-climate shiraz – revealing Canberra berry fruit, spiciness and even a touch of pepper, emphasised by the cold vintage. The medium bodied palate presents, too, a savoury element and a pleasing, lean, dry palate – though the fine tannins provide adequate flesh.

Nick O’Leary Bolaro Canberra District Shiraz 2011 $55
By a strange quirk of fate, this wine shares more than an equal billing at the Melbourne show with Best’s Great Western Bin 1 Shiraz. O’Leary explained, “In Canberra Hardy’s recommended clones from their experience in South Australia. Most didn’t work. It’s expensive but more suitable once are being introduced”.  In this instance the Fischer’s grafted the Great Western clone onto the roots of a lesser clone. “It’s one of the great shiraz clones for Canberra”, says O’Leary.

And its first outing tends to confirm that. The Melbourne judges ranked it slightly ahead of the standard shiraz –perhaps noting the extra savouriness, flavour depth and firmer structure of a very classy, cellarable wine indeed.  “I made Bolaro for the future”, says O’Leary.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 14 November 2012 in The Canberra Times

Canberra’s Ravensworth conquers 2012 International Riesling Challenge

Canberra’s Ravensworth Wines topped the honours list at the Canberra International Riesling Challenge 2012. Ravensworth Riesling 2012, made by Food and Wine columnist Bryan Martin, and owned by Martin and his wife Jocelyn, won a gold medal and three trophies.

The judges rated it best Canberra District riesling, best Australian riesling and, in a first for a Canberra riesling, best wine of the show – against 426 contenders from six countries.

Show organiser Ken Helm, a Canberra riesling legend himself, welcomed Ravensworth’s success, especially for winning best wine of show trophy. He said, “This is exciting as it shows beyond doubt that Canberra is up there with Australia’s best”.

Helm said the chair of judges, Ben Edwards, rated quality across the board as the highest in the time he’s judged there.

The impressive medal strike rate supports this view.  The 426 wines judged won 278 medals (51 golds, 60 silvers and 167 bronzes), for an overall success rate of 65 per cent.

While Ravensworth brought home the bacon for Canberra, our district provided little support for the event, entering just 12 wines in total across five categories, and underperforming the overall field with a medal strike rate of 58 per cent. We won one gold, one silver and five bronze medals.

In the important class for 2012 vintage dry rieslings (less than eight grams per litre of sugar), Canberra fielded just six wines and won two bronze medals. Compare this performance to the September regional wine show, where 12 Canberra 2012 vintage dry rieslings won nine medals, including three golds.

Admittedly, the class definitions of the two shows vary slightly, so that Ravensworth at 11 grams per litre of sugar, moved from “dry” in the regional show to “semi-dry” at the challenge. But the change of classification doesn’t explain the startlingly different ratings – bronze at the regional, gold and ultimately trophies at the challenge.

As well, Gallagher 2012, Nick O’Leary 2012 and Mount Majura 2012 – all medal winners in the regional show – failed to rate in the challenge, a variance that’s hard to understand.

Perhaps the high acidity of the Canberra rieslings worked against them in this broader environment. Certainly our wines tend to blossom with age as the fruit comes through. And it’s worth considering the top gold medallist in the regional show, Clonakilla 2012, and the top Canberra wine of the challenge, Ravensworth 2012, have a sugar levels of 10 and 11 grams per litre respectively – sufficient to take the edge off the acid and not taste sweet.

If we look only at the classes for 2012 dry rieslings, several regions outperformed the overall medal strike rate of 65 per cent.  This supports the growing view of 2012 as an exceptional riesling vintage.

Western Australia’s Great Southern region, for example, won 16 medals (two gold, five silver and nine bronze) from 19 entries, an 84 per cent strike rate.

Clare Valley, the traditional heartland of dry Australian riesling, entered 38 wines for a strike rate of 76 per cent – four golds, six silvers and 19 bronzes. I’ve tried many of these wines and they really are delicious and well priced. Most are already soft and ready to drink.

The Eden Valley, Clare’s southern neighbour on the Mount Lofty Ranges, fielded 25 wines to win five gold, four silver and nine bronze medals – a 72 per cent strike rate.

And tiny Tasmania entered 10 dry riesling from the 2012 vintage to win two golds, two silver and three bronze medals – a 70 per cent strike rate.

While riesling remains a perennially niche variety in Australia, its sales a fraction of those of sauvignon blanc or chardonnay, it offers wonderful drinking, great cellaring and quite often amazing value for money.

The trophy winning Ravensworth 2012, for example, sells at just $20 and its podium mate, Richmond Grove Watervale 2011, often specials at around $18. These are bargain prices for such beautiful wines – the latter with proven long-term cellaring potential; the Ravensworth untested, but likely to do the distance.

From a drinker’s perspective then it’s worth downloading and trolling through the full results. They’re available at rieslingchallenge.com

The honours list includes dry, half dry and sweet styles from many different regions and, indeed, from other countries, and from a spread of vintages. The successful older wines provide some guidance to the cellaring ability of younger wines. Indeed some of the most cellarable rieslings perform poorly at shows in youth, but blossom after a few years’ bottle age.

Canberra International Riesling Challenge 2012
Trophy winners

Wine of the show
Ravensworth Canberra District Riesling 2012

Best Australian riesling
Ravensworth Canberra District Riesling 2012

Best Canberra District riesling
Ravensworth Canberra District Riesling 2012

Best current vintage dry riesling
Penfolds Bin 51 Eden Valley Riesling 2012

Best dry riesling
Richmond Grove Watervale Riesling 2011

Best sweet riesling
Heggies Eden Valley Botrytis Riesling 2011

Best Tasmanian riesling
Bay of Fires Riesling 2011

Best European riesling
Weingut Georg Muller Stiftung Hattenheimer Hassel Riesling Spaetlese Trocken 2011

Best museum riesling
d’Arenberg The Dry Dam McLaren Vale Riesling 2008

The champ – born in adversity
Ravensworth Canberra District Riesling 2012
Fruit source: Bryan and Jocelyn Martin’s Ravensworth vineyard, Murrumbateman
Gold medal and three trophies: Best Canberra District wine; best Australian wine; best wine of show
Canberra’s first grand champion of the riesling challenge almost didn’t exist. Winemaker Bryan Martin says hail stripped the vines almost bare, then 200mm of rain threatened the remaining crop with botrytis cinerea, a potentially destructive fungal disease.

But he sprayed the vines, spread anti-bird netting over the top and waited. The grapes ripened at comparatively low sugar levels and high acidity; and the missing leaves allowed the sun in and moisture out, defeating the botrytis spores.

Almost every bunch, however, included withered berries, the result of direct hail hits. So the picking crew cut the damaged fruit from every bunch before delivering it to nearby Clonakilla winery, where Martin works as a winemaker. The labour intensive work pushed Martin’s harvesting cost out to $1200 a tonne, he says.

In the winery he chilled the fruit to below 10 degrees Celsius in small, broad, flat bins. The shallow bins helped keep the berries intact, thereby avoiding release of phenolics, or tannins, into the juice. And chilling the whole bunches before crushing them in a gentle air-bag press, helped extract fine, phenolic-free juice.

Martin says he held back the last 100 litres – the product of the final, firmest pressing – as unfermented juice to blend back into the finished wine.

A cool fermentation captured the delicate riesling flavours in a bone dry and very acidic wine – a result of the unusually cool ripening period. Martin balanced the acidity by blending a small amount of unfermented juice into the wine.

The addition gave the wine a natural grape sugar content of 11 grams per litre. This subtly fleshed out the middle palate, without being discernibly sweet, reducing the impact of the potentially mouth-searing13 grams per litre of acid.

Until this year, says Martin, he sold his riesling grapes to Clonakilla. He made just 150 dozen bottles. Alas, the wine sold out at just $20 a bottle on withing days of the trophy presentation.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2012
First published 17 October 2012 in The Canberra Times

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 www.jacqueslurton.com) 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 www.capegracewines.com.au

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