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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

Penfolds reds in a class of their own

In an international context the latest Penfolds red releases, led by Grange, look very attractive. Grange 2005’s $550 price tag, or St Henri 2006’s $90, seem modest in comparison to Bordeaux heavyweight Chateau Latour 2005, a cabernet blend, at $US1,250 a bottle in New York; or next to it on the shelf Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Le Montrachet 2005, a chardonnay, fetching $US4,400.

For make no mistake about the quality or provenance of this latest release of Penfolds top reds. They’re in a class of their own – highly polished, sophisticated and strongly individual wines built for long cellaring. They’re exciting to drink now and probably for decades.

For our tasting, we opened the wines a couple of hours before pouring, then tasted up and down the line up for a couple of hours. Exposure to air released more aromas and flavours over time; and what started as a tight bunch of big young reds fairly quickly emerged as eight distinct wines.

We retasted the wines several times over the next two days and noted observations from other tasters, experience and inexperienced, ranging in age from mid-twenties to early sixties.

Reactions to the shirazes were surprisingly consistent given the range of ages and experience. Grange and RWT emerged as clear favourites, followed by St Henri (one taster ranked it at the top) and nobody knew quite how to place Magill Estate, but liked it nevertheless.

Overall, the cabernets were less liked, but the experienced tasters enjoyed the depth and elegance of Bin 407 and the sheer power of Bin 707. And to my palate anyway, Bin 389, a cabernet shiraz blend, appealed more and more as the days ticked by.


Penfolds Bin 28 Kalimna Shiraz 2007 $25–$30

Grape variety: shiraz

Region: South Australia, including Langhorne Creek, Upper Adelaide, Barossa, McLaren Vale and Limestone Coast.

Maturation: 12 months in seasoned American oak hogsheads (300 litre) and a portion in large old oak vats

We threw Bin 28, Bin 389 and Bin 407 into the tasting as sighters for the blue chip range. Both held up well. There’s no new oak in Bin 28 these days and that’s not a bad thing. However, it’s still in the big, ripe, warm-climate shiraz mould with the Penfolds thumbprint – robust tannins woven through the fruit, giving a meaty complexity. Upstaged in this line up, but it’s a solid and thoroughly enjoyable red.

Penfolds St Henri Shiraz 2006 $80–$90

Grape varieties: 89% shiraz; 11% cabernet sauvignon

Region: Barossa, McLaren Vale and Limestone Coast

Maturation: 15 months in 1,460-litre oak vats, more than 50-years old

The aroma’s fragrant, spicy and immediately recognisable as shiraz, but taking on a winey complexity. There’s a sweet core of elegant fruit. But the structure is taut and grippy — the fine, slightly austere tannins no doubt contributed by the cabernet in the blend. This is a very fine, elegant, beautiful wine. From experience should be at its best from about fifteen years’ age. Some vintages have recently fetched higher prices than Grange at auction.

Penfolds Magill Estate Shiraz 2007 $114.99 (cellar door only)

Grape variety: shiraz

Region: Magill Vineyard, Adelaide

Maturation: 14 months in hogsheads – 63% new French, 32% new American, 5% one-year-old French

The just-released 2007 Magill Estate is a long way from those lighter bodied, short lived experimental wines of the eighties, when its creation saved this historic vineyard from subdivision. It’s a beautiful, floral scented red with deep, supple, elegant fruit melded with spicy oak. It’s comparatively high in alcohol at 14.5% but not heavy or hot – the fruit’s just too good. In our tasting it was flanked and overshadowed by St Henri and RWT. But sipped on its own a few days later showed real class. Gago says production in 2007 was tiny, so it’s available only at cellar door.

Penfolds RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz 2007 $158–$175

Grape variety: shiraz

Region: Northwestern Barossa Valley

Maturation: 13 month in 71% new, 29% one-year-old French oak hogsheads

RWT” stands for “red wine trial” – a prosaic name for a spectacular wine developed in the nineties and launched with the 1997 vintage. Peter Gago says it’s sourced from the northwestern end of the Barossa – an area favoured by Penfolds and source, too, of much Grange material. This is as good as Barossa shiraz gets – a sensationally plush, soft, refined red with a perfect matching of fruit and French oak. It’s a wonderful contrast to the more muscular Grange. And, says Gago, it protects Grange: With the lovely, refined RWT in the range it’s easier for him to resist misguided calls from some quarters to alter the Grange style.

Penfolds Grange 2005 $500–$550

Grape variety: 96% shiraz; 4% cabernet sauvignon

Region: Barossa, McLaren Vale and Coonawarra.

Maturation: 18 months in new American oak hogsheads

Grange is Grange – inky deep colour, overwhelming aroma and flavour impact of ripe, dense, sweet fruit, mouth-flooding tannins, distinctive flavour of American oak and a unique perky, buoyant lift. This is a great wine of rare dimension. Over many decades it’ll mellow and grow paler, becoming more fragile and ethereal as the decades roll on.


Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet Shiraz 2007 $58–$65

Variety: 54% cabernet sauvignon; 46% shiraz

Region: South Australia, including Coonawarra, McLaren Vale, Langhorne Creek, Padthaway and Barossa

Maturation: 12 months in 39% new American oak hogsheads, 61% older American oak.

Cabernet sets the tone in the 48th vintage of Bin 389 – in the ripe cabernet aromas and flavours and the firm tannins. But shiraz adds mid palate richness and savoury, meaty complexity. It’s hard for any wine to stand next to Grange. But 389 blossomed over a couple of days, outranked by the big guns, but it’s impressive nevertheless and looking good for the cellar.

Penfolds Bin 407 Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 $50–$55

Grape variety: cabernet sauvignon

Region: South Australia, including Coonawarra, McLaren Vale and Langhorne Creek

Maturation: 13 months in French and American oak, one third new, two thirds older.
This is absolutely pure cabernet with aromas and flavours reminiscent of black olive, cassis and a tease of mint; these combine well with the oak, which adds a cedary note. The palate’s intense but elegant, with good flesh and the variety’s firm, gripping tannins.

Penfolds Bin 707 Cabernet Sauvignon $170–$190

Grape variety: cabernet sauvignon

Region: Padthaway, Barossa Valley and Coonawarra

Maturation: 15 months in 100% new American oak hogsheads

Bin 707 has Grange-like power and, like Grange, completes its fermentation then matures in new American oak barrels. The oak adds its own distinct, assertive flavour to the well-defined, ripe cabernet flavours. Powerful, grippy tannins complete the picture of an exceptional wine that needs decades to evolve.

Like Grange, Bin 707 attracts some criticism for its style, particularly for the powerful influence American oak has on its aroma and flavour. However, the style won’t be changing says Peter Gago. Instead Penfolds will next year release a contrasting flagship cabernet sauvignon, yet to be named (any ideas?). It’s made entirely from Coonawarra cabernet and matured in French oak. Gago says that just as RWT protects the Grange style, the new cabernet will protect Bin 707.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

Wine review — Chapel Hill, Barwang, Chalkers Crossing and Bremerton

Chapel Hill McLaren Vale

  • Verdelho 2009 $16–$20
  • Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 $27–$30

Verdelho, one of the classic Madeira varieties, made its way to Australia in the nineteenth century. It thrived as both a fortified and table variety. Today it’s valued as niche white variety, partly because it retains acidity in our warm growing regions. This example from Chapel Hill captures the variety’s fresh, crisp sappy edge and makes an interesting diversion from sauvignon blanc. Though robust, tannic and deeply layered the cabernet, from the exceptionally hot 2008 vintage, shows a tease of green, leafy notes among the riper blackcurrant-like flavours. Not for the faint hearted.

Barwang Hilltops Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 $17–$20
Chalkers Crossing Tumbarumba Chardonnay 2008 $18–$20

Cabernet sauvignons from the nearby Hilltops region (Young) generally perform well at the Canberra Regional Wine Show. Barwang, the region’s first vineyard, now owned by McWilliams, shows some of that class in its modestly priced 2008 vintage. It shows pleasantly fleshy, minty, chocolaty varietal flavour and has an assertive, firm tannic grip. It’s well distributed and sometimes deeply discounted. And at a recent masked tasting, Chalkers Crossing Chardonnay 2008, from high, cool Tumbarumba rated well. It’s an understated, elegant style built on high-acid cool-climate fruit flavours but with a textural richness derived from barrel fermentation and maturation.

Bremerton Langhorne Creek

  • Special Release Malbec 2008 $24
  • Tamblyn Cabernet Shiraz Malbec Merlot 2008 $17–$19

Malbec has a long history in Langhorne Creek, generally playing a support role to other varieties. Occasionally, though, it stands on its own (as it does in Cahors, France, and widely in Argentina), producing fragrant, deeply coloured, supple, fruity wine with firm but fine tannins. Bremerton comes from the Willson family vineyards, established in 1985. It’s made by Rebecca Willson, daughter of founders Craig and Mignonne. The Tamblyn blend, too, shows Langhorne Creek’s generous fruit and juicy depth – clear cabernet notes leading the harmonious blend. The malbec is available only by mail order and at cellar door. See

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

Max Schubert’s lost Magill specification revealed

Towards the end of his life Grange creator Max Schubert trusted his original hand written specification for Penfolds Magill Estate (first made in 1983) to a trusted colleague, Barrie Woodward, then South Australian state manager of Southcorp Wines (owner of Penfolds at the time).

Until now, Magill has been billed as an estate-grown wine. Indeed its creation saved the historic vineyard, just eight kilometres east of the Adelaide CBD, from subdivision. Schubert’s document reveals, however, plans to beef up shiraz from Magill with material from the Eden Valley and Coonawarra.

Schubert’s specification, dated 9 October 1982:

Chateau Magill Wine

1. Concept

To make a French Chateau style red wine, distinctly different to the Grange Hermitage style, in that body weight and colour would be approximately half that of Grange, whilst aroma, flavour and character would be individual and pronounced, extractives would be less resulting in more elegance consistent with lighter body. As such it would be different to Grange Hermitage.

2. Material

Derived from approximately 16 acres Shiraz or Hermitage grapes remaining as per subdivisional plans Adelaide Development Co.

Hermitage in itself would not be sufficient to give the character, breeding and complexity to make the wine as designated, and would require additional 20% minimum involvement Hermitage from selected vineyard Eden Valley area, and Hermitage or Cabernet Sauvignon from our own Coonwarra Vineyard.

Grapes would be hand picked.’

3. Yield

Based on average 3 tons per acre return from Chateau Magill vineyard would be 50 tons. Supplementary tonnage would be 5 tons Eden Valley Hermitage and 5 tons Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon. This would represent 20% outside involvement. Total tonnage for processing would be 60 tons.’

Penfolds The Rewards of Patience, first edition, published about 1986, describes Magill Estate as ‘the pick of the shiraz fruit off the Magill vineyard’ and that it was ‘the result of the collaboration of Don Ditter, Penfolds’ current Chief Winemaker an Max Schubert A.M., the creator of Grange.’ It doesn’t mention the external material recommended by Schubert.

When I phoned current chief winemaker, Peter Gago, he said he’d not seen Schubert’s document and wasn’t aware of external fruit being used in the wine, but was keen to amend the record if it had been.

Gago subsequently contacted winemaker John Bird, who’d joined Penfolds in 1960 and worked with Schubert and Ditter on those early Magill wines. Bird recalled using Eden Valley and Coonawarra material and even a touch from Clare, up to a legal percentage, for the first two or three vintages – he couldn’t recall precisely for how long. After those first few vintages Magill became entirely an estate-grown wine for philosophical reasons and because it didn’t need beefing up, Bird said.

Bird said he viewed those early vintages as experimental, much as St Henri and Grange had been trialled for several vintages before release. Grange, for example, had been made from 1951, but 1955 was the first to be released. Magill, however, was released immediately, presumably to fulfil a commitment to the Adelaide Steamship board (the board had approved the creation of Magill Estate on the basis of Schubert’s specification, see below).

Woodward, now co-proprietor of Leura Cellars, New South Wales, has now released a copy to Gago for the Penfolds archive. Gago says the full Magill story will appear in the next edition of The Rewards of Patience.

The background to the creation of Magill is related here by Max Schubert (1915–1994) in an interview recorded by David Farmer and myself in Schubert’s office at Magill in 1992:

Magill land was being sold off for subdivision and this was being done by Adelaide Steamship [owners of Tooths Brewery which owned Penfolds] because the cost of running the vineyards around Magill was damn near twice that of running them elsewhere. That was one reason. We could never make the Magill vineyard pay… what I tried to get them to do — I know that was thrown out quick smart — that they should cost each vineyard on the basis of the quality of the of wine it was producing. For instance, Magill produced only top grade quality wine … which brought in the greatest amount of profit and they should be costed on that basis and it was quickly pointed out that that wasn’t in the system.

… he [the financial controller] was thinking of selling the bloody cellars and all at one stage. And we tried to get the government interested… Tonkin was first, and then even Dunstan… in sort of buying the land for posterity, and all Dunstan wanted to do was to carve it up and put a high school there. But Tonkin, he was very sympathetic, but wouldn’t come at buying the place … and preserving it as a heritage thing.

… I discussed it with Jim Williams [Penfolds General Manager] and I reckoned we could make something along the chateau line… he was enthusiastic about it, so we went into the next board meeting with this proposition that I would design a wine that would be different to a Grange and somewhat different to our other wines in the main and it would be more in keeping with what was then termed as the modern style… and reluctantly this was agreed to provided I did the design down to the nth degree sufficiently for them to get a true costing done and a probability exercise.

It was all to be very hush hush, and it was all to be done within the board itself because our finance man was also in charge of costing and all that rubbish. So this was done and the original design … was all done in my handwriting and was given to the finance director, and he came up with a nice answer… it allowed for all possible costs, even hidden costs, and so this was placed before the board, and surprisingly they went along with it and well, we haven’t lost any money over it.”

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

Wine review — Shingleback, d’Arenberg, Chapel Hill, Brokenwood and Voyager Estate

Shingleback Red Knot McLaren Valley Shiraz 2008 $13–$15
d’Arenberg McLaren Vale The Footbolt Shiraz 2008 $16–$20
Chapel Hill McLaren Vale Shiraz 2008 $27–$33

Yum yum yum – there’s flavour galore in these shirazes from the uber-hot McLaren Vale 2008 vintage. They share ripeness, liveliness and a regional savoury undertone. Shingleback’s Red Knot displays the brightest most primary fruit flavours; d’Arenberg’s Footbolt seems slightly earthier – though both provide straightforward, easy drinking without much complexity. Chapel Hill turns up the flavour, savouriness and complexity volume and grows in interest with each glass. It’s smooth and supple in its own robust way.

Brokenwood Beechworth Nebbiolo 2008 $22–$25
Brokenwood Beechworth Indigo Vineyard Shiraz 2008 $45–$55

If any of us still distrusts lighter coloured reds, Brokenwood Nebbiolo is the wine to dispel it. It has the alluring fragrance of Piedmont’s notoriously difficult grape and an Aussie accent in the bright, sweet kernel of fruit lurking under its taut, fine, grippy, savoury tannins. This is a very good, thoroughly enjoyable drink with a difference. The medium bodied shiraz also takes us to new territory. The firm, sinewy tannin backbone reminds me a little shiraz from France’s Hermitage region. But the aroma and flavour are all-Australian, cool-climate shiraz, reminiscent of ripe, dark berries, black pepper and a pleasing earthy note. Outstanding wine.

Voyager Estate Margaret River Shiraz 2008 $30–$34
Voyager Estate Margaret River Chardonnay 2007 $38–$42

The shiraz looked smart in a recent small line up of varied Australian shiraz styles. I’d describe it as in the robust cool-climate style – fairly full bodied but with exceptionally vibrant, spicy, plummy fruit flavours and a tight structure built on high acidity and fine tannins. It was our mutual top wine of the tasting and the only bottle to be drained completely. Voyager’s chardonnay rates among Australia’s best. Winemaker Steve James says that in the hot 2007 he picked the fruit at comparatively low sugar levels, partly accounting for the exceptional vibrancy of this luxurious barrel-fermented white.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

Savouring the shiraz spectrum

Australia owns shiraz – not just in the generic sense of making juicy, soft, affordable quaffers (which we do very well) but in expressing a wide spectrum of styles across our dozens of regions.
We’ve arrived at an amazing diversity of extraordinarily good shirazes. And the quality we’re now enjoying seems to be drawn from long traditions, combined with attentive, sympathetic winemaking.

We can look up to expensive icons like Grange and Hill of Grace. But we don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars a bottle to enjoy comparable quality. There’s a wealth of superb shiraz out there in a sweet spot between $30 and $50 a bottle – not everyday prices for sure, but a modest enough sum for the luxurious indulgence they provide.

With shiraz in mind, eight tasters recently explored an eclectic line-up at Chateau Shanahan. We served the wines masked, in groups of three, over a long, leisurely meal.

The selection represented the finer, cool-grown end of the shiraz spectrum from seven regions – with one wine each from New Zealand and France thrown in to broaden our perspective.

Here’s our report. Remember, too, this is not a final tasting following an exhaustive search. They’re just nine wines, currently available in retail stores and representing a range of styles.

We found nine distinctive wines each enjoyable. Only one, considerably cheaper than others, seemed out of its depth – the selector’s fault, not the wine’s. Mea Culpa.


Penfolds Bin 128 Coonawarra Shiraz 2008 $25–$34
Max Schubert made the first Bin 128 in 1962 and matured it in American oak barrels similar to the ones he used for the other Penfolds reds, generally from much warmer regions than Coonawarra. In 1980 chief winemaker Don Ditter switched from American oak to French oak. This proved more in tune with the comparatively delicate fruit of Coonawarra.

The 2008 vintage is on the ripe side of the Coonawarra flavour spectrum. It’s very bright with sweet berry flavours, wrapped in layers of soft tannins. The oak flavours are already well integrated with the fruit.

Some of the earlier Bin 128s seemed swamped by tannin in youth, but over time the lovely elegance of Coonawarra came through. But this could take ten or more years.  Although the 2008 shows the bigger, riper side of Coonawarra, it’s not over ripe and the elegant structure is already emerging. I suspect it’ll really strut its origins and class within three or four years and drink well for decades. Thumbs up from all eight tasters.

Meerea Park Canberra District XYZ Shiraz 2008 $19–$22
Brothers Garth and Rhys Eather focus most of their winemaking on the lower Hunter, around Pokolbin. But the “failure of the 2008 Hunter Valley shiraz vintage forced us to look elsewhere for suitable fruit”, writes Garth. They found what they wanted at Murrumbateman.
On opening, the wine had the unpleasant pong of hydrogen sulphide, but this largely dissipated with decanting – leaving a tiny trace in the glass, picked up by some but not all of the tasters. The wine’s in the spicy, savoury Canberra mould and just a little raw at present. The fruit flavours seemed simple in comparison to the other two wines in the bracket – but hardly surprising given the price difference.

Coldstream Hills Yarra Valley Reserve Shiraz 2006 $36–$40
Like Penfolds, Coldstream Hills is part of the Foster’s wine group, though the wines are grown and made in different regions by different winemakers – Penfolds by Peter Gago, Coldstream Hills by Andrew Fleming.

This is a beautiful wine, showing the benefit of a few years’ bottle age and the lovely aromatic lift given by a touch of viognier co-fermented with the shiraz. The medium bodied palate is lively, buoyant, silk smooth and packed with ripe, cherry-like fruit flavour, and a spicy, savoury note. Pure class; loved by all tasters.


Tyrrell’s Vat 9 Hunter Valley Shiraz 2007 $45–$53
About a decade ago Tyrrell’s began installing 2,500-litre French oak casks to mature, and in the case of chardonnay, to ferment, their flagship wines. The move away from the more widely used 300–500 litre hogsheads and barriques, recognised the subtleness and keeping qualities of earlier wines matured in larger, old-oak vessels. Essentially, it was about providing an aerobic environment to stabilise and mature wine while reducing the overall impact of oak flavour. Hence, Vat 9, the company’s flagship red, now spends time in these large casks, old and new, before bottling.

The style used to be called Hunter “burgundy”– a salute to its supple, soft texture and earthy notes. Attentive modern winemaking delivers a Vat 9 of extraordinary dimension. It’s ripe and juicy with traditional soft tannins; but it’s tremendously bright and fresh with soft, tender tannins, a subtle, complex spicy bite from the oak and an underlying earthiness that marks it as Hunter, even in a masked tasting like ours.

It’s a distinctive and potentially very long-lived wine that should become finer and more ethereal over the decades. Pleasing to all tasters.

Best’s Bin O Great Western Shiraz 2006 $50–$55
Henry Best established a vineyard at Great Western, Victoria, in 1866. The Thomson family bought it in 1920 and fourth and fifth generation Viv and Ben Thomson today make Bin 0 Shiraz from four low yielding blocks planted between 1966 and 1994 using cuttings from older vines on the block, some dating from 1868.

In our tasting Bin 0 seemed brawny, wedged between Tyrrell’s gentle, soft Vat 9 and the highly aromatic, lingering, medium bodied Clonakilla O’Riada. It had the body and power of warm-grown shiraz; but a note of “mint” underlying the ripe, black cherry flavour suggested a cooler climate. The wine blossomed over time in the glass, displaying great power with elegance, and attracting heaps of discussion. I suspect it’ll cellar for decades.

Clonakilla Canberra District O’Riada Shiraz 2008 $36–$40
This delicious, fine-boned shiraz viognier is an offshoot of Clonakilla’s $75 flagship shiraz viognier. The wine comprises about 40 per cent of components “declassified” from the flagship blend plus material from three local growers favoured by winemaker Tim Kirk: Phil Williams of Hall and Long Rail Gully and Quarry Hill Vineyards of Murrumbateman.

I’ve seen enjoyed the wine over several meals now and in this masked tasting it once again showed class, in Clonakilla’s unique way. I noted its lifted, spicy, gorgeous aroma; lively, spicy, delicious flavours with a fine structure based on high acidity as well as fine-grained tannins.
Interestingly it didn’t please all tasters – one in particular preferred the rounder, softer wines to this more acidic style.


Craggy Range Hawkes Bay Block 14 Gimblett Gravels Syrah 2007 $28–$32
When we close our eyes and think of shiraz, New Zealand doesn’t normally come to mind. In general the climate there’s too cool to ripen shiraz. However, the Gimblett Gravels – a stony, well-drained part of the Hawke’s Bay region – produces some rippers, especially in warm seasons like 2007.

In our final bracket, featuring shiraz (aka syrah) from three countries, Craggy range showed the intense fragrance and pepperiness of its cool origins. And, like the Clonakilla wine before it, high acid and fine tannins seemed to accentuate the deep, juicy, delicious fruit flavours. It’s a wonderful wine, right out there on the coolest end of the shiraz spectrum. Well liked by the tasters.

Hermitage (Domaine des Martinelles) 2005 $72–$80
For almost two centuries Australians knew “hermitage” as a synonym for “shiraz”. But after we recognised “Hermitage” as a protected French name, we dropped the name from our labels – hence Grange Hermitage became Grange.

Hermitage, the hill on France’s Rhone Valley, grows shiraz and its powerful, long-lived reds once rated among the country’s finest. Although the status has slipped, our representative from this hot little hill, showed the legendary strength and backbone of the style – providing a great contrast to the New Zealand and Canberra wines either side of it in our tasting.

It’s powerful, but not in the style, say, of a big, bold, fruity Barossa wine – but in a more sinewy way: the flavours are strong, but not fleshy and backed by taut, firm tannins.

It’s a good, clean modern wine expressing the regional style – and enjoyed by all tasters.

Collector Canberra District Reserve Shiraz 2008 $45–$50
Alex McKay’s Collector Reserve 2008 won four trophies at the recent Sydney Royal Wine Show, topping Aussie greats like Vasse Felix Cabernet and Best’s Bin O Shiraz. Alex sourced the shiraz from the Kyeema Murrumbatemen Vineyard – and added a few buckets of the white variety, viognier, from Kyeema and Wayne and Jennie Fischer’s vineyard.

In our tasting we saw parallels with the Clonakilla wine in general structure and style: medium bodied and spicy with a backbone combining acid and fine tannins. But we noted, too, the distinctive stalky character derived from including whole-bunches (stalks and all) in the fermentation.

McKay says he worried at the time that he might have overdone the whole-bunch thing. However, though it’s apparent, it’s really seasoning in a superb, silky, sweet-fruited wine most of us ranked highly – one taster expressing a caveat on the stalkiness.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

Wine review — Tyrrell’s, Pizzini and Grosset

Tyrrell’s Lost Block whites $14–$19

  • Hunter Valley Semillon 2009
  • Frankland River Sauvignon Blanc 2009

The popular vote’s with sauvignon blanc at present and Tyrrell’s version – sourced from Frankland River, Western Australia – scrubs up better than most as it has flesh and texture to match the tropical-fruit-like varietal flavour. Almost apologetically, Bruce Tyrrell’s press release calls it “the result of commercial necessity”. I suspect Tyrrell’s heart and palate are more in tune with the semillon. It’s a refreshingly low 11 per cent alcohol and features appealing, delicate, lemon-like regional flavour. But instead of the bone-dry austerity often seen in young Hunter semillons, especially those built for decades of cellaring, Lost Block’s round and soft and quite juicy, despite the low alcohol.

Pizzini King Valley

  • Pinot Grigio 2009 $18.50
  • Whitefields Pinot Grigio 2009 $25
  • Nebbiolo 2005 $45

Pinot gris, pinot grigio – same grape, but understandably the Pizzini family adopts the Italian name and northern Italian winemaking style. The cheaper version always rates well against its Aussie peers. But the new Whitefields 2009 offers a lovely extra fruit concentration – and the textural richness and complex flavour derived from barrel fermentation (with wild yeasts). At a recent tasting people quaffed the Whitefields down in preference to the Tyrrell’s semillon reviewed above. At the same tasting Pizzini Nebbiolo 2005 upstaged the other reds. It’s an exciting expression of this powerful, elegant and tannic Piedmontese style.


  • Piccadilly Chardonnay 2008 $53
  • Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir 2008 $66
  • Clare Valley Gaia 2007 $60

We tasted Grosset’s Piccadilly after a run of very good chardonnays. And it stood out – not because it was bigger or bolder; but for its delicacy and harmony. It’s a wine of great underlying power and richness – and it’s seamlessly absorbed all the winemaking inputs that often build layers of distinct flavours around chardonnay. One bottle seemed hardly enough. Likewise Grosset’s pinot delivered buckets of flavour and in the most subtle, enjoyable, more-ish way. And Gaia, a blend of cabernet sauvignon franc and merlot, delivered juicy, ripe berry flavours cocooned in firm, dry tannins.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010