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Canberra – vintage 2010 a rollercoaster

What might vintage 2010 hold for Canberra wine drinkers? The season began exceptionally hot  and dry in November, turned cool and wet at Christmas, warmed up in January, then dumped rain again in February and March – encouraging berry split and fungal diseases. A slightly too-cool week following the early March rain retarded grape ripening. But as I write the mercury’s rising and we’re moving into a final, idyllic run of cool nights and warm days.

This is likely to save the day for the district’s red grapes. But the vintage could be down as much as fifty per cent for both reds whites, due largely to outbreaks of the fungal disease botrytis cinerea and berry split.

Ken Helm at Murrumbateman calls 2010 “the most topsy-turvy vintage ever”. Pessimism set in as the November heatwave stressed vines and seemed likely to bring vintage forward by weeks. But optimism rose at Christmas when four days of rain and cool weather revived the vines and put vintage back on a normal track.

Optimism faded with the February rain and outbreaks of mildew and botrytis – especially after bird netting made anti-fungal spraying a nightmare. But Helm and his grape growers found a workaround, using a small tractor and an improvised technique to spray a mix of hydrogen peroxide and acetic acid through the nets.

By now Helm had written off the chance of making a premium riesling in 2010, despite a record crush of the variety. Yes, there’s botrytis in some of it. But Helm is amazed by the combination of high sugar, exceptionally low pH and high acidity of the riesling juice – enough to revive hopes of a ‘premium’ riesling. It’s still a long shot and he says the jury’s out until the wine’s bottled in June.

Chardonnay withstood the botrytis charge less well and is a complete write off – there’ll be none made in 2010. A little sauvignon blanc survived to make a botrytis affected semi-dry style.

Helm’s main red variety, cabernet sauvignon, sourced from Al Lustenburger’s block, looks healthy, he says but won’t ripen until early April.

Clonakilla’s Tim Kirk calls 2010 “a difficult year that’s not in the same league as 2008 and 2009 – and in fact shows what remarkable years they were”. He’s glad to have picked riesling before the early March rain and says because it’s on the low-alcohol, high-acid side, it’ll be a delicate style.

By 13 March, he’d already processed 70 tonnes of “fantastic” red grapes from the warmer Hilltops region, but still had some whites and all of his reds hanging on the Murrumbateman vineyards. He anticipated harvesting the reds between mid March and early April. “It’ll be a selective pick”, Kirk said, “and some of the fruit will be declassified”.

Roger Harris of Brindabella Hills, Hall, describes 2010 as complex, “even the vines are confused”, he says, with cabernet ripening ahead of shiraz when it’s normally the other way around. Harris says he escaped disease but berry split (followed by shrivelling) caused by the rain reduced his crop significantly.

He’s made tiny amounts of good sauvignon blanc and riesling (crops are down 50 per cent) and, if weather forecasts prove correct, he anticipates a small but high quality shiraz crop.

At our highest and coolest vineyard, Lark Hill, vintage generally begins later – the first fruit generally coming in as the rest of the district polishes of the last of its whites. Running against the district trend, Sue Carpenter calls 2010 “our most striking vintage yet” with picking of pinot noir and chardonnay for sparkling wine scheduled for 19 March and chardonnay and riesling for table wine a day later. She expects to wrap vintage up on 15 April, harvesting the Austrian variety gruner veltliner and riesling for Lark Hill’s legendary auslese.

Carpenter says the vineyard has no botrytis and attributes this to biodynamic vineyard management. She believes that mulching interferes with botrytis’s life cycle. As well, the berry skins are too thick for the botrytis to penetrate and it therefore dies.

Down the hill at Lerida Estate on Lake George, Jim Lumbers reports good quality but quantities severely reduced by a “huge amount of botrytis”.  He says he salvaged 50 per cent of the chardonnay by using sorting tables – eliminating rotten fruit and sending only clean fruit to the fermenters. The resulting wine should be on the light and delicate side, reflecting the low sugar and high acid of the cool vintage.

Lumbers says unlike other recent cool vintages, 2002 and 2005, 2010 received far more rain. The combination of cool weather and moisture means big crops losses to botrytis and significantly later ripening for the red varieties.

Lumbers anticipates losing half of his pinot noir crop and sees his vineyard “sitting on the boundary of possibility” – meaning that when the chances of ripening fruit is marginal there’s also the possibility, given a run of slightly warmer days, of producing exceptional wine.

At this stage, he says, merlot and cabernet franc are “bursting with health, with berries like melons – but they need weeks to ripen”. And shiraz, says Lumbers, “is as green as green and needs ages. Perhaps Edgar Riek was right after all” (Dr Riek, founder of the neighbouring Lake George vineyard believed Lake George foreshore too cool to ripen shiraz).

At this stage, with the whites largely in the vat and the reds still on the vine, we can’t assess the vintage properly. What we do know is that quantities are down and the whites will be on the delicate side. The fate of our reds depends on weather conditions over the next few weeks. No rain dances, OK.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009

Wine review — Helm and Wynns Coonawarra Estate

Helm Canberra District Cabernet Sauvignon 2007  $27–$32
There’s bad news and good news. First the bad – frost decimated Ken Helm’s cabernet crop in 2007. And now the good news – the small, crop, much of it second-growth fruit, developed ripe flavours at low sugar levels, meaning lower alcohol wine. And more good news – Ken backed off on the new oak, using mainly two and three year old barrels. The result is a fragrant, elegant, delicious cabernet, rippling with sweet, supple varietal fruit, counterbalanced by cabernet’s assertive, drying tannins. This is a big step away from the too-oaky wines of past vintages, liberating the bright, berry fruit flavours.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate Shiraz 2008 $9.90–$20
Put this and the cabernet in the next column on your bargain-watch list. Both are phenomenally good wines and occasionally the big retailers prices slash the prices to ridiculously low levels. It’s a beautifully aromatic, vibrant, cool climate shiraz featuring ripe but spicy and juicy fruit flavours and ever-so-fine, soft tannins. It’s sourced from central and northern Coonawarra and matured for just six months in older French and American oak barrels. I suspect, however, that another few months in oak and an extra year in bottle might have taken this to an even higher level. It drinks well now and will flourish for decades if well cellared.

Wynns Coonawarra Estate  ‘Black Label’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 $19–$32
A severe frost in October 2006 nipped much of the 2007 vintage in the bud, reducing production of Black Label by 80 per cent. What’s left, though, is a world-class cabernet, at the elegant end of the Coonawarra spectrum. The colour’s vibrant and limpid. And though the aroma’s ripe and purely varietal, the palate is medium bodied, with the unique, and delicious, underlying power and structure of Coonawarra cabernet.  It’s already drinkable and showing some savoury notes. But there’s the depth and harmony here for a good ten years, probably more, in a good cellar.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

Canberra importer finds Italy’s sweet spot

Can a wholesale import business focussed on sweet Italian wine succeed in Australia? Canberra’s Brian and Carol Keil, with Italian based Imogen McNamara, will soon know. With the first shipment of their Pilgrim Wines now in Australia, the Keils paraded their sweeties, and a few dry wines as well, in front of the Canberra trade two weeks ago.

I offer my impressions below. But bear in mind that distribution has barely begun and prices are estimates only, based on list wholesale price. You should send queries about pricing and availability to


Maso Martis Brut Rosé 2009 (Trentino) $90 750ml
A very good, if very young, 100 per cent pinot noir bottle-fermented bubbly rosé, with a strong acid backbone that seems slightly separate from the intense varietal flavour. Distinctive style, but when you can buy 1999 Pol Roger Champagne for around $80, it’s hard to see value in this youngster.

Volpe Pasin Sauvignon 2008 (Colli Orientali del Friuli) $60 750ml
A bright, fresh, intensely flavoured, finely textured sauvignon blanc. It’s pure and varietal but not as in your face as Marlborough styles. $60 seems a lot to pay for sauvignon, especially when you can buy similarly restrained styles from Sancerre (in France’s Loire Valley) for $20–$30.

Russiz Superiore Friulano 2008 (Friuli Venezia) $60 750ml
Made from the friulano grape, also known as sauvignon vert, sauvignonasse and, formerly, as tocai Friulano. The wine’s reminiscent of gewürztraminer in its grapey intensity, viscous texture and firm finish. Idiosyncratic and not to my taste.

Volpe Pinot Grigio (Colli Orientali del Friuli) 2006 $82 750ml
There’s no doubting the intensity of varietal flavour. But it’s marred, in my opinion, by oak flavours that aren’t integrated with the fruit. It reminded me of poorly oaked wines we made in Australia thirty years ago, before our vignerons learned to ferment (not just mature) whites in oak barrels.

Palari Faro 2006 (Sicily) $117 750ml
Did I miss something? Let’s, euphemistically, call this much-awarded red “rustic”.

Marco Donati Sangue di Drago 2007 (Trentino) $82 750ml
Made from old teroldego vines (the variety shares a parent with shiraz), this unique wine is bright, crimson rimmed and brimming with succulent, jube-like aromas and flavours. The palate’s velvet textured with fine, bone-dry tannins.

Dominio di Bagnoli Friularo Vendemmia Tardiva 2001 (Veneto) $81 500ml
Late picked friularo grapes give this red particularly ripe fruit flavours that jut through the high acid and austere tannins. It’s idiosyncratic and ageing well but I suspect uninvited microbial guests may be behind the accompanying “rustic” notes.


Maso Martis Moscato Rosa 2008 (Trentino) $94 375ml
Who can resist muscat – especially a limpid, delicately pink, penetratingly musky, aromatic luscious one like this. Simply delicious.

Bonotto delle Tezze Raboso Passito 2007 (Veneto) $84 500ml
The Bonotto family’s sweet red offers a tour de force of deep purple colours and sweet-and-sour juicy, fruity, stalky flavours. It’s made from late picked air-dried grapes and matured for two years in small oak barrels.

Dominio di Bagnoli Friularo Passito 2001 (Veneto) $82 750ml
Proprietor Dr Borletti makes his passito from friularo grapes dried in the estate’s grainary. The wine is matured in oak barrels for three years and emerges intensely raisin like and sweet, lifted by volatile acidity (aka vinegar – a minor but useful component of all wines).  But underlying the seductive sweetness are the very dry, grippy, firm, red-wine tannins.

Le Salette Recioto della Valpolicella 2005 (Veneto) $101 500ml
This wine could’ve been a blend of very ripe, sweet black cherries laced with balsamic vinegar – complex and fascinating but way out on the vinegar limb. It certainly stretches the concept of wine to the limits and tests the boundary between wine and vinegar – intense, sweet fruitiness being the flux.

Trabucchi Recioto della Valpolicella 2005 (Veneto) $129
Like the Le Salette wine above, the flavours resemble super ripe, sweet black cherries; but there’s little balsamic in this recioto; instead very dry, persistent, red-wine tannins acting as a foil to the plush, sweet fruit. A wonderful and distinctive drink.

Tramin Gewurztraminer 2007 (Alto Adige) $80 375ml
This is a richly textured but very fine, luscious, barrel-aged, late-picked gewürztraminer, that avoids the heaviness and hardness often associated with the variety.
Tramin Gewurztraminer Terminum Vendemmia Tardiva 2006 (Alto Adige) $130 375ml
Sample cork tainted; unable to rate. Dear Italians, wake up to screw cap.


Le Salette Passito Cesare 2005 (Veneto) $87 500ml
This is made from dried malvasia and garganega grapes and aged in oak for twenty months. Presumably this oxidative process explains the wine’s slightly bronzed colour and touch of sherry-like tang overlying the intensely sweet, dried-fruit flavours.

Suavia Recioto di Soave Acinatum 2005 (Veneto) $86
This beautiful, fine, soft wine is made from dried garganega grapes, fermented and matured in oak barrels. The shimmering lemon-gold colour belies its age and fit with its lively, luscious, lovely apricot-like flavours.

Trabucchi Recioto di Soave 2005 (Veneto) $110 500ml
This another glorious recioto di Soave, this time fermented in steel tanks and matured in oak. Luscious, apricot flavours are at the core, but there’s a beautiful lift and buoyancy and a lively, fresh acidity drying out the finish.

Marco Cecchini Picolit 2006 (Friuli-Venezia-Guilia) $110 500ml
A comparatively dull wine after the Soaves, presentable and luscious with flavours reminiscent of honeycomb; but, alas, didn’t push our buttons.

Marco Cecchini Verlit 2006 (Friuli-Venezia-Guilia) $85 500ml
This is made from dried verduzzo grapes fermented and matured in oak barrels ¬– a winemaking regime that adds a slightly varnishy, sherry-like complexity to the concentrated, luscious sweet fruit flavours.

Cantine Viola Moscato di Saracena 2007 (Sardinia) $122 500ml
What an extraordinary wine – it’s a golden-amber colour; the aroma is high-toned and penetrating with subtle, underlying caramel notes. The palate is lively ¬– the plush, sweet, caramel and toffee flavours tempered by an intense, acidic backbone. It’s made from gently heated, crushed malvasia and guarnaccia grapes, with slowly-dried moscato grapes added.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

Wine review — Braided River, The Crossings, Brokenwood and Mount Pleasant

Braided River Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2009 $14–$19
The Crossings Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2009 $14–$19

New Zealand’s Ager Sectus Wine Estates, controlled by Peter and Debbie Cutfield, owns the ‘Braided River’ and ‘The Crossing’s brands. Winemaker Matt Mitchells says the bolder, traditional, in-your-face Braided River wine is an all-of-Marlborough blend. But the more restrained ‘The Crossings’ comes from the company’s extensive vineyards in the cooler Awatere Valley (to the south of the earlier-planted Wairau Valley). It’s paler in colour and lighter bodied with a taut acid backbone carrying the delicious, pure, tropical-fruit varietal flavour – something of a surprise from such a cool area, more noted for capsicum-like flavour from the other end of the spectrum.

Braided River Marlborough Pinot Noir 2008 $17–$22
The Crossings Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2009 $20–26

Marlborough’s unique, sunny, cool climate makes it the world’s sauvignon blanc capital. And its pinot is set to achieve similar status. Braided River, an all-of-Marlborough blend, offers pure, ripe varietal flavours, fleshed out by high-toast oak.  It’s soft but built like a real red and ready to enjoy now. The vividly coloured ‘The Crossings’ heads in a less fleshy, finer, more intense flavour direction. In tandem with the fruit, the fine but assertive tannin structure (derived from a range of oak types and extend maceration on skins) make for satisfying, complex drinking at the price.

Brokenwood Hunter Valley

  • ILR Reserve Semillon 2004 $45
  • Maxwell Vineyard Semillon 2005 $36

Mount Pleasant Lovedale Hunter Valley Semillon 2005 $65

We sipped this delicious, maturing Hunter trio over four days without noticeable degradation of wine quality – few whites could achieve this.  Brokenwood ILR 2004 (10 per cent alcohol) sits on the austere end of the style spectrum – dry as cucumber skin, brisk as limejuice and showing first hints of age. Maxwell 2005 (11 per cent alcohol) seems a little fuller and softer by comparison and it’s lemony rather than limey. Its vintage mate from the 1940s Lovedale vineyard (11.5 per cent alcohol) is a little deeper coloured but dust dry, with jaw dropping flavour intensity and gripping, dry acidity.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

Pinot set to join trans-Tasman sauvignon pipeline

Have you heard about the trans-Tasman sauvignon blanc pipeline to Bondi? Neither have I. But we’re swimming in the stuff and the tap’s not about to be turned off. In 2009 New Zealand exported 43.8 million litres (equivalent to 4.9 million dozen bottles) of wine to Australia. About ninety per cent of that was white wine, the majority of it sauvignon blanc.

The New Zealanders began planting sauvignon like crazy decades ago, sprinting to keep up with an insatiable international thirst. While the GFC imposed a momentary pause, exports began to gush again in 2009, albeit at the expense of producer margins.

With little capacity to move an estimated 30-million litre surplus domestically, New Zealand vignerons simply slashed prices – and international buyers opened their order books. Exports flooded out, accelerating in late 2009, possibly to create storage space for vintage 2010.

Exports to Australia, New Zealand’s biggest market, grew 40.9 per cent from 31.1 million litres in 2008 to 43.8 million litres in 2009. But the growth came at considerable cost to vignerons, as the price per litre fell 21.6 per cent, from $NZ9.53 to $NZ7.57.

Similarly, volume to the United Kingdom leapt 30.3 per cent from 31.1 to 41.2 million litres while the price per litre fell 17.2 per cent to $NZ6.74 from $NZ8.14. Running against this trend, Americans and Canadians imported greater volumes and paid more per litre. But Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands drove producer prices down significantly.

In Australia, the lower buying prices and proliferation of brands, many created by retailers and wholesalers, quickly translated into greater shelf, fridge and floor space and significantly lower retail prices.

While this no doubt expands the market for New Zealand sauvignon blanc, much of it is at unsustainable prices – the result of sheer distress. This creates a serious dilemma for well-established producers. They may have spent years building the Marlborough brand, suddenly to find customers becoming competitors and dozens of opportunistic labels cashing in cheaply on the good will they’ve created.

These operators don’t have the marketing overheads of leading brands, so little wonder we’ve seen prices plunging to all-time lows – dragging the strong brands along, too. We should lap it up while we can – perhaps for another few years — but eventually supply and demand will realign and prices will once again reflect the cost of production.

And as the focus shifts from bargain-basement sauvignon blanc, we might notice just how much bubbly and pinot noir we’re shipping across the Tasman. It’s not enough to fill the Bondi pipeline – but these are top-end wines. And pinot noir, now in its infancy, could create a new market much as Marlborough sauvignon blanc did – gradually during the eighties and nineties, then dramatically this century.

And I’m backing Marlborough to lead the charge again. It remains by far the largest of New Zealand’s wine regions, accounting for 16,682 of its 31,057 hectares of vines. Hawkes Bay comes a distant second with 4,928 hectares. The much talked about Otago region has just 1,540 hectares, albeit more narrowly focused on pinot noir and chardonnay than Marlborough.

But for all the talk of Central Otago and Martinborough pinot noir – and these are creating New Zealand’s international pinot image – Marlborough is the variety’s engine room. It’s the biggest producer – but almost certain can almost certainly equal the quality of pinots coming out of Central Otago and Martinborough.

In Canberra last, New Zealand winemaker Matt Mitchell said that some Marlborough vignerons worried that by focusing on cheaper pinot, rather than cutting edge stuff, the region might already have typecast itself as a bulk producer.
In fact, Marlborough has a unique opportunity with pinot noir. It has already created a market from virtually nothing  and is now the leading player in Australia’s pinot niche. In the year to June 2009, the New Zealanders exported four million litres of red to us, the majority of it pinot noir, at a value of $NZ9.07 a litre).

Even ten years ago we barely had a beverage pinot noir market in Australia. With the exception of a tiny minority of top-end wine drinkers, Australians held deep suspicious of the variety – and for good reason. Most the cheaper ones of the time tasted more like rose than red wine.

Marlborough converted us, through popular wines like Oyster Bay, Montana and Stoneleigh, to a belief that lighter, elegant pinot can be a decent red. It doesn’t have to lack substance.

After the dust settles on the current wine surplus, watch for New Zealand, led by Marlborough, to take pinot to the world. It’s set to become the sauvignon blanc of red wine.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

Wine review — Collector, Chandon, Freeman and Morambro Creek

Collector Canberra District Reserve Shiraz 2008 $46
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 Jenny Fischer’s vineyard. Since its release late last year the wine has largely absorbed the telltale sappy/herbal notes derived from whole-bunch fermentation, leaving just a leafy hint. This seasons the flavour and adds savouriness and grip to the deep, supple, very fine palate. This is a glorious wine and a world away from our traditional styles. See

Chandon Pinot Gris 2009 $25–$28
Freeman Hilltops Fortuna 2008 $22–$25

At a recent tasting this contrasting pair, based on the white variety, pinot gris, divided the audience. The all-pinot gris Chandon 2009 – from Victoria’s King and Yarra Valleys – appealed for its combination of brightness and fine, smooth, silky texture, probably the result of partial barrel fermentation. Brian Freeman’s wine, from the nearby Hilltops region, appealed to those with a taste for more savoury, slightly grippy dry whites. Brian blends it from pinot gris with smaller amounts of sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, riesling and aleatico – source, says Brian, of those savoury, pleasantly tart tannins.

Morambro Creek Padthaway

  • Shiraz 2007 $19–$22
  • Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 $19–$22

Since the sad decline of the Lindemans brand we hear little of the Padthaway region, on South Australia’s Limestone Coast, an hour’s drive north of Coonawarra. The success of Lindemans Padthaway Chardonnay during the eighties and nineties, and for a little while this century, drew this very large producing region to the attention of wine drinkers. Alas, much of its produce disappears into anonymous multi-regional blends. But occasionally we see elegant, tasty wines like this pair from Morambro Creek carrying the regional flag. These tasty, easy-drinking wines give us a glimpse of what this region can deliver in abundance. See

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010

Bream Creek Tasmania

  • Riesling 2007 $22
  • Chardonnay 2007 $23
  • Pinot Noir 2008 $30

Visit a few Tasmanian wineries and you’ll soon hear the name Fred Peacock, owner of the beautiful Bream Creek Vineyard at Marion Bay, just to the east of Hobart, and one of the state’s most widely consulted vine experts. Fred grows his grapes for flavour then works closely with winemaker Julian Alcorso. On a recent visit we were deeply impressed by Fred’s wines. We loved the tasty, bracing, fresh riesling; the vibrant, intense, finely structured chardonnay; and the pristine, fleshy, mouth wateringly delicious pinot noir. These are classy wines from a vineyard planted back in 1973. See

Pierre Gimonnet & Fils Cuis 1er Cru Champagne Brut $40–$50
Joseph Perrier Cuvée Royale NV Brut Champagne  $45.90–$50
Taittinger Prelude Grand Crus Champagne $130

With a starting price of around $50 real Champagne ought to be good. But, alas, much of it’s rubbish at this cheaper end. Two that offer real value are Coles and Woolworths direct imports. Pierre Gimonnet, available at 1st Choice and Vintage Cellars, is a delicate, all-chardonnay blend from the highly rated village of Cuis. The slightly fuller Joseph Perrier, shows the attractive brioche-like flavour and round, soft texture of pinot meunier. And he non-vintage Prelude blend brings the extra flavour dimension from some of the most highly rated pinot noir and chardonnay vineyards of the Montagne de Reims and Cotes des Blancs sub regions respectively.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009

Brilliant regional wines emerging from Oz wine wreck

Australian winemaking 2009 – it’s a tale of two industries: mature, vibrant, small and medium producers with their strong regional identities; and the headline-grabbing wreckage of the ‘brand Australia’ juggernaut.

A recent Winemakers’ Federation of Australia (WFA) report, Wine industry must confront the reality of oversupply, detailed the horror behind the chilling headlines.

The report concluded “at least 20% of bearing vines in Australia are surplus to requirement, with few long-term prospects. On cost of production alone, at least 17% of vineyard capacity is uneconomic. The problems are national – although some regions are more adversely affected – and are not restricted to specific varieties or price points”.

The quiet panic behind a decline in exports and domestic sales of Australian wine manifested itself most obviously in the sell off of vineyards and wineries by two of our largest wine producers, Constellation Wines Australia (formerly BRL Hardy) and Foster’s.

Constellation simply continued the dumping of assets that began with their departure from Canberra, announced late in 2006. But the asset dumping increased in scale towards the end of 2008 as they put three wineries up for sale – Goundrey, in Western Australia, the historic Leasingham Winery in Clare and the Stonehaven Winery at Padthaway. Only the Goundrey winery sold. The other two were mothballed in the absence of buyers.

Earlier this year, borrowing a well-worn political phrase, Foster’s said it would sell 36 ‘non-core’ vineyards and close three wineries. This came on top off widespread value destruction following their acquisition of Southcorp Wines for $2.5 billion in 2005.

While many of the problems facing Foster’s may have been self-inflicted, the larger backdrop of the global financial crisis and a rising Australian dollar exaggerated the effects of incipient oversupply – and sucked the industry along with it.

Australian exports peaked in October 2007, says the WFA, and have since declined by eight million cases and 21 per cent in value. This coincided with a decline in domestic sales of Australian wine and an even larger rise in the volume of imports, spurred by the rising dollar.

The combination of rising supply and falling demand leaves Australia with a surplus of more than 100 million cases. And this is set to double over the next two years because we’re producing 20–40 million cases a year more than we sell.

This, of course, explains the amazing range of wine bargains being thrown at us from all directions – the big, direct-importing retailers; wine club operators, including the Wine Society, Cellarmasters and Wine Selectors; the more aggressive independent retailers, including cleanskin specialists; and even the auction houses, notably

While Coles and Woolworths continue to dominate liquor retailing, the wine surplus encourages to the growth of alternative channels as the wine clubs and clean skin specialist boost sales of labels totally under their control.

Indeed, this aspect of wine selling (and it includes the big retailers with their direct imports and private domestic wine labels) concerns winemakers deeply. WFA points the finger at supermarkets, declaring “excess supplies have allowed supermarkets to move from customers to competitors by launching their own low-price products, without the need to invest in capital infrastructure or long-term health of the industry. This clutters the market place and eats into margins”.

But if the retailers exploit the surplus (and we all benefit from lower prices while it lasts) they didn’t create it.

Unquestionably, the strong Australian dollar makes many producers internationally uncompetitive through no fault of their own. But the WFA says that producers in many regions bear production costs that are simply too high for the quality of fruit they produce.

While this means bargains galore as producers seek to offload surplus wine, ultimately it isn’t unsustainable, meaning that many enterprises will go bust. Thankfully, the WFA calls on the industry to sort out its own problems. It doesn’t seek government subsidies other than exit packages for small growers and wineries along the lines of those for small block irrigators – in other words, one-off help to get out of the industry, not a subsidy to perpetuate oversupply.

While the low margins forced by massive oversupply affects the profitability of most makers, there’s a multi-faceted, energetic and mature industry that’s not oversupplied and has a pretty clear vision of where it’s headed.

We have only to drive up the Barton or Federal Highways to see this regionally based industry on our doorstep. It’s been hard yakka, sustained over decades, but producers like Brindabella Hills, Jeir Creek, Helm, Shaw Vineyard Estate, Clonakilla, Lark Hill and Lerida Estate have successfully built brands and customer bases – some in overseas markets.

The same story unfolds across Australia from east to west, and from the high country in Queensland in the north to the coolest reaches of Tasmania. Down there a few weeks back, Steve and Monique Lubiana told me they continued to export successfully despite the rising dollar – a benefit of selling a strongly branding, high quality luxury product. Of course, not all makers can be up there.

But if we sniff around, we see not just regional specialties, but minute subdivision of these regions. A good example is the small army of small, mostly young makers criss-crossing the Barossa Valley making tiny quantities of beautiful shiraz, grenache and mourvedre from ancient vines whose fruit no longer goes to the anonymous blending vats of large companies.

Ironically, given the pain they’ve felt, both Foster’s and Constellation continue to make cutting edge wines like Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay and the magnificent Tasmanian based House of Arras bubblies made by Constellation’s Ed Carr.

As overproduction winds back, it’s possible to see for Australia a new industry based on what various regions do best. That may mean our exit, domestically and internationally, from very low price points and that much of our cheaper quaffing wine could come from better-watered countries – a future where we drink Chilean cask wine but bottles of Cowra chardonnay, Yarra Valley Pinot and Barossa shiraz.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009

Wine review — Brindabella Hills, Capital Wines and Kyeema

Brindabella Hills Canberra District

  • Sauvignon Blanc 2009 $18
  • Riesling 2009 $25
  • Shiraz 2007 $25

These are beautiful, reasonably priced new releases from Roger and Faye Harris at Brindabella Hills, Hall. The riesling is intensely aromatic, with lime and lemon-like varietal character; an intense, lime-like palate backs up the first impressions, finishing long and bone dry – a classy riesling, with good cellaring potential. The sauvy’s light and tangy, tending to herbal, and ready to drink. The shiraz, always one of Canberra’s best, comes in this vintage from Wayne and Jenny Fischer’s Nanima Vineyard, backed by a little viognier from Brindabella. It’s a dark, aromatic, more savoury than usual wine, with the characteristic firm tannins of the season. It’s atypical of the Brindabella Hills vineyard stye but outstanding in its own savoury way.

Capital Wines  Canberra District

  • The Frontbencher Shiraz 2008 $25
  • Kyeema Vineyard Reserve Shiraz 2008 $52

Andrew McEwin’s reds have a distinctive, firm structure and generally need a good airing, or a few years’ cellaring to show their class. Both wines will pass muster in 2008. The $25 Frontbencher is reassuringly deep and crimson rimmed with a good depth of sweet, spicy, red-berry varietal flavour and savoury, firm-but-fine tannins – a solid but fine-boned red to enjoy over the next four or five years. The reserve wine, from Andrew’s Kyeema vineyard (one of Canberra’s oldest shiraz plantings) reveals extra power and weight, backed by high-class savoury oak. The extra power and flavour concentration suggest long-term cellaring potential.

Capital Wines Canberra District

The Ambassador Tempranillo 2008 $27

Kyeema Vineyard Reserve Merlot 2008 $46

Judging by this and Frank van der Loo’s Mount Majura wine, Canberra suits Spain’s red tempranillo grape. The Ambassador has an appealing, juicy, spicy depth of fruit flavour and a unique, firm, verging on cabernet-like, tannin structure. Tempranillo could easily become a mainstream variety in Australia because, unlike so many other alternative varieties, it seems comparatively easy to grow, make and drink. Merlot, on the other hand, continues to polarise drinkers into lovers or haters. Merlot-loving ranks might grow if more were like Kyeema, a perennial award winner. This is serious, rich, earthy merlot with a solid, tannin bite but elegant structure.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009

Last edited by Chris Shanahan on 6 December 2009 at 8:08 am


Brown Bros caters for Australia’s sweet tooth

Ross and Judy Brown visited Canberra in March to launch the new vintage Brown Brothers ‘Patricia’ range – the company’s flagships. They’re wonderful wines and good value. But the visit highlighted the sheer depth of the Brown Brothers’ offering. Much of it’s driven, beneath the radar of wine columns, by a range of high-volume sweet whites and reds.

The company’s innovative approach is probably best seen from the cellar door, visited by about 90 thousand people each year. Here Browns offer an ever-changing menu of new wines, gauging drinkers’ reaction, before moving to larger production of successful products. The diversity offered at the cellar door can be glimpsed from the comfort of your computer screen on the cellar price list, available at

Current list of non-traditional styles includes prosecco, zibbibo, pinot grigio, albarino (temporarily withdrawn, and potentially to be renamed, following CSIRO DNA testing of Australia’s stocks of this variety), viognier, chenin blanc, vermentino, moscato, crouchen-riesling blend, tarrango, dolcetto-syrah blend, cienna, sangiovese, nero d’Avola, barbera, tempranillo, tempranillo-graciano blend and nebbiolo – representing thirty years of innovation.

As reported here a few weeks back, Ross attributes part of Brown’s success across the generations to high-quality sweet and fruity wines, both red and white. These seldom rate in wine columns but two of Brown’s sweeties – the red Dolcetto & Syrah and white Moscato – ranked ninth and fourth respectively in an AC Nielsen listing of Australia’s top selling wines (by value) in the year to 22 March 2009.

Now, you might wonder what link there is between the small-volume $57 top-end Patricia wines and the modestly priced, big-volume sweeties. The simple answer is that Browns take all of the styles they make deadly seriously.
And who drinks the sweeties? Ross says there’s no simple profile. The wines appeal right across the population, across ages, sexes and social status. And if there’s generally a trend for people to discover sweet, fruity wines, then progress to dry versions, it’s not universal. Many people stick to sweet wines for life.

Here, then, is a glimpse of Brown Brothers’ current popular sweeties and reviews of two exciting, dry pinot grigios and the flagship Patricia range

Brown Brothers Victoria Crouchen Riesling 2008 (10.5% alcohol) $13.40
This is like a slightly fat riesling – plumped out by the crouchen, a variety once known in Australia as Clare riesling but originally from the Landes region, southwestern France. It’s a crisp, easy drinking style but not made for cellaring. Note he modest alcohol content.

South Eastern Australia Moscato 2008 (5.5%alcohol) $15.40
This is one of the early Australian takes on the spritzy styles made originally in Asti, Piedmont. In both countries it’s made from Muscat of Alexandria grape, perhaps the most ancient of all cultivated varieties. The wine’s pale, spritzy and intensely musky/grapey – sweet but beautifully invigorating.

Zibbibo (6.5% alcohol) $15.40
In this sparkling version of moscato Brown Brothers use the southern Italian name for the muscat grape, Zibbibo. The bubbles make it even brisker than the still version but mutes the fruity, musk aroma and flavour.

Victoria Dolcetto & Syrah 2008 (11% alcohol) $15.40
Syrah equals shiraz and therefore needs no introduction.  But dolcetto – meaning little sweet one – is less well-known in Australia. Competing theories place it as a native of Dogliani, a Piedmontese village, or of France, having arrived in Monferrato, Piedmont, in the eleventh century.

Whichever is true, dolcetto’s by now a thoroughly Piedmontese grape making stunningly purple, fruity and generally soft, dry early-drinking wines – a real contrast to the mouth puckering wines made from nebbiolo, Piedmont’s most acclaimed red variety.

Brown’s blend is a vibrant crimson colour, spritzy and with pleasant mulberry-like fruit flavour, a grapey sweetness and lick of tannin in the finish.

Victoria Cienna 2008 (5% alcohol) $13.90
The CSIRO bred cienna from cabernet sauvignon and the Spanish sumoll variety in 1972, but it wasn’t bred until 2000. Brown’s version is brilliantly coloured and light and fresh on the palate, the fruit flavour having traces of cabernet’s leafiness.

Brown Brothers Victoria Pinot Grigio 2008 $18.99
Browns produce two classy dry pinot grigios – the standard blend, available at $18.99, and a limited release version, from a single block on the cold, 800m-high Whitlands vineyard. The standard blend (sourced from Whitlands and the 450m Banksdale vineyard) is a rich, soft dry white with crystal clear varietal flavour – it’s the real thing. The limited release wine, due for release next year, offers more intense flavours and a tighter structure with a lovely core of delicious fruit.

Brown Brothers ‘Patricia’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 $56
Brown Brothers ‘Patricia’ Shiraz 2005 $56

These are modestly priced for ‘flagship’ wines of the calibre. The shiraz, a blend from Avoca, Heathcote and King Valley shows cool-climate peppery/spicy varietal aromas and flavours and a solid, deep palate with quite an impact from the American oak – the one area that might be fine-tuned in future vintages. The cabernet comes from Western Victoria, the Dookie Hills and King Valley. It’s strongly varietal with deep fruitiness and leafy hints on the nose and a powerful but finely structured and assertively tannic palate – it’s a classic cellaring style and ought to drink well between 10 and 20 years’ age.

Brown Brothers Patricia Pinot Noir Chardonnay Pinot Meunier 2004 $39.90
Brown Brothers Patricia Noble Riesling 2006 375ml $35
These easily rank with best Australian examples of the styles. The bubbly comes from the cold Whitlands vineyard on a plateau above the southern end of Victoria’s King Valley. It’s cold enough to produce the intense but delicate flavours essential for top-end bubbly. This is juicy and fresh but very delicate, with a special textural richness and roundness probably attributable to the pinot meunier in the blend. The amazing, luscious ‘Noble’ offers the zesty, varietal ‘lime’ character of riesling and the exotic ‘marmalade’ notes of botrytis and a little bottle age. It’s from a single block of vines first noted for botrytis in the 1930s.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2009