Dream Weaver

Geoff Weaver is a man of conviction. You’d have to be to ask one of Australia’s most famous winemakers for a job before you’d so much as crushed your first grape. Or to borrow, in the early ‘80s,  $100,000 at 20% interest to sink into a vineyard in a region with no vines. Or to get out and hand-plant it in your spare moments away from your full-time gig, which just happens to be making a sizeable chunk of all Australia’s wine. But Geoff – sportsman, farmer, artist – has faith in the ideal that honest toil yields eventual rewards.
That belief has been endorsed by the news that Geoff’s Sauvignon Blanc is Australia’s best, as judged by the nation’s foremost wine authority. His 2014 Ferus took out the trophy at the recent James Halliday Wine Companion Awards. He’s picked up more than his fair share of accolades in his 40-year winemaking career but that doesn’t stop Geoff greeting the latest with characteristic humility. “I’m really delighted that James has picked out our more subtle, understated styles,” he says. “I’ve always felt that as a small winemaker, you can’t be all things to all people, and you’ve got to stand for something. We do what we do; we’re not trying to match popular trends, we’re just trying to do the best thing that we can do.”
Such is his affection for the Lenswood site where the wine was grown, that it’s hard to imagine Geoff anywhere else. But there was nothing inevitable about the cricket- and footy-crazed kid’s journey into wine and the Adelaide Hills. The first seed was sown at school where he discovered an affinity for botany and geology, and struck up a fateful, lifelong friendship with Brian Croser. The two of them went on to study agricultural science together, but Geoff finished the course with no clear idea what to do next. His curiosity was piqued on visits to McLaren Vale to see his buddy Croser, who’d landed a job at Hardys. His football coach also worked in wine and helped Geoff pen speculative job applications to luminaries such a Karl Seppelt, Colin Gramp and Max Schubert. He recalls a spur-of-the-moment decision to take a post-footy drive to the home of Penfolds. “It was 5 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon and I just parked and got out and was having a look around when this guy walked out the main door. I thought I’d better come clean, so I went over and said g’day and we just got talking and I said, ‘As a matter of fact I’ve just written to your company about a job’.” It turns out it was Schubert himself who’d walked out the door, and he offered Geoff a job there and then. “I was this kid with stars in his eyes driving down the main drive at Magill thinking, ‘I’ve got a job in the wine business!’”
Geoff with Ferus
He ended up turning down the creator of Grange to take a job with Orlando (now Pernod Ricard Winemakers), who offered to pay him $30 a week and send him to Roseworthy Agricultural College to get his winemaking qualification. For a kid with no money and a beat-up, windscreenless Vauxhall Viva, the offer was too good to pass up.
He learned a great deal under the tutelage of Mark Tummel and Gunther Prass but was persuaded to join Croser at Hardys in 1975, only for his mate to move on within months. “I thought, ‘Shit. I’m a young kid and I really don’t know my way around but I’m in charge of 3% of Australia’s wines here’,” he says. Geoff being Geoff, he dealt with it. Initially in charge of the Hardys whites, taking in brands such as Siegersdorf and Old Castle Riesling, he worked his way up to the position of chief winemaker in 1987.
That, though, was five years after he’d passed a more cherished milestone. He and his winemaking pals had long been pooling their pennies to taste the world’s classic wines, delving into their detail, striving to unlock the DNA of their greatness. Australian whites, in particular, looked clumsy, alcoholic and short on aromatic finesse in comparison. Geoff became convinced that the key was a warm site in a cool region, which led him to the hitherto unplanted Adelaide Hills. Days were spent scouring the rolling landscape for the right spot, thermometer dangling out of the car window. “The deal was that we felt we could push back the frontiers of Australian winemaking. At that time we were dominated by the traditional areas of Barossa, McLaren Vale – Yarra was pretty new, Tasmania was pretty much unheard of and Margaret River was just really starting, and we felt the Adelaide Hills could do a lot.” And there it was: the rundown, 70-acre hobby farm that was his destiny. “My dream had always been to be a small winemaker and in 1982 we bought land at Lenswood. We had no money – of course you don’t have money – and the interest rates were 20%. I had two partners and we cobbled together $10,000 between us to buy a $110,000 property.”
Even then, it almost didn’t happen. The bank almost pulled the plug. Others caught wind of the winemaker sniffing round for vineyard land and threatened to buy it from under them. But Geoff, whose guileless Aussie vernacular is punctuated with surprising literary allusions, was resolute. “I’d been reading Émile Zola’s The Earth and I realised those French guys, they fight tooth and nail to do stuff, and I realised it was a life-changing moment. We were out on a limb but I knew we had to do it.”
That’s when the hard work began. Hardys was going full throttle, and weekends were given over entirely to his own patch – at the expense of his beloved footy, cricket and wife Judy, who that same year gave birth to their first child, Alexandra. With no machinery and no money to buy any, this meant begging, borrowing and burrowing away with his bare hands – as well as those of his father, Henry (pictured below), who spent thousands of hours at his side. Playing over and over in Geoff’s head, as he traipsed up and down the furrows, was an adage he’d read on a Vincent van Gogh sketch of a man pulling a harrow: “If one has no horse, one is one’s own horse”.
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Geoff and Judy’s mettle was to be tested again in the most dramatic of ways, long before a drop of wine had been made. The Ash Wednesday bushfires of February 1983 ripped through the region and destroyed all they’d done. Again, though, Geoff was sanguine. “It’s like playing footy. You get a whack, you’ve got two choices. Do you get up or do you capitulate?” he says. “Well, I thought, we’re not capitulating. We didn’t. I said, ‘It’ll be a Garden of Eden one day; it’ll be beautiful’.”
And so it has proved. “It felt really right from day one. I’ve never regretted where we’ve chosen. We’ve been very fortunate, we’ve got beautiful soils – sandy loam over bright-coloured orange/ochre clays – and enough water in the soil, but with good water and air drainage.” The roots go deep in search of moisture, to which Geoff attributes the intensity and vitality of his wines. He also sees the naturally low pH of the wines as contributing that savoury, stony character that some are moved to call minerality. He capped the plantings at 35 acres under vine, from which Geoff produces Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir plus two iterations of Sauvignon Blanc – one reared in nothing but stainless steel, and the wild-fermented, lees-stirred, old oak-aged Ferus. The dappled light and low yields of this dry-grown site produce exactly the kind of wines he’s looking for. “What I want with the Sauvignon Blanc is that juicy, zingy quality; that supple, almost sweet middle palate coupled with that gentle, dry, acid austerity – but not aggressiveness,” says Geoff. He appears to have hit the mark, with Halliday declaring him “a master of his art”.
It comes as no surprise that Geoff highlights the invaluable support of friends along the way. Chief among them are old pal Brian Croser and Martin Shaw, who’ve allowed him to compose his wines under their roofs at Petaluma, Shaw + Smith and, nowadays, Tapanappa. And all this time, he and Judy have battled away to pay down the debt. “If there’s a tortoise and hare story, we’re definitely the tortoise. We’ve just plodded along trying to make the best wines we can.”
These days Adelaide Hills is well and truly on the map for exceptional cool-climate wines. Shaw + Smith have enjoyed great success and there are those like Tim Knappstein and Stephen Henschke who, without conferring, had the same idea at roughly the same time as Geoff, the three of them ending up practically next door to one another. And then there’s the boundary-pushing new-wave producers such as Gentle Folk and Commune of Buttons.
Quick though he is to point to the prowess of others, his thoughts are often confined to what’s right in front of him. He loves to paint and ponder the joys of life and family in the solitude of his Lenswood home. “It’s just so grand to be there. It’s beautiful to be engaged in what’s essentially an agricultural, horticultural and artistic pursuit in this glorious countryside,” he says. Often at day’s end he simply sits atop the hill and takes it all in. “How blessed are we to live in this great country and to have the opportunity to do these things?” he wonders. “It’s just fantastic.”

*A version of this article appeared on the CellarHand website. CellarHand is both the author’s employer and the Victorian distributor of Geoff Weaver wines.

Theresa’s Top Honour

Theresa in the footy dugout

“I felt so at the right place. I saw my mum and my uncle and they all said ‘Go away. Take some time off. Do whatever you want’. Nobody said ‘You have to do it’. None of the family said that. I had to actually convince them that I wanted to stay, that I wanted to be there. I just felt at home.”
It was the moment that Theresa Breuer’s fate was sealed. May 2004; she was 20 years old and her father Bernhard had just died suddenly. Setting aside the tragic circumstances that led to her premature accession to the helm of the family estate, these were enormous shoes to fill. Bernhard Breuer was one of Germany’s most respected winegrowers and perhaps the doughtiest campaigner for its dry Riesling in the global arena.
Barely a decade later, this slight and smiling 31-year-old has been named Winemaker of the Year by influential European magazine Falstaff. It’s an outstanding achievement, and one that honours her clarity of purpose and sensitivity to the people and land around her.
“Precise” is her word for what’s she’s striving for. And though she’d never claim making great wine is easy, she constantly stresses the simplicity underlying this pursuit. After all, her forebears – especially her father – discovered and distilled the precious attributes of these grand cru sites of the Rheingau.
GB_Weinberge_BergRoseneckIMG_9662 COMPRESSED
These have been nurtured even more closely since Theresa took over. A move to organic viticulture began a decade ago, and since 2011 all vineyards have been farmed 100% organically. The winery is certified sustainable and a member of Germany’s FAIR‘N GREEN scheme. She’s had to add a couple more vineyard workers and the rest now have to toil even harder. It’s paying off, though, with a more motivated team and better growing environment. “We’re just paying so much more attention. We’re a bit more on the spot with everything we do,” she explains. “There are more plants growing, the colour of the leaves is different. There’s a change going on. Really I hope we’ll get healthier fruit. I think less botrytis will be the result as the grape skins are developing a different structure, and you can see the soils are healthy again. I just want to make sure we can go on making wines for the next, I don’t know, 300 years.”
Theresa espouses “boring winemaking”. There’s no fancy technique or technology here. The cellar beneath the town of Rüdesheim is lo-fi in the extreme. When it does get rebuilt, temperature control will be one of the few concessions to modernity – but “just so we can continue to be boring”.
The treatment of the estate’s pinnacle wine, from the Schlossberg vineyard, sets the no-frills template followed across the Georg Breuer range. The family owns seven discrete plots from the bottom to the top of the vineyard, with altitudes varying from 90m to 350m. Each plot is picked by hand in separate lots on different days. The grapes are immediately whole bunch-pressed and then vinified separately. The seven wines are aged in separate old barrels. “We then start to pick out what we want. We want to be really precise on the style of the vintage.” Anything seen as less than the perfect expression of time and place doesn’t make the cut.
An incredibly close bond underpins this stylistic exactitude. Theresa’s faithful accomplices are Markus Lundén and Hermann Schmoranz. Markus was a sommelier and Georg Breuer fanboy who began an internship March 2004, two months before Theresa took the reins. Hermann was an engineering student when he joined the estate as part-time tractor driver in 1987. Ex-somm Markus is driven by flavours and sensory responses, while Hermann (pictured below) has a way with nature. The former is now happily ensconced in the cellar, the latter in his element in the fields. They are collectively the keeper of the house. “It’s been the three of us since my father passed away,” says Theresa. “There’s not been one cellar tasting where one of us was missing. We would never do a blend if one us is not in shape. It has to be the same team every time.”

HERMANN SCHMORANZ compressed
Along with her uncle Heinrich, Hermann (pictured above) played an especially important role as the bridge between Bernhard’s era and Theresa’s stewardship. “He was always like a second father for me,” says Theresa. “On the other hand he was extremely sensitive in teaching me everything but also asking for decisions. He told me the options and asked for a decision, which is I think a huge thing for a grown-up man, having this little girl there and fulfilling a role that I was not fit and able to do at all. So he really helped me through that whole process enormously.”
Theresa never got to work with her father on a similar level but she was picking grapes and helping in the winery before she even started school. She loves being in the vineyard, and the harvest days of her childhood were happy ones. “That was also the only period when my father was really home, because he was travelling quite a lot. Picking grapes was actually a chance to see him.”

Bernhard black and white COMPRESSED
Forthright, pioneering and something of a rebel, Bernhard (above) was OK with not being friends with everybody. “What I’ve learned from many people who were close to him and who’ve maybe not been friends but respected him in a really intense way, is that he really stood up for his ideas,” says Theresa. “He had a plan, and if the whole gang wasn’t following, it wasn’t a problem for him. He wasn’t one of those guys who needed to have 20 people around him because he was really strong in his beliefs and strict in the way he followed them.”
In his memoir A Life Uncorked, English writer Hugh Johnson writes fondly of those principles. “The purity of Rheingau wine was his passion,” he wrote of Bernhard Breuer. “He longed to know how best to express the terroir of his family’s vineyards.” Johnson recalls a frank, somewhat eccentric tasting with Bernhard and Heinrich, where the Breuer brothers opened unwanted orphan bottles of poor vintages going back to the 1920s. Sure enough, clear site signatures announced themselves but another motif emerged that was equally powerful: that of the grower’s humility towards his land. “It is the polar opposite of the race for high scores and gold medals that consumes the wine world today,” wrote Johnson. “Does it earn the farmer a living? Self-esteem, satisfaction and fascination, yes, but not necessarily a new Mercedes every year.”
Theresa Arbory laughing 2016
You see the same humility and tenacity in Theresa, who was honoured by Falstaff for furthering the estate’s reputation and maintaining the rare purity of its Riesling. “You start to pay so much more attention to things and you start to know the land you’re working with,” says Theresa. “I’ve done 12 vintages now and there are so many open questions, but it’s great to create a catalogue of references.”
That catalogue is being compiled year by year by the faithful Breuer team, which extends well beyond the inner circle of Theresa, Schmoranz and Lundén. Several others have been there for 10 years and they’re engaged, energetic and helping to shape the future. She wants them to stay together and keep improving together – which is easier said than done. “I’m not a fan of ‘bigger is better’,” says Theresa. “I think there’s so much more to being more precise, just figuring out the sensitive things. There’s so much more to go for, and if we realise that it will be cool.”

*A version of this article appeared on the CellarHand website. CellarHand is both the author’s employer and the Australian importer & distributor of Georg Breuer wines.

Viva AWIWA!

Isn’t that nice? They’re letting the girls have a go. And all by themselves, too, to make sure they win!
The inaugural Australian Women in Wine Awards (AWIWA) are with us – and some mightn’t know what to do with them. “My first thought was: What a lot of sexist nonsense,” confessed wine writer and convert Winsor Dobbin. How many others questioned whether these were a “necessary” addition to the wine calendar, or deemed this women-only competition self-defeating, serving to undermine the very people it purported to champion?
I wouldn’t normally advocate this as a philosophical response… but you needn’t think, just act. Because the question here is not “Do I believe in gender-specific awards” but “Do I appreciate the contribution of women – their ideas, their gifts and their company?”
If the answer to the latter is “yes”, then shouldn’t something be done to boost the participation of women in wine? As it stands, we’re being cheated of our fair share of the fairer sex. AWIWA organisers say – and the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia doesn’t dispute it – that women make up between eight and 10% of the Aussie industry, with some areas such as viticulture in decline.
But hang on a moment – don’t we already have a chance to celebrate women through the myriad shows and competitions already doing the rounds? Yes, we do. Women have previously been named Winemaker of the Year, Sommelier of the Year and Dux of the Len Evans Tutorial. The present Chair of Judges at the Sydney Wine Show (Sam Connew), Gourmet Traveller WINE Young Winemaker of the Year (Gwyn Olsen) and Wine Communicator of the Year (Jeni Port) are female.
Even beyond these examples, I don’t think any of us would struggle to think of women whose wines we love, whose judgment we value and whose example we admire. But this is exactly the point: if we treasure them, why aren’t we doing all we can to ensure they’re able to participate fully?
The Australian Women in Wine Awards are the brainchild of Jane Thomson, a former Wine Communicator of the Year and founder of the Fabulous Ladies’ Wine Society. They’re designed to “acknowledge and reward the work of women in the Australian wine industry, and industry leaders who champion equality and fairness for all in the workplace.” Thomson in turn was inspired by the Women of the Vine Global Symposium, the first edition of which took place in Napa in March this year. That symposium served as the launch pad for the Women of the Vine Alliance, which states as its raison d’être “to support, advance, and connect women in the wine industry worldwide through education, advocacy, training, mentorship, and steadfast confidence in the value of women at every position in the field”.
The “field” of course extends beyond the scope of AWIWA’s initial four-category format, and organisers say they’re open to expanding it depending on the success of the inaugural awards. Beyond the winemakers, viticulturalists and business owners, there are those who work in finance, distribution, marketing and operations who are worthy of recognition. One sign of this broader thinking is the inclusion from the outset of the Workplace Champion of Change award. Open to both businesses and individuals – male and female – it recognises those who’ve provided outstanding support for women or have led the way in implementing female-friendly work practices.
Likewise it’s up to both sexes get behind the awards. I’ve spoken to women winemakers who are rightly proud of their achievements – and those of their female peers – but who are loath to identify as “women winemakers” because they feel their gender is irrelevant to what they do. Nor would they wish to give the impression they got where they are despite being a women (let alone because of it). But again, this misses the point. It’s not about playing the chick card. It’s about flying the chick flag.
Adelaide-based viticulturist Mary Retallack sits on the advisory board for the Women of the Vine Global Symposium. She’s proud of the way the US venture encourages women to seize opportunities and be more active in decision-making. Likewise, it lends them much needed support, “so we don’t lose women who are at the top of their game,” she says. “Initiatives like this mean women have ready access to mentors, can connect with peers more effectively, contribute sooner and more effectively.”
What she says goes to the heart of AWIWA’s importance. It’s not a perfunctory pat on the back; these awards should serve as a reminder of the talent pool we have and mustn’t squander. A reasonable number of women enter the wine industry and many go on to achieve top honours. But look again at those (admittedly rough) numbers: female participation at just 10%? It’s a huge imbalance and drastic waste of potential.
These awards ultimately aim to redress the balance and chase that potential. We can’t hope to be at the top of our game without promoting diversity – something Oliver’s Taranga winemaker and AWIWA judge Corrina Wright justly declares a no-brainer. Driving up quality is vital, too. And that means pushing for the good to be recognised and for the great to go further.
So don’t waste time wondering whether these awards are “necessary”. Instead think of women who make wine, tend vineyards, write restaurant lists, run businesses, put on events, welcome you at the cellar door and in any way make your wine experience better – and decide if you need them.
Here’s a chance to say “yes” and mean it.

The entry deadline for the Australian Women in Wine Awards is Tuesday October 6, 2015. Enter at womeninwineawards.com.au. The winners will be announced on Tuesday November 17.

The Awards

The Award Categories for 2015 are:

• Winemaker of the Year – sponsored by Wine Ark
• Viticulturist of the Year – sponsored by Wine Australia
• Owner / Operator of the Year – sponsored by CellarHand*
• Workplace Champion of Change – sponsored by Vinomofo

*A version of this post originally appeared on the CellarHand website. CellarHand is the author’s employer.

Everything’s Hunky Dory

It’s simply not right to talk about Marlborough without mentioning its beauty. As wine regions go, it’s far from alone in being picturesque. But this is beauty as context, an in-your-face blessedness that hits you the moment you get there. Its key export, Sauvignon Blanc, seduced the world by projecting a similarly blatant, sunshiny charm. This easy appeal is often overlooked but shouldn’t be. The wine proved that some people can’t have too much of a good thing.
That’s how Mike Allan from Huia Vineyards* feels about his adopted home. He and wife Claire didn’t mean to end up here but they didn’t stand a chance. They were studying winemaking in Adelaide in 1990 and scored vintage positions there, Mike at Cloudy Bay and Claire at Corbans. “Very quickly we fell in love with it,” recalls Mike. “It was very energised. We just realised that Marlborough had an amazing climate and it just had everything that we loved doing right smack on our doorstep.”
They saw an ad in the local rag for a block of land on an old apple orchard in Rapaura that “looked to us like heaven”. They stretched themselves to the limit and bought it. That place is now Huia, and Marlborough has paid back its promise in spades.
“Within the wine community there’s a lovely joie de vivre of wine and food and that sort of thing. Malrborough’s not just great for wine, it’s great for growing anything,” says Mike. “There’s a real international flavour because everyone’s travelling. It’s very vibrant.” Then there’s the scenery; one hour up the road is the Molesworth High Country with its lakes and mountains, a second home for keen skier Claire and their daughters, Tui (22) and Sophie (18). Just 20 minutes away are the Marlborough Sounds and 1500km of coastline. The family has a launch there for Hunky Dory – the boat that shares its name with Huia’s second label – and Mike makes the most of it. He loves to cook, and the huge vegetable garden at home calls out for the local seafood. “There’s a lot of snapper and blue cod, and the Sounds are home to green-lipped mussels which are a perfect match for Sauvignon Blanc. It just doesn’t get better.”
As for the vineyards, it took four years’ toil to get the apples out and the land ready for planting. During that time, Mike deepened his relationship with the region at Cloudy Bay and Vavasour, while Claire went from Corbans to Lawson’s Dry Hills. By 1996, they had their own estate up and running. “It was the vitality of the wines we tasted when we got to Marlborough that told us we were somewhere special,” says Mike, accounting for the motivation that got the place built. And the allure of the signature grape is as strong as ever.
“Sauvignon Blanc produces so many different characters from different areas around the valley but there’s a common thread of really fine acidity and a wide range of flavours that go from tropical fruit to gooseberry-grassy,” he says. “I always find the challenge is not to try to show how much fruit you can jam in the bottle but how the different fruits can be made into something that’s really interesting and complex. I always had a problem with wines that are short-lived – it shouldn’t be a one-vintage wonder but something with the pedigree to last a few years.”
To this point, Mike and Claire opt to press rather than crush the fruit, aiming for purity over power. Though there’s no set recipe for barrel and lees work, these both play a key role in building complexity and rounding out the wine.
It’s clear that the Allans are spurred on by the friendships borne of Marlborough Natural Winegrowers. Known as MANA, this group was founded about four years ago and comprises Huia, Te Whare Ra, Hans Herzog, Seresin, Clos Henri, Fromm and Rock Ferry. These producers are either certified fully organic or on track to achieve certification by the end of 2015. It was conceived in the wake of “a perfect storm” for Marlborough: the planting frenzy of the early noughties culminated in a massive 2008 vintage that a GFC-shaken world couldn’t soak up. A lot of smaller producers struggled to survive – not least when they’d already been finding it hard to get their voices heard over the noise of the giants.
The MANA solution was to pool marketing resources, chip in for visits from international wine writers, consolidate buying power, share biodynamic preparations and trade knowhow on the fast-moving world of organics. “Our early aspirations are exactly as it’s unfolded,” says Mike. “We thought we’d be able to share and grow and learn together and that’s precisely what’s happened. There’s no inter-winery competition; it’s very collaborative and a hell of a lot of fun.”
Another thing they share is faith, firmly repaid by results, in Marlborough Pinot Noir. “I think it’s completely come into its own,” says Mike. Producers have a better understanding of the right clones, sites and crop loads. The vines now have a fair bit of age and, as he rightly declares, good Pinot Noir isn’t going to go out of fashion. “New Zealand is very strong south of Hawke’s Bay for Pinot Noir. Martinborough, Marlborough, Canterbury and Central Otago are all going to give you incredibly fine Pinot.” And the Marlborough climate once again may be its trump card, as it tends to give more reliably favourable vintages.
The sunny optimism that lured Mike and Claire here remains undimmed. Their eyes and minds are open, and they’re enjoying themselves. They’ve been invigorated by their 2015 crop of vintage winemakers, who brought fresh ideas California, Austria and Germany. Sophie and Tui, who’ve been helping with ferments since childhood, also pour their youthful energy into the mix.
“What’s lovely is that our vineyards are reaching maturity as well. We’re getting lovely consistency in our fruit quality. We’re completely estate grown. Some of those goals we set in the early days are really coming to fruition. The challenge is to keep the life and the vitality coming through.”

*A version of this article appeared on the CellarHand website. CellarHand is both the author’s employer and the distributor of Huia and Hunky Dory wines in Victoria.

Stephen Pannell and Fiona grant nowell (6)

Pannell Beater

McLaren Vale winemaker Stephen Pannell has won the highest prize in Australian wine for his 2013 Adelaide Hills Syrah.
It’s the second time he’s taken out the prestigious Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy at the Royal Melbourne Wine Awards, which he first snagged 18 years ago with the 1995 Eileen Hardy Shiraz.
His is the first Adelaide Hills wine to win the award and breaks a seven-year drought for South Australia, which once dominated this competition to unearth Australia’s best one- to two-year-old dry red wine.

Jimmy Trophy engraved
“They’re honest, affordable wines, for people – not collectors. They’re wines that when I see them I can afford them, I buy them and I drink them.”
Stephen Pannell* is talking about the reds that inspired the 2013 Adelaide Hills Syrah, which just snagged the greatest prize in the Australian vinosphere. “Some of the most inspiring wines I’ve had came from 2010 in the Northern Rhône. I’ve been absolutely obsessed with those wines. As I was drinking them I kept thinking ‘We can make that here’.”
The wine that won Pannell his second Jimmy Watson Memorial Trophy wasn’t designed to emulate the wines of Saint-Joseph and Cornas but rather to pay homage to their brilliance. “I love that duality where you have intensity, strength, depth and power on the one hand, and then you have delicacy and finesse,” he says.
Pannell uses the term “Syrah” – something some Aussies see as treacherous affectation – as a deliberate demarcation of this cool-climate style. By contrast, he also makes a McLaren Vale “Shiraz” that seeks to harness the region’s naturally sweet, rich mouthfeel and mid-palate. They’re very distinct renderings of the same variety, but the philosophy is the same. “They’re made to taste like grapes and like they come from somewhere rather than tasting of how they’re made,” Pannell says.
This has meant working the vineyard hard in able to pick earlier, elevating the role of “real grape tannins”, keeping oxygen out and trimming back on new oak. “So sweet! So gentle!” wrote Jancis Robinson of the 2011 S.C. Pannell Shiraz. “Sumptuous and beautifully balanced. Wonderfully clean and refreshing on the finish.”
But what of the wine of the moment? Fruit for Pannell’s 2013 Syrah was grown on well-drained, granitic soil in Echunga, 410 metres above sea level in the southern Adelaide Hills. The Syrah grapes, along with 2% Viognier, were picked by hand and vinified in small, open-top fermenters, with 15 to 20% whole bunches included in the ferment. It was then aged for 12 months in large format French oak vats and puncheons, a quarter of which were new.
Syrah 13 twitter
As one of Australia’s most respected show judges (he presides over the National Wine Show of Australia) with a palate to match, Pannell knows it takes a “huge slice of luck” to win the Jimmy Watson, but he knew the Syrah was something special from day one. “Yes, it’s lovely,” he confesses. “The 2013s have a real grapeyness about them, a presence and a freshness. In these wines the fruit looks alive. The grape doesn’t look like it was half dead before you shoved it in the bottle. I still think the 2010 Grenache was my best wine, but this Syrah is one of the top two I’ve made under this label. I suppose if I was ever going to win the Jimmy Watson, it would be with this wine.”
Pannell often jokes that he doesn’t do much to make his wines – and doesn’t know why they turn out so well. That’s mostly nonsense, of course; a combination of instinct and experience mean you couldn’t meet a more sure-footed winemaker. He was born into wine, as a member of the family that founded Moss Wood, one of Margaret River’s most exalted wineries. He’s worked vintages in Burgundy, Barolo, Bordeaux and Priorat and held domestic winemaking roles at Andrew Garrett, Seppelt and Tim Knappstein, where he was first alerted to the potential of the Adelaide Hills. That was followed by an eight-year stint at Hardys, which saw him snag that first Jimmy Watson and rise to the role of Chief Red Winemaker.
“It takes knowledge to let the wines make themselves. When I say I don’t do anything, that’s not true. Where we do more is in the vineyard. And then you’ve still got to decide when you’re going to pick, how much whole bunch to do, how much Viognier to add, when to press, when to rack, what temperature to ferment at. There’s a lot of decisions.”
He’s developed the knack of getting those decisions right – and in a sense the Jimmy Watson is a vindication of the hardest one of all: the move to strike out under his own name, launching S.C. Pannell as a “virtual winery” in 2004.
Stephen Pannell close up seated jacketed with glass, pic grant nowell
The past decade has seen its fair share of “hard days and a lot of self-examination”. But the purpose has always been clear: an honest translation of grape and place – be it the cool slopes of Adelaide Hills or the warm, Mediterranean climate of Pannell’s McLaren Vale home. He’s one those surprisingly rare winemakers that talks like a winelover, drinks widely and avidly enjoys his own wine. Those traits have helped him chase styles that suit the way Australians live and the food we eat.
As well as an enduring love of McLaren Vale staples Grenache and Shiraz, this has stretched to an affection for Nebbiolo in the Adelaide Hills and Tempranillo and Touriga Nacional from the Fleurieu Peninsula. His faith has paid off, with the 2012 Tempranillo Touriga winning Best Red Blend at last year’s Royal Melbourne Wine Awards. “Touriga’s always really interesting,” says Pannell. “For me it’s probably the third most important variety in McLaren Vale after Shiraz and Grenache.”
The Jimmy Watson win tops off a dream run for Pannell and wife Fiona, who followed up the purchase of a long-coveted vineyard with the acquisition in June of a new cellar door and winery in the heart of their beloved McLaren Vale. “I’m trying to contain the excitement,” says Pannell. “You’re lucky to win just once and I still look at that old medallion and think ‘Wow! That was me’. But to do it with my own label is just incredible.” In the old days at Hardys, he was making wines to win awards. The difference now is he’s making wines that – just like those great Northern Rhônes from 2010 – he loves to drink. It seems he’s not alone on that count.
“I’ve invested a lot more in this than when I won with Hardys. When we first started doing this we couldn’t have imagined it; it was impossible. That brings an immense amount of satisfaction. And it’s fun. I love it – and I love that people get it now.”

*A version of this article appeared on the CellarHand website. CellarHand is both the author’s employer and the distributor of S.C. Pannell wines in Victoria and NSW.

A & J Buckwheat

Playing It Cool

Anna Flowerday says ‘cool’ a lot. Not ‘cool’ as in climate – though her journey from fifth-generation Shiraz-swilling McLaren Vale lass to South Island NZ is a big part of the story. Nor ‘cool’ meaning on-trend – in fact some of the best moves she’s made run counter to fashion (and received wisdom). No, just cool in that simple, spontaneous way that says you’re going to dig it, whatever happens.
Example: it’s “pretty cool” that’s she gets to do a job she utterly loves with her husband. The fact that Marlborough Pinot is underrated isn’t an injustice; it’s a “cool opportunity”. And it’s “a cool thing” that her two sets of twin girls get to see her excel in a role once seen as the domain of men. “I’m very conscious of being a mother of four daughters and I want them to think they can do anything,” she says.
This positivity shimmers through Anna’s perspective on Marlborough, where she and husband Jason have been running the Te Whare Ra* (TWR) winery for the past decade. When we catch up over coffee in Melbourne, I ask whether the region’s runaway success with Sauvignon Blanc has been a blessing or a curse. She concedes it’s a double-edged sword, with “savvy” stealing the limelight – and the vineyard area – from other varieties, and leading some to write off Marlborough as a one-trick pony.
But she also sees the grape, which accounts for a third of TWR production, as a wellspring of opportunity. “To me Marlborough and Sauvignon was just a lucky accident, a variety and place that gave you something a bit different and a bit special,” she says. “I think it’s introduced people to Marlborough and it’s up to us as winemakers to be a bit thoughtful about what we do with it. At Te Whare Ra we’re trying to make a long-term, really strong estate. I want to be known for a really cool range of wines and it’s kind of like my kids; I like them all for different reasons on different days, but I love them all equally.”
Girls in net
It’d be tempting to put her sunny outlook down to all that UV light but in fact the unbridled optimism goes back to where it all started: Hardys in McLaren Vale in the mid-1990s. For a young winemaker back then, it was the coolest gig in town. “Wine was king, and there were a lot of us who were all pretty young. We all knew we’d been given a massive opportunity and we worked our arses off to prove ourselves.”
She was at Hardys for seven years all up, working in a positive, collaborative culture that encouraged speaking up and trying things out. “If you look at the Hardys kindergarten and who’s come out of it – Stephen Pannell and KT (Kerri Thompson) were slightly older than me and then there was Larry Cherubino, Rob Mann, Sue Bell – a lot of young winemakers who are now in the upper echelon in Australia. Those really were the glory days,” she says.
Much of the credit goes to Peter Dawson, Hardys chief winemaker of the time and now co-owner of Dawson & James in Tasmania. “The two things he believed in were passion and palate,” says Anna. “Those are the two things he looked for in winemakers and I think they stand you in good stead. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, that’s really what this industry’s all about.”
TWR syrah and pinot
At Hardys Anna also fell deeply in love – twice. The first time was in McLaren Vale and took the form of “that old vintage romance kind of thing” with Marlborough boy, Jason Flowerday. And the other – no less significant – was when she was promoted to a position at Leasingham in Clare Valley, working with Kerri Thompson. “That’s really where the love of Riesling kicked in and I guess that just spread to other aromatic varieties.”
The Flowerdays’ aromatic white range now takes in Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer, as well as a blend of all three, named Toru. Their success in this area has a lot to do with organic and biodynamic viticulture, says Anna. The vines are routinely delivering sugar, acid and flavour ripeness at the same time, so there’s no need to go chasing balance in the winery. “With Riesling you’re balancing the sweetness and the acidity; with Pinot Gris there’s a bit of that but then texture comes into it too; Gewürz has no acidity so you’re almost balancing the alcohol and the ripeness of the wine again with the sweetness. But when you get it right, it’s almost like you don’t see it. Balance really equals drinkability.”
As well as opening up aromatic options, life in a cool climate has changed Anna’s tastes. Where once she’d think nothing of knocking back youthful, ball-busting Shiraz, these days those same wines face a 10-year wait in the cellar, while whites and Pinot Noir are constant companions. “I guess one thing that I really look for – and I’ve appreciated it a lot more as I’ve matured as a winemaker – is that there’s a lot of beauty in purity. I think especially coming out of those late 90s, everything was about ‘big’ – big this, big that, big oak, big fruit – and I look now for more subtlety and nuances. I’m happy with wines that are a bit quieter, more understated.”
Vine row beautiful ground cover
True to form, she loves the challenge of the heartbreak grape. When they bought the vineyard in 2003, the Pinot Noir vines were young and not ready to deliver the wine they wanted – a fact that no amount of winery wizardry could distort. “Pinot’s about patience, that’s one thing I really have learned. You can’t force it anywhere it doesn’t want to go. If you overwork it or you cut corners you’re really going to see that in the wine. It’s very transparent like that. It’s both a challenge and an opportunity.”
Now, with older vines and better farming practices, the complexity has come of its own accord and TWR’s Pinot has won ardent fans. Thanks to greater care and investment across the region – and the annual Pinot Bootcamp where winemakers gather to compare notes on trial wines – Anna views Marlborough as the sleeping giant of Kiwi Pinot. “There’s a really strong line-up that I’d happily stand by and defend to all comers,” she says.
But if Marlborough Pinot has long “been the bridesmaid” Syrah would be lucky to even crack an invite. “It was a bit of a punt, to be honest,” Anna admits. It’s one that has paid off – but how did they come to take the plunge in the first place? Turns out the Hardys have-a-go spirit is only part of the answer. Temperature data monitoring and ripening dates had alerted them to a warm spot in the vineyard that might show promise. On top of that, TWR’s founders used to have a block they used for a Bordeaux blend, and a look at some of the old vintages showed they’d managed to ripen Cabernet almost as often as not. So from there Syrah – which tends to ripen a month or so earlier – was in with a chance. “If you asked 10 people in the region, nine of them would say you’re totally nuts to even try it. But that’s the whole point of what we’re doing. It’s not same-same and we don’t have to wear a commercial hat all the time.”
Picking the Syrah together is a Flowerday family tradition. The two sets of twins, who’ve just turned seven and ten respectively, really enjoy it – and it’s more than a clever cost-cutting scheme for their parents. “I think it’s good for them to understand what we do and why we do it,” says Anna. “Wine is such an obsessive thing. It’s our life, not just a job. And I think if you’re not into it, it’s actually quite hard to understand why you’re there for all those hours or why it’s a 360-day-a-year thing.”
A&J sorting table
And if you find your TWR wine seamlessly drinkable, then that might just be the taste of marital harmony. Anna says she and Jason make better wines together than they ever did in their individual careers. “Some of the best wines I’ve ever had were made by more than one person, because you’re not infallible and different people are sensitive to different things.” Anna and Jason agree 95% of the time – with the vexed question of when to pick being the source of most of their domestics.
And she credits Jason with what she sees as their proudest achievement at TWR: the restoration of some of the oldest vines in Marlborough to impeccable health. When they purchased the property they were “pretty near stuffed”, to the point where many would’ve given up on them. But instead those same vines live on to lend their own character to the wines. “And that’s really full credit to Jase because he’s the guru of growing things. He just has a real knack for understanding plants and what they need, and I get the benefit of that when we bring the fruit into the winery.”
Theirs is a vineyard that gets checked out an awful lot, such is the paperwork that goes with organic and biodynamic certification. But do you want to know the coolest thing? It’s when those soil scientists come with their clipboards and declare TWR the best organic vineyard in New Zealand. “Because everything we do is about being the best,” says Anna. “Not the biggest, not the loudest. It’s a long game that we’re playing, and I think we’re taking Te Whare Ra to a good place.”

*A version of this article appeared on the CellarHand website. CellarHand is both the author’s employer and the distributor of TWR’s wines in Victoria and NSW.

1 Stephen Pannell, picture grant nowell (8)

Volnay Of The Vale

Grenache has filled a Pinot-shaped void for Steve Pannell. I know, sounds an unlikely substitution: a sun-worshipping, late-ripening, oft-blended also-ran for the crown prince of the Côte de Nuits? But over recent years people like Pannell have steadily recast Grenache as the Burgundy of South Australia.
As a junior winemaker he was “very much obsessed” with Pinot Noir at Tim Knappstein’s Lenswood Vineyards in the Adelaide Hills. “I liked that style, with power and intensity fitting within a medium-bodied frame. When I first came to McLaren Vale I was at a bit of a loss,” he says. That was in the mid-90s when he started out at Hardys, where he’d eventually rise to the position of Group Red Winemaker before establishing S.C. Pannell* a decade ago.
So he started “mucking around” with Grenache at the famous Tintara winery to see what he could do. “Grenache takes a bit more nous and work and guile to get it where you want it to be, and that challenged me.” It’s a challenge to which he’s well and truly risen, in the process helping to unearth McLaren Vale and its old bush vines as one of the planet’s few sacred sites for Grenache.
The 2010 S.C. Pannell Grenache picked up Best Other Red Varietal at the 2012 Royal Melbourne Wine Show and scored 97 points in James Halliday’s Australian Wine Companion, a feat replicated by the 2012 release, which also won Best Other Red at the Wine Companion Awards a few months back. But while those titles confirm Pannell’s prowess with the grape, this “best other” business says something of the second-string status that Grenache has long been saddled with.
Grenache 2011
Pannell suggests a few reasons why it’s been left behind. There’s the so-called Parkerisation of wine, a bigger-is-better fad that did no favours for Grenache, with its modest palate weight and tendency towards boozy jamminess if not held in check. The fact that it is so commonly blended may also leave a question mark over its fitness for standalone supremacy – and here Pannell points to the lack of an obvious global benchmark wine that is 100% Grenache. He also posits that Australians may have shown a historical wariness of tannins, preferring the plush, velvety profile of Shiraz.
Conversely those tannins – a tricky thing to get right – help explain his fondness for, and success with, the grape. “I love the gritty, sandy tannins in Grenache, the savoury fruit and aromatic punch – what I see as a kind of musk and rosewater lift – in a light- to medium-bodied wine. That’s why I dig it.”
Further afield, Pannell definitely digs the wines of Clos des Papes and Château Rayas in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and has also enjoyed exploring the wares of Álvaro Palacios’s L’Ermita in that other old-vine Grenache heartland, Priorat. But he also marvels at the treasures on his doorstep, reserving particular admiration for Wirra Wirra, Yangarra and d’Arenberg. Fittingly, he’ll be spending International Grenache Day with fellow McLaren Vale flagbearers at Serafino, where Halliday is presiding over a grand masterclass.
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So what is it that makes this region so special for Grenache? There are the ocean breezes and Mediterranean climate, a combination that mirrors Sardinia, which claims to be the birthplace of Grenache (Cannonau as the islanders call it). There are the ancient and varied soils, too, plus the old vines.
But really, of course, who knows what the secret is? “It’s illogical. You can’t just say ‘It works here, so it’ll work there’. What makes the Côte de Nuits so good for Pinot?” says Pannell. “It’s part of the whole mystery of wine. It expresses a place and the people’s passion for that place.”
Pannell also embraces the mystery in his Grenache blends, such as The Vale (with Shiraz) and Tinto (with Touriga). “The varieties are like different colours, where you put them together and you don’t know what picture you’re going to end up with – and you don’t want to know, because in some ways that’s the beauty of it,” he says, likening the overall outcome to the experience of drinking a wine from iconic Clare Valley winery, Wendouree. “You know it’s a Wendouree before you know what it’s made of,” he says. “That’s the great beauty of having these very special pieces of dirt. The landscape is so important. It’s the only thing we have that’s truly unique.”

*This post was initially published on CellarHand’s website. CellarHand is both the author’s present employer and the distributor of S.C. Pannell wines in NSW and Victoria.

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To Be Dexterous & Deft

So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact
And remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.
And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed!

– Dr Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

Tod Dexter went a long way to get where he is today, at home on his Mornington Peninsula vineyard this crisp autumn day. And he wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for some sound advice from his mum.
Young Dexter had yet to settle on anything serious after leaving school in the mid-70s. He’d “travelled a bit and done a bunch of jobs”, including a stint with one of Melbourne’s best known wine merchants and a weekend in the cellar at Wantirna Estate. His latest escapade was a ski season in the States. His mother asked if he was going to carry on that way for the rest of his life. Dexter thought probably not. “And so she said: ‘Why don’t you go to the Napa Valley and learn how to make wine?’ And I thought: ‘That sounds like a good idea’.”
That was May 1979. Robert Mondavi’s was the first door he knocked on – and the first of many to knock him back. “So I got a job in a cooperage assembling barrels and I figured I’d either take it up as a trade or at the very least meet winemakers coming in to pick up barrels.”
And that’s just what happened. Bruce Cakebread of Cakebread Cellars picked up on the accent and gave him the break he was looking for. Dexter’s drifting days were over; he rolled up his sleeves and remained elbow-deep in Cabernet, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay until 1986, overseeing a crush that grew from 150 to 800 tonnes. “I look back on it now as a seven-year apprenticeship,” says Dexter. “I got involved with every aspect of the business. They more or less adopted me for that period, so it was a really good time.”
During that period he met wife Debbie, and the two of them started to toy with the idea of setting up in Australia in the mid-80s. Back-to-back vintages at Brown Brothers in the King Valley in 1985 and ’86 served as a trial.
The experience – including the jump from Cakebread’s boutique operation to a 6,000-tonne crush – was a good one. “Brown Brothers were fantastic to work with, a really nice family. They were very generous to Debbie and me being ‘foreigners’ from America and it was very good to see the other side of the industry.”

Dexter at Stonier, 1991
Dexter at Stonier, 1991
Dexter came home for good in late 1986 with a six-week-old daughter in tow. Two years previously he’d come back for his sister’s wedding and fitted in a recce of the Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula. On that same trip he’d met up with the peninsula’s pioneer vignerons. “I was kind of impressed with the wines but it just looked like a small, backyard industry and I wasn’t sure it had the potential to go as far as the Yarra Valley had already come,” he recalls. But when push came to shove, the former ski instructor couldn’t resist the lure of the beach.
He and Debbie bought land on a north-facing slope in Merricks North and planted vines in 1987. That same year he made the wines at Elgee Park. That hotchpotch harvest speaks volumes about the region’s fledgling status at the time. The grand sum of 15 tonnes was crushed, from a quintet of producers with two varieties apiece.
And then came Dexter’s next Cakebread moment. One of those five producers was Brian Stonier, whose winemaker, Stephen Hickinbotham, had been killed in a plane crash the previous year. “Brian realised he could do one of two things,” says Dexter. “He could either stay very small and keep it as a hobby, or he could grow the business. He decided it was time to take the giant leap of faith and build a brand. So he said to me: ‘Do you want to come along for the ride?’ And I said: ‘Sure, why not?’”
Dexter knew where he was with Chardonnay after his time in Napa (his preference for the “unhygienic” practice of barrel fermentation initially raised eyebrows among Morningtonians, mind you) but these were early days for peninsula Pinot Noir, a grape with which Dexter had scant experience. “The first one I made was the ’87 Stonier and it was not very good,” he laments. “It really gave us no clues.”
He got a bit more of a clue about the heartbreak grape when he spent some time working with James Halliday at Coldstream Hills in the Yarra Valley. “I spent three weeks living in James’s house. We obviously drank a few Burgundies and that gave me some good tips on how to handle Pinot,” says Dexter.
The 1988 Pinot was “lovely” but was followed by the “wet, terrible” 1989 vintage and a thin 1990. But 1991 turned out well, and a further glimmer of hope came when Domaine Chandon selected a Stonier Pinot Noir to serve at its gala opening in the Yarra Valley that same year. Other high points included the shock of winning Best Varietal Red Wine at the Adelaide Wine Show in 1994 and then Best White Wine at the International Wine Challenge in London for the 1999 Reserve Chardonnay.
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“The ups and downs were extraordinary,” says Dexter of the Mornington Peninsula’s learning curve. “A lot of people think it’s always been Chardonnay and Pinot and it’s always been great and it was always an easy decision. In fact it was the pioneers like Brian Stonier, Garry Crittenden, George Kefford of Merricks Estate and Nat White of Main Ridge who did all the hard work and made it easier for the newer players.”
Dexter left Stonier in 2003 to take the reins at Yabby Lake, whose vineyards are a stone’s throw from his own. In 2006, a decade and a half after his site started yielding fruit for Stonier, he turned 50. A friend told him if he didn’t do his own thing now, it’d never happen. The Dexter label was born.
His vineyard is planted to 10 acres of Pinot Noir and 7.5 of Chardonnay, and he makes roughly the same quantity of each. He knows a lot more about Pinot now than when that single barrel of ’87 Stonier – topped up with Cabernet, by the way – dribbled dishearteningly into the glass. What he strives for in Pinot is what he looks for in any wine he drinks: aromatics, prettiness, texture, elegance, line and length.
He’s altered his approach to Chardonnay, too. “In Australia we got stuck in a wave of thinking bigger is better. We were producing many wines that by today’s standards were just too big and clumsy to be enjoyable. But journalists loved them, the show system loved them. It was the way we were. Even the 1999 Stonier Reserve Chardonnay in its day was probably a bit clumsy.”
Now, though, it’s all about elegance and finesse, acid balance, good fruit and a lick of oak. “And drinkability,” he adds. “That’s a word I use more often now than ever before. You’ve got to be able to enjoy more than a glass and not feel like you’ve drunk too much. We’re older and wiser but we’ve also got older Chardonnay vines. What I know from my vineyard is I can pick at earlier sugar levels and still get really good flavours and a nice natural acid balance. I couldn’t have done that 15 years ago. We needed to let the grapes hang longer and get riper.”
So it is that the happy-go-lucky youngster who drifted off to the US ski fields all those years ago has become a sage of this relatively young region. “Those formative years make it so much easier to do what I do now,” says Dexter. “But that was never part of the grand plan. The business plan I wrote in 1984 was to come home and buy the land, plant the vineyard, build a winery and start selling the wine. It’s taken a bit longer than I thought.”

Dexter Mornington Peninsula Chardonnay 2012

Clear pale straw. The nose is fairly pronounced, a roll call of inviting Chardonnay characters. It has lemon rind, grapefruit, nectarine, grilled nuts, toast and a suggestion of burnt caramel. From the citrus-edged attack flows a medium-bodied, intense palate that wraps in everything that was on the nose. Lively and fresh, the zesty acidity giving it real drive. It’s got beautifully integrated oak and fruit, impeccable line and impressive, delicious length. Exemplary Mornington Peninsula Chardonnay.

Costs $40 direct from the producer – Alcohol 13% – Tasted 27/05/14

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The Scarce & The Sacred

Wirra Wirra’s a bit of an all-round good bloke. It blends all the ingredients that give Aussie wine its charm: a respectful nod to tradition, bold vision, high not haughty ambition, unflagging humour and wines that look Australian – and are worth more than you pay for them. It lives up to the sound philosophy of Greg Trott, late founding father of the modern Wirra: “Never give misery an even break, nor bad wine a second sip. You must be serious about quality, dedicated to your task in life, especially winemaking, but this should all be fun.”
A couple of wines at either end of the price spectrum illustrate the point. One needs no introduction – winemaker Paul Carpenter (above; photo by Simon Casson) calls it “the wine we live and breathe by” – but the other demands a lengthy preface, so please bear with me.
Wirra Wirra Whaite Old Block Shiraz 2012 is the winery’s latest release under McLaren Vale’s Scarce Earth project. The first wines to bear the Scarce Earth neck label came from the 2009 vintage and were launched in 2011, a year after the publication of Geology of the McLaren Vale Wine Region. This painstakingly prepared map identified 40-plus geologies varying in age from 15,000 years to more than 550 million.
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As well as being a slick piece of marketing, Scarce Earth is an inward- and outward-looking initiative. It gives local winemakers a platform to explore the relative influence on wine style of McLaren Vale’s geology, soil, climate and topography. Tight parameters are in place in an attempt to give the results some meaning. Wines must be made from 100% vintage fruit from Shiraz vines, with at least 95% coming from a single block. A panel comprising three local winemakers and three independent experts, assesses potential releases to ensure they show no signs of overripeness or “overt winemaking influences”.
We drinkers, meanwhile, get to sample the results of their work in progress. And judging by the 2012 wines, work is progressing well. Cradle of Hills Row 23 Shiraz, Battle of Bosworth Bradens Shiraz and Coriole Willunga 1920 Shiraz were among standouts in the $45-$55 bracket, which I mention because I’m writing about the most expensive wine in the range. (Don’t worry, I’m also keeping it real with a bargain built for the broader congregation.)
Carpenter is one of the three local Scarce Earth panellists. He’s spent 10 years at Wirra, split in two by a five-year stint with local giant Hardys. The latter’s blends of fruit from far and wide are as far as you can get from the distilled, single-site ethos of Scarce Earth. “At Hardys we’d taste about 150 Shirazes over a day or two,” says Carpenter. “Over time you develop all these characters from blocks, from sites, from geologies perhaps, and then you sort of chuck them into a big blended Shiraz and never see all those nuances of single sites. That’s the beauty of Scarce Earth.”
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It makes a big difference, too, that winemakers are forced to tone down oak and fruit ripeness. “I love that this forces us to make wines that I think consumers want to taste and want to drink,” says Carpenter. “I see in the marketplace that McLaren Vale is sometimes viewed as one dimensional as a style. But having lived there all my life I know it’s much more than that.”
Carpenter and chief Wirra winemaker Paul Smith taste all their blocks after vintage to decide which to send down the Scarce Earth path. In 2012 that was Whaite Old Block, one of the four or five sites that traditionally make up Wirra’s $70 flagship Shiraz, RSW. The fruit is grown on an organically and biodynamically farmed, northeast-facing vineyard planted in 1975. Situated in the north eastern corner of the district, the site comprises deep sand over ironstone and yellow clay at an altitude of 200m, which Carpenter says gives reliably high natural acidity. “It’s my favourite part of the Vale,” he says. “I love perfume and spice and more medium-bodied styles, and for me Blewitt Springs and those deep sands provide that.”
Wirra only made 540 bottles of Whaite Old Block 2012, and at $130 a pop it’s not one for the masses. In the world of Wirra, it’s as far as you can get from Church Block, the fabled blend celebrating its 40th birthday with the current release. “In the early days Trotter (Greg Trott) used to tuck a couple of bottles of Church Block in his kit bag and go visiting retailers and restaurants around the country, and that sort of established a whole folklore around it,” says Carpenter. “I can go to a pub on the Eyre Peninsula in South Australia and there’ll be Church Block, and I can also go to a really good restaurant in Melbourne or Sydney and there’s Church Block on the list. It’s the sort of wine that can appeal to you whether you’re a wine aficionado or just love a nice red wine.”
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I applaud the boundary-pushing community spirit of Scarce Earth. But the down-to-earth excellence of Church Block is also something to be celebrated. It’s a wine where what you see is what you get. It has structure, depth and a whiff of authority, while at the same time being utterly easygoing.
“It’s more than half of our production, so it’s really bloody important,” says Carpenter. “When it comes to blending, I get more nervous about Church Block than about (Wirra’s top-flight trio) Absconder, RSW or Angelus.”

Wirra Wirra Whaite Old Block Scarce Earth Shiraz 2012 McLaren Vale

Clear medium to deep ruby with a vibrant crimson rim. The nose is floral, perfumed and youthful, with lifted red to blue fruit and a touch of pencil lead. The attack is graceful and then there’s an effortless flow of firm plum and red/black berries through the medium-bodied palate. Intense and sinewy without ever feeling big. The structure is extremely neat, with fine-grained tannins and linear acidity. There’s a savoury edge but really it’s the transparent fruit that does the talking. It finishes with pippy blackberry fruit, a twist of cracked pepper and lingering perfume.

RRP $130 – Alcohol 14.5% – Tasted 05/05/14

Wirra Wirra Church Block 2012 McLaren Vale

A 49/35/16% split between Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot. Clear deep purple. The nose is fairly pronounced, the blackcurrant Cabernet notes prominent but not drowning out plums, red fruit, mocha and a touch of leather. Blackberries and plum mark the entry, before a fairly soft, rounded and juicy mid-palate of black cherries, berries and chocolate. It’s a little more than medium bodied, and the soft, clingy mesh of tannin and medium acidity draw it to moderate length. The finish is marked by leafy blackcurrant, just slightly tinged with alcohol warmth. A confident, comforting wine with no chinks in its armour.

RRP $20 – Alcohol 14.5% – Tasted 09/03/14 – Sample supplied

Wirra Wirra Woodhenge Shiraz 2012 McLaren Vale

Clear deep purple, crimson purple at the rim. When it opens up the nose displays violets, blueberry, black cherry, dark chocolate and toasted hot cross bun. In the mouth, there’s sweet blueberry, black cherries and cream up front. It’s just a whisker more than medium bodied, smooth and lithe, with chocolate-dusted cherries through the mid palate. It has good weight, energy and fine juicy tannins. Fruitcake, blackberry and spice mark a finish of moderate length. A seamless and hugely pleasurable Shiraz.

RRP $35 – Alcohol 14.5% – Tasted 24/05/14 – Sample supplied

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Game Of Rhones Rules

If I say “wine tasting”, this is what you see: Men – I bet it’s men – swirling and snorting, scowling and spitting in a space with all the cheer of a dentist’s waiting room. What you don’t see is the swashbuckling sauciness of the Seven Kingdoms.
But armour-clad winemakers and goblet-toting maidens are exactly what you get at Game of Rhones. This event, now in its second year, kicked off in Adelaide on 24th May before heading to Brisbane and then Melbourne on 7th and 14th June respectively. It features 150-odd drops from almost 50 Australian producers, as well as – say it quietly – fun.
The initiative is the brainchild of Melbourne sommelier and wine educator Dan Sims of Bottle Shop Concepts. It’s his act of rebellion against “boring-arse masterclasses” that cater solely for the geekiest 5% of the wine-drinking public. “We’re trying to speak to the other 95% and tell them that it’s possible to come along, enjoy yourself and learn about wine,” he says. “Plus by sticking to Rhône varieties, we’re keeping it simple.”

Dan Sims of Bottle Shop Concepts
Dan Sims of Bottle Shop Concepts
This last point is important. Beyond the theatricality – and organisers have camped up the Game of Thrones parody to the max – this is a chance to get to know some of Australia’s most enjoyable wines and the people who make them.
So which varieties are we talking about? For a start, reds rule the Rhône. Syrah (Shiraz) reigns supreme in the cooler northern end of the valley, while Grenache leads the way in the south, usually blended with the likes of Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan, Cinsault and others. Playing second fiddle are aromatic whites ranging from hedonistic Viognier to floral Marsanne and fashionable Roussanne.
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French wines will be available at Game of Rhones, but homegrown talent takes centre stage. It’s time to banish for good the stereotype of Aussie Shiraz as a generic big, dry red. “Shiraz in Australia is so diverse,” says Sims. “What we want to celebrate is the diversity of style within the variety.” Full-throttle blockbusters are but a detail in a tapestry that includes earthy, medium-bodied Hunter Valley wines, the peppery, black-olive notes of Victoria and evolving elegance from Adelaide Hills and Margaret River.
Meanwhile the Barossa and McLaren Vale are getting Grenache to sing right now. It loves the heat, as does frequent blending partner Mourvèdre (Mataro), and a trend away from hot, jammy numbers in favour of freshness, is allowing them to shine. “We’ve got some of the oldest Grenache vines in the world and the wines offer ridiculous value,” says Sims. “GSM is wonderful, medium bodied and goes great with food.”
Corinna Wright of Oliver's Taranga
Winemaker Corinna Wright
Let’s not forget the white varieties of the Rhône, which continue their mouthwatering march. The once isolated success of Yalumba with Viognier or Tahbilk with Marsanne is being built on by others. “Viognier is always going to be a richer style of wine,” says Sims. “Then you have Marsanne and Roussanne and blends. They’re never going to be as popular as Chardonnay but I think they offer a more savoury style, and Australian winemakers are learning to play with them better.”
Game of Rhones: you’ve got to be in it to win it. And the beauty is you can always play along at home.

Dan Sims’s Game of Rhones heroes:

Head Red GSM 2013 Barossa Valley $25

“Alex Head’s wines are going from strength to strength and this is just bloody delicious. Medium-bodied, red-fruited deliciousness.”

Voyager Estate Shiraz 2011 Margaret River $38

“While the west isn’t famed for Shiraz, Voyager is nailing it. Fuller flavour, dark plums with a savoury edge. It begs for roasted meats.”

Tyrrell’s Stevens Single Vineyard Shiraz 2011 Hunter Valley $38

“I really like Hunter Shiraz as it’s classically medium bodied without being too much. Perfumed and elegant now but long lived for sure.”

Oliver’s Taranga Shiraz 2012 McLaren Vale $30

“Superfresh, dark-fruited, slippery and slurpy deliciousness from winemaker Corinna Wright.”

Mitchell Harris Mataro 2012 Pyrenees $29

“Recently did very well in the North East Versus Western Victoria Challenge. Medium bodied, spicy, attractive fruit. Great drink.”

Shaw & Smith Shiraz 2012 Adelaide Hills $50

“Cool climate, spicy fresh Shiraz at its Adelaide best. Super smooth and seductive.”