Category Archives: Strine Wine

Tasting notes on Australian wines and profiles of the people behind them.

Road To Peerless Wigan

“I’m sorry you’ve finished your last one. Shit happens. I hope you enjoyed it at least.” There’s a genuine note of sympathy in Andrew Wigan’s voice at the news that I disposed of my final bottle of the ‘06 Riesling that bears his name. But he knows as well as anyone that, in the world of wine, another lovely surprise is always around the corner.
That’s what keeps the fire burning for Peter Lehmann’s chief winemaker after 35 years at the company. Wigan’s journey began in Ararat, not far from Victoria’s Great Western wine district. He studied Applied Science at the Ballarat School of Mines, during which he worked holidays at Seppelt – a spot of summer pruning and guided tours of the sparkling wine cellars. “When I graduated from Ballarat in 1973, I thought it might be cool to be a wine chemist. I applied and no one was interested,” he recalls. But a lecturer’s sister was friends with Jim Irvine, then manager and winemaker at Krondorf in the Barossa Valley. So Wigan got a job in the cellar and never turned back. Dalgety Wine Estates, which then owned Krondorf, Stonyfell and Saltram, offered him a scholarship to study Oenology at Roseworthy Agricultural College. Having worked vintages at Krondorf throughout his course, Wigan ended up landing the job of apprentice winemaker at Saltram in 1976.

Wigan (second from right) and the team
Wigan (2nd from right) & the team
His boss was the late Peter Lehmann (top picture, on the right), and when Lehmann walked out following his fate-shaping standoff with corporate bosses three years later, Wigan went with him. He counts Lehmann and Irvine as great mentors, and the same goes for “legend and family friend” Colin Preece, who encouraged the young Wigan back in his Ararat days. “I had this in-built passion to become a great winemaker,” Wigan says. “I saw the regard they were held in and the wonderful wine they were making, and that’s what I aimed for.”
Not surprisingly, Lehmann’s influence runs especially deep. “From Peter I learned about integrity, loyalty and passion for making something really good. His attitude was: If you’re making a drink, make it well. Make it with a high drinkability factor, don’t charge the world for it and don’t put it out of the reach of the ordinary wine drinker. Peter also knew before others how special the Barossa was, and he had a very strong connection with the growers. At vintage he’d be on the weighbridge talking to them while we were in cellar making the wine.”
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The changes that have swept through the region have kept things fresh for Wigan. “The Barossa’s a lot more vibrant than it was when we came here 40 years ago. We were sort of in awe of it but it was sort of boring. As soon as the sun went down the Barossa went to sleep,” he says. “It was very conservative, with people doing what their grandfathers and great-grandfathers did. Since then there’s been a huge insurgence of youth and young people’s ideas. The big companies are still just as strong, but there are also heaps of interesting producers that make the district exciting, and a lot of really good restaurants.”
Changing tastes have also kept Wigan on his toes. He’s seen fortified demand dry up, replaced by an initial wave of Cabernet, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Riesling. These days southern European migrants Tempranillo, Montepulciano, Vermentino and Viognier are pouring in, and Peter Lehmann’s about to put out its first Verdejo. “Those varieties won’t dominate, but they add to the richness of the tapestry,” he says. “The marketplace continually evolves and we have to evolve with our thinking. We have access to amazing fruit from 140 growers in different parts of the Barossa. We’re teaching them to grow wine, not just grapes.” The ideas keep fizzing between his team of five or so winemakers, all of whom make both reds and whites. “If you only make one thing, you get a bit saddle sore,” says the boss.
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Wigan’s Bonnezeaux Gonzo cameo is the latest honour in a career crammed with accolades. He picked up the Jimmy Watson Trophy for the 1989 Stonewell Shiraz, won IWC White Winemaker of the Year in 2006 and was IWSC International Winemaker of the Year in both 2003 and 2006. Such recognition was once unthinkable. “When we started making wine we never dreamed that anyone outside Australia would ever want to drink Australian wine or Barossa wine. We had no idea we’d one day be standing up in the finest restaurants of New York, London or Amsterdam. We never thought we’d get to see the world.”
We can be thankful that all these accomplishments have whetted rather than whittled down Wigan’s appetite. “I just love seeing grapes turn into wine,” he says. “Each year is different, and it’s like that proverbial box of chocolates. It’s a great lifestyle and we get to eat and drink very well. Probably too well.”

Peter Lehmann Wigan Riesling 2006 Eden Valley

Grapes from a low-yielding vineyard in the southern end of Eden Valley were picked early and fermented cold in stainless steel tanks. Following a two-week fermentation period, the wine was clarified and bottled immediately before being cellared at the winery for five years prior to release.
Clear medium green gold in colour. Fairly pronounced, floral nose of lemon/lime zest, a suggestion of tangerine, talc and toast. Signs of age, for sure, but it definitely hasn’t lost touch with its youth. Fragrant kaffir lime marks the entry, before intense, mellow lemon takes over. It’s more than medium bodied and feels rich and smooth in the mouth, though not without a chalky firmness. The acidity is what does the business as it dances across the tongue, with pulsing drive through the back palate. It finishes long with tingly fresh lime.

Cost $35 at Dan Murphy’s – Alcohol 11.5% – Tasted 25/04/14

A Cracking Pair Of Bress

“Because it f*@king rocks!”
There’s a pause while Adam Marks wonders whether such language was appropriate and while I wonder what Bonnezeaux Gonzo’s f-word policy is. I’d posed a simple enough question: Why is Pinot Noir his favourite wine to drink and make? But I realise the empathic recklessness was the most telling aspect of the response. That’s why the expletive must stay – even if it needs silly symbols to sugarcoat the pill for my older readers (aka ‘dad’).
I haven’t met Marks in person; he wasn’t at the Bress winery when my wife and I popped in for an Easter Monday tasting. But you can feel the crackle of energy on the phone; he’s excitable, impulsive, impish. It’s not altogether a surprise. You poke around the premises of this biodynamic producer and its all laidback, hippyish rusticity, but the wines themselves have a certain exuberance about them. And a bit of bravado is a bloody good thing when there’s skill and soul in the mix.
A 2001 Yarra Valley Pinot Noir was the first wine Adam made when he and wife Lynne returned from their honeymoon and started Bress. For the first few years they ran it like a négociant business, choosing good fruit from good vineyards in good regions and juicing it up in mates’ wineries.
Then in 2004 they started looking for a permanent place. They thought about setting up shop in the Yarra Valley, where Marks had fond memories of working under Rob Dolan at Sticks, but they couldn’t quite stretch to the cost. Instead they settled on some granite-strewn hills just south of Bendigo in Victoria, a stone’s throw from Harcourt Valley Vineyards where Marks started making wine in the late 80s. “It was squalor. The property was just a rundown shithole,” he recalls.
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Ten years later it’s a lovely home complete with cellar door, market garden, wood-fired pizza ovens and working winery, as well as a bunch of free-range chickens strutting about. The label is a homage to the tasty birds of Bourg-en-Bresse in France, a place where proud artisans nurture a delicacy valued for its provenance, integrity and deliciousness.
The property also came with what was then Australia’s largest cider apple and perry pear orchard, from which Bress now turns out excellent traditional-method fizz. Elsewhere, the négociant ethos lives on, with Marks putting together a relatively broad range of wines. Edited highlights include a silky, nectarine-and-nougat Macedon Chardonnay 2012 ($35) and floral, pure-fruited Yarra Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 ($25), in addition to those below.
But back to my initial question: Why Pinot Noir? “It’s the crown jewel,” says Marks. “It’s captivating, it gets you excited and it makes you want to go and make a better wine.” So far, so familiar. But then: “The first one that set me on the way was a Hungerford Hill Hunter Valley Pinot Noir from the late 80s or early 90s made by Ralph Fowler. People may pooh-pooh me for that, but it was just a revelation to me.”
That love of Pinot Noir went up a notch in 1996. Marks calls the Yarra Ridge Reserve Pinot Noir from that vintage “a smoker” and “the most pleasing wine I’d ever made”. That was also the year Rob “best boss in the world” Dolan sent him to Beaujolais and Burgundy.
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Marks reserves great admiration for a range of great Aussie Pinot makers, reeling off the likes of Dan Pannell at Picardy, Michael Glover at Bannockburn, Steve Flamsteed at Giant Steps, Nat White at Main Ridge and Phil Moraghan at Curly Flat.
But nothing inspires him like France, a land that encapsulates the timeless qualities he’s after: savoury, textured, nuanced, complex wines. Marks looks to conjure a quiet strength in his own creations. “I want the wines to be a little understated, especially on the nose, then open up and compel you to think.”
As you might expect, there are no hard-and-fast winemaking rules here. It’s all instinct and freedom, which pretty much goes for the business arrangements too. There are no contracts with suppliers or growers; you give your word and that’s that. “You care for people and they care for you back,” says Marks. “We’re just one big, happy kumbayah here at Bress. We just want to keep things nice and simple because there’s just too much in this world that isn’t that way. I hope this is a place where people can come and learn more about the things they enjoy. Wine is a very good vehicle for sharing things.”

Bress Gold Chook Macedon Pinot Noir 2012

Bright medium garnet. The nose is a fairly dense fog of possibilities, thanks largely to the inclusion of about 80% whole bunches in the ferment: wild berries, plum sauce, gingerbread, mixed spice and some bloodiness too. It’s the fresh fruit that hits you on entry, though, and this floods through to a berry-rich medium-bodied palate, with truffle and spice along for the ride. Firm blood plums and red cherries zing through the longish finish. It’s a gorgeous Pinot with generous fruit, a good dose of enigma and structure to frame its boldness.

Costs $40 from the winery website – Alcohol 13% – Tasted 21/04/14

Bress Gold Chook Heathcote Shiraz 2012

Marks used 50-70% whole bunches for this, the kind of Shiraz I could drink over and over. Clear dark ruby with a pronounced nose of black cherry, damson compote, ginger root, black olive, earth and vanilla bean. Ripe red cherry and plum mark the attack with cracked black pepper sprinkled around the sides. It’s supple and not much more than medium bodied, but there’s striking concentration to the juicy, fresh fruit. It’s also nicely layered, with bright red berries, firm plum, tapenade and almost a pleasant prickle to its spice. Firm, chalky tannins bolster its presence and it finishes fairly long.

Costs $40 from the winery website – Alcohol 14% – Tasted 21/04/14

Brash Quest Yummies

Brash Higgins isn’t a person. It’s a myth, a universal theme about leaving and searching, absorbing experiences, embracing friendships and creating things to inspire other dreamers. As a myth, it belongs to no one and is offered to all; an idea to inhabit, if you’re the dreaming type.
And clearly I am. I’d enjoyed some of the wines before but was blindsided at a
recent tasting. You go to these things and assess away, routine, business-like. You nod, raise and furrow eyebrows, jot down notes, move on. As journalist and student I guess I’m generally uptight and on guard but on this occasion the Brash Higgins range burst through my defences. I sighed in surrender and felt an urge to lay down arms – pen, notebook, phone – kick back and enjoy a drink. Perhaps the wines spoke to my inner Brash.
New York sommelier Brad Hickey first travelled to Australia in 2004 as a guest of US wine importer Dan Philips. On that trip he met then Rockford winemaker Chris Ringland. The two stayed in touch and when Ringland invited Hickey to work vintage in the Barossa in 2007, Hickey jumped at the chance. He ended up staying on in South Australia and pruning vineyards in McLaren Vale that winter, by which time the Aussies had rechristened him Brash. Brash Higgins, the fake name used to keep immigration officials off his tail, ultimately became the mythical hero of this adventure.
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Hickey fell in love with, and in, McLaren Vale. It was here that he met partner Nicole Thorpe. Together they now own the Omensetter Vineyard, from which his Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Nero d’Avola wines are made. “It’s always something I’ve followed in my life, to try to work with good people who enjoy what they do and who I enjoy being with,” he tells me. “They say fortune favours the brave. I’ve done that kind of thing a few times and landed on my feet. That gave me the confidence to make the big leap from New York to McLaren Vale. I see this as an incredible land of opportunity and possibility. I moved from a high-population urban jungle to an area where there’s an immense amount of space and natural beauty.”
And it sent his imagination soaring. Co-fermented Grenache/Mataro and amphora-fermented Nero d’Avola were the two wines that inspired this blog, while I didn’t even get to try the Riverland-grown Zibibbo (the cool name for Muscat of Alexandria; the label’s even cooler, like a 70s juice brand on acid) because it’s so insanely popular.
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“I’m really happy with the variety of tastes that we’ve created, from light and ethereal to more classic archetypes,” he says. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel with Shiraz and Cabernet. Those are wines to express the vineyard.”
While respecting tradition – and achieving excellent results – with those two varieties, Hickey’s sommelier heart beats strong. That means there’s always a puzzle to solve and new gems to unearth. “I like to drink all kinds of styles from all over the place. I felt this way when I built wine lists. There’s no point having two things that are the same. Before we put a new wine into the Brash Higgins stable, I look closely at what I’m adding to the landscape here.
“Wine drinkers want to dream and imagine a little bit,” he concludes. “I’m constantly searching for wines that have interest and personality, and that’s an endless quest. To those who are dreaming and fossicking, I want to say: ‘Here’s something that might be a little bit different and hopefully a bit delicious’.”

Brash Higgins NDV Nero d’Avola Amphora Project 2013 McLaren Vale

Hickey’s first few vintages in Australia were “excruciatingly hot”, making it difficult to craft elegant wines from Shiraz, Cabernet and Grenache. “I wanted to find something that was a more natural fit for the vineyard. I thought of Nero d’Avola because it’s a very Sicilian climate here: hot, dry and windy. When I heard it was available I was very eager to experiment with it.”
He grafted over some Nero vines in 2009 and made the first wine in 2011, fermented in 200-litre beeswax-lined amphorae made by fifth-generation Adelaide potter John Bennett. The wine spends six months on skins and is hand plunged twice a day for the first four weeks or so.

Inviting bright ruby in colour, with a pronounced nose at once deep/rooty and bright/floral – bass notes of rhubarb, beetroot and fresh liquorice with lavender, plum and cherries in a higher key. The entry is soft with vibrant red fruits, the sweetness in check. It’s fleshy and plummy through the mid-palate with a cherrystone tang that never leaves, yet accompanying that brightness is bitter-mocha depth to slump into, blanketed by mouth-hugging, fine-grained tannins. The tangy acid draws it out to a conclusion of moderate length. A juicy, caressing and very moreish wine.

Costs $42 from winery website – Alcohol 14% –Tasted 18/03/14

Brash Higgins GR/M Grenache Mataro 2012 McLaren Vale

This co-fermented blend is another happy experiment launched in the tough 2011 vintage. “I thought we’d make a more interesting wine if we could ferment them together. It’s almost like you create a new hybrid.”

Bright crimson/garnet in colour, the perfumed nose giving off violet floral notes backed by red berry and plum, leather and earth. The attack is heavenly – sweet raspberry, blood plum and cherry – before the mid-palate adds some wilder, darker notes – mulberry, blueberry and damp earth. It’s juicy and harmonious with chewy tannins and lively acidity guiding it along. There’s a fair amount of heft in there, but the sheer, unflagging allure of the texture and aromas leaves you with the impression of gentle and welcome seduction.

Costs $37 from winery website – Alcohol 14.5% – Tasted 18/03/14

Grenache? Get On Board!

I applaud promiscuity when it comes to wine. Any red-blooded drinker confronted with a world of beauty and diversity is duty bound to get out there and share the love. That’s why I was quick to doff my cap to the polygamist proclamations of a bloke who wears his heart on his sleeve – well, on his twitter handle. That’s right, @ILoveRiesling has a roving eye. I caught Tom Hogan, celebrated sommelier and co-owner of Melbourne wine bar Harry & Frankie, whispering sweet nothings about Grenache. I just thought you ought to know.
“In terms of something quintessentially Australian, old-vine Grenache is being made particularly well at the moment,” Hogan tells me. “People are reining in alcohol levels and getting more finesse, elegance and perfume. The wines are more at that floral end of the spectrum instead of high alcohol and largesse. What’s exciting is they’re not trying to copy anywhere else; they’re not trying to be French Grenache or Garnacha from Spain. They have their own take.”
Hogan, an associate judge at the Royal Melbourne Wine Awards and Sydney Royal Wine Show, concedes that Grenache may have suffered from something of a cultural cringe, with the variety relegated in the eyes of some to “B” grade status, below A-listers like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In part this was down to over-the-top, boozy styles with sweet, confected fruit. He hopes that wine-judging attitudes may change now, with wines like Ochota Barrels’ Fugazi Vineyard Grenache 2012 ($38; sold out – 2014 released 1st December) and The Green Room Grenache Syrah 2013 (sold out – 2014 released 1st September) almost taking their cue from Pinot and mimicking its ethereal appeal.
“A lot of these new styles are being led by a new wave of producers who are looking for deliciousness and drinkability. Australia’s making some of the best Chardonnay in the world but a lot of it is made in cerebral fashion instead of just being delicious and moreish. The modern movement of Grenache has delicacy and vitality, brightness and freshness.” Take the Jauma Biggles 2013 ($25; sold out with new vintage due in spring) for example. “I absolutely adored that wine,” says Hogan. “It’s bright, vibrant and almost Beaujolais-like – so fresh and accessible.”

Jauma's James Erskine
Jauma’s James Erskine
Hogan’s background as an Adelaide-bred member of the hospitality industry means he’s never been far away from Grenache. He’s also deliberately thrown himself in its path. He’s worked a couple of vintages in the Barossa, including in 2008 at Spinifex, producer of the Papillon Grenache Cinsault blend ($26) – an old favourite. He’s also paid a couple of visits over the years to the southern Rhone, home to Clos des Papes in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, “probably my favourite producer year in, year out”. He’s currently got around 25+ Grenache wines on the 650-strong list at Harry & Frankie.
From Australia, it’s no surprise to hear Hogan laud McLaren Vale, particularly the Blewitt Springs sub-region. Less obvious is Victoria’s Pyrenees, where he’s captivated by DogRock’s Degraves Road Shiraz Grenache Tempranillo blend ($75). “That’s a top wine, more in the bay leaf/dried herb spectrum,” he adds.
He sees GSM as the Barossa Valley’s strongest suit, preferring his Shiraz from the higher, cooler climes of Eden Valley and Barossa Ranges. “In the Barossa, it’s the Grenache that comes in looking pristine. This is the variety that should be embraced there,” says Hogan. “To some extent, a lot of Barossa and McLaren Vale Shiraz can come across as dry reddy – a lot of dark fruit and tannin. But the Grenache and the GSM from those regions have a transparency about them and feel at ease with themselves. The great thing about these wines is that they have such a history about them and when you buy a bottle, you’re buying a bit of that history as well.”

More Go-To Grenache From Tom Hogan

Ruggabellus, Barossa Valley“Abel Gibson’s wines are a bit more resinous, a bit more structured and speak more of the earth. The 2012 Timaeus ($40; sold out) has a lot of lift and perfume. It’s alluring and sits in the red-fruit end of the spectrum without being simple.”

Izway, Barossa Valley –Three Brians Grenache 2012 ($75) “Old style meets new. This is one of those wines that manages to carry pretty high alcohol and show elegance and femininity. It’s super light on its feet.”

Bekkers, McLaren Vale – The 2012 Grenache ($80) has unfortunately sold out, but the 2013 is slated for release in November this year. “Those wines are pretty impressive. Definitely one to watch.”

SC Pannell, McLaren Vale“The straight Grenache from 2010 and 2011 ($55) were absolutely delicious. 2011 was a vintage to separate the men from the boys. That wine shows how you can produce a wine in a more restrained style and still come up with something brilliant and interesting.”

Samuels Gorge, McLaren Vale“Try the straight Grenache 2011 ($35).”

The Next Best’s Thing

Wayne: The Shitty Beatles? Are they any good?
Tiny: They suck!
Wayne: Then it’s not just a clever name.

Call me odd, but that exchange sprang to mind years ago when I first drank a bottle that crammed the word’s “Best” and “Great” side by side on the label. As with the not-so-Fab Four from Wayne’s World, Best’s Great Western isn’t just a clever name. In my experience the wines merit just about any superlative you can throw at them.
Founded in 1867 in the Grampians region of Victoria, some 200km west of Melbourne, the winery is especially noted for its Shiraz. The wine it crafts from the world’s oldest Pinot Meunier vines is a treasure, while its Riesling also has its fans (you’re reading one).
But we’re here today to talk about Cabernet Sauvignon – yup, boring old Cab. I was discussing the recent Bonnezeaux Gonzo post on this prickly old character with a prickly old character I work with, who related the agony and ecstasy of polishing off his last remaining bottle of 2010 Best’s Cabernet. The logical conclusion to that conversation was to try to track down any surviving family members. It wasn’t easy but we managed to salvage a dozen to split between us.
Sure enough, the wine’s a beauty. But its main appeal as a blog subject was the way it drew attention to an underappreciated variety/region pairing at a non-threatening price point. If you can’t get hold of the bloody stuff, it kind of defeats the object. What’s more, the bloke who made the 2010 has since fled to the (Adelaide) hills. So it was that, in the name of research and fair access, I had to go get me more wine.
Adam Wadewitz, author of the ’10, is now penning a new chapter of his impressive winemaking journal at Shaw + Smith, leaving Justin Purser to plot the 2012. Purser sees a tendency in Australia to treat Cabernet like Shiraz, or else earmark it for blending. “My philosophy is that you’ve got to treat it differently from other varieties,” he says. “Cabernet has its own charms and off-putting points as well.”
To start with the negatives, flowering and fruit set can be troublesome and it ripens late in the season, which can make it a touch-and-go proposition in a cool region rising to 440m above sea level. Cabernet wines can be short on mid-palate fruit weight and long on tannin, so if you’re not careful you get something with a hole in the middle and a pile of grit around it. In any case it needs a fair bit of time in bottle to get its act together. But then Purser reels off the pluses: perfume, elegance, distinctive varietal character, neat expression of site and the promise of beauty with age.
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Best’s didn’t make this wine in 2011, a problematic vintage from which the winery still managed to crank out a Jimmy Watson-winning Shiraz. But thankfully the Cabernet grapes ripened well in both 2010 and 2012. Purser says his objective was an elegant, structured and generous medium- to full-bodied wine. This entailed a preference for hand-plunging whole berries in open-fermenters, then ageing the wine for 14 months in hogsheads (5% new oak).
“It has more tannin than Shiraz and that should be expressed in the wine. So it’s got real intensity to it without being too heavy,” he says. “As a style we’re looking for nicely balanced, lifted herbal and juicy berry characters with fine, silky, velvety, rolling flavours through the palate.”
Shiraz may be king round these parts. But watch out for this fair prince; it has a stronger claim to the throne than many realise.

Best’s Great Western Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

Deep purple in colour. The nose is fairly pronounced, floral and fresh-fruited. Red, blue and blackberries, blackcurrants, roses, geranium, oak and a hint of fresh mint. Lovely, smooth entry with juicy mulberry, then generous, fresh, fleshy berries and some peppery spice follow on the mid-palate. It’s a touch more than medium bodied, with tannins that are firm, fruit-tinged and ripe. The back palate exhibits more cassis and leafy characters, as well as a graphite note, with good acidity carrying it fairly long.

Costs $25 from the winery website – Alcohol 14% – Tasted 06/04/14

Best’s Great Western Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

Pretty ruby hue with a nose of rose petals, raspberries, blackcurrant, mint and a whiff of cedary oak. An attack of sweet red berries is followed by darker fruits that glide across the silky, supple, medium-bodied palate. A clear but soft acid line and fine sandy tannins guide it to a fairly long conclusion with typical notes of blackcurrant leafiness. There’s no shortage of flavour intensity in what is a lean, gentle, structured and very pretty Cabernet.

RRP $25 – Alcohol 13% – Tasted 30/03/14

Wonky Canberra Angle

Bryan Martin is a brainy sort. It speaks volumes that the high-IQ winery where he does his real job has this this to say about him: “He brings wisdom and intellect to the question we constantly ask ourselves at Clonakilla: ‘What can we do to make better wine?’” The cool thing is that the wines Martin makes under his Ravensworth label are first and foremost a sensual, rather than cerebral, affair.
His background as a chef, a profession he practised until 1997, helps explain his heightened sense of a wine’s tactile and savoury qualities, as does his authorship of a Canberra Times food column (so yes, both my prose and palate are under the microscope when he reads this). “When Tim (Kirk, Clonakilla chief) and I taste wine, Tim always talks about aromatics and I always talk about the flavour and shape of the palate,” he tells me. “For me what happens with texture is the most important thing. I’m always thinking about how we can modify texture and what we can do next year to influence the shape.”
And Martin’s using his head rather than inputs to answer those questions. He adds no yeast, bacteria, enzymes or nutrients to the wine, while the cool, high vineyards of the Canberra District chip in with essential acidity. Not everything is a riddle, though. He plays it straight and pristine with his Riesling, which in 2012 fended off more than 400 competitors from six countries to be crowned best wine of show at the Canberra International Riesling Challenge. The Shiraz Viognier is likewise made in the mould of the peerless Clonakilla – cofermented fruit, 20% to 30% whole bunches, three to four week maceration and a preference for puncheons (30% new oak) for maturation.
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Aside from those regional classics “anything else is fair game for experimentation” – and grape skins are a key part of the puzzle. “A lot of places don’t think of skins at all, but I love this idea of soaks and macerations with whites and reds,” he says. Take the Chardonnay for example: the 2013 was made in two separate parcels, the first with 24 hours’ skin contact and the second fermented with 50% whole bunches and on skins for about 14 days. When I tasted the wines I couldn’t bring myself to cut short the sensation of its delicate folds furling and unfurling across the palate, like sun-dappled lace billowing in the breeze. Yeah, I know he’s a writer and he’ll read this; I’ll bear the shame of that sentence because it’s true.
Martin, who lives with wife Jocelyn and their three children on a 650m-high vineyard in Murrumbateman, began working at Clonakilla in 2004 after six-odd years studying viticulture and wine science at Charles Sturt University. It all adds up to a solid platform from which to launch experiments, especially when you chuck in his employer’s well-appointed winery. Martin also seems to relish a bit of mental sparring, bouncing ideas off a visiting Kiwi and Israeli during vintage 2014 and finding himself “very much at home” among the wide-horizoned winefolk of Sydney’s Rootstock festival, where he hosted a session on hunter-gathering. “If you’re not careful you can get insular in your own winery,” he says. “Just by tweaking and playing around at the edges, you can find something that can fine-tune a wine. I’m just really happy to have the time and the interest to go ahead and try things out. I’m always playing around with food and I’m inclined to do the same with winemaking.”

Ravensworth The Grainery 2013 Murrumbateman

A field blend from Martin’s own vineyard comprising Marsanne, Roussanne, Chardonnay, Viognier, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Traminer and Sauvignon Blanc. “The idea is a Rhone blend with some aromatics to give it lift and acid. I’ve tried to make a style based on varieties, not techniques.”
Clear pale lemon, fairly pronounced on the nose with grass and nettles prominent; beyond these are murmurs of citrus and orchard fruits, with no one voice rising above the rest. From a juicy, lemony attack it broadens as white stone fruits and citrus fan out on the mid-palate, the zesty acidity working to keep it trim. It’s a touch more than medium bodied, creamy and velvety in the mouth with orange and gingery spice in there too. It tapers to a lingering finish of white flowers, stone fruits and nettly zing.

Costs $27 from winery website* – Alcohol 12.5% – Tasted 18/03/14* (*applies to all)

Ravensworth Chardonnay 2013 Tumbarumba

Clear medium lemon in colour. The nose is a touch herbaceous, with white flowers, citrus notes, creamy lees and nutty oak. From there it’s an essay in mouthfeel and harmony. Citrus zest drives the palate and the oak feels really good – a firm guide but not the least intrusive. Savoury, soft and lacy on the palate. Grapefruit, white peach, nougat, cinnamon and vanilla skip over each other to a delicate but persistent finish.

Costs $30 – Alcohol 12.5%

Ravensworth ‘Le Querce’ Sangiovese 2013 Canberra District

Sangiovese was the first variety Martin planted, and this is the 10th vintage he’s made. The fruit comes from a few different sites, following Martin’s belief that the variety works best in the lower (circa 500m) vineyards.
Pale ruby and with a pinkish rim. Nose of cherry, dusty herb, fresh plum too. The juicy attack sets the tone for a sprightly, mid-weight wine with soft blood plum, blood orange, sour cherry and earth across the palate. It has the fresh acid and dusty tannins you’d expect and finishes with a lovely cherrystone tang. Immensely pleasurable.

Costs $24 – Alcohol 13%

Ravensworth Nebbiolo 2013 Hilltops

Martin decided “not too go too wild” with his four tonnes of Young-grown grapes in 2013, since this is the first Nebbiolo to appear under his label. The two batches were given three weeks and six weeks respectively on skins.
Pale to mid ruby and pink-orange at rim. Red and black cherry, smoked meat and a bit of earth and tar on the nose. It’s medium bodied and silky smooth, with sweet red cherry offset by orangey sharpness. Racy acidity and intense, scratchy tannin on the finish complete the picture. The varietal signs, feel and price are spot on but I felt the palate came up short on depth and complexity.

Costs $27 – Alcohol 14%

Ravensworth Shiraz Viognier 2013 Murrumbateman

Medium to deep ruby/garnet. Terrific nose: pronounced perfume of violets and roses swirling above a deep well of pepper, plum and cherry. Lithe and textured, with a mid-weight palate of great complexity and concentration – sappy red fruits, star anise and gingerbread. You sense a lot more tightly bound up within a core framed by firm, ripe tannins and tangy acidity. Great wine – time will be kind to it, and it will be a friend to food.

Costs $32 – Alcohol 14%

Slaking Thirst For Novelty

Innovation: a word from Silicon Valley, not the Barossa. Yet it peppered my conversations with bosses of Australia’s biggest wine companies over recent weeks. The interviews were for the Top 20 feature in April’s Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine. You’ll find no spoilers here, merely a reflection on a recurring theme. This is about fleet-footed giants who know consumers won’t hang around if you don’t give them a reason to.
Many producers preach intimate knowledge of vineyard site and hands-off winemaking. But the major players juggle this with a markedly different mantra: intimate knowledge of consumer tastes and hands-on engineering of bottled novelty. Their preoccupation with relevance is understandable. In an industry where competition is fierce and margins razor thin, they have to build their “share of throat” anyway they can. Any throat will do, of course, but those belonging to so-called millennials – who make up a quarter of the drinking population – are particularly coveted. Last week a UK Wine Intelligence report found these 18- to 35-year-olds “have an overall lack of engagement with wine” and could easily be driven to beer, cider and spirits.
BONDI RD Range with Glass
Which may help explain why Casella, the group that gave us Yellow Tail – and which copped some flak for relying too heavily on the 8.5 million cases it flogs to the US each year – has brought out a sangría at 5.5% alcohol and a Bondi Rd Sauvignon Blanc spritzer at the same strength. This latter comes as a four-pack of 275mL bottles including the improbable flavours elderflower & mint and ginger & green tea. Better they drink something grape-related and graduate to wine than be lost for ever, the argument goes.
Casella’s spritzer isn’t alone in playing with alcopoppy packaging. Some notable debuts this year include the “naughty but nice” labels for De Bortoli’s 330mL Sia Moscato bottles and the piccolo-format bottles for Brown Brothers’ popular, and very good, Prosecco. Brown Brothers, like fellow Australian First Families of Wine member McWilliam’s, has also given its labels a mass makeover. Staid is gone, making way for a colourful, contemporary look. Treasury Wine Estates (TWE) went a step further for its Yellowglen Peacock Lane bubbles, drafting in jewellery designer Samantha Wills. The bottle looks good enough to drink.
TWE says consumers are looking for solutions for mind, body and spirit. These might be portion-controlled (à la piccolo format), calorie-counted (as with TWE’s own Lindeman’s Early Harvest or US brand Skinny Vine) or lower alcohol. Moscato and friends fall under this last heading, and both Jacob’s Creek (Twin Pickings) and Brown Brothers (Moscato with Sauvignon Blanc) have made new forays into semi-sweet territory this past year. The plan here is to bridge the gap between sweet and dry in the hope that sweet-toothed sippers will become committed wine drinkers when they, err, grow up. It’s an interesting area, and one often looked down upon by serious winelovers (see previous sentence).
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That’s not to say all the innovation is directed at this younger, dynamic segment in the market. Jacob’s Creek has been busy in the kitchen, rustling up a couple of wines to match Asian cuisine. Its white Wah wine for sushi now has a red brother for Japanese red-meat dishes. I’m yet to try the red but liked the white: citrus and tropical notes, savoury, grippy with a fittingly briny finish. Then there’s Lamoon, a Grenache-based, plum-sauce-and-five-spice wine that works well with a Thai beef roll. Beef’s also on the menu at TWE, where a pair of Pepperjack Shirazes have been created to go with two different cuts of steak.
Big Wine is also engaging in more small-scale, sustainable practices as people apparently become more interested in the origins of their booze. Hence Angove will soon add another organic wine alongside its Sauvignon Blanc and Peter Lehmann is working on its first carbon-neutral wine. The Barossa company has made a concerted effort to shake its blokey-red-and-Semillon tag in recent years, building a strong following among women and younger drinkers. Meanwhile Victoria’s oldest family-owned winery Tahbilk, which achieved carbon neutral status in 2012, released a pair of new wines to trumpet its green credentials. The Tower Shiraz (RRP: $17) is a fresh, bright-fruited, peppery affair and I was really taken with the Marsanne Viognier Roussanne: creamy, rich, harmonious and brimming with orange blossom, peaches and apricots (RRP: $15).
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Mainstream companies are also getting to grips with fringe varieties such as Carmenère, Grüner Veltliner and Montepulciano. “I’m an idiot. Am I on drugs?” said one CEO as he ran through the weird and wonderful grapes he’s planting. The likes of Fiano, Vermentino, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and Tempranillo have tended to be boutique territory; now they’re anything but. Exhibits A and B: Jacob’s Creek Classic Fiano and Classic Sangiovese.
In general the cognoscenti applaud efforts to push boundaries on sustainable practices and wine styles. They tend to be more dismissive of gimmicks they see as dumbing down wine. But is there a clear-cut distinction? The success of these companies is built on a readiness to serve popular taste. On this evidence their thirst remains undiminished.

Hunting Down Some S&M

Confession time: I clean forgot about Hunter Shiraz. It barely exists in London and wasn’t on my radar when I returned to Melbourne. But then some young blokes set my screen a-bleeping with the news they were coming to Melbourne on an interstate charm offensive.
The six-man group, calling themselves Next Generation Hunter Valley, arrived last May. They were armed with buckets of the obligatory Semillon. Young, old, bone- or off-dry, it was great. No surprise there. But what struck me was the way Shiraz, in this Shiraz-soaked land, stood out so handsomely.
“It’s a very different style from what the world would think of as Australian Shiraz,” Andrew Margan preaches to the reconverted. “It’s more savoury, it’s earthy, it’s structured around acidity, it tends to age very well and goes really well with food. It’s coming more into vogue as people get sick of the sweeter-fruit styles.”
Margan cut his teeth making Shiraz under the tutelage of the great Murray Tyrrell. He had access to some of the oldest Shiraz vines in the country and, with them, several strata of old Hunter wisdom. He’s dug even deeper to unearth the region’s potential with the likes of Andrew Thomas, Mike de Iuliis and Iain Riggs of Brokenwood. “We get together and talk about where the Hunter is going and work accordingly,” says Margan. “The style’s evolved wonderfully into a combination of terroir with more fruit ripeness plus fruit weight and texture, all made possible through viticulture.”
But let’s leave those straight Shirazes for another day. Many other days, I hope. Because this is about Hunter Shiraz with a twist, born of a happy accident and discovered at that Next Gen HV tasting.
Shiraz Mourvèdre – the S and M of GSM blends – is a rare beast in the Hunter. Margan’s version is a field blend made from 40-year-old bush vines grown on the red-clay soils of the Vere vineyard in Broke. When Andrew and wife Lisa took on the vineyard in 1997, the Mourvèdre vines were randomly interplanted with Shiraz and other varieties. The other randoms have since been grafted over to Shiraz, but the small, sweet, thick-skinned Mourvèdre berries, whose vines comprise about 14% of the vineyard, have been picked and co-fermented with the Shiraz ever since. The resulting wine is aged in mainly one-year-old French and American hogsheads for nine to 12 months, though it might see some new oak if the Mourvèdre tannins are really ripe.
Mourvèdre buds and ripens late – up to two weeks after Shiraz – so this limited-release bottling is restricted to years when its flavours develop fully. That means picking the Shiraz at a pretty advanced stage too, so the blend is relatively soft and approachable when young.
“I love the fact it’s different. It’s the only Hunter Shiraz Mourvèdre,” enthuses Margan. “When the conditions are right, Mourvèdre has such an impact on the Shiraz, it really lifts it and you really get the spice coming in.”
So taken is he that the field blends are going to keep on coming. “I picked Tempranillo, Graciano and Shiraz together this year and have got some other things up my sleeve too,” he says.
I look forward to seeing what Margan’s patch of Hunter dirt conjures up. I’ll also be stashing away some of the Shiraz Mourvèdre to enjoy down the track. But first I’d better to get back to basics and plough into some earthy Hunter Shiraz. I’ve got a lot of lost time to make up for.
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Margan Shiraz Mourvèdre 2011 Hunter Valley

Clear deep ruby with a heady, complex and slightly evolved nose of red, blue and black berries, beetroot, earth, pencil shavings, clove and more. The attack is savoury before sweet plum and briary fruit come tumbling in with a strong undercurrent of earth, spice and vanilla bean. It’s medium bodied, soft and fleshy but neatly framed by ripe, savoury, blackberry-tinged tannins. These lend it a dusty texture and combine with lively acidity to deliver pulsating, berry-charged length. Drink now to 2024. Drink with slow-roasted lamb.

Costs $45 direct from the producer – Alcohol 13.5% – Tasted 19/02/14

The Good Grump’s Gamay

If you want to read a gushing review of this post, don’t look to David Lloyd. I remember him telling me some time ago that he’d read a feature I’d written for the literally titled Australian & New Zealand Grapegrower & Winemaker magazine. I’d agonised over the piece and was pleased with the result. I gave Lloyd about a minute to follow up with the inevitable compliment.
Not a word.
“And…?” I dumbly enquired. “Bit fluffy,” came the reply.
You can see where the Mr Grumpy moniker came from that adorns his favourite mug and t-shirt. But really that’s all show. It was his kindness that first brought me to Eldridge Estate, the beautiful, eight-acre vineyard he and wife Wendy have called home since 1995. He didn’t know me from Adam but still let me loose on the vineyard, indulging my curiosity with some “work” leading up to the 2013 vintage.
Perhaps a better measure of his goodness was the way he dealt with my wrapping his tractor around Row T of the Pinot Noir. He didn’t even take the piss. Maybe he forgot.
If you cut David Lloyd he would bleed Pinot, and the fact he refers to Wendy by the acronym QoC – Queen of Chardonnay – tells you almost all you need to know about their devotion to the Burgundy grapes so prevalent on the Mornington Peninsula.
Almost, but not quite. When they bought the Red Hill property, they glimpsed an extra opportunity. “We were standing, looking at the hills and imagining Beaujolais, where the vineyards face due south with rolling hills. And we thought, ‘Let’s put Gamay in because we love it’.”
That affection dates back to a trip to France in the 80s. Travelling around on “ill-gotten (gambling) gains” he had no qualms about spanking some francs on fine wine. The gay abandon with which he worked his way through a “cheat list” of top Burgundy left him somewhat blinkered. “It was only at the end of the trip that I’d look around and think, ‘What’s everyone else drinking?’,” he recalls. “You’d be amazed. There was Beaujolais everywhere. It was always Morgon or Moulin-à-Vent, and the odd Fleurie. So I tried it and it was more food friendly that just about any other wine I’ve come across.”
This attribute seems to have won Gamay a lot of fans among young sommeliers I know, who seem to come at it untouched by the Nouveau nausea that seems to have afflicted older generations. Likewise they seem not to subscribe to that most irrational of wine prejudices: that a drink-young drop, no matter how delicious, is somehow less valid than a venerable, ageworthy Pinot Noir.
Now Lloyd may be as pious about Pinot as the next Morningtonian, but this man of contradictions commits what many round here would hold to be a sacrilege. Since 2011, he’s released a Pinot/Gamay blend he calls PTG, modelled on Bourgogne Passetoutgrains. The exact make-up of the blend is not predetermined but every year it’s ended up a 50:50 split, while Lloyd tends to select the Gamay and Pinot batches that show up lightest from his hotchpotch of clones. It’s then aged in 30% new French oak to give it a bit of oomph. “The key factor is I want the PTG to be light and fresh,” says Lloyd. “I want it zingy, with a bit of acid kick. I also like it to have a slight hint of spritz.”
For my money, it’s a lovely, bright-fruited summer wine with slow-burning depth. But tell him I found it a bit fluffy.
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Eldridge Estate Gamay 2012 Mornington Peninsula

Clear crimson purple in colour, with a nose of cherry, plum, kirsch and geranium. It’s dry and medium-bodied, with nicely defined cherry and blueberry fruit plus a hint of cherry cheesecake. It has a pleasing plum-skin texture and grip, with cracked black pepper coming in to offset the juicy fruit. Firm acidity pushes it out to moderate length with lingering plum and sour cherry aromas. This vintage shows plenty of spice and brooding depth; drink with Chinese duck pancakes or chorizo and serrano ham.

Costs $38 at the cellar door – Alcohol 13.5% – Tasted 03/02/14

The Doyenne Of Viognier

Meretricious. Always been a fan of that word. I love the fact it looks and sounds so grand – even feels luxurious as you wrap your mouth around it – and yet it’s all brass and no class. It reveals the tawdry truth even as it brags away, like those who think themselves très sophistiqué as they trumpet their love of French Champagne and vee-oh-NYAY.
Poor Viognier. It so often finds its name horribly mispronounced or dragged through the mud by shoddy winemaking. Golden-hued and exotically perfumed, it looks every bit the princess. But get a little closer and it’s a burnt-out frump, all grease and flab and booze. A meretricious wine if ever there was one. “A bad Chardonnay is just boring but a bad Viognier is quite horrific,” as Yalumba chief winemaker Louisa Rose puts it.
In fairness, this fine wine grape is extraordinarily well placed to deliver a duff drop. Low acidity and high phenolics can be a recipe for fat, oily wines and its tendency to develop its flavours at high sugar levels can lead to sickly, apricot schnappsiness.
The wines of Condrieu, a small appellation in the northern Rhône, prove beyond doubt that Viognier can be great. That potential is widely acknowledged; any wine list worth its salt will offer an example, while it appears to enjoy strong favour among winemakers across the US. Here in Australia there was barely a vine in the ground in the year of my birth. Thirty-seven chequered years later, some 500 wineries are having a crack.
The truth is that this gifted child needs special treatment. And doting parents Yalumba and Rose have shown just what unconditional love can do for it. The South Australian producer planted three acres of vines in Eden Valley in 1980 and gave them a decade to find their feet. In 1993 those vines got their own fairy godmother when Rose joined Yalumba fresh from topping her year at Roseworthy Agricultural College.
Viognier
Rose says the key is to accept and work with with Viognier’s idiosyncrasies. The grapes like to catch some serious gammas in the vineyard, earning the kind of suntan that would write off other aromatic whites. They accumulate flavours late in the season, and very quickly once they get going. Then you need a fresh approach to mitigate that low acidity, and its slippery nature’s just something you have to get to grips with.
At 400 to 600 metres above sea level, Eden Valley offers hope of good, gradual ripening and retention of natural acid. Rose then allows some exposure to oxygen in order to sidestep other potential pitfalls. “That way it loses the bitter phenolics but keeps the fine, textural phenolics that we think are very important,” she explains. “You want richness and lusciousness but you don’t want the heavy, flabby, oily character.” A combination of prolonged ripening, oxidative handling, indigenous yeasts and lees stirring ensure the wine develops complexity, with savoury and spice notes providing a counterpoint to the rich, ripe stone fruit aromas.
Yalumba offers three tiers of Viognier. The jump-off point is the Y series, a lovely drink with varietal definition rarely seen at its Australian price point around $12. Then there’s the Eden Valley label, which Rose calls “the essence of our Viognier”. I’ve singled this out because it’s cheap enough to take a punt on and compelling enough to settle the question of whether you should drink more Viognier.
Which means you’ll have no choice but to try the Virgilius. This flagship Viognier is 100% barrel fermented in old French oak, then spends longer in barrel and bottle before release than the Eden Valley does. This outstanding wine is a step up in musk, spice and mystique.
So, as they say at Yalumba, Y Viognier? Granted, its richness doesn’t lend itself to the role of aperitif or quaffer. But it’s certainly a wine to luxuriate in. It’s also a hugely welcome dinner guest, with intensity, texture, spice and creaminess to work with.
But really it’s Viognier’s singularity that makes it so enticing. “It behaves differently from other white varieties we’re used to,” Rose says. You sense this is what spurred her to grapple with it and debunk the myth of meretriciousness.
Viognier is how it is. Get used to it.

Yalumba Eden Valley Viognier 2012

Two-thirds of the fruit was gently pressed directly to barrels, with the rest pressed to stainless steel. It was fermented with indigenous yeasts and left on lees, with regular batonnage for 10 months.
Gleaming medium golden green with thick, clinging tears. Pronounced, attractively aromatic nose of apricot, peach, jasmine, cocoa butter and grilled nuts, with underlying creamy lees. It’s dry, medium to full bodied, fairly weighty and unctuous with a touch of grip. The palate shows intense, apricot-led stone fruits with almond essence, ginger and cream. It finishes with spice and notes of brine and almonds, a good savoury offset to the ripe apricot. The wine has superb balance, with striking freshness and a beautifully toned palate.

Costs $16.70 on special at Dan Murphy’s – Alcohol 14% – Tasted 04/01/14