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.

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

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

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.”

Don Quijote De La Yarra

Let’s start with the similarities. Don Quixote was a wandering romantic on a Spanish quest, a noble sort with lofty ideals whose author lent him the epithet “ingenious”. And the differences? The man from La Mancha was vain, deluded and got his name on the cover of the book.
Andrew Marks, meanwhile, turned down the role of hero in his own story. When I ask where the Wanderer moniker came from, he tells me: “I just didn’t feel it needed to be eponymous. The wine has to speak for itself.” You hear that a lot in this game, but often the wines don’t get to do the talking. You sense an ego there, prodding the wine to perform. Wines raised to get themselves noticed, groomed for the limelight.
But the Wanderer wines, like Marks, are measured, modest and gently persuasive. They make no grand demands and then you note their welcome presence, stronger and more enduring than you’d expected. You nod and think, “Good trick,” but then realise it wasn’t a trick. It was good wine. And then you want some more.
Marks has been around wine since he was a child, with his parents planting vineyards at Gembrook Hill in the southern part of the Yarra Valley in 1983. After high school, Marks studied Oenology at Adelaide University and landed a job at Penfolds in 1998, a year after graduating. He stayed with the company until 2003, during which he fitted in vintages in Sonoma, Burgundy and the Languedoc.
Then came the time to expound some Marksist theory. “After working for Penfolds all those years, I just thought I’d be better off working on my own dream rather than someone else’s,” as he puts it. So he returned to the Yarra Valley, where he does his real job at Gembrook Hill.
Marks released his first Wanderer wines in 2005. He started with a pair of field blends – a Gewurztraminer/Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir/Chardonnay rosé – plus a frizzante Muscat he called Moscatito. He then started adopting, bit by bit, the sites that make up the current range. First came a single-vineyard Lower Yarra Pinot Noir in 2007. This was followed a year later by an Upper Yarra Pinot and brilliant Shiraz from single vineyards in Yellingbo and Dixons Creek respectively. In 2010 he added a lovely barrel-fermented Chenin Blanc.
Where a company like Penfolds has a glut of options when it comes to fruit sources, Marks is more exposed to the vagaries of nature at home in the Yarra. Perhaps it’s further sharpened his acutely sensitive touch. “With Gembrook Hill, working in the vineyard you learn year in, year out that you’re producing a wine that’s a product of the year and of the vineyard,” he says. “The most important step is getting the picking day correct. I’m looking for bright, sweet fruit flavours, with the acid balanced.”
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Then there’s Marks’s quixotic venture far from the Yarra, in Catalunya. El Wanderer traces its roots back to 2000, the year Marks met “legend” Anna Espelt while working in California. Her family has Carinyena (Carignan) vines planted in 1908 in the Empordà region of Spain’s Costa Brava. Marks worked a few months in the Espelt cellar in 2004, then spent a further six months there a year later, at the end of which he was invited to head up the winemaking. Needless to say he declined, but the annual pilgrimage to this second home continues.
Marks plans the trip to ensure he’s on Catalan soil comfortably in advance of the fruit hitting perfect ripeness. As with the Upper Yarra Pinot Noir, he sorts the Carinyena grapes in the vineyard. He then places them in an open fermenter (10% whole bunches), gives them three weeks on skins and likes to have them pressed to barrel before hopping on the plane back to Australia. “I feel pretty lucky to play with fruit of that character,” he says. “It’s a medium-bodied wine with good structure and balance, light enough to go with fine foods. As with all wines, texture is critical. Texture is what makes wines drinkable and smashable. Sometimes it’s a little bit overlooked.”
The Wanderer name wasn’t simply inspired by Marks’s globetrotting winemaking escapades. He was something of a searcher before all this began and, of course, it isn’t just about him anyway. “I’ve always enjoyed a sense of adventure, and as you get older you realise that pretty much everyone is on a journey in some respect,” he says. “I just want people to drink the wines and enjoy them. And people who look for a little bit more should find it.”

The Wanderer Upper Yarra Pinot Noir 2012 Yarra Valley

Clear pale ruby. Pretty nose, red fruits leaping from the glass accompanied by rhubarb and fresh mint. Crunchy red fruits – strawberry, raspberry, redcurrant – mark the entry, and the wine is shot through with subtle sweetness and spice across the palate. It’s medium-bodied with a somehow surprising intensity. The very fine tannins give a touch of grip and there’s lively acidity. A strong sense of unhurried, assertive flow, leading to a finish of juicy redcurrant and fresh herbs. Gorgeous.

Costs $55 from the Wanderer website – Alcohol 13% – Tasted 14/04/14 – Diam closure

El Wanderer Alt Empordà Carinyena 2010 Empordà DO, Spain

Clear medium ruby, bright and inviting in the glass. Red-fruited nose, raspberries and cherries, with fresh liquorice. It’s juicy and medium bodied in the mouth, with base notes of beetroot earthiness and cinnamon spice playing below buoyant raspberry and blackberry. Firm, chewy tannins and sprightly acidity fit like comfortable clothes. It has a sense of rusticity; candid with a country air to that wholesome fruit and earth. Not fussy and precise, but beautifully composed. Delicious and full of character.

Costs $55 – Alcohol 13.5% – Tasted 14/04/14 – Diam closure

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

Little Crowning Glory

I threw out something of a teaser last week when I referred to the Corte Sant’Alda Soave as “one of a couple Italian whites” I wanted to write up. Then I got a bit busy, plus May is Aussie Wine Month here so I feel like a traitor to the state even contemplating this.
But then there’s this Verdicchio. I only had a brief flirtation with it at a tasting in March and now it’s like a homeless puppy you accidentally grow too fond of. You know you’re hopelessly ill-equipped to take care of it but really, who could resist such playfulness?
The wine in question comes from the organic and biodynamic (though not certified) producer Fattoria Coroncino. This is the second Verdicchio to feature on Bonnezeaux Gonzo, the first bring the rapturously received but stylistically different Umani Ronchi. Both exhibit typical almond and brine but where the Umani Ronchi was subtle and slow to reveal itself, its counterpart is joyous and generous.
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Fattoria Coroncino was founded in 1981 by Lucio Canestrari and his wife, Fiorella De Nardo. They live in Staffolo, about 35km southwest of Ancona in the Marche region of central Italy. Verdicchio is very much their bag; their stated aim is to prove that there’s much more to Marche’s signature white than mere pizza wine. Lucio and Fiorella make a Sangiovese/Syrah blend in small quantities, but otherwise it’s Verdicchio all the way.
The pinnacle is Gaiospino, a single-vineyard wine aged for 18 months in 500-litre oak vats. At the opposite end of the scale is Il Bacco, which they endearingly call “a slave wine” because it’s always at your beck and call – any food, any mood, any time. In the right vintage they’ll also put out a passito wine, made from Verdicchio grapes left to raisin on the vine.
But back to my puppy: Il Coroncino. The fruit comes from a clay-based, north east-facing slope next to the cellar, with a view of the Adriatic. The grapes are picked by hand from the densely planted vineyard, then gently pressed and wild yeast fermented in stainless steel. The resulting wine has plenty of texture, body and acid, which means you’re laughing all the way to the dinner table. I’d like to see it again with spaghetti alle vongole or rabbit and pea risotto. But you could nudge it a fair bit further – coniglio in porchetta would be a whole heap of fun.

Coroncino Verdicchio “Il Coroncino” 2011 Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi DOC Classico Superiore

Clear medium green gold in colour, it gives off an initial whiff that reminds me of toasted corn; not altogether inviting. Overall fairly muted on the nose, just grilled almonds and apple skin. A different story in the mouth: a juicy attack of pear and stone fruits that builds to a crescendo. That sweetness is offset by briny and bitter almond notes. The texture is waxy and unctuous, the body fullish. Fine, citrusy acidity appears to pull off the feat of balancing the richness and high alcohol. Heady orchard blossom perfume and a bitter twist linger on the long finish.

Costs $33.90 at Enoteca Sileno – Alcohol 14.5% – Tasted March 2014 – Cork

Sign Of Life From Soave

This is one of a couple of Italian whites I wanted to write up before the sun set for good on the southern summer. At the end of a cold, blustery day on the Mornington Peninsula, just looking at my glass of Riesling is making me shiver, which suggests I’ve missed the boat. But it’s no big deal; it’s always summer somewhere and anyway this isn’t a mere thirst slaker. It’s a wine for food, and a delicious one at that.
It comes from Corte Sant’Alda, an organic producer from the Mezzane valley in northeast Italy’s Veneto region. The winery sits at an altitude of 350 metres in Valpolicella, where red varieties such as Corvina, Rondinella and Molinara rule. The appellation has a patchy quality record but is capable of turning out wonderful red blends in a range of styles, from light, fresh cherry- and herb-tinged wines through – thanks to the use of berries picked ripe and left to raisin in controlled conditions – to opulent, dry full-bodied Amarone and sweet Recioto.

Marinella Camerani (left) and family
Marinella Camerani (left) and family
In the mid-1980s Corte Sant’Alda’s Marinella Camerani moved to the country, rolled up her sleeves and began transforming the family estate into the dynamic producer it is today. Those reds that run the gamut of richness are her bread and butter. But she didn’t have to look far for a bit of white relief. In fact, she only had to go across the road to quench her thirst for a delicate dash of bianco. “Because I love fresh white wines, I decided to buy a little vineyard in the Soave DOC very close to Corte Sant’Alda, a vineyard still trained with the traditional pergola system for producing a simple, fresh Soave with Garganega, Trebbiano di Soave and a little part of Chardonnay,” she tells me. “I wanted to show that the terroir in this valley is suitable in certain parts also for producing wonderful white wine and that it’s possible to make a good, clean, mineral wine with native yeasts and without too much technology, in a biodynamic way.”
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Like Valpolicella, Soave hardly boasts a rock-solid reputation thanks to the glut of crisp, “inoffensive” whites that find their way onto UK supermarket shelves. I’m pleased to have been shown another side to Soave and I was on the hunt for a bottle when I chanced upon this. I’d been introduced to Camerani’s wines via the Corte Sant’Alda Ca’ Fiui Valpolicella 2008, which I had over Christmas and really enjoyed. So I pounced upon this when I saw it in the bottleshop fridge. It was drunk on the balcony with evening sunshine, good friends and homemade tapenade.
That was some weeks ago now but that summery mood is neatly encapsulated by a line I read on the Corte Sant’Alda website as I prepared this post. “It’s true, the grass in our vineyards is a bit too high, but for me this is a sign of life,” writes Camerani. “You can see colours, smell scents… of mint, arugula, chamomile. I can’t believe that all this would be dangerous for the vines. A tidy grassland is more an aesthetic need than a real necessity. I like to think that all these colours and scents are going to be characteristics of each of our wines.”

Corte Sant’Alda Vigne di Mezzane Soave 2010 Soave DOC

Clear pale lemon in colour with a moderately intense nose of white flowers, peach blossom, lemon pith and fresh mint. Pure lemon citrus, green plum and almond endure across the light- to medium-bodied palate, which has a touch of waxiness to it. The acidity is luscious and superfine, leaving floral notes to linger after the lemony finish. Delicate, lovely wine.

Costs $27 at Boccaccio Cellars* in Melbourne – Alcohol 12.5% – Tasted March 2014 – Cork

*Current vintage is Corte Sant’Alda Vigne di Mezzane Soave 2012

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