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.
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%