Tag Archives: Jimmy Watson

Pannell Beater

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

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

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

Yabby Über Achiever

It’s barely been around five minutes, but it’s made quite a name for itself. Yabby Lake Block 1 Pinot Noir 2012 has just picked up best Pinot Noir and best single-vineyard dry red at the National Wine Show of Australia. That’s after becoming the first Pinot ever to win Australia’s most prestigious wine prize, the Jimmy Watson trophy.
Easy to suspect the bloke who made it of serial over achievement, too. Tom Carson was Dux of the Len Evans Tutorial in 2002 on his way to becoming the youngest National Wine Show chairman, and also led Yering Station to the International Winemaker of the Year title in 2004.
I got a chance to chat with the man of the moment following his triumph at last month’s Royal Melbourne Wine Awards, where his victory speech eloquently summarised his philosophy: “Wines for me shouldn’t have winemaker thumbprints all over them. They should be very natural, very easy, very expressive and just show their beauty without being poked and prodded and fined, filtered or manipulated.”
Carson was quick to dish out credit to Australian Pinot pioneers (pinotneers?) such as Phillip Jones of Bass Phillip, Main Ridge Estate’s Nat White, wine writer and Coldstream Hills founder James Halliday and the late John Middleton of Mount Mary.
Next came the Yabby Lake team, most notably his “gentle, thorough and sensitive” vineyard manager, Keith Harris. It was Harris who planted the vines in 1997/98 and laid the groundwork for greatness. “It’s an exceptionally good site,” Carson told me. “When I arrived in 2008, that’s when we started really delving into the vineyard and looking at each part of it as a separate wine – and trying to understand what we could do, during the season and in the winery, to bring those wines to life, to get that potential out of the vineyard and into the bottle.”
The meticulous mapping of the vineyard, with its myriad clones and sections, means Carson and Harris roam the rows for up to five hours a day during vintage. They chew the fat, taste the fruit and work out when the everything will be ready. “Getting the picking right is a massive part of winemaking,” says Carson.
And from the moment the Block 1 fruit came in, he was sure he was onto a winner. “Right through its ageing in barrel, it was always destined to be a block wine. For me, Pinot has beautiful texture, and this has fragrance and aromatics, with some rose petals and beautiful violets and real subtlety and detail in the aromas. The wine has got a lot of extract and depth and evenness to the palate. There’s real gravitas and energy at the back palate. The completeness of it is what excited us.”
For sure, Carson’s creation isn’t a light, bright babe. It’s a dark, brooding and serious Pinot Noir: deep in colour, with dark cherries, plums and spice beneath those floral tones. Its silky texture belies a taut strength and imposing length. And there’s no question it’s only just begun; the fragrance, purity and structure are obvious, but it’s just hinting at pleasures to come, with 2014 to 2022 shaping up as a promising window.
Just as Block 1’s best is ahead of it, I wouldn’t count on Carson & Co resting on their laurels. If he’s prepared to accept credit for anything, it’s setting “impossible” standards – and pushing his team to surpass them. “It’s about instilling confidence in people that we can do it better next year.”
Yabby Lake Block 1 Pinot Noir 2012
The nerdy stuff: The MV6-clone fruit for Yabby Lake Block 1 Pinot Noir 2012 was grown on the lower, more sheltered part of the vineyard in Moorooduc on the Mornington Peninsula. The soils here are light clay over loam, though they’re a bit deeper, the clay a touch heavier, than in other parts of the vineyard. It was hand picked, hand sorted and gently de-stemmed into small open fermenters, with a small percentage of whole bunches added. Carson then gave it a three- to four-day soaking before a fermentation that peaked at 32 degrees. The wine was pressed off skins after 10 days into French oak puncheons for malolactic fermentation and maturation. It stayed in oak until February 2013, when it was bottled. Only 270 dozen made.