This section is for brief reviews of wines that I have recently enjoyed drinking. For quick reference I have given a * rating for each wine from one to five stars.
I thought that catching up with an old friend, whom I hadn’t seen in ages, on her birthday might prove a little tricky gift-wise. It would be difficult to go wrong offering a bottle of wine but would it be risky to give one of my favourite Aussie Chardonnays? Regardless of all the recent commentary that the majority of Australian Chardonnay has undergone a transformation away from the ‘Sunshine in a bottle’ guise, there are still wine consumers who are forthright about their desire for ‘Anything But Chardonnay’. Certainly most producers have moved far away from the deeply coloured, buttery-nosed, overly ripe, flamboyant style that put Australian dry white wine on the global wine map 30 years ago. Some Chardonnays can now be the complete reverse – so watery pale and intensely tight that they are virtually austere in character. They can be singular in profile, but at the opposite end of the fruit spectrum to their famous predecessors.
What is so exciting about Australian Chardonnay is that winemakers who are producing the more understated, yet not austere, styles are crafting wines that more readily reflect their origins and the high quality of the fruit grown there. Resolutely in this group is David Bicknell, co-owner and winemaker at Oakridge Wines in the Yarra Valley of Victoria. Oakridge was established in 1978 and has been able to source fruit from its own vineyards as well as other, well-established growers within the region. The diversity of vineyards has resulted in a range of altitudes, soils and general topography. With time, improved matching of grape variety (even specific clone) to suitable terroir has produced some impressive offerings.
The Oakridge portfolio of Chardonnays may be broad but the focus on quality is very strict. There is a ‘Local Vineyard Series’ with, depending on the vintage, offerings from the Guerin Vineyard, Lusatia Park Vineyard and Willowlake Vineyard. Amongst the flagship wines there are also the ‘864 Single Block Release’ Chardonnays from the aforementioned vineyards and more. The diversity of wines made by one winemaker, from a single variety, within such a small area is fascinating.
From the ‘Local Vineyard Series’ Lusatia Park is a north-facing vineyard with red volcanic soils that produced a delicious Chardonnay in 2014. The fruit was all hand-picked and whole-bunch pressed into 500-litre puncheons where it underwent a natural fermentation and then matured for 10 months on lees. The resulting wine is immediately savoury and slightly nutty on the nose with hints of white peach evident. It is the purity and taut structure of the palate that really make it mouthwatering. White peach and zesty citrus intensity, together with the underlying savoury note, produce a wine of balance and elegance. ****
P.S. My friend loved the wine too.
This section is for brief reviews of wines that I have recently enjoyed drinking. For quick reference I have given a * rating for each wine from one to five stars.
As someone with a special interest in champagne and who thoroughly enjoys snorkeling, I’m always thrilled when I get a chance to swim through a plume of scuba diver’s bubbles as they swim below. As the fine bubbles of air burst against my hands and face, I imagine this is what it could be like swimming around in a vast glass of champagne. Completely whimsical, of course! Yet bubbles are one of the most essential joys of good champagne.
It is always magical to watch a tiny, consistent bead dash in a sparkling column up to the top of a glass and gently release fine aromas as it reaches the surface. The recent trend to bring back coupe style glasses is, as you can imagine, not one supported by me. I can certainly understand using a more traditionally-shaped white wine glass for very mature champagne when bubbles are still part of the fundamental experience, although it is the complex aged aromas and flavours that remain of prime importance.
I have been buying and drinking Pol Roger champagnes for many years. Not only do I admire the quality and consistency of their wines butalso the precision and finesse of every single wine in their portfolio. If I had to choose one category over all the others, it would be the vintage Blanc de Blancs – but the whole range is impressive. Although the millennium vintage is certainly not classed as highly as years such as 1996, 2004 or 2008, it did deliver some fabulous champagnes. Not only was it a warm year but there was also widespread hailstorm damage across 114 communes. Pol Roger Blanc de Blancs Brut 2000 was sourced from 100 percent grand cru villages across the Cote des Blancs. The wine is aged on lees for at least eight years prior to disgorgement. Drinking this wine at 16 years old was a pure delight. The tiny bubbles sparkled in the pale golden liquid, so I was glad I had chosen a traditional flute to admire them. Hints of honey nougat and biscuity, brioche aromas gently emerged from the glass. The palate displayed generous pear and nectarine flavours, but these were all reined in by the wonderful finesse, precision and citrus intensity that are the hallmarks of the house of Pol Roger.****
There are so many reasons why the Great Southern wine region of Australia should be better known – its size; its diversity; its ‘on trend’ cool climate viticulture; its abundance of small wine producers; and the high standard of winemaking. Yet some of these benefits seem to have conspired against better recognition and understanding of the region.
The Great Southern, located in the most southerly area of Western Australia, is so large that it has been divided into five sub-regions – Frankland River, Mount Barker, Porongurup, Denmark and Albany. Travelling by car from Perth to Albany (the largest city this far south) takes around four and a half hours. The distances between each of the sub-regions are not insignificant. For example, it takes around an hour to drive from Denmark (very much considered as the region’s bustling centre) north to Mount Barker, which was the first part of this region to be pioneered by winemakers in 1965 at Forest Hill. This vastness results in a diversity of landscapes that includes rolling pastures, dramatic coastline, dense forests of towering Karri trees and stark granite outcrops perfectly perched to give fabulous vistas of the whole region when clear skies allow. Such a variety of environments inevitably lead to an array of different ‘terroirs’ and an ability to grow a diversity of grape varieties. The over-riding cool climate of the region has resulted in the production of some pristine Rieslings and aromatic Pinot Noirs. In some pockets, long-lived Cabernets and restrained Shiraz wines have been produced.
The region seems dominated by a plethora of small producers, which means only small volumes of wine are released and not a lot of it has been distributed overseas. Regardless, the quality of winemaking is generally very high. My only criticism would be that there appears to be only a small group of very proficient winemakers whose names appear repeatedly on many different labels across the region. The relative isolation and sparse population of the area must make it difficult to attract new winemaking blood although one would imagine the landscape and, generally, unspoiled environment would enable some excellent winemaking opportunities.
Opportunity was seized in the mid 1960s by the Western Australian Department of Agriculture following a report in 1955 by Californian viticulturist Professor Harold Olmo, which highlighted areas for high-quality grape growing in the region. Working together with the Pearse family, a pioneer vineyard was established at Forest Hill in the Mount Barker sub-region. Ownership has changed hands over the decades but it has retained its family-run status, most recently bought by the Lyons family in 1995. In conversation, Guy Lyons regularly refers to stories that original owner, Betty Pearse, still tells about the property, including the fact that most of the original vineyard needed to be replanted in 1966 as the first cuttings were planted too late in the season.
However, now with such good vine maturity, the owners have been able to highlight different blocks within each vineyard that consistently produce superlative fruit and bottle these as separate offerings. For example, Forest Hill Block 1 Riesling 2013 produced an intensely pale wine with overt minerality and a lime essence nose. The palate has a fabulous intensity with a slightly chalky texture and an amazing minerality. Block 1 Riesling 2014, equally pale in colour, displayed a subtle but attractive floral aroma. The palate offered a wonderful ripe mango with some tart pineapple flavours with the same precision and fine, long fresh length shown in the 2013. These are delicious, mouthwatering wines. Forest Hill Block 8 Chardonnay 2012 is another impressive wine in the producer’s portfolio. The wine is made from the top ten rows of the estate’s Chardonnay vineyard. Extremely pale in colour with a savoury, slightly nutty nose, the palate is very tight with abundant lemon curd flavours. The wine is textural and yet firm with a long length of concentrated citrus characters. Of the 14 wines tasted at Forest Hill, it was the Block 9 Shiraz 2013 that reminded me just how harmonious an Australian Shiraz can be. Aromas of black fruit mingled with floral notes and licorice. The palate had succulent, juicy and fleshy black fruit with fine tannins and refreshing acidity resulting in a gorgeous wine where all the essential elements come together.
Another long-established, family-owned property is that of Alkoomi in the Frankland River sub-region of the Great Southern. Sandy Hallett’s parents, Merve and Judy Lange, established a tiny vineyard in 1971, which has now expanded to more than 104 hectares of vines that Sandy’s viticulturist husband, Rod Hallett, oversees. Although an enormous undertaking it does not mean that quality has been compromised in any way. Highly affable and talented young winemaker, Andrew Cherry, is obviously very much valued as a member of the Alkoomi wine family and, in turn, he recognizes the responsibility he has to uphold the Alkoomi reputation. Alkoomi has an extensive portfolio of wines taking in a host of grape varieties including Viognier (to blend with Shiraz in Alkoomi Black Label Shiraz Viognier, of which the 2013 example showed particularly well during our tasting) and Malbec. Nonetheless, it was the current release Alkoomi Black Label Riesling 2015 and a barrel sample of the 2016 that excited my taste buds. Both wines had classic steely noses with tight, steely, lime intensity on the palate. Andrew Cherry explained that grapes for this label would only ever come from block 7 or 8 – old vines that consistently produced intense Rieslings.
It is easy to understand why the sub-region of Denmark, based around the busy township of the same name, is so popular with tourists. Fine sandy beaches and crystalline, though very cold, water can be found within easy access of stunning Karri forests and rolling pastures. The region has so many natural assets that it attracts year-round tourists as well as longer term inhabitants who prefer country living, including young families and retirees. Along Scotsdale Road (shown above) in Denmark, which Australian wine writer Peter Forrestal refers to as ‘arguably the most beautiful scenery of any winery road in the country’, lies a high concentration of wineries. Some are better known than others, for example long-established Howard Park, recently renamed Burch Family Wines that now has a huge collection of wines including those produced under the Marchand & Burch labels as well as entry-level Madfish.
Newcomers to this beautiful forest enclave include Estate 807 and Rising Star, whose owners purchased existing vineyards and have now stamped their own very different personalities on their respective cellar doors and the wines produced from their properties. Among other recent arrivals to Scotsdale Road is the Snowden family of Singlefile Wines, who have, without a shadow of a doubt raised the benchmark in the region as far as the general quality of marketing their wines is concerned. Where some other wineries don’t seem to understand that the intense competitiveness of the wine industry means they actively need to market their wines, Singlefile Wines have done, with great aplomb. In 2014 Singlefile Wines became James Halliday’s Wine Companion ‘Dark Horse Winery of the Year’. Meeting owners, Viv and Phil Snowden, within the wine community and at their property their professional approach to everything they do has ensured that this accolade, and the many others received, are totally justified. Very successful geologists by profession, this South African couple, sold their Perth-based business in 2004. With a love of fine wine and after significant research into Australian wine regions they purchased an existing vineyard in 2007 where they have removed some varieties and restored the health of others. Friendly and warm-hearted, the Snowdens live in the house adjoining the new cellar door and are often found pouring their wines in the tasting area. I will always remember Viv Snowden as the thoughtful person who offered a weary wine traveller a much appreciated cup of tea and biscuits after a very long day of tasting.
Although I enjoyed the whole portfolio, it was the eponymous The Vivienne Denmark Chardonnay 2013 and The Philip Adrian Frankland River Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 that resonated. The Chardonnay was nutty and savoury on the nose with green mango and grapefruit on the palate giving incisive acidity and concentration. The high-density crimson-coloured Cabernet Sauvignon was quite closed aromatically with just a hint of attractive leafiness. Conversely, the palate was particularly expressive with a plush, voluptuous texture of concentrated cassis fruit followed by fine, yet firm tannins and juicy, mouthwatering acidity. Both wines have long lives ahead of them.
In contrast to the newcomers of Singlefile Wines, is the name Plantagenet. Considered one of the senior wineries with an envious track record of success spanning more than four decades, the relaxed and welcoming cellar door is on the main road from Perth to Albany, just outside the tiny town of Mount Barker. English immigrant Tony Smith planted the north-facing Bouverie vineyard in 1968. The Bouverie covers nine hectares but successive plantings have led to the establishment of almost 130 hectares to include Wyjup, Rocky Horror, Crystal Rock and Rosetta vineyards. The naming of the Rocky Horror vineyard came about after two years of clearing the original land of vast boulders, some as large as cars. Although Plantagenet is now owned by a large corporation and has seen a steady rotation of talented winemakers, Tony Smith still has regular input as far as management is concerned. Plantagenet’s Rieslings and Chardonnays have a strong following, but it is the red wines that caught my attention about a decade ago. These are the classic red varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz that have long been produced in a cool climate style so have always shown a restraint and energy, which, over time has become more refined. Plantagenet Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 is a good example with distinct cassis and floral aromas on the nose followed by extremely fine dusty tannins with a dense core of black fruit and dark chocolate, countered by juicy acidity. There was certainly a strong structure to the wine but it also had finesse.
To the east of Mount Barker and away from its rolling green pastures lies the Pororongurup sub-region of the Great Southern. The landscape of the Porongurups is dominated by massive outcrops of granite, considered amongst the oldest in Australia. From this higher ground, panoramic views of the whole region can be seen and are particularly striking on clear days, which are frequent in this part of the world, although a stormier and very dramatic sky is shown in the photo below (courtesy of Castle Rock Estate). In 2015 the prestigious title of ‘Winemaker of the Year’ was bestowed by James Halliday upon one of Australia’s most modest winemakers, Rob Diletti, who grew up on his family’s vineyard at Castle Rock Estate in the Porongurup. Diletti is responsible for the winemaking of several regional labels, including 3 Drops, Zarephath, Abbey Creek and his own Castle Rock Estate. Where other contract winemakers in the area seem to have stamped their own style on their wines, Diletti’s winemaking approach ensures that all his wines express a sense of place as their priority. Diletti has been gaining some traction with the Pinot Noirs produced at Castle Rock Estate but it is his sensitivity to the Riesling produced on this family property that impressed me.
The pristine quality of the environment is echoed in Diletti’s Rieslings, which have precision and purity. Castle Rock Estate produces three Rieslings with 2015 being the current release. Castle Rock Estate Porongurup Riesling 2015 displayed a steely minerality on the nose with mouthwatering citrus intensity. Sourced from about five rows of the vineyard, Castle Rock Estate A & W Reserve Porongurup Riesling 2015 (named after Diletti’s parents Angelo and Wendy who planted the vineyard in 1983), had lovely floral and citrus aromas with more weight on the mid-palate than the previous wine. The beautiful texture and concentrated fruit core is balanced by a long, racy finish. Castle Rock Estate Skywalk Great Southern Riesling 2015 ticked all the boxes as far as a classic Riesling is concerned – delicate floral notes mixed with citrus intensity on the nose, whilst the palate was of a taut citrus concentration with just the right level of fruit ripeness to produce a finesse and elegance not commonly found.
The vast expanse of the Great Southern wine region encompasses, without doubt, an enormous diversity of landscapes, micro-climates and soils. The additional time and effort required to access the region is well worth it. On one hand established vineyards are focusing on distinguishing individual blocks that have shown consistently superior fruit quality as they have matured. On the other hand new players have arrived in the region giving a fresh impetus to existing vineyards. There is much to see and a significant array of high quality wines to taste and enjoy.
This section is for brief reviews of wines that I have recently enjoyed drinking. For quick reference I have given a * rating for each wine from one to five stars.
England has been receiving a lot of attention in the media recently – sadly little of the news has been worth celebrating. Nonetheless, there are certainly many things England should be proud of and, in the wine world, English sparkling wine has been garnering numerous international accolades. English viticulture has taken place for centuries and has always been on a small scale, with a high percentage of vineyards in the southern counties where the climate is more conducive to grape growing. In 1988 an American couple, Stuart and Sandy Moss, became trailblazers by planting the three classic grape varieties that are used in the production of Champagne – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Their first ‘traditional method’ wine was launched under the Nyetimber label in 1996. Twenty years later, the name Nyetimber is synonymous with fine English sparkling wine made from 100 percent estate-grown grapes.
I attended the London Wine Fair in May, where I was delighted to see a pale turquoise, converted double-decker bus standing amongst hundreds of wine stands proudly marketing Nyetimber’s portfolio, which I was able to taste for the first time. Five sparkling wines are produced under the Nyetimber label, of which the Classic Cuvée is most well known. With a total estate production of only 700,000 bottles per annum the wines do not have wide distribution outside the UK. Although the current owner of Nyetimber has recently purchased an adjacent golf course so production will increase eventually, it is unlikely that volumes will ever be large.
Amongst the five labels – Classic Cuvée, Blanc de Blancs, Rosé, Single-Vineyard Tillington and Demi-Sec – it was the Blanc de Blancs 2009 that impressed me particularly. Only recently released the 2009 was extremely pale in colour with a tiny, but persistent, bead. The one hundred percent Chardonnay wine spent five years ageing on lees, which imbued it with a fabulous toasty, brioche nose and lovely red apple characters on the palate but with plenty of citrus intensity to give a very attractive, harmonious wine. With its long length and overall finesse, it would be difficult to tell this apart from Champagne itself. ****(*)
The Champagne house of Henri Abelé is not particularly well known on the international market as, up until now, only 30 per cent of production has been exported. Nonetheless, having been founded in 1757, it is one of the oldest houses and prides itself on its boutique status with annual production at less than 500,000 bottles. The house has a very close link with its local heritage, particularly with the renovations that were required for the restoration of Reims’ impressive cathedral following the destruction caused during the Second World War. This involvement included the repair of the ‘Smiling Angel’ statue found above the entrance to this inspiring structure. Not only are Henri Abelé’s top cuvees named ‘Sourire de Reims’, but the house is also in the exclusive position of using the ‘Smiling Angel’ emblem to adorn all its labels and packaging.
The Champagne house underwent its own form of refurbishment when, in 1985, it was purchased by the Freixenet Group. It was a watershed for the producer. Financial investment went into new winemaking equipment and practices, including a greater focus by the new Chef de Caves on vineyard parcel selection from the house’s long-standing growers. Strong regional and historical associations have not blinkered the house to the need to move with the times.
In general, Champagne labeling is one of the most traditional in the world. Henri Abelé sought to have some fun with the production of their Limited Edition Brut 2007 of which only 5,000 bottles were released. Produced to celebrate its 250th anniversary the house also recognized the need to attract new, younger consumers. The all-encompassing wrapping of the bottle is done as a fun ‘take’ on the extremely traditional ‘Toile de Jouy’ – a white or cream cloth (‘toile’) from the Parisian suburb of Jouy, which features a single repeated pattern of one colour. Lively, eye-catching motifs feature romantic Parisian scenes of the Eiffel Tower, cafés, a Citroen DC and Ladurée macaroons along with references to the Champagne region including vineyards and Reims Cathedral. The wine within this novel bottle is made from 60 per cent Chardonnay and 40 per cent Pinot Noir. Only disgorged in 2015 this Champagne is currently drinking very well. A little hint of straw colour and a very fine, persistent bubble are delivered in the glass with a gently creamy nose of classic brioche aromas. 2007 is not considered an outstanding vintage in Champagne, however it did produce wines of finesse and elegance. Henri Abelé Limited Edition Brut 2007 is one Champagne that fits that description completely. ****
Staunch ambassador for all quality Australian winemaking, and not just from his own vineyards in the Adelaide Hills, Michael Hill Smith MW has long been a fan of restrained, elegant Chardonnay. Even in warmer years, such as 2009, Shaw & Smith M3 Chardonnay has displayed a lively zestiness on the palate. Overall, however, it has gradually become subtler over the years. M3 Chardonnay 2013 was very pale in colour with charming nutty and citrus aromas. A small percentage of malolactic fermentation along with well-integrated savoury oak have given this finely textured wine a lovely weight but it also possesses a crisp acid backbone ensuring good length.
Shaw & Smith’s ongoing vision of refinement in winemaking led to its recent purchase of the famous Tolpuddle Vineyard in Tasmania’s Coal River Valley. The 20-hectare vineyard was planted with equal proportions of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in 1988 by other industry stalwarts, with the team from Shaw & Smith launching their inaugural releases of both varieties under the Tolpuddle label with the excellent 2012 vintage. This area of southern Tasmania is extremely cold but very dry with little threat from vineyard disease so the grapes enjoy a long ripening time. Significant vine age along with a good clonal mix gives a real sense of pedigree to these wines. The Tolpuddle Chardonnay 2013 is intensely pale with a very restrained, almost chalky nose that is reminiscent of Chablis. The palate is tight and linear but also offers an attractive savoury character with great intensity of citrus flavours. Careful cellaring of this wine will result in extra layers of complexity on both the nose and palate but the tight backbone of acidity will ensure it remains fresh.
Amongst other senior Australian winemakers to have put a firm focus on Tasmania are Peter Dawson and Tim James who make just 900 cases of wine under their eponymous Dawson and James label. Dawson and James Chardonnay 2010 was an impressive first release. Handpicked grapes are whole-bunch pressed then put straight into French barriques of which one third is new, one third one year old and the last third two year old oak. The result is an intensely pale wine with beautifully restrained nutty, savoury aromas. On the palate there is a tightrope tension of oak and grapefruit acidity countered by ripe nectarine and peach flavours. It is a beautifully balanced wine.
No article concerning Australian Chardonnay can be written without reference to the state of Victoria, where winemaking was established in the mid 19th century. The Yarra Valley has become particularly well known for producing Chardonnay of a high standard. Oakridge, Coldstream Hills, Chandon and De Bortoli are household names to those of us who enjoy wines that highlight elegance and restraint rather than exuberance. Victoria is also home to the Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne. The region is probably more readily associated with the production of high quality Pinot Noir. Nonetheless, these same producers have been producing some outstanding Chardonnay offerings including some single vineyard wines.
Ten Minutes by Tractor, on the Peninsula, crafts three single vineyard Chardonnays (Wallis, McCutcheon and Judd) with each displaying its own characteristics giving a real sense of place. Recently tasting a couple of examples from the ‘perfect 2012 vintage’ The Wallis Chardonnay had a complex nose with hints of spice, floral aromas and some minerality. The palate was tight with incisive acidity and a fabulous savoury character. The McCutcheon Chardonnay 2012 was a little less expressive on the nose with attractive grapefruit and white peach aromas, whilst the palate showed a little more flamboyance with a rounder mouth feel and judicious oak treatment but this was all reigned in by lively, fresh acidity.
Also within the Mornington Peninsula region is producer Yabby Lake. Its profile has flourished since award-winning winemaker Tom Carson joined the team. Yabby Lake Single Vineyard Chardonnay 2012 had a flinty, slightly smoky nose with a seamless palate whereby the savoury oak, minerality and racy citrus fruit were all balanced to make a very complete wine. As with its Pinot Noir production, Yabby Lake makes a Single Block Release – in the case of Chardonnay it is from Block 6. Such attention to detail and recognition of the different characteristics that individual areas of a vineyard express is all part of the refinement of Australia’s approach to winemaking.
High quality Australian Chardonnay deserves more attention than it currently receives. Overly generous styles with excessively ripe fruit and overt oak characteristics no longer exist amongst quality producers. With increased vine age, better clonal material and increased experience with fermentation and barrel ageing techniques, skilled winemakers have been able to confidently allow the quality of fruit from individual vineyards to express itself. The result is beautiful wines, which resonate with a sense of place and authenticity.
Australian winemakers are entitled to become a little tetchy when some consumers announce their avoidance of Australia’s most planted white grape variety – Chardonnay. Why is it that the wine that attracted, and then seduced, so many consumers 25 years ago is often dismissed so readily these days? Everyone remembers the golden yellow colour, ripe tropical fruit aromas and buttery palate, often with significant vanillin oak presence, of those wines affectionately termed ‘sunshine in a bottle’. For many this style appealed because it was ‘cheap and cheerful’, produced in enormous quantities in the vast warm grape growing areas of South Eastern Australia.
However, the style became overly familiar and as consumers’ palates inevitably evolved so did their drinking preferences. But it is not only consumers who have experienced change; Australian winemakers have also been part of an evolving process that has witnessed enormous advancements in the way different varieties are treated. Nowhere can this progress be seen more clearly than the way in which Australian Chardonnay is now produced.
One of the strengths of Chardonnay is that it can be grown quite easily in a diverse range of locations. In Australia it is grown in 63 grape growing regions. The variety is also incredibly amenable in the winery, almost like clay that can be sculpted into a variety of styles. With skill a winemaker can employ a host of different techniques at each stage of the winemaking process that will impact upon the style and quality of the final wine. But these attributes can, in turn, also be weaknesses. Ease of growth and the overuse of winemaking techniques can result in a wine that shows little sense of where it was grown. Above all, it may possess undesirable resinous wood characteristics reminiscent of unpacking a piece of IKEA furniture. Such wines do not have a place in the quality wine market.
The move by producers away from warmer climates in Australia to more moderate and often cool areas has had a huge impact on the styles of Chardonnay produced in the past ten or more years. Together with increased vine age, improved clonal material and winemakers’ willingness to use more subtle techniques means that Australian winemakers are allowing the inherent fruit quality of their vines full expression in the wines they are now producing. These are wines that resonate with a sense of place and authenticity. Gone are the days when producers wanted to emulate the wines of the Old World. Certainly for many, great white Burgundies still provide a wonderful benchmark for Chardonnay but high quality producers in Australia now have the opportunity to showcase the best of what they can do.
Chief winemaker at Vasse Felix in Margaret River, Western Australia, Virginia Willcock would be the first to say that skilled Australian winemakers have been using a more restrained approach for a long time. Vasse Felix Filius Chardonnay is testament to this philosophy. Using a blend of different clones, the juice is fermented by wild yeasts and spends nine months in French oak, of which about one third is new. Extremely pale in colour, it is exceptionally energetic with lots of white stonefruit and grapefruit aromas with intense citrus flavours that offer wonderful freshness. The current release is 2014 and it offers exceptional value.
Stella Bella is another Margaret River producer that has shown how skilled Chardonnay winemaking can create refined wines with pure pear and white peach characters, deft oak treatment and zesty, citrus concentration giving an overall sense of freshness. Also from Margaret River, but at a higher price level is the Kevin John Chardonnay from Cullen Wines. Established in 1971 by another of the pioneers of Margaret River, the Cullen plantings of Chardonnay date back to 1976. Renowned as a leader in biodynamic winemaking, owner Vanya Cullen, has used native yeasts for spontaneous fermentation and judicious oak use for almost 20 years. Tasting the Kevin John (named after Vanya’s father) Chardonnay 2010 just recently, the wine was very pale with green hues of youth. The nose was nutty and savoury with a gentle touch of oak complexity. Although medium-plus bodied and wonderfully textural with ripe pear and dried fig flavours, the mid palate displayed tight acidity that pulled those flavours along, finishing with a long, concentrated lift and freshness. This wine has a very long life ahead of it.
Established just five years ago Snake + Herring is located in Margaret River although 50% of its production comes from the Great Southern region. Highly experienced winemaker Tony Davis (‘Snake’) and his business partner Redmond Sweeny (‘Herring’) have already garnered critical acclaim with their wines. Snake + Herring Hallelujah Chardonnay is sourced from a block of vines planted in 1993 in the Porongorups sub-region of the Great Southern, on the oldest outcrop of granite in Australia. The 2012 was extremely pale in colour with green tinges. Aromas of green mangoes and citrus intensity dominated the nose whilst the palate had a succulent texture but was still tight and focused, giving the impression of a fabulous, energetic wine.
Harnessing a good level of ripeness whilst also keeping the wine fresh and well balanced has meant that many producers have started picking their Chardonnay a little earlier than in the past. Some winemakers have even been accused of going too far by creating wines that show little fruit ripeness and are so taut that they risk being considered austere.
On first release Penfold’s Yattarna can certainly appear singular in profile with linear intensity. This was the case with the 2009 and 2013 vintages although, as a wine produced for medium to long term cellaring, there is no doubt regarding its staying power. Conversely, Penfold’s Reserve Bin A Chardonnay 2014 is thoroughly drinkable now. Displaying enticing ripe white stonefruit and gentle toasty, nuttiness on the nose, the palate showed citrus intensity with a long, zesty, yet elegant length. Chardonnay grapes for Yattarna have a significant portion of cool region Tasmanian fruit whilst Reserve Bin A Chardonnay is sourced mainly from the Adelaide Hills but includes some Tasmanian fruit.
The decade of the sixties saw the introduction of, as Andrew Caillard MW writes in The Rewards of Patience* ‘the backbone of Penfolds red wine portfolio’, with Bins 389, 707, 28 and 128. Vineyards in Coonawarra were purchased and the Cabernet Sauvignon sourced was blended with Shiraz from the Kalimna vineyard in Barossa to make the ‘legendary’ 1962 Bin 60A. I was lucky enough to taste a sample of this wine in 2007 at a Penfolds Re-corking Clinic – at 45 years of age the wine was quite beautiful with elegant flavours and a refined, very long aftertaste.
Many changes lay ahead during this period. Penfolds became a public company in 1963, although the family maintained a majority share until they completely lost control to corporate ownership in 1976. Although sherry styles remained popular in Australia during the 1970s, the wine market had moved ahead rapidly and competition for market share became fiercer. Ray Beckwith and Max Schubert retired during this time, passing the baton safely to the second of only four winemakers to have overseen the production of Grange in 70 years. Under chief winemaker Don Ditter, the inaugural 1976 Koonunga Hill Claret was released. The word ‘Claret’ has been dropped but the label Koonunga Hill is, arguably, as synonymous with Australia as kangaroos or koalas. Recognized across the globe as extremely well made, reliable and an uncompromising fruit forward style, the winemaking team is duly proud to produce such a successful, large volume wine. Koonunga Hill is the other ‘book end’ to Grange in the Penfolds portfolio.
John Duval became the chief winemaker at Penfolds in 1986 and remained there until 2002 when the current winemaker, Peter Gago, took over the reins. Under Duval the reputation of Penfolds in the international fine market escalated as both Duval and the wines he supervised received impressive accolades, not least of which was that given by US magazine Wine Spectator, which announced 1990 Penfolds Grange as its Wine of the Year. Duval also supervised experiments that would result in the release of Penfolds first ‘White Grange’ – Bin 144 1995 Yattarna (meaning ‘little by little’).
Each chief winemaker at Penfolds has inevitably added a touch of their own personality to the foundations and traditions laid down by the original family. Referred to as a custodian winemaker, Peter Gago, the current chief winemaker, would be the first to say that he is continuing those traditions with a strong team of dedicated winemakers behind him. This highly articulate, consummate educator and very modest individual has become the most valuable brand ambassador that any company could wish for. Meeting him for the first time, almost ten years ago, I was immediately struck by Gago’s enthusiasm for his subject – he could be the David Attenborough of wine. Gago now travels the globe, overseeing the annual launches of each new vintage collection in Penfolds’ most important markets.
During 2012 Gago saw the release of the Penfolds Ampoule – the 2004 Kalimna Block 42 Cabernet Sauvignon. Only 12 handmade vessels were made to hold this rare wine. Priced at SGD$218,000 each, the release was seen as controversial due to the hype that surrounded it. Similarly, the live global webcast that took place with the 2014 release of Penfolds Icon and Luxury Collection, along with the Bin wines was met by some in the media as one step too far. Sitting at Magill Estate Peter Gago and Steve Lienert (Senior Red Winemaker) talked about each wine at length. Although informative, the presentation felt impersonal and could easily have been pre-recorded due to the lack of interaction with those watching. The event seemed to fall flat and, thankfully, has not been repeated.
The stellar wine in each vintage release is always Grange, but rarely because it is the most impressive wine in the range to taste at that time. Grange is produced to develop and evolve over decades, although its inherent quality is certainly evident upon release. The praise and attention garnered upon release is more to do with a respect for the traditions and innovations for which it represents. No where was this more clear than on 19th November 2014 when Penfolds celebrated the 60th consecutive release of Grange with a flamboyant event hosted by the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Singapore. Entering via a red carpet, 150 guests, who had come from around south-east Asia, sat at three long tables where the Penfolds tagline ‘Numbers can be extraordinary’ was embraced at every point. Gago and his team were able to give their guests a comprehensive insight into each of the latest releases and were on hand to answer specific questions.
Two vintages of Grange were served during the dinner – the first was the 1996 and the second was the latest release. Gago once told me that Grange is all about ‘balance, longevity and propensity to live’. The 1996 offered all this with its layers of dense spice, damsons, plums, dark chocolate and coffee with mouth-coating, yet fine grained tannins, beautiful fruit and gorgeous elegance. The release of the 2010 vintage was a scenario that Max Schubert could surely not have foreseen. A parade of waiters entered the room with the newly released wine. It was more like a presentation of the Crown jewels but then Grange really is rather like a precious gem, certainly for Australians but increasingly for a wider audience too.
* The Rewards of Patience, now in its seventh edition, is written by Andrew Caillard MW. Brilliantly researched and eloquently written, it is referred to by Peter Gago as ‘the form guide to all things Penfolds’.