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.
A small group of Bordeaux producers annually presents a master class, which focuses on one vintage, in Singapore and other Asian capitals. Over the decade or so that I’ve attended, each class has become gradually less formal but remains as informative as ever. Only one Margaux wine is regularly showcased and each year I look forward to tasting the highlighted vintage of this wine. Classified second growth Chateau Brane-Cantenac has belonged to the famous Lurton family since the 1920s. Fourth generation, and qualified winemaker, Henri Lurton has been involved in the estate since 1986, taking full control in 1992. Lurton has been instrumental in the increased quality and consistency of this 90-hectare estate that sits on the Cantenac plateau at about 22 metres above sea level, where the Medoc gravel soils have a little more clay presence that helps to regulate water, particularly in warm, dry years. Margaux wines are often considered the most aromatic of those in the Haut Médoc. Even in the hot 2003 vintage, Chateau Brane-Cantenac was incredibly aromatic and perfumed. It is the fragrance of this Grand Vin that is so alluring – classic cedarwood, tobacco leaf, cassis, spice and floral aromas mingle seductively. My notes on some past vintages (2003, 2004, 2006, 2007) all mention a concentration of fruit on the palate but also the fine dusty tannins and abundant freshness resulting in a balanced wine. With an eye for fine detail, Lurton aims for soft, fine tannins but maintains the concentration of high quality fruit. Nonetheless, it is elegance that is always uppermost when it comes to Brane-Cantenac and it was this characteristic that beckoned a second taste once more when I recently tasted the 2012 vintage. ****
The name Robert Mondavi is synonymous with Californian wine but more particularly with that of the Napa Valley. Incredibly ambitious with a vision that the Napa Valley could produce wines of the highest quality and stature, Mondavi worked tirelessly as a leader and strong voice for the region. Writer Alan Deutschman goes so far as to say that ‘The Napa Valley was invented by Robert Mondavi’ in his book A tale of Two Valleys. Nonetheless, the late Robert Mondavi spent a lifetime promoting not only the wines created under his eponymous label but also those of the Napa Valley and the broader region of California.
Unfortunately, such determination and passion sometimes comes at the cost of personal relationships. For the Mondavi family this was all publicly documented. It began with a long-standing family feud between Robert and his brother, Peter, and then disagreements between Robert and eldest son, Michael, followed by differences between Michael and Tim (the youngest son). Despite such friction, Robert Mondavi never shied away from the clear vision he held of what could be achieved in terms of high quality wine from the region. The creation of wines such as the Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve and then the Napa Valley based joint venture with Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, which produced Opus One, were certainly notable achievements in Robert Mondavi’s long career.
To follow in the footsteps of such a charismatic father would be daunting for any offspring but even more difficult when one’s father has such a high profile. Nonetheless, even prior to Robert Mondavi’s death in 2008 at the age of 94, Robert’s daughter, Marcia, and youngest son, Tim (shown left – photo courtesy of Continuum Estate), together with their father put a plan firmly in place to continue a strong family legacy. Such a plan would counter any possible demise of the family name after the takeover of the Robert Mondavi winery by Constellation Brands in 2004, which also included the sale of Opus One.
It was against this dramatic backdrop that Robert, Marcia and Tim established Continuum Estate in 2005. Not only is the estate a collaboration of family members but also a celebration of that family’s rich history in the Napa Valley. The aim was to produce a single estate wine of the finest quality that the region could deliver. Devastated by the sale of the Robert Mondavi and Opus One wineries, Tim Mondavi remarked that he took the opportunity to ‘rediscover the Napa Valley’. With an intimate knowledge of the area and 30 years of full-time winemaking firmly under his belt, Tim knew that ‘Great wine is a function of its site’. Preferring old, hillside vines that were naturally lower in vigor but with great concentration, Tim fell in love with a 70-hectare property on Pritchard Hill (also home to some of Napa’s early cult wines including Colgin and Bryant Family Vineyard). Twenty-four hectares of vines sit between 1,300 and 1,600 feet with westerly and southwesterly exposures on three and a half to four feet deep soils. The average age of the vines is around 20 years. As expected in the region, Cabernet Sauvignon dominates the plantings at 55% with a significant portion of Cabernet Franc (25%), followed by 15% Petit Verdot and 5% Merlot, although the first three vintages of Continuum do not include any Merlot in the blend. The first vintage of Continuum was in 2005 and produced entirely from purchased grapes but by 2012 only estate grown grapes were being used for Continuum. The proportions in the blend vary each year, depending on the vintage, but the presence of Cabernet Franc certainly gives lift and freshness to the overall wine.
Never a champion of big flavored, overly ripe styles, Tim Mondavi has been chastised by powerful wine critic, Robert Parker, for producing wines with ‘intricate aromas that were too subtle and restrained’ that were ‘going against what Mother Nature has given California’, as quoted by wine writer Jon Bonné in his book The New California Wine. Thoughtful and probably sensitive to such criticisms, Tim Mondavi is still very much his own man as far as winemaking is concerned. He does not come across as someone who would change his winemaking style to garner points or favorable comments from such powerful individuals as Robert Parker. Hence the concentration and structure of the red Continuum have come about because this is what the vineyard site delivers naturally rather than because Tim Mondavi has styled it that way.
Tasting four recent vintages of these highly sought after wines, it was evident that vintage and site expression were paramount. The year 2009 was a particularly warm one in the Napa with four or five heat spikes. The nose was slightly raisined and very concentrated with a velvet palate initially of abundant coffee flavours then the finest, dustiest tannins with dense, black plums, black olive and dark mocha flavours opening up displaying its inherent complexity.
My favourite wine in the line-up was the 2010 which comes from a cooler year – fragrant and lifted, the nose was beautifully aromatic but still had an underlay of concentrated black fruit. The gorgeous palate of coffee, dark chocolate, plums and olive tapenade blended with fine, fleshy tannins and a long, fresh finish. Climatically, 2011 was a very challenging year with unusually cold and wet weather. The resulting wine is surprisingly opaque in colour, concentrated on the nose with very fine, yet firm tannins. There is a voluptuousness on the mid palate but overall the wine is incredibly tight and will need significant time to develop. Universally acclaimed, 2012 is undoubtedly going to develop into a very classic Napa offering. Deep crimson in colour and with a very fragrant brambly black fruit nose with a hint of spice there is already some complexity. The medium bodied palate has very fine, slightly dusty tannins and gentle acidity as well as sweet licorice and black fruit flavours. Above all the wine is layered, balanced and has an elegant length.
Family is obviously paramount to the Mondavis. Tim was grateful that his father lived long enough to see the hillside vineyard and give his blessing to the new venture. Siblings Marcia and Tim have in turn ensured that their own children are involved in the estate. The label for Continuum is based on a painting by Tim’s daughter, Chiara, called ‘Light of the Vine’, which shows the silhouette of a 25-year-old Cabernet Franc vine that her father planted. The respect that the latest generation of this line of Mondavis shows for the previous one is strong. The legacy of the Mondavi family will continue to resonate now that firm roots have been laid down again in the Napa Valley.
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’.
Although I was born in Australia, I didn’t grow up there. My father did and for him the name of Penfolds was one readily associated with fortified wines – sherry and port styles, rather than table wine. Things have changed considerably in a relatively short period of time.
For today’s wine drinkers the name Penfolds is more readily connected with Grange and the numbered Bins e.g. Bin 407, Bin 389, Bin 707. When he started experimenting in 1951 it is doubtful that Grange’s original winemaker, Max Schubert, could have imagined the extravagant events that now surround the latest vintage release of this wine. More than 60 years later, Grange has become an iconic wine, both in Australia and beyond. The latest release (2010) has received perfect (whatever ‘perfect’ actually means) and near perfect scores from renowned wine critics.
The story of how the name Penfolds reached such status is compelling, rather like many of the wines produced under its highly recognizable red, black and white label. The rich history of Penfolds began with the purchase of the 500 acres of land at the Makgill (later named Magill) Estate in South Australia by Dr. Christopher and Mrs. Mary Penfold in 1844. Fresh arrivals from England, the couple and their baby daughter, Georgina, moved into Grange Cottage on the estate where Dr. Penfold opened a clinic in the dining room. Their long journey by ship had come via South Africa. There vineyard cuttings were collected for planting at their destination along with vines from William Macarthur and James Busby, both of whom had travelled extensively in Europe to collect cuttings.
Fortified wines became the main staple of production under the Penfolds label, with shipments sent interstate within Australia and across to New Zealand as well as trial exports to England and India. Successful shipments to other colonies during the 1880s increased considerably with the choice of wines available from Penfolds including Grange Port, Grange Tawny, Pedro Ximez, Tokay, Madeira and Grange Sherry. When Australia became a federation in 1901, a trade boom took place as customs and duties were removed between the states.
In 1920, half the wine sold in Australia was from Penfolds. Although light wines had been produced in the late 20th Century, it was not until 1920 that Penfolds first marketed a light wine. The wine was Michinbury Trameah – a dry white made from Gewurztraminer, which was locally known as Traminer. Nonetheless, sweet fortified wines continued to dominate Penfolds’ production during the post-World War One period. ‘Be never without Penfolds within’ became a customary advertising slogan across Australia during the 1930s, but the association with fortified styles remained strong as Penfolds Royal Reserve Port continued to dominate the domestic market.
Significant investment had already taken place with the completion of a state-of-the-art winery at Nurioopta in South Australia in 1912 but it was also essential to increase vineyard area too. In 1943, Penfolds acquired the Auldana Vineyards outside Adelaide, which had been established in 1853. In 1945, Penfolds bought the immensely important Kalimna Vineyard in the Barossa. Kalimna was not only the largest vineyard in South Australia at that time but also included the oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines planted in Australia. Such investments were all still allied to the on-going production of fortified wines.
Post-World War Two witnessed the development of a more multi-cultural population in Australia with the arrival of new migrants. Many came from wine producing countries such as Italy, Greece and Eastern Europe where the consumption of light table wines was very much a part of their daily routine. It was during these ‘heady days’ of the 1950s and 1960s that Penfolds began a transition that would bring it closer to the way in which consumers see it today.
Steps taken by two men who had both joined Penfolds simultaneously in 1931 would contribute immeasurably not only to the wines they created at Penfolds but also to the winemaking industry beyond. The first was Ray Beckwith, whose research in wine science meant significant improvements in hygiene standards were achieved so that winemakers could experiment more readily and not be afraid of wine spoilage. The other man was Max Schubert.
In 1949, Schubert was sent to Europe to look into the production of Sherry and Port practices. The trip included a visit to Bordeaux where he was able to taste some First Growths that were between 40 and 50 years old. The trip proved inspirational and set Schubert on a pathway to make something as lasting and unique in Australia as the wines he had sampled in Bordeaux. While it is said, “The rest is history”, it wasn’t quite so simple.
The first vintage made was the 1951 Grange Hermitage (the Hermitage being dropped from the label with the 1990 vintage). Never commercially released the 1951 was considered experimental, although in 2001 a bottle ‘in perfect condition’ was sold at auction by Australian fine wine specialists Langton’s for a record AU$52,211. Schubert had to present the subsequent vintages to the Penfolds board in 1957, which promptly put a stop to its production. So convinced was Schubert that the wines were worthier than the Board deemed that he made the 1957, 1958 and 1959 vintages in secret. Ironically, the Penfolds Board was so impressed during a re-tasting of the 1951 and 1955 vintages that they instructed the winemaking team to re-start production of Grange. Little did they know that it had never stopped.
Tall, dark and daringly handsome, Edouard Moueix looks more like a character from a Jane Austen novel than a farmer but that is how he modestly refers to himself and his father, Christian – ‘We are farmers and that’s what we remain’. Nonetheless, the Moueix family is certainly not how you imagine your average farming family. The Moueix family more readily resembles a modern winemaking dynasty.
Hailing from a rurual background, Edouard’s grandfather, Jean-Pierre established the ‘négociant’ (wine merchant) house of Jean-Pierre Moueix in 1937 and then went on to purchase several outstanding Right Bank properties in Bordeaux including La Fleur-Petrus and Trotanoy. Edouard’s father, Christian Moueix is now at the helm of a prestigious portfolio of properties that includes Chateau Pétrus in Pomerol and Chateau Magdelaine in Saint-Emilion. Despite his family’s prominent vineyard holdings and importance within the Bordeaux winemaking fraternity Edouard remains extremely humble, just like his father.
Edouard’s father, Christian Moueix, studied viticulture and winemaking at the University of California at Davis in the late 1960s. With relevant qualifications and locally acquired wine knowledge, Christian was particularly impressed with some of the classic reds that the Napa Valley produced. When an opportunity arose in the early 1980s to become a partner in the purchase of an outstanding vineyard in Napa’s Yountville, Christian took it. The Napanook vineyard was planted by George Yount in 1836 and is located at the foothills of the Mayacamas range in the middle of this hourglass-shaped valley. This was a chance to realize an ambition of his to produce a Cabernet Sauvignon based, Bordeaux-style red in California.
Since 1983 wines from the Napanook vineyard have been produced under the Dominus Estate label. Over the past 30 years Christian Moueix has used the same approach he uses in Bordeaux to nurture the development of deeply rooted vines in the dry grown vineyard ensuring that extremes of heat and drought will not adversely stress the vines. Humidity from nearby San Francisco Bay Area adds an extra benefit during particularly dry seasons although Christian has customized a canopy management system that mitigates that humidity when the season is wetter.
With such a focus on the development of high quality grapes in the vineyard, the winemaking process takes a minimalistic approach in a winery that was purpose-built in 1997. The subtle design by Swiss architects blends into the landscape in an unassuming manner, a characteristic that seems to fit well with the owner’s personal traits. Recently in Singapore to showcase some of the family’s wines, highly affable Edouard Moueix presented a tasting of six fairly recent vintages of Dominus Estate during the ‘Matter of Taste’ event organized by The Wine Advocate.
Originating from Napa it was no surprise that all the wines relied significantly on Cabernet Sauvignon – from 81% in 2001 increasing to 95% in the youngest wine tasted, which was the 2010. Small proportions of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot were included in the older wines although Merlot seems to have been dropped from the blend more recently. Always looking to the future, Edouard confided that the property has a single vineyard of Petit Verdot from which they are eager to make a 100% varietal wine. At the moment they are enjoying the ‘fruitiness of youth’ of this vineyard.
The 2001 Dominus Estate was an impressive wine to begin the tasting. Considered a ‘classic’ vintage in Napa the wine showed an unexpected elegance with the spicy, cedary and savoury nose, fine silken tannins with superb mocha flavours as well as delicious black cherries and licorice notes. Above all it was complex yet harmonious with a long length. In comparison, the 2002 Dominus Estate was fairly closed on the nose and displayed much more inherent power on the palate with concentrated dark chocolate and rounded, fleshy tannins.
One of my favourite wines in the line-up was undoubtedly the 2006 vintage. It is a wine that requires more time to develop further but at eight years old the pedigree of the estate is clearly evident. The primary black fruit aromas gave way to attractive fruitcake and mocha characters as the wine opened up in the glass. The fine, firm, dusty tannins balanced with the glossy, black briary fruit concentration and lifted freshness. Edouard commented that this vintage has a ‘vibrancy’ – that energy should ensure it matures into a charming wine and retain its freshness over the years.
A difficult vintage in 2008 produced a small but fully ripened crop. Densely coloured with a concentrated nose of powerful black and red spicy fruit, the palate was very full-bodied but with an intrinsic freshness that resulted in a long length of ripe flavours. Concentration seemed to be the hallmark of the 2009 Dominus Estate. It will be wonderful to re-taste this wine again in a few years time as currently it expresses little so may be going through a particularly closed phase of its development – similar to a shy teenager waiting to fully express itself at a later date.
Edouard Moueix commented that the 2010 vintage was one of ‘exaggerations’ – it was cool, then hot, then cool again and so forth. The resulting wine was of high density crimson in colour with an opaque, black core. The nose exhibited concentrated black fruit with a lifted fragrance of violets. Primary fruit flavours of briary blackcurrants mixed with sweet licorice and dark chocolate that were offset by very firm tannins currently giving the wine a hugely structured, brooding character that requires lots more time before it will show its true nobility. Nonetheless, the potential is very much present.
Undeniably these wines are not cheap but with such a guaranteed pedigree they are unlikely to disappoint.
This is the second part of an article looking into the ageability of New Zealand’s red wines following a tasting of 12 wines during a masterclass given at Hong Kong’s VINEXPO 2014.
New Zealand has had a surprisingly long history of growing Syrah, dating back to the mid 1800s. Nonetheless, there are still less than 400 hectares of Syrah in the country and 80% of those can be found in the North Island, around Hawke’s Bay and also the Auckland/Northland area. The best Kiwi Syrahs yield attractive floral and black pepper spice aromas with vibrant black fruit purity on the palate. Shown in the photo below and located in the Hawke’s Bay area, Bilancia La Collina Syrah is one of the best and the two examples we tasted proved to me that northern Rhone’s Côte Rôtie does not have the monopoly on this style. Densely coloured, the 2010 exhibited beautiful black pepper aromas. The gorgeous palate has a generous sweet black briary fruit concentration and round, ripe tannins – a very seductive wine. Everyone in the tasting savoured the 2004 Bilancia La Collina, aware that the winemaker, Warren Gibson, had donated his remaining bottles specifically for the masterclass in Hong Kong. A very small percentage of Viognier is included in this wine adding a lovely fragrance to the nose along with some gentle black pepper aromas. The palate was layered and complex with ripe, round tannins as with the 2010 but additionally showed dark chocolate and coffee flavours.
Remaining within the Hawke’s Bay area, but more particularly the sub-region of the now famous Gimblett Gravels, the fifth pair of wines came from producer Trinity Hill. This ‘pair’ of wines appeared more like cousins than the previous pairs of siblings. The Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels ‘The Gimblett’ 2012 is very much a Bordeaux varietal blend with 39% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Franc, 9% Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest being almost equal parts Petit Verdot and Malbec sourced from three vineyards within the sub-region. Deeply coloured, the wine aroma was of intense black briary fruit. Fine, dusty tannins, concentrated black fruit flavours and a youthful vigour were all evident on the palate. Sitting beside this was the Trinity Hill 2002 ‘Homage’ Gimblett Gravels The Gimblett – the debut vintage of this label, it is a single vineyard example of 50% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Syrah. A different varietal mix and different winemaking techniques, including less new oak and for a shorter period in the younger wine, have resulted in two different wines, as well as starkly contrasting price-points. The 2002 ‘Homage’ is still drinking very well – the nose showed attractive dark fruitcake and ‘panneforte’ characters. The palate of intense black fruit, abundant spice, coffee and dark chocolate harmonized with the dusty tannins and ongoing freshness of acidity. It is a fabulous example of Gimblett Gravel ‘terroir’.
Also located in Hawke’s Bay producer Te Mata crafted its debut ‘Coleraine’ in 1982 and ever since the wine has been considered one of New Zealand’s most esteemed and age-worthy red wines. Tasting the 2010 vintage alongside the 1998 gave real pause for thought and a glimpse at pedigree. This Bordeaux-like blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (58% in 2010, 60% in 1998), Merlot (36% in 2010, 32% in 1998) and Cabernet Franc (6% in 2010, 8% in 1998) could easily be confused with a top quality example from that classic region of French production. Even in its youth the wine displays elegance. Both examples were deep crimson in colour although the 1998 bore a mature rim of dark garnet. Concentrated blackcurrant and a hint of capsicum aroma showed on the 2010, whilst the palate had an intensity of black briary fruit, firm, fine tannins, lively juiciness and a long, fresh, ripe finish. This wine is an infant and has a long life ahead of it.
It seemed only appropriate to finish the masterclass with a tasting of the oldest wine in the line-up – the 1998 Te Mata Coleraine. Some might scoff at the idea of calling this 16 year-old wine an aged example but it is important to note that New Zealand’s modern wine industry is still very young, and relatively small. New Zealand only produces around 1% of the wine industry’s global production. Thus, finding reasonable quantities of older wines can be very challenging so the opportunity to drink, not just taste, the 1998 Coleraine was something to really enjoy. Complex and layered characters of cedar, leather, spice and black plums provided an attractive nose whilst the palate still showed some primary, concentrated blackcurrant fruit with dark chocolate, abundant dusty tannins and a lively freshness ensuring a long, elegant finish to this beautiful wine.
This masterclass set out to explore the ageability of some of New Zealand’s top red wines. The case was undeniably proven – quality-obsessed winemakers produce wines with the essential characteristics required to gently mature over time. As with people, the wines can become more complex, layered and often more interesting as they develop with maturity.
NB Photos provided by Bilancia and Te Mata. Republished here with thanks from The Narrator.
New World wines are often dismissed as incapable of ageing well. In fact, they can and they do. Certainly, no one expects entry-level wines from either the New or Old World to improve in the long term, but at higher levels of quality there is certainly a belief that wines can gather complexity and interest as they mature. It must be said, however, that not every buyer of such wines has the patience or the desire to age wines for many years. Apart from the financial investment and storage space required, there are always questions regarding when a wine should be drunk or when will it reach its peak. This is a separate topic again.
(Jane Skilton MW welcoming masterclass guests in true Kiwi style)
In a world-first masterclass during Hong Kong’s VINEXPO 2014, fellow Masters of Wine Jane Skilton and Debra Meiburg, took invited guests through a tasting of some of New Zealand’s top red offerings aiming to explore the ageability of some of the country’s outstanding red wines. From a prior blind tasting, long-standing Kiwi resident Ms Skilton chose six pairs of wines with a recent release and an older vintage each of the same wine. Three Pinot Noirs were chosen, one Syrah and two Cabernet-Merlot blends, with a range of vintages spanning 1998 to 2012. All the wines had been specially air freighted for the event and in one instance the winemaker generously donated his last few bottles for the event.
Central Otago producer Felton Road (vineyard shown below) has long been synonymous with high quality Pinot Noir so it was no surprise that Ms Skilton chose Felton Road’s Bannockburn Pinot Noir from 2012 and 2005 to set the tone for the rest of the tasting. Established in the early 1990s with fruit only sourced from their biodynamically cultivated, estate vineyards, winemaker Blair Walter prefers a ‘hands-off’ approach relying on native yeasts and 20-30% whole bunch inclusion during fermentation and no fining or filtration prior to bottling. Both 2012 and 2005 were outstanding vintages, although 2005 was deemed difficult at the time, and produced impressive wines. 2012 was deeply coloured with a lifted fragrance as well as concentrated black cherry and plum aromas on the nose. The palate also showed fabulous concentration with juicy, fleshy licorice and black cherry fruit with the finest tannins. My tasting notes – ‘Just delicious’ – sum it up well! At almost a decade old the 2005 had a more mature colour and secondary characters of spice, fruitcake, chocolate and leather on the nose. The palate was still quite youthful with black cherries and plum along with a freshness that gave the wine good length.
Also from Central Otago, two vintages of Pisa Range Estate Black Poplar Block Pinot Noir were tasted side by side. This multi award winning wine was made by highly respected winemaker Rudi Bauer (also owner/winemaker of nearby Quartz Reef vineyards). The 2010 is an outstanding wine with a purity of bright red berry notes, abundant cranberries and spicy fruit on the nose. The palate had fine yet firm tannins and a striking concentration of black cherries with lifted fresh acidity. 2003 was a variable vintage but the resulting wine was particularly well received by critics around the world. It had probably reached its peak of maturity as the nose and palate displayed very tertiary characters of layered spice and ‘sous-bois’ followed by an elegant finesse of tannins and an impressive concentration of ripe fruit with a fresh lift.
Only 700 bottles of Martinborough Vineyard Marie Zelie Pinot Noir 2003 were produced and eventually released in 2006. Tasting this wine was a real treat and it was a pleasure to see how youthful the wine still appeared, even a dense crimson colour was still apparent. Dark chocolate and enticing coffee characters on the nose with a silken texture and excellent concentration denoted the wine still has life ahead of it. A cool start to the 2010 season thankfully progressed to a warm, dry autumn that produced another impressive wine from the now 30-year old vines on the renowned Martinborough Terrace. Perfumed and ethereal on the nose, the palate was supple, complex and finely textured, resulting in a wine of pure elegance.
NB The second part of this article will report on the remaining 6 wines tasted.