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.
New Zealand has been at the forefront of my thoughts recently. Not only because I recently returned from seeing my extended family in Wellington, but also due to the latest enormous earthquake in Kaikoura, which was followed by endless aftershocks. Add to this a visit by Two Paddocks’ General Manager, Jacqui Murphy, then follow it up with a viewing of the film ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ and there really was no escaping a New Zealand focus. Wine producer Two Paddocks, which was established in 1993 by actor Sam Neill, is based near Alexandra in Central Otago. ‘Hunt for the Wilderpeople’ is a wonderful Kiwi production by director Taika Waititi. It is a big-hearted film set in New Zealand’s great outdoors where Neill and his young ‘nephew’ try to escape the establishment together, surviving on their wits and ‘the knack’.
Ms Murphy explained that previously Two Paddocks often garnered attention because of Neill’s status as a Hollywood movie star. More recently, increased focus is being placed on the quality of the wines being produced, in particular the single vineyard Pinot Noirs. Neill must be extremely proud of this achievement, as his father’s family ran a wine and spirits import company, so he was familiar with wine but in cardboard box format, rather than bottles. Neill’s real wine epiphany and subsequent long-term obsession with Pinot Noir occurred when, the now late, distinguished British actor, James Mason, introduced Neill to something a little more upmarket. Struck by the greatness of the contents in his glass, Neill asked what the wine was and Mason replied, ‘This, my boy, is Burgundy and don’t forget it’.
Under the humble label ‘Two Paddocks’, Neill now proudly produces Pinot Noir and Riesling from his own vineyards in breathtaking Central Otago, New Zealand. The first plantings took place in 1993 – the aptly named ‘First Paddock’ vineyard producing its debut wine with the 1997 vintage. Planting of additional vineyards took place at Alex and Redbank Paddocks. These acquisitions have enabled the release of single vineyard wines since 2002 together with the Two Paddocks Picnic range that exudes charm and freshness in its ‘drink now’ capacity as well as the benchmark, blended Two Paddocks Pinot Noir.
Having previously purchased land and then planted vines, in January 2014 Neill bought an existing 5.6 hectare Pinot Noir vineyard that had been established in 2000 at the end of Felton Road in Bannockburn. The 2014 is the début release under the Two Paddocks label – a single vineyard bottling named ‘The Fusilier’. The name pays tribute to Neill’s father who was a soldier in the Royal Irish Fusilier Regiment for 20 years before returning to New Zealand to run his family wine and spirit business, Neill & Co. Displaying a medium density crimson/garnet colour, the nose proffered attractive black cherry and summer pudding aromas. The palate was particularly well balanced with an excellent concentration of black cherries and coffee, along with beautiful fine tannins giving a lovely persistence to the intense flavours. *****
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. ****(*)
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.
Entering any wine store, no matter where it is located, I’m always immediately drawn to the Pinot Noir section. I could be accused of being a creature of habit, even boring to some extent looking at the same variety. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. As winemakers around the world strive to produce better and finer wines from ‘The Heartbreak Grape’, there is always something new and interesting to taste. This sentiment is, no doubt, true of any grape variety but Pinot Noir seems to attract more attention than other grape varieties. Its capricious nature ensures it as one of the most challenging varieties to produce well. Careful site selection, together with correct clonal matching and sensitive winemaking are imperative, although a fine outcome still isn’t guaranteed due to Pinot’s fickleness. All these factors add to the variety’s charm and intrigue.
Mornington Peninsula, in Australia’s state of Victoria, is a wine region with a very long association with Pinot Noir. It has built its international reputation on the production of small amounts of high quality wine. Prices are not cheap but good Pinot Noir never is. Nonetheless, most of the Pinots from the Mornington Peninsula offer excellent quality for their price. Kooyong, Moorooduc Estate, Ten Minutes by Tractor and Yabby Lake are all wines I admire from the Mornington. My most recent visit into the Pinot Noir corner of a regular haunt of mine resulted in a wonderful surprise and also a realization that I had previously overlooked a really delicious wine from this well-established region. Port Phillip Estate Red Hill Pinot Noir 2012 was produced from a single site of just over 5 hectares where the average age of the vines is a very respectable 16 years. The wine displayed a medium density ruby colour with a distinct garnet, slightly watery rim. The nose was immediately fragrant and lifted with layers of spice and crushed red berries, even a hint of ‘sous-bois’ to add to the surprising complexity of aromas. A dense core of black fruit balanced very fine, slightly stalky tannins with a delightful freshness and purity of raspberries and dark cherries. This is an extremely attractive wine that is drinking well now. ***(*)
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. ****
Aristotle was born too early to enjoy the modern day sparkling wines of Champagne. Nonetheless his, sometimes misquoted, adage is particularly relevant to the Champagne region where blending of different wines is skillfully carried out to create a harmonious ‘whole’.
The talent and skill required to achieve such wines is certainly not something that anyone can turn their hand to. Stanislas Thiénot of Champagne Thiénot recently demonstrated this during a workshop hosted by Singapore’s branch of Berry Brothers & Rudd. It was a fun exercise and proved to me that I should stick to my existing ‘day job’. The ability to take different parcels of still, predominantly young wines, blend them together, put them through a second fermentation to create the sparkle and then allow those wines to age over several years before they are deemed suitable for enjoyment takes significant expertise. Such proficiency is not gained overnight.
Champagne Thiénot was established by Stanislas’s father, Alain Thiénot, in 1985. Through his role as a successful Champagne broker, Thiénot senior built up extensive relationships with growers along with important knowledge of the region’s vineyards. Thiénot has gone on to acquire other brands (including Canard-Duchêne) take over 50% of Joseph Perrier, as well as building an impressive new winery just outside Reims. With a formidable portfolio of other wine interests, Alain Thiénot now leaves the champagne element to Stanislas.
For the workshop Stanislas presented ten wines, six of which were ‘vins clairs’ i.e. still wines which, in this instance, came from separate parcels of vineyards and would eventually become part of a larger blend. Champagne Thiénot source 50% of their grapes from Grand Cru vineyards and the rest from Premier Cru vineyards so there is little doubt about the pedigree of the base product. Nonetheless it is a very difficult task to taste these highly acidic wines and imagine how they will eventually harmonize with other elements to finally create extremely palatable champagnes.
With 200 tanks of different parcels in the winery to choose from Stanislas had picked two samples each of the three designated grape varieties that make up the bulk of champagne blends, all coming from the 2014 vintage. The first two samples were 100% Pinot Meunier – the black grape that gives upfront fruit in its youth so is used by the majority of Champagne houses in their Non Vintage blends. These examples merely hinted at any fruit notes as they had very tight, razor-sharp acidity, which resembled pink-grapefruit sharpness.
There were two samples of 100% Pinot Noir – one from the Premier Cru village of Cumières and the other from a vineyard the family has owned since 1976 located in the Grand Cru village of Ay. The Cumières example had a gentle red berry aroma but the palate was piercingly acidic. Pinot Noir is included in blends to give breadth, depth and richness to the final champagne. The Ay example hinted, but only shyly, at the powerful structure it will add to the ultimate blend.
Two Chardonnay samples were presented as the final ‘vins clairs’, the second of which came from the Grand Cru vineyard of Avize. Its heritage was evident from the delicate nougat aromas and the palate, although still essentially tight with ripe grapefruit characters, showed enormous freshness and length. Finesse and elegance are the characters expected of the Chardonnay element in a final blend.
The 2014 vintage was a short harvest as sugars levels increased quickly after a dismal, wet mid summer during July and August followed by ‘Indian Summer’ conditions in September. Freshness and fruit quality are the aim for the final wines so oak is never used at Thiénot and in 2014 it was also decided that malolactic fermentation would be avoided to maintain that freshness. It was this freshness that was evident in the remaining four wines tasted.
The final bubble-less ‘vin clair’ tasted was the non-vintage blend based on the 2013 vintage although 30% also came from a mixture of 2012 and 2010. Using 40% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and the remaining 25% Pinot Meunier I could begin to anticipate how the wine would taste once it gains its sparkle. Attractively creamy on the nose, the palate was very fresh and tight although there were delicious white stone fruit flavours evident.
The first finished champagne tasted, and the current release, was the Thiénot Non Vintage, of which 55% came from 2010 and the remaining 45% jointly from 2008 and 2009. Drawing on 50% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir and a mere 5% Pinot Meunier, the wine showed abundant autolytic characters of brioche and freshly based biscuits. These characters were particularly marked because they came after tasting so many ‘vins clairs’ which had not spent four years on their lees, as this example had.
Single vintage, carefully aged Blanc de Blancs has long been a favourite style of champagne for me so I was enthusiastic to taste Thiénot’s Cuvée Stanislas 2005. Even more so as this wine, and the one to follow are only produced in very limited quantities. Generally the year 2005 was considered better for Chardonnay than Pinot Noir. Very pale golden in colour with a nose that was gently nutty and autolytic, the texture of the bubbles was rounded hinting at a touch of maturity but showing the overall classic elegance associated with this style.
Garance is the name of Stanislas’ sister who also has a wine named after her. Cuvée Garance is a Blanc de Noirs made from 100% Pinot Noir. We were lucky enough to taste the 2007 during the workshop. Although not considered a good year across the Champagne region, as with all generalizations there are exceptions and this final wine of the line-up was one of those. The Cuvée Garance 2007 was a beautiful wine. Pale gold in colour, the nose displayed lovely hints of mushrooms and nougat. With a rounded creaminess the aromas seemed complete. These characters followed through to the palate, which again had a plump quality to the seamless gentle bubbles that harmonized so well with the lovely complex layers of flavours.
With small quantities remaining of each of the single varietal ‘vins clairs’ Stanislas encouraged us to do some of our own blending in whatever proportions we wanted. Although a fun exercise, it really did emphasize that such tasks should be left to the experts. The ‘whole’ really did exhibit qualities and characteristics that were not present as ‘parts’.
Meeting Kevin Judd for the second time, I felt as nervous as I did the first time. Perhaps even more so as this was going to be on his ‘home turf’ in Marlborough, New Zealand, rather than mine. I have long been a fan of this man – not only because of the wonderful wines that he makes but also due to the extraordinary photographs he produces. Economical with his words, Judd expresses so much with his outstanding photography.
Born in England but raised and educated in Australia, Judd moved to New Zealand in 1983 and, within a couple of years, became Cloudy Bay’s founding winemaker. Undeniably, Judd’s work at Cloudy Bay contributed significantly to the rise in New Zealand’s wine profile on the world wine stage, particularly where Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is concerned. The greater region of Marlborough, made up of the broad, flat Wairau Valley and the more southerly Awatere Valley has experienced unrivalled vineyard plantings in the past 15 years, in particular. The area is now covered with such an expanse of vines that it really does look like a vast ocean of beautifully manicured hedges. Nonetheless it hasn’t been all plain sailing for the region as the boom and frantic pace of plantings led to an inevitable bust for some vineyard owners.
With 25 vintages at Cloudy Bay under his belt, Judd knew the region and its vineyards like the back of his hand. Such a grasp of the area has enabled Judd to secure excellent fruit from mature vineyards. Strong bonds within this tightly knit winemaking community mean that he is able to share the winery facilities of longtime colleagues and friends at Dog Point (also ex-Cloudy Bay).
The name ‘Greywacke’, registered as far back as 1993, comes from the rounded river stones of the same name that dominate Kevin, and wife Kimberley’s, first vineyard in Rapaura, in the northern Wairau Valley. With an initial focus on Sauvignon Blanc (made in two styles) and Pinot Noir, the Greywacke portfolio now consists of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and two Rieslings. With such a strong pedigree the wines have inevitably already received widespread critical acclaim. I suspect were Greywacke to double its output they would not struggle to find buyers. However, Judd doesn’t come across as someone driven by the bottom line. His wines speak of place and purity of the healthy, fully ripened fruit used to make them. On the day I visited batches of freshly harvested Sauvignon Blanc bunches were being delivered to the winery. Tasting the intact grapes prior to crushing I could relate to the excitement surrounding the 2015 vintage in the region – everyone is very happy because the fruit quality promises some outstanding wines from this year. Judd commented that the Sauvignon Blanc flavours ‘look superb with ripeness at lower sugar levels and because night time temperatures have suddenly dropped the acids also look great’.
The Greywacke Sauvignon Blanc 2014 displayed everything expected of a really good example from Marlborough with an extra level of intensity and length. A personal favourite since its first release, the Greywacke Wild Sauvignon Blanc always offers an additional layer of interest on both the nose and the palate. The 2013 has a lovely flinty edge with hints of savory herbs on the nose, whilst the palate exhibited a succulent texture. This combination is the result of spontaneous natural yeast fermentation in French barrels, a portion of lees stirring and also malolactic fermentation for almost two thirds of the barrels. This wine is now also available in half bottles.
Greywacke Chardonnay just keeps getting better and better. Judd gave me the 2012 and 2010 to try alongside each other. Both had a savory, nutty nose whilst the 2010 displayed more biscuity characters denoting that extra evolution. The palate of both wines was just gorgeous – concentrated and ripe with a fine acid structure and long, lingering flavour length.
The other white wines in the Greywacke range are no less impressive. The Pinot Gris 2013 was luscious and exotic whilst the Riesling 2013, produced from a certified 18 year-old organic vineyard and made in a ‘spatlese’ style with 20 g/l of residual sugar was tight and crisp with a lemon sherbet zing. The Late Harvest Riesling 2011 exuded citrus marmalade.
Within the Cloudy Bay portfolio Pinot Noir has always been my firm favourite so I was thrilled when I first tasted Judd’s Pinot Noir under his own label at Greywacke. Quality Marlborough Pinot Noir has always had an attractive fragrance of red berries and a lovely suppleness on the palate.
With vine age the wines are now really starting to build some complexity and the wonderful earthy character, which I’ve always associated with top-notch Martinborough Pinots across the Cook Strait is now coming into play in high quality offerings from Marlborough. Greywacke Pinot Noir exemplifies this beautifully. The 2013 was sourced from Marlborough’s Southern Valleys, 100% organically farmed and mainly from the Yarrum (a Maori word? ‘No, just Murray backwards’) Vineyard. Fifteen year old, closely planted Dijon clones make up a large portion of the fruit with individual parcels of clones aged in barrel separately for 16 months before blending takes place. The resulting wine has a fresh aroma of red currants, cherries, spices and attractive savory earthiness. Concentrated yet elegant the palate displays the same red fruit characters as the nose but with an added generosity that is balanced by fine tannins and fresh acidity. The wine is nothing short of seductive.
William Downie’s rise to become one of the most respected winemakers in Australia is a compelling story. It is a journey that includes determination and a degree of luck, but above all, a high level of curiosity.
Victorian born Downie worked as a professional musician prior to entering into the wine industry where a part-time job in a bottle shop in Melbourne gave him the opportunity to attend a wine education course. It was not until tasting a 1993 Drouhin Chablis that he was really bitten by the wine bug. Ever since, Downie has pursued the philosophy of a sense of place, which is what he felt that particular Chablis expressed.
Whilst on a subsequent wine course, which for Downie, involved tasting some of the world’s classic, benchmark styles for the first time, he discovered a passion for Burgundy in particular. A research assignment for the same course led him to requesting an interview with famed Pinot Noir producer Phillip Jones of Bass Phillip. Jones was too busy working to give up time for such a chat so Downie asked if he could work alongside him for a day and conduct his interview that way. Jones was so impressed with Downie that he offered him a job. The role lasted two years – a wonderful apprenticeship that secured Downie’s passage further into the world of wine, but Pinot Noir more precisely.
From Bass Phillip, Downie moved to De Bortoli’s Yarra Valley winery – a much larger enterprise but still with a firm focus on quality production under the guidance of chief winemaker, Steve Webber. During that time Webber encouraged Downie to spend time in Burgundy where he worked at Domaine Fourrier initially then a twist of fate resulted in the opportunity to make grand cru wines at Domaine Hubert Lignier in 2004 and 2005.
By 2006 Downie was not only senior winemaker at De Bortoli but he also became Australian Gourmet Traveller WINE magazine Young Winemaker of the Year. Quietly spoken yet with frank opinions and a deep intellect, Downie likes to challenge pre-conceived ideas and push boundaries when given the opportunity. In 2010, he was invited to join a project backed by a private Asian investor, which would make an ambitious, landmark Australian wine. The multi-million dollar venture resulted in the launch of just 700 cases of Thousand Candles from one of Victoria’s most difficult, rain-soaked vintages – the 2011. The vineyard purchased for the project is based in the Yarra Valley and was planted in 1997. With the emphasis on a sense of place, the blend in the début Thousand Candles was based on Shiraz with some Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc – no ordinary blend of grapes.
In the meantime, in 2003, William Downie established his eponymous label. Downie told me that ‘It’s not about being the best, it’s about being the truest’. For him wine should be ‘an honest expression of the site and the vintage’. Grape variety is of secondary importance to Downie’s winemaking philosophy – a sense of place is uppermost and he feels that Pinot Noir has been the vehicle to deliver that.
Eye-catching wine labels, painted by musician and artist Reg Mombassa of Mambo surf wear fame, give no hint of the contents – neither grape variety, nor location. The back labels display only essential information. Currently three wines are produced from three regions of Victoria and all come from Pinot Noir. Downie has sourced grapes from single, well established and carefully nurtured vineyards in the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and Gippsland. His own property’s vines, which were close planted, are beginning to come into production so that the Gippsland 2013 example includes fruit from his farm. All the wines are closed with a Diam cork and sealed with dark green wax.
Having carefully carried these rather hefty bottles back from Australia, I have been impatient to try them. Admittedly, they are all still very young but the talent and skill of their earnest young winemaker was more than apparent, even at such an early phase of their development.
The William Downie Yarra Valley 2012 displayed a low-density garnet with an orange/garnet rim. The nose had an attractive fruit purity and gentle fragrance with lifted cranberries, red plums and red currants. On the palate a cranberry freshness and vitality was very evident with a good concentration of black cherries whilst coffee and mocha flavours sustained a reasonable finish. With time these characters will integrate further but it is certainly a promising young wine. According to several sources this vintage seems to have been very successful for Pinot Noir across the Yarra Valley.
The Gippsland 2012 was especially impressive and the glass that I kept returning to. Medium density garnet in colour, the nose was immediately more concentrated than the Yarra example. There was a black and red cherry density with a hint of star anise present. Layered already, there were coffee and dark chocolate undertones. On the palate a sweet, ripe fruit core was perfectly poised with the lovely freshness. Round, silken tannins added to the structure of this evocative wine with its persistent flavours of gentle sour cherry and coffee coming through. Again, this is a wine that will gather further complexity in the years to come.
Just a year younger, the Mornington Peninsula 2013 certainly showed more depth of colour with more of a crimson, rather than garnet, hue. Additionally the nose on this younger wine was more closed than the previous wines. With a little time in the glass attractive summer pudding aromas emerged, still very primary in character. The core of the palate displayed concentrated black cherries and dark chocolate with a hint of licorice. The texture was supple and lithe with glossiness but there was more than ample freshness to ensure a balanced wine. Overall the wine was quite powerful but still enticing with a seductive element and a tenacious length of flavor.
Having earmarked three very separate sub-regions of Victoria, Downie has been able to craft wines that achieve what he set out to do. Each wine bears a different personality with a variety of expressions of Pinot Noir and each does, indeed, reflect a sense of place.