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Going back to school with Wine Australia

Screen Shot 2014-10-04 at 15.44.09The idea of offering a one day wine school event in London first came from the talented Yvonne May, head of Wine Australia for UK & Ireland. Sadly her battle with illness cut her inspirational and tireless work short but her legacy championing Australian wine continues.

The aim of this compelling event is to make UK wine professionals aware of the diversity of Australian wines and provide them with up-to-date knowledge about new vineyard and winemaking techniques as well as a concise overview of todays developments, challenges and potential. As we can’t all fly to Australia, this is the next best thing.

So who better to guide us through the day than charismatic and knowledgeable Tim Atkin MW, UK wine journalist and the straight-talking and accomplished Steve Webber, chief winemaker at De Bortoli in Yarra Valley. The tasting flights were organised by Emma Symington, UK events and education manager, who had the tough job of selecting wines that demonstrate best the typicity of the key regions and their distinctive styles.

The challenge for the speakers was not only to captivate the diverse audience but also to summarise the entire Australian story within one day. It would seem that Australia has had a complete personality change so regardless the level of knowledge or experience in the room, there was plenty to learn. And if you have missed it, here are the highlights.

Australia boasts some of the oldest vines in the world (Tahbilk still has ½ hectare of un-grafted pre-phylloxera Shiraz vines from 1860). Despite only 0.025% of the land being planted under vine, you can find any climate and type of soil here. The diversity of wine styles has few limits. The finest quality wines are produced between 30 and 40 South latitude but you may be surprised to know that you can find wineries pretty much anywhere in the country (for example Granite Belt in Queensland). But some of the best wines come from cooler parts of warm climate regions. This is achieved through either higher altitude (Orange, Canberra district, Pyrenees) or going south with proximity to ocean (Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Tasmania).

Australian wines have come a long way since 1845 when the first bottle was exported to the UK. Then the majority of wines were fortified and it was not until the 1970’s that table wines took over the reign. Thanks to introduction of temperature control, the focus on international varietal styles and an open-minded attitude towards marketing, brand Wine Australia established its reputation in the export market for high quality table wines by the 1980’s.

However, as with best things in life, success did not last forever and today Australia is being challenged by a strong Australian dollar hindering its export markets, an imbalance between demand and supply skewed to over-production, limited water access and risk of droughts (it is impossible to establish new vineyard without irrigation) and the seeming lack of strong big brands as the market diversifies.

According to Steve, reducing the vineyard area to 120 000 ha from the current 150 000 ha would help to reduce the overproduction. Furthermore, in order to maintain sustainable profitable growth for producers, limiting their production to wines that can achieve retail value of at least £7 per bottle is advisable if not essential.

Comparing wines from a decade ago to those made in the last couple of years shows obvious changes implemented in the vineyards and wineries. So when was the last time you had a glass of Australian wine? And if you have to think more then five seconds to answer this then you had better visit your local independent wine shop, right?

Many boutique wineries are focussing on organic and biodynamic farming with notable attention being given to the vineyards. Despite the new technology and possibly because of it, producers find it challenging but inevitable to let go and move towards minimal handling. Spontaneous alcoholic fermentations are slowly replacing or complementing the use of cultured yeasts. Earlier picking and only token use of new oak (more French less American) is being reflected in fresher, more balanced, lower alcohol wines.

Riesling is no longer only produced in cooler higher altitude sites of Eden (500m) and Clare Valley (400-570m). But new ventures have proven successful in Tasmania (Josef Chromy) and Western Australia (Plantagenet in Mount Barker) thanks to their proximity to the cooling ocean breeze. Also Strathbogie Ranges in Victoria with its unique granite soil is starting to be known for its fine Rieslings (Mac Forbes), some fermented in old French casks for richer texture (Fowles Wine). There is a move towards slower alcoholic fermentations especially at the end of the ferment in order to reach balance between acidity and residual sugar. The majority of styles are dry but a few are starting to experiment with residual sugar, Grosset from Clare Valley being one the earliest pioneers (try his Alea with RS 12g/l).

Chardonnay, love it or hate it, is Australia’s best grape according to Tim. First planted in South Australia in 1937, it has transformed from a peachy and buttery spotty teenager to more sophisticated elegant grown-up. The trend now is towards extracting more phenolics and focussing on dryness away from sunshine ripeness. The ability to access more suitable and a wider variety of clone material is improving the quality. The combination of earlier picking, more use of whole bunch press followed by spontaneous ferment and minimal oak treatment (more old than new French) is reflected in crisper, delicate Burgundian styles.

Chardonnay is produced almost everywhere from warm & humid Hunter Valley (Tyrrell’s), high altitude Orange (600m) to cool coastal regions in Yarra Valley (Oakridge Wines), Mornington Peninsula (Kooyong), Tasmania (Derwent Estate), Margaret River (Leeuwin Estate) and Adelaide Hills (Shaw & Smith). However, there are strong differences in opinion on what Australian Chardonnay should taste like. Some are manipulating flavours by purposefully oxidising must, using wild yeasts or experimenting with different vessels whereas others prefer minimal intervention and focus on terroir, letting the wines speak for themselves.

Pinot Noir is everyone’s darling. Numerous winemakers are obsessed with this variety and as a result produce some of the best examples reaching the heights of Cote d’Or. Gone are the days when Pinot Noir was boosted with a small portion of Shiraz. Balance and lower alcohol (sometimes managed by using open tanks which blows off some of the alcohol) is aspired for. The focus is not on creating a particular style but to reflect an individual terroir/vineyard site which is what Pinot Noir does best. Unconventionally, use of whole bunch in order to exaggerate perfume and stalky freshness has a strong following despite being rarely used in Burgundy. Maybe it is all that inspirational and extensive drinking of DRC or Dujac who use 100% whole bunch as a textural component, jokes Steve.

Most Pinot Noir is planted in Yarra Valley (De Bortoli) as it thrives in this relatively free draining clay/silt/limestone soil. However, there are great Pinots made in many areas with cooling influence. From Mornington Peninsula (Ten Minutes by Tractor), Gippsland (Bill Downie), Geelong (Farr), Tasmania (Stefano Lubiana), Southern Fleurieu (Tapanappa).

Semillon used to be called Hunter River Riesling. There is definitely a resemblance to German Riesling with its high acidity, lower alcohol, lemony zestiness and occasional kerosene aromas. Three distinctive styles are produced in Australia. Hunter Valley Semillon (Brokenwood) has low alcohol (10.5% abv) and is dry, fresh and lean thanks to the warm humid climate, very early picking, no MLF and no oak. Their potential to age is timeless (Tyrrell’s). Barossa Valley Semillon (Peter Lehman) is richer but despite being picked early its alcohol resembles classic white wine. Margaret River Semillon (Suckfizzle) has more vibrant character thanks to blending with pungent Sauvignon Blanc. Its style resembles Bordeaux Blanc in many respects thanks to similar gravel and clay soils and French oak barrel ageing. But even Semillon is changing now as the tendency is to make early drinking more instantly approachable wines, possibly to re-capture the interest in these undervalued and possibly misunderstood wines.

Shiraz is the signature varietal of Australia. I feel that to state that there are two styles of Shiraz now produced would not do justice to this exceptional and outperforming grape. The trend is towards producing fresher, peppery, lower alcohol styles using a portion of whole bunch and old French cask than new oak. Suitable climates vary from Yarra Valley – Beechworth (Jamsheed), Pyrenees (Dalwhinnie), Heathcote (Greenstone Vineyard), Canberra (Clonakilla) to traditional regions such as Barossa Valley (Penfolds), Eden Valley (Yalumba), Clare Valley (Taylors Wines), McLaren Vale (Wirra Wirra) and Hunter Valley (Brokenwood). But classic rich, dark fruit-flavoured, full-bodied highly concentrated styles are still around, collecting gold medals and being highly sort after (Torbreck).

Cabernet Sauvignon is the work horse of Australia and after Shiraz and Chardonnay the third most planted. It has been entirely transformed, many examples showing the typicity of bright cassis fruit with bitter sweet spice and fresh tannins. Arguably Coonawarra and Margaret River offer some of the best examples. Coonawarra (Wynns) is a unique region full of contrasting climatic conditions with hot temperature on one side and frequent spring frosts and rain at vintage. Margaret River (Cullen) with its terroir and climate resembling Bordeaux produces remarkable quality Cabernets. Clare Valley’s (Jim Barry) cool nights help to preserve fresh acidity and finesse in Cabernets and despite its relative remoteness it produces newsworthy wines.

Sparkling styles are still rare. Some of the best sparkling wines are produced in Tasmania taking full advantage of its cool climate. Both Jansz and Arras are well-established and distributed in the UK but there are many boutique producers that are waiting to be discovered in order to appear on British shores. The tendency is to produce Champagne style blends of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir but surprisingly Pinot Meunier has not been planted yet in Tasmania.

Sweet wines have been made in Australia since 1982 and De Bortoli Noble One Semillon was one of the first successful brands. What may surprise you is that back in 1920’s botrytised Semillon was also made in a fortified style. These botrytised styles are now aged in new French oak creating a very similar style to Sauternes.

Fortified wines (rare muscats/topaques and ports) once accounted for almost all production but this has dramatically changed to the extent that only a few remaining producers such as Campbells and All Saints Estate in Rutherglen still excel at this blending art and Penfolds producing limited release ports in Barossa Valley.

Whatever the future holds with all its challenges, I believe that UK and Australia will continue their strong symbiotic relationship. The UK still remains Australian number one export market despite the stick that Brits sometimes give to Aussie wines, historically being too ripe and now for being too lean. Brits seek Australian innovation and their easy-to-understand wines that don’t break the bank. As the worldwide focus thankfully tends to premium wine production with individual site distinction improving quality and profitability, Australia is well positioned. After all I believe that this spectacular country is still at a learning stage and the best wines are still to be made and discovered by us.

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2014 in Australia

 

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What happens when an MW student goes on holiday?

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My hubby, Ben is an angel. Not many people would put up with their partners spending holidays meeting winemakers and viticulturists, talking about yeast cultures and canopy management and even fewer loved ones would be persuaded to be dragged along to visit wineries instead of well-deserved lie-ins and beach tranquillity. Well, my hubby has been doing just that for the last two years and the recent three-week trip in Australia was the ultimate proof of what a lucky wifey I am.

Being an MW student practically means you are married to the wine industry. From the initial “I do” you breathe wine for better, for worse, in sickness, in health. Holidays are no exception. This time we travelled across five wine regions (Tasmania, Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, Margaret River, Mount Barker) visited close to 30 wineries and sipped through hundreds of wines. And we are still happily married, I hasten to add.

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Let me be absolutely clear about one thing – Australian wine rocks! We were instantly struck by the infectious passion for food and wine here. From delicately roasted, nutty and frothy flat whites wherever you go (from petrol stations to your ordinary corner cafés), the high standard of locally produced ingredients to a sheer stubbornness to create the best possible wines. Melbourne in particular is a true gastronomic destination, full of quirky wine bars and gourmet bistros (see below for our recommendations).

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Australian wine producers are very proud of their hard craft and so they should be. What we liked the most is that many are not afraid to have fun, innovate and diversify. They understand the importance of giving people want they actually want. At the same time, many are proud of their land and are realising the regional potential and creating their own distinctive style of wines. It is common sense that is driving winemaking and viticultural decisions here rather than regulations and chasing after specific certifications.

Whether you believe in climate change or not, Hobart in Tasmania with its cool Southern Ocean influence and latitude similar to Nelson in NZ is showing great potential for early-ripening Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs and not only for the production of premium sparkling wines. No wonder Penfolds are sourcing Chardonnay grapes for their Yattarna in Derwent Valley and Shaw & Smith are growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Coal River Valley for their new premium label Tolpuddle.

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However, the 2014 vintage will see a very small harvest. Talking to Andrew Hanigan and John Schuts of Derwent Estate and Stefano Lubiano, they all predict a significant loss of yield due to windy and rainy weather during flowering and fruit set. Luckily, the quality of the remaining fruit is bound to be exceptional.

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This year’s harvest in Yarra Valley is very similar to Tassie. Timo Mayer and Andrew Marks of Gembrook Hill Vineyard in Upper Yarra had their yield reduced from 40hl/ha to 25hl/ha due to low fruit set. The loss of crop of up to 50% has particularly affected early ripening Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Mornington Peninsula seemed to be affected even more. Lindsay McCall of Paringa Estate and Ten Minutes by Tractor reported only one third of their normal harvest. We saw a noticeable millerandage on Chardonnay grapes at Moorooduc Estate. Luckily, Richard McIntyre uses Mendoza clones, which he believes still achieve good quality crop.

In fact the harvest was so small that Mac Forbes in Yarra Valley was done and dusted by the 3rd of March. Similarly, when we arrived to Gembrook we were greeted with a generous glass of Andrew’s gin (called The Melbourne Gin Company) instead of traditional tank and barrel sampling. Ben was particularly pleased about this outcome as trying half fermented cloudy juice and then trying skilfully to spit it in a gutter is not exactly his forte.

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When leaving Healesville I could only reflect upon the change in wine styles I saw compared to my last visit 4 years ago. The intense ripe fruit and opulence was already being replaced with lean and elegant styles then but it is now reaching a point of subtlety and restraint that is reminiscent of Burgundy. Noticeable acidity and reductive character is the trend now but I did wonder whether some producers have gone too far with earlier picking, stressed ferments, blocked malos and pH & oxygen management. All these tricks are making it an absolute nightmare when trying to pinpoint wines during blind tastings.

But the overall quality is high and I must agree with David Gleave MW of Liberty Wines when he predicts that it is the premium regional offering that will pick up strength in the years to come, and not only in the UK.

Bree Boskov working her magic and gently pressing and caressing 2014 Oakridge Pinot Noir while being supervised by David Bicknell and Steve Wood

Bree Boskov working her magic and gently pressing and caressing 2014 Oakridge Pinot Noir while being supervised by David Bicknell and Steve Wood

Many old snobs argue that the New World cannot produce minerality in wines. Well I would suggest them trying David Bicknell’s 2012 Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from Yarra Valley (Oakridge), Dom Valentine’s 2012 Valere Riesling (Crisp Wines) from Long Gully Road vineyard or Gary Gills’ 2012 Beechworth Syrah (Jamsheed). It is when we tasted (drank would be more appropriate) wines like these that Ben started to realise that this wine tour disguised as a holiday is not that bad after all.

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The willingness to spit lessened significantly after a delicious lunch at Ten Minutes by Tractor. This classy joint in the heart of Mornington was a perfect watering hole and an oasis of calmness and exceptional food. Despite the initial stiffness of this place, the head sommelier and the other waitresses took a shine (possibly pity) to our unpretentious outfits and geeky enthusiasm over their extensive wine list. It was also time to make Ben happy and a couple of glasses of 10XTractor Chardonnay 2007 did the trick, knowing that we have more wineries to visit and more knowledge to absorb in Mornington.

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If you ever wanted to learn more about vine grafting and clonal selection but lack an affinity to books about viticulture, like me, then meeting Richard McIntyre of Moorooduc Estate is your best bet. His vineyards are a wealth of carefully selected Pinot Noir clones (some grafted onto original plantings) from the most widely planted MV6 (originally brought here by James Busby), Davis clones selected for their high yields to some of the best Dijon clones 777, 114 and 115. Indeed, Richard spends much of his time in the vineyards and also found a handy and so far successful way of dealing with Eutypa disease (which according to Dr Richard Smart could become as disastrous and widely spread as phylloxera once was).

Moorooduc wines are very unique. Chardonnays are lean and elegant as they are picked early and only about 50% undergoes malo. The Pinot Noirs have distinctive blood orange, anise and wild strawberry perfume. And if you appreciate whole bunch perfumed style, like Ben as it turned out, then try Richard’s 100% McIntyre vineyard 100% whole bunch Shiraz.

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Next stop, Margaret River in Western Australia. The most exciting about this region is the sense of change to come. The investment from Perth and the mining industry focussed on Wilyabrup and Wallcliffe has already reflected in rising wine quality and smartly equipped cellar doors.

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Despite being so far away from anywhere else, 3,5 hours drive from the most remote city in the world Perth, this place is full of potential. For Bordeaux blends in particular. The ideal soil combination of shallow red sandy and granite loam full of oxidised iron and gravels perfect for drainage and clay subsoil ensuring rainfall retention is not that dissimilar to Medoc. Sustainable water sources are ensured thanks to remaining vegetation deterring salinity and easy access to dams. The region does not suffer annual weather extremes that are so frequent and cause such significant damage elsewhere in the world. Apart from occasional hail and the risk of bushfires, Margaret River seems to be your perfect spot for viticulture.

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Much attention is also being given to clonal selection. Rob Mann of Cape Mentelle is bringing sexy back to Merlot by replanting their vineyards with more consistent high quality 181 clone whose origins can be traced to Pomerol. Rob also revealed to us his not-so-well-kept secret. He is making a very intriguing white wine from the first truly Australian grape variety – Cygne Blanc. This extremely rare grape, a seedling of Cabernet Sauvignon, was first discovered 25 years ago in Western Australia and kept under wraps until now. It is reminiscent of its grandparent Sauvignon Blanc with its herbal and floral perfume and has delicacy and waxy notes of Semillon.

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To finish off our trip in style, we were treated to a relaxed and private tasting and lunch with the very charismatic Vanya Cullen. As we sipped through her delicious Chardonnays and Cabernets we reflected on our Australian adventure.  It has left us super excited about all things Australian. Furthermore, thanks to everyone’s openness and friendly attitude I have gained so much invaluable information that I hope will help me during those 4 crucial days in June.

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Delicious Places To Drink & Dine

SYDNEY

Speakeasy Bistro in Bondi Beach (with only 5 tables this is the cosiest place, hidden away behind the main tourist promenade – simple yet flavoursome and fresh small dishes will get your taste buds tingling)

Café Sydney at Circular Quay (must book)

MELBOURNE

The Town Mouse Restaurant on Drummond Street (relaxed high class drinking and dining)

Harry&Frankie at Port Melbourne (shop/ wine bar with $15 flat corkage for any wines – heaven for wine geeks)

VICTORIA

Innocent Bystander at Healesville (your perfect chill-out place in the heart of Yarra – everything here is locally brewed, fermented, toasted, baked or churned)

Healesville Hotel & Restaurant (great place to stay and dine)

Ten Minutes by Tractor Restaurant in Mornington Peninsula (outstanding high quality, well-crafted dishes worth the pennies (not cheap) and a wine list you could spend hours admiring)

TASMANIA

Sidecar Bar at Hobart (a cosy natural wine bar in the city also offering simple yet tasty snacks)

Garagistes Restaurant at Hobart (ever-changing five course dining with matching Sake or a choice of organic, biodynamic or natural wines from round the world)

The Source Restaurant at Mona in Hobart (modern French cuisine + fantastic wine list) – the modern art museum is amazing

Smolt at Hobart (great food but service could have been more attentive)

 WESTERN AUSTRALIA

Settlers Tavern in the centre of Margaret River (Spectator awarded this place World’s Best Wine List and rightly so – you can buy wines here that you will not find anywhere else thanks to hard work by the owners – Karen and Rob)

Leeuwin Restaurant in Margaret River (must-visit for lunch)

Cullen Restaurant in Margaret River (great for biodynamic produce and tranquillity)

Gnarabar Pub in Margaret River (simple pub but with a great location and some huge portions)

Maleeya’s Thai Café in Mount Barker (this place may not sound much but we had the most authentic and tasty Thai food outside Thailand – tucked away in the middle of nowhere this place is a real treat – many of the ingredients are grown and farmed on the premises)

Raats Bar at Middleton Beach, Albany 

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Wines worth trying

TASMANIA

Moorilla Estate (not in the UK)

Derwent Estate (not in the UK)

Pooley Wines (not in the UK)

Stefano Lubiana Wines – Whirly Wine

Shaw & Smith Tolpuddle Vineyard – Liberty Wines

YARRA VALLEY

Gembrook Hill Vineyard (not in the UK)

Timo Mayer – Les Caves de Pyrene

Mac Forbes – Clark Foyster

Luke Lambert – Les Caves de Pyrene

Innocent Bystander – Liberty Wines

Oakridge – Matthew Clark

Jamsheed – Indigo Wines

Yabby Lake – Swig Wines

MORNINGTON PENINSULA

Moorooduc Estate – Coe Vintners

Ten Minutes by Tractor – Bancroft Wines

Ocean Eight – Hallowed Ground

Paringa Estate – Hallowed Ground

MARGARET RIVER

Moss Wood – Laytons

Leeuwin Estate – Domaine Direct

Cullen – Liberty Wines

Cape Mentelle – Moët Hennessy

Woodlands Wines (not in the UK)

MOUNT BARKER

Plantagenet – Liberty Wines

 
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Posted by on March 30, 2014 in Australia

 

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