Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Mt Difficulty Pinot Noir 2006

My search for great Pinot took me here. To Central Otago... well to the Barn in McLaren Vale's wine cellar. I was searching for a wine to go with fish. It was winter fresh outside.

The Mt Diff was cherry red, meaty with red fruits of the forest along with blackberry. Tasty, tight and touching on greatness.
I think it has the legs to develop as the fruits start to smear together. My search was well worth it.

James Hooks Rating - 93pts

Friday, August 15, 2008

Piombo Shiraz 2004

No score given because I know the the winemaker. The facts are I am impressed.

The wine is massive, with some of the darkest colour I have ever seen. This is more of a black wine than a red wine. It also has some of the biggest tannins I have ever seen. They are very chalky.

Yet there is some elegance to it despite its size and tannins. As the tannin falls out over time and the wine is decanted it comes alive. Black cherries, and a common taste in McLaren Vale Shiraz- blackcurrant.

Amazingly this wine has a touch of Grennock Creek with a distinctive meaty flavour. Noted critic Philip White explained to me that the Sellicks Foothills region (where Piombo is grown) has underlying rock which next surfaces in Grennock. Spooky.

This is like taking two wines & squashing them together - wine + wine = Piombo.


Number One Single - New Wine Styles.

Viognier vs. Pinot Gris

‘White wine is like pop music,’ I said. I had been drinking for awhile and felt like sharing my unique view of the world with anyone who would listen. ‘Everyone wants to be into the new thing- the next big trend. Everyone wants to produce the next number one single.’

Well, I admit all the wine I tasted hadn’t all ended up in the spittoon. It had gone to my head. Thoughts were flying around my mind like loose objects in your car when you put the brakes on too hard at the traffic lights...

‘Wine really is like pop music.’ I continued. ‘It has trends and fashions, big sales successes. It has MegaStars. Big multinational record companies are a lot like big multinational wine companies. Unique boutique producers are more like your independent artists- with their home studios- and cult followings…’

I am very full of self opinion sometimes… but fun at parties.

Now that I am sitting down to write this article I will try to put my argument more rationally. All wine producers want to make successful popular products. All wineries are trying to find an audience, as are musicians. There is money in picking a trend in the marketplace and producing to meet that demand.

One of the big trends in wine has been the emergence of Sauvignon Blanc in the marketplace. Like a Missy Higgins or Delta Goodrem- singer songwriter, Sauvignon Blanc has become very popular with wine enthusiasts very quickly. It has credibility. Savvy Blanc is all singing and all dancing as far as marketing is concerned and sales are growing at a steady rate as wine drinkers get the taste for dry acidic wine.

Back at the wine tasting, I continued my opinion. ‘I think Viognier will be the next big thing. It’s a sure hit. A sure number 1.’ The crowd of two, the only people interested in what I was saying, shouted me down. ‘No, Viognier is yesterday’s news…Pinot Gris rocks,’ they said.

In the cold light of day maybe they are right. In 2008 the next trendy white wine seems to be Pinot Gris (or Grigio)- the most common white variant of Pinot Noir. The opinion inside the wine industry is Viognier had its chance but didn’t catch on.

The Italians call it Pinot Grigio, the French call it Pinot Gris, and in Australia it’s called either Pinot Gris or Pinot Grigio, depending on the winemaker’s allegiance. It’s the grey pinot.

It can make wine that’s bone-dry or sugary and sweet. It can look pink or almost clear depending on how it is cleaned up. And it can even be botrytis-affected. Classic characters include honey, fresh butter, pear and straw. The only consistent fact about the variety is that it’s headed to a bottle shop near you.

I asked Matt Rechner, from McLaren Wines producer of the Linchpin & Echidna ranges, why he is releasing an ’06 Pinot Gris.

“I need another variety too compliment what I make. I think McLaren Vale does two things very well, Shiraz and Grenache, I didn’t want to produce another type of red from McLaren Vale.

So, Matt went looking for something different- he found a small patch of Pinot Gris at Lady Bay over looking the sea.

‘It is important for Pinot Gris to be kept cool. Higher sites or cooler climates where the day time temperature doesn’t get too hot.’

Matt reaffirms Pinot Gris/Grigio can produce a variety of styles. ‘At the moment, people in Australia are tending to make them dry. There is more to the variety than that. I don’t want to imitate the Italians and I don’t think we should imitate the French.

We make Australian wines and should be proud of what is uniquely ours.’

I ask Martin Lightfoot if he thinks Sharkira’s “Hips Don’t Lie”, is more like Viognier than Christina Aguilera’s “Ain’t know other man”. He just looks at me blankly.

Oh well, whatever, nevermind.Matt bases his Pinot Gris on fruit from the peninsula south of McLaren Vale. Weather conditions cool which give the wine a sharpness and tight feeling in the mouth when I taste his wine. It is definitely made on the crisp clean lines. The wine is almost clear in colour. As for the flavour I use the term hay because the Pinot Gris is a bit like chewing on straw. Don’t deny it we all did that as kids!

Viognier is a little better known than its Pinot competitor with commercial releases beginning in the early 1990’s.

I asked Martin Lightfoot of Hastwell & Lightfoot, and McLaren Vale Vine Improvement Society to enter argument. Martin was one of the earliest proponents of Viognier planting vines in McLaren Vale.

He explains, ‘Viognier 10 years ago was a variety few people had heard of, after all it is from the smallest appellation in France. A small piece of struggling sand & rocky ground on the west bank of the Rhone river below Lyon, called Condrieu.’

I asked Martin why did he plant a variety that few had heard of and nobody was drinking? Sounds risky.

‘At the time we were working with Nick Haselgrove then winemaker for Haselgrove’s and he had worked the 1994 vintage in the southern Rhone & come back hot & excited about the variety. We thought we would go and see what had set his pulse racing. What I remember best was the honeysuckle jumping out of the glass even long before I had got it under my nose. The wine was a whole new experience with dried apricots, peaches, melons & more.’

‘Thinking back to McLaren Vale we reckoned we could match the tough growing conditions pretty easily on a deep gutless sand hill, In ‘99 we had a crop, not big of course but enough to see what happens when Viognier is planted in McLaren Vale and even enough to make a small batch of wine. The fruit was golden and the taste very distinctive.

I still remember the excitement of picking this brand new variety for the region, getting it to the winery, tasting the juice, watching it through fermentation wondering what the end result would be.

As far as I can recall it was a good start, it was distinctive but not the wondrous experience we had in Condrieu. There was clearly work to be done in the vineyard & the winery. And this has proved to be a challenge, not just for us but for everybody working with the variety. Any wine lover who has been out there tasting Viogniers over the past few years will have seen more false starts than winners.

I interrupt by questioning Martin. ‘Mr Lightfoot have these false starts- bad songs if you like- stopped Viognier from becoming the superstar it should be?’

‘I can only comment for our winery, for us we think our 2004 is close to where we want to be and our 2005 even closer. But we would still like to see more of that honey suckle that blew us away 10 years ago in Condrieu.’

You can’t mention Viognier without also noting Yalumba- the family run Barossa wine company that planted the first commercial Viognier plantings in 1980. Yalumba has been the driving force in getting Viognier established in the marketplace. Commuters into Adelaide driving on Goodwood rd were greeted by a strategically placed on the tram under pass ‘VEE-on-YAY!’ the billboard read.

The VEE-on-YAY campaign was an effort to boost the profile of the variety.

They have a vested interest. Yalumba produce no less than 4 releases. Their flagship Virgilius Viognier retails for around $35-40, their Eden Valley range for $20-22, Y-series at about $10, plus a late picked desert wine. Most wine companies would be happy just to have one price point. Yalumba take Viognier seriously enough to differentiate their white wine products and give you the spread.

The other main attraction of Viognier to a winemaker is its ability to be mixed with Shiraz. Yalumba also excels with this style too, with its Hand picked Shiraz/Viognier. What? Adding a white grape into a red wine, I hear you question? Well mixing Viognier into Shiraz produces a wine that has rich ruby colour and a very filling flavour in the mouth. Viognier arguably improves Shiraz by giving it a lifted aroma of fruit and a rounded fruit flavour in the mouth.

One thing is for certain, in the race for the next big thing, Yalumba don’t yet make a Pinot Gris... Whatever happens the shelves are about to get full of 2008 white wine releases and the race to be the new number one single will begin anew.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

He knows his claret from his Beaujouis...

Dateline June 2008.

One hundred and twenty grape growers and wine makers pack into the McLaren Vale Bocce Club. They eat some pasta, drink some glasses of wine and argue over a controversial map that defines sub regions of McLaren Vale based on terrior.
Terrior is common sense really. Soil + climate = grapes which gets turned into wine

Why is the move so controversial? Why would one hundred and twenty hardened wine industry types get hot under the collar over whether there should be any definition of districts grape growing areas? It is not just opposition to using the quintessentially french term terrior. The argument runs deeper.

While the French believe terrior is the semi-mystical group of forces that makes their wine so special – science can go along way to defining it. Terrior is common sense really. Soil + climate = grapes which gets turned into wine (plus whether the winemaker uses natural or store supplied yeast, smokes and washes their hands five times a day.)

The new McLaren Vale map was drafted up based on soil type, climate information and wine style. Its existence is based on factors that can be measured. In the Australian wine industry where science rules a map that defines sub regions, shows terrior based on fact should be a home run.

European vignerons classify their wines based on local topography and the semi-mystical forces. Over the course of many generations, trial and error and scientific advancement a system of appellation, or a regulated naming and procedures for a given group of vineyards, has been adopted. This operates as a government controlled scheme for example Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée in France, or Denominazione di Origine Controllata in Italy. These systems both break wine growing districts into small areas which can be as small as 100 hectares. In these countries majority of premium wines are sold and labeled under these systems.

Australia uses a modern tier system to define its regions. State; Zone; Region and in some cases Sub Regions are defined by a Wine and Brandy Corporations Geographical Indications Committee (GIC). A good example is the Adelaide Hills wine region. Located in South Australia’s Mt Lofty Zone, the Adelaide Hills has two officially defined sub regions, Piccadilly Valley and Lenswood. The High Eden is a sub region of the Barossa Valley.

The McLaren Vale Wine Region was declared only as recently as 1997. It is roughly 15 kilometres by 30 kilometres has 6,800 hectares of vineyard. No official sub regions have been declared by the GI committee for McLaren Vale, however unofficial use of the sub regions is common.

Blewitt Springs, McLaren Vale.
Seaview, Willunga Plains, Sellicks Foothills, McLaren Flat, McLaren Vale/Tatachilla and Blewitt Springs all find themselves used by winemakers to describe vineyard locations.

McLaren Vale Grape, Wine and Tourism Association (MVGWTA) uses six sub-regions in viticultural and marketing materials. Furthermore, wineries have been adept at using the sub regions in their marketing building up strong reputations for specific vineyards or areas. Defining and explaining this variation gives winemakers another string in their marketing bow – especially in the American market.

Dudley Brown an American expatriate who moved to McLaren Vale thinks defining sub regions is a positive move. “The consumer of higher end wines such as McLaren Vale aims does, care a great deal about these sorts of things,” Dudley thinks. “Wine drinking and collecting is a journey around the world without leaving home – the consumer loves to discover new and different areas and labels. Sub regionality gives them the opportunity to explore six new things about McLaren Vale without exploring the next region up the road.”

Dudley’s point is valid in the US wine market, particularly California, the use of sub regions – whether officially named or not, provides the consumer with more information about the pedigree of the wine. A bottle that specifies a sub region like Spring Mountain, Rutherford or Calistoga, it almost without exception still says Napa Valley. Knowing a bottle comes from Spring Mountain gives the consumer a heightened sense of confidence in paying for an unfamiliar label.

As the Australian wine industry matures, particularly a high priced wine district like McLaren Vale, points of difference that enable lesser known producers to get noticed and to charge higher prices is critical to our marketing success. The higher prices translate back into the local market as more money to spend on improving vineyards, higher incomes and higher asset values for growers and wine businesses alike.

If Lazy Ballerina was from Nurgo’s Gorge, would you pay $25 a bottle for it? The fact that is it is from McLaren Vale means a price expectation already. The fact that it comes from the sub region of Tatachilla could add some more value to the wine.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Prima Ballerina

Phillip White – for the Independent weekly.

“Mr. White, I’m not like you”, James Hook said as I settled in his Ute. “I am a scientist.” He then took me to show a thing or two about McLaren Vale where he worked for the McLaren Vale Grape, Wine and Tourism Association.

In this business, you don’t meet many so certain about their role and their determination to fulfill them. Ian Hickinbotham spoke in such a manner when first introduced some 30 years ago; his son Stephen was another. Ray Beckwith too. Now in his mid 90’s, he is similarly precise. Probably no other Australians have had such an influence on wine as Hick Snr and Beckwith with their ground breaking work on pH and malo-lactic fermentation now taken for granted by winemakers the world over. Had Stephen not been killed in a plane crash, I’m sure he would have gone on to show us a thing or two.

So here was your writer, suss that we’d run out of such people of serious category, and jaundiced by the thousands of cocksure pretenders and self promoters who fill the vast gap in between. “Their obituaries describe these people as successful business men and they promptly pass into oblivion,” wrote Walter James of this mob in 1970. I don’t think this will be said of James Hook.

I’d seen Hook the scientist at work when he’d been called in to make an independent judgement on a grape crop. With another viticultural scientist, Derek Cameron, they succinctly disproved an allegation that the crop was diseased. The brewery which had tried to evade its purchasing contract was forced to keep its bargain, and the conscientious, terrified grower stayed in business.

Now in McLaren Vale, Hook gradually unfolded a severe arsenal of knowledge and attitude. Not only did he show a rare savvy about vine
husbandry, but his deep appreciation of the folly of greed and environmental destruction left most of the wine industry for dead.

Then he sent me some shiraz: an understated bottle, displaying a dancer resting on a chair, named Lazy Ballerina after a canopy management where the vines’ canes were organized to resemble the dress of a ballerina. That wine and another release since, with a little viognier, impressed me very deeply, with its character, gastronomic intelligence and promise for the future.

With his parents, James has purchased an unusual, if run down, European garden on the big bend at the south end of Kuitpo forest.

Lot 11 Brookman Rd.

A new tasting room is nearing completion; the garden is gradually regathering its beauty, its silver birches and healthy river red gums standing in bright contrast to the wall of pines opposite, a carpet of winter blooms spread beneath. A peacock admired himself in the reflecting door as we nudged glasses last week.

James the viticulturer had planned four shiraz wines and managed their vines accordingly. Two were from vineyards he considers sufficiently distinctive and suitable to be released as single vineyard wines, to offer numerous points of difference for discussion about the nature of McLaren Vale shiraz. Another is a cross vineyard blend, designed to follow the style of his earlier releases; the fourth is a shiraz viognier.

“I have planned these from the vineyards up”, he said, introducing a string of barrel samples. “This exercise is to test my plan, to ensure the wines are sound and true to my original goal, or if any of them require tweaking or blending.”

The wine from Dudley Brown’s Inkwell vineyard, near the Gulf on California Road, was tighter than most Shiraz, reflecting an uncommonly dense grape cell structure: elegant but highly focused and intense. Next was the contrasting monster from the piedmont of Sellicks Hill, form the vines of Paul Petagna. While closer to typical McLaren Vales shiraz, with cuddly big chocolate and liquorice, this too was tight with mighty tannins, and ever so gradually tapered off into a tail uncommonly elegant and refined after such an opening. Right on the knocker.

The blended wine from various sources, followed closely the earlier Lazy Ballerina style – read masterly – and the last, the shiraz viognier, is a lesson to those who mindlessly blend these varieties in the name of fashion alone. No peach syrup in this baby. Uh-huh. It had all the austere acid and the tannin elegance of the first three wines but with the added tannic finesse that only tiny additions of early picked, cool climate, co-fermented viognier have to offer.

Only the one barrel was faintly suss, still showing a little lazy malo-lactic ticking away. It’ll be fine when the Lazy Ballerina tasting room opens in the spring. Which is something worth waiting for, given the makers success in defining the flavours of his finished wine in advance, then selecting and managing the vineyard to achieve his goal.

We have a new benchmark forming up, there in the forest. I’m hooked.