Australian producers share their knowledge

One of the biggest perks of this business is the opportunity to learn new things about this absorbing, ever-changing subject. Yet even specialist wine writers have to be on just the right invitation list to have any chance of attending vertical tastings of top Burgundy Domaines or Bordeaux Châteaux. On the other hand, the Australians welcome us with open arms, appearing to be flattered that we want to hear their winemakers’ secrets. This openness must have contributed to Australia’s huge success in foreign markets. In the course of a week, I attended three fascinating tastings/seminars thanks to three South Australian producers: Grosset of Clare Valley, Yalumba of Eden Valley and St. Hallett of Barossa Valley. Focussing on Riesling, Viognier and Shiraz, this was a week tailor-made for members of the ABC Club.

Grosset Clare Valley Rieslings

xJeffrey Grosset trained in viticulture, but says that at that time, everything was focused on climate and not on site; yet the latter is something he considers crucial for Riesling. Australia is the world’s second largest producer of Riesling (though it grows ten times as much Chardonnay) and South Australia accounts for 75% of plantings. The Clare and Eden Valleys are recognised as the most important quality areas, and vines tend to be old, with few large companies planting Riesling until recently.
The Clare is the northernmost of the fine wine areas of South Australia. It is known for its warm-climate Shiraz and Cabernet, as well as for its intense Riesling.

So how does this stack up? The secret is in altitude and hillsides that allow Riesling a long hang time”,with the crucial few weeks before harvest having very cold nights. This provides vital acidity, yet the intense warmth and sunshine hours during the day provide a richer, riper style compared to Germany.

Grosset makes only dry wines and looks for intense lime and citrus flavours with a touch of minerality, what he describes as “pristine” Rieslings. His two single vineyard Rieslings are from quite different sites, in Watervale and Polish Hill. The Watervale area (famous for its lack of water!) has red loams and clay over a limestone, crumbly rock that allows the roots to reach down to the water. The relatively low fertility of the vineyard provides good intensity of flavour and yields that average 7 – 8 tons per hectare. The Polish Hill vineyard is prone to some water stress, and has low vigour, providing very low yields (a maximum of 6 .5 tons per hectare). Small berries and bunches “aren’t pretty enough to eat” jokes Grosset.

To provide more finesse Grosset uses only free run juice and sells off his press wine. We tasted 11 vintages of both the Watervale and Polish Hill, from 2002 back to 1992, with the 2000 vintage onwards being bottled with Stelvin closures. The latter gave rise to as much discussion as the wines themselves, particularly concerning their ageing ability. Grosset, one of Australia’s leading advocates of Stelvin, is convinced that his Rieslings develop under Stelvin. The 2000 vintage confirmed this. He agrees the wines will age slower than under cork, but is completely exasperated by the variations between bottles under cork – amply proved at this event.

For me the stars were the almost pithy 2000, and the classic, mature 1996 Watervale, and, from Polish Hill, the pure limey 2001 and the deliciously steely 1998. Some of the older wines from both vineyards were most impressive, and Grosset made the point that amongst Australian producers, petrol, kerosene or even apricot flavours are considered a fault, instead they look for honey and toast in mature wines, which were much in evidence here.

Yalumba Viognier Seminar

xHosted by Louisa Rose, winemaker for Yalumba, this seminar brought in wine journalist Robert Joseph to set the scene for a tasting of Viognier from around the globe. “If Viognier were to be a colour, it would be orange” according to Joseph – and who could argue? The myriad of flavours includes the characteristic apricot, something that never surprises once you’ve visited Condrieu in July and tasted their succulent apricots, grown on the valley floor.
In 1965 there were less than 10 hectares of Viognier in Condrieu, hence probably in the world. Now there are over 100 hectares in Condrieu alone, with well over 10 times that amount elsewhere. There are problems with identification, however, and much of what California claims to be Viognier is said to be Roussanne instead. Much disappointing Viognier is probably made from a mutant strain or clone. It transpires that Viognier is extremely challenging to grow, to make, and even to match with food. It is, according to Rose, more sensitive to cork taint than other varieties.

One of the first to plant Viognier in Australia, it took Yalumba ten years to obtain regular crops, and first attempts at making the wine were not good. The key is in the vineyard and, in particular, the choice of picking time. If picking is too early, the characteristic Viognier flavours are lacking. This is the reason alcohol levels are often high.

It seems that amongst the 300 producers in the world, few agree on the best way of handling Viognier in the winery, especially when it comes to oak. Rose is against the use of new oak, but accepts that some older oak ageing works with wine from older vines. On the other hand, ageing on the lees is very important. As well as high alcohol, Viognier wines have a high glycerol content which gives apparent sweetness. Robert Joseph suggests the key to food-matching is to consider its relatively low acidity and measure of oiliness. Opinions on its ideal partners include smoked foods, Japanese foods, seafood and fresh vegetables.

The tasting was conducted in two flights of seven wines, with each flight being at a different price level. We were encouraged to taste blind. In the first flight (wines below £13), I enjoyed the exotic Fairview 2001 from South Africa (though many thought the oak was overdone), the very good value, entry-level Yalumba Y Series 2002, and the organic Bonterra 2001 from California. In the second flight where the wines ranged in price from £10 to £60, the star for me was The Virgilius 2001 from Yalumba, which managed to be exotic, yet delicately balanced and preferable to several with considerably higher price tags. I agreed with Robert Joseph that the £10 Yalumba Eden Valley 2001 was benchmark Viognier.

St. Hallett Vertical Tasting of Barossa Shiraz

x>When a trio starts with “Faith” one presumes “Hope” and “Charity” will follow, but in the case of these Shiraz, it was “Blackwell” and “Old Block”. Faith was originally named after its vineyard, but is now supposed to represent the “faith” Barossa growers showed in Shiraz. It is designed to be fruit-driven and ready to drink early, though capable of ageing. Both Blackwell (named after long-term winemaker Stuart Blackwell) and Old Block are sourced from a selection of old vine blocks, and made to age.
Former owner and now consultant to St. Hallett, Bob McLean, a quintessential larger-than-life Aussie, brought over Faith and Blackwell Shiraz back to 1994, and Old Block back to 1990. His stroke of absolute genius was to bring several in magnum as well as bottle. For Old Block, we were able to taste each vintage from both.

For me, the best of the Faith line-up was the 1996, which had developed well and had a delicious fruit-oak balance. Younger versions were somewhat lacking in charm and a little recipe-like. The Blackwell flight I mainly adored, and it’s hard to pick out a winner.

The only one in magnum here was the 1994 and it had extraordinary intensity, creaminess and length. I found the younger wines positively seductive, with almost earthy dark fruit, great intensity and sweetness – strictly a style for Australian wine lovers.

And then, there was Old Block, which made the St. Hallett winery famous. It was truly a revelation how each time the version in magnum showed significantly more layers of complexity, and was distinctly less developed. There was a slightly rough patch in the middle between 1993 and 1996, but if you can find any bottles or magnums of the mature, leathery and chocolatey 1990, 1991 or 1992, grab them. As for the younger vintages, 1997, 1998 and 1999 were all tasting good, with massive structure and tannins, plus intense fruit to back these up.

Serious and ageworthy, Old Block is possibly one of the best-value Australian Shirazes on the market. (£14.99 from Tesco for the 1999). Mind you, my faith in the generosity of Australian producers allows me to live in hope for charity.