Late in 2016 Tom Cannavan spent 10 days touring several of Australia’s most important wine regions for this report. It will be published in four parts.
Tradition & Revolution in the Adelaide Hills
The Adelaide Hills has sprung to real prominence only in the past 15 or 20 years, mainly due to a renewed interest in Australia’s cooler growing regions, of which the Adelaide Hills is certainly one. Perhaps the fact that Penfolds chose the Hills as the source of fruit for early editions of its ‘White Grange’ project, Yattarna, helped too.
Yattarna’s fruit focus may now have switched to Tasmania (though Penfolds’ equally superb Bin A Chardonnay is sourced from the Adelaide Hills) but there is terrific quality, particularly in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, from a whole host of wine estates based here. What made the timing of my visit so intriguing was the balancing act going on between tradition and ‘revolution’, in the shape of the Basket Range group of hipster producers, making sulphur-free, organic and natural wines in styles quite unlike the traditional, pristine model of established top names.
Vineyards were planted here in the early 19th century – in a fertile, hilly landscape that appealed greatly to the European immigrants who settled here. But by the early 20th century the end of ‘Imperial Preference’ (a UK system that favoured Australian exports) saw the death of that first wave of viticulture, which was not revived until the 1980s as Australia’s new wave of winemakers sought cooler regions.
Like Tasmania, the cool-grown fruit of the Adelaide Hills is much in demand by winemakers across South Australia, including for sparkling wines. So there are plenty of Hills wines around from both estate wineries, and from producers based elsewhere but buying fruit on contract.
Beards and Bonhomie in Basket Range
Basket Range is the name of a small town in the Adelaide Hills, a rural community that has been the unlikely epicentre for one of the most influential ‘movements’ of the modern Australian wine scene. The winemakers of Basket Range would baulk at the idea of being described as ‘a movement’, composed as they are of diverse and clearly independent characters, and yet they are bound by a shared philosophy that could be usefully described as ‘natural wine’.
This is extremely low-intervention winemaking using only natural yeasts, long skin contact and minimal or no added sulphur. They’re a rag-tag bunch, but once you get them talking it soon becomes clear that their complementary but individual philosophies have been carefully thought out. Left to right: 1. Brendan Keys of BK Wines; 2. Taras Ochota of Ochota Barrels; 3. James Erskine of Jauma; 4. Anton von Klopper of Lucy Margaux.
We met at ‘Lost in a Forest’, a church in the centre of town recently converted to a cool wine bar and temple to wood-fire pizza, co-owned by the Ochotas. The tasting took place on a rustic wooden bench in the sunshine, with a constant supply of superb pizza slices, and to a background of groups of friends and family coming and going, joining and leaving, in an atmosphere that was as laid-back as possible for a ‘serious’ wine tasting.
And yet these guys are deadly serious: James Erskine has an honours degree in soil chemistry for example, and between them there are enough letters after their names for a decent game of scrabble. So the story here has another thread running through it: that of rejection. All have held senior positions in large, more technical wineries and all have taken a step back, to consider a different path. Anton von Klopper was a forerunner, and his story is more or less echoed with the others in the group, swapping his globe-spanning career as a winemaker, from Germany to Oregon, for a smaller, more intimate relationship with his vineyards, his wines and his community.
Read 16 tasting notes from the Basket Range group
(2016) 100% of the fruit comes from the Lenswood appellation, 70% whole bunch-pressed. Love the nutty, more mushrooms and briary character here, with a really fresh acidity and fabulous leafy but not green elegance. Note: UK stockist and price quotes is for the 2014 vintage at time of review.
(2016) 100% Blewitt Springs Grenache from McLaren Vale, whole bunch-pressed and matured in 100% neutral French puncheons. So much sweet fruit with pretty floral and bright cherry fruit, then a big core of grippy tannin to offset that on the palate. Deliciously juicy and balanced.
(2016) Mourvèdre, Syrah and Grenache, 100% Blewitt Springs fruit from McLaren Vale, whole bunch pressed and matured in 10% new and 90% neutral French puncheons. This has real funkiness and earthiness, a slightly reductive barnyard character. The palate juicy and brimming with red fruits, a black plum fleshy and chocolaty density to this but then the fresh crunch comes through.
(2016) The Syrah for this wines comes from McLaren Vale, 100% matured in new French oak puncheons for 12 months. Filled with opulent plum fruit, cherry and spiced floral red cherry. A broadly juicy character with so much lemoney acidity and and those herbal notes adding layers of complexity. 93
(2016) A Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris blend. Lightly cloudy orange wine, with a nutty and yeasty, but fresh and salty nose. Wonderfully pure juiciness and apple freshness, the palate is brimming with zest and clarity.
(2016) Distinctly orange/pink in colour, with gentle spice and floral notes. The palate has a hint of sweetness and fine pulpy red fruit character. Then the salty and lemon rind dryness kicks in. Different and delicious.
(2016) Is it a very light red or a dark rosé? Anyway, best served lightly chilled where its beautifully bright, light and orangey character with dry cherry pit fruit is given extra sappiness and really nutty dryness by including stalks in the ferment. Long and freshly balanced, really attractive. So light, juicy and orange pulpy.
(2016) Very attractive creamy cappuccino character, the orange rind notes and it is gently sappy, briary and coffee-ish again, with a rasp of tannin and acidity and terrific squirting juiciness. Lovely structural elements here too. Note: UK stockist and price are for the 2014 vintage at time of review.
(2016) It's as much about aroma and texture as it is about flavour in this dry, exotically-fruited and spiced interpretation of Gewurztraminer, with only 12.5% alcohol to retain juicy freshness, it stops way short of Gewurz tendency to be a little over-powering, and yet the lychee and Nivea cream aromas and fruit and spice flavours are terrifically expressive.
(2016) A wine made by the other half of the Ochota team, Taras's wife, Amber. From a single vineyard "the size of a tennis court," only around 300 bottles were produced. Silky stuff, but with a real sense of precision, elegance and the exotic, touches of Sandalwood and bracken, the palate sweet with fruit but always under tension, it finishes very long, gently spicy, and tapers to the finest point.
(2016) A fascinating wine, from a vineyard planted as Gamay in 1985, grafted to Chardonnay some time after, and then "we took a chainsaw to it," according to Taras Ochota, presumably below the graft, so that the vines once more grew as their natural Gamay selves. Spicy, dry, intense red fruits, the carbonic maceration softening a touch, but still a Gamay with a bit of steel at its core into a long, fruity and fruit-spicy finish.
(2016) Another wine that straddles somewhere between rosé and red, made from a field blend of several varieties including Pinot Noir, Grenache, Gerwurtztraminer and Chardonnay. It's a fun wine, but not frivolous, with a texutural weight and complex aromas and flavours with more spice, earthiness and a touch of gamy depth that you may not have presumed from the blend.
(2016) From a blend of all of the McLaren Vale vineyards used by Jauma, if the name conjures up delicacy and transparency, well that's not quite the case, but the wine, aged in neutral barrels, is a bright and more easily approachable in style, with a supple, velvet texture and big mouthful of crushed berries and fine herbs, the talcumy tannins adding to the seduction.
(2016) From a different soil (sandy ironstone with clay) in the same 1980s vineyard planted by Ralph, there's a richer, more chocolaty texture and plushness to this, abundant fruit and sweet earthy notes, but it has a savoury, vinous intensity too, dry and furring the mouth with its tannins, though as with all of these Jauma wines, its fresh and super-clean as it finishes.
(2016) From a vineyard planted by a man called Ralph in 1988, sitting at 900 metres in the Clarendon hills, this is wine of relatively pale colour after 12 months in neutral barrels, but bursts with buoyant fruit, red berries and blackberries, a touch of chestnut in there, and some floral, herb touches too. Then, it floods onto the palate with a similar winning blend of bold, uncomplicated natural fruit concentration and underpinning structure. Lovely freshness to the acids too.
(2016) Named after James Erskine's dad - Grandpa Antony to James' kids - this is sourced from very old vines in McLaren Vale, and is a supple, creamy Grenache, with great fruit intensity, but there is lift, perfume and layered aroma and flavour too, a little kirsch, smokiness and crisp bacon fat, and a good supporting structure that suggest it will age. Grown organically and made with zero added sulphur I believe.
A study in Chardonnay
A group of the region’s top producers gathered at Sidewood Estate for a tasting of Chardonnay, for many people the Hills’ ace in the pack grape variety. These were by and large all ‘traditional’ wines unlike the natural wine proclivities of the Basket Range group, but there is a strong emphasis on organic viticulture, sustainability and lowering the use of both oak and sulphur for most of this group, echoing a general trend among the country’s best winemakers. The Piccadilly Valley and Lenswood are the two officially recognised sub-regions of the Hills, with their own appellation status, and this is without doubt one of Australia’s prime sparkling wine regions with 32 sparkling producers – the greatest number of any mainland regions, with only Tasmania boasting more.
Read 12 tasting notes for Adelaide Hills Chardonnay
(2016) The very rare (and very lovely) top wine from Deviation Road, fewer than 100 dozen bottles are produced. Lovely yeastiness and breadiness and a very fine apple fruit. A limey zest, but stays beautifully focused despite that creaminess with its sheer, intense zestiness.
(2016) Disgorged early 2016, this snuck into the Chardonnay tasting though in fact it is 68% Pinot Noir, 32% Chardonnay, with zero dosage. Lovely toffee and more ripe tropical notes. Deliciously pure and has great sweet ripeness despite the zero sugar. Lovely acidity, a pithy bite of lemon showing it's relative youth still. Imported by Bancroft.
(2016) Only 5% new barrel for this. Delightful creamy oatmeal nose, tight focus on the palate, there's a raft of juicy, dry, lemony fruit very dry, a salty and pithy minerality too.
(2016) Matured in puncheons, one-third new. A much flintier, complex sulphide nose, from a higher vineyard, 100 metres higher than the M3 Chardonnay, as they have "chased vineyards further up the hill." Toast and sweet barrel notes, the palate has gorgeous sweet ripeness, but juicy orchard fruit and touches of peach before a savoury lemon and salt acidity. Note: price and stockist quoted is for 2014 at time of review.
(2016) A slightly more toffeed character, more tropical notes to the fruit too, this one feeling a little more old school, with good acid but stays slightly too buttery-minty toffeed. From a single vineyard, 25% new French oak and lees stirred for six months.
(2016) From some of the highest vineyards in the Hills, five separate vineyards in the Petaluma sub region. No lees stirring, 30% new oak only, 30% whole bunch-pressed. So cool and only gently creamy, a bit of the gunflint character coming through, a hint of toasty richness but the palate always just restraining its fat, lemony fruit, a hint of lusciousness, with its acidity.
(2016) Lovely nose, touched with flint and creaminess, full malo for this, and all barrel-fermented in larger oak. The palate has juicy nectarine ripeness and it's among the most exotic of these wines in its fruit profile, but there is a very good, almost piercing and shimmering acid.
(2016) Made from the Mendoza clone of Chardonnay (famous for its irregular 'hen and chicken' berry sizes) from a single vineyard next to the cellar door, it is matured in French oak puncheons, 25% new. A nice flintiness and grip, then a real zestiness too, lime and Mandarin. Salt and lovely sour lemon acidity.
(2016) Aged in 40% new oak, this offers a nice combination of slightly buttery, quite Burgundian character (wild ferment) and a touch of flinty complex sulphides. The palate has really ripe, sweet fruit, more obviously sweet and full than some, and though it has good acids, perhaps doesn't hang together quite as well, the acid a little pithy and stark against that sweetness - at this stage at least.
(2016) Beautifully Grand Cru Chablis-like, with so much racing sea shell freshnes and flinty complexity, nuttiness and pristine orchard fruit. The palate has that wonderful juiciness with lime-like purity and a line of shimmering length. So poised and elegantly tapering, the almondy creaminess adding layers of texture.
(2016) From an east-facing vineyard at 380m above sea level, this certified biodynamic wine is made with no cultured yeasts or enzymes, and is given full malolactic fermention, 20% new oak, 60 old oak and 20% in concrete 'eggs'. Lovely golden colour, and a lovely honeyed, very open and so gently nutty oxidation. A touch of honey on the palate too, and a creaminess and delicacy is gorgeous, balanced and long into the apple and nutty finish.
A misty morning, the tops of the vines disappearing into a soup of spring rain and low cloud, was the perfect explanation by example of what makes Ashton Hills’ little spot such a fine Pinot Noir terroir. And the story here is all about Pinot Noir, make no mistake. At close to 600 metres altitude in the Piccadilly hills, the tiny three-hectare estate was planted by Stephen George, owner and winemaker, in 1982, following an obsessive search for the perfect Pinot Noir property. A Burgundy ‘nut’, from the very beginning the grapes were treated with reverance and the winemaking with as light a touch as humanly possible, resulting in wines that found a global following from a vineyard that James Halliday describes as “the most distinguished site in South Australia for Pinot.”
In 2015, a rumour reached Wirra Wirra, based in nearby McLaren Vale, that Ashton Hills might be available for sale. I can imagine negotiations were polite but hugely intense with Stephen as concerned about who would take over, as how much they would pay. “Ashton Hills was very well known to us, and we loved the wines,” says Wirra Wirra’s chief winemaker, Paul Smith. “Stephen has been so dedicated over 35 years, and he knows every inch of this land, but his kids did not want to get involved, which was out luckiest break.” Right: Paul and Stephen, picture courtesy Wirra Wirra.
Indeed, Wirra Wirra’s winemaking sensibilites do seem like a natural fit, ‘Smithy’ also being very much a vineyard man, and keen to let the fruit speak and not mask flavours with over-extraction or too much wood. “Stephen still lives on the property,” he tells me, “and to all intents and purposes he still makes the wine, walking the vineyards. He has a hand in making every bottle.” I ask if I will meet him on the visit, but am told he is not around at the moment. But I wonder… perhaps not having to entertain wandering journos is part of the deal that the always bare-footed Stephen George had struck?”
Read eight tasting notes for Ashton Hills
(2017) All Pinot fermented in hogsheads. A lovely touch of toffee and creaminess to this, though there's a lovely firm, tight structure, good backbone and raciness, plenty of appley bite.
(2017) All Pinnot Noir. Tight, very racy, loads of firm acidity and again a really tight, lemony sourness, with such a racing, flashing acidity.
(2017) All Pinot again for this rosé. An assemblage with 6% red Pinot. It's a slightly more approachable style, with a little cherry freshness, but that huge sour lemon acidity is so incisive again.
(2017) Very attractive blend between a touch of creamy, waxy textural weight and tangy fruit with a nettle edge. The palate too has some weight and some fat, with a lemon jelly brightness but then that running stream clarity with the softer mouthfeel onto the long, very firm acidity in the finish
(2017) The earliest harvest on record from this block, though this blend is the only one that uses a little purchased fruit too. Made only in old, larger barrels. Natural yeast, never acidified, never fined. Has been that way for 30 years. Pretty edges of twigs and briar, lovely floral notes with violet and cherry, the palate dry and savoury, with lovely fruit quality and a nice earthiness and orange and cherry fresh acidity, textured and refined into the finish.
(2017) Matured in old French oak again from five clones preferred on the estate. Dramatically pale colour, adds a little more tobacco and nutty characters to the florality, more solid in a way, but that's totally relative, as it's a subtle, dry, cranberry and cherry reserved style again, with even a little hint of chocolate and again spicy tobacco, into a long beautifully pure finish that stays supple, briary and tight.
(2017) A third of this matured in new French oak, and from three of the preferred five clones 777, D5V12, MV6. Again a nicely pale colour, a distinct minerality here, chestnut and tight cherry fruit, hints of meatiness, of oregano perhaps, The sweetness on the palate of the fruit is striking, delicious hint of peachiness and again cherry, the spices and the briar, the touch of graphite into the finish. Delicious.
(2017) From very old vines planted in 1919 on the Wendouree, made in the Clare and after four years in old barrels spends another 3 on lees in bottle. 26g/l dosage. Very aromatic and lifted, less of the chocolate of some, more floral and ripe black fruits, juicy blackberry, the palate has a touch of leather and spice, but has more than that chocolate and lush black fruitiness, the sweetness wonderfully tempered by the acid freshness and a touch of herbal character. A distinctive sparkling Shiraz.
Grooving in the Hills
It was something of a surprise to find an enclave of winemakers in the Adelaide Hills with an almost religious fervour for Austria’s Grüner Veltliner variety. High Priest of the movement is Larry Jacobs, ex-owner of Mulderbosch Vineyards in South Africa, now co-owner of Hahndorf Hill Winery and the man who introduced the first cuttings of Grüner to Australia (right, with partner Marc Dobson). Now, Adelaide Hills has more of the variety planted than the rest of Australia put together. “We have slightly cooler mean summer temperatures than Kamptal,” he says, noting that an Adelaide Hills wine was voted best example in the world by Falstaff magazine – outside of Austria that is.
The Grüner Veltliner demands warm days and cold nights, and is thriving here with 40 hectares planted and 30 producers bottling Gru-V wines. Whilst there is no doubting the quality of the wines on show here – and the point of difference is surely worthy of note for those who think they know all about Australian white wines – there must be a question mark on whether the Grüner Veltliner variety in itself has the ultimate pedigree and global recognition to be worthy of quite so much faith from these producers. But then, I’ll bet the local market snaps them up.
Read three tasting notes for Adelaide Hills Grüner Veltliner
(2016) No skin contact for this, but a lovely clean and yet grippy nose, with tight apple fruit. Loads of acidity, a real pithy lemon and grapefruit bite that has great presence. 15% fermented in oak gives texture more than flavour.
(2016) Much more vibrant aromatically, more green, vegetal character than 'The Pawn', slightly suggesting Sauvignon Blanc with a shimmering green edge to the flavour too. A real juicness to this, a different style from the Pawn, but finishes with similar incisivness.
(2016) From schist soils, this is quite fragrant, a touch of grip to this, melon rind and lime skins, the palate bursting with citrus juiciness and a long, fresh and bone dry finish.
Go to Part III – South Australia: McLaren Vale, Clare and Eden Valleys