Australia 2017 – 1. Introduction & New South Wales

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 five parts.


australia-2016-hero-1-editorialThat the Australian wine industry is in a period of reflection and subtle re-alignment is undeniable. But any more than other nations? France? South Africa? Chile? Almost certainly not. And yet there’s no doubt that a significant proportion of the country’s best winemakers are pondering the future. It’s not just the move to explore cooler climate regions or the reining back of ripeness and oak; by now that’s pretty old news, and surely everyone knows the story? But alongside there’s a sense that many winemakers are trying to decide on the specific direction they wish to take.

In McLaren Vale, a group of top producers is homing-in on Grenache. Historically a supporting player to Shiraz, now old-vine, often dry-farmed material is being nurtured and coaxed into a starring role, in a generally fresher and more juicy red-fruited style than might have been seen in the past. In the Adelaide Hills a groovy set of Gru-V enthusiasts is establishing its own little Austrian outpost, with a concerted focus on the Grüner Veltliner variety, whilst in another corner of the Hills a bunch of renegade hipsters has a whole zero sulphur, low-intervention movement going on.

What does it tell us about the Australian wine industry?  Not that it is in trouble, or struggling to find an identity, but simply that committed winemakers are doing what they need to do in an ever-shifting global wine scene. They are aware of the need to broaden the Australian offering, to break down clichéd stereotypes, and to keep the world’s excitement levels up. Australia is one of the world’s most technically advanced wine countries, but it’s a pretty young one. There is history and tradition, but free-thinking too. It’s a time of change, but also of opportunity.

Not throwing the baby out with the bathwater is, of course, the key.

NEW SOUTH WALES – Sydney’s playground

Seaplane over Sydney Opera HouseOn day one of my trip I was lucky enough to be whisked to the community of Killcare Beach on Sydney’s North Coast by vintage seaplane (right). That was a chance for an epic view of an epic, modern city, yet one where Australia’s viticulture was born. The first cuttings of European vines were planted in Sydney in the late 18th century, but before too long the realisation dawned that heat and humidity in the area were unsuitable, and so the vineyards moved out of the city, the nearby Hunter Valley becoming the first commercial vineyard region in 1828.

nsw-mapThe Hunter remains a high quality regions, famous of course for Semillon, truly a world-leading marriage of variety and place, but other quality regions have emerged, including Canberra for great Shiraz and Riesling, Mudgee, Orange and Tumbarumba, and the important vineyard land of Riverina, one of the sources of high quality fruit for brands like Casella and McWilliams, and of some excellent Botrytis and fortified sweet wines.

Tim Kirk, winemaker at Clonakilla in Canberra, hitched a ride on the seaplane too, and during conversation I was fascinated to hear that he credits his winemaking style to his early love of watercolour painting. As an Art School graduate myself we discussed the properties of watercolour – always attempting to capture the light, the translucency of thinly-applied paint – and Tim said that perfectly summed up his approach “In painting I was trying to capture light intersecting with the landscape, and I try to do the same with my wine: expressing the light and the landscape.” He also credits his father, an academic who was teaching at Cambridge when Tim was born in Wales, who had a distinctly European sensibility when he later started the family wine business.

Not all of the winemakers who gathered for my welcome lunch and tasting would have the same aesthetic approach as Tim of course, but it struck me that New South Wales is certainly celebrating its cooler climate and more elegant credentials. As a group, the winemakers are conscious of finesse and balance, keenly exploring the best of their terroirs, whether influenced by the sandy soils or decomposed granite of the Hunter or Canberra, or the cool nights offered by the high altitude vineyards of Orange, some now pushing well above 1000 metres in altitude.


Left to right: 1. Geoff Krieger, Brokenwood; 2. Damian Shaw, Philip Shaw Wines; 3. Mike Lloyd, Eden Road; 4. Peter Hall, McGuigan Wines; 5. Peter Logan, Logan Wines; 6. Adrian Sparks, McWilliams ; 7. Tim Kirk, Clonakilla; 8. Chris Tyrell, Tyrell’s.

But these wines, with reined back ripeness, extraction and oak, did not lack generosity. The wines had plenty of fruit sweetness and textural richness, but real elegance and finesse too: it’s not a blunt change of direction, but a rediscovering of a sense of place. And in a way that sums up my findings all across Australia on this trip.

[read more=”Read 14 tasting notes from New South Wales” less=”Close tasting notes from New South Wales”]

(2016) Intense lime and Mandarin orange, hugely vivacious and racing with a sherbet brightness. Plenty of vivid brightness and acid crunch on the palate too, in dazzling style with shimmering length.
(2016) More waxy and mineral than the Clonakilla, with touches of lime leaf and absolutely bone dry acidity. The palate crunchingly, searingly dry in an impressive wine that might need a little time to soften.
(2016) From 1000m altitude in Orange, and a very cool but sunny climate, 25% was fermented in large casks, Lovely, gentle passion fruit and a flintiness and touch of smokiness in a Pouilly Fumé style, with gently exotic mango flavours. Long and what a lovely texture and beautifully balanced..
(2016) Very tight, lightly oily,  such crunching, vibrant aromas and flavours even after five years, a touch of Chablis-like oyster shell, but also fat, limey flavours and hints of the tropical. So youthful and fresh with a great future ahead.
(2016) Wonderfully developed smokiness, wax, Riesling-like minerality and the palate riven with shimmering fruit and lime and lemon zest acidity. Terrific.
(2016) Ian Riggs is the winemaker of this terrific Semillon, described to me as "The best of the best," and bearing his initials -  'Ian Leslie Riggs'. Made in all stainless steel, pressed off the skins immediately it's a super selection of wines given extended bottle ageing.  Taut minerals, wax and beeswax, the lemon rind hint of fatness. The palate has a vibrant, intense, bright and sherbet character. Great shimmering length.
(2016) A combination of Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc fruit from Eden Road’s Estate vineyard, Chardonnay from Tumbarumba, Pinot Gris from Murrumbateman and Viognier from Hilltops, all given skin contact. Pale almost Provence colour and delicate straw and tea, as well as melon-skin grip and dry redcurrant fruit. A touch of sweetness against that grippiness, with texture and a nip of tannin.
(2016) From Tumburumba very close to Canberra and two vineyards, one at 300m and the other at 850m giving a diurnal shift, 40°C by day down to 12° even in summer. This sees 80% new oak and has a lovely smoky, flinty minerality, toast and a touch of lanolin and creamy apple. The palate is pristine, with beautifully fresh flavours the texture quite rich but great acidity and a vibrant finish.
(2016) From vineyard at 900 metres, Philip Shaw having traveled the world making wine and know what he was looking for - almost settling in Tasmania, almost in Victoria, but Orange was where they settled. Made from estate fruit, it is tight and reserved on the nose, then a rich texture though the palate profile, it is intense and taut, a hint of sweet fruit but loads of acid crunch. The oak has  such a delicate character, a lanolin and buttery touch, and concentration married to finesse.
(2016) Fermented in barrel using indigenous yeasts, this then spent a further 11 months in French oa, only 15% new. Very nice lift and juicy elegance, some of the gingery and ripe pear aromatic of the Viognier, the oak delicate. Full, but decisively crisp and lean on the palate, very juicy, the clarity is admirable.
(2016) Lovely grapefruit and orange skin fragrance to this unusual wine, made by fermenting the grapes with their pink skins, to end up with a lovely but definitely rosé coulour. Touches of lychee and exotic perfume, the palate juicy and surprisingly delicate given the skin contact, delicious hint of creaminess before the acidity and nip of tannins adds savour.
(2016) From very high altitude again, at 900 metres, 30% was whole bunch pressed. Beautifully fragrant nose, such delicate ripe cherry and redcurrant, but smokiness, briar, sweet damp earth and roasted chestnut. The palate is fresh and perfectly taut, with a fresh orange acid crunch.A delightful Pinot.
(2016) An 'icon' wine that lives up to its reputation, this was one of the wines of the trip from the 200 or so I tasted in late 2016. 5% Viognier is co-fermented with the Shiraz, giving a touch of peachiness and floral character, pretty at first, then some almost rhubarb and chestnut notes. The palate is medium bodied and so freshly juicy, lots of taut acid and tannin, but it has a certain grace, gently wrapped in its fragrance and cool mineral and sweet vanilla finish.

Go to Part II – South Australia: The Adelaide Hills

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