The wines of Nepenthe, Australia with Peter Leske

winemakerThe wines of Nepenthe have interested me for some time. I have enjoyed several delicious Nepenthe wines, including a couple which had scooped the “wine of the week” award on wine-pages, yet I knew little about this winery with its intriguing name, taken from Homer, where Nepenthe was a magical elixir so powerful that it could ease grief and banish sorrow from the mind. I was delighted therefore when Oddbins invited me to a tasting of the Nepenthe range along with winemaker, Peter Leske (pictured left). Having graduated in oenology from Australia’s “wine university”, Roseworthy College, Peter began his apprenticeship at Rothbury Estate in the Hunter Valley, before moving on to Michelton in Victoria.

In 1985 Peter moved to Europe, working a vintage at the wonderful Burgundian estate of Domain Dujac under wine-maker Jacques Seysses, followed by what he describes as a “comprehensive tour of the top European winemaking regions”.

Peter returned to Australia in 1986 to work for Grosset in the Clare Valley, first as assistant winemaker, then winemaker / viticulturist. He returned to France regularly throughout the late 80s and early 90s, working vintages with various mentors like Alain Graillot in Crozes-Hermitage and Jean Pierre de Smet at Domain de L’Arlot in Burgundy. Employed by Nepenthe Wines to assist with the design of their new winery in 1996, Peter went on to produce the 1997 vintage, before assuming the position of Winemaker in August 1997.

Lenswood enjoys lower temperatures than nearby Adelaide by several degrees on average, and an average rainfall pattern of around nine days per month with some precipitation. The winery is relatively small, bottling around 30,000 cases in total from a crush of around 800 tonnes of grapes (in Australia, anything less than 5,000 tonnes or so is considered small fry).

Peter cites Tim Knappstein as the pioneer who really put Lenswood on the map, identifying the terroir as particularly suitable for Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir a decade before most others cottoned-on. Nepenthe has plantings of these, plus Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Gris for whites, and Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Zinfandel for reds. Oak is mostly French, with some German, Russian and US barrels used too, and rarely is more than 50% new oak employed. Peter prefers to use a blend of new and one, two and three-year-old wood.

The tasting was not blind. Prices shown are retail prices from Oddbins, in pounds Sterling (approx £10=$15US). In all cases, the youngest wine listed will be the vintage currently being shipped, though you may find the previous vintage in some shops.

White wines

2000 Sauvignon Blanc £7.99
Fresh, very pale green colour. Aromatic passionfruit nose that is quite deep and powerful, but fragrant with notes of peach and tropical fruit. The palate displays a rich fullness, with texture and a dry, savoury quality. There are fine orchard fruit flavours, hints of ripe, honeysuckle and tropical fruit and plenty of power and concentration. There’s a toffeed roundness into the finish from some barrel fermentation, and a nice balancing bite of grapefruit acidity. Very good in a big, powerhouse style.

2000 Unwooded Chardonnay £7.99
Mid to light emerald/straw colour. Intense honeysuckle nose that is lightly honeyed combining with rich, powerful aromas of roasted nuts, apricot and melon. There are little herbal nuances but all centred around a tight, mineral core. The palate shows a lovely clean, limpid, peach juice quality that is juicy and fresh with medium body and decent, generous acidity that extends the finish. Pure, long and very good indeed.

2001 Unwooded Chardonnay £7.99
Quite confected and tanky on the nose, with notes of pear-drops and an aromatic profile. Cool, crisp, lightly tropical palate with a medium-bodied, quite elegant appeal. Lovely ripe pear fruit and grapefruity acidity pushing through. Needs time to settle and integrate, but very good/very good indeed.

2000 Pinot Gris £8.99
Mid/light yellow with pink tinge. Subdued nose with hints of toffee, nuts and some gentle herbal nuances. Hints of candy and vanilla. Quite rich on the palate, with plenty of citrus fruit; deep tangerine and lime flavours against grapefruity, slightly pithy acidity. Long and savoury, this has lovely definition and length. Very good/very good indeed.

2001 Pinot Gris £8.99
Distinct copper tinge to the colour of this. This also shares an aromatic quality with notes of flowers, apricot, nuts and hints of tropicality. The palate is very juicy with citrus, dried fruits and apple acidity. Very good.

1998 Chardonnay £9.99
Deep, bright, buttercup yellow with a tinge of emerald. Modestly oaked, the nose displays some buttered toast aromas, but mostly focuses on sweet, nutty orchard fruit and a peachy element. The palate is rounded and medium-bodied, with full, juicy, ripe fruit and lots of nutty richness. There’s a warming spice in the finish, and although there is plenty of power, this also displays finesse. Very good indeed.

2000 Chardonnay £9.99
Toasty, charry aromas with sesame seed and hazelnut and some apple fruit. The palate has a lovely quality of fruit and good acidity; quite punchy and crisp with a bite of minerality and creaminess of the oak. Perhaps a little loose-knit, but there is gorgeous complexity hinted at here. Very good indeed.

2000 Sémillon £9.99
Modest nose aromatically with lemon and just a suggestion of honey and vanilla. On the palate it is creamy and full, with citrus fruit, straw and a nutty complexity. The finish has a lovely weight of fruit behind it and good balance. Should be better in a few years. Very good/very good indeed.

1998 Sémillon £9.99
Medium-deep gold colour, still tinged with green. Fantastically rich, ripe, deep burnished nose with notes of brown sugar, toffee and sweet, musky fruit. There are lanolin and wool nuances. The palate has bitter orange and grapefruit flavours, with lots of rich, buttery, almost fudge-like qualities. Complex and refined in a medium- to -full-bodied style, there’s a pith acidity that is really dry in the finish, but this is very good indeed/excellent.

1999 Sémillon £9.99
Golden yellow colour with a tinge of green. Much more subdued nose here, with nutty aromatics but a crisper profile. On the palate the fruit is smooth and rich, really quite fat with pear fruit and a crisp lemony finish showing good acidity. A bit flat compared to the glorious 1998. Good/very good.

2000 Sémillon £9.99
Glowing light green/yellow. Modest aromatics with lemon and just a small honeyed note. There’s an undertow of creamy vanilla. On the palate that smooth, rich texture again, with lovely citrus fruit and hints of nutty complexity. The finish has plenty of weight and power, and there is lovely balance with well-defined fruit and good acidity. Very good indeed for now, but needs time; potentially excellent.

Red wines

1998 Pinot Noir £12.99
Medium ruby colour, a little light on rim. Intense, exotic, spicy nose, with sandalwood and incense aromatics, a little note of strawberry and a slightly earthy quality. The sweet fruit on the palate is infused with spice and is quite crisp and crunchy. Nice texture and mouth-feel, with berries and spice, and some smoky oak in the finish. This is very good indeed and has a nice silkiness of fruit and tannins.

2000 Pinot Noir £12.99
More vibrant, medium ruby/crimson. Fine nose. Slightly vegetal quality, but nose of love-hearts, rose-hips and lovely rich, full, smooth strawberry and redcurrant fruit. This has lovely quality on the palate too with juicy acidity that adds and edge through the mid-palate, but exotic spiciness, tannins and vivid fruit offer fine balance into a long finish. Excellent.

1998 The Fugue £12.99
81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc. This is given the full treatment, with hand harvesting in several separate pickings, 50% new French oak and 50% older barrels and long maceration. It is a deep, dense, youthful crimson colour, with terrifically sweet, big, ripe berry fruit on the nose. Gorgeous sweetness of red cherry, tobacco, smoke, vanilla and aniseed. The palate too is sweet and juicy (without straying into jamminess) and has a minty ripeness. A savoury underpinning of cedar and grippy tannins adds structure, and there is good acidity. Rounded mid-palate with hints of plum and chocolate, and a fine, long finish. Very good indeed.

1999 The Fugue £12.99
Only 59% Cabernet Sauvignon in this year, with double the Merlot at 35% and a larger dollop Cabernet Franc making up the balance. Leske says he will not be pinned down to a single recipe for this wine, but will adjust as and when the vintage conditions merit it, and he learns more about the wine (1997 was the first release). Nose of Sweet, ripe, almost jammy fruit quality with hints of baked plum. Creamy and ripe palate with a rich mouth-feel. This has a cherryish and raspberry brightness at its core, with tight, controlling tannins and fresh acidity. Well-balanced, savoury and very good indeed.

Nepenthe Vineyards:
Vickers Rd, Lenswood
Tel. +61 (08) 8431 7588
Fax. +61 (08) 8431 7688