The Mystery of the GinGin Clone: Part 3

With that bit of educational background, now its time to tie the pieces together.

 

The Mystery Appears

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Wente Chardonnay Centennial Symposium Program

2012 marked the centenary of the first chardonnay plantings at Wente and to celebrate, the winery decided to hold a symposium on the role of the family and the clone in the history of California’s wine industry. The announcement of the symposium got me to thinking about the three clones with more interest.

Over the years of accumulating various details about Margaret River and New Zealand chardonnays, what struck me the most was how winemakers and growers in each country used exactly the same terminology in describing the attributes of their respective clones. But at the same time, it was also apparent that chardonnay producers from each country did not see or discuss these similarities. For some, it was accepted that the two clones were one and the same but even that was not clear: was Mendoza a GinGin clone or was GinGin a Mendoza clone? At the same time, few folks in the Tasman were aware of the Wente clone and, therefore could not see the possibility that all three clones had some relationship. Yet why would the same terminology applied to the Wente clone also be used by southern hemisphere winemakers with their clones?

The world of winemakers, grapegrowers and associated academics and researchers is notoriously tight and information is freely and quickly spread within and across their professions. But the idea that the three clones were one and the same seemed so obvious that I must have been overlooking something. After all, I’m no viticulturalist. So the symposium seemed like the opportunity to examine the relationship between these clones more closely.

An exciting aspect to researching Australian wines comes from its readily detailed and accessible history. Australia, unlike America, lacked any native viticulture, so vines sourced from regions in France and South Africa became the foundation of the country’s wine industry. The rootlings brought to the country by Busby had considerable background information on their sourcing attached to them. What chardonnay vines were brought back to Australia by Busby in the 1830s were planted in and around Sydney. But given the lack of demand for commercial chardonnay, the vines became anonymous and remained below the radar until the 1970s when Tyrrells produced Australia’s first chardonnay.

In their efforts to prevent plant diseases from entering their states, strict protocols for importing and planting vines from other countries or Australian states were implemented and enforced. These strict regulations meant that vines were often required to go through quarantine for periods of up to 10 years before they were allowed to be propagated and planted in vineyards.

Many clones and grapes planted in Western Australia had the advantage of being unique and were not shared with other Australian states. The state’s wine industry also had strict quarantine regulations so there would be some considerable time before they could be planted in vineyards. With respect to much of the material available from other Australian regions, Western Australia had a thriving wine industry dating back to the 1840s so they had plenty of their own vines with little need to import cuttings from the east.

Descriptions of chardonnay grapes and vines grown in New South Wales that could be traced back to the Busby collection never describe the problems and qualities associated with the GinGin clone. As vines were planted in other regions, there was no linguistic connection between that plant material the descriptions applied to the GinGin clone. In fact, many growers appreciated that clones from New South Wales were free of virus. Logically then, GinGin grapes could not have been sourced from within Australia.

Margaret River’s wine industry started in the late 1960s as estates like Cullen, Vasse Felix and Moss Wood all sprung up in that sparsely populated region of Western Australia. Given that quarantines of grapevines from other states would have been in effect, its estimated that GinGin clones of chardonnay would have arrived in Western Australia some 8-10 years earlier in order for them to be released for planting in the late 60s.

This would seem to support the theory that Farmer suggested, that the grapes arrived in Western Australia in 1957. This would allow the vines to have cleared quarantine some 10 years later making them available for the first chardonnay plantings in Margaret River at the end of the 1960s. All signs pointed to the grape arriving around 1956-58. The timing seemed right but much more mystery seemed available.

 

Harold Olmo

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Harold Olmo in 1978 (UC Davis)

Professor Harold Olmo, the acclaimed professor of viticulture at the Davis campus of the University of California, is a bit of a cult hero in parts of Australia. His main claim to fame came from a paper he prepared that declared that tracts of land in a remote portion of Western Australia would be perfect for grapegrowing. His predictions proved to be correct and he is almost revered in areas like Frankland River and Mount Barker as the “Godfather” of these grapegrowing regions.

What has been overlooked over the decades was the actual reason for his visit to Western Australia in the first place? So little is known about his visit today that many assumed that the sole reason he left was to search for potential growing regions in Western Australia. And once he discovered the Great Southern, he returned to California right away, his small place in the history of the Australian wine industry secured some years later.

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Olmo’s treatise on Western Australian wine industry

In fact, it turned out that vineyards supporting the small wine industry of Western Australia had developed some serious problems. Declining yields and dying vines in the Swan Valley prompted the state government in 1955 to ask Olmo to visit the region to ascertain the cause. His research pointed to a problem with nematodes as well as poor soils that would eventually make grapegrowing even more problematic. It was then that he took a look around the state and determined that Mount Barker and Frankland River possessed excellent potential for growing the state’s wine industry. It would take a decade before the first vines were finally planted and he was proved to be correct.

Prior to his Australian visit, Olmo was deeply involved in a project to review the range of chardonnay clones planted in California in an effort to help supply the industry with an array of plant materials that would assist farmers in growing a plentiful and profitable crop. He would later be actively involved in setting up the chardonnay plantings for the nursery at UC Davis and developing techniques to rid vines of viruses.

Upon discovering the real reason for Olmo’s trip to Australia and learning more about the man and his research background about chardonnay, his presence in the State right about the time when the grape was said to have arrived seemed to point to his involvement with the clone’s arrival in Western Australia. The timing of the calendar pointed to him as well. As noted earlier, the first vines in Margaret River were planted in 1967 and a 10 year moratorium would mean the vines arrived about 1957, just after Olmo’s visit.

But even with this supporting info, something did not add up. Most importantly, it was not until the early 1960s that UC Davis had developed the ability to clean out viruses from grape plant material. It would be viticulturally irresponsible to take virused chardonnay clippings into Australia and risk a quarantine violation. In addition, Olmo’s trip to Australia was not meant to solve a problem with chardonnay so he would reason to bring those vines instead of another varietal.

Yet all the circumstantial evidence pointed to Olmo being involved. The timing of his trip, his knowledge of chardonnay, his experience with virused vines, all combined to suggest that Olmo somehow played a role. So while the circumstantial signs pointed to him, there was no actual evidence that the GinGin clone came from California or that Olmo was involved. And there remained the question of how the budwood physically arrived in Western Australia. A dead end in my research had truly arrived.

The day of the symposium rapidly approached and all signs led to the conclusion that the GinGin clone was somehow linked to California but what was missing was some firm evidence. It literally arrived the day before the event in the form of a fax from Vanya Cullen from Margaret River’s Cullen Winery.

The original fax, dated April 9, 1992 was addressed to Bob Cartwright, then the winemaker at Leeuwin Estate and was prepared by John Elliott, Viticulturalist with the Division of Horticulture for State of Western Australia’s Department of Agriculture. It is one of the few documents linking Californian chardonnay to the GinGin clone:

Chardonnay was first know[n] to be introduced into WA on 15/2/1957 and was called “PINOT CHARDONNAY”. This came from California. It was released to industry on 25/9/1964. Its reason for import was as a virus indicator! – and secondly was noted that it could be used as a wine grape!!

This clone became known as the Gin Gin clone because (I think) the first large planting of it was made at Valencia’s Gin Gin property known now as ‘Moondah Brook’.

This then became a valuable resource block for other early plantings, particularly in the S-W.

In 1972, four clones of chardonnay were introduced. Cl 1, Cl 3, Cl 5, Cl 7} These are Californian selections introduced to Meebein.

IMG_3681Given that Olmo was visiting the region to help out with disease and virus problems in their vineyards, the clone’s role as a virus detector would make some sense by assisting researchers and growers about the nature of diseased vines. Most likely, that role was forgotten by the time that vines cleared quarantine and were planted in Margaret River, all involved assuming it was just another chardonnay clone.

With palpable excitement, it was time to tell the story of the three clones and propose a link between Harold Olmo and the GinGin clone. But while this memo provided evidence to support the theory that California was the source of the Western Australia’s chardonnay clonal material, what was missing was the proof.

 

A Helping Hand

Much of the historical research on chardonnay clones in California’s viticulture was conducted by Nancy Sweet at UC Davis. Her excellent monograph, “Chardonnay History and Selections at FPS” proved to be essential reading for my research. As it turned out, Nancy was also part of the symposium and we had an excited chat about my theory following my presentation. Subsequently and just a few days later, she uncovered a document in the UC Davis archives that clearly links California as the source of the clonal material that became known as the GinGin clone.

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Shipping record for grapevines from UC Davis to Western Australia Department of Agriculture

Although there were no narrative records in the Olmo archives that could be accessed to add more information, it was clear from this document that UC Davis was the source of the chardonnay sent to Western Australia sending 24 “Pinot Chardonnay” vines to the Department of Agriculture in Perth via air freight on February 6, 1957. The bill for $28.29 was paid by check two months later.

Nancy believes that there can be no 100% definitive guarantee that the Old Wente clone was shipped as the document does not detail the actual source of the chardonnay vines. As she notes:

The card shows that we sent some ‘Pinot Chardonnay’ to Western Australia in 1957 – true.  FPS was created in 1956-58 and the process of filling orders was still in development at that time. Orders were filled from various vineyards in those early days – frequently but not always from the new and very small foundation vineyard.  At the time in 1956/1957, the Wente material was not included in our foundation vineyard. There is nothing on the card that identifies the Pinot Chardonnay sent to Western Australia as the Wente clone.   Since the card is silent on the source of the ‘Pinot Chardonnay’ sent to Western Australia, we cannot even guess what material was sent. All we can do at this point is take the card at its face value and let it speak for itself.

FPS has no additional information (apart from the card) indicating the identity of the material sent.  It appears from the notation on the card that Dr. Olmo may have been involved in coordinating the shipment of vines to WA in 1957.  Dr. Olmo did his work on the Wente material in the late 50’s and early 60’s in Carneros and Oakville.  He may have had a research vineyard in Davis but I do not know that as a fact. The Wente clones did not become an official part of the FPS foundation vineyard until the 1960’s.

With this caveat in mind, however, the classic descriptions of the original Wente clones and what ended up in Margaret River makes it very likely that the two are related if not identical. If the budwood was sent as a virus detector, the Wente clone would have been sent as it was known to be infected by virus at the time.

Additionally, the document indicates that Olmo probably played a very important role in the introduction of the GinGin clone to Australia, as a request for the listed varieties would probably not have happened if he had not visited the region. This contribution to the Australian wine industry has not been noted in any research and may arguably be more important to the fortunes of Western Australia than his recommendations about the Great Southern.

But most importantly, this document should finally solve one of Australia’s great viticultural mysteries just as Margaret River begins to celebrate 50 years of winemaking: the source of the GinGin chardonnay budwood and how Harold Olmo played a role in introducing one of the world’s most famous chardonnay clones to Australia.

 

Thanks to Nancy Sweet of the Foundation Plant Services at UC Davis for the research that uncovered the decisive document, to Kimberly Charles of Kimberly Charles Communications for inviting me to speak at the Wente Chardonnay Symposium and for Wente Brothers Winery for sponsoring the event. Additional thanks to Vanya Cullen and Samantha Connew for their research assistance in Australia. And thanks to all you chardonnay drinkers out there. Without you, I would be stuck drinking gruner veltliner.

The Mystery of the GinGin Clone: Part 2

While these posts are about the mystery of the GinGin clone, a little background is probably helpful.

 

The Wente Clone

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Wente chardonnay from Livermore Valley

The first California chardonnay was made in 1936 by the Wente Brothers Winery in the Livermore Valley located some 45 minutes east of San Francisco. The wine was made from grapes that were planted in 1912. The chardonnay vines planted by the Wentes came from the nurseries attached to the winemaking school in Montpellier in France. A neighboring grower had sourced some of his chardonnay from cuttings obtained in Meursault some 30 years earlier and the Wentes had used some of that material in establishing their new vineyard as well. Chardonnay production was largely confined to the Wentes in Livermore and Paul Masson’s vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains which was planted to vines from Burgundy, theoretically Corton Charlemagne.

As in Australia, chardonnay was barely mentioned in the years prior to the 1960s. There was so little chardonnay grown in either country that harvest reports from around the middle of the century either didn’t list the grape or showed very small harvests.

As California began its slow recovery from the harmful effects of prohibition that decimated the state’s vineyards as well as the state’s winemaking profession’s collective knowledge of viticulture, professors in the enology department at UC Davis began to look at chardonnay as a varietal that could generate some commercial success and boost the industry.

The first wineries to explore chardonnay wines after World War II had gone to the Wentes to source budwood to plant their vineyards. Those pioneer vineyards, the original plantings by the Wente family and Paul Masson’s vines in Santa Cruz, later became the source for the research vineyards planted at UC Davis which is where clones of various varietals were planted for study and propagation.

The original Wente clones were known to suffer from leaf-roll virus which causes leaves to curl up and stunting vine growth. Additional problems with the Wente chardonnay grapes included poor flowering which reduced the number of berries on the bunch as well as millerandage which caused bunches to have both small and large berries. Just about all winemakers, growers and university researchers refer to this appearance of these grapes as “hen and chicken” on bunches.

To help improve yields and account for better, healthier vines, UC Davis research scientists developed treatments to get rid of viruses from vines. One approach called for “heat treatments”, done for periods of 100-150 days, and resulted in budwood free of any virus. These healthier clones did much to improve the quality of vines sent out to nurseries and growers, just as chardonnay began its first steps towards greater appreciation by consumers. And it is these cleaner, disease-free vines that the University decided were best for industry. The eventual result came in the form of healthier vines, consistent growing patterns and increased yields.

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Old Stony Hill chardonnay bottles (Stony Hill Vineyards)

As the University’s chardonnay research expanded, a unique problem developed at UC Davis when it came to the Wente clone. Some Wente clones were directly sourced from the family’s vineyards. Other examples planted at UC Davis’s Foundation Plant Services vineyard came from growers who had planted their sites with Wente’s budwood. The first chardonnays planted and produced shortly after World War II by Stony Hill and Louis Martini all used clones directly sourced from the Wentes. Subsequently, some growers may have used vines from the McCreas and Martinis as well as Wente budwood from Livermore or UC Davis. Some of those may have been virused, others cleaned up once heat treated vines were available but all were designated as Wente clones. The original virused clone is often referred to as the “Old Wente” clone to distinguish it from the currently named Wente clones that have been heat treated. However, that name is not universally applied only to the virused chardonnay clone. Indeed, many of the post-World War II plantings and cuttings from them are also often referred to as Old Wente.

As the wine industries of other countries around the world began to expand following World War II and into the 60s, the winemaking and viticultural departments at universities and agricultural research institutions around the world began to seek more diversity in their vine stock. The goal was to see if other grapes and clones might be better suited for their particular growing conditons. Thus began extensive efforts to solicit and swap vines from and to other countries that continues to this day. And it was this spirit of research that saw California’s chardonnay vines shipped to other countries.

The GinGin Clone

Margaret River is the both the spiritual and viticultural home to the “GinGin” clone. It is the predominant clone planted in Margaret River and other areas of Western Australia with some early UC Davis clones planted later while Dijon clones appeared afterwards. And as noted earlier, just about everyone in the region considers this clone to be one of the most important reasons why Margaret River chardonnays are amongst the best in Australia. Notably, very little GinGin is planted in other areas of Australia.

Winemakers believe that the high quality of wines made from this clone is due to the typically smaller berries that offer up high skin-to-juice ratios creating intensely flavored vines. Another reason for the intense flavors are the lower yields that come from GinGin clones as compared with other chardonnay clones. Winemakers appreciate the tropical flavors that come from the GinGin clone as well. As with the Wente clone, the GinGin clone is known to have problems with flowering and yields and the term “hens and chickens” is frequently bandied about.

Many articles and papers that discuss clonal diversity of chardonnay within Australia make a point of highlighting the unique qualities of the GinGin clone and the distinctive differences that exist between it and other chardonnay plantings back east in Victoria and New South Wales. The older chardonnay vineyards found in the eastern areas of

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James Busby

Australia are believed to have been sourced from vines imported in 1832 by James Busby who was sent to Europe for to source the vine cuttings needed to begin Australia’s wine industry. While these clones are thought to have been the backbone of Australia’s first chardonnays in the late 1960s, they have not dominated the country’s chardonnay vineyards and as far as can be researched, play little role in Western Australia.

How the GinGin clone arrived in Western Australia is one of the country’s great viticultural mysteries. An authoritative overview of the history of Australian chardonnay by David Farmer observed:

In Western Australia the favourite clone of chardonnay is ‘Gin Gin’ and was introduced by Houghtons in 1957. It is also known as the Mendoza clone. Where this came from I do not know though some references say it is from, naturally enough, Argentine. It seems unlikely that Houghtons would have looked to South America rather than Europe.

As late as 2012, numerous academics and viticultural officials based in Western Australia shared a wide variety of anecdotal information amongst themselves in trying to ascertain how the clone came to the state and began to be propagated. Almost all shared a desire to have a more definitive answer on how the clone came to arrive in the state and no one has proposed an authoritative answer to this question.

The Mendoza Clone

There is much more background information and research about the GinGin clone as compared to the “Mendoza” clone, largely due to the long-standing commitment of Australia’s wine industry to viticultural research. Although the Mendoza clone has achieved considerable recognition among Kiwi winemakers for its quality and is beginning to make a name for itself in the trade, there has been less emphasis on “improving the breed” in New Zealand since the fortunes of the country’s wine industry were hinged on sauvignon blanc. Consequently, there was less impetus for New Zealand’s chardonnay producers that were devoted to the premium market segment to explore other clones. When it came to mass produced chardonnay, other clones that came from UC Davis in the 1960s that emphasized uniform bunches, bigger yields and no problems with viruses such as Clone 5 and 15 played their role perfectly. These cleaner clones formed the backbone of the big vineyards in Gisborne that cranked out large volumes of chardonnay just as they did in California.

The arrival in New Zealand of pinot noir clones from Dijon also caused local nurseries to take a serious look at the new clones of chardonnay from the same source. Local grapevine merchants slowly began to broaden the range of clones available for sale to growers. Kiwi chardonnay producers quickly found themselves discussing the merits and drawbacks of the Mendoza clone. All of this activity led to the country’s wine industry to examine the origins of the Mendoza clone.

No one really knows how this particular clone of chardonnay got its name and its ultimate origins are still a mystery waiting to be solved. The name itself would suggest that it is somehow related to Argentina’s Mendoza region. Indeed, NZ wine writer Michael Cooper, in his book Wine Atlas of New Zealand, claims the clone was first known as the “McRae” clone on its entry into the country in 1971 only to be “renamed in the 1980s by Government Viticulturalist Dr. Richard Smart in order to identify its origins in the Mendoza region of Argentina.” But there was no evidence submitted by anyone to think it would have come from Argentina. (It could be that the McRae name could be a misspelling of the McCrea family that owned Stony Hill in Napa Valley.)

Interestingly, an Australian research report claims that a “Mendosa” clone came to Australia in 1968 from Argentina via UC Davis. And another viticulturalist declared that “I don’t believe there is any connection between Chardonnay Gingin and the clone which originates from Mendosa, Spain via UCD.” As one can see, it is all too easy to be confused.

This background info was supplied in a 2010 article by Nick Hoskins and Geoff Thorpe of New Zealand’s Riversun Nurseries at NZ:

New Zealand Chardonnay wines have tended to rely on four main clones: Mendoza, UCD Clones 6 and 15, and Clone B95. The UCD clones are part of the catalogue at the University of California, Davis, which in turn imported its selections from Burgundy.

The Mendoza Clone, however, has a murkier heritage that remains somewhat mysterious. The Mendoza Clone was imported from CSIRO Australia by David Sheat in 1971, already infected with Grapevine Leafroll-associated Virus 1. Mendoza yields low to moderate crops of medium clusters prone to some hen and chicken formation, and produces rich and intense wines. It was – and still is for many – the preferred clone for premium Chardonnay.

According to an article by David Farmer, the CSIRO source was from Western Australia, where this favoured clone is still known by its nickname “Gin Gin.” Records indicate that Mendoza was introduced to Western Australia by Houghton Wines in 1957. Where it came from, Farmer could not say, although he commented, “Some references say it is from, naturally enough, Argentina. It seems unlikely that Houghton would have looked to South America rather than Europe.”

The leaf roll virus that Hoskins and Thorpe refer to as well as the other descriptors they mention clearly imply that there could be some association between the GinGin and Mendoza clones. How these clones got to the CSIRO vineyards in Victoria is a bit of a mystery. It was known that the Australian viticultural departments received fruit from UC Davis around 1968-69 but would they have asked for virused material? Whether the CSIRO got a GinGin type clone from Western Australia that was then sold as a McRae clone is a matter of conjecture. But the likelihood that chardonnay clones were somehow sourced from Argentina in the 1950s is quite slim. The name, however, will probably remain the same.

 

Click here to read the last part of this post.

The Mystery of the GinGin Clone: Part 1

It’s not often that someone with a background in wine retail finds themselves involved in a viticultural mystery of some significance. But things happen….

In no way would I consider myself a qualified viticulturalist or winemaker. My wine career has focused on retail, putting wine in people’s hands. To do a better job of that, it was also important to learn. Three decades of visiting the world’s vineyards and cellars have only taught me how little I really know and how much more there is to be learned. What I have learned over the years is that I truly love chardonnay, especially for the ability to see how decisions made in the vineyard and the cellar become apparent in the glass. My love of the grape has driven me to continually learn more about what goes into the final product.

My passion for chardonnay was particularly stoked as examples from the southern hemisphere began to appear in America. Australia and New Zealand were clearly capable of making world-class chardonnays that rivalled the best from California and Burgundy. Layered, complex and ageworthy, the best examples satisfied both the hedonistic and intellectual aspects that wine can encapsulate.

What follows is a story about how a mystery about chardonnay came about and how, almost accidentally, it got solved. Partly a personal narrative of how the mystery came about and how it got solved, I hope readers enjoy this little story of a small trip I undertook over the past few years.

 

Raising the Question

LeeuwinEstate_mrbg_logoAs the first of Australia’s chardonnays of consequence began to appear in the US market, it was clear that Leeuwin Estate was fashioning some of the best wines in the country. Denis Horgan, the thoroughly passionate and entertaining owner of the winery, was forever expounding on the superiority of Margaret River’s climate and its suitability in producing top-notch chardonnays.

As more Margaret River chardonnays appeared in the States and the region consolidated its’ position as a preferred appellation for the varietal, visiting winemakers began to promote the role that the “GinGin” clone played in producing fine chardonnay. At the time, the role of clones in making chardonnays and pinot noirs was just beginning to be part of the dialogue between wineries and the trade in California. As a result, certain clones were mentioned more than others, increasing the familiarity about some clones over others. Margaret River winemakers had great pride in the GinGin clone making it a unique story amongst all the varietals being discussed at the time.

Years later, New Zealand chardonnays arrived in the US market although in much smaller amounts than what Australia was exporting at the time. What little chardonnay that made it to America was also subsumed by an avalanche of Marlborough sauvignon blanc so it was pretty rare that conversations with winemakers focused on factors that contributed to quality Kiwi chardonnay.

Nevertheless, having mastered a bit of an understanding about clones, it became natural to ask growers and winemakers about which ones were used in NZ and it became clear that the “Mendoza” clone was the foundation of the best chardonnays of the time. Once again, winemakers took great pride in the role that this particular clone played in fashioning the final product.

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“Hen and Chicken” berries (Winetitles)

What became of special interest was the way winemakers from New Zealand assigned the same words and descriptions in describing the Mendoza clone as Australians did when talking about the GinGin clone. All of them noted the appearance of shot berries, “hen and chicken” berry sizes on small bunches, problems with leaf-roll virus, low or reduced yields, as well as richly textured tropical fruit flavors. Despite the problems that were encountered, winemakers from both countries agreed that the quality of the final product was superior enough to overlook any difficulties encountered in the vineyard.

Given that the descriptions and problems ascribed to the GinGin and Mendoza clones were nearly identical, I frequently asked winemakers from both countries whether the clones were related in any way and interestingly, I never heard any suggestion that the two were the same or could be linked in any way. Indeed, many winemakers clearly had never even considered the possibility that they could be related. But my gut told me the two could be one and the same. And that there may be more to the story of these two clones that no one had considered.

 

Click here to read Part 2 of this post.

Wine Review: 2006 Mount Langi Ghiran Shiraz

Wine Review: 2006 Mount Langi Ghiran Shiraz

It’s hard to describe what it was like back in the day, back when Australian wines were totally new to us in America. Think about it: tasting new styles of wines, new expressions of grapes for the very first time. At a time when many varietals and regions were well known by the trade and by consumers, the immersion into an unknown world of tastes and aromas was the enological equivalent of diving into a pool with blinders on from the high board, just less scary.

That’s what it was like when two wines from Victoria arrived that disrupted the notion of what a peppery syrah could be. The 1994 Mount Langi Ghiran shiraz from the Grampians west of Melbourne and the 1994 Craiglee from Sunbury, a suburb just a short drive from Melbourne’s airport showed pepper with power and precision. This was no elusive whiff of spice that appeared and blew away that could be found in some wines from the northern Rhone. There was no mistake with these wines. There was full-on pepper in abundance here. The phrase I used at the time was “It was if they took a pepper grinder and dumped it into the vat.” I still use it.

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These guys do good wine science

Over the years, personal, anecdotal and scientific research have revealed interesting facts and observations about the role of pepper in Aussie shiraz which might be of interest. Scientists at the Australian Wine Research Institute in Australia have identified that rotundone is the chemical component that accounts for peppery aromas in wine and more interestingly, that about 20% of people are unable to smell pepper in wine. This raises an interesting point that wine writer Jamie Goode has mentioned: If you can’t smell pepper and you come across a Mount Langi shiraz in judging a wine show, does that mean your score is incorrect? Personal experience at The Jug Shop when these wines first arrived into the market had less to do whether someone could smell it. Quite the opposite, some consumers just plain didn’t like pronounced pepper aromas in their wine and saw them as unpalatable!

The question arises as to why some wines show more pepper than others and specifically, why it’s more noted in wines from Australia’s cooler regions. For the life of me, the E+E Black Pepper shiraz from the warm Barossa Valley was so named because of the supposed relationship between the grape and the scent but in over 30 years of tasting Barossa shiraz, it’s not something I have encountered much at all. Or much anywhere else in South Australia. This is a Victorian thing.

Some winemakers believe that the pepper component in shiraz appears at a certain point in the grape’s ripening cycle and then disappears as the grapes mature. If a winemaker wants to capture that flavor, the fruit must be picked during that window which is relatively brief. In warmer areas, once the grower readies his crew to pick the fruit, it’s too late as the window is closed. In cooler appellations, the period when pepper appears lasts longer which enables growers to capture the elusive spice.

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Stuart Bourne, head winemaker at Barossa Valley Estates back in the day with a rare vertical of E+E Black Pepper sparkling shiraz. Not peppery. Stuart, however, is quite the spicy character.

As many folks know, or should know, Australian sparkling shiraz is one of the country’s unique contributions to the world of wine. Over years of experience, it’s become clear that fizzy shiraz reflects its viticultural origins just as clearly as the flat stuff. And nowhere is that found more clearly then in Craiglee’s rare Sparkling Red No. 6 which had loads of pepper aromas accurately reflecting it’s cool Victorian origins when it was released.

And not only can the pepper in shiraz come through in its bubbly state, it can remain in a wine over time as seen clearly in the 2006 Mount Langi shiraz tasted just last week. Clearly apparent as a black pepper aroma mixed with some earth and savory elements, it also showed clearly on the palate as it complemented the more mature textures and flavors there as well.

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2015 Mount Langi Ghiran Shiraz

But just as pepper is more elusive in the northern Rhone and California syrahs, it’s not always easy to find in Australia either. It takes just the right vintage conditions: too hot and you’ll get a classic shiraz with soft fruits. And so it was with the 2015 Langi. Too cold and the grape can’t ripen leaving a green, vegetal aromas. Some Aussies in the trade can discern the difference between white and black pepper! A rough guide in my experience is that wineries like Mount Langi and Craiglee capture that perfect aroma 3-4 times a decade. Here’s hoping for more, I love pepper in Aussie shiraz and its clear that there are fans here in the States. I hope to find more examples for readers in the future.

Wine Review: 2015 Eldridge Estate “Clonal Blend” Pinot Noir

Wine Review: 2015 Eldridge Estate “Clonal Blend” Pinot Noir

The trumpeting of wine journos across the globe regarding the renewed interest in Australian wines, the so-called Australia 2.0, has led many to dive deeper into the pinot noir producing regions Down Under. As pinot noirs from Victoria and Tasmania start to reappear on the tasting mats of Aussie wine seminars in the states, regions as varied as Gippsland and Macedon in Victoria or Pipers River and Bicheno from Tasmania are now entering the vocabulary of some folks in America’s wine trade.

Chief among these wine regions is the Mornington Peninsula, an area about an hour south-southeast of Melbourne and home to many weekend retreats from city-dwellers. Many of the 50 or so wineries there cater to strong wine tourism emanating from up north with eating establishments attached to cellar doors serving everything from simple deli spreads to fine dining restos with deep wine lists.

It seems as if we should have a deeper understanding of Mornington pinots as this category is not entirely new to America. Indeed, many of America’s first Aussie wine importers saw wineries like Dromana Estate and Kooyong make their presence known. Based on those efforts, other wineries like Turramurra Estate, Yabby Lake and Prancing Horse came to the US on their own.

So with two decades of Mornington Peninsula pinots under the country’s belt, that basic understanding of a “Mornington Style” pinot is probably as elusive today as back then. And it becomes even harder to discern that when living on this side of the Pacific. At a thoroughly engaging conclave of Mornington Peninsula pinot producers a few years ago, I tasted such a wide range of pinot styles that I left with more questions than answers.

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Sam Coverdale, winemaker for Polperro and Even Keel, with Jasper Morris (l), one of the UK’s top Burgundy experts, at the 2013 Mornington Peninsula International Pinot Noir Celebration

There were, of course, classically fuller styles that had come to define a Mornington pinot, particularly wines from Moorooduc Estate, Kooyong and Paringa Estate. At the same time, a wide range of pinots being poured were light bodied, almost whispery in the presence of fruit on the palate with pale colors and understated red fruit aromas. It was as if they were from two different worlds, not one region.

This showcase event raised a particular problem that frequently arises from our vantage point in the States, the difficulty that comes from a snapshot view of a wine region and its styles without any context or background. In this case, the more delicate pinots went against the grain of understanding that Mornington produced a richer, fuller style of pinot. What did these new, delicately constructed wines represent? A difficult vintage? Variability due to subregional differences? Winemakers responding to the “Pursuit of Balance” trend?

These questions are a window into the difficulty of coming to a better understanding of some of the Australian pinot noirs that are starting to make their way across the Pacific. Having an awareness of current styles and trends surrounding pinot noir production in Australia is as important as is a knowledge of subregional styles and vintage conditions. Without this info, it’s hard to place these new wines in some kind of context.

These are concerns that easily arise when getting the opportunity to taste a wine like the 2015 Eldridge Estate Pinot Noir “Clonal Blend”, a wine that clearly and confidentially showed its cards in the glass but also required a few insights to fully understand it. Eldridge Estate is one of the Mornington’s more popular wineries due to owner David Lloyd‘s ceaseless enthusiasm. He has done much to improve the region’s profile through his work with the Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir Celebration. He also hosts many pinot and chardonnay tastings with wines from other countries as well as other Australian regions in his tireless pursuit of improving not only his own wines but those of his neighbors as well.

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David Lloyd of Eldridge Estate (l) chats up Burn Cottage’s Marquis Sauvage at the 2013 Mornington Peninsula International Pinot Noir Celebration

His 8 acre property is located in the Red Hills district of the Mornington, one of around eight or so loosely defined subregions that are quickly becoming apparent. Mostly planted to pinot noir with some chardonnay and gamay scattered about, David has spent much of the last three decades getting to know his vineyard on a more intimate scale which has seen him release some interesting cuvees. One wine is based from a single clone, one of the eight planted on the property. Another bottling sees two wines made from similar blends of clones and winemaking techniques but from parcels only 10 meters apart. He’s clearly on the more geeky end of the winemaking spectrum which makes a visit to taste with him a real blast.

David’s “Clonal Blend” bottling is his top blend where his favorite lots are fashioned together and usually comprise a selection of all clones on the estate. The soon-to-be released 2015 vintage showcased a translucent ruby color and an ethereal bouquet that slowly revealed mildly intense red fruits, sweet cinnamon and smoke. Light-medium bodied, the open attack quickly exposed a kernel of textured red fruits with some subtle dark spice notes on support. With crisp acids driving the finish, it seems appropriate that 2-4 years will see this fill out.

Yet what can be learned about this wine in relation to the questions asked earlier? This is obviously a more delicate expression of pinot noir from Red Hill that stands in stark contrast to their neighbor at Paringa Estate who are known for powerful wines. 2015 is acclaimed as an excellent vintage in Mornington and wine critics are driving the debate for more elegance in pinot. Is David’s wine in line with this or does it stand in contrast with these lines of thought?

It’s clear that this is where the context of what is happening with Aussie pinot overall and in Mornington particularly is so important as new examples arrive on our shores. Where this context and knowledge will come from is the question of the day. Otherwise, the opportunity that Australia 2.0 presents to show what the country can do with pinot will be a wasted one.

Wine Review: 2006 Rockford SVS Hoffmann Shiraz and 2006 Rockford SVS Flaxman Valley Shiraz

Wine Review: 2006 Rockford SVS Hoffmann Shiraz and 2006 Rockford SVS Flaxman Valley Shiraz

For those with an interest and passion for Australian wine generally and shiraz from South Australia particularly, these are interesting and exciting times. Wineries are taking a deeper interest in the subtle differences that occur within the regions that represent the focus of their work. At the same time, a more focused understanding of the subregions within these appellations are increasingly showcased in new releases that are limited in production and availability but unlimited in education and enjoyment. Some wineries are taking the final step and going even further by bottling wines from single sites to showcase their unique attributes.

This more mature and discerning look at a wine region is an exciting development that mirrors the way Burgundians look at their villages and crus. The ability to show the diversity of wines within many of South Australia’s wine regions is crucial in fighting the stereotype that all Aussie shiraz is big, bold and interchangeable. Plus, it’s just plain fun to explore and understand the differences, some drastic and others more nuanced, that exist within wine regions that we are just beginning to understand.

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Rockford Winery’s Cellar Door

Rockford Winery is one of the Barossa Valley’s cult wineries known as much for their rather rustic, or some would say romantic, approach to winemaking as for their wines, particularly their Basket Press shiraz. A visit to the winery is required to bear witness to the winemaking methods of the past and see how they are still harnessed to make world class wines today.

The Basket Press shiraz is a tribute to the many growers that owner Robert O’Callaghan believes are the foundation of the winery’s purpose as well as the cultural heritage of the Barossa Valley. As such, the wine is a classic representation of how wines were made in the past, a blend of grapes from growers all over the valley. And he claims that this “provides consistency and reliability that is not possible from a single vineyard.”

While single vineyard shiraz bottlings have a lengthy history in Australia going back to 1952 and the first bottling from the Hill of Grace vineyard by the Henschkes, the focus on wines from various subregions within districts like the Barossa Valley is a fairly recent phenomenon. Wineries like Yalumba (2005), First Drop (2005), and St. Hallett (2009), were among the first to release a range of wines, typically 3-5 different wines, that highlighted the subregional differences of the Barossa much as AVAs like Oakville and Rutherford perform the same function for Napa Valley. Today, most websites increasingly highlight the names of growers that supply fruit from the many small towns that are part of the Barossa’s matrix of vineyards.

A recent visit to Rockford’s cellar door provided a chance to taste a few of the winery’s 2006 single vineyard releases, a shiraz from the Hoffmann vineyard in the Ebenezer region and another bottling from the Flaxman Valley, a small subregion emerging from the diverse microclimates that comprise the Eden Valley. The “SVS” wines are typically available only at the cellar door and are produced in amounts of 100-300 cases and released after 6-8 years in bottle. The vineyards also very from year-to-year but the Hoffman and Flaxman bottlings have been made most frequently.

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2006 Rockford SVS Flaxman Valley Shiraz

Both wines showed particularly well with the broad, soft textures and diffused flavors of dried cherries atop soft earth notes that can only come from older Rockford wines. Most importantly, the wines showed their origins clearly. The Hoffmann shiraz was a bit more compact in shape and bolstered by fine tannins as one would expect from Ebenezer. The Flaxman cuvee is based on fruit from the same Chris Ringland vineyard that is the foundation for his acclaimed shiraz and possesses the ripe blackberry core that is the trademark of the site.

For being such staunch traditionalists, it came as a shock to me to find out that Rockford’s first SVS shiraz bottlings came from the 1996 vintage, almost a full decade before other wineries followed their lead. At that time in the US, the debate about Barossa shiraz was more about American vs. French oak. Understanding region and site was way off in the future. It seems that in their quest to honor the traditions of the Barossa Valley, they played a major role in creating a new one. Hat’s off to that!

Wine Review: 2016 Te Mata Gamay Noir

Wine Review: 2016 Te Mata Gamay Noir

The gamay craze has sure captured the attention of wine scribes and hipster winelists of late. And some of this is deservedly so given the price of burgundy these days and the tendency of the best cru Beaujolais to resemble their pinot noir brethren, both in style and price. (It also might have to do with the increasing investment of Burgundy’s wineries in Beaujolais as well.) Much of the heightened promotion of gamay also comes from Beaujolais’s use of natural wine production techniques that are increasingly part of the region’s winemaking regimen.

It’s interesting to note that the domination of gamay production that Beaujolais enjoys has not been threatened much by wine regions in other countries. Unlike their pinot noir brethren whose global monopoly of production has seen challenges from regions across the globe, gamay the grape is pretty much entirely associated with Beaujolais the region.

A long time long ago, a retired banker by the name of Charles Shaw imported some of the more authentic gamay noir au jus blanc in his attempt to make a serious gamay in Napa Valley. It was quite tasty and a good representation of the varietal for those who appreciated the grape back then but the real stuff in California today is a rare find. A look at winesearcher yields less than a dozen producers and the grape is clearly less important (36 tons picked in California 2016) than its brother, the mal-named “Napa gamay” (1700 tons in 2016) which is actually valdiguié. Amazingly, there are 20 producers in Oregon, enough that a gamay festival is scheduled very soon.

So whats with these upstarts in the southern hemisphere producing a gamay that is actually appearing on the shelves and winelists in the US market? Yes, New Zealand, and Australia for that matter, are cranking out some serious examples of the grape. Yes, there are about 7.3 hectares of gamay in NZ with only two wineries of note so were not talking much but something is obviously brewing down there. (Australia has over 25 producers planted in all types of growing regions across the country).

The gamay producers of New Zealand and Australia producers are not just glamming on to the latest trends (though many are known to do so). The grape has a history that extends some 20+ years in both countries, just another example of how many interesting wines from both regions we don’t encounter from our perch in the States.

Te Mata’s Gamay Noir has a lengthy pedigree with the vines planted in hills north of Napier. The grapes were brought over from France by the Buck family back in 1995. The wine seems to have had a bit of a low profile in the past, I don’t recall tasting it until the last few years when it seemed to appear out of nowhere and announced itself as ready for the spotlight.

And ready it is with a bright ruby red color, and a light-bodied, zesty red fruit core that’s supported with crunchy acids. It’s the kind of wine that gives you the impression that a waxed mustache and a tattoo sleeve will appear once you’ve ingested it, it’s that good… and hip… The 2016 reflects the vintage with its’ more elegant weight while the 2015, a wine that can still be found in market, will exhibit a bit more concentration with spice notes and deeper red fruit flavors on the backpalate. The fresh crispness remains as will the ‘stache, the ‘tats and the great value. The list price is under $20.

Gamay-NV-95x300As a point of reference, New Zealand’s other gamay comes from Central Otago’s Rippon Vineyard and is worth the search if you can find it (it is one of the first wines to sell out each year and is not in the States as of yet). Nick Mills’ version of gamay is as one might expect since it is made in an unabashedly natural way. These are old vines as well, planted some 25 years ago. Not sure if there’s a shared story with Te Mata but worth investigating. A classic Rippon gamay is powerful and concentrated with savoury textures surrounding a core of bright red fruits, a revealing contrast with the Te Mata. This version is what more naturally made gamays should aspire for with its clarity and precision.

Now about those Aussie gamays…