Author: Chuck Hayward

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…

 

Wine Review: 2009 Ostler Pinot Noir “Caroline’s”

Wine Review: 2009 Ostler Pinot Noir “Caroline’s”

Standing behind the table and pouring wine at a consumer table has to be one of the more thankless tasks in the entire wine industry. In addition to the classic salesmen promoting their winery’s portfolio, this front line of wine promotion is often manned by representatives of marketing associations designed to shine a light on the wines of a particular country or appellation. As a fan of New Zealand and Australian wines, I often deal with the government organizations that are charged with introducing their country’s wines to the US market.

David Strada is the man on the frontlines for New Zealand Winegrowers and is often found at consumer wine events focused on pinot noir… Which is where I found him last weekend manning a table at the annual World of Pinot confab in Santa Barbara. As in previous events like these, David brings along an assortment of currently released Kiwi pinots from various regions (the 2014 Quartz Reef Pinot Noir from the Bendigo subregion of Central Otago was most impressive). But it’s always good to check out his selection as he often makes a point of pulling a bottle or two with a bit of bottle age and he did not disappoint with a 2009 Ostler “Caroline’s” Pinot Noir that piqued my interest.

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Yes, this is a post about Ostler but only had one picture of that so putting in a Quartz Reef pic as it is in the post.

The pursuit of limestone-laden soils by pinot noir producers has a long and well-established history. Naturally occurring in Burgundy, New World pinot enthusiasts have had to do the hard yards to go out and find the stuff. The search for limestone soils provided the foundation story behind Josh Jensen’s Calera Winery back in the 1970s. In New Zealand, the limestone influence is easily found in the Weka Pass subregion just north of Christchurch where Bell Hill and Pyramid Valley have both made some compelling wines that reflect their soils.

The latest focus in New Zealand for the limestone inclined is the remote Waitaki Valley where vines were first planted in 2001. The region is a few hours east of Central Otago where the exceedingly marginal climate makes it difficult to grow grapes. Indeed, the region has already seen numerous wineries pull out of the region because of low yields and the expenses incurred by growing grapes in such an isolated area. Today, Waitaki is largely planted by small, independent growers, larger outfits having decided the risk of frost and inconsistent yields make it too risky to.

The chalky minerality that can come from limestone soils was easy to notice in the first pinots noirs from Waitaki and those wines immediately garnered considerable recognition. But coming from the 2004 vintage and from very young vines, the palates were also a bit attenuated and lacked the fruitweight to balance the intense mineral-laced spine and tannins.

That was not the case with later vintages as wines from brands like Valli and Forrest began to justify the hype. Clearly, a bit of vine age helped out the wines here. And thanks to a great write-up from Matt Kramer in the Wine Spectator, the 2010 Ostler “Caroline” Pinot Noir, got some sales traction in the US market. At the time (the spring of 2013), it was markedly better than the previous vintage, especially if you were preferred that haunting limestone scent and texture in your pinot.

But what a difference a few years makes. That ripe and clunky ’09 Ostler had softened and revealed a pretty elegance that must have been buried under the fuller-bodied wine of a few years ago. More elegant, even ethereal in texture, the limestone element was clearly in play now and the wine was all the better for it. But most importantly, I was glad I gave that wine a second chance and so I must take this opportunity to say thanks to those who provide them. Thanks, David!

Commentary: Who Should Judge Australian Wine Shows

Commentary: Who Should Judge Australian Wine Shows

Australia has been blessed with a surfeit of great wine writers. There’s plenty of them, each with their own voice. Some may be more professorial, others like news reporters. But taken as a whole, reading about Australian wine from the perspective of the country’s writers is reflective of the wine industry’s strength.

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Judge’s badge from Queensland Wine Show

One of my favorites is Philip White, a highly opinionated writer based out of Adelaide. Whitey, as he known in Australia (and to distinguish him from Tim White, another critic who also rarely hides his demeanor), does not suffer fools gladly. Bureaucrats, politicians and blowhards are all in his line of fire. Yet he has unrestrained passion for wine and the people who make up the industry, both present and more importantly, the past. His blog, Drinkster, is must reading for those who want to read wine writing at its fiery best.

A recent post, however, brought me to a crossroads. In it, Philip decried inviting members of the trade from other countries to participate as guest judges in Australian wine shows. As he says:

The Royal Adelaide Wine Show. Bloody Royal. Every major Australian capital city has one.

This writer lost interest in these royal plonk races many years ago. Not only cynical and exhausted by the notion of such giant wine competitions being run beneath a letterhead bearing the crown of the Germano-Greek family which rules Britain, like many others, I’m also tired of the guest preachers and teachers the Royal Show controllers ship out here to pat us on the head before giving us a lecture about how to make wine after three or four days tasting it with us.

They mount a huge self-congratulatory luncheon to hand out the bling and this star guest gets up and teaches us all a lesson.

And then, almost invariably, they tell us how little we should expect to be paid for it.

I mean, they go home, Poms, mainly, whisper in a few ears and have their buyer mates import their favourite discoveries, having screwed the Australian maker/supplier through the basement floor of the profit division. If you’re lucky, unlucky or whatever, they’ll write about their “discovery” and recommend it in a newspaper or shiny magazine or a blog or something.

In other words, guest judges are invited to Australia and end up only insulting the hosts with no change in Aussie wine sales upon their return.

It was one thing to have Whitey promote this but others picked up on his idea. Tom Carson, winemaker at Yabby Lake in the Mornington Peninsula, is also an influential judge in the Australian show system serving as Chair of Judges at the Melbourne Wine Show which awards the Jimmy Watson Trophy. His tweet below concerns two of Australia’s top wine shows (“Melb” is the Royal Melbourne Wine Show, “Nat” is the National Wine Show in Canberra):

Great read, some salient points to consider…’Royal’ Melb, QLD and Nat have dropped international judges, Melb since 2014

Finally, Tony Keys, who writes a weekly trade review on his website, threw his support behind Philip’s opinion.

White also despairs at international guest judges at wine shows. Why are they required? Again, Australia has more than enough quality talent to judge its and any other countries’ wines in a show.

Critics have leveled many complaints against wine shows generally and the Australian wine show system specifically. They are numerous and many have some validity but that’s not the topic here. But the contention that the Australian wine industry is best served without judges from other countries is just plain wrong.

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Shiraz class lined up at the 2015 Royal Queensland Wine Show

The primary benefit for a visiting judge is to see how wine shows are conducted. In my experience, the judges are qualified, medals and trophies truly awarded to wines that deserve them and the entire show is conducted professionally. The tasting abilities and skills necessary to be a wine judge require considerable knowledge and the confidence to support the wines you believe are worthy.

In addition to bearing witness to the show itself, there is the incredible chance to gain an in-depth understanding of wine categories that would be impossible to do at home. To taste through dozens of Hunter Valley semillons at once or a few flights of fortified wines could never happen in one sitting in any country. Wine shows allow tasters to discern the different levels of quality within a category and learn about them from very educated people in the Aussie wine trade. That level of knowledge is just not available outside of Australia.

This deeper insight is also complemented by the ability to get a broader vision of the Australian wine industry itself. When awarding medals or trophies, discussions on winemaking styles and philosophies can be quite vigorous. The ability to participate in these debates with such a broad cross section of the Australian wine trade is of incalculable benefit to understanding the industry itself. For example, the appearance of sulfides in chardonnay is a popular trend in Australian chardonnay these days. Over the last few wine shows, I have been able to learn how and why this style came about and to develop and present my own personal critique to against this development fellow judges. It would be impossible to come to this understanding tasting chardonnays here and there in America.

The benefits of participating in wine shows is not just limited to the judging experience itself. The time set aside for dinners, drinks and recreation nurtures relationships that can allow for a deeper understanding of Australian wine. Meeting winemakers, distributors, even wine writers, can provide insights into better tasting skills, a view of new trends and the development of friendships, all of which would be difficult to accomplish alone.

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Meeting of judges at the 2012 Hunter Valley Wine Show

Perhaps what is really needed is not the elimination of guest judges but simply inviting better judges. Wine judging in Australia is fairly technical and intense so this is not the place for someone who has never judged before. A familiarity with Australia’s wine regions and styles might also benefit the judging process. And the dreaded after-dinner speeches might be more informative if those invited are selected because they have something interesting to say.

But what is really troubling is that three notable members of the trade are in agreement that international judges are not needed. True, the awards can be easily handed out without inviting outsiders and I do not doubt that the tasting skills of visiting judges may not match those of Australian professionals.

Nevertheless, shutting out international visitors from judging wine shows will only deny Australian wine enthusiasts the unique opportunity to immerse themselves in the country’s wine industry. And somehow, that just seems a bit, well, un-Australian.

Wine Review: 2004 Clarendon Hills “Hickinbotham” Grenache

Wine Review: 2004 Clarendon Hills “Hickinbotham” Grenache

At a masterclass on his wines a number of years ago, Clarendon Hills owner and winemaker Roman Bratusiak was asked what seemed to me to be an innocent question. “When you are at home,” she queried, “what Australian wines do you drink.” Roman, who is known for his somewhat brusque demeanor, huffed and said, “I don’t drink Australian wines. I drink Burgundy.” And that where things were left. With the 16 ton weight pervading the room.

Besides ruffling the feathers of the poor gal who innocently asked the question and leaving those in attendance wondering what kind of person would harrumph like that, the reference to Burgundy resonated for some time. His comments came to the forefront a few years later when I made my first visit to Clarendon Hills. When our group headed off to dinner, he brought along two cases of some pretty nifty wines (the second case contained duplicates in case of cork taint). They were all burgundies. You can’t fault a man for being true to his word.

That declaration about burgundy really got ahold of me the next day tasting through some barrels and current releases. Over and over again, I was impressed with the sense of restraint, the compact shape of the fruit, the emphasis on structure. More importantly, they stood in stark contrast to the descriptions offered by Robert Parker. These were not high-octane, gloppy wines devoid of focus. Here was length and line, classically compact in shape. Let there be no mistake, his wines were concentrated and intense but not what I expected given how Parker had often described his wines.

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Old vine Hickinbotham Grenache (picture from winery website)

Indeed, there was a Burgundian sensibility being expressed here. The use of French oak and little of it new. The search for expressions of terroir in the hills of McLaren Vale and bringing these subtle nuances to the forefront. Small volumes of wines made from individual plots of old vines, bottled separately.

These thoughts came back to me as I recently ensured that a bottle of 2004 Clarendon Hills “Hickinbotham” Grenache would fulfill its intended purpose. McLaren Vale grenache is one of the ultimate expressions of the grape to be found anywhere. It’s here where the classic chocolate-laced kirsch aromas and flavors are revealed in abundance. Mouth-filling yet showcasing that pinot-like presence on the palate, grenache from the Vale is usually a bit more substantial than what is found in the Barossa.

The Hickinbotham Vineyard is located over 800 feet above sea level in the rolling hills north of McLaren Vale village. The altitude helps to moderate temperatures a bit during the hot summers providing that finesse that is typical of fruit from the area. Roman’s parcel of grenache was planted in 1920 and these old vines contribute to the power lurking within the wines from this vineyard.

Older bottles of Hickinbotham Vineyard shiraz and grenache have proven to be among the most rewarding and cellar worthy wines in the Clarendon Hills portfolio. What made the 2004 Hickinbotham Grenache true to form was that classic kirsch bouquet, open and fragrant with woodsy spices lying underneath. The palate had softened yet still maintained that lifted, primary fruit. The wines from this vineyard, no matter the varietal, always have a firm, structural foundation and this wine followed that rule if a bit softer and broader now thanks to its age. The final observation fell to the wine’s balance and elegance, how after 13 years, this was a wine true to Roman’s approach. Here’s to Burgundy!

Thanks to Dino Stephanos for sharing this wine with me.