Tag: Australia

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 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: 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.

 

Wine Review: 2013 Mount Pleasant B-Side CF13 Dry Red (Hunter Valley)

Wine Review: 2013 Mount Pleasant B-Side CF13 Dry Red (Hunter Valley)

Over the past decade or so, the Hunter Valley has really revealed itself, not only as a bastion of youthful energy that has transformed the region as a locus for contemporary wines but also in resurrecting respect for the vines and vineyards that came before them. New bottlings highlighting individual plots of ancient vines are weaving compelling wines into the fabric of the Hunter. All of this after a decade or so that has seen Hunter semillon and shiraz reach new heights of quality.

The renewed respect for the older vines that are the backbone of the Hunter has led to many folks to take an even deeper look at what is actually planted there. While Australia does not compare when it comes to the wide variety of varietals grown in California, there are plots here and there that contain some pretty interesting stuff. McWilliams, one of the Hunter’s oldest wineries and owner of Mount Pleasant Winery, home to legendary winemaker Maurice O’Shea, is home to a rarity named montils. The grape recently found a home in their new wine program entitled B-Side which is devoted to experimental, small batch winemaking.

The original home for montils is in the Cognac region of France where it’s also used to make eau-de-vie. It ended up in the Hunter as part of the Busby collection of grapes that contributed to the foundation of Australia’s wine industry back in the 1830s. Prized for its ability to maintain a low pH in warm climates, it has fallen out of favor in France.

13332915_10153670472171149_3571934894324661444_nNew plantings of the grape have been recently arranged from the original vines that were planted in the 1920s at the winery’s home vineyard. Winemaker Scott McWilliams decided to round up some shiraz planted by O’Shea in his Rosehill vineyard back in 1946 and co-ferment the two grapes as was done back in the day. Because there was so little montils available, only 800 bottles were made.

The result is a translucent, pale red wine that is a perfect wine for those desirous of a lighter styled wine. Fresh and crunchy red fruits fill the palate but resonate lightly thanks to some crisp acids. Bits of spice and light tannins frame the whole experience, both aromatically and texturally, thanks to a bit of stems in the ferment and old Hungarian oak. A couple of years should see this wine pick up a bit of weight and the acidity mellow.

This is a great window into Australia’s movement towards lighter, fresher red wines that are also seen in wines like 2015 Te Mata Gamay Noir and 2015 De Bortoli La Boheme Syrah/Gamay. These local products are starting to populate the hipster wine bar scene there and could easily make a splash in the States. Quaffable and refreshing, one can feel the mustache grow and the tats form a sleeve on your arm as you quickly polish off the glass and reach for another.