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.
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.