Archives: April, 2013

Australia ♯11 Conclusions

This blog started two weeks and a few thousand words ago with a thank you for the place on this trip. Well, it ends the same way, because it has been unforgettable, informative, and inspirational and, lets be honest, highly enjoyable. So again; “Thank You Wine Australia”.

Thinking about the trip in the round, here are a few of things I learned in Australia.

1. Classics. There are a handful of Australian wine styles that are totally unique that you should seek out and try. From the places I visited these would include:
a. Sauvignon Blanc from Orange – freshness is key here and the Sauvignon was deliciously grassy
b. Hunter Semillon – ideally with 5 to 10 years bottle age
c. Hunter Shiraz – elegance and power together with a lovely savoury quality
d. Riesling from Clare valley – for me ideally with some age to give more complexity and a little softening
e. Barossa Shiraz – for sheer power and density these are incredible wines, something to be savoured not quaffed
f. Grenache based wines from The Barossa, their Shiraz is more famous but I loved these and I think the grape suits the climate perfectly
g. Cabernet and Cabernet Blends from Great Southern – the climate in places here must be almost too cool for Cabernet but the results were excellent
2. Ageing. Not many people age Australian wines, but what a mistake. There are superb aged styles of Riesling, Semillon, Shiraz, Cabernet Blends and Grenache blends. Seek them out or lay some down yourself, the rewards are huge.
3. Regionality. Every country talks about regionality now. But in Australia it exists in spades. There are climates in this country from Tropical to downright cold and damp. We tasted wines of all types and I’ve no doubt there will be new ones to come.
4. The new breed. Australia is famous for technical excellence in winemaking, an excellence that still exists. But, time and again we met young, fired up, winemakers who are throwing away the rule book to create new and exciting wines. Barrel ferment Riesling anyone? This confidence and innovation will surely drive future success.
5. Price. This is potentially an issue for Australia as the strong dollar and UK duty push prices up. UK drinkers should focus on the higher quality levels, these wines still represent value. Rather than buying Australia for quaffing wine, buy it for treats, presents and special occasions.

There are another couple of points, totally unrelated to wine. First, I loved the people I met. There really does seem to be an open handed honesty of approach here that I found really refreshing. Second, the scenery is breathtaking and on a scale that is hard to comprehend from the UK. So, if you get the chance, get over there, meet the people, enjoy the scenery and explore the wines, you won’t be disappointed.

As a final note in this rather long blog I absolutely must thank the others in my group. Two weeks is potentially a long time to spend with people you’ve never met, but the good nature, enthusiasm and genuine interest of everyone made it a real joy. So a big thank you to Paul, Roger, Michael, Remi, Andreas, Emma, Emma, Ruth, Heather and Alex, the perfect balance of diligence and fun.

Australia ♯10 Great Southern

Great Southern is a wine region in South West Australia. It is genuinely remote and felt a long way from the UK.

We had a planes, planes and minibus day, leaving Clare for Adelaide airport, then a three hour(!) internal flight to Perth. The airport there was full of young vigorous men in day-glo reflective working clothes off to build the Australian mining boom. Apparently it’s two weeks on, a week off, and the pay is incredible. They give the place an amazing frontier feeling.

From a sweltering 35 degree Perth, Great Southern is a long way South; an hour on a Bombardier turbo prob, many hours by car. The trip was cloudy and one of the strangest sensations of the trip was dropping out of the low grey mizzle at Albany to see a Devon lookalike landscape of pastures, small lakes and grazing cows. Surreal. Apparently it has been a hot summer but the rain came a couple of weeks back and the land greens up pretty quickly.

It does feel different here though. It feels remote, empty and far away. There are few cars on the roads, towns are a long way apart and tiny when you get there. The wineries too are mostly small and family run, with veranda’s, fly netting and wood burners, clearly it does get cool in winter. We’ve had great home cooked food. I’ve loved it, perhaps because it feels a bit like a quieter Cornwall!

We’ve had cloud but with one night left I’m desperately hoping for a clear sky. We’ve been told the stars here are like something else, ultra clear skies and no light pollution. Sounds incredible.

So k what about the wines and wineries? Well here is a summary of the places we visited and the wines we’ve tasted:

1. Frankland Estate – good Riesling and lovely bright Shiraz
2. Arcadia – very small producer,
3. Trevelan Farm – small too, good Cabernet Sauvignon from here
4. Ferngrove – a bigger winery this one and some lovely Chardonnay and Carbernet Sauvignon, they do a lower level called Leaping Lizard, (sensibly) experimenting with richer Sauvignon styles rather than copy NZ
5. Galafrey – really small and boutique, named after the home planet of Dr Who! Particularly enjoyed their Shiraz.
6. Alkoomi – one of the stars of the region to me, making a big range and some great Bordeaux blends. My special favourite was the 2005 Wandoo Semillon which had developed beautifully. Currently not represented in the UK – though that may be temporary on this showing.
7. Plantagenet – one of the oldest wineries in the region. I’ve sold these for a few years and it was great to see where they come from. Tasted as good as ever, especially the bright, fruity, balanced and excellent value Omrah Pinot Noir. The new winemaker replacing John Durham is Cath Oates.
8. Harewood Estate – another absolute gem, wide range of wines with a common thread of elegance, a couple of Chardonnays really close to a Chablis style.
9. Howard Park – quite large for here, successful and making some lovely wines.

There is a clear and over-arching style here shared by all the estates. It is the, oft mentioned, finally found, cool climate. It is noticeably cooler here and it shows in the wines. There is great riesling and chardonnay both with bright acidity and poise. But the best showcase for me has been the reds; medium bodied, lower alcohol and with a lovely vibrancy and brightness. They are food friendly wines and never tiring. We tasted a couple of Pinot Noirs and on their evidence more should be planted, really good. The wines too are great value, perhaps reflecting the relatively unknown nature of the area.

So, Great Southern. It does exactly what is says on the tin, great wines from a long way South. We just need to see a bit more of them in the UK.

Great name for a wine tour company

Great name for a wine tour company

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Plasntagenet Port - cant call it that anymore of course

Plasntagenet Port – cant call it that anymore of course

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The sea in W Australia

The sea in W Australia

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Wood burner at Howard Park - proof it is cool climate here

Wood burner at Howard Park – proof it is cool climate here

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Micro Brewery

Micro Brewery

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Translation - a barrel of very good sauvignon blanc grapes fermenting on their skins, which is unusual

Translation – a barrel of very good sauvignon blanc grapes fermenting on their skins, which is unusual

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Kit!  I should have been a winemaker, I love this stuff

Kit! I should have been a winemaker, I love this stuff

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2 tonne concrete fermenters,  they get to right temperature of 28 dec C without needing cooling

2 tonne concrete fermenters, they get to right temperature of 28 dec C without needing cooling

This is Shiraz and (white) Viognier fermenting together  - it gives deeper colour and more aromatics

This is Shiraz and (white) Viognier fermenting together – it gives deeper colour and more aromatics

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Australia ♯9 Clare Valley

We left the Barossa early next morning to drive the two hours North to reach Clare Valley.

North here means hotter and drier. The Barossa already seemed pretty damned hot and dry but Clare has a reputation as a cool climate area? Hmmm. Well, the solution to this conundrum is topography. The Clare is a valley in the middle of a plateau surrounded by dry hot plains. Westerly winds coming over the plains meet the plateau and drop their water in the valley. The altitude also makes it a crucial few degrees cooler, especially at night. Driving from the Barossa it really does feel like arriving in an oasis of green.

Our first stop was Taylors wines they are one of the larger producers here. We had time to look round the vineyards and even look at soil profiles in a couple of pits dug for the purpose. The conclusion was that the soils are actually pretty low fertility and this, coupled, with the relatively dry conditions naturally limits vines yield – good for grape quality.

The second part of the visit could not have been – a tutored tasting of Rieslings. This is an absolutely classic Clare style. The fact that the tutors were Kevin Mitchell of Kilikanoon and riesling legend Geoffrey Grosset made it all the better.

Young Claire Riesling has really fresh acidity a sharp texture and delicious bright limey fruit. It is an intense experience. But for me these wines really come to life with some time in bottle. Five or even 10 years seems them round out and gives them a broader softer palate with smokey toasty lime marmalade and lemon curd flavours. I love the aged style but the young ones are great too.

We tasted wines from these producers from both 2012 and then the same wines with some age, so a mic of 2003, 2004 , 2005. These were the producers:
1. Groset – Polish Hill, the most expensive but consistently excellent though always a no holds barred full dry style
2. Skillogalee – from Watervale
3. Knappstein – Ackland
4. Jim Barry – Florita Watervale
5. Pikes – The Merle Polish Hill
6. Taylors – St Andrew

Generally wines from the Watervale subregion showed lighter more floral notes on the nose, those from Polish Hill, the coolest area, showing linear electric lime fruit.

After lunch and an eventful ten minutes cycling the Riesling trail we moved on to A Shiraz tasting at Mr Mick wines. We were taken through the tasting by David O’Leary of O’Leary wines and Bret Shultz of Tim Adams.

Shiraz is the other big style in Clare. The wines have a lot of power and body and a key feature is ripe and fine tannins. The best of them also have a nice aromatic edge and freshness of fruit. It seemed to me that the cooler sites were producing the best wines and those with the most aromatics and slightly less body were my favourites.

We tasted wines from these producers:
1. Tim Adams, the 2010 was great in the lighter fresher mould
2. Jim Barry- maker of the legendary Armagh Shiraz
3. Tim McNeil
4. O’Leary Walker
5. Mitchell Wines – loved the 2004 McNicol Shiraz, a bit of Blue Gum mint but restrained, spicy, lots of good tannin.

It was interesting to taste the older vintages too back to 2004 and 2003. I found it amazing how young these wines were, still plenty of youthful fruit and deep colour. Clearly they are made to last a long time.

We also had chance to explore a bit the landscape driving up to a hill to look West at Sunset beyond the edge of the plateau surrounding the valley. It was incredible to see vast dry looking plains stretching away to the West, it is such a big country.

The next morning, in the company of John Barry, chief vine grower for the famous Jim Barry wines we looked from a different hill across the middle of the valley. The contrast is amazing, with green trees, vines and crops dotted all over. It showed again what a vital resource water is here. The difference is about 200mm per annum between the valley and the plains but it’s enough to make all the difference.

The final stop in Clare was a visit to the Jim Barry Armagh vineyard. The Armagh Shiraz is another top Australian wine and it was fantastic to see the place it comes from and look at the gnarled old shiraz vines. Again the vineyard is phyloxera free and the vines are own their own roots.

Many thanks to everyone in Clare for being such generous and interesting hosts – a great experience.
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Taylors vineyards - average sized by Australian standards, pretty large to me

Taylors vineyards – average sized by Australian standards, pretty large to me

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Terra Rossa soil at Taylors Wines

Terra Rossa soil at Taylors Wines

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Lovely climate in their Autumn

Lovely climate in their Autumn

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Shiraz tutored tasting

Shiraz tutored tasting

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Looking out from Clare to flat plains beyond

Looking out from Clare to flat plains beyond

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John Barry and The Armagh vinyard

John Barry and The Armagh vinyard

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Roger and the Armagh vines again

Roger and the Armagh vines again

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Vines here are very old and suffer from Eutypta dieback

Vines here are very old and suffer from Eutypta dieback

Clare

Australia ♯8 Barossa – power, beauty, patience, grace

Ask a wine lover to name the top two Australian Wines and what answer will you get? Probably Henschke Hill of Grace and Penfolds Grange. Well, that was yesterday afternoon and evening. It was an incredible and actually quite humbling experience.

We started the afternoon at Henschke visiting the vineyard escorted by Melanie Keynes whose family name named the local town, Keynton. To English skins the afternoon sun seemed warm. The temperature was probably high twenties but it gets to mid forties round here and the parched earth and dead grass made it feel warmer. The vineyard is small but adjoins the local church, hence the name of the top wine, “Hill of Grace”.

These vines have never seen phyloxera, they are on their original roots and are some of the oldest vines in world. Unsurprisingly, the risk of the phyloxera bug finally arriving is taken seriously. Cars are checked for plant material at the state border and we were asked to step through a footbath before going into the vineyard.

The vines are farmed biodynamically with grape skins recycled to mulch beneath the rows, native grasses grown between rows and harvest dictated by the moon. Hill of Grace is always picked just before the full moon of Easter.

We then moved to the winery where we met Stephen Henschke, current owner of the business. He is a slight, quietly spoken, modest man with the total assurance of someone who knows they have something special to offer the world. Standing in the cool shade of the Henschke lawn we were privileged to taste through his current range of wines.

The wines start out with the Croft Chardonnay and Henry’s Seven red blend. These were lovely light fresh wines and exceptional value. The top wine, of course, is Hill of Grace from 100% Shiraz. The wine is amazing; it’s powerful and tight with lots of ripe tannin but the overall impression is of elegance first then complexity and balance, it just tastes right, never heavy, always interesting, always delicious.

The full list of wines we tasted:

• Croft Chardonnay 2012 – savoury, smoky, complex nose, medium weight, sweet fruit and freshly elegant
• Julius Riesling 2012 – linear, clean and with amazing clear lime fruit, long steely finish
• Henrys Seven 2010 from – a personal favourite, I loved the lighter fresh drinkable style, great balance of sweet fruit and savoury spicy character
• Keynton Euphonium 2009
• Cyril Henschke 2009 – middle weight and fresh but coupled to great power and length
• Tappa Pass Shiraz 2009 – sealed under the Vinolok style glass seal as it Hill of Grace
• Mount Eddlestone Shiraz 2009
• Hill of Grace 2008 – make no mistake this is a big wine, complex, supple and multi-layered. Different flavours emerge at different times and the length is incredible, but the lasting impression is of great elegance and you just want to keep on sipping.
• Julius Riesling 2002 – delicious, described brilliantly by Stephen Henschke as lime marmalade on buttered toast!

Henschke is to me the perfect boutique winery. There is an undiluted clarity of purpose and vision here. Probably something than can only be achieved at this small scale and with family ownership. That vision fully extends to the taste of the wines; ringing clear fruit, delicacy, elegance and above all perfect natural balance.

As if that were not enough in a day we then moved on to an evening in the company of Penfolds. We went to the company’s Kalimna Homestead vineyard, bought back in 1945. This is a lovely old farmhouse in a classic homestead style with wrap around veranda. It is now used for small scale meetings and tastings. We were hosted by Steff Dutton, almost intimidatingly impressive and confident as assistant winemaker, a hallowed position for someone under 30.

Penfolds is an interesting and historic company. Started by Dr Christopher Rawson Penfold and wife Mary in 1844 it grew steadily after 1945 to become the iconic brand it is today. Its top wine Grange was created by chief winemaker Max Schubert in 1951 using the, then controversial, European technique of barrel maturation. It was initially despised as a style. Something that is hard to imagine now.

Penfolds makes wines at all levels. The entry level is currently Rawsons Retreat though this is being sold off as it is seen as too low a price point. The next step is Koonunga Hill, then the famous “bin number” wines, then experimental “Cellar Reserve”, then luxury wines such as RWT and Bin 707. The top level is Grange and Yattarna Chardonnay.

In Australia, it is common for wines to be made by blending grapes from vineyards miles apart. What is unusual is that the top wines too are made in this way. Steff explained how the blending and selection process works. The wines are tasted by a panel of winemakers, if they make the cut they go into the blend, if not they don’t, simple as that. So, the quantity of Grange made each year depends on how many good wines are available. The same goes for Yattarna.

The wines we tasted were:

• 2010 Bin 10A Adelaide Hills Chardonnay – quite a ripe, full throttle, funky style with smoke and all the full battery of winemaking used
• 2010 Yattarna – much more linear and tight, probably too young at this age, but incredible intensity, clarity and length (we tried the 2004 with dinner and it was simply superb), probably my personal favourite
• 2010 Cellar Reserve Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir – ultra low intervention, not fined or filtered so slightly cloudy
• 2010 Cellar Reserve Adelaide Hills Merlot – minty and spicy medium body with great grippy ripe tannins
• 2010 Cellar Reserve Adelaide Hills Sangiovese – to me lacked the edgy rasp of a Tuscan version, a ripe plush style
• 2010 Cellar Reserve Adelaide Hills Kalimna Block 25 Mataro
• 2010 McGill Estate Shiraz
• 2010 RWT Barossa Valley Shiraz – name comes from red winemaking trial but the initials stuck! Definitely nothing experimental now just power, intensity and an incredible texture
• 2010 Bin 169 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon
• 2008 Grange – where to start with this? The key features here are sheer power (and there is plenty) coupled with richness of texture and complexity of flavour. There are so many flavours to pick out it’s a case of the more you look the more you see. Opening one would be an undertaking, full attention required, not something you could drink with music on even much conversation. Incredible wine.

Reflecting on Grange a couple of days later it seems to me that the Penfolds and the Grange story are essentiallylinked to the story of Australian Wine. Australia needs a halo a wine to be the top of the tree and to show what is possible both in terms of style and price. As a large company Penfolds has it’s detractors and Grange has always created controversy, but I don’t think Australian wine would be where it is without it. Quite an achievement.

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Melanie Keynes our host

Melanie Keynes our host

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Parched, baked and very dry, no rain for 9 months

Parched, baked and very dry, no rain for 9 months

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Anti-phylloxera precautions

Anti-phylloxera precautions

The most famous view in Austrlian wine?

The most famous view in Austrlian wine?

Me

Me

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Hill of Grace vines

Hill of Grace vines

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Inside the Hill of Grace winery

Inside the Hill of Grace winery

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Stephen Henschke

Stephen Henschke

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Steff Dutton assistant winemaker at Penfolds

Steff Dutton assistant winemaker at Penfolds

Kalina Homestead

Kalina Homestead

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Australia ♯7 Wolf Blaas

One of the first impressions on arriving in the Barossa Valley is that everything is on a much bigger scale than we have seen before, acres of vineyards, as far as the eye can see and some really big wineries, owned by very large companies.

This was borne out talking to Bernard Higgin head winemaker for Jacobs Creek and man responsible for making at least eighty million bottles of wine. I think its hard to picture what that looks like but yesterday we had chance to see a winery of nearly that scale at Wolf Blaas.

We met Simon General Manager and Matt O’Leary Head Winemaker to tour the Wolf Blaas Barossa Winery. It is immense. I’ve included some pictures, but here are some statistics. They have 2,500 separate temperature controlled stainless steel tanks, they are all outside but wrapped in thick insulation against the heat of the sun. They will crush around 40,000 tonnes of grapes this year. Each year they buy 7,000 new oak barrels and have 40,000 on site at any one time.

What I found impressive is the power of the rational mind at work here. This is an engineer’s solution to making wine and I mean that as high praise. Making wine is a process and to make good wine at this scale that process needs to be understood and tightly managed.

A great example of this was the open fermenter room. This is an immense steel shed with thirty or forty large open stainless steel fermenters running down the middle. In them were red grapes fermenting away. Each can be temperature controlled, pumped over, racked and returned or have the fermenting grapes punched down into the wine by automatic paddles. Once the ferment is complete the wine is run off, the vat picked up by crane. It’s carried to one end of the room and upended into the press, simple, efficient and effective.

Simon and Matt were relaxed, had detailed specific answers to hand for any question asked and were completely open. They looked like two men at the top of their game.

We tasted through a small cross section of the complex brand hierarchy of Wolf Blaas. There were some lovely wines at the top end Black and Platinum level that sell for $130 or more. But what I found most impressive was the quality of the Yellow label wines. These sell for $18 here and probably about £8 at home and they are made in huge volumes. There was balance, restraint, freshness of fruit and classy confidence here. Yes, these are commercial wines and yes, we have tasted better wines but I doubt we have tasted better value wines.

Many thanks to Simon and Matt for being great hosts, and for a fascinating and really eye opening visit.

Australia ♯6 The Barossa Valley

Jacobs Creek Steingarten Vineyard

Jacobs Creek Steingarten Vineyard

Incredibly dry no rain since August

Incredibly dry no rain since August

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Amazing evening light

Amazing evening light

Bernard Higgin chief winemaker for Jacobs Creek

Bernard Higgin chief winemaker for Jacobs Creek

The Creek of Jacobs Creek no water today

The Creek of Jacobs Creek no water today

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Bernard Higgin chief winemaker for Jacobs Creek

Bernard Higgin chief winemaker for Jacobs Creek

What a change. A couple of hour flight took us from a cool wet Sydney to a warm dry Adelaide and then on to The Barossa Valley and hour and half North by comfy Mercedes minibus.

The Barossa is a legendary name in Australian wine. It is probably the central hub for the industry and most big producers have base here. It’s also an incredibly historic area with vines being planted by German settlers speaking way back 1842.

It feels very different to the Hunter and certainly to Orange, a bigger wider landscape and right now dry, parched and brown. It’s been a long, hot, dry summer here, there’s been no rain since September and it shows in the landscape.

Of course, for winemaking that’s potentially good news. Everything is irrigated anyway so the dry conditions mean ripe grapes and no fungal disease. The vine growing challenge here is managing ripeness to avoid over high sugar levels and to keep acidity. There is a reliable, cooling, afternoon breeze that helps. Elevation also matters, particularly in the Eden Valley section, this is the hilly end of Barossa going up to 600m and here the evenings are certainly cooler giving the all important change from day to night.

We spent our first evening here with Jacobs Creek. And there really is a Creek, there was no water night, nor is there for 10 ½ months of the year, but there is a creek. It was fascinating to share a table with Bernard Higgin, chief winemaker for Jacobs Creek. He will make this year around 7m cases of wine for the Jacobs Creek brand alone, that’s a lot of wine.

The following day we spent time at Yalumba and it was fascinating to see their cooperage and the most incredible cellar of old wines, both their own and a huge array of top Australian and European classics. Like a museum of everything you would love to taste. It must be worth millions.

Here we tasted wines from Charles Melton, Thorne Clarke, Turkey Flat and Yalumba. The key styles are:

Riesling here is always bone dry, usually from the higher, cooler Eden section, they are not quite as lean and austere as those from Orange or Clare Valley but they show great acidity and lime flavours when young. We tasted a couple of older vintages too and with time the round out to more of a lime marmalade style with some spice, smoke and a rounder broader mouthfeel.

Grenache and Grenache blended with Shiraz and Mataro. This is probably lesser known but was my personal favourite. Grenache loves the heat and it needs to give a really low yield if it is to make good wine. There are some incredible old vines here that prove just how good it can be. These wines had powerful spicy fruit but with a lovely soft sweetness and with age brilliant meaty, leather and savoury complexity. A lot of Grenache is being planted and it is easy to see why.

Shiraz. Barossa Shiraz is a brand in itself and the producers pull together to keep it that way. All talked about the elegance rather than the pure grunt of the wines but make no mistake these are big dense powerful wines with plenty of tannin and extract. The best do keep a lovely freshness of acidity that balances out the fruit. Chocolate and black fruits are common adding fruitcake fig with age. There was some really well handled oak here with great smoke, clove and five spice flavours that melded perfectly with the wines.

So, the Barossa, a lot of expectation for such a famous place but it really did deliver.

Australia ♯5 Hunter Valley

The Hunter Valley was a long, rainy, dark, trip in a rumbly old bus from Orange and many thanks to rumbly old Frank for driving us there.

The Hunter Valley is unique as a wine region. First it has a bizarre climate with humidity, rain at harvest time and loads of heat that is only mitigated by the fact that is gets cloudy enough in the afternoons to reduce the stress on the vines and give them a rest.

One other unique feature of the Hunter is that back in the 1800’s when the rest of the wine world was being devastated by a louse that lives in the soil and feeds on vine roots (called phyloxera) the Hunter escaped. The vines are planted on their own roots rather than the normal US ones used to protect vines in other areas.

Despite, or perhaps because of this, it makes three great styles of wine.

Semillon. This is a style that is unique within the world of wine. Semillon is picked super early during January before the worst of the rain in February. As a result it starts out under-ripe with only around 10-5 to 11% alcohol. The young wines are lean and racy with lemon grass and a delicate restrained nose. But, the magic starts once they have been in bottle for five, or ideally ten, years. At this time, seemingly from nowhere complex, savoury aromas of toast and smoke emerge. At the same time the acidity softens and the palate rounds out. They are delicious wines only rarely seen in the UK, rarer still with the requisite bottle age.

Chardonnay. Again this is picked early to avoid rain and rot. The background climate is warm here so the wines show tropical fruit flavours but the Hunter magic works to keep them only moderate in body and they still taste fresh. These wines are oaked but on those I tasted it was done with real delicacy and finesse – just the right dose of smoke and spice.

Shiraz. These are deceptive wines with powerful punchy fruit when young, again walking the tightrope between ripeness and elegance. Most were medium bodied with plenty of spice and aromatics. With age they develop great complex savoury richness.

We tasted some incredible wines from:
• Tyrells – arguably the most famous Hunter Winery of all, makes Vat 1 Semillon as Vat 47 Chardonnay and Vat 9 Shiraz
• Brokenwood – awesome Semillon and the Graveyard Shiraz one of Australias very top red wines
• Mount Pleasant Vineyard – makers of the delicious O’Shea Shiraz as well as great Semillon and Chardonnay

All of the above producers were incredibly generous if their time and with their wines. It really brings a wine to life to understand how it ages and we were able to taste wines back to ’99 against current vintages – a real treat and a great education too. Many thanks to them all.

Looking across the Hunter Valley

Looking across the Hunter Valley

Oysters and Semillon for Breakfast

Oysters and Semillon for Breakfast

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Of Brokenwood at the legendary Graveyard Vineyard

Of Brokenwood at the legendary Graveyard Vineyard

Graveyard Vineyard

Bruce is pouring away really old vine Shiraz behind him

Bruce is pouring away really old vine Shiraz behind him

Vertical of Tyrells Vat 1 amazing to see how it ages

Vertical of Tyrells Vat 1 amazing to see how it ages

Lunch and lesson on Semillon and Shiraz from the Hunter

Lunch and lesson on Semillon and Shiraz from the Hunter

Australia #4 Orange

Orange

So, 24 hours in Orange. Which is a wine region about 5 hours drive North and East of Sydney. The key here is altitude and the region is defined as an area above the 600m contour with the 1,396m peak of extinct, volcanic, Mt Canobolas at its centre. Grapes are grown up to about 1,000m. Compared to the European Alps that does not sound much but the effect on the climate is marked.

It certainly seemed that way yesterday. Our bus rumbled it’s way up winding roads through mist and at times pretty heavy rain with temperatures in the low teens. In the evening of the first day we met half a dozen local winemakers and tasted their wines. The following day gave us a chance to visit vineyards and wineries for the first time.

All the winemakers spoke in detail about the effect the climate has on grapes here. The altitude has a number of effects.

The air here is very clear as the prevailing westerly winds have travelled over the desert of the centre of the country before they arrive. This means that UV radiation is high and the grapes grow thicker skins to protect themselves – almost like a grape suntan. In reds this gives deeper colour, more ripe tannin and more complex flavours.

The air is often dry and the region experiences an average of 9 sunshine hours per day in the growing season. That sounds unimaginable to a UK resident (unimaginably nice of course). As far as vines go it means plenty of time to photosynthesize and produce healthy and above all ripe grapes.

There is also a big day to night time temperature change and this is thought to retain acidity on the grapes. Something that was clearly borne out in the wines. Unusually for Austrlia all the growers claimed to have only natural acidity in their wines.

Lastly the proximity of Mt Canobolas does mean there is sufficient rain with 800-1,000mm per year for most parts of the region.

On the first evening we had chance to taste white wines from the region, working through Riesling, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. The following day we toured four wineries;
1. Ross Hill – really low intervention plus technical excellence and a really Eaurpopean style, some of the leanest wines of the day
2. Brangoyne – small and boutique, with a delicious and ageworthy oaked chardonnay
3. De Salis – tiny boutique and making excellent Pinot Noir among other things
4. Borrodell – superb Gewürztraminer and a delicious Chardonnay too
At each we tried their range while along with lunch at De Salis we were able to try reds from across the region. We tasted a total of around 50 wines while in Orange.

For me the common theme to Orange was the high acidity of the wines coming from the elevation of the region. This gave a sound backdrop to all the wines backed up by concentrated bright fruit and moderate body. So food friendly styles that are not tiring by the end of the glass.

The most successful styles I found were:

Chardonnay and it was great to see a range from quite austere citrus to some riper styles all with enough vibrant natural acidity to carry oak and complexity.

Sauvignon Blanc was fascinating. I think we have all become accustomed to this grape as a one trick pony, high acidity, gooseberry / citrus fruit and little else. Perhaps we can blame the Kiwi’s for that. These however showed with real winemaking confidence just how many styles can be made from the grape.

Shiraz is great here too. The style is fresh with only medium body, plenty of spice, pepper even cocoa. It does have a focused core of primary fruit when young but was never flabby, jammy or dull, more North Rhone than Austrlia in many ways.

Last but not least were some great Bordeaux Blends, here there was some Australian fruit intensity but again with moderate body, high natural acidity and above all balance.

Other wineries we tasted but did not visit were:
1. Faisan – top end winery
2. Cumulus – entry level as well as top end styles larger winery
3. Philip Shaw – small and family run lovely fresh vibrant wines
4. Logan – a great restrained grassy Sauvignon among others
5. Highland Heritage – lovely Kabinett style Riesling

Many thanks to all the wineries we visited and for those above too. Classic Australian hospitality, some fantastic wines and a clear Orange message to convey – enjoyable vibrant food friendly wines perfect for a European palate.

Australia ♯3

The perfect day…

First official part of the trip of the tour and all pretense of work has evaporated. Four hours tasting wine on board a carbon fibre, 3,000hp, hydrofoiling superyacht put paid to it. How lucky? Yes, very. Very. Thank you again Wine Australia.

I did learn some a history though. The yacht belongs to Robert Oateley. Back in ’69 they started the famous and highly successful Rosemount Wines. Twenty eight years ago they brought the first set of Masters of Wine out to Australia for a visit thereby kick starting the ‘80’s Australia wine boon. In 2001 he sold Rosemount to Southcorp for I suspect a rather large sum; hence the yacht. In fact, yachts. There are several more, 5 times winners of the Sydney Hobart race in fact, no mean feat.

But wine clearly had a pull on Robert because with his son Sandy they are back with a new venture called Robert Oatley Vineyard. These are wines we tasted today. The aim is to make approachable wines that are classics of their type but for drinking and enjoying rather than showing off or going to extremes.

The Robert Oatley brand has no single geographic base, instead covering the best areas across the whole country. For each wine the best location for the style is selected. So there is a Mornington Peninsular Pinot Noir, a McLaren Shiraz, a Margaret River Riesling etc. In a way the perfect start to an Australian wine tour, as one brand showed several of the classic styles the country is famous for. There is a big Margaret River focus for the top level of single vineyard wines.

The wines are made by Larry Cherubino and there is a big production centre (and 1000 acre vineyard) in Mudgee with other facilities in Yarra, McLaren and Margaret River. We tasted about a dozen of the wines and the technical ability really shows through. They absolutely achieved the mission statement; drinkable, enjoyable, with clean, clear, fruit.

Highlights for me were these wines:
• Margaret River Riesling – really light and floral nose, great clean pure refreshing palate, a real delicacy and poise.
• Mudgee Chardonnay – hooray a ripe chardonnay with butter and tasty vanilla; not overdone but not ashamed to be ripe and rich either.
• Finistere Great Southern Shiraz – really North Rhone in style, restrained aromatic and elegant but still with plenty of power, cocoa and spice.

No yachts tomorrow but a bus or two and off to the Orange region, a couple of hours drive North from Sydney.

Australia ♯2

Well, I’ve been here a few days, the winery tours and official part starts tomorrow. But I’ve been drinking a bit of wine here and there so here goes with some first impressions.

Well, the drinking culture here seems quite divided. There is a big macho beer culture as well as a few people around who clearly like more than a drink or two. Alongside that there is quite a sophisticated wine culture that wants to distance itself from the former category!

It was a real surprise to me to arrive on Bank Holiday Friday and find that I could not get a drink because all the pubs shut at 10pm. Sydney is vibrant, vital and cosmopolitan so the short hours seemed very out of place – not at all like London or Euarope. Also, alcohol sales seem quite regulated. As in the US alcohol is sold in specific stores not alongside general groceries. It feels as little as though it is something dangerous, to be controlled and restricted.

Drinks are pretty expensive. I’ve been paying in the region of £5 to £9 a 125ml glass. A bottle in the liquor store starts around £12. Restaurant lists and wine stores sell 95% Australian wine –national pride I suppose!

What I have been really impressed with though is the general quality of the wine. Even moderate level restaurants are serving up something with real concentration, flavour and balance. They offer a range of styles that would often be missing at home and I’ve not found the bland, sweetened up, house wines we get so much of.

If there is theme to what I’ve tasted so far it is perhaps the concentration of flavour. The wines seem big bold and rich, with lots of bright primary fruit. Just like Australia is supposed to be I suppose – welcoming, vibrant and easy to like. And that seems a pretty good start to me.