Defining Australian wine gives the lie to the country’s incredible regional, soil and climatic diversity. Attempts to unify in a single brand or message also fail to understand the true appeal of Australia: its wine producers are both proud of and content with their idiosyncratic, regional voices. Whether they knew it or not, it was this fundamental lack of pretension and comfort with who and what they are that defined this year’s Vancouver International Wine Festival theme region producers. Vancouver was invited in to the excitement taking hold in Australia: site-driven, food friendly, acid hugging, truly unique wines that don’t try to emulate but instead to self-express.
The Geological Gems seminar focused on this diversity, with particular attention on the soil variations across Australia’s numerous wine regions. Leaders from Australia’s wine community were there to talk about their wines, their region and share their opinion on the future of Australian wine. With many wine-makers in the audience, a lively discussion ensued at what was undoubtedly one of the best seminars of the festival.
Australia’s Vast Geology
Australia’s wine regions range across four thousand kilometres from Western Australia (Margaret River, Great Southern, etc.) to South Australia (Barossa, Eden, Clare, Adelaide), Victoria (Heathcote, Yarra), New South Wales (Hunter, Riverina) and Tasmania. The example given in the seminar was to place a map of Europe within Australia, showing the Margaret River near Morocco and Queensland all the way out near the Ukraine. This distance is astonishing to most people unfamiliar with Australian wine and the climatic and soil distinctions that give its wines the kind of diversity you only see in the world’s great wine producing nations.
Riesling is the most famous export from Clare and it is truly one of the world’s great marriages of site and grape. There is nothing in the world like Clare Valley Riesling. Part of this is due to the slate and limestone soils, which as you may know, were meant for Riesling (see the Mosel’s various slate soils).
The Jim Barry Lodge Hill Riesling 2013 we tasted was planted in 1979 on limestone soils at 500 metres above sea-level. This is classic Clare – lime citrus, a clay-like minerality and very dry. It’s a lovely wine that is perfect for much of our asian foods. Very Good+. $30.
Another perfect marriage of site and grape – amongst the very best in the world – is Hunter Valley and Semillon. Bruce Tyrell (from one of Australia’s original wineries, Tyrell’s) was in attendance to tell us about that perfect marriage. “The only difference between Clare Riesling and Hunter Semillon is the base flavour”, said Tyrell. Both are ‘naked’ grapes that are the epitome of non-interventionist wine. They don’t need any fanciness in the cellar.
Whereas Clare Riesling does beautifully in slate and limestone, the soils in the Vat 1 vineyard have a band of calcite under the surface that gives the wine its unique character. The grapes are hand sorted in the vineyard rather than the winery and picked at 10.5% to 11% alcohol, a point at which the grapes are physiologically ripe. The very low Ph of the wine means the acids are very strong and allow the wine to age for decades. Hunter, like much of Australia, has not seen phylloxera and so has many own-rooted vines. Tyrell’s is home to some of these.
The Vat 1 is lovely and truly one of Australia’s iconic wines. Our 2008 is the current release and was toasty and full in the mid-palate with fresh, dry citrus and a clean, acid driven finish. Excellent. $55.
The Strathbogie ranges are likely a region with which few readers are familiar. It is located in Victoria, not too far northeast of Melbourne and had its first plantings in 1968, making it a reasonably young region by Australian standards. The soils here are granite over clay.
Strathbogie is a testament to Victoria’s diversity – there are all sorts of wine regions tucked away in this state making a huge range of wines, including this Chardonnay from Fowles they call the Stone Dwellers Chardonnay. We tasted the 2013. It is a stone-fruit Chard with peach and nectarine, but avoids veering into the unpleasant tropicals and manages everything with an excellent acidity. A small amount of seasoned oak and malo is used for this lovely fresh and sweet-fruited Chard. Very Good+. $28.
Sweeping across the counter to the westernmost wine region, Margaret River, takes us to one of the most exciting regions for Chardonnay in Australia, though of course we cannot forget the Cabernet Sauvignon. The key to this region is the maritime climate with heavy cloud cover and a cool winter. The heat degree days are 1,500 and the hang times are very long, allowing for full phenolic development. It is a climate not dissimilar to Bordeaux, though more reliably sunny. Soils here are very old, with sand/gravel topsoils and clay loam subsoils, which with drying sea breezes mean that irrigation is necessary in most vineyards.
This brings me to a discussion of Chardonnay – arguably the most important grape in Australia today from a quality perspective. Jancis Robinson has recently said Australian Chardonnay can go toe-to-toe with the best of Burgundy ‘effortlessly’. This is a far cry from a decade ago and earlier when Chardonnays were made using fruit planted in regions that are far too hot, picked at the wrong time and then marred by misuse of oak and malo-lactic fermentation. Today, these ills have mostly been remedied.
At the festival I found a number of stunning Chardonnays that make me concur with Jancis. That said, some producers are still too heavy on the lees-stirring, which in my opinion mars the fruit when not done deftly.
At the seminar we tasted the Devil’s Lair Chardonnay 2012, which had nice acidity and texture, but I found it a little too toasted and leesy to match my top Chard picks at the festival. Very Good. $42.
While not poured at the Geological Gems seminar, I was quite impressed with the Evans & Tate Redbrook 2011, which was a balanced, richer style buoyed by beautiful acids and citrus notes, also from the Margaret River. Very Good+ to Excellent. $45.
And let’s not forget Leeuwin’s famed Art Series Chardonnay, which, while not poured at the festival, is one of Australia’s icon Chardonnays and hails from Margaret River.
And, to digress briefly from Margaret River, a Howard Park Flint Rock Chardonnay 2013 from the Great Southern (part of West Australia, but a very different (and colder) climate from Margaret River) was a stunning example of Chablisean style Chardonnay, bearing out its name with plenty of flinty minerality and sap with mouth watering acids. The region sees lots of sunshine and thus a long ripening season despite the extremely cold antarctic winds blowing in off the southern coast. Very Good+. $30.
Back to Margaret River – it is also known for Cabernet Sauvignon and our example from Franklin Tate Estates was a lovely fresh example with impressive length. There were some eucalyptus elements along with lush black berry and current fruit and perfectly ripened tannins. This is grown in a part of Margaret River off the classic western coast growing regions and further inland where vegetables are grown. Franklin Tate claims these red soils are the best in Margaret River. Very Good+ and Highly Recommended Value. $25.
Yarra Valley in Victoria is blessed with diverse elevation. This has become increasingly important as global warming has opened up previously unsuitable sites to planting. Vineyards range from 50m to 400m above sea level and are planted in the grey sandy clay loams or the red volcanic soils common in the area. It’s become a popular region for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and plantings have exploded since the mid 1990’s.
The wine we tasted – a Yering Station Reserve Pinot Noir 2012 – is made with the Bindi 6 clone and is a modern, lush style of Pinot Noir. It has fresh acidity and nice length with loads of strawberry on the nose, though I found the wine a bit hot on the finish for my taste. It doesn’t quite have the ethereal qualities you want from the very best Pinot Noir, but this is nonetheless a nice wine if not pricey. Very Good to Very Good+. $80.
McLaren Vale has one of the most complex geologies in Australia. A few years ago I attended a seminar with d’Arenberg’s Chester Osborn who showed a mind-boggling map of the soil variations in the region. Thus, one cannot sum up McLaren Vale’s soils in any particular manner. The region is famous for old-vines, particularly Grenache and Shiraz, and high octane reds.
That said, the winds from the lofty ranges cool down the vineyards and preserve significant acidity in the grapes, making for some extremely interesting powerful but mouth-watering old-vine reds.
The Yangarra Estate High Sands Grenache 2006 we tasted is made from bush trained vines planted in 1946. The vineyard is biodynamically farmed. The wine has naturally high acidity at 3.4 Ph, which when combined with the power and quality of the fruit, completely masks the wine’s 15.5% ABV. The finish is dry, without the residual sugar that can mar some wines. It is extremely interesting, impressive wine with florals and raspberry liqueur undergirded by significant minerality. The tannins are long and svelte. Excellent. $140.
We also tasted the Singleback D Block Reserve Shiraz 2009, which is planted on black cracking clay and limestone soils. This was a gamey wine with incredible amounts of umami. This needs a lot of time to unwind and right now lacks some finesse. Very Good to Very Good+. $80.
Coonawara and Terra Rossa soils are synonymous for Australians. But it’s not just the soils that make Coonawara one of Australia’s leading regions for Bordeaux blends. It also happens to be the southernmost of South Australia’s wine producing regions and, though it lies 100 kilometres from the sea, has a maritime climate due to the very flat land that does nothing to stop the sea-breezes. Because of this, the diurnal shifts are significant, with highs well into the 30’s and lows below 10. This allows very ripe, lush fruit to live side by side with fresh, lively acids. The result is distinctive, elegant Cabernet Sauvignon dominant wines.
The Hollick Old Vines Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 was all coffee, black currant, and dry minerality. This is a wine more focused on secondary flavours rather than sweet fruit, with tannins that are a touch tough right now but that will soften. It is an impressive wine for the price. Very Good+ to Excellent. $30
We also tasted an aged Majella Cabernet Sauvignon 2005. Majella are one of the pioneers of Coonawara and their cab is in a lusher, flashier style, much like owner Brian Lynn. You can expect intense black currant, eucalyptus and chocolate. Very Good+ to Excellent. $50 ($30 on release)
Heathcote is known for its rich red Cambrian soils – the oldest in Australia. It is the soils’ physical rather than chemical properties that make it well suited for Shiraz as the difficulty of the soils reign in the weed-like Shiraz vine and prevent over-propagation. The diurnal shifts here also contribute to freshness.
The Shiraz’s from Heathcote are distinctive – powerful but lively wines that are quite different from McLaren Vale and Barossa. The Telurian Pastiche Shiraz 2012 we tasted had a sweet fruited nose with a touch of coffee and a mineral mid palate. It finishes quite dry despite the sweetness of the fruit. Very Good.
Irrigation in the heart of old-school Langhorne Creek is old-fashioned: since 1850 it has been completely by flood, with the rivers Bremer and Angas providing the annual flood waters that are sufficient to moisten the soils for the rest of the year such that no other irrigation is needed. Not too many wineries sit on the flood plain, though Bleasdale (whose Powder Monkey Shiraz we tasted) is one.
Langhorne creek is also famous for being the source for much big brand fruit and so some might overlook some of the more exciting projects going on here. In this case, from the second oldest winery in Australia. Bleasdale was founded in 1850 by Frank Potts. In the last 10-15 years quality here has skyrocketed and I think their new wines are outstanding. Part of the reason for this is their meticulous attention to crop yeilds, which can easily get high in Langhorn. The vineyards that source the Powder Monkey Shiraz, for example, are cropped at a small 2 tons per acre.
The 2009 Powder Monkey Shiraz has a completely different fruit profile compared to the Tellurian from Heathcote and is an exciting example of regional diversity. The wine was more focused, with more blackberry fruit and a juicy finish. Savouries and black fruits dominate, but the wine remains oustandingly fresh. Very Good+ to Excellent. $55.