Archive for September, 2018

Report Highlights: My recent trip to Adelaide Hills, Barossa Valley and Eden Valley shattered many preconceptions about Australian Wine – share in my discoveries with a heady Rhone-esque blend of meaty Mataro, subtly spiced small-production Syrah and giveaway Grenache, plus adventures in new and exciting Australian Gruner Veltliner, Riesling, and some more leftfield exotica, and of course the obligatory Pinot Noir surprise.

“In Vino Veritas” – a bit about the Author

Nigel Tollerman is a sommelier and wine consultant currently based in Edinburgh, Scotland. Although he has particular experience with Southern Cone Wines, having studied at the Escuela Argentina de Sommeliers in Buenos Aires and lived there for many years, he is now dedicated to travelling the farthest-flung corners of the wine world and hunting out exciting small-production wines, all with unique and fascinating stories to tell. Recent wine destinations he has particularly enjoyed include Montenegro, Lebanon and Georgia, as well as Australia, New Zealand, France and Italy. He’s a fan of “wines that taste of wine”, made by wine-lovers for wine-lovers as opposed to generic wines engineered by a marketing team to maximize sales volume, and is equally fascinated by both New World and Old World wines, terroirs and production methods.

In this post I’ll be focusing on Australia –

wine map of australia

To most UK wine consumers of a certain age, Australian wine is budget-priced, in-your-face Shiraz with in-your-face labels of jumping kangaroos or other chintzy images of dubious taste. The Chardonnay can be perceived as buttery, oaky, or even slightly sweet – characteristics that often prompt Joe or Josephine Public to come out with the classic phrase “I don’t like Chardonnay” before a drop is sipped, when in reality their perceived like or dislike is more related to a style as opposed to the variety per se. However, the reality today, despite the existence of Jacob’s Creek, Yellowtail and other big brands, cannot be further from this misconception. Today a new style of whites is being produced across Australia, more savory, open to bottle-aging, fresher and more versatile. Partly this is due to an industry-wide effort to steer consumers away from New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, and partly due to more cooler-climate plantings using high-quality clones (such as Mendoza, Bernard, and Gin Gin) and the aging of vines contributing to more elegant, mineral wines.

The vast majority of wine sales from smaller Australian winemakers are sold in the domestic market (86% in 2016/7) but figures show exports in this sector are increasing year on year, and more quality small-production wines are likely to arrive in the UK over the coming year. The UK being the 6th largest wine market in the world and Australia’s largest export market by volume is a key target. Although the supermarket offerings are likely to remain fairly consistent, independent retail and on-trade opportunities galore exist. In the case of boutique wine production, the pendulum of Shiraz production has also swung towards a leaner, lighter, fragrant style, with less overpowering new oak, planting of cooler vineyard sites and use of whole-bunch fermentation – even using some Pinot Noir specific techniques in the vinification process. Apart from the classic varieties, research has revealed growth in exports to the UK market for Viognier, Durif (Australian synonym for Petite Sirah), Verdelho, Montepulciano and Tempranillo, amongst others.

Quick Facts

  • Australia has some of the oldest vines in the world – through strict quarantine rules South Australia managed to escape the Phylloxera plague that destroyed a large percentage of the world’s vines in the late 19th century.

  • There are an estimated 2468 wineries and 6251 grape growers across 65 wine regions, employing over 170,000 people. 90% of these wineries have only existed since 1970.

  • As of 2016 Australia has been the world’s 5th highest producer by volume and 4th in the list of exporters by dollar value.

  • Although the average Australian consumes almost 30 litres of wine annually, 60% of total production or 2 million bottles a day are exported to over 100 thirsty foreign markets

australian wine sector at a glance

Introduction to the Adelaide Hills

My Australian wine journey started in the Adelaide Hills, a short 40 minute drive from Adelaide city, warm winter sun being replaced with a very distinct microclimate as I drove up the steep highway that links the city with the hills to the south-east – far more reminiscent of a temperate northern European winter than the lower-lying city on their doorstep. Although vines have been planted in the area since the 1870’s, by the 1960’s very few remained – it was not until the 1970’s that winemakers started to discover the potential of the cool climate and terroir to experiment with atypical cooler climate and early ripening varieties. Today there are over 100 producers in this young but cutting-edge region. Around 60% of production is white, including plenty of medium-weight Chardonnay that goes into sparkling wine production, and 40% red – including Merlot, Pinot Noir, and even Cabernet Sauvignon on some of the valley’s more northerly west-facing slopes. The administrative centre of the region is the picturesque German-influenced town of Hahndorf, founded in 1839 by Prussian Lutherans fleeing religious persecution in their homeland, and still retaining a strong Germanic character.

This even extends to the wines – Gruner Veltliner, Blaufrankisch and Zweigelt being notable varieties, many pioneered in this part of the world by the Hahndorf Hill winery on the outskirts of town. The Gruner Veltliner is a particularly interesting grape, able to be refined into a number of different styles and with a great capacity to take on notes of its terroir – Hahndorf Hill, using six different Gruner clones imported from Austria in 2006 and 2009, make four different styles – an involving but not at all cloying late harvest, a “new world” fruit-driven, more modern style example, and two more classic examples that tasting blind I would be hard pressed to distinguish from numerous high-end Austrian counterparts – the combination of cool nights and warm days in the growing season helping to produce elegant wines with impressive depth and complexity. Another favourite of mine here was their Rose, made with Trollinger, Pinot Noir and Merlot, wonderfully dry on the palate with concentrated strawberry and cherry fruit on the nose, perfect by itself on a sunny day or with Asian food. More tasting highlights then came along courtesy of the small-batch, family run Mordrelle winery – one of the owners having an Argentine family connection, although to my disappointment no Malbec was yet being produced. The Merlot is well balanced, enjoying just the right balance of freshness and ripeness with a steely mineral-streak underlying its agreeably peppy acidity The Syrah was a revelation – quite the antithesis of the syrupy alcoholic fruit-bomb that’s so prevalent in the often-dismal UK supermarket offerings of Australian Shiraz.

hahndorf hills gruner masterclass

Hahndorf Hills – Gruner Veltliner masterclass

Introduction to the Barossa Valley

Following my adventures in the Adelaide Hills, I moved on to the Barossa and Eden Valleys, basing myself in the charming settlements of Angaston and Seppeltsfield. Like most wine consumers back in the UK, my image of Barossa was lots of Shiraz, generally very powerful and in-your-face, nothing resembling a French Syrah which is genetically the same grape, and oaky, buttery, almost Californian-style Chardonnay.

The history of winemaking in the Barossa dates back to 1842 making it one of the most historic production regions of Australia, with old vines now tended in many cases by the 6th generation of the original pioneering families. Located to the North East of Adelaide, it has a range of microclimates although broadly speaking it’s Mediterranean with lots of sun, a long growing season, hot days in summer, cool breezy evenings and low seasonal rainfall of around 160mm. Soils are varied. As with the Adelaide Hills there’s a strong Germanic influence, notably in the regional hub Tanunda, where I enjoyed the best Bratwurst of my trip and the sight of some pretty Lutheran churches to break the vineyard sightseeing. Until the 1970’s a large part of production was devoted to fortified wine styles made with a base of Shiraz or Mataro (the local name for Mourvedre), which largely supplied the local market. Fast-forward to the 1970’s and the style started to evolve  under the direction of a new generation of winemakers as tastes developed locally and internationally towards drier, more fruit-forward wines. Fast forward once more to the 1990’s and, encouraged by the international wine press, the focus moved towards more robust, powerful wines with Shiraz predominant. In more recent years the area has witnessed a new wave of creative evolution involving lots of experimentation with alternative largely Mediterranean grape varieties, organic and biodynamic production, and a retreat from this focus on the much-promoted Shiraz style.

80% of Barossa production is red and 20% white, with Riesling the most planted white, and Cabernet Sauvignon (more fruit-forward and less tannic than the much-famed Cabernet Sauvignon of Margaret River in Western Australia), Shiraz, and Mataro the principal red varieties.

My first winery stops were Rockford and Charles Melton. The former, founded in 1984, makes award-winning wines with a focus on traditional winemaking techniques including use of an 1880’s vintage destemmer. I loved the unusual “Frugal Farmer” 2016 Red Blend – involving the skins of Alicante Bouchet grapes from their excellent dark pink medium-bodied Rose, which are co-fermented with early picked Grenache and Mataro. The end result is a spicy but light and full of life wine not dissimilar to a Beaujolais Cru like Brouilly or Regnie. Delicious by itself and very versatile with food. Other highlights included an opulent peppery Shiraz-Cabernet Blend, a crisp White Frontignac, and an earthy Grenache/Shiraz/Mataro blend.

Moving on to Charles Melton, the focus was more modern, but a wide range of sub-styles were represented – their Grenache-Shiraz-Mataro showed all the characteristics of a top-class southern Rhone blend on the nose and palate, and whilst the classical full-bodied Shiraz style was in evidence with their iconic Grains of Paradise 2015 Shiraz, their more economical Father In Law 2016 Shiraz still had the peppery spicy fruit but expressed with subtlety, minerality and elegance, far more old-world in style and substance. Likewise the Kirche 2016, which is the same wine with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon added which endow it with lovely Graves-esque cedarwood and tobacco notes.

After a number of other stops, I made it to Penfolds, the most iconic winery of the region and indeed Australia, and Hentley Farm (which is a whole future post in itself). The story of Penfolds dates back to the 1840’s when Dr Christopher and Mary Penfold planted the vine cuttings they had brought over from England to Australia and by 1907 it had become South Australia’s largest winery. In the 1950’s the iconic Grange wine was finally conceived, to this day one of the world’s greatest wines (the 2008 Grange has most recently been awarded 100 points by Wine Spectator). Whilst I wasn’t invited to taste Grange, I did greatly enjoy their deep and complex Bin 389 Cabernet-Shiraz – for those of you that don’t know, the “Bin” tradition dates to 1959 when a Barossa Shiraz of the winery was simply named after the numbered part of the cellar in which it was aged. The tradition simply continued and does to this day. Another particular revelation was their 2009 Cellar Reserve Sangiovese, very Chianti in style and had me instantly craving Italian Pizza, medium-bodied with plenty of earthy blueberry, plum and blackberry fruit. On the whites front, they produce some vastly contrasting Chardonnay – their Reserve Bin 16A has oodles of complexity on the nose featuring honey, toast, and almonds with grapefruit, peach and melon fruit and a hint of sweet citrics on the palate, but not excessively buttery. And the Bin 311, crisp, zesty and mineral with citric aromas to the fore and bracing acidity and freshness – once more quite the antithesis of the Barossa stereotype from the typical UK supermarket shelf, alhough it’s worth clarifying in the latter case that the grapes actually originate in Tumbarumba in New South Wales.

penfolds sangiovese

Introduction to Eden Valley

The cooler-climate Eden Valley lies directly to the east of the Barossa Valley at an altitude of 360-500 metres above sea level and characterized by an interesting variety of soil types, the most prevalent being gravel and small rocks atop a clay-dominant subsoil, well suited to Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Germanic white varieties notably Riesling. I was lucky enough to visit the historic Henschke winery and sample some of the finest wines in South Australia. Whilst best known for its iconic Hill of Grace Shiraz that retails at a super-premium price point, I was most interested in their whites and their Pinot Noir, the winemaker being a fanatical Burgundy enthusiast. I wasn’t disappointed with the Pinot, an exquisite pale colour, scents of rosebush, briar spice, cherry and strawberry fruit on the nose with notable poise, balance and acidity with the cleanest finish imaginable. Amongst the other reds, the Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc/Mataro blend stood out for its poise and depth – plenty of tannin but well-integrated oak, lots of complexity on the nose, and at least 10 years aging potential. Likewise the whites were excellent, notably a 2006-vintage Innes vineyard Pinot Gris that was still alive and well, an Eleanor’s Cottage Sauvignon-Semillon blend that blind tasted could have been mistaken for a Pessac-Leognan or Graves Bordeaux, some obligatory Riesling in contrasting styles depending on terroir, and a fresh but honeyed Chardonnay, once more defying stereotypes and pleasantly surprising the nose and palate. As if any more proof was needed that Australia goes way beyond big brand, big body Shiraz and Chardonnay.


Henschke Pinot Noir of the Gods

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