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Barossa, Rutherglen and Margaret River: January 2007

Hot Wines from the United States

We just concluded the 2007 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. The big winners with Sweepstake Awards are:

  • Roederer Estate
  • Geyser Peak
  • Windsor Vineyards
  • Flying Goat Cellars
  • B.R. Cohn
  • Navarro Vineyards

We have the complete results posted online. Just follow this link: www.winejudging.com

3 Regions, 3 Stories, One Country, a Sunburned one at that – Australia

Barossa

Henschke’s vineyards in the Eden Valley lie at an altitude of 400-500 metres. The higher altitude and cold nights help to preserve the natural acidity and low pH of the fruit. Their white wines are bottled under Stelvin (screwcap). Riesling was the signature variety of the Eden Valley in decades passed.

The Henschke family’s ancestors planted vines in Keyneton back in 1861. The oldest have the look you’ve seen in the Grandpčre Vineyard in Amador’s Shenandoah Valley – squat, knurly tree trunks, noble looking yet alive with green leaves.

The famous Hill of Grace vines originated from pre-phylloxera plant material brought from Europe. As with very old Zinfandel bush vines in California, the fruit is hand picked from these old-timers, fermented in open-top concrete fermenters, then matured in new oak.

Stay in Angaston while you visit. The Blond Café is packed by locals for breakfast and lunch where local produce and decadent scones are on offer. This puts you a short 15 km from Henschke’s tasting room.

Rutherglen

Rutherglen is reminiscent of Ripon or Lockeford or some other Central Valley town outside of Lodi. There’s a vastness to the space around the town, wide open expanses of range land with cattle and sheep and vines.

Cross that with a gold country town like Plymouth at the mouth of the Shenandoah Valley. There are remnants and reminders of a glory age when the place was happening. There are the signs of decline, wear and tear and lack of upkeep. Yet there are posh new bakeries alongside modern cafes serving artisan products to enjoy with the local wine.

And yes, there is the wine, born in the 19th century. There is longevity here and the region has ridden a crest of high times and low. Stickies, as the Australians call their dessert wines, were the quaff of most folks at one time. And all things fortified and sweet reigned. Yet the days of dry table wine are in vogue and the stickies have to struggle for attention with the current and increasing batch of table wines.

One man, working at the cellar door of a posh winery in Yarra Valley discouraged me from visiting this area. He didn’t think the wines were up to snuff. And there certainly is going to be some time before this area is renowned for its dry table wines. Yet there are some interesting ones to taste.

All Saints is a gorgeous castle of a building on stately grounds that you approach from a very long drive lined with ancient elm trees. It has the feel of approaching Tara from Gone With the Wind.

They have a sister winery under the same ownership down the road named St. Leonards. You really don’t have to pray at either, but the settings are rather heavenly. St. Leonards is quite close to the Murray River where campers delight.

The wines showed best at All Saints. My two favourites of the dry table wines were:

  • 2005 Estate Riesling, $17.50 – It’s quite a delicate, dry citrus driven Riesling.
  • 2003 Family Cellar Durif, $49.00 – Known as Petite Sirah at home in the states, this wine shows the intense, inky concentration that you expect with Petite. While huge and tannic, as many are, there’s a glycerol richness and the wine is balanced. Even with the exchange rate, it makes you appreciate how reasonably priced most of the Petite Sirah is in California.

Durif was brought to Rutherglen from France in 1908. It is said to do well because of the abundant sunshine and long dry autumns in this region.

Over at St. Leonards, they do make a curious wine based on the ripasso technique used in the Veneto. Somebody asked in a recent class if that technique was used elsewhere and this is one of the few I’ve come across.

They started with 2004 Shiraz grapes that were vinified dry. They took that wine from storage and added 2005 Shiraz skins after pressing to make a port style of wine. This recharged the fermentation to create a few more degrees of alcohol, ending up at 17%, yet making a dry wine. It’s very dense, full of black pepper and quite rich. As is the price at $49.00.

Though the dry table wines are in vogue, it’s the fortified Tokays and Muscats that beckon wine enthusiasts to make the pilgrimage. As I described them in a previous newsletter, these wines are blended with aged stocks stored in cask for 5 to over 100 years. The richness goes up with the average age of the blends, and so does the price. Yes, Chateau Y’Quem is expensive, but these wines vie for most expensive honors. The Museum Release Rare Tokay and Muscat (80-year blends) are $434.50 each, for 500ml bottles. These wines have that caramelized complexity you see in Tawny Port yet the alcohol, even at 18% is better integrated.

The next release will be over $1,000 for a small bottle. Seems steep, but Marty in the tasting room explained that when someone finally crunched the numbers on the true cost of producing these wines, they came up with $137,000 per bottle. That was taking into account all of the evaporation over 80 years and taxes paid over the life of the inventory and so on. It obviously doesn’t cost this much to make the fresh wine today that will go into these blends. You could never, however, duplicate the concentration and complexity by using only brand new juice.

Beyond Bordeaux in the Margaret River

Must see and taste – the short list:

  • Moss Wood
  • Woodlands
  • Cape Mentelle
  • Leeuwin Estate
  • We’re
  • Cullen

During the 1960s John Gladstones wrote of the area’s potential to produce top quality red wine. Comparisons were made and continue to be made with the great red wines of Bordeaux. Wilyabrup is considered the fillet mignon of the region’s side of beef.

Though close to the ocean there is rarely fog as in San Francisco and on the Sonoma Coast. The ocean is a climate moderator assuring growers of no frost. There is no summer rain though powdery and downy mildew are problems to reckon with.

Warm Leeuwin currents make for a pleasant atmosphere if visiting in the autumn. Locals say it’s a good time to catch site of the whales as they migrate past the coast. A visit during their autumn in March and April would be a nice break for those of us in the north that are still shivering with the last of winter rains.

A number of the top producers produce stellar wines in both the ‘drink for today’ model and in the ‘hold in the cellar model’. The defining thread is full on fruit in an accessible package for today where there is no compromise on flavor or density. It’s simply that the tannins are ripe and polished so you can pop the wine on the day of purchase.

On the age worthy side of the spectrum, the wines are even more dense and settled into a structure that is just too intense for enjoying today yet you can see the potential for long life. The balance is there such that the fruit and other flavors keep up with the tannic and acidic frame.

From Cullen, for example, there is the 2003 Cabernets for today and the 2004 Diana Madeline for a distant tomorrow.

A Deeper Look at Cullen

Cullen is a leader viticulturally, moving from organic certification in 2003 into biodynamic farming today. They are located in Cowaramup on the edge of Wilyabrup. Western Australia has made a fortune in mining and the Margaret River area was on deck. The Cullen family back in the 1960’s lobbied successfully to prevent bauxite mining in what has today become one of the world’s most famous wine regions. Mining was successfully prohibited one half mile in and one half mile offshore as well, preserving a pristine coastal environment from Cape Naturaliste to Cape Leeuwin. Today Vanya Cullen is the family winemaker.

  • 2004 Chardonnay smells mildly of oak which adds complexity to the flavors of great apple and intense acidity.
  • 2003 Cabernets is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Cabernet Franc. The oak is integrated into the berry fruit while silky polished tannins and great acidity define the structure of the wine.
  • 2004 Diana Madeline is a blend of 84% Cabernet and 13% Merlot aged for 18 months in oak. The wine is quite tannic and tight yet there is an ample concentration of fruit to keep up with the structure. Bottled under screwcap for Australia and under natural cork for the as yet skeptical export market.

 

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