Saturday, November 13, 2010

Yarra Valley Regional Overview by Phil Sexton

The great and important task of giving us a regional overview of the Yarra Valley was given to Phil Sexton. Co-founder of Australia's first microbrewery, Matilda Bay Brewery back in 1984, Phil moved to the Yarra to produce wine with a sense of place. In fact all of his wines under the Giant Steps label come from a single vineyard. Phil also created the Innocent Bystander label which has a trendier image with wines like Moscato, Pinot Gris and Viognier; aromatically making their way to the younger wine drinker. 

Phil built an image and name of his own in the little town of Healesville in the heart of the Yarra Valley. Anyone can enjoy a lovely brekkie or meal at his bistro and of course taste his range of wines. Listening to Phil talk was an experience of its own for me since this man has passion for wine, marketing vision and business acumen all rolled up in his sleeve.  

Friday, November 12, 2010

A New Wave of Wine Thinkers!

Around 2 months ago, just as I landed in Coonawarra, I came across an article by Huon Hooke (, where he stated how dormant the region of Coonawarra is and how it lacks innovation when compared to other wine regions in Australia. Being only at the start of my Australian wine experience I immediately critised this article and held a grudge against this wine writer thinking that if a wine region excels at producing a particular style of wine it should stick to that style and improve on it.

Yet once again I was wrong. Not in the fact that Coonawarra produces a great expression of Cabernet Sauvignon but I hadn’t yet experienced the wine regions of Yarra, McLaren Vale and the Barossa to make an unbiased judgement. Focusing for 2 days on the Yarra Valley during the James Busby tour made me realise how wine producers like Mac Forbes, Timo Mayers, Luke Lambert, Phil Saxton at Giant Steps and Stephen Webber at De Bortoli are becoming the point of reference in their region. Bringing a different and fresh approach to wine making which some might interpret as a weird nut case yet is surely appreciated by most.

What makes these producers stand out of the crowd is their wine making philosophy. Whole bunch fermentation, no or low % of new oak, only French oak used, site selection, total vineyard management, no fining and filtration, wild yeast; where all common statements made by these producers. But what is the reasoning behind such wine making practices?

Whole bunch fermentation is an “old” practise used mainly in Burgundy for the fermentation of Pinot Noir and Gamay. This reduces the amount of handling of the grapes thereby retaining great fruit flavours without imparting any harsh tannins which can imbalance wines made from Pinot Noir. This balance and freshness of fruit was easily identifiable in the Riorret The Abbey 2008 Pinot Noir by de Bortoli; light in colour with perfumed aromas of strawberries and rhubarb, delicate soft tannins with cherry flavoured mid-palate. The same freshness can be felt when tasting the Mayer Pinot Noir 2008 by the German Aussie Timo Mayer. This wine is 40% whole bunch fermented therefore tannins where slightly more grippy with savoury characteristics also showing on both nose and palate. Intense long finish ideal for the steak sanga served for lunch at Timo’s.

The careful use of oak was also a subject touched upon during various visits on our tour. American oak is seen as a curse whilst new French oak is now avoided for most wines in the Yarra. Steve Webber explained how at De Bortoli new oak is used for their lower end wines so that the oak tannin and flavour are not imprinted on their higher end wines were fruit expression is paramount. The Yarra Valley Estate Grown Chardonnay 2008 is a very enjoyable light weight Chardonnay with less oak characteristics “usually” found in Aussie Chards and more of the citrus flinty nuances coming through.

Apart from the diversified wine making practices, these wine makers chose to play around with different grape varities as well. Very interesting to taste was the RS 37 by Mac Forbes. A Riesling from the Strathbogie ranges with 37 grams residual sugar derived mainly by stopping fermentation with a drop in temperature of the wine to 1 degree then adding sulphur dioxide to stabilize the wine. The result is a very aromatic wine with lovely floral aromas. A good palate with acidity at 9grams/litre balancing out the sugar; lovely texture with no cloying feeling at the finish. Another interesting wine from Mac Forbes was the Hugh Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Again coming from strict site selection which Mac always supervises with great care, the fruit comes for the sub region of Gruyere in the Yarra. All varieties are fermented and matured separately using open vat fermentors which Mac explained as being vital for the tannins to integrate better; oxygen is needed both during fermentation and oak maturation for tannins to marry. Still a bit withdrawn on nose and palate this wine needs time to open up. Black berries, plums and hints of herbs on the nose. Great broad structure with chewy dusty tannins balancing the great fruit on the mid-palate.

Standing in the shadow of the more lively winemakers in the Yarra is Luke Lambert yet his wines are louder than a rock concert. Producing the king of wines and wines for kings (Barolo), Nebbiolo is a grape variety I am very much familiar with yet which I least expected to be tasting in Australia. Luke produces two Nebbiolos, one coming from the warm region of Heathcote and another coming from the cooler region of Yarra. Again these wines were a bit shy for starters but opened up nicely after some time in the glass. Typical perfumed nose with herbal aromas, “le spezie” which I find so prominent in the Italian Nebbiolo versions. Plump red fruit mid-palate with typical high acidity and dusty tannins. Great pureness of fruit in this wine which was also a feature I found in Luke’s Syrah. Delicate and supple with bright red fruit and a spicy smooth finish.

Different approaches to wine create different styles and a great variety to choose from. Like a 5 year old in a lolly shop its hard to pick my favourite wine out of the ones we tasted; maybe I can still convince my mummy to buy the lot! :)

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Dating back to the 1860s

Our first introduction to the Tahbilk winery was a boat tour on the Wetlands which make part of the Tahbilk Wetlands & Wildlife Reserve. The Nagambie Lakes Region in Upper Goulburn is the only wine region in Australia where the meso-climate is influenced by inland water masses. The lakes keep the climate cooler thereby the ripening of the grapes is slower, retaining the aromatics in the grapes which are very much sought for in varieties like Marsanne.

The visit hosted by Alister Purbrick himself was a fruitful one giving insights on how tradition, history and family are common features that have shaped Australian wineries.

Being such an important variety for the Tahbilk winery Masanne was the first variety featuring in our tasting. Whilst the 2008 and 2009 both featured floral notes, the 2001 vintage produced from the 1927 vines had more complex and richer notes on the nose with ripe apricots, caramelised nuts and orange peel. The palate had a lovely lean acidity balanced off with great minerality.

The line up of Shiraz and Cabernet wines was just startling. The 1996 Shiraz from the ‘1860 Vines’ was one of my favourite; plum intermingling with earthy and savoury notes on the nose, silky tannins with lovely mid-palate fruit, intense but not concentrated. The Reserve Shiraz, 1999 was also surprisingly lifted and fresh; strawberry hints with Mon Chéri chocolate notes, velvety tannins and a long spiced finish. The Eric Stevens Purbrick Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 shows how elegance and harmony are found even at an early age. Ruby red in colour with a black fruit profile of blackcurrants and blackberries, tannins very present yet balanced with a long liquorish mocha finish.

Even if the Australian wine industry is young, drinking the 1996 Shiraz from ‘1860 vines’ made me realise how unique Australian old vines are and how lucky I am to be on this part of the world. A really great tasting and winery visit which brought forward the importance of heritage for Australian wineries.