THERE’S something irrepressibly cheery about Australian winegrowers, even when they’ve had barely any sleep after flying halfway round the world.
I caught up with the leading members of Australia’s self-styled ‘first families of wine’, representatives of 12 of Australia’s proudest family-owned wine estates, just after they’d arrived in London on a mission to demonstrate that the Australian wine industry has many surprises up its sleeve: a rich mix of new and exciting styles and some imaginative reinterpretations of old favourites.
From the wines they’d brought, it was clear that if Australian wines no longer represent as keen value for money as they did a few years ago, they offer an ever more seductive portfolio of aromas and flavours that no wine lover can afford to ignore.
The dry white wines they’d brought were superb, in particular, three examples of Vermentino. Vermentino is a Mediterranean grape used for worthy, but ever so slightly dull, wines in southern France or its native Sardinia.
In Australia it reveals unexpectedly heady aromas with refreshing acidity, all at reassuringly low levels of alcohol.
“If we’d discovered it 30 years ago it might have become our flagship white variety,” Colin Campbell, one of the old hands in the group, muttered in admiration.
There’s not a lot of it about yet, but I found a good example locally, though sadly not from one of the first families, Mitolo ‘Jester’ Vermentino 2010, which is deliciously spicy, with citrus, and green fruit flavours (£12.99 at Carruthers & Kent).
Chardonnay continues its comeback – a “real resurgence” according to Chris Tyrrell, whose family make some of Australia’s best wine. Lower alcohol, more subtle use of oak and fresher acidity is the key.
Chardonnays from Howard Park and McWilliams impressed me. I very much liked Jim Barry’s fine Riesling, ‘Florita 2011’, while Tahbilk came up with an utterly delicious Viognier 2011 from Victoria’s Nagambie Lakes district, which had real finesse and a very moderate 12.5% alcohol.
The star of the dry white show, however, was one of Chris Tyrrell’s wines, a thoroughly old-fashioned take on a great Aussie classic.
Tyrrell’s ‘Johnno’s’ Hunter Valley Semillon 2010 is made in small quantities from venerable vines, the oldest of which were planted before 1908.
The Tyrrell family had the idea to dust off an old basket press and make a wine without the use of the usual enzymes introduced to help the fermentation along. They didn’t fine or filter it. Not only does it have far greater depth of flavour than their (excellent) standard wine, but, to their surprise, they found that the juice crushed in the old press has very slightly fresher acidity than in a modern airbag press.
High alcohol still marks some of the reds, but the range of flavours is ever more impressive, with Tempranillo from Wakefield Estates and Henschke and Rioja’s best kept secret, Graciano transported to Victoria by Brown Brothers, all providing lots of interest.
Shiraz can still strut its stuff too, without over-extraction, or preposterous alcohol levels, as Tyrrell’s sublime 4 Acres Shiraz 2009 showed: a wonderfully complex, fresh, spicy, wine that weighs in just under 13% alcohol. Unfortunately it costs £54.99 and there’s not much of it about.
Better news, therefore, comes in the multiplicity of lines (60 at the latest count, many of which are single vineyard bottlings) made by the indefatigable Chester Osborn under the d’Arenberg label. Only Brown Brothers grow a wider range of grape varieties – both wineries can boast more than 30. D’Ahrenberg wines, including my wine of the week, are in several supermarkets, but the best local selection of their top wines is at The Wine Chambers in Tynemouth.
Chester Osborn is a fan of not getting in the way of nature. Unlike many of his compatriots he chooses not to adjust (raise) the acid levels of his wines. He believes that carefully grown fruit, especially from old, unirrigated vines, will keep its acidity.
His magnificent Grenaches prove him right. D’Ahrenberg, The Blewitt Springs Grenache 2009 is a stunning mix of perfumed sensuality and great finesse, but the cheaper ‘Derelict Vineyard’ Grenache 2007, also from the windy McClaren Vale in South Australia, is also superb, with rich, ripe fruit, and fresh acidity. “Grenache expresses the quality of the vintage like Pinot Noir does,” he told me and added that in 2009, 2010 and 2012 the McClaren Vale has seen three great years for Grenache.
The growers are also trialling new varieties. One is Tyrian, a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon with the sturdy Spanish grape Sumoll. Even some of the other winemakers hadn’t heard of it, let alone tasted it before, but Doug McWilliam, who began trials with it 15 years ago, believes that it is excellently suited to the hot, irrigated vineyards of Riverina where his family has major holdings. It yields well, with plenty of colour, acidity and tannin and is disease-resistant.
He also has found out that it needs 60% less irrigation water than either Shiraz or Cabernet, so has good green credentials. The wine itself was chunky and fruity – not the last word in finesse, but promising indeed.
Australia’s winemakers face ever more stiff competition as well as the rigours of climate change, but with their ‘can do’ attitude and openness to new ideas, they’ll continue to turn out lots more great wine – and come up smiling.
WINE OF THE WEEK
D’Ahrenberg, ‘The Hermit Crab’, Viognier/Marsanne 2010 £9.99 Sainsbury’s
Elegant but fruity, unoaked, dry white from South Australia’s McLaren Vale – a combination of spicy peach, pear, honeysuckle aromas, crisp, but creamily mouth-filling. Try it with fresh crab or almost anything fishy.
Marlborough in New Zealand makes today’s definitive Sauvignon Blanc. Of all the many fine producers, I find Jackson Estate to be consistently among the best. Their ‘Stich’, Sauvignon Blanc, 2011 is a superb effort: an enticing mix of passion fruit, grassy, spicy and tomato stalk aromas then a very crisp, dry flavour that’s sufficiently creamy to make it linger a while, rounded off by a gentle savoury saltiness. It’s £12.49 at Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Majestic (£9.99 for two at Majestic).
I’ve been less impressed by some of Spain’s efforts with Sauvignon Blanc, but in a blend with the local Verdejo it can add fruit and depth of flavour. Vino de la Tierra de Castilla, Verdejo/Sauvignon Blanc, 2011, Altozano, from Gonzalez Byass, (£7.99 at Ocado) is a minor triumph, like dry, spicy apple pie with a few slices of pear chucked in for good measure, then like the Stich, a subtle, salty finish.