The New Aussome: Exploring Cool Climate Australian Wine Regions
I am truly privileged to have been invited to over 50 wine regions in the world, however, there was one major stamp missing on my passport and from one of the most popular wines sold in Ireland – Australia. There had been no group of Irish wine media visits to Australia for nearly a decade but perhaps reflecting the gradual growth in confidence internationally and the strengthening performance of Ireland’s economy, Australia had a new story to tell.
I still get a buzz when I recall receiving the invite from Wine Australia for a visit covering the cooler coastal wine regions of South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria. Australia’s story was one which included the quite dramatic changes to wines’ styles to a more understated and subtle expression where less is more, as well as their experience having fun with experimenting with a host of unfamiliar varieties.
The kind people at Wine Australia organised a fantastic itinerary including wineries and winemakers whose wines are available in Ireland. I couldn’t stop smiling from the moment I boarded the Emirates Airlines eight hours flight to Dubai and the twelve hours to Adelaide. I was too excited to get jet lag, helped also by the really generous legroom and amenities on the flight.
On my first morning in Adelaide I took advantage of the Hilton’s open air sea water pool and went for a 7:00 am swim under a cloudless blue sky. I met my new best friends for breakfast in Adelaide’s Central Market, a bigger version of Cork’s English Market and the largest under cover food market in the Southern Hemisphere.
Our itinerary promised to show the considerable changes to Australian wine in the coastal regions we would be visiting.
Geelong (pronounced J-Long) shares a climate comparable midway between temperate Bordeaux and cool continental Burgundy. There are three sub-regions of surf coast, inland and cool areas with a mix of sand and volcanic soils with up to six weeks variation between harvesting dates. When asked about the effects of global warming, the winemakers answered that the main effect was warmer nights, ripening the grapes quicker resulting in harvesting fruit 4-6 weeks earlier in mid to late February than historically in April.
We tasted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Bannockburn, Austin’s, Bellbrae, Lethbridge, Scotchman’s Hill and Shadowfax. All were in the subtle European style with moderate 13% alcohol, little if any oak influence and helped by the cooling effect of the ocean. The only exceptions were a couple of robust Shiraz grown on chocolate sandy soils.
Tasmania, Australia’s biggest island was next, a prestigious and interesting zone for cool climate Australian wine. We visited Launceston, from where about 35% of the island’s sparkling wine production comes from and considered to be the best in Australia. This sparkling style of wine is driven by Tasmania’s climate, unique amongst Australia’s States being an island and the coolest and most southerly wine region, exposed to the chill sea currents from Antarctica. Not surprisingly, cool climate loving Pinot Noir accounts for 35% of production as a red wine, 20% is Chardonnay used mostly for sparkling wine and the balance is either age worthy Riesling, vibrant Sauvignon Blanc or crisp Pinot Gris.
Tasmania is also treated as a very separate wine region from the mainland. Wines from the mainland States of South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales can be blended inter-regionally and classified as South Eastern Australia. However, the wines of Tasmania have preserved their island identity preferring to brand their wines as Tasmanian rather than Australian.
We tasted a range of sparkling wines, mostly a classic blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and made in the Traditional Method. The highlights were Jansz Premium Cuvée, its Rosé version and its 2010 Vintage, some imported into Ireland by Cassidy Wines; Arras 2007, a Best in Show winner and simply stunning and its Rosé 2006, some of the range imported by Liberty Wines; Radenti 2011 and Pirie NV (whose 2007 won a confetti of awards) and Josef Chromy NV available in Marks & Spencer.
One of the most impressive characters on our trip was the indomitable Josef Chromy. A teenager refugee from a Czech village after WWII and a remarkably successful pioneer and owner of several wineries who at 85 hasn’t let a stroke and impaired speech slow him down. We tasted a large flight of different producers’ dry Tasmanian Rieslings at his winery, hosted by his winemaker of Irish descent, Jeremy Dineen.
Jeremy explained that Tasmanian Riesling retains its fresh citrus fruit character for longer developing into fresh toast and honey rather than the classic petrol. Skin contact gives a spicy character to the Rieslings and because of the island’s humid conditions, a little botrytis is common, making the Rieslings better to enjoy at least a year after bottling. Most dry Rieslings are crisp, refreshing and light bodied at around 12% ABV.
We drove to Hobart and had a culture shock visit to MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art from the private owner, David Walsh’s collection, located at his Moorilla Winery. Afterwards, Daniel McMahon in Sales hosted lunch and a tasting of some eclectic and seductive wines. Highlights were the eccentric and delicious perfumed blend of Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc and a surprise guest, Riesling with the bottle wearing a label made of cloth.
In the Mornington Peninsula, five winemakers showed us their Chardonnays and Pinots Noir from Stonier, Crittenden, Koonyong, Ten Minutes and Yabby Lake. With Melbourne’s 3 million population a short drive away, this is a very desirable coastal beach and golf playground for the wealthy with premium land prices that put pressure under vineyards who must earn their keep by producing high quality cool climate wines.
Pinot Noir is the most planted varietal and has a classy and subtle strawberry and cherry note. Chardonnay here has a distinctive accent with melon, fresh fig and lemon. While Pinot Gris, like its relative Pinot Noir is site specific and relishes a cool climate, here it delivers mineral and yellow fruit. All vineyards on the Mornington Peninsula are within 7 km of the ocean.
Our next visit was to complete “The Dress Circle” trinity around of cool Geelong and Mornington Peninsula with the Yarra Valley around Melbourne. Here the usual suspects of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are joined by chorus line of varietals. Cabernet Sauvignon, often with a Bordeaux-like blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot giving a floral or herbal nuance. The rising star in the region is Shiraz/Syrah and usually co-fermented with a little Viognier for perfume and texture and more red and blue fruit than black fruit. Less expected were the additional wines brought by local winemakers of Meunier, Gamay, Barbera and Portuguese varietals commonly found in Port as well as several Italian grapes.
Highlights from our truly enlightening and entertaining tasting were two 2015 wines, a Pinot Noir from Giant Steps and a Syrah with graphite and tar character from Innocent Bystander, both imported by Liberty Wines. “Yarra was thought to be too cool and wet for Shiraz. If you cried beside it, it might get Botrytis.” quipped Dave Bicknell, Chief Winemaker and CEO of Oakridge. Others that intrigued were La Boheme Act 4, a Syrah and Gamay blend showing crunchy red fruits, imported by Febvre.
The next day my new found friends departed home and I flew solo to Adelaide to discover for myself the wines from the Adelaide Hills and McLaren Vale and all with Irish importers.
Sauvignon Blanc is one varietal that needs a cool site to show off it herbaceous green fruit and freshly cut grass character. Hot climates just seem to blunt the wine’s crisp and focused lean fruit. We went with James Ever from McGuigan Wines to their flagship Nepenthe Winery in the Adelaide Hills, where he explained that Australians had been one of New Zealand’s best customers for Sauvignon Blanc accounting for 70% of their market. However, now imports were down by 5% and sales of Australian Sauvignon Blanc domestically were up by 20%. The new Australian style of Sauvignon Blanc had a riper and more tropical spectrum with added texture, yet still elegant with an easy structure and food friendly.
Then I went to Bird in the Hand Winery a short drive away, were I was to meet a long time hero winemaker of mine, Kym Milne MW, who explained that the winery was originally a gold mine in the 1870s. The Nugent family planted the vineyards twenty years ago and the first vintage was in 2001. Kym was engaged as a winemaker consultant in 2003 and is now a part owner with production increased from 10,000 cases to 100,000 cases of wine using both fruit they own and source in the hills that run north to south.
Kym had 23 wines lined up for us to taste before lunch in their impressive restaurant. There are two ranges, Two in the Bush and the premium Nest Egg, named after two original mine shafts. Highlights were the Gruner Veltliner 2016 at 12% ABV, the Bird in the Hand Shiraz at 14.5% ABV, the Nest Egg Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 and a rare Marie Elizabeth Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 at 14.5% ABV. The Bird in the Hand Wines are imported by Robb Bros. Wine Merchants in Portadown, Co. Armagh.
Tom Keelan, winemaker at The Pawn Wine Co. collected me on behalf of his friend Mark Saturno of Longview and brought me on a tour of the vineyards around Macclesfield. We met up with Mark in one of their vineyards and we tasted a range from both wineries from the back of Mark’s truck. There is nothing like tasting a wine in the vineyard to connect it to its roots.
The Macclesfield terroir is unique with nearby Lake Alexander benefiting from the 25-30 inches of rain, is also known as the Lake Doctor for helping to regulate the climate giving it a cool maritime influence and dropping late afternoon temperatures of 42C down to 15C. The old ironstone and clay soils make the vines work hard but without overstressing them. Meanwhile, the hills’ slopes are like solar panels and means there is no risk of frost to damage the vine’s shoots. The drop in night time temperature helps the vines to recover overnight.
Highlights of the á la truck tasting in the vineyard were Longview’s Chardonnay 2015, 13.6% ABV with its attractive Burgundian style and Yakka Shiraz 2013 14.5% ABV. That evening Mark and Tom brought me to the newly opened and truly impressive Olfactory Inn where we tasted some of their older vintages and the delicious Longview Epitome Late Harvest Riesling 2013 which served as our dessert. Longview Wines are imported by and available in O’Brien’s Wine outlets nationwide.
Next morning Mark Lloyd, owner of Coriole Wines drove me the short distance from Adelaide to his winery in McLaren Vale. Mark has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of Australian winemaking.
While McLaren Vale’s signature wines are Shiraz, they are often blended with Grenache and Mourvedre. There is a truly remarkable amount of experimentation with Mediterranean varietals, red and white. Coriole typifies that pioneering spirit. In 1985, Mark was one of the first in McLaren Vale to plant Tuscany’s signature black varietal, Sangiovese. A decade later, Mark planted two other black varietals from Northern Italy, Barolo’s Nebbiolo and Piedmont’s Barbera, and since 2000, they also harvest Southern Italian varietals Negro Amaro and Nero d’Avola.
We tasted a range of Mark’s wines and the two that impressed me were two that Wines Direct brings into Ireland. Chenin Blanc 2016, Coriole at 12% ABV, was originally planted in error and thought to be Arbillo, to make a Sherry style of wine. Notice the wine label, it replicates a painting by Mark’s mother, Mary Kathleen. Made from his original 1985 plantings, the eclectic blend of Sangiovese with Shiraz 2015, Coriole at 14.5% ABV was surprisingly understated and elegant with dark fruit and tea character.
More research beaconed and d’Arenberg’s Jack Walton collected me and we drove the short distance to the estate which has a surreal rubix cube of a building nearing completion beside their outstanding restaurant. Jack has been winemaker with owner and chief winemaker, Chester Osborne since 2003. The Osbornes celebrated a century of making wine in 2012.
Jack explained that all wines are gently basket pressed (similar to Champagne’s grapes) and foot trodden in the traditional manner. When asked about the association with Australia and an overt oaky style of wines, Jack clarified that at d’Arenberg they look for fruit tannin rather than oak tannin. The wine is not racked and is allowed to rest on its lees. The combination of the controlled oxidation of the porous oak barrel with the reduction of the lees means wines with freshness but also texture.
We tasted 19 wines before a most memorable lunch of lobster ravioli and kangaroo with beetroot risotto. I still dream of the olives with smoked almonds rolled in breadcrumbs and deep fried.
My next travel companion was Nathan Hughes, an Irish descent winemaker at Willonga 100. I asked Nathan if he had a favourite grape varietal and his answer was his new found friend in McLaren Vale, Grenache. The appeal for Grenache is that it’s quite reflective of where it’s grown.
We tasted a Tempranillo, Spain’s most widely planted varietal and a range of Willonga 100’s signature wines, the Grenache. Nathan explained that there is a deliberate style change in the Grenache Rosés 2015 and 2016. There is less exuberant ripe fruit and a reduction in residual sugar.
Regarding the red wines, Nathan explained that the wines were made without oak, tank only and left on the lees in the Rhône style. The wines are still evolving but were discernibly different. The Blewitt Springs had very muted aromas and classic white peppered red fruit while the Clarendon had a pronounced minty aroma. The Blewitt recently won the McLaren Vale Wine Show Trophy, and just pipped the Clarendon into second place.
Nathan then drove me to meet Kevin O’Brien, winemaker at Kangarilla Road Winery. Kevin’s wines are available through his namesake, O’Brien’s network of off-licences in Ireland and through Majestic in the UK. Kevin is a champion of Italian grape varietals, red and white. My favourite was the Duetto 2015 at 13% ABV, made with two thirds Vermentino and one third Fiano, each fermented separately.
Next we had a bit of intrigue with The Veil 2013 at 14% ABV, made from the Jura’s Savignan, inspired by Jura’s Vin Jaune, a controlled oxidised Fino Sherry style wine. Our first red was a Primitivo 2013 at 14.5% ABV that delivered instant gratification with blackberry fruit and silky smooth tannins. Our final red was the Terzetto 2013 at 14.5% ABV (available in Ireland through O’Briens), named after a musical term for three instruments, this trinity of Italian classic varietals are 45% Sangiovese for structure, 40% Primitivo for juicy fruit and 15% Nebbiolo for structure and a rosehip refreshing fruit.
My last tasting was in Adelaide back at my hotel with winemaker of Shoo Fly Wines, Ben Riggs. We tasted a range of Shoo Fly wines including a Chardonnay 2015 at 13.5% ABV from the Adelaide Hills that was lovely lean and fresh. A Pinot Noir 2015 from the Yarra Valley and King Valley in the neighbouring State of Victoria that showed pepper and spice with its red fruit and gentle tannins. Our final wine was a Shoo Fly Shiraz 2015 at 14.5% ABV and imported by Mackenway Wines.
That concluded my tasting of 293 wines over ten days in the company of the most engaging and committed winemakers who see change as a natural and welcome evolution. With the quality and diversity of their wines, they prove that it is not the strongest who survive, but the most adaptable.
Then, in the time honoured tradition after a lengthy wine tasting, we did what most Australian winemakers do, we had a beer. G’day.
If you want to taste some of this modern, cool climate Australian wines, save the date for the Australia Day Tasting at RHA, Ely Place Dublin 2 on Monday 30th January 2017.
Jansz Premium Cuvée, Tasmania 12% ABV
Produced in the Traditional Method.
Attractive Lemon and nougat bouquet and a hint of yeasty autolysis. Very dry and a good depth of Pinot Noir savoury character and with a creamy texture.
€33.99 in Dublin: Baggot Street Wines; The Corkscrew, Chatham Street; Cheers Take Home, Palmerstown and Jus de Vin, Portmarnock.
The Olive Grove Chardonnay 2015, d’Arenberg, McLaren Vale/ Adelaide Hills 13.7% ABV
Lovely aromas of waxy grapefruit peel and very mellow well-rounded flavours.
€18 at Redmond’s Ranelagh; Donnybrook Fair; Martin’s Fairview; Londis Shiels Malahide; O’Donovan’s Cork citywide; 1601 Cork; Egan’s Portlaoise; Woodberry’s Galway and Wine Centre Kilkenny. £13 at McSwiggan’s Magherafelt and Fairley’s Coleraine.
Pinot Noir 2014, Meres Single Vineyard, Kooyong, Mornington Peninsula 13% ABV
Attractive savoury aromas showing typical varietal character.
Seductive and silky smooth texture with deep layers of flavour of red fruit and a savoury edge on the finish.
€39.95 at Whelehan Wine, Silver Tassie, Loughlinstown has the more mature but untasted 2012 vintage in stock.
Yakka Shiraz 2013, Longview, Adelaide Hills, 14.5% ABV
Lovely core of black fruits that are well balanced by gentle tannins and refreshing acidity.
Full-bodied but without any heaviness.
€19.95 at O’Brien’s outlets nationwide and wine.ie
Terzetto 2013, Kangarilla Road, McLaren Vale 14.5% ABV
A trinity of Italian varietals performing in unison and harmony.
Sangiovese 45% for structure, Primitivo 40% for fruitiness and Nebbiolo 15% for structure and a rosehip freshness. Muted aromas but a very juicy palate with fleshy dark fruits and a hint of mint.
€17.95 at O’Brien’s outlets nationwide and wine.ie
Liam Campbell is one of Ireland’s most experienced wine writers. His work has been featured in the pages of numerous publications, most recently as the Wine & Drinks Editor for The Irish Independent, as well as in Irish Homes, Easy Food and The Dubliner magazines.
Besides writing, his involvement in the world of wine goes deeper: he’s an approved WSET educator and holder of a WSET Diploma, Diploma in Craft Beer & Cider, and he has worked as judge in international wine competitions and as a wine consultant.