Archives for December, 2009

2000-2009: Oz wine heroes, sales decline

This past decade is one to be remembered for the first ever significant decline of Australian international wine sales.

But more important is the rise in recognition of Australia’s regional heroes – the great wines of the country which reflect 62 regional terroirs and sense of places.

The country lost two great men of wine (raconteur Len Evans, 75) on August 17, 2006, and more recently (author Dr Max Lake, 84) this year on April 15. Both were Sydney domiciled but magnificent promoters of local wine in their beloved Hunter Valley.

Many of the significant changes have come at the back end of this decade: making structural and promotional adjustments from the slide in big brand wines, still widespread and popular but forever available.

The largest brand, Yellowtail, sells one in five of every Australian wines outside the country and in 40 other ones. Yellowtail is the brand of this decade.

To support the regional heroes the industry held its first Landmark tasting, 250 of these top styles for invited “country influencers” who attended in the Barossa Valley last August. Next year’s is to be in the Yarra Valley in September with a new crop of invitees, entry having closed today.

The larger independent producers established Australia’s First Families of Wine, a dozen families who have taken the charge away from the listed wine companies with short sighted objectives to give Australian regional heroes more stability and longevity, investing long term with greater experience. First Families (Yalumba, Henschke, De Bortoli, Tyrrells, Browns and more), a very modest group, will spend AUD600,000 in their travelling world promotion during 2010.

A refocus on promoting wine by the national body Wine Australia has recognised 12 top regions who command most buyer attention; in order of significance they are-Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale, Hunter Valley, Riverina, Limestone Coast, Margaret River, Clare, Langhorne Creek, Adelaide Hills, Coonawarra, Yarra, and Tasmania. That’s one state, one Western Australian, one Victorian, two New South Wales and the rest South Australian.

To learn more about Australian terroirs and their regional identity there is a web based training course in seven languages.

This decade Australian wines, generally older examples, have been able to dominate international wine shows, particularly in Europe.

In a style position once owned by German wine producers Peter Lehmann Wines (PLW) have shown one regional hero, aged Peter Lehmann Reserve Eden Valley riesling to be one of the great wines of this country. PLW took International Wine & Spirit Competition (IW&SC) Australian Producer of the Year in 2003, 2006 and 2008, followed by McGuigan Wines 2009 who also showed 2004 Eden Valley riesling with ultimate success.

In the same competition PLW then streaked the opposition (including the fancied Hunter Valley producers-Tyrrells, Brokenwood and McWilliams, and White Bordeaux) to be named White Winemaker of the Year in 2006 with PLW Reserve Semillon (later renamed Margaret after the ebullient Margaret Lehmann).

PLW were named International Winemaker of the Year twice by IW&SC in 2003 and 2006.

Another famous wine competition, the International Wine Challenge (IWC) continued the long run for Australian riesling by naming Tim Adams Riesling 2008 from Clare as the Great Value/Champion White Wine in the 2009 competition.

The same show recognised an Adelaide Hills chardonnay, 2007 McGuigan Shortlist which took three trophies, awarding its maker Neil McGuigan White Winemaker of the Year (all countries).

And finally the doyen of PLW, Peter Lehmann was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by IWC in the same year, applauding the man who has guided the company since 1979, and underscored the amazing performance of grapes grown in the Barossa/Eden Valleys, and assisting it to be Australia’s most widely-recognised wine region internationally.

The terroirs of the Barossa can take a bow.

Australia entered the decade exporting 500 million litres of wine which earned AUD 2.4 million, peaking to 785 million litres in 2007 worth AUD 3 billion, but as wine value has fallen in the fighting varietal sector, 2009 will see 750 million litres exported at the same return, AUD 2.4 million as in 2000. What a circle.

I foresee the next decade to see a rise in exports yet more, but at a greater return to this committed industry as more regional hero wines hit the international stage.

Brown Brothers bubbles-anatomy of a taste killer

Over the past few months there has been much discussion about the survival of family-owned wine companies and the sustainability of their products.

By contrast the listed companies push their brands harder mainly to stay in front of the supermarket bloc by creating new brands for sustainable profitability.

I have noticed the remarkable taste success of Brown Brothers Pinot Noir Chardonnay & Pinot Meunier NV (AUD 20-24) over the past year both domestically and internationally.

Brown Brothers have made this wine continuously since 1991 when vineyards they had developed from 1982 had started to come on line. This is the high country vineyard called Whitlands (elevation 860 m) in the shadows of the Snowy Mountains.

Their blend is pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier. Says chief winemaker Wendy Cameron “while the percentages vary slightly from year to year, it is a Pinot Noir dominant blend. There is no formula with the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier – just whatever looks best.” There is one blend made annually except for 2007 where smoke taint from bushfires prevented this wine from being produced.

Wendy points out very strongly that acidity is the real basis of the grapes selected for this wine-and that Whitlands delivers on that grape characteristic. There is a sparkling winemakers’ rule of thumb, 10/10-harvest at 10 Baume then the best acidity is to have or exceed 10 grams per litre.

The wines are yeast aged for 18-24 months depending demand for continuity and style evolution from year to year.

When asking about its track record at shows since the debut year 1992-there have been 111 medals, including 28 gold and 3 trophies, one gold was in Commercial Sparkling Wine at this year’s Adelaide Show and which grabbed my attention. It has also won 3 trophies at the International Wine Challenge in London in recent years.

One of the reasons this wine is widely recognised is its freshness in the glass. On inquiring about the regularity of disgorging the answer to its quality freshness is in the detail to take the wine to market.

“We disgorge small batches throughout the year as there is no requirement for ageing under cork. Ageing is best done on yeast lees and under crown seal. We disgorge and leave the wine for 3 months before releasing when it is ready for drinking” says Wendy.

Then at disgorging comes the finishing off-to make any sparkling wine palatable there is a dosing of sugar syrup, for the NV it is 10-12 grams per litre, always trialled every year to balance acidity with sweetness so that the sugar is not detectable, as that’s what blending skill is.

There is a small trend coming out of Champagne and the Fosters Wine Estates towards selling sparkling wines with less kilojoules so that no sugar syrup addition is required. That trend causes a style change so for the moment I expect this NV to stay as it is.

There is also another trend to reduce alcohol levels in wines generally. However most sparklings contain modest alcohol and this NV usually runs at 13 per cent.

Wendy qualifies this “We harvest fruit with the aim to have a finished wine of 12 – 13 per cent and typically this sits at about 12.5. At picking the acid is mature without tasting too tart or green apple characters and the flavours are citrus fruit based and not showing any riper melon characters. Our cool climate sites are very good at delivering this type of fruit.”

One added nuance which can attract wine judges palates is the use of older wine in each year’s blend. Brown Brothers keep an annual reserve with a portion stored in tank and the other part stored in older French oak barriques.

And the anatomy of taste! It’s got complexity on nose from good yeast, and a splash of extra volume which pinot meunier contributes. Then there is taste: good roundness and big flavour which puts it at the higher alcohol platform of sparkling wines, 11.5-13.0, great citrus and limey acidity, balance and fullness with good bubbles.

Salute to Brown Brothers.

Book review: Champagne and Chandeliers by Bernadette O’Shea

Rarely is there a book written which chronicles thirty-three great events on this earth, all of the happy ones which have links to drinking a bottle of champagne.

Brisbane’s premier lady of French bubbles Bernadette O’Shea recently released her first self-published golden-covered tome Champagne and Chandeliers.

Aside from some outstanding commentary on champagne styles Bernadette has set up a series of world occurrences linked with great meals, locating the champagne accompaniment, often from archives. As luck would have it many a grand occasion occurs in an outstanding dining room overlooked by glistening chandeliers. O’Shea pays homage to this rarely-addressed ceiling furniture.

Bernadette says, “We spent hours labouring over the name of this book, and with a shortlist of over thirty titles. Once the word chandelier came up it had to be, for my love of the sparkles in a glass of champagne had always extended to the glitter and glee that I experience when presenting champagne dinners. The two subjects are a great fit.”

This books reveals some old documents not previously published nor public, particularly in the case of Buckingham Palace dinner events.

At many events Bernadette has identified the champagne brand served, published the original menu then ghosted a range of parallel champagnes from the selected Champagne house. All the major Champagne houses receive her commentary.

The Great Wall of China is a rare backdrop for dress designer Karl Lagerfield to release the Fendi fashion show of October 2007 following the Beijing Olympics. Bernadette links Lagerfield to rare vintages of Dom Perignon as he is also the appointed designer for an image series by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey.

In Japan, now the scene of more Michelin-starred restaurants than Paris, Hiroyuki Hiramatsu hosted his November 2003 dinner in Hiroo for the release of the rare champagne Salon Le Mesnil vintage 1995. So rare is Salon, a single grape champagne, also very rare, from chardonnay that only 37 vintages have been made in the last century. Salon only make vintage champagne.

Bernadette profiles the White House dinner meeting of US President Bill Clinton and PRC President Jiang Zemin of October 1997; advancing her champagne selection when the Americans chose Californian wines for service of course.

In Hong Kong, the Mandarin Oriental hosted the inaugural and revered Krug dinner of February 1985. The same hotel had maintained a Krug room as the largest collection of Krug wines outside France with specially paired menus. Krug dinners have also occurred in Brisbane (1990), Tokyo (1994) and Melbourne (1997).

For the royal wedding of Crown Prince Naruhito and Masako in June 1993. sake was served so Bernadette’s champagne match prevails.

Dinners described include Three Emperors (1867), Tsar Alexander II, King Wilhelm I and Prince Otto von Bismarck; King George VI (1938) in Paris hosted by the mayor of Versailles; Henry Ford II in Brussels (1948); Princess Grace’s charity event in Monaco (1970); President Francois Mitterand and King Olav V of Norway in Paris (1984) and the Royal wedding of Prince Frederik of Denmark and Mary Donaldson of Tasmania (2004).

The famous link between the British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Champagne Pol Roger reveals a very personal side when Bernadette publishes Churchill’s menu of Odette Pol Roger’s visit to Buckingham Palace in 1951, when converted to a thank you note in his hand writing.

The book is a masterpiece of champagne commentary, thankfully without tasting notes. Bernadette says “This serves as a special gift item for visitors to Champagne. It is not a heavy book and can become hand luggage. Many champagne houses have gift shops selling champagne, and after the bottle itself there are few souvenirs to take from this wonderful region”. The book is currently being translated to French and Chinese.

Published by Hardie Grant 2009, buy online AUD 120 and with Bernadette’s famous byline “joyous and abundant bubbles”.

Wines of the winners: Wine Society young winemakers

The ninth Wine Society Young Winemaker of the Year Award 2009 was awarded to Margaret River-based Ryan Aggiss.

I thought I’d have a look at this award and taste some of the wines submitted. Entrants must be under 30 at the time of entry which is 30 August each year.

The Wine Society is a nonprofit Sydney-based organisation which packages and distributes wine to its own large direct subscriber base, and has been the source of inexpensive wine since its establishment in the 1950s.

Young winemaker of the Year entrants may nominate themselves or be nominated at their workplace, and do so by proposing three wines which they have been principally responsible for production. In 2009 there were 35 nominations,

The three wines may be two white one red or the reverse, or three white or three red provided that three single varieties are represented. Ryan Aggiss submitted two white (chardonnay, sauvignon blanc) and red. Finalist Stephen Oliver submitted three reds (merlot, cabernet sauvignon and shiraz).

The selection process continues with the Wine Society tasting panel tasting all wines, then ten finalists selected by aggregating the two best scores. These 20 wines are re-tasted with the winner coming from the highest score after more introspection of the wines on the short list.

Says the winner Ryan, WA-born, 29 years from Flying Fish, a Margaret River brand of nine years standing: “We make every day wine and I received this award for good brews which we make and sell for a good price.”

He was referring to Flying Fish Chardonnay 2008 AUD 16 which Ryan calls “light and tight” an unwooded chardonnay at 13%, eighty percent from one vineyard, twenty percent another.

I’d rather drink this style of linear chardonnay though not complexed by the oak process than the more popular New Zealand sauvignon which thankfully did not figure highly in this competition (92).

Ryan in his tastings of competitor wines thought his chardonnay “outshone New Zealand sauvignon blanc, hard riesling and raw Barossa Valley wines with sharp edges”.

The Flying Fish Cabernet Merlot 2008 AUD 16 (14.5%) is again a seamless wine with tantalising cabernet issuing from the glass, merlot in the background, as is oak, then a pile of blackcurrant and red berry flavour finishing soft and complete (94).

Aggiss has completed winemaking stints at Ravenswood (Napa), Hardys Tintara, Leasingham and at Ferngrove (WA).

Queenslander Stephen Oliver, 29 contested with Harrington Glen Shiraz 2006 (14.5%), Merlot 2007 (14%) and Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (13.5%). His now mature blackcherry-driven shiraz AUD 25 (90) was dropped off the scoresheet when two wines were required to make the final.

The merlot AUD 25 (91) is outstanding, highly toned and aromatic, appealing charry oak, lovely fine powdery tannins push this wine to the top of the style pile. Its compact yet delicious.

The cabernet sauvignon AUD 30 (93) has a trophy; is partly leafy, full of blackcurrant and ripe aromas then into that backbone of tannin so important for aging and appreciating cabernet. This cabernet has the structure while Aggis’s wine was the powerhouse of fruit flavours.

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