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Old Vine Masterclass & Australian Wine Treasures

By June 19, 2012No Comments
The Negociants N.Z. Wine Tour 2012 roadshow juggernaut hit Wellington as it worked its way through the length of the country. This is always one of the great exhibitions of a wine distributor’s portfolio, not only because of the superb range of wines on offer for tasting, but because the principals are so darn nice. Also, the range of wines on offer is pretty large, but not impossible to get around, to get a taste of everything. The Negociants team judge it all very well in that regard. It’s getting increasingly expensive to put on these roadshow exercises, but when it’s done as well as this, it has untold benefits for the exhibiting wineries, the distribution channel (Negociants N.Z. Ltd) and the resellers who attend. In my work, I get to see a good number of New Zealand wines, so I thought I’d spend more time on the wines from our Australian friends at this year’s roadshow.  www.negociantsnz.com 
The Old Vine Masterclass
The major attraction for me was the ‘Old Vine’ masterclass, as the topic is especially fascinating and very debateable. What constitutes an ‘old vine’? And what does age in a vine contribute to the wine – if anything? And do different varieties behave differently (and positively) with vine age? The masterclass didn’t answer all these questions fully, but those who attended certainly felt that there is something discernible in the wines made from old vines that made them special. The older wines we tasted all had concentration, texture, layers and nuance, attributes that make wines desirable.

The masterclass had seven speakers, each presenting one of their wines, made from old vines. All were from Australia except for Ant Mackenzie from Dry River. Ant felt rather overwhelmed, as the vines for his Dry River ‘Craighall’ Martinborough Riesling 2010 (18.0-/20) were only 30 years of age, compared with wines made from vines more than a century older. But in New Zealand terms, 30 y.o. vines are venerable, and considering the many setbacks, including social influences and the scourge of phylloxera, such vines are treasures. Still youthful in appearance, the Riesling is softly presented on bouquet with classical lime/lemon aromas and flavours, and a concentrated, but refined, textural palate with great length. To get such fruit extract and weight allied to finesse is the special attribute of this wine. Ant ventured that of all the earlier plantings of vines in New Zealand, Riesling offered the most versatility, ensuring its continued production instead of replacement!

The popular and legendary Louisa Rose, head winemaker of Yalumba introduced her Pewsey Vale ‘Contours’ Eden Valley Riesling 2006 (19.0+/20). Even though 6 years old, this is still tight and youthful. A little secondary toastiness is just appearing, but the concentration, fine-textures and fantastic drive of this wine indicates another decade plus of development. This is a made from a special section of the Pewsey Vale vineyard in the Eden Valley, which was first planted by the Gilbert family in 1847. Purchased by Yalumba’s Wyndham Hill Smith in 1961, the vineyard was replanted, and the vines for the ‘Contours’ go back to 1962, making them 50 y.o. now. Yalumba were among the first to put nominal tags for old wines. It is seen by Yalumba that vines are ‘Old’ at 35 y.o. when the vine is in balance with established root systems, integral with the site in which it grows, and making good wine. At 70 y.o., they are called ‘Antique’, then at 100 y.o. they are ‘Centenarian’ and vines planted in the 1800s are ‘Tri-Centenary’, their lives spanning three centuries.

The third wine to be tasted was the d’Arenberg ‘Derelict Vineyard’ McLaren Vale Grenache 2009 (18.5+/20). Against the full-blown old-vine Shiraz following, this could appear to be a little light to those not paying attention. Still tight, shy and very elegant in proportion, the ripeness and interest of the fruit had been taken well beyond the up-front raspberryish expression usually seen. Great concentration, very fine tannins and a blossoming richness made this a treat. This wine is a blend of fruit from two sites, the vines 80-100 y.o. Using the name of one of d’Arenberg’s signature wines, Nick James-Martin talked about the importance of the role of being ‘custodians’ of the resource of old vines. He too discussed how old vines performed with surprising consistence despite varied vintage conditions.

Ironically, it was a very young Sam Barry of the Barry family in the Clare Valley presenting the Jim Barry ‘The Armagh’ Shiraz 2006 (19.0+/20). Of the Aussie wines tasted, the vines are positively new at 48 y.o. The first vintage of ‘The Armagh’ was in 1985, but it has quickly risen to the ranks of being amongst the great Shiraz wines of Australia. The family has an “emotional attachment to the vineyard” where the wine originates from and the implication was that the vines also have a certain connection with the site, a factor that is said to be crucial for old vines to be successful. Age in itself does not guarantee good fruit and good wine. However, ‘The Arnagh’ 2006 is a super-star. Impenetrable black-red, the wine looks and is saturated with very ripe fruit aromas and flavours. Lush and opulent, this is densely packed and concentrated with plum, liquorice and spice flavours, and a decent helping of new oak that is in total harmony with the style. Surprisingly, the wine has beautiful perfumes too, something that old vines contribute.

A relative newcomer to the market is Langmeil, based at Tanunda in the Barossa Valley, established by the Lindner family in 1996. But they possibly have the oldest known Shiraz plants in the world in their 3.5 ha ‘Freedom’ vineyard, the vines going back incredibly to 1843. However, Emma Shaw presented the Langmeil ‘Orphan Bank’ Barossa Shiraz 2009 (19.5/20), also with an incredible story of old vine survival. This wine is made from pre-1860 Shiraz vines saved from the bulldozer by transplanting – lifted out of the ground and replanted whole – in a safe location near the Langmeil cellars. 300 vines were transplanted this way, and they have been ‘adopted out’ to protective patrons. This ‘Orphan Bank’ is another wine that is impenetrable in colour, combining massive fruit extract that is in no way overbearing. This has the old vine hallmark creaminess of texture, which just adds another layer of flavour to the decadent, luscious plum and liquorice flavours. Emma discussed how old vine fruit can provide wines with great subtlety and detail complexities, and this has just that, making it a complete wine.

Malcolm Stopp is no stranger to New Zealand and he is well-known by many Australian wine fans who count him as a good friend. And that’s how his firm Peter Lehmann operates, by a handshake for contract fruit agreements, rather than lengthy legal-jargonned signed and stamped papers. Peter Lehmann is seen as the hero of the Barossa grower, and today, his company deals with 150 growers supplying 98.5% of the requirements. Among them are some gems, including the Schrapel family who have 1.6 ha of vines in the Ebenezer district. The sixth generation tends the vines planted in 1855. From this comes the Peter Lehmann ‘VSV 1855′ Barossa Shiraz 2009 (19.0/20) has the classic, rich sweet fruited plum, liquorice and eucalypt (in a good way) nose and palate, supported by firm tannins that will see this beauty age particularly well, say 10-15 years easily. The oaking, in French barrels, is spot-on. The only problem is its limited production will not go around sufficient placements in the market. Malcolm reiterated the limited resource these old vines constitute and how important it is to preserve it. There must be a generational passing of the custody of these treasures.

It was wonderful to see Barossa legend Stephen Henschke in such a relaxed form. He marvelled at how settlers from Silesia – the original ‘boat people’ – knew where to plant their vines in such favourable sites, and how they tended the vines so that generations after could enjoy the fruits of their labour. The realisation of the value of the old vines has not escape the modern winegrower, and Stephen has been at the forefront of promoting their worth. To Stephen, the vines’ interaction with site is crucial, and this is no doubt the basis for the success of the ‘Hill of Grace’ and ‘Mount Edelstone’ Shiraz wines. We tasted the Henschke ‘Mount Edelstone’ Eden Valley Shiraz 2006 (19.0+/20), a superbly elegant and refined expression, more European in style with subtle layers of interest, including savoury secondary complexities and minerals. This is terroir for sure. A proven performer, this has at least 12-15+ years ahead of it on a plateau. The 16 ha ‘Mount Edelstone’ vineyard was planted in 1912, so the vines are 100 y.o. this year.  The 2006 ‘Mount Edelstone’ is the 55th vintage of this wine, the first being the 1952!  Stephen updated us on the terminology as suggested by the Barossa Charter. Vines 35+ y.o. are ‘Old Vines’, those 70 y.o. are ‘Survivor Vines’. 100 y.o. vines are ‘Centenarian Vines’, and those over 125 y.o. ‘Ancestor Vines’.
Six South Australian Producers
The Negociants N.Z. Wine Tour 2012 featured six South Australian wine producers who had a variety of wines offered for tasting. Here are some brief impressions.

First port of call for me is always Yalumba. I see Yalumba as my original friend from the Barossa Valley, and it pleases me that they have wines for all occasions, always at very good prices. Not only are they totally traditional, but they are constantly innovative. Rooted in history, they are also at the modern face of Australian wine. And importantly, they remain family-owned, in control of their own destiny. Yalumba is leading the way with Viognier, and the Eden Valley Viognier 2010 is bold and lush, extremely varietal, but retaining stylishness. The very old ‘Galway’ name is represented by the ‘Galway’ Barossa Shiraz 2010, an everyday wine that does not fall into the trap of being overly jammy and confectionary-like. It’s a true, savoury red-fruit wine designed for food. And going to the top of the class, ‘The Octavius’ Barossa Shiraz 2005, showing great concentration and individual oaking, and the potential for two decades of development. A great wine.

What strikes me about d’Arenberg is their skill at making limited production wines of controlled funkiness. The wines are extremely true to variety and site, and retain a sense of old-fashioned heartiness and robustness where needed, and the sleek, modern smoothness when required. d’Arenberg is an amazing McLaren Vale winegrower. On show was a rare ‘Money Spider’ Roussanne 2010, delicacy of floral, herbs and limes, but with that special textural drive and line. I’m a sucker for the ‘d’Arry’s Original’ Grenache/Shiraz 2009, very European in style with its food-friendly elevated tannin and acidity. The Chianti of The Vales? The antithesis is ‘The Laughing Magpie’ Shiraz/Viognier 2008, aromatic, elegant and very fine-grained, but not lacking anything to age well. Plus the iconic ‘Dead Arm’ Shiraz 2008, with its signature concentration and fine texture backing very concentrated, but refined fruit.

Peter Lehmann represents the heart of the Barossa Valley to me. You couldn’t get anything more representative of the region than a Peter Lehmann wine, across any of the tiers and ranges that are made. The ‘Margaret’ Semillon 2006 is still a baby. Citrussy, oily, waxy, a hint of toast, unctuous, but crisp at the same time. Semillon can be an enigma when young. This promises to be a good one. ‘The Mentor’ 2008 is the special Cabernet-based wine, this with Malbec and Shiraz in the mix. But it’s Cabernet in expression for sure, with its firmness, concentration and cassis, in the ripest way without being raisiny. And the flagship ‘Stonewell’ Shiraz 2007, dense black fruits, spices and earth, packed to the gunnels with fruit, extract and goodness.

The reputation of Henschke is that the winery is one of the world’s greats, with distinctive and elegant wines that reflect their origins precisely. Tasting through any part of the range is an intellectual exercise for sure, but then one sits down and drinks them with a meal, and one can then easily see how the wines are natural food accompaniments as they have been designed to be. The ‘Johann’s Garden’ 2007 is a Grenache/Mourvedre/Shiraz blend, and it’s more like a Pinot Noir with its delicacy and fragrance. The other varieties give it somewhat more substance and degrees of interactive complexity that Pinot Noir just doesn’t have though. The plushness of the ‘Henry’s Seven’ 2007 is its highlight. Silky smooth, but with savoury layers that increase in the glass. Shiraz-based, it has Grenache, Viognier which has a strong influence, and Mourvedre in the mix. I was extremely impressed with the ‘Keyneton Estate – Euphonium’ 2006. Full of ripeness and sweet black fruits, this will develop beautifully with those highly desirable cedary nuances. The Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon are the driving forces in this wine, with Merlot and Franc in support. And one could not go past the ‘Cyril Henschke’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, supremely elegant with its classical structure, line and length. Secondary tobacco and cedary interest is already present.

The crowd-pleasing nature of the Clare Valley wines of Jim Barry always wins over tasters. The Barry family are true-blue fair-dinkum Aussies who work very hard and play nearly just as hard. They’re so much fun and laughter is always in the air. But the wines are as serious as they come and they’re the genuine Australian article. The ‘McRae Wood’ Shiraz 2006 is in essence a junior ‘The Armagh’, from the same vineyard, but made from younger vines. There’s hardly any difference, making it a great bargain. ‘The Benbourie’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 is one step away from ‘The Armagh’, but aged more and based on Cabernet Sauvignon. Seamless textures and waves of cedar and pencil shavings are its hallmarks. And a look at ‘The Armagh’ Shiraz 2007, lighter than the 2006 we saw in the masterclass, but all the trademarks of this decadent and opulent style, just a tad more restrained.

The last of the South Australian exhibitors, Langmeil of the Barossa. There is certainly a house-style to the wines. The Lindners are not afraid of ripeness, sweetness of fruit or a healthy amount of oaking. Exuberance and richness are part of the signature, and these attributes have been at the core of what the Barossa does best. The range of wines was lined up in ascending richness, each wine noticeably more complete. The ‘Hanging Snakes’ Shiraz/Viognier 2009 is an interpretation of Cote-Rotie, with finesse and lifted perfumes. The ‘Valley Floor’ Shiraz 2009 is the variety pushed to breadth and opulence from super-warm sites and super-ripe fruit. Sweetness and spice and all things nice. And the ‘Jackaman’s’ Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, essence of blackcurrant and plums, awe-inspiring concentration and unctuous richness. If you’re into dainty and delicate, don’t come here!
A Couple of New Zealand Treats
I managed to visit all of the New Zealand exhibitors, but only tasted a smattering of wines, preferring to discuss the latest news. Of the wines I did try, I mention some noteworthy ones for me, coming from the most northerly vineyard and one of the most southerly:

Going to Wanaka in Central Otago requires some effort, so to have Nick Mills of Rippon Vineyard attending made it easy. I was fortunate to taste the two ‘single parcel’ Pinot Noirs from the 2010 vintage. The ‘Emma’s Block Pinot Noir 2010 is very fine, but subtly lush and spicy, quite feminine in demeanour, especially when compared to the ‘Tinker’s Field’ Pinot Noir 2010, richer, with darker fruit expression and greater structure, without losing any finesse. Nick attributes much of the difference to the soil.

Another Nick – Nick Nobilo was showing his latest Vinoptima wines from Gisborne. The Gewurztraminer 2006 is far more elegant and cutting than the near-late harvest style of the 2004. At 13.0% alc. and 15 g/L rs, this will be a better food style for sure, without losing any intensity of varietal spice. It seemed the Noble Gewurztraminer 2007 was the talking point of the room. 11% alc., 210 g/L rs and 80% botrytised fruit. Raisins, dried figs and exotic fruits, with a fortified-like intensity and drive. Unusually complex and a stand-out wine to match with rich desserts and puddings.

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