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Thorn-Clarke – Growing the Barossa Brand

By October 17, 2013No Comments
Thorn-Clarke is a growing Barossa brand. With a history of six generations growing grapes in the region, Thorn-Clarke is truly established, now owing around 250 ha of vineyards. From originally supplying all of the fruit they grew to other producers, the Clarke family now convert most of it into their own wine. The vineyards are sited in a variety of climates, aspects and soils giving the ability to make diverse styles and varieties successfully. A feature of the Thorn-Clarke business is the underground water management system which is a significant factor in the health of the vines and the quality of the fruit. From this basis, Thorn-Clarke has grown to become a significant producer.

From the Thorn-Clarke holdings, the 37 ha ‘Mount Crawford’ vineyard is at nearly 500 metres a.s.l., cool and suited to whites. The 33 ha ‘Kabininge’ vineyard is classic warm Barossa Valley floor, growing fruit for the top end reds. The ‘St Kitts’ vineyards, totalling 108 ha are on the northern Barossa slopes, offering a cooler aspect, where Shiraz excels. The ‘Milton Park’ vineyard, near Angaston, with 92 ha is the home base for the Thorn-Clarke operation. There, the modern winery built in time for the 2008 vintage is located. It’s a red-only facility, with the whites made at a friendly contracted facility at Tanunda. Around 1,200 tonnes of reds and 400 tonnes of whites are processed.

Helen McCarthy and Modern Barossa Wine
Helen McCarthy is the senior winemaker, assisted by Kiwi Anna Broms who was here at the EuroVintage Roadshow just two months ago (click here to see my report). Helen has only been with Thorn-Clarke for three vintages, but is certainly not short on experience, having been with Taylors for 9 years and with Southcorp before that. Helen McCarthy was in Wellington with James Edwards, the Australasian market manager, and I managed to spend a little time with them, especially talking to Helen about what’s happening in the Barossa and world of Australian wine.

She’s a very up-front, honest-talking straight-shooter with a clear vision of the modern styles of wines that are helping the world regain confidence in the Australian industry, after a frightful period dogged by issues of quality, style, pricing and supply. Helen is a strong proponent of the new wave of Australian reds that have much greater elegance and finesse, as well as drinkability. She’s applying the principles she has learnt to her Thorn-Clarke Barossa reds. The days when Aussie reds were all about ripeness, sweetness, extraction and oak are disappearing quickly. The contemporary Barossa Valley red wine is made from fruit picked earlier, and made with much attention to elegance and acidity and finesse in extraction and oaking. The resulting wines are far more food-friendly and you can drink more than just one glass.

I was taught to see the Barossa Valley through the traditional and fulsome reds of the past and believed that the area’s regionality was bound up in size, sweetness and structure of the wine, as the best examples of the time demonstrated. For those who feared that the Barossa regional character would be lost, if not diluted by the change to lighter wines, they need not worry. The essence of the Barossa still comes through clearly. One could possibly argue that the Barossa character is even clearer, this being analogous to how the Burgundians see the expression of terroir being more transparent when winemaker signature is reduced, or the vintage is a cooler, rather that hotter one.

Helen McCarthy – Winemaker & James Edwards – Market Manager

Tasting the Thorn-Clarke Wines
Helen and James took me through the wines that are currently available through their distributor EuroVintage. They included examples from the challenging 2011 vintage, which have proven to be successes. But to the point of the previous discussion, the new release wines demonstrated that nothing in the way of ‘Barossa-ness’ has been taken away, and that they are indeed more balanced and enjoyable. My impressions follow.

Although red wine is the focus for Thorn-Clarke in New Zealand, whites have been brought into the country in previous years and still are if there is the demand. Starting with the Eden Valley Pinot Noir/Chardonnay Brut Reserve NV, a sparkling wine made by the transfer process, employing aged base wine aged on lees around 12 months, this has ‘eye of the partridge’ colour with suggestions of soft red fruits and florals in aroma and taste, quite up-front and accessible, and attractive for it. The ‘Sandpiper’ wines sport a new livery and the whites exemplify the smart and defined presentation. The Sandpiper Eden Valley Pinot Gris 2013 is tight, crisp and dry at 4 g/L RS, with minerally, stonefruit flavours and some alcoholic drive, in the superior Pinot Grigio style. The Sandpiper Eden Valley Riesling 2013 is a little gem, with fine and intense lime, white stonefruit and honeysuckle aromas and a seamless palate line, perfectly cut by excellent acidity. This too is dry at 2 g/L RS, but it is certainly not austere.

Helen is very proud of the 2011 wines, not unfairly maligned in many of the wines that have been released (or not released) to date, but here, her ‘Sandpiper’ reds are varietally expressive and not compromised by disease, showing very good character in a lighter style. The Sandpiper Barossa Merlot 2011 is a little shy on bouquet but possesses a core of fresh black plum fruit supported by fresh acidity and a fine tannin line. The youthful fruit is the feature. The Sandpiper Barossa Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 is at the other end of the spectrum, with savoury, secondary aromas and flavours, dried herbs, spices and cedar to the blackcurranty fruit. The oaking is a little more pronounced, but this has a dense core to carry it all. I’m a fan for the Sandpiper Barossa Shiraz 2011, youthfully purple in colour, beautifully perfumed and aromatic with black pepper fruit and spices and an elegance of proportion. The wine is fruit-focussed, but there’s good extract and concentration in support.

The ‘Shotfire’ wines are more classical Barossa expressions, ‘traditional’ in want of a better word, with tannins from fruit rather than oak. The Shotfire Barossa Shiraz 2011, employing U.S. and French oak is also very youthful and vibrant in fruit, but a step up in depth and completeness over the Sandpiper. The fruit and oak spicing is harmoniously in balance, and while displaying the tight 2011 vintage expression, this is packed with flavour, showing liquorice and spiced plums that carry to a very long finish. The Bordeaux-styled ‘Quartage’ wines have had five varietals – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot – rather than four as the name suggests, and the wine has a strong consumer following. The Shotfire ‘Quartage’ 2011, using four varieties (no Merlot), aged only in French oak shows some garnet development, but is clearly claret-like with its elegance, herbaceous blackcurrant and dried undergrowth flavours. Its openness and accessibility is a positive feature and it will have many fans. In comparison, the Shotfire ‘Quartage’ 2005, aged in French and U.S. oak is a veritable monster. Impenetrable black-garnet colour, this is deep and inky with savoury chocolate flavours with real density and extract. One can be impressed with the robustness here, but it really is a harder drink. It’s one-glass stuff, or may require half a cow to eat, while drinking it.

The Flagship William Randell Shiraz in the Modern Style
As the ‘flagship’ for Thorn-Clarke, the ‘William Randell’ wines are statements about the grape and the region. We only see the Barossa Shiraz here in New Zealand, though there is an Eden Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. The William Randell Barossa Shiraz 2010 shows the modern face of the Barossa (and the rest of warmer region Australia). Fruit for this is from the cooler ‘St Kitts’ vineyards. But the wine is not shy, light and retiring. It is blue-purple red in colour, showing great ripeness past pepper, but no raisining at all, with rich, clearly defined black plum, Asian spices, liquorice, and even a floral note. This is an alliance between richness and finesse, with both attributes shining. It’s still a statement, especially when comparing it with the ‘Sandpiper’ and ‘Shotfire’ Shirazes, though the letter two tasted are 2011s.

To see how far Helen (and the Australian wine industry has come), it was fascinating to see the William Randell Barossa Shiraz 2006, from a great vintage, the fruit from the Barossa Valley floor. Still saturated black red, this is still full-on and packed with incredible density. The fruit is ultra-ripe with plum and prunes and plenty of liquorice and chocolate. There’s some volatility too, and a robust, mouthfilling, textural palate. Standing a spoon in the glass might be possible. Don’t get me wrong, this is an awe-inspiring wine for sure, but it clearly doesn’t have the accessibility of the 2010. My query in its defence is that will the 2010 fully develop the amazing array of complexities that such powerfully packed wines show after extended bottle aging? I’d say the 2010 and it’s more elegant and refined peers will also show great interest, in a different way, more in the style of old claret rather than port. It might be a moot point in today’s world of immediacy in any case. www.thornclarkewines.com

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