Category: Wine Articles

An extraordinary Wynns Coonawarra cabernet tasting

This was a wonderful tasting of a selection of Wynns Black Label and John Riddoch Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon wines from the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, with some quite interesting conclusions.  

Those conclusions were that the Black Label, for most vintages, served blind and side-by-side with the John Riddoch, provided the more compelling current drinking.  This might be put down to the charm of youth, but it does not, for example, explain the same conclusion being reached for the 1982, 1986 and 1988 vintages.  Plausibly, wine storage conditions will have played a part.  It would be interesting to comment on the contribution of the vineyard and winemaking operations to these vintages, but since this information is not readily available, I am limited to commenting on what was in the glass. 

The second conclusion of the tasting was that Wynns is a style of Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon that requires an uncommonly long period to show its best.  The wines from 1999, for example, appeared positively youthful at 20 years’ of age.  The wines from the 1980s were mostly just coming on song, and the wines from the 1970s ready to drink.   Of course, there were exceptions in each bracket, but the trend line was quite clear.  

Overall, this tasting showed Coonawarra at its best: soaring quality, ageworthy and an internationally distinctive, unique expression of cabernet sauvignon.  The converse thought also emerged: Coonawarra could be so much more than it is.  But it’s a pretty good reason to buy some Wynns Black Label.

One quibble.  For such a popular, collectible and ageworthy wine, it is unexpected that its producer does not provide a historical tasting notes archive.  Now part of Treasury Wine Estate’s portfolio, the Wynns website only has accessible tasting notes going back to 2010 for the Black Label and 2009 for the John Riddoch.  I had wished to learn more about these vintages and, as a reference point, the producer’s website did not help. 

Notes follow from this amazing tasting.

From the 1960s

1965.  This wine has aromas of black fruit, smoke and cedar, somewhat charming length and a leafy character.  Most certainly ready to drink, and in gentle decline.  Rating: Very Good.

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1968.  This wine had a dusty, blackcurrant and earthy aroma, which with air, seemed a little stripped and woody.  Low level TCA suspected.  Brownish too in colour.  Enough doubt not to rate.  Rating: Not Rated.

From the 1970s

1970.  Aromas of red fruits, herbs and leafs.  Smokey, and a bit muted.  But with a subtle long length.  I enjoyed this.  Rating: Very Good.

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1972.  This is an unusual wine.  Oddly rich aromas of raisins, the palate is also dominated by raisins.  The length is pleasant enough.  Rating: Good.

1976.  A Jimmy Watson winner.  Somewhat austere at first (blind) impression.  Evolved in the glass revealing leaf, earth, soft tannins and good length.  This is a subtle wine that proved compelling with time in the glass.  Rating: Outstanding.

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From the 1980s

1982 Black Label.  Aromas of smoke, opulent blackcurrant fruit, mint and a dusty character.  Prodigious length on the palate.  Clearly Coonawarra.  This is an outstanding wine that was comfortably wine of the bracket.  Rating: Outstanding*.  Abv: 12%.

1982 John Riddoch.  This is quite a complex wine, with its expression of earth and fruit.  The palate has great length and considerable complexity.  This too is plainly an outstanding expression of Coonawarra cabernet sauvignon, although quite different, and slightly shaded by the black label wine from the same year.  Rating: Outstanding.  Abv: 13%.

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1986 Black Label.  Cedar and blackcurrant aromas.  Great length and firm tannins for a wine 33 years’ old.  Another highlight.  Rating: Outstanding. Abv: 12.9%.

1986 John Riddoch.  An aroma of earth, herbs, oak, spice and smoke.  An almost youthful expression, with some raisin overtones.  Rating: Very Good.  Abv: 13.6%.

1988 Black Label.  Aromas of leaf, red fruits.  The palate has long length, with blackcurrant characters.  Another outstanding Black Label.  Rating: Outstanding.  Abv: 12.7%.

1988 John Riddoch.  Classic blackcurrant aromas, coupled with spice.  Somewhat harder tannins with a licorice overlay.  Rating: Very Good.  Abv: 12.3%.

From the 1990s

1990 Black Label.  This black label has restrained aromas of red fruits, licorice and proved quite complex with some iodine characters and brooding expression on the palate.  Rating: Very Good.

1990 John Riddoch.  This proved an outstanding John Riddoch.  It has aromas of blackcurrant, cloves and mint.  The length is long with cassis undertones.  Quite a youthful expression that will continue to improve.  Rating: Outstanding. 

1991 Centenary Shiraz Cabernet.  This was a surprise for principal reason that the shiraz was not at all obvious.  Aromas of clove and mint, with dusty tannins, a leafy character and good length.  Plainly a good wine.  Rating: Very Good. 

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1991 Black Label.  A lesser black label on this tasting.   A dusty aroma, and somewhat acidic palate.  Rating: Good.

1991 John Riddoch.  This proved a rich wine, with an aroma of saturated plums and good length.  Rating: Very Good.  Abv: 13.5%.

1994 Black Label.  Very tannic, but with good length.  Still young.  Rating; Very Good.  Abv: 13.5%.

1994 John Riddoch.  This wine presented awkwardly, with oak, cedar and quite hard tannins.  TCA suspected.  But also 25 wines putting some wear on the palate.  Rating: Not Rated.

1996.  Both the Black Label and the John Riddoch showed flashes of character of mint and blackcurrant, but seemed faulty due to a hardness of tannin and stripped nature.  Both suspected for TCA and withdrawn.  Rating: Not Rated.

1998 Black Label.  Aromas of blackcurrant, with great length and fresh acidity.  In its drinking window.  Rating: Very Good. 

1998 John Riddoch.  A slightly disappointing wine.  Firm tannins, good length, but a little hard and the oak seemed awkward.  Rating: Good.

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1999 Black Label.  The acidity on this wine presents quite firmly.  Blackcurrants, good length and youthful in expression on the palate.  It surprises to say this, but much too early to drink at 20 years of age.  Rating: Very Good.

1999 John Riddoch.  Aromas of blackcurrant and smoke.  Restrained in bearing with good length.  Rating: Good to Very Good. 

Rutherglen fortified muscat; from bottom to top

Here’s the second of my promised posts on the Rutherglen wine region.  The first post was on  Rutherglen’s renaissance and can be found here.  This post is all about what Rutherglen is famous for: fortified muscat (grape: muscat à petits grains) and fortified topaque (grape: muscadelle).

Viticulture and winemaking

Rather than recite facts from the texts, here are thoughts on the viticultural and winemaking aspects of Rutherglen fortified wines from speaking with winemakers and producers in the region in April.  Sadly for likely cost of my MW studies, it seems this is a vastly more efficient way of extracting information.  So then, getting stuck into things, muscadelle and muscat are both raisined on the vine and picked very late.  This year, for example, harvest for some was still going on in late April.  Muscat (a reddish/brown coloured grape) normally comes in a bit earlier than the muscadelle (which is a white grape).  Muscats become more like raisins on the vine, and the muscadelles more like sultanas.  Once out of the vineyard, fermentation takes place on skins in stainless steel to around 2-3% abv, the raisins are pressed out and then the fermenting must fortified by the addition of 96% grape spirit.  The spirit usually comes from Tarac in South Australia, who are regarded as producing high quality pure spirit that does not impart flavour into the wine.  Once fortified, the finished wine sits around 17-18% alcohol, with over 250 grams per litre of residual sugar.

The wines then go into a wood maturation process.  Barrel sizes vary from very small to very large and it seems there is no one agreed style.  Chris Pfeiffer of Pfeiffer Wines for example does not favour overt wood influences, but with ageing taking place over such long periods, it seems inevitable that practices vary.  Blending takes place using a modified solera system, with the extent of topups depending on the style of the producer.  The ageing process takes an awfully long time, and contributes to loss of water and some alcohol too, which concentrates the wines in barrel.  Around 2.5-3% is lost each year.  Oxidative reactions caramelise the wine and the PHs can be high.  In terms of generalities, raisin and roses are seen in the muscats, and treacle in the topaques.  In older wines, mocha and caramel is seen in the muscats, and more butterscotch in the topaques.  In terms of producer styles, Buller, Chamber and Morris are at the bigger end of the scale, while All Saints, Campbells and Pfeiffer are lighter and more elegant.  Stanton & Kileen is in the centre, towards the bigger group.

In 1996, the key producers in the region got together to draw up a 1996 classification of Rutherglen fortified wine.  There are now only seven left in this group, an unappreciated (on my part) indication of the scarcity of this unique wine style.   The classification has four levels: Rutherglen (3-5 years average age; 180-240g/l residual sugar), Classic (6-10 years average age; 200-280g/l residual sugar, Grand (11-19 years average age; 270-400g/l residual sugar) and Rare (20 years+ average age; 270-400g/l residual sugar).

Reflecting on this, and considering for the moment the current fashion for medium bodied Beaujolais and pinot noir styles that are sent to market a few months or a year after vintage, here’s a style that requires producers to withhold their wine for sale for in some cases decades.  This requires a certain patience on the part of producers and consumers alike, and I think respect too.  There are few wine producers that could withhold wine for sale for these lengths of time, all the while losing 2.5-3% each year to the heavens.

The tasting

And now for the rather extraordinary part: tasting through each producer’s fortified muscats from “Rutherglen” right through to “Rare” under the expert guidance of Chris Pfeiffer.   I did not undertake an equivalent exercise for muscadelles although I gladly would: it was genuinely challenging to taste so many fortified wines and sensibly seek to mark out the individual differences.

Here are my notes and observations.

Bracket 1 – “Rutherglen”

All Saints – raisin aromas.  Viscous, good length, raisiny on the palate.
Campbells – more caramel, barley sugar and butter aromas.  Balanced palate.
Morris – back to raisins, this time supplemented by currants.  Some heat on the palate, long length.
Pfeiffer – more florals – jasmine as well as currants.  Good length on palate and lovely balance.  Quite elegant.
Stanton & Killeen – butter, caramel and petrol aromas.  Caramel and slight cloy on the finish.
The Pfeiffer wine was the pick of this group for my palate.

Bracket 2 – “Classic”

All Saints – aromas of butter, florals and green herbs.  Rich caramel texture on the palate.  Quite full bodied.
Campbells – fresh caramel, cooked caramel, lactic aromas.  Full bodied palate that is well proportioned and with good length.
Morris – raisin, small currants and floral aroma.  Good length, quite long.  A bit of heat on the finish in this wine too.
Pfeiffer – raisin, lactic and floral aromas.  Very good length on the palate.
Rutherglen Estate – more raisiny nose, with some spirit evident.  Good length, sweet finish.
Stanton & Killeen – lactic, wood aromas.  Very caramel on the palate.
The Campbells and Pfeiffer wines were the pick of this group.

Bracket 3 – “Grand”

Oh, the step up!

All Saints – floral, subtle currants.  On the palate, caramel and long length.
Buller – spirit aroma and caramel infused palate.  Long length, but some heat on the finish.
Campbells – lactic, butter and caramel aromas.  Balanced palate with good length.
Morris – spirit and raisins on the nose.  Balanced, concentrated palate with spirit in the background
Pfeiffer – floral, small currant aromas.  Long length and balanced spirit on the palate.
Stanton & Killeen – aromas of butter and small currants.  Caramel, butter and long length on the palate.
While all are good, if I had to choose, the Stanton & Killeen, Pfeiffer, All Saints and Campbells wines all deserve a place in your cellars.

Bracket 4 – “Rare”

Things get a little silly now. These are wondrously intense wines deserving of special occasion drinking.

All Saints – florals, delicate.  The first “wow” of the set.  Great length.  Subtle.  An outstanding wine.
Buller – raisin, heat and robust.  Good but not quite in the same league as the others for my palate.
Campbells – currants and long length.  Wow again.  Outstanding.
Morris – spirit, raisin aromatics.  Great balance and long length on the palate.  The best of the Morris wines.
Pfeiffer – florals, small currants, elegant.  Deft touch.  Long length and raisins on the finish.  Just shy of the Campbells and All Saints Rares.
Stanton & Killeen – butter, raisin and good length on the palate, with some heat.

Wow, what a stunning set. While the average quality level is very high indeed at this level (and frankly at all the levels), the All Saints and Campbells Rare wines in particular stand out for their soaring quality.

Takeaway observations are (i) the Grand wines are where the value is, (ii) the Rares are all brilliant but demand a special occasion and (iii) producer variation is considerable – there is no one style of Rutherglen muscat.

Note: I attended Rutherglen as a guest of Winemakers of Rutherglen

Last stop: Beaujolais

I couldn’t help but like the vignerons that I met in Beaujolais.  The region immediately appeared more accessible and the level of enthusiasm for this mostly unloved region more palpable.  Here, we visited the Cave du Château de Chénas, Cave du Château des Loges and the Vignerons des Pierres Dorées.

A view from Mt Brouilly.

I have already provided some brief impressions on the Beaujolais region in my previous post, but my takeaway points were these.  First, the region is very beautiful.  As a tourist, if you are seeking rolling hills covered in vines, this is your place.  Second, the visit highlights one of the limitations of the appellation system, namely that producers are unable to adapt to produce different wines that the market wants.  It is as if the region must wait for the wheel of fashion to turn, and starve in the interim.  Third, it is a reminder that I must buy more Beaujolais, and in particular, more Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie and Côte de Brouilly.

The Moulin in Moulin-à-Vent.
Not all vines are gobelets.  Trained vines in Beaujolais.
Gazing across the Beaujolais region.
Gobelet trained vines on the Côtes de Brouilly.

Before I get into the tastings, first some more observations on the limitations of the appellation system.  While in an Australian context, I support an increased focus on regionalism and indeed am also partial to Australia considering stricter appellation rules in some cases to really help distinguish our greatest and most well known terroirs, I don’t think that rules and laws generally, and appellation laws in particular, should result in outcomes where producers mush perish as a matter of principle, lock in anything other than best practices or result in a loss of common sense flexibility.  I noticed same small steps around the edges in this regard in Beaujolais – a few Beaujolais Blancs here and there (hitherto mostly unsighted by me and generally quite good), a couple of viogniers here and there (definitely previously unsighted by me) and then the biggest surprise, namely that there is now some limited machine harvesting permitted in the region, even though carbonic maceration requires whole bunch grapes.  Whether the latter is a good development remains to be seen, instinctively it is not, but equally having to tend to gobelet trained free standing vines and vineyards by hand when the wine is being sold at a euro or two a bottle is plainly unsustainable.

The key aspect of Beaujolais is that the crus are largely regarded separately from Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages wines and appear to be doing just fine.  The crus are wines from the towns and places of Saint-Amour, Julienas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly.  Interestingly, the locals regard Côte de Brouilly as the most worthy of the crus, Moulin-à-Vent is the longest lived and most pinot noir like in time and Fleurie seems to be the UK market’s Beaujolais of choice.  As my tastings found, there is a certain logic in these outcomes.

Cave du Château de Chénas

Unsurprisingly, the Cave du Château de Chénas is in Chénas.  The wines here were a great insight into the respective attributes of the Beaujolais crus, which are rarely seen together in any detail on Australian shores.  The quality proved to be very good, and the prices as ever for this region, low.

Beaujolais Blanc 2014
From 4 year old vines.  Lemon and lime aromatics.  Lemon and yellow grapefruit on the palate.  A

Saint-Amour 2014
80% destemmed.  Aromatics of pepper, raspberry and anise.  Palate reminds of rubber, smoke and anise.  A

Brouilly 2014
Aromatics of liqueur, cassis and raspberry.  Short to medium length and fruitier style on the palate.  A-G

Fleurie 2014
Raspberry and more white pepper than preceding wines.  Similar characters.  Balanced.  G

Julienas 2014
Similar aromatics to the Fleurie, reminding of white pepper and raspberry.  Less strength on the palate.  A-G

Morgon 2014
Aromatics of white pepper and raspberry.  A little bit of cherry on the palate, and some tannins.  A-G

Chénas 2014
Raspberries and strawberries on the nose.  Palate with tannins evident.  The comment was made that Chenas more generally can be rustic with higher acidity.  A-G

*Moulin-à-Vent 2014
This is a good wine.  Aromatics of plum, raspberry and white pepper.  The palate has mid range tannins, medium length and similar flavours.  G

*Chénas Selection Couer de Granit 2014
This is still in vat.  Super fruity aromatics that are floral and remind of raspberries and cherries.  The palate is fruity, with tannins and similar characters.  The new winner.  G-VG

*Moulin-à-Vent Couer de Granit 2014
Also still in vat.  Raspberry and plum aromatics.  More acid on the palate, with a gaseous prickle.  Seems like it will be good.  G

A real cellar.

**Moulin-à-Vent 1990
The vintage is not a typo.  What an extraordinary wine this was to finish on, drawn from the (very) cold cellars of the Cave du Château de Chénas.  Aromatics of cherry, earth and game.  So pinot noir like.  The palate is gamey, earthy and smokey.  This is an outstanding wine, proving that Moulin-à-Vent is capable of producing wines that age effortlessly for a quarter of a century.  Buy them if you can find them, and they have been stored well.  VG

Cave du Château des Loges


The Cave du Château des Loges is located in the town of Le Perréon at the southern end of Beaujolais.  Here, we undertook a 2013 v. 2014 vintage exercise with the reds, an outstandingly instructive way to taste.  In terms of comparisons between the vintages, the impact of pH on the wine was viewed as being of some importance.  In this regard, while the tartaric acid of the wines in each vintage were almost the same, the pHs in the 2014s were higher, leading to a rounder mouthfeel.  Lower pH tends to express itself with more forceful acidity.

The whites

Viognier 2014
Out of tank.  This is quite minerally in impression, with florals too with some effort.  There is no real mouthfeel on the palate.  Inoffensive.  A

Beaujolais Blanc 2014
Aromatics of lemon.  The palate is also lemony with some acidity.  Not bad.  A-G

Beaujolais Rosé 2014
Floral aromatics.  Floral palate, medium acidity.  Pleasant if unremarkable.  A

The reds

Beaujolais Villages
2013: Aromatics of raspberry, cassis and some bacon.  The palate is similar, with some tannins and structure.  A-G
2014: More strawberry, verging on strawberry jam.  An even palate.  A-G



Régnié

2013: raspberry, plums and spice aromatics.  Quite structured.  A-G
2014: raspberry, plums.  Medium acid, similar flavours on palate.  A bit better.  G

Brouilly
2013: aromas of raspberry and strawberry.  More acid evident on the palate, with tannins.  Similar flavours on palate to the aromatics.  G
2014: a quieter wine, with raspberry and more acid on the palate.  G

Côtes de Brouilly
It was hard not to be influenced by this being the locals’ preferred cru.
2013: aromatics of cherry, that were finer and seemed more integrated.  Medium tannins on the palate, relatively serious in intent, the length only short to medium though.  G
2014: aromatics of blackcurrant, florals and game.  Sweet cherry and medium tannins on the palate.  A-G

Fleurie
2013: More fruity with raspberry and strawberry.  This is a completely different style to the Côtes de Brouilly.  Similar palate (to the nose) with medium tannins.  G
2014: Cherry, raspberry aromatics.  Similar palate, with medium tannins.  G

Vignerons des Pierres Dorées

The final tasting of my tour de Burgundy was near the unquestionably scenic town of D’Oingt.  In typical French style, D’Oingt has been formally ranked as among the most beautiful towns in France.  There was a bit of energy around the Vignerons des Pierres Dorées, which I quite liked and a rather eclectic selection of wines followed.  Some of the Beaujolas whites and reds see a small amount of oak.

The whites

Beaujolais Blancs (chardonnay) are not a bad value wine choice for a wine I barely new existed prior to this tour.  They can resemble the whites of the Mâcon and the ones with good acidity are quite a refreshing style.

Chateau de Chanzé Beaujolais Blanc 2012

This is a well regarded estate.  Aromatics of cedar, toast and oak. Medium acid, vanilla and stone with mid length on the palate.  The oak won’t appeal to all, and is a little heavy handed, but it is clearly a good wine.  G

Rostre de Bélemnite Beaujolais Blanc 2012
Vinified in oak.  Aromatics of match stick and nectarines.  The palate has medium length and acid.  G

Terra Iconia Beaujolais Blanc 2014
Aromatics of stone, lemon and yellow grapefruit.  Palate of lemon and stones supplemented by medium acidity.   A-G


Carré Blanc Viognier Vin de France
2012: A bit socky, reminding of wet wool.  Probably oxidised and promptly replaced with the 2013.
2013: Aromatics of apricot stew.  A bit simple on the palate.  A

The rosés



Terra Iconia Rosé 2014
Aromatics of strawberry.  Palate that is fresh and reminds too of strawberries.  A-G

Carré Rosé 2014
Floral aromatics.  Strawberry on the palate, slightly less line.  A

The reds

Terra Iconia Beaujolais 2014
Raspberry, compot fruits.  Similar palate and quite supple.  A-G

Terra Iconia Beaujolais Bio 2013
Bio means organic in French, with the little hard to see green symbols on the left of the bottle in the picture above providing evidence to those willing to search really hard for it.  Raspberry, pepper and fruit compote.  More going on the palate.  Fruity.  G



*La Rose Pourpre Vieilles Vignes Beaujolais 2014
2014: Minimum of 40 year old wines.  Raspberry and plum aromatics.  Plums, raspberry, medium length and good concentration on the palate.  The pick of the tasting.  G
2013: Raspberry and plums aromatics.  Similar palate with light tannins.  Less concentration, but still good. A-G

Rostre de Bélemnite Beaujolais 2013
Aromatics of vanilla.  Palate of vanilla too, with medium length and raspberry.  Vanilla quite strong, suggesting a heavy oak hand. Good wine otherwise. A-G



*Laforet Beaujolais 2012
Aromatics of raspberry and cedar.  Similar palate, with medium acid and really rather good length.  This is quite a serious wine, and is recommended.  G

*Le Collins Altieres Beaujolais 2012
Aromatics of cherry, earth, raspberry and cedar.  The palate reminds of cherry and cedar with towards long length.   Good too. G

Late harvest styles

The final two wines were both late harvested styles, neither typical of the region but somehow fitting to finish on.



Derniers Grains Viognier Vendage Tardive
Aromatics of raisin.  Palate reminding of raisins and apricot.  Balanced with good acidity on residual sugar on the palate.  This style of viognier worked. G

Derniers Grains Chardonnay Vendage Tardive
I am not sure I have ever tasted a late harvest chardonnay that comes together.  Lemon, residual sugar on the palate, with acidity tasting separate.  A

This concludes a most enjoyable visit and thank you for putting up with such long posts in the last few weeks.  I am very much grateful to the Wine & Spirits Education Trust, Bibendum PLB, the producers I have named and Robin Kinahan MW for their time, effort and kind support and guidance in supporting this trip, which proved an outstanding educational experience.

The Mâconnais to Beaujolais

The second last instalment of my tour de Burgundy, covers the Mâcon through to Beaujolais.  These two regions are perhaps unquestionably the most beautiful to visit as a tourist.  Mâcon for its hills and escarpments, Beaujolais for the vines that cloak its hills as far as the eye can see.  The food increased in elaboration and complexity as we approached Lyon, although the best food remained as always the simplest.

The Vignerons des Terres Secrètes at Prissé was the primary stop here, aside from a hike up the very beautiful Roche de Solutré which overlooks the village of Solutré-Pouilly, and much, much more.  These are the pictures above.  The Mâcon region is mostly a white wine region (chardonnay) with Pouilly-Fuissé, Saint-Véran and Mâcon-Villages probably its most well known appellations.  It was noted in conversation that there are premier cru proposals afoot for carving up Pouilly-Fuissé and that the 2012 and 2013 vintages saw low production in the Mâconnais.

I found the quality of the wines on offer at the Vignerons des Terres Secrètes good across the board, and they represent good value by Australian standards.

The whites

Terre Secrètes Mâcon-Villages 2014
Aromatics of lemon rind and lemon.  Palate with lemon, medium-high acidity, steely and medium length.  Balanced and good.  G

Terre Secrètes Mâcon-Verzé Croix-Jarrier 2012
Almost some apricot flower.  Floral and nectarine aromatics.  Between short and medium length, balanced and stoney characters.  G

Terre Secrètes Mâcon-Villages Les Sentinelles 2013
Co-vinified in around 30% of wood.  Aromatics of honey, florals, toast and apricot flower. The palate has reminders of honey, medium acid, nectar and nectarine.  G

Terre Secrètes Saint-Véran 2013
Earth and lemon aromatics.  The palate has reminders of earth and lemon.  The wine is balanced if unremarkable.  A-G

Terre Secrètes Saint-Véran Les Plantés 2013
Aromatics of lemon and lime.  Good purity.  The palate is similar.  Quite a pure expression of lemon and lime with nice medium-high acid line.  G

Terre Secrètes Saint-Véran Les Cras 2012
Aromatics of honey, cedar (tiny) and lemon.  Medium length, stones, earth and lemon characters.  G

Terre Secrètes Saint-Véran Les Sentinelles 2013
Spent a long time on lees.  Flint, toast and lemon aromatics.  The palate has medium length, toast, lemon, medium acid and clarified butter.  G

Terre Secrètes Pouilly-Fuissé Les Sentinelles 2011
Aromatics of apricot, florals, and stones.  Apricot, medium length and balanced.  G

The reds



Terre Secrètes Coteaux Bourguignons 2013
This wine is 100% gamay.  Its aromatics remind of raspberry and red forest fruits.  The palate reminds of raspberry and proves quite quaffable.  A

Terre Secrètes Mâcon Pierreclose 2013
Also 100% gamay.  Earth and raspberry, finer aromatics.  A palate reminding of raspberry, with some tannins and length.  Quaffable again.  A-G

Terre Secrètes Bourgogne Rouge Les Sentinelles 2012
Very bright cherry, cherry jam, slightly reductive aromatics.  The palate has medium length and tannins and good cherry flavours.  This is a good value find.  G

***

The crowning lunch of the entire trip was at the humble looking L’auberge de Jack in the tiny village of Milly-Lamartine.  I ate a simple saucisson de Lyon cooked in red wine, which proved entirely delicious.  So simple, yet so tasty.  Lunch was accompanied by the very good Les Héritiers du Comte Lafon Mâcon-Milly-Lamartine 2012 which has aromatics of earth, almond meal and peach and medium length and similar characters.

Beaujolais

Beaujolais as a wine region that has more or less fallen on hard times.  Once fashionable, it now suffers the fate of the passed over, with the exception of its crus.  There is of course no particular reason for this state of affairs in 2015.  In fact, the style of wine it offers – unoaked, low alcohol, crisp, refreshing wines from a region where old vineyards abound – is what is fashionable at the moment.  Perhaps more single vineyard offerings, or the expansion of the crus, or perhaps the identification of as yet unindentified obscure crus might assist.  Some of them even age stupendously well, but I will get to that.  I propose to call this early – the region’s star will rise again.  In my final post of this series, I’ll write up the subregions visited and the wines.

Beane to Buxy, with some practice blending along the way

The next instalment of my Burgundy trip is from Beaune to Buxy, with a little blending along the way.

Last stop in Beaune



Last but not least of our visits in Beaune was Domaine Maillard Père & Fils situated at Chorey-Les-Beaunes.  This was a short tasting with our knowledgeable guide dressed by French winemaker central casting.  The quality on display at this estate is high and probably ever so slightly more to my stylistic preferences than the preceding tasting at Domaine Roger Belland.  Some short tasting notes follow, with an asterisk next to the highlights of the bracket.

Domaine Maillard Père & Fils Chorey-Les-Beaune Blanc 2013
Lemon and mineral aromatics.  Medium acid, lemon and and mineral characters.  G

*Domaine Maillard Père & Fils Chorey-Les-Beaune Rouge 2013
Aromatics of cherry and raspberry.  Palate reminds of cherry, raspberry, has medium length and balanced acid.  An attractive wine.  G

Domaine Maillard Père & Fils Savigny-Les-Beaune 2011
Savigny is said to be more elegant and a step-up from the slightly more rustic Chorey.  More stalk and cut rosemary on the nose, together with cherry and undergrowth. The palate is balanced with medium length and acid, coupled with raspberry and cherry characters.

Domaine Maillard Père & Fils Volnay 2011
The sample was oxidised.  Pity, as I felt this might have been good.  A sort of oxy melange of cherry liqueur, currants and earth.  F

Domaine Maillard Père & Fils Pommard La Chanière 2011
Cherry and a bit of spice for aromatics.  Medium length, even impression and balanced cherry flavours.  G

*Domaine Maillard Père & Fils Aloxe-Corton 2011
Cherry, spice and earth.  On the palate, medium length, more cherries and spice, medium to high acid, quite pure in its expression.  G-VG

Domaine Maillard Père & Fils Corton-Renardes Grand Cru 2011
More plum and cherry, but with earth too.   Finely integrated aromatics.  Palate with medium to high acid, mid range length.  A passing resemblance to the Aloxe-Corton.  G-VG

En route, leaning insensibly out of a window.

Buxy

Near Montagny

Leaving the Côte-de-Beaune, the next stop on route after a journey of fifty or so kilometres down the A6 was Buxy in the Côte Chalonnaise.  The region is less prestigious than its northern neighbour, but no less beautiful.  Perhaps even more so.  My cleverness in disabling the location feature on my photos means that I am not certain whether the photo below is from Givry or another town, but the beauty, and very warm weather (28+) for early June, is self-evident.  The main appellations in the Côte Chalonnaise are Givry, Mercurey, Montagny and Rully.  I write these down partly as an attempt to be useful and also partly because I continue to find them hard to remember, and I am rather hoping that repetition will assist.

The tasting here was at the Cave de Buxy, a substantial producer in the region.  This producer is very well regarded for its technical prowess and proved a study in the evolution of winemaking equipment over recent decades.  The winery is super clean, and the facilities outstanding.  That much is obvious.  It was also certainly a reminder of how easy it is to forget, writing about wine, some of the technical steps, the decision making and the sheer teamwork and planning that goes into the winemaking process, with extra respect accorded given that winemaking brooks little capacity for error.  I left with a renewed respect for winemakers able to achieve and manage consistent styles of wine at substantial volumes.  That said, it also became apparent that for me it’s probably the wine, the viticulture and then the winemaking in that order in terms of what interests me most.  Well, at least that’s my current thought.

To follow are short notes from the Cave de Buxy.  Most of the wines are more vins correct than revelatory.  However their universal feature is that the wines are well made, good value and the tasting exercise proved a valuable insight into the breadth of styles on offer in the Côte Chalonnaise, few of which are seen in any volume in Australia.  I’ve added an asterisk again to those wines which stood out in the set.

The whites

Millebuis Bourgogne Aligoté 2013

You don’t see a lot of aligoté in Australia, Burgundy’s other white grape variety.  Well, specifically, I’m not sure I’ve previously tried it at all.  Aromatics of pear, earth, spice and florals.  The palate reminds of pear and earth, short to medium length.  A bit pinot gris like.  A-G

Blason Bourgogne Blanc 2013
Overt lemon aromatics with orange blossom and bright.  Palate with short to medium length, balanced, medium/high acid and some spritz. A

Blason Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise 2014
Calmer lemon and grapefruit aromatics.  Balanced, short to medium length, pleasant.  A

*Millebuis Montagny 2013
Spice, floral, orange zest and lemon aromatics. Medium length, balanced, more towards red grapefruit flavours.  G

*Millebuis Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise 2012
Enter oak.  Gentle cedar, cashew, lemon, Australian (new style) chardonnay profile.  Heavier through the palate (in this set; not generally).  Medium length, maybe more.  G

*Millebuis Montagny Premier Cru Les Coères 2013
Mineral, stone, lemon, more Côte-de-Beaune like.  Similar palate with medium length and acid.  A good wine.  G-VG

Montagny Premier Cru Montcuchot 2013
Floral, lime zest aromatics.  Medium length on the palate, lemon flavours predominant.  Seems quite fine.  G

Montagny Premier Cru 2011
Aromatics of grass and spice.  Volatile acidity perhaps.  Medium length, lemon and hay characters on the palate.  A

The reds

Blason Bourgogne Rouge 2014
Aromatics of cherry, bubblegum and cherry cola.  Short to medium length and raspberry characters.  A

*Blason Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise 2013
More spice and cherry, darker cherry almost.  Medium length, cherry favours, good palate and texture.  G

Millebuis Givry 2013
More cherry, a bit of spice.  Plums too.  Cherry, tannins evident, slightly rustic.  A

Millebuis Givry Premier Cru Clos Jus 2012
Aromatics of cherry and cedar.  Seems finer.  Rustic tannins, cherry and mid length palate, together with some butter.  G

Millebuis Bourgogne Côte Chalonnaise 2011
Cherry, spice, dark and red cherry aromatics.  A bit of volatile acidity perhaps.  Medium length, cherry, good palate, textural again.  Slightly bitter.  G

And then some blending

The tasting then proceeded to a super interesting blending exercise with 6 different samples of Montagny (a white chardonnay) to experiment with.  The differences between the samples were quite extraordinary – from pleasant and balanced, to unremarkable, to reductive, to acidic and spritzy through to zesty and soda.  Considerable credit must go to the winemaker for identifying such different samples within the same vintage.

Blending is harder than it might otherwise seem, as a present assessment of quality is required, as well as a projection as to what the unbottled wine which will sit on lees and in tank for a while longer, will look like in bottle in nine months or so.  I was more at home with the former exercise, than the latter.  I ended up selecting the blend that was subsequently revealed to be unanimous choice as “best now”, rather than necessarily the correct choice for best in 9 months’ time after time in tank and lees.  It’s a difficult business this evaluation of what can’t yet be seen prior to bottling.  And a considerable credit to the experience of Robin Kinahan MW who was extremely helpful in his very practical guidance regarding acidity, lees and the development evolution of Montagny.  I’ll probably never look at a Montagny in quite the same way again.

Chablis to Beaune

Having just returned from France (again) having climbed the rather silly distance of more than 9,000 metres on a bicycle through the Alps, it seems almost a relief to return to writing about wine.  This write up is of the trip from Chablis to Beaune.

The first of many new facts to dawn upon me is that Beaune is a not insubstantial distance from Chablis – almost 135 kilometres in fact.  Indeed, with this sort of distance, which is substantial even by Australian standards for a wine region, one might reasonably question whether they are really part of the same region at all.  This is particularly so if you reflect that the vines north of Villefranche-sur-Saone, namely prime Beaujolais territory, are closer to Beaune than Chablis.  Yet, the Beaujolais region is left out of some books on Burgundy, and Chablis is included.  This outcome would appear perhaps surprisingly, or not so surprisingly, correlated to the fortunes of these respective subregions.

Bailly

The first stop on route to Beaune involved wending through the gently undulating hills south of Chablis towards the Caves de Bailly Lapierre on the river Yonne, via the small towns of Saint-Bris-Le-Vineux (sauvignon blanc and therefore an oddity in Burgundy) and Irancy (pinot noir, with up to 10% césar) and south of the regional centre of Auxerre.

The Caves de Bailly Lapierre is a substantial producer of Crémant de Bourgogne.  The first thing to note here is that the Caves are entirely situated within a rather enormous cave rising above the river Yonne.  By enormous, I mean a cave which has a car park and cellar door inside, a fully functioning winery, endless rows of wines neatly racked, and during the second world war I understand was used to store aircraft.  So, enormous, hectares in size in fact.  For good order, I should point out that the Cave, is well, a cave.  It’s cold, the air is heavy and dank, and it is best not to look at the topography of the walls and roof too closely.  Happily, however, the Caves de Bailly Lapierre produce excellent Crémant de Bourgogne, the winery inside is very modern and well equipped and, as I shall get to, some of the aged Crémants were glorious.

Here is a potted summary of the wines tasted.  As will quickly be evident, who knew there were so many Crémant de Bourgogne styles, let alone from one producer?  My other primary take away point was the resemblance of the better Crémants de Bourgogne to some grower Champagne styles.  This is a rather advantageous conclusion to have drawn, since the former are mostly substantially cheaper than the latter.

An asterisk indicates a highlight in the line-up.

Brut de Charvis Vin Mousseux de Qualité Brut
Vin Mousseux wines are not necessarily made using the traditional method, and so are broadly a step down from a Crémant.  Though this wine in fact is made using the traditional method, so that information is not immediately useful.  This release has aromatics of lemon and a bit of rind.  A simple frothy mousse on the palate.  A

***



Bailly Lapierre Crémant de Bourgogne Reserve Brut
Aromatics of lemon, soda, a touch of biscuit and a bruised character, apparently from the aligoté.  Fresh acid and a slightly coarse bead.  A-G

Bailly Lapierre Crémant de Bourgogne Chardonnay Brut
Sweeter white peach aromatics, powder and brioche.  The palate has high acid and flavours similar to aromatics.  G

Bailly Lapierre Crémant de Bourgogne Noir et Blanc Brut
Aromatics of toast, lemon and florals.  Palate with high acid and a touch of strawberry from the pinot noir. G

Bailly Lapierre Crémant de Bourgogne Pinot Noir Brut
More obvious strawberry and raspberry aromatics.  Similar flavours on the palate, framed by high acidity.  A-G

*Bailly Lapierre Crémant de Bourgogne Ravizotte Extra Brut
Aromatics of vegemite, yeast and nectar.  My first descriptor was met with a blank, slightly concerned expression from the French winemaker.  Dry, firm acid and lemon characters on the palate.  G

Bailly Lapierre Crémant de Bourgogne Rosé Brut
Made from pinot noir and gamay.  Aromatics of earth, mixed red berries and strawberry.  Palate that is dry, with high acid and quite balanced.  G

Bailly Lapierre Crémant de Bourgogne Baigoule Extra Dry
I wrote that this has around 15 grams per litre of residual sugar.  Strawberry, yeasty nose.  A palate that is dry, balanced and has medium length.  The sugar seemed to balance the acidity out well.  G

Bailly Lapierre Crémant de Bourgogne Baigoule Egarade Brut 2012
Organic.  Yeast, hint of strawberries, nectar.  Balanced, but seems closed.  G

***



2008 is said to be a good Crémant de Bourgogne vintage.

Bailly Lapierre Vive-la-Joie Rosé Brut 2008
A blend of gamay, pinot noir and chardonnay.  Quite earthy aromatics, vegemite and stone.  Similar palate.  G

*Bailly Lapierre Vive-la-Joie Brut 2008
Aromatics of yeast, biscuit and lemon.  The palate has lemon, high acid, yeast and is pretty good.  G-VG

Bailly Lapierre Vive-la-Joie Brut 2007
Grapefruit and soda aromatics.  Palate reminds of nectar and biscuit.  A-G

***

And then for the surprise.  It turns out that not only does Crémant de Bourgogne largely resemble some grower Champagnes, but it also can age stupendously, no doubt aided by the Cave’s textbook maturation conditions being, well, a cave.

*Paul Delane Crémant de Bourgogne Brut Reserve 1993
Sure, looking at the bottle, it looks like something you might have found by the side of the road.  The wine inside though is superb.  Aromatics of honey, toast, brioche and some complexity.  A finish that is long and reminds of brioche.  VG

*Reserve de la Montgolfiere Crémant de Bourgogne 1988
And sure, this bottle looks more like the truck has already taken it away with the recycling.  Again, that would be a terrible mistake.  The Crémant has aromatics of lemon, florals and honey.  And considerable elegance.  The palate has toast, medium to long length, soda and lemon.  Still remarkably fresh at 27 years of age.  VG

Some perfectly stored back vintages in the Caves.

Mouth somewhat seared by all this (good) acidity, we moved onto the next destination, Beaune itself.

Beaune

Beaune has some glitter.  I had not expected this.  Clean, almost polished streets, well-to-do wine shops seemingly every 50 metres, smart restaurants and a general feeling of prosperity, coupled with many tourists.  The impression – I have not researched its demographics – is that of a wealthy town, and perhaps a reflection of the market success of pinot noir and the region in the last 20 or so years.  The pricing in the many wine shops – some regarded as tourist traps – rather sadly appeared quite reasonable by Australian standards.

Sunrise in central Beaune.

Many further pre-conceptions of the region also proved slightly out.  The famous east facing hill of the Cote d’Or, is much gentler and less obvious than I had imagined.  The famed mid slope of the hill, with the best sun exposure, is more like what I would have perceived as the almost bottom of the slope.  The top of the hill could be described as being a rather unchallenging stroll away.  The picture immediately below probably communicates this better than I am able.

Gentle slope?  Unremarkable?  We are standing directly in front of probably the most famous vineyard in the world, namely that of La Romanée-Conti.
A more familiar sight.  La Romanée-Conti in Vosne-Romanée.
Double click and zoom in: pinot noir flowering at Romanée-Saint-Vivant.

The distances between the towns are small, but not so small that commuting on foot would suffice; a car or bike is recommended.  And roads and the autoroute are never far away in the valley.  Finally the towns themselves – a roll call of famous names such as Meursault, Volnay, Pommard and Vosne-Romanée among others – are rather uniformly manicured and beautiful.

Meursault.  Or nearby.  Either way, a typical Burgundian style roof.

In my next instalment, I will post tastings of a phalanx of wines mostly from the Côte de Beaune from La Cave des Hautes-Côtes (Nuiton Beaunoy), Domain Roger Belland and Domaine Maillard.

Paris to Chablis

Jetlag recovered, the first stop on the wine itinerary was Chablis.  I suspect due to pre-conceptions of cold winters and frost, I had always thought of Chablis as being a little north of Paris, notwithstanding I know France reasonably well.  In fact, it is a roughly 2 hour drive south-east of Paris, which made me particularly unsuited to offering sensible direction.  The town of Chablis itself is picturesque, although smaller than I had anticipated; only 2000 people are tucked away here.  So small in fact, despite its world renown, it resembles one of those many beautiful French rural towns that one passes through without not quite knowing what keeps the place going, except of course Chablis is a centre of, and known throughout, the wine world.

A quiet walk in Chablis.

The trip crew was expertly led by Robin Kinahan MW and I joined in together with some very able members of his team.  The first stop in Chablis was lunch, this being France after all.  And should you be in Chablis for lunch, I can wholeheartedly recommend the food of Bistro des Grand Crus – its unassuming appearance proved a neat foil for some piping hot and delicious fish (féra).  The very good La Chablisienne Les Vénérables AOC Chablis 2010 was well matched, with aromatics of stone, and soft touches of nectar and orange blossom.  Its palate was medium bodied palate, with good acidity, medium length and nectar, orange blossom and, with air, lees characters.

The unassuming Bistro des Grand Crus.

The principal activity of the day resolved to a vineyard exploration and tasting with the energetic and knowledgeable Hervé Tucki of La Chablisienne.  What Hervé does not know about Chablis, its vineyards and wines is not obvious, and he is particularly passionate about the contribution of the region’s soils and climate to wine quality, which I will get to shortly.  As an interim step though, I thought it interesting to note Hervé’s view that he does not regard chardonnay as something produced in Chablis, but rather regards the wines as “Chablis”, “Petit Chablis” or a particular Chablis Premier Cru or Chablis Grand Cru or perhaps even just “Kimmeridgian” or “Portlandian”.  This terroir first ethos arose time and time again on this trip.  And honestly, as well as finding Hervé incredibly knowledgeable on Chablis wines and terroir, I could see his point.  Many of the wines resembled each other more closely than they resembled the breadth of chardonnay styles from Australia’s regions, and even the grape’s expression did not immediately remind of the more obvious expressions of the grape variety.  The terroir first ethos is consistent with my own view that there is substantial merit in the search for genuine regional expression in Australia’s wine regions.

Rocks

Which neatly brings me to another misconception on my part.  A discussion of Chablis soils and subsoils is certainly a bit easier on site.  The identification of particular types of limestone is not for example a particularly arcane pursuit when they are right in front of you, in volume.  Despite their elegant appearance, the smoother prettier stones proved to be the Portlandian limestone – generally held in slightly less esteem (for Chablis wine) than the Kimmeridgian limestone.  The Kimmeridigian limestone, despite the reputed elegance it brings to Chablis wine, proved visually to be of rougher appearance.  Here, the Jurassic oyster shells in the Kimmeridigian limestone are particularly obvious.  The boundaries between the soil types are less ordered than might otherwise be assumed from a wine map or generalisation, but this is a logical outcome when one reflects on the length of geological time involved.  It also presents an opportunity to find wines from particular climats that might be overlooked for no fundamental reason.

Portlandian  limestone on the left-bank.
Portlandian limestone on the right-bank.
Some Kimmeridgian soils in Grand Cru vineyards.

Appellations

The hierarchy of Chablis’ appellations – Petit Chablis, Chablis, Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru also proved particularly obvious when in the town.  Chablis Premier Cru and Chablis Grand Cru tend to occupy the prime sights and are south west or south east facing.  Petit Chablis tended to be “behind the hill” or on the outskirts, while the intersections between Chablis, Petit Chablis and Chablis Grand Cru proved very close in some cases.

The famous Grand Crus of Chablis in the distance.
“Behind the hill”.  This tiny road divides an AOC Chablis and an AOC Petit Chablis vineyard.

Producers

The main producer visited was La Chablisienne, which is the largest cooperative in Chablis.  It gives a firm impression of a tightly run outfit with a modern, well equipped, winery.  I am writing from my memory, but growers are required to sell all of their produce to the cooperative, and sign up for minimum periods of at least 5 years, ostensibly ensuring both quality of supply and a long-term approach.  Equally, unlike some cooperatives, La Chablisienne produces wines across all of the large appellations in Chablis – from Petit Chablis through to Chablis Grand Cru.

To follow are some short tasting notes from some current and older releases.  In each case, it seems that the even years of 2010, 2012 and 2014 perform best, with more elegance and tighter acidity across the palate.  I apologise in advance for any errors and misspellings in these write ups; there were a lot of wines, and I do endeavour to be as accurate as possible.  I have added an asterisk next to my favourite of each set.

The first two wines are organic cuvées that see no oak and 100% malo.  The former are grown on Portlandian soils, the latter on Kimmeridgian soils.

Dame Nature AOC Petit Chablis 2013
Clean lemon and soft talc aromatics.  The palate reminds of lemon, white peach, earth, stones and the acidity lingers.  A-G

Dame Nature AOC Chablis 2013
More lemon, hint of jasmine, blossoms/floral and lees aromatics.  The palate shows lemon characters and is more precise and mineral.  G-VG

La Sereine AOC Chablis 2012
More peach, stone, mineral, smoke and lemon aromatics.  The palate is balanced with a lemon and mineral character.  G-VG

*Les Vénérables Old Vine Selection AOC Chablis 2012
Ageing part in tank, part in old oak, with 35+ year old vines on Kimmeridgian soils.  The aromatics remind of blossom, stone, earth, touch of cedar and lemon.  Length is towards long, balanced, and similar flavours with some oyster shell reminders.  This is my value pick, and resembled the 2010 vintage tasted at lunch.  VG

The first two premier crus tasted are each on the left-bank of Le Serein, the small river flowing through Chablis.  Each have a south-easterly exposure, yet they present differently.  The second two premier crus are from the right-bank of Le Serein.  Vaulorent is just next to Grand Cru, Les Preuses and faces south-west, while Mont de Milieu is absolutely south facing and matures first.

Côte de Lechét AOC Chablis 1er Cru 2012
Aromatics of watercress, lemon, tight mineral, earth and lees.  Quite aromatic.  The palate reminds of blossom, has towards long length, acid still integrating.   G-VG

Montmains AOC Chablis 1er Cru 2012
Aromatics of white nectarine, blossom, stones, more floral.  Towards long length, cedar still integrating with some notes of clarified butter.  VG

Vaulorent AOC Chablis 1er Cru 2012
Aromatics of blossom, white peach, cedar, stones, minerals and sea salts.  Moreish.  The palate has balance and is complex and interesting with towards long length.  Acidity in balance.  Recommended. VG

*Mont de Milieu AOC Chablis 1er Cru 2012
This premier cru caught my attention.  It faces due south, yet it shows no fatness in the glass and in fact appears more restrained than many.  So, it has intrigue.  In the glass, there are aromatics of blossom, white peach and is slightly subdued initially, growing in complexity with time.  The palate reminds of stones, and is balanced, with complex fine bones that unfurl in the glass.  VG

And to round things out some Chablis Grand Crus.  Most of the Grands Crus are south-west facing and all are on the right bank of Le Serein.

*Les Preuses AOC Chablis Grand Cru 2012
Wow.  Aromatics of clarified butter, jasmine and a complex melange of spices, cedar and orange blossom.  The palate has very long length (30+ seconds), and flavours reminding of white peach and stone.  A feminine style.  It turns out I like feminine styles.  O

Chateau Grenouilles AOC Chablis Grand Cru 2012
Aromatics of stone, white peach and crushed watercress.  A similar palate, higher acid, medium to long length, clarified butter, smoke.  Length makes a run for it.  VG

Chateau Grenouilles AOC Chablis Grand Cru 2010
Finer bones.  More jasmine, stone and lemon.  The palate reminds of stone, lemon and is very mineral.  Lees, oyster shells and long length.  VG

Dinner

For dinner, I can highly recommend the very modern styled menu of Au Fil du Zinc in Chablis, which also boasts a particularly well priced wine list.  The “who’s who” of the Chablis wine community appeared to pop in here over the course of an evening.  The Vaulorent AOC Chablis 1er Cru 2010 which was the white wine to accompany dinner proved a very good wine, with aromatics that had taken on honey, stone and almost butterscotch characters.  The palate is mineral, with medium to long length and a stoney character.  Hostellerie des Clos in Chablis is particularly nice accommodation that is easy to recommend.

Next stop Beaune.

Merlot in Australia: maligned or misunderstood? Or, Sir, can you spare a clone?


Introduction

Given the quality ambitions of many Australian producers, the relative underperformance of merlot in Australia has always struck me as something of an anomaly that is worthy of further thought and attention.  So what is wrong then with Australian merlot? Like all good stories, we have an alleged culprit. Locally the finger generally has been pointed at the merlot clones available in Australia, mostly sourced from California. However, my take on the matter is a slightly different one. While some of the dominant merlot clones available do present some challenges, my observation is that the clone is not the main problem.  The reasons for this require some elaboration, but in short, careful viticulture and viniculture, seasonal chance, producer intent to make (and consumer demand for) a fine wine made from merlot appear to matter more to the quality of Australian merlot, than the choice of merlot clone. But let me explain.

A potted history of merlot in Australia

Merlot’s history in Australia is in fact a relatively recent one. While it is officially reported to have been planted as early as 1923, it appears not to have graced many commercial radars until 1980, when James Halliday reported that 68 tonnes of merlot had been crushed. In 2009, this figure had grown to almost 127,000 tonnes, making it Australia’s third largest red grape variety crushed, after shiraz (syrah) and cabernet sauvignon. If nothing else, it is a substantial rate of increase.  Yet even in 2011, James Halliday wondered aloud “who is drinking it?”

Which naturally or unnaturally enough depending upon whether you obsess about wine or not, brings us to the matter of merlot and its clones. A clone according to Jancis Robinson MW’s wine bible, The Oxford Companion to Wine, is a single vine or a population of vines all derived from vegetative propagation from cuttings or buds from a single mother vine by deliberate selection. If the “mother vine” has unsatisfactory characteristics, it thus follows that clones of that vine too generally will underperform.

In terms of the clones of merlot available in Australia, there were nine referred to in a comprehensive study by Phil Nicholas of the South Australian Research and Development Institute in 2006. While their names bear a closer resemblance to airport departure gates than is perhaps comfortable, it is useful to identify them, because so much of the debate on the alleged underperformance of Australian merlot has centred on them. The clones are the RVC13, the Q45-15, the D3V14, the D3V5, the D3V7, the FPS06 (aka the “6R”), the FPS08 (aka the “8R”), the FPS18 and the SAVII02. Six of these nine clones originate from California (one originally from Argentina), with the remainder from Australia, Canada (originally from Italy) and Italy itself. Interestingly, no clones from Bordeaux appear on this list, a fact I will return to shortly.

Down with the D3V14?

The most maligned of the merlot clones has also been the most popularly planted – the D3V14. Its popularity is attested to by Nick Dry, viticulturalist at the Yalumba Nursery in South Australia, who remarks that this is the only merlot clone planted in Australia in large volumes. The D3V14 was imported into Australia from UC Davis in California in 1965. The criticisms of the clone have come from varying sources, but the principal objections appear to be its lack of French origin, the existence of many very average merlot based wines in Australia, and some apparent difficulty in achieving balanced grapes in the vineyard. Are these criticisms of merit? In my opinion, perhaps not. The first two points appear unable to survive sensible scrutiny – that a grape clone is from California or that bad merlot exists, does not prove of itself that the clone is unsatisfactory.

The latter point is perhaps however of more justifiable interest. According to Yalumba, the D3V14 produces vines that have low shoot vigour, high fruit to leaf ratios (which can delay ripening), are very sensitive to yield and are susceptible to dry soil conditions. The practical result of this is that the clone is moderately “high maintenance” (or “sooky” as I read in one presentation) requiring shoot and fruit thinning to reduce yield, and push shoot growth, in order to create a balanced vine. Anecdotal evidence referred to by Nick suggests that there is also a fine balance to be sought between achieving tannin ripeness without overripe or simplistic fruit flavours and picking too early and garnering unattractive green characters in the wine.

With these facts to hand then, it would seem that planted in the wrong place, or in the wrong hands, the D3V14 merlot clone used widely in Australia is more than capable of underachieving. The risk of overcropping and the importance of picking at optimal ripeness, however, is in fairness probably not a problem unique to the D3V14 or the merlot grape in particular. It is a common lament where quality wine is absent. So, perhaps then the clone isn’t the entire story. But, let us test this notion. To that end, I asked some of Australia’s leading merlot producers, Irvine Wines and Henschke and the up and coming boutique winery, Blue Poles.

James Irvine of Irvine Wines in the Barossa Valley produces a number of merlot based wines, including their well regarded “Grand Merlot”. The Grand Merlot not surprisingly includes a majority of grapes from the D3V14 clone. James rails against the suggestion that the D3V14 clone is problematic and notes that while Australian merlot clearly can underperform, this is probably more a combination of a lack of attention in the vineyard (with grapes not being picked at the optimum time or yield), the young age of many of Australia’s merlot vines and inattentive winemaking not being specific to producing good merlot. That is, Irvine mostly identifies problems other than with the clone itself.

Mark Gifford of new wine producer Blue Poles comments similarly. His Blue Poles vineyard in the Margaret River has predominantly the D3V14 clone planted, with a chance of a portion of the D3V7 based on field observations. Mark shares the views of James Irvine, remarking that the excuses for new clones are rather banal and show more about the approach to merlot and the wine it produces than the clone itself. Pointed reference is made to merlot being considered only a “filler” by a large majority of Australia’s wine making fraternity, with many being made from barrels left over from cabernet sauvignon and merlot blends. Market reasons are also suggested as a cause of merlot’s  underperformance, with wineries happily meeting the demand for fat, soft and uncomplicated merlot (an applied example being the Yellow Tail phenomenon) which results in sales, rather than perhaps critical acclaim. Mark also raises the interesting point that in tasting numerous different merlot clones in Bordeaux, it became apparent to him that soils and location created the biggest difference in wine as well as cropping and pruning methodology, rather than any particular clone in use. In Mark’s words:

“So combined, you have a variety that is over-cropped, picked too early or too late, made in a generic style and our solution? Get better clones”.

On this analysis, pinning Australia’s underperformance with the merlot grape on the choice of clone appears somewhat naive.

Henschke have a collection of merlot vines – the most widely planted being not surprisingly the D3V14. However, they also have a fulsome clonal collection including the D3V5, D3V7, Q45-15, 6R and 8R. Prue Henschke observed that she does not see a great deal of difference between the merlot clones, beyond them all setting poorly on their own roots which gives some yield control. Instead, season seems to the biggest influence on quality for Henschke. Nonetheless, Prue indicates that Henschke are looking to plant the French 191 clone (discussed below) in their Eden Valley vineyard as early as 2013.

What about the other clones?

While predominant, the D3V14 clone is of course certainly not the only merlot clone in Australia. Thus, for good order, it seems necessary to have a look at the others. Two clones that have attracted some recent interest are the Q45-15 and the 8R. The former was sourced from Canada in 1990 and has its origins in Italy. The 8R was sourced from UC Davis in California in 1991 and has Argentinian origins. According to Nick Dry of the Yalumba Nursery, the Q45-15 is said to produce higher shoot vigour and lower fruit to leaf ratios resulting in better balance relative to the D3V14. It also has lower berry and bunch weights and is earlier ripening than the D3V14 and thus has been met with favour. The 8R according to Yalumba analytically tends to produce moderate yields, yet is the earliest ripening. Similar to the Q45-15, it produces vines with higher shoot vigour and a lower fruit to shoot ratio than the D3V14. However, as pointed out by James Irvine, both the Q45-15 and 8R clones remain relatively new, and so the results are still coming in.

Older clones that have also found their way in Australian vineyards include the D3V5 and the D3V7, both imported from UC Davis in California in 1971 and 1976 respectively. Here James Irvine observes that the D3V5 has similarities to the D3V14, while the D3V7 develops good flavours at a much lower baumé. The Irvines plan to bring out the D3V7 clone as a varietal wine in 2012, which possibly will be a local first, as well as a vote of confidence in another older Californian sourced clone.

What about French clones?

It is difficult to conclude a discussion of fine merlot, without consideration of Chateau Petrus – arguably merlot’s finest, and certainly its most famous, expression.  While there is probably some truth in Mark Gifford’s observation that the “the new world obsession with clones is seen as mad by the Bordelaise”, nonetheless I think it attracts inevitable interest.

Therefore, it is perhaps no surprise that efforts to bring French merlot clones to Australia have been afoot, and two have recently reached Australian shores. These are the ENTAV- INRA(R) No 181 and the ENTAV-INRA(R) No 343, both of which originate from the Gironde. Although named perhaps to more closely resemble a gastrointestinal disorder than a grape vine, the former clone is said to be a lower yielding clone that is highly regarded in France, and one of the most propagated in Europe. The latter clone is also highly regarded in France, with moderate yields and sufficient tannins to suit aging. Further specifics as to actual origin of the vines seem unavailable. Australian quarantine restrictions and airport security I suspect would deter more ambitious winemakers with visions of secateurs packed into their luggage.

Nick Dry expects that these new French clones will quickly become preferred clones, and given that Henschke would already appear to be on board, he may well be right. Whether that leads to quality improvements in Australian merlot though is perhaps a different question, although it obviously will be interesting to see whether it does. To my mind, if the above analysis is correct, we may see quality improvements if only because wineries planting the new French clones might be more desirous of making fine wine.

Conclusion

My conclusion is perhaps a rather simple one – it seems to me that the underperformance of merlot on Australian soil and the attribution of fault to poor merlot clones is perhaps somewhat akin to a lousy worker blaming his tools. Good results with Australian merlot appear possible and it may just require more fastidious care, and desire, to produce fine wine from the grape. If more such quality minded producers emerge, regardless of the clone, one gets the sense that merlot’s time in the sun in Australia may come sooner than expected.