This is first rate Heathcote shiraz from shadowfax and the 2010 vintage. In the glass, the wine has an aroma of licorice, spice and plums. On the palate, its key features are its long length, medium tannins (more than usual for Heathcote) and full body. This wine has been delicious over all of its life, and remains so now at a decade of age. Rating: Very Good. Website: https://www.shadowfax.com.au/. Reviewed: July 2020.
The Margaret River, best known for its cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and semillon-sauvignon blanc blends, probably in that order, also produces a ripe shiraz style that ages well. This wine, a 2007 shiraz from Leeuwin Estate (best known for its chardonnay) has an aroma of plums. The palate is rich, full bodied and spicey, with ripe and sweet fruit. This delicious wine is in its drinking prime. Rating: Very Good. Website: https://leeuwinestate.com.au. Reviewed: July 2020.
This is the current vintage release and early to have opened a Rockford Rifle Range. The wine, a cabernet sauvignon, presents in something of a jumbly fashion. The aroma points in different green directions, none with certainty. Weeds, clove, cedar and green capsicum each present their case. The palate offers medium tannins that are fine in texture. Importantly its finish is between medium and long, suggesting its future is a bright one. This Rifle Range is too early to approach and I would suggest a further 3-4 years in the cellar for it to show its true character. Rating: Good. Website: https://www.rockfordwines.com.au. Reviewed: July 2020.
The 2015 vintage of the “Pig in the House” organic cabernet sauvignon has an Australian bearing, with aromas of mint, eucalyptus, very ripe sweet plums and cedar. The palate is sweet fruited and viscous and somewhat warming. Ready to drink now, this wine will suit current drinking. Rating: Acceptable. Abv: 14.8%. Price: $25. Website: www.piginthehouse.com.au. Source: Sample.
The new Langtons classification (classification VII) of Australian wine was released last week. It is stated to measure the performance of wines in an open market, with the condition of entry being 10 vintages and a track record in the secondary market. The list has been prepared for many years now, and is prepared by Langtons, a company that forms part of an Australian supermarket conglomerate. You can read it here.
It’s actually a pretty interesting list, even though it is easy to cynical about lists and since it’s wine, everyone has a view. The facts are it captures many, perhaps almost all, of Australia’s great wines and helps provide an easy reference point to quality Australian wine for expert and new comer alike. I think it therefore is of use.
In this post, I wanted to sift through the list to see what has changed, as that is potentially of interest in spotting trends. So, I am going to look at the promotions, demotions and departures. The latter two have seemingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly at least from producers, attracted little comment that I have seen. Here’s what I found.
Promotions at the top level (exceptional)
At the top level, there is only one move, a new entrant. The new wine is Best’s Thomson Family Great Western Shiraz. I have tasted this wine on few occasions, but it is a very good wine. There are many outstanding wines at this level. I do think though that Grange and Hill of Grace remain above most of them.
Promotions at second level (outstanding)
At the next level, twelve wines were promoted:
1 Best’s Bin 0 Great Western Shiraz
2 By Farr Sangreal Pinot Noir, Geelong
3 Charles Melton Nine Popes Shiraz Grenache Mourvedre, Barossa Valley
4 Fox Creek Reserve Shiraz, McLaren Vale
5 Henschke Euphonium Shiraz Cabernet Merlot, Barossa Valley
6 Howard Park Abercrombie Cabernet, Great Southern
7 Langmeil 1843 Shiraz, Barossa Valley
8 Leeuwin Art Series Cabernet Sauvignon, Margaret River
9 Seppeltsfield Para Liqueur Port, Barossa Valley
10 Yalumba Signature Cabernet Shiraz, Barossa
11 Yarra Yering Dry Red No. 1 Cabernet, Yarra Valley
12 Yeringberg Cabernet, Yarra Valley
These promotions are from quite a mix of regions and styles, with five wines from the Barossa and three wines from around Melbourne, namely the Yarra Valley and Geelong. But it is a strong list. I haven’t encountered a couple – Howard Park’s wine and the Seppeltsfield fortified specifically. Leeuwin’s cabernet sauvignon has improved over the years.
Promotions at the third level (excellent)
At the next level, twelve wines also have been promoted:
1 Cullen Wines Kevin John Chardonnay, Margaret River
2 Deep Woods Estate Reserve Cabernet, Margaret River
3 Hentley Farm Clos Otto Shiraz, Barossa Valley
4 Hoddles Creek Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley
5 Kooyong Haven Pinot Noir, Mornington Peninsula
6 Oakridge 864 Chardonnay, Yarra Valley
7 Oliver’s Taranga Reserve Shiraz, McLaren Vale
8 Vass Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay, Margaret River
9 Wine by Farr Tout Pres Pinot Noir, Geelong
10 Xanadu Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Margaret River
11 Yabby Lake Pinot Noir, Mornington Peninsula
12 Yarra Yering Dry Red No. 2 Shiraz, Yarra Valley
I have tasted most, but not all, of these wines. Of the twelve, interestingly ten are from the Margaret River and the wine regions around Melbourne. A couple of wines here will be on a higher trajectory, with Oakridge’s 864 chardonnay the most obvious example.
Now, my spreadsheet was tested by trying to track the various movements, so if there is an error here or anywhere else in this post let me know. These are the wines that have been moved down a level:
1 Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon, Margaret River
2 Chambers Muscat, Rutherglen
3 Chambers Topaque, Rutherglen
4 Crawford River Riesling, Western Victoria
5 Dalwhinnie Eagle Shiraz, Pyrenees
6 De Bortoli Noble One, New South Wales
7 Glaetzer Amon Ra Shiraz, Barossa Valley
8 Grosset Springvale Riesling, Clare Valley
9 Majella Malleea Cabernet, Coonawarra
10 McWilliams Lovedale Semillon, Hunter Valley
11 Noon Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, McLaren Vale
12 Paringa Pinot Noir, Mornington Peninsula
13 Seppelt St Peters Shiraz, Western Victoria
14 Wynns Michael Shiraz, Coonawarra
15 Yalumba Octavius Shiraz, Barossa
This group is a bit of a mixed bag, but they all remain in the classification, so really, it is not that the wines have all suddenly undergone some misfortune. I will return to this shortly, as first I want to mention the wines left out of this classification. They are:
1 Bannockburn Serre Pinot Noir, Geelong
2 Greenock Creek RR Cabernet Sauvignon, Barossa Valley
3 Wolf Blass Platinum Shiraz, South Australia
4 Coldstream Pinot Noir, Yarra Valley
5 Katnook Prodigy Shiraz, Coonawarra
6 Lake’s Folly Chardonnay, Hunter Valley
7 Lindemans Shiraz Cabernet, Coonawarra
8 Paringa Shiraz, Mornington Peninsula
9 Petaluma Hanlin Hill Riesling, Clare Valley
10 Primo Estate Joseph, South Australia
11 Rolf Binder Shiraz, Barossa Valley
12 Sally’s Paddock Cabernet, Pyrenees
13 Savaterre Chardonnay, Beechworth
14 Wantirna Amelia Cabernet blend, Yarra Valley
15 Wild Duck Creek Estate Springflat Shiraz, Heathcote
This is a very interesting list. It would appear to reflect changing styles (rich and bold styles to more elegant), some declining fortunes and perhaps declining interest in a couple of cases.
You can slice and dice these a number of ways to work out trends, but it is interesting to look at which grape varieties and regions had the most net promotions and demotions. Here’s what I found, using a very simple method of promotions minus demotions for grape varieties and regions:
Pinot Noir, net +2
Cabernet sauvignon & cabernet first blends, net +1
Chardonnay, net +1
Shiraz & shiraz first blends, net -2
Riesling, net -3
Margaret River, net +4
Yarra Valley, net +3
Barossa Valley, net +2
Coonawarra, net -4
This is just one means of looking at this information, and wine is notoriously diverse. However, in terms of grape varieties, this may very tentatively suggest that pinot noir, chardonnay and cabernet blends are grape varieties on the up, and riesling and perhaps shiraz is not. There is a lot of movement in shiraz both up and down and a lot of shiraz on the list, so I am slow to draw strong conclusions on shiraz, but it is net down.
The funny thing is that this more or less accords with what I anticipated might be seen, except for the cabernet blends. The pinot noir charge is led by the established wine regions around Melbourne – the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula and Geelong. Tasmania has not yet seen its day, although I think it is coming.
In terms of movements in regions, the Margaret River, the Yarra Valley and the Barossa lead the pack for net promotions. Coonawarra has seen the most demotions. Again, these are not particular surprises. If tentative observations may be made, and there seems no reason not to make them, perhaps it is that the Yarra Valley appears to be rising with more serious producers than ever and the Margaret River has become Australia’s benchmark region for cabernet sauvignon. And Coonawarra, well, I think it could be so much more than it is. Perhaps that is a post for another day.
This wine is sourced from a vineyard in the southern Flinders Ranges in South Australia some 200 kilometres north of the Barossa Valley. The label does not feature a geographical indication. It reminds though of a classic Barossa Valley style, with ripe, soft and sweet fruited plum and dark cherry characters, coupled with long length and a very balanced expression. There are no “edges” or extremes here, nor attempts to be overly clever in the winemaking; this wine simply tastes of a wine made sympathetically from high quality physiologically ripe fruit and expresses itself much like a typical Barossa Valley style shiraz. I enjoyed it very much as a consequence. Very Good
De Bortoli’s Sacred Hill Shiraz 2012 retails for the princely sum of $7.50, and no region is identified on the bottle other than Australia. It has mostly primary fruit driven aromatics of spiced plums, supplemented by a touch of pepper. The palate is dry, simple and pleasant enough, with plum flavours predominant. Balance is achieved, without the sharp edges you generally see at this price point. Acceptable
Vendors: Check http://www.wine-searcher.com/
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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.
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.