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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. 

Institute of Masters of Wine Bordeaux 2014 in bottle Sydney tasting

Last weekend, the annual Institute of Masters of Wine Bordeaux tasting in bottle of the 2014 vintage took place in Sydney. I expected this to be a much more popular event than the previous year’s tasting of the 2013s (you can read my reviews of that tasting here) which was a poor vintage. But in fact, I would say there were substantially fewer people at the 2014 tasting. It is hard to imagine that an equivalent event, with say most of the leading estates assembled of Burgundy or Piemonte, would be so quiet.

The good news is that I tasted through nearly all of the wines, and was able to do so at some leisure. My short notes and observations follow. In short, I would describe the 2014s as a classic Bordeaux vintage, with many very good wines. I have put an asterisks next to the best wine of each appellation, on this tasting.

Pessac-Léognan

Château Bouscat. Merlot dominant (55%). Iron earth, capsicum aromas. Herbal, oak. Good

Château de Fieuzal. 48% cabernet sauvignon and 45% merlot. Aromas of tomato stalk, red fruits. Firm tannins and acidity on the palate. Good to Very Good

Château Malartic-Lagraviere. 52% cabernet sauvignon and 40% merlot. Deep colour, attractive pencil lead aroma. Saturated fruit, good intensity and structured palate. Very Good

*Château Smith Haut Lafitte. 62% cabernet sauvignon, 30% merlot, 6% cabernet franc and 2% petit verdot. This was the highlight of the Pessac-Léognan group. Velvety, blackcurrant aroma, with pencil lead notes. Crisp acidity coupled with long length on the palate. Outstanding

Domaine de Chevalier. 65% cabernet sauvignon and 30% merlot. Somewhat muted aroma of pencil lead and blackcurrants. The palate has firm tannins, acid and structure. Good to Very Good

Haut-Médoc

Château Belgrave. 66% cabernet sauvignon and 32% merlot. Aromas of capsicum and cardamum. The palate has very firm acidity and a greenness. Good

Château Cantemerle. 47% cabernet sauvignon and 38% merlot. Capsicum aromas. Palate has firm acidity and presents as very young. Good

Margaux

*Château Boyd-Cantenac. 70% cabernet sauvignon and 21% merlot. Floral, blackcurrant, pencil lead and quite opulent aromas. Structured tannins and firm palate. Very Good to Outstanding

Château Brane-Cantenac. 77% cabernet sauvignon and 21% merlot. Floral, blackcurrant and brooding aroma. The palate has very high acid and somewhat angular tannins. Good to Very Good

Château d’Issan. 77% cabernet sauvignon and 23% merlot. Earthy, leathery aroma. Firm acidity and gentle balance on the palate. Good to Very Good

Château du Tertre. 58% cabernet sauvignon and 20% cabernet franc (possibly a typo). Pencil lead, refined blackcurrant aromas. High acidity on the palate, almost piquant. Good

Château Giscours. 70% cabernet sauvignon and 20% merlot. Herbal, capsicum aroma. Firm acidity, green palate. Good to Very Good

Château Kirwan. 58% cabernet sauvignon and 36% merlot. Pencil lead, chocolate aroma. The palate is firm, structured with some bitter tannins. Good to Very Good

Château Lascombes. 50% merlot and 45% cabernet sauvignon. Earthy, ripe fruit aromas. Ripe, structured fruit on the palate, with good length. Very Good

Château Pouget. 58% cabernet sauvignon and 31% merlot. Floral and quite aromatic. Firm acidity, good length. Good to Very Good

Château Rauzan-Gassies. 70% cabernet sauvignon and 26% merlot. Restrained, neutral aroma. Structured, classic palate with good length. Very Good

Château Rauzan-Ségla. 56% cabernet sauvignon and 42% merlot. Glossy, oak aroma. Intense palate. Very Good

Saint-Émilion

**Château Angélus. 50% merlot and 50% cabernet franc. This was the wine of the tasting. A seamless expression of blackcurrant and cedar. On the palate, lovely balance and phenomenal length. Outstanding

*Château Cheval Blanc. 55% merlot and 45% cabernet franc. Another outstanding wine, not surprisingly. More tobacco and red fruited aroma. Lovely balance and long length. Outstanding

Château Balestard La Tonnelle. 70% merlot and 25% cabernet franc. Tomato, red fruit aromas. Pleasant red fruit on the palate. Good

Château Bellevue. 100% merlot. Plums and soy aroma. Medium-firm tannins and plummy palate. Good to Very Good

Château Cap de Mourlin. 65% merlot and 25% cabernet franc. Red fruit and cedar aroma. Very firm tannins and red fruits on the palate. Very Good

Château Corbin. 90% merlot and 10% cabernet franc. Redcurrant, plum and spice aroma. Medium-firm tannins and red fruited palate. Good to Very Good

Château Grand Corbin. 70% merlot and 25% cabernet franc. Restrained aroma of earth and attractive red fruits. Firm acidity and good length on the palate. Very Good

Château La Tour Figeac. 75% merlot and 25% cabernet franc. Earthy, blackcurrant generous aroma. Soy, red fruit, medium-long length and medium-firm tannins. Very Good

Château Laroze. 66% merlot and 29% cabernet franc. Pencil lead, red fruit aroma. Plush palate with great length. Very Good

*Château Troplong Mondot. 91% merlot and 7% cabernet sauvignon. Spiced blackberry aroma. The palate has saturated fruit, full flavour, great intensity and structure, cedar and long length. Outstanding

Château Trottevieille. 58% cabernet franc and 40% merlot. Aroma of smoke and leaf. Firm structure, leafy, good length. Good to Very Good

Pomerol

*Château Clinet. 90% merlot and 9% cabernet sauvignon. Aroma of soy, plum. Deep colour. Medium-firm tannins and structured palate. Very Good to Outstanding

*Château Gazin. 95% merlot and 5% cabernet franc. Velvety aroma, tomato and red fruits too. Firm tannins, structured and good length. Very Good to Outstanding

*Château Nenin. 68% merlot and 32% cabernet franc. Plums, restrained yet rich aroma. The palate has pencil lead characters and is both opulent and regal, with good length on the finish. Very Good to Outstanding

Château Petit-Village. 72% merlot and 16% cabernet franc. Blackberry and spice aroma. Capsicum, structure and good length on the palate. Good to Very Good

Saint-Estèphe

Château Calon Ségur. 66% cabernet sauvignon and 13% cabernet franc. Ripe, blackcurrant, restrained aroma. High acid, structured palate with medium length. Good to Very Good

*Château Cos d’Estournel. 65% cabernet sauvignon and 33% merlot. Ripe, delicious aroma of blackcurrants and blackberry. Full tannins. Outstanding

*Château Montrose. 61% cabernet sauvignon and 30% merlot. Ripe, cedar and blackcurrant aroma. Structured palate, full tannins and long length. Built to last. Outstanding

Saint-Julien

Château Beychevelle. 51% merlot and 39% cabernet sauvignon. Lovely aroma, pencil lead, blackcurrant, classic. Firm tannins, good balance and good length on the palate. Very Good to Outstanding

Château Lagrange. 76% cabernet sauvignon and 18% merlot. Capsicum and black fruit aroma. High acid, capsicum character but classic. Good

Château Langoa Barton. 54% cabernet sauvignon and 34% merlot. Muted aroma and palate. Seemed out of condition. Not rated

Château Leoville Barton. 83% cabernet sauvignon and 15% merlot. Pencil lead, gorgeous blackcurrant aroma. Firm tannins, good length. Very Good

*Château Léoville Marquis de Las Cases. 79% cabernet sauvignon and 11% cabernet franc. Blackcurrant, classic aroma. Palate has ripe, saturated fruit and great length and balance. Outstanding

Château Leoville Poyferre. 60% cabernet sauvignon and 35% merlot. Capsicum, blackcurrant, austere aroma. Palate with firm, structured tannins. Very Good

Château Talbot. 62% cabernet sauvignon and 32% merlot. Blackcurrant and gloss aroma. Firm tannins, somewhat acidic but classic. Good to Very Good

Pauillac

Château Batailley. 82% cabernet sauvignon and 15% merlot. Earthy aroma, brettanomyces? Capsicum, blackcurrant and acidity on the palate. Good for now

Château Croizet-Bages. 61% cabernet sauvignon and 37% merlot. Blackcurrant and capsicum aroma. Firm tannins and classic palate. Good to Very Good

Château Lynch Bages. 69% cabernet sauvignon and 26% merlot. Deep colour, blackcurrant aroma. Saturated fruit and great length on the palate. Very Good to Outstanding

Château Lynch-Moussas. 79% cabernet sauvignon and 21% merlot. Blackcurrant, earth and smoke aroma. Medium tannins and pleasant finish. Good

Château Pichon Baron. 80% cabernet sauvignon and 20% merlot. Blackcurrant and refined fruit aroma. Great length, balance, plushness and firm tannins. A favourite, but slightly shaded by a couple of Pauillac wines this year. Very Good nonetheless

*Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande. 65% cabernet sauvignon and 22% merlot. Blackcurrant, refined aroma, pencil lead aroma. Long length and lovely balance on the palate. Outstanding

*Château Pontet-Canet. 65% cabernet sauvignon and 30% merlot. Blackcurrant, refined earthy aroma. Great length, structure, blackcurrant and tannins on the palate. Outstanding

Sauternes

Château Doisy Daëne. 85% sémillon and 14.5% sauvignon blanc. Spice, marmalade aroma. Not particularly viscous. Fresh. Good to Very Good

Château Suduiraut. 95% sémillon and 5% sauvignon blanc. Vanilla, marmalade aroma. Long length, full body but grace and balance on the palate. Very Good

*Château d’Yquem. Last, but not least. 80% sémillon and 20% sauvignon blanc. Marmalade, spice, complex aroma. Viscous, full length, full body and ultra unctuous palate. Outstanding

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

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.