Tag: Wine Thoughts

The new grape variety of the moment; Stockman’s Ridge Rider Savagnin 2013

Savagnin is traminer, but not gewürtztraminer or gewürtztraminer that is called traminer.  And nor just for good measure is it albariño.  These sentences unexpectedly make sense because savagnin has been proven to be the same grape variety is that called traminer in Germany, the CSIRO confirmed in 2009 that source material propagated at the CSIRO that was thought to be albariño is in fact savagnin and gewürtztraminer is not traminer, even though it often has been called this name in Australia.

This state of affairs is sort of like calling a pear a lettuce and then importing bananas that are in fact lettuce to sell to customers hoping for bananas and thinking they already have lettuce when they have pears, and it turns out wish to have lettuce after all.  But I digress.  What I can say is that savagnin is most certainly the grape variety of the moment, because the same variety underlies the ultra fashionable wines of Jura.

The wine in the glass here is a savagnin from Stockman’s Ridge in the Central Ranges Zone.  It’s a wine of interest, with aromatics of citrus, talc and yoghurt and some honey at the edges.  The palate is balanced with a fuller body, lemon citrus and bread characters and some crisp acidity that shows itself with time.  A nice drink.

Rating: Acceptable to Good, Abv: 13.9%, Price: $23, Source: sample, Vendors: http://www.wine-searcher.com/, Website: http://www.stockmansridge.com.au, Tasted: 2015

Cabernet franc, Australian plantings, history and styles; early thoughts

Having tasted a few local cabernet francs over the past fortnight or so has rather led to a desire on my part to find out more about the history of the grape variety in Australia.  Part of this is because I’ve always wondered if there were local producers out there who are trying for a Saumur, Saumur-Champigny, Chinon, Bourgueil or Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil style expression of the grape.  That is, mostly fresh and fruit driven, with excessive greenness eschewed.  And part of it, I suspect, is that I just like reading old books.

Cabernet Franc. Source: http://www.winelit.slsa.sa.gov.au/grapeswines.htm
What’s unexpected is that a quick look at both the local history of the cabernet franc and its styles so far have been largely inconclusive, and so I think I am going to have to do some digging and return with a longer piece.  Here’s a glimpse why.  On the history, we have James Halliday in the Australian Wine Encylopedia (Hardie Grant, 2009) observing that:
cabernet franc is a relatively recent red grape arrival in Australia, first making the statistical records in the middle of the 1980s.  At that time misidentification of cabernet franc as merlot probably led to the figures being understated.  However that may be, after hitting a peak of 834ha in 2004, cabernet franc is now on the slide … For reasons which are not clear, the only regions in which it consistently produces wine of good quality, either as a straight variety or in a blend, are the Margaret River and Great Southern regions …”
Plantings of cabernet franc predate the middle of the 1980s, which is implied although precise dates aren’t given.  A look further down the shelf at Len Evans’ Complete Book of Australian Wine (4th Ed, Lansdowne Press, 1984) confirms that at least in 1984 the grape was planted, with the slightly non specific observation that:
Cabernet franc is mostly found in Australia as odd vines in blocks of cabernet sauvignon“.

But the story does not end here.  Going further back in time, over at the Yalumba Nursery, we find that the C7V15 cabernet franc clone was imported/registered in 1970 via California from much earlier Montpellier cuttings and the 1334 Bordeaux cabernet franc clone was imported/registered in 1972.  The so called “Penfolds 58” clone does not have this information, and is also called the C24-1.  For reasons unknown, clones fascinate me.  To hazard a guess though, perhaps it’s because their genetics provide tangible connections between the past and present.  And then, just to round things out, on the State Library of South Australia’s Wine Literature of the World website we find that cabernet franc is said to have been introduced into Australia in James Busby’s 1832 collection!  So, there are certainly some dots to connect here.  
In terms of producers, there are a few seemingly scattered all over seemingly rather hopefully as a look at Darby Higgs’ Vinodiversity website confirms, but the styles remain to be looked at.  I can only hope some are on the same wavelength…

More on carignan

Only a week or so after wondering whether carignan was a sensible choice for southern Victoria or perhaps for many regions (here’s a link), a blend of grenache (55%) and carignan (45%) arrived from Priorat.  And I rather half expected that as sure as night follows day, it would prove to be an outstanding wine.  And sure enough it was!  As usual, there are no definitive views in wine.  The best terroirs in the best hands inevitably produce wines of interest.  My review of this excellent Priorat wine can be found if you follow this link.

When carignan is not carignan

I read an interesting story earlier in the week by Max Allen in The Australian newspaper.  Max is a strong supporter of carignan and thinks it eminently suited for the hot and dry conditions faced in much of Australia.

In short, Max’s story is this: Shadowfax winery in Werribee in western Melbourne (towards Geelong) grafted over some existing vines to what was thought to be carignan, which were sourced from century-old carignan vines in the Barossa Valley.  There had been some earlier doubts as to whether some of the old Barossa vines identified as carignan were in fact carignan, but instead the little known bonvedro.  Shadowfax had sourced its cuttings from the Yalumba Nursery, which had sourced the vines from the Smallfry vineyard in the Barossa Valley and another vineyard.  Recent DNA testing has now revealed that these old “carignan” vines from the Barossa are in fact mourvedre and bonvedro.  Specifically, Max observes that Shadowfax (and Smallfry)’s carignan is in fact mourvedre.  Apparently the vines don’t look or behave much like it, which rather adds to the mystique.

One part of me admires that such a diverse mix of grape varieties was brought to Australia in the nineteenth century.  Another part of me wonders whether this was an entirely deliberate state of affairs.  And a third part wonders what else it out there.  That the vines may well be planted on their own roots, unlike most of Europe only adds to the possibilities …

Bonvedro as a grape variety is Portugeuse in origin and also appears to be called Cuatendra in north eastern Spain.  In a world with many obscure grape varieties, bonvedro would appear truly obscure.  It’s not a name I had heard before.  Jancis Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine does not even mention it.  Jancis’ new tome devoted just to grape varieties, Wine Grapes, I expect will describe it, but as I am yet to fork out for a copy I will need to rely on a reader to add any more colour.  Mourvedre is of course much better known, and is also called mataro in Australia.

Interestingly, although not discussed in Max’s article but given Shadowfax’s proximity to Geelong, this triggered a memory that I had read somewhere of carignan and mataro being planted in the Geelong region in the nineteenth century.  Sure enough, a quick look through Ebenezer Ward’s The Vineyards of Victoria as Visited by Ebenezer Ward in 1864, has various Geelong wineries listed with plantings of mataro, variously called esparte and mataro, and a listing of carignan.  Mourvedre generally buds and ripens even later than carignan, and thus requires a very warm climate or site.  Though whether those grape varieties are in fact as described is unknowable.

Here’s an extract of Ebenezer’s views on the mataro and carignan from The St. James’ Vineyard in the Moorabool Valley outside of Geelong:

With such a long history why has carignan not apparently prospered here?  The Geelong region, and Werribee too, is actually not an amazingly warm part of the world.  I think I remember being told that the giraffes at the nearby Werribee zoo sleep under cover in winter…

Thinking about carignan more generally though, I will respectfully chart a slightly different course to Max.  There’s certainly quite a bit of interest in the old vine examples I’ve tried and it can add character to Languedoc-Roussillon blends, but the following description in Jancis Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine is not easily ignored:

“Carignan … [is] a late-ripening black grape variety which could fairly called the bane of the European wine industry, although old bush vines, as is there wont, are demonstrably capable of producing particularly concentrated wine.  Carignan, distinguished mainly be its disadvantages, has dug its roots into so much of the southern France ignoble that even the most generous of European Union bribes have had their work cut out to eradicate it … 

Its wine is high in everything – acidity, tannins, colour, bitterness – but finesse and charm.  This gives it the double inconvenience of being unsuitable for early consumption yet unworthy of maturation.  The vine is not even particularly easy to grow.  It is extremely sensitive to powdery mildew, quite sensitive to downy mildew, prone to rot, and prey to infestation by grape warms.  Its diffusion has been extremely beneficial to the agrochemical industry … 

There must have been some attribute which led to the almost exclusive dissemination of Carignan through the Midi in the 1950s and 1960s, and there was: yield.  The vine can quite easily be persuaded to produce almost 200 hl/ha (11 tons/acre), ideal for a thirsty but not discriminating market …”

That carignan has seemingly been and gone in the region without much remark makes me think that perhaps it’s not so sunbaked down here in southern Victoria.  Some might argue that carignan succeeds with the right custodians, but the same could be said for almost any other grape variety – and there are plenty of those.  Perhaps people historically just haven’t liked carignan that much.

Bordeaux en primeur 2013

The 2013 Bordeaux en primeur tastings have now concluded, and en primeur prices are slowly being released by the Bordeaux chateaux.  The 2013 vintage by all reports is a poor one, so it will be an opportunity, I hope, for Bordeaux release prices to fall.  Whether they fall in Australia is traditionally an independent question.  Which is a polite way of saying that mostly prices don’t fall at all.

It’s interesting to note the general concern that the en primeur system is too slanted in favour of “the chateaux” at this time, with prices too high and consumer gains on recent en primeur releases not realised.  I have written before that consumers should tread warily when buying en primeur.  There is also a newish concern that wine writers are allowing themselves to be “used” by the Bordeaux chateaux to price Bordeaux releases by their hitherto enthusiastic releases of ratings based on the en primeur tastings in Bordeaux.  I noted that Tim Atkin MW recently announced via twitter that he was not releasing scores until prices are available.

The Bordeaux chateaux are no doubt keen to ensure they capture the lion’s share of the value of their wines, rather than the secondary market doing so.  I am not quite sure to be honest which way I fall on the issue yet.  I view it as something of a privilege to be able to review wines; that consumers and producers alike may benefit doesn’t trouble me overly.

Liv-ex is a fantastic resource for seeing en primeur price releases.  I am yet to see any Australian merchants offering their pricing, perhaps because the vintage’s reputation has preceded it.  Until then, here’s what the release prices of some of the wines released so far are.  Despite the offshore complaints, I suspect many Australian readers would be moderately pleased to be able to secure Bordeaux at anything remotely near these prices even in a poor vintage.

Beychevelle 38.40
Du Tertre 18.60
Echo de Lynch Bages 19.8
Fleur de Board 15.50
Gazin 38
Gloria 19.80
Guiraud 28
Lynch Bages 50
Lynch Moussas 18.90
Montrose 57.60
Pichon Baron 54
Pontet Canet 60
Rauzan Segla 33
Smith Haut Lafitte 38.40
Suduiraut 42

An exercise in aged Yarra Valley cabernet: Wantirna Estate Cabernet Merlot 1992 and Arthurs Creek Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1992

Though most wine press for the Yarra Valley these days appears to go to pinot noir, chardonnay and cooler climate expressions of shiraz, the Yarra Valley can produce some quite compelling cabernet sauvignon wines and blends, and this tasting rather proved it.  The more cautious among us might qualify this and say that it proves such wines were being made in the early 1990s, but producers such as Yeringberg and Wantirna Estate still produce this style of wine.  Either way, these two wines were outstanding and reminded of left bank Bordeaux and oddly enough old “Grange”.

Arthurs Creek Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 1992
Garnet coloured, with some haze and yellowing at the rim.  A medium to deep intensity of colour.  Arthurs Creek Estate’s 1992 cabernet sauvignon has developed aromatics of spice, redcurrant, black plum, old leather, anise and a little mint.  The palate is dry, has medium to high acid, resolved fine grain tannins and expressions of leather, plum, blackcurrant and mixed herbs, and a long finish.  This is an outstanding wine due to its length, complexity and age, and is ready to drink now and over the next couple of years.  I wouldn’t leave it much longer.  It is not clear to me whether this label exists any more.  Outstanding

Abv: 13%
Price: n/a
Vendors: Check http://www.wine-searcher.com/
Website: n/a
Tasted: 2013

Wantirna Estate Cabernet Merlot 1992

A deep garnet in colour with some dessication at the edges, Wantirna Estate’s 1992 cabernet merlot has aromatics of blackcurrant, old leather and bay leaf.  On the palate, the wine is dry with medium acid, and secondary and attractive expressions of blackcurrant, anise, liquorice, bay leaf and a long finish.  The quality of this wine is very good to outstanding due to its length and complexity, and it is certainly ready to drink now.  This is a characterful cabernet sauvignon blend that is not quite left bank Bordeaux, not quite Coonawarra, but certainly a worthy expression of cabernet that should be celebrated.  Wantirna Estate have produced a compelling wine here.  Very Good to Outstanding

Abv: 12.8%
Price: n/a
Vendors: Check http://www.wine-searcher.com/
Website: http://www.wantirnaestate.com.au
Tasted: 2013

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Langtons Classification Tasting: September 2013

The Langtons auction house classification tasting has quickly become one of the “must attend” tastings on the Australian wine calendar.  The Langtons classification is a ranking of 123 of Australia’s best wines in the categories “exceptional”, “outstanding”, “excellent” and “distinguished”.  To make the grade, the wine must have at least 10 vintages, and a judgement is formed (by Langtons) as to track record and reputation measured through market presence, consistency, volume of demand and price.  There are few Australian wines of repute that are not on this list.

The tasting involves taking a glass and wending your way through the melee of Australian wineries pouring their classified wines (generously, I might add) into said glass.  To have the benchmark wines of Australia (think Penfolds Grange, Hensche Hill of Grace, Bass Phillip Pinot Noir, among others) all  freely available within metres of each other makes for an extraordinary event.

To follow are my impressions of the wines tasted.  I have not offered gradings on the basis that in a huge tasting such as this, out of a single glass, it seemed more accurate to note down impressions and glimpses, rather than a serious study of each wine.

My wine of the night:

Bass Phillip Premium Pinot Noir 2010, Gippsland
I don’t often say this, but wow.  And wow again.  Aromatics of game, smoked meats, cherry and dried herbs.  On the palate, opulent cherry, long length and game and bacon characters at the edges.  The obsessive Phillip Jones at Bass Phillip has nailed this wine.  Simply outstanding, and the wine of the night.

Three wines of great interest:

Penfolds Grange 2007, South Australia
I preferred this to the 2008 Grange.  Similar aromatics to the 2008, except with dried herbs more evident.  On the palate, the length was long and the balance and depth of plum fruit outstanding.  A complete and outstanding wine.

Yarra Yering Dry Red No. 1 2008, Yarra Valley

Very left bank Bordeaux like, with medium intensity aromatics of blackcurrant and cedar.  Very likeable.  On the palate, blackcurrant, a touch of leather and medium to long length.  Impressive.

Penfolds Grange 2008, South Australia
This is the fabled “100 point” Wine Advocate wine.  It attracted much public interest – whether it was because it received 100 points, or was simply because it was “a Grange”, is probably moot.  A medium to pronounced intensity saturated purple in colour.  Aromatics of vanilla, plum, cedar, black brooding mulberry.  The palate has medium to long length, with plums and a touch of stalk, and yet is full flavoured with the dash of cabernet sauvignon used to good effect.  A little more austere than expected.  Needs time.

And many more wines of interest:

Jim Barry Armagh Shiraz 2008, Clare Valley
Aromatics of dried tea leaves, ripe plums and a medium intensity expression.  The palate is soft and plush, with between medium and long length, and plum flavours dominant.  I found this wine quite attractive already, with the expression almost merlot like.


Henschke Hill of Grace 2005, Eden Valley
Bottled under screwcap.  Unusually for someone writing about wine in Australia, I am a screwcap agnostic.  This particular Hill of Grace has some odd aromatics that might be attributable to its screwcap closure, as its expression is quite reductive, with strong notes of herbs and asparagus.  The palate though is outstanding, with long length and lovely plum and Christmas cake flavours that run deep.

Yalumba Signature Cabernet Shiraz 2009, Barossa Valley
Aromatics with a touch of menthol, bay leaf and blackberry.  The palate sees licorice, aniseed, black olives and unresolved chalky tannins.

Bindi Block 5 Pinot Noir 2010, Macedon Ranges
Bramble, stalk and cherry aromas in an alluring expression.  Restrained cedar.  On the palate, medium length, maybe a little more, and flavours reminding of stones and cherry.  The palate seems intermingled with a mineral edge with acidity at the sides.  A good wine, maybe even impressive.

Bindi Block 5 Pinot Noir 2000, Macedon Ranges
From jeroboam.  Now, I don’t say that too often.  Its aromatics are of game, smoked bacon, receding cherry, spice, dried thyme and herbs.  Quite complex really.  The palate has supple resolved tannins, and a quite ripe expression of cherry.

Voyager Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot 2008, Margaret River
Quite austere aromatics of capsicum, bay leaf and blackberry.  The palate tastes youthful, with some plushness, medium to long length, bay leaf, and quite savoury.  A good wine.

Jasper Hill Emily’s Paddock Shiraz Cabernet Franc 2006, Heathcote
Aromatics of pepper and peppermint.  The palate is brooding, with notes of mulberry, plum, dried herbs, “Heathcote” peppermint and medium to long length.  Of interest.

Jasper Hill Georgia’s Paddock Shiraz 2006, Heathcote
Quite muted in expression, with plum notes.  A structured palate with perhaps bitter tannins and plums to the fore.

Cullen Diana Madeline 2011, Margaret River
Dried herb, blackberry and some unexpectedly bright fruit by way of aromatics.  On the palate, bay leaf, blackberry and fine tannins.  Good without being outstanding.

Domaine A Cabernet 2006, Tasmania
Aromatics of mushroom, earth, leather and game.  Some brett?  A Bordeaux like expression of blackcurrant and dried herbs on the palate.

Dalwhinnie Eagle Series Shiraz 2010, Pyrenees
Aromatics of plums and dried herbs.   High acid on the palate, and seemed to thin out a little.  But otherwise pleasant.

Wynns John Riddoch Cabernet 2010, Coonawarra
Licorice, iron and blackcurrant aromatics.  On the palate, medium length – maybe a bit more, with notes of blackberry and licorice.  This is an intense but closed wine at this point in time.

Kaesler Old Bastard Shiraz 2009, Barossa Valley
I’ve said this before, but what’s with South Australian wine labels?  Aromatics of bright red juby fruit.  The palate also speaks of red juby fruit and medium to long length.  The wine felt quite taut and pulled against the edges, reminding of a southern Rhone blend.

Bass Phillip Premium Pinot Noir 2008, Gippsland
Aromatics of dried herbs, cherry and thyme, presenting in a restrained fashion.  Smoke, cedar, cherry and spice.  This is a good pinot noir, but the 2010 is stunning.

Vasse Felix Heytesbury Cabernet 2010, Margaret River
Austere aromatics of bay leaf, cedar and blackcurrant.  The palate reminds of French oak, cloves, blackcurrant, and is structured and closed with medium to long length.  Early days.

Clarendon Hills Australis Shiraz 2008, Barossa Valley
Fruity aromatics of ripe plum.  The palate is all about primary fruit purity showing plums with long length and full flavour.  It’s a bit obvious in what it does but it nails the brief.

Penfolds RWT Shiraz 2010, Barossa Valley
Thyme, dried herbs by way of aromatics.  The palate has medium to long length and a dense plummy expression.  A bit broody at this point, but certainly fruit driven.

Grange

Yarra Yarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Yarra Valley
Aromatics of leather and blackcurrant.  A leathery palate, with soft pleasant blackcurrants.  Brett?

Balnaves The Tally Cabernet Sauvignon 2010, Coonawarra
Ripe blackberries by way of aroma.  On the palate, medium to long length, structure and firm tannins.  Of interest, but too young to drink.

Wild Duck Creek Springflat Shiraz 2011, Heathcote
My question as to why Heathcote’s star didn’t to me appear to be shining quite as brightly as it should be was parried away with denial.  Aromatics of peppermint, plums. The palate shows eucalyptus, peppermint, plum, high acid and some structure.

Giaconda Shiraz 2010, Beechworth
Aromatics of clipped herbs and cloves.  Quite pungent green/herbal aromatics.  On the palate, this is a mean, lean and green shiraz.

Disclosure: I attended this tasting as a guest of Langtons.

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Xanadu Cabernet Sauvignon 2010

The Margaret River and Coonawarra are Australia’s two leading cabernet sauvignon regions, of that I have little doubt.  The Yarra Valley can be good, but my impression is that the lesser years seem to outnumber the greater, and of the red grapes, pinot noir and syrah have captured local vigneron’s imagination to a greater extent.  With a couple of exceptions (Hoddles Creek and Punt Road come to mind), and of course the “grand names” of the region (think Mount Mary, Yarra Yering, Yeringberg and Wantirna Estate), there appear to be few producers producing a cabernet blend year-in, year-out.  Whether pinot noir and syrah (and cabernet for that matter) are the right call for that region, remains to be seen.  My guess is that a white grape – chardonnay – is what the region does best.

The Margaret River on the other hand, a far flung region incidentally that I am yet to visit and must remedy (New Zealand is geographically closer), produced in 2010 another stunning cabernet sauvignon vintage and seems to have less trouble with its identity.  This is after the stunning vintages of 2007, 2008 and 2009, a feat that makes Bordeaux’s great 2009-2010 vintages seem unexceptional.  I’ve had stand out cabernet from 2006 too from the Margaret River (from Moss Wood).  The region just seems to work for the grape.


Xanadu’s cabernet sauvignon from 2010 saw 14 months maturation in 40% new French oak and proved over a couple of days to be a very good wine indeed.  Chocolate, dark chocolate, garrigue, pepper, blackberry, anise, hot earth and tar present themselves in a complex aroma.  The palate has medium-long length and flavours of chocolate, sweet and sour blackberries, fine grained but noticeable tannins, toasty oak and some acid edginess.  This is a very good cabernet, that should drink well over the next five to eight years.  Good to Very Good

Abv: 14%
Price: $35
Source: sample
Vendors: Check http://www.wine-searcher.com/
Website: http://www.xanaduwines.com
Tasted: 2013
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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.

Two good cabernets and a shadow

Every now and then a blind tasting just knocks your socks off, and teaches you something too.  In this case, it was helpful to learn that a “super premium” label that I have recently had doubts about gave rise to the same doubts when tasted blind, and two prestigious labels that I am very partial to, met with my unbridled adulation with labels hidden.  What were the wines?  The first was Mount Mary’s Quintet 2000 from the Yarra Valley.  The latter two were the Cos d’Estournel 2000 from St Estephe and the Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron 2001 from Pauillac.  My thoughts follow.

Mount Mary Quintet 2000
My first experience with Mount Mary’s Quintet was a good one.  I tasted the 1997 vintage of the Quintet alongside the 1997 vintage from Chateau Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, and both wines were largely outstanding.  Strangely enough, the wines were also uncannily similar on the palate – I had not expected that, since a tennis ball might take some time to retrieve from the other’s backyard.  Given that the Comtesse is usually a very expensive wine, I thought this a rather good outcome notwithstanding the Quintet’s pricing will warm the hearts of few bargain hunters.

Since then though, my tastings here and there of more recent vintages of Mount Mary’s Quintet have been uniformly less satisfactory.  I suspect this is not a permissible thought based on local commendations, but I do wonder a little whether the estate is producing cabernet blends that are not really much better in quality terms than a host of cabernets available from the Yarra Valley for around the $30 mark rather than $100+.  In this context, therefore, it was interesting to taste the 2000 vintage of Mount Mary blind (a very good Yarra Valley cabernet vintage), thereby neatly rendering it free from the shackles of my rising doubts.

Unfortunately, the 2000 Quintet did not flower at this tasting.  Perhaps the shadow cast by the latter two wines impaired it so doing.  Sometimes that happens.  However, I think, in this case its quality level leads to the same conclusion.  In the glass, the 2000 Quintet was a medium intensity garnet in colour, with yellowing around the rim.  On the nose, it had a medium intensity expression of blackcurrants, cedar, sour plums, soy, anise, tea leaves, tomato leaf and some sweet cassis, marking it as quite different aromatically to the wines that followed.  On the palate, the tannins were still unresolved, but a bit dried out, with the wine tasting of soy, and being perhaps even a little skeletal.  Overall, there was some complexity with the aromatics, but the tomato leaf characters and dried out palate are to my mind undesirable characters for a wine of this price and esteem.  Acceptable to Good

Abv: 12.2%
Price: $150+
Vendors: check http://www.wine-searcher.com
Website: http://www.mountmary.com.au
Tasted: September 2012

Cos d’Estournel St Estephe 2000
I’ve always liked, rather than perhaps raved about Cos d’Estournel.  This appears to have been something of an error of judgement, since I hadn’t quite realised that this estate’s wines could be this good.  The year 2000 is of course a stellar vintage for left bank Bordeaux, so perhaps this finding was inevitable.  Still bright, the wine had a medium(+) intensity of ruby colour.  Its aroma was an alluring combination of blackcurrant, soft cedar, a sprinkle of herbaceousness and some buttery lactic characters.   Perhaps there was a smidgen of brett, but it won’t trouble most, I think.  On the palate, blackcurrants and cedar flavours came together to reveal a seamless palate with stunningly long length and depth of flavours.  The 2000 vintage of Cos d’Estournel is an outstanding wine with few peers, and certainly the best Cos I’ve tried to date.  The biggest problem with this wine seemed to be that a couple of the bottles, other than the one I tasted from, were corked.  Ouch.  Outstanding

Abv: not recorded
Price: $400+
Vendors: check http://www.wine-searcher.com
Website: http://www.estournel.com/en/home/
Tasted: September 2012

Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron Pauillac 2001
If I had limitless cash, the Baron would feature heavily in my wine buying.  It’s one of those wines that makes me ask the question as to why I bother drinking anything else.  The 2001 vintage in Bordeaux seems to have been rated more highly in France than in the United States, thus giving buying opportunities.  Which is handy because the Baron has been unerringly good in most vintages – lesser ones included – I’ve had the fortune of trying.  The 2001 Baron had a medium(+) intensity ruby colour, and opened to aromas of oak, blackcurrant, plums, smoke, black cherries and undergrowth.  The black cherry character threw a few off the mark in the blind tasting, but the palate was reassuringly all about blackcurrants, cedar, long length and ripe tannins.  A near outstanding wine worthy of your attention.  Very Good to Outstanding

Abv: not recorded
Price: $300+
Vendors: check http://www.wine-searcher.com
Website: http://www.pichonlongueville.com/#/fr/millesimes/
Tasted: September 2012