Wines of provenance – part one

Wines of provenance – part one

While Australian wine might not have the long history of
the great regions of Europe, our ability to create world-
beating ‘wines of provenance’ was on show at the latest
State of Play tasting.

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Published Selector Summer 2013

For some time, Australian wine lived under the cloud of an identity crisis, despite a tradition derived out of hard work, colourful characters and world-beating results.

Perhaps it was the fault of the critters that plagued the wine world with the message that Australian wine was cheap and cheerful, the Antipodean antithesis to its noble European peers.

Or you could point the finger at the recent glut with its cleanskins that literally stripped the personality from the bottle. Whatever the reason, the good news is that the Australian wine community now has a renewed confidence in its identity, illustrated in its commitment to celebrating its authenticity, diversity and sense of place.

Having a sense of place is one of the things that give a wine ‘provenance’, a recent buzzword in Australian wine. From the French provenir – ‘to come from’ – provenance was originally associated with works of art and referred to the documentation of a piece’s history. In terms of wine, provenance describes who made the wine, where it comes from, its consistency across vintages and its longevity.

A group that epitomises provenance is the Australian First Families of Wine (AFFW), made up of 12 revered Australian wine dynasties: Brown Brothers, Campbells, d’Arenberg, DeBortoli, Henschke, Howard Park Wines, Jim Barry Wines, McWilliam’s, Tahbilk, Taylors, Tyrrell’s and Yalumba.

Having formed in 2009, they describe their aim as being “to tell the world about the heritage of Australia’s premium wines and to share the stories behind them.”

What better group, then, to invite to Selector’s latest State of Play tasting on ‘Wines of Provenance’? For this issue, six of the families were invited to submit three vintages of two different wines that reflect their consistency of style and quality over time. For the tasting, the Panel was joined by guest Richard Burch, a second-generation member of the family behind Howard Park Wines.

Tasting history

Opening proceedings was a line-up from McWilliam’s. As the AFFW website states, “There have been few other wineries throughout Australia who have witnessed and helped shape the evolution of the Australian Wine Industry as McWilliam’s Wines.” Founded in 1877 in the Hunter, it’s now a multiregional producer with its sixth generation integral members of the business.

Australia’s most highly awarded winery, McWilliam’s added, in 2012, the Prize for Most Outstanding Wine of Provenance at the Royal Adelaide Wine Show for its 1998, 2004 and 2009 vintages of the multi-regional 1887 Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon. Of this award, chief winemaker Jim Brayne said, “it demonstrated the wine’s ability to showcase longevity and lineage, both hallmarks of great wines.”

For the Selector tasting, the Panel sampled the 1998, 2004 and 2008 and chose the 1998 as the standout. Panellist, Dave Mavor was particularly impressed, describing it as “glorious for its age, so fresh and tannic grip gives it structure.”

While the provenance award has been part of the Royal Adelaide Wine Show since 2009, it was only added to the Hunter Valley Wine Show in 2012. The inaugural prize was awarded to Tyrrell’s for their 1999, 2006 and 2009 Vat 1 Semillon and 1996, 2006 and 2009 Vat 9 Shiraz.

Bruce Tyrrell couldn’t have been happier to have won this award, stating, “I would have given up every other medal and trophy to be the first to be awarded these Wines of Provenance, as I believe the award rewards those wines that show a sense of place and have the ability to live and improve with real age, something not all wine regions can achieve.”

Like McWilliam’s, Tyrrell’s submitted to the Selector tasting their winning wines of provenance, with the exception of the 98 Vat 9 rather than the 96. For both the Semillon and the Shiraz, the 2006 was chosen as the standout, with the Semillon complemented on being “loaded with lemon fruit, with hints of richer grapefruit and great texture” and the Shiraz lauded for its “brightness in terms of primary fruit, amazing line and length, red berry freshness and good cedary oak support.”

The awarding of provenance prizes to McWilliam’s and Tyrrell’s for some of their iconic, world famous wines is an indisputable choice. The 1887, Vat 1 and Vat 9 embody skill, consistency, longevity and tradition.

However, the tasting also revealed that for a wine to show provenance it doesn’t have to be steeped in tradition when it comes to variety and region. The beauty of Australian wine is it offers huge diversity and the AFFW is embracing that appeal.

Innovation pays off

Katherine Brown, fourth generation member of the Brown family, a stalwart of Victoria’s King Valley since 1889, is the winery’s brand manager. She believes provenance is increasingly important. “I think more people are really caring about where their food comes from. Now when you go to a restaurant you don’t just hear the cut of meat, you hear where it’s from. And I think that’s important for wine as well. It’s all about the French idea of terroir where you actually get the influence of where the wine is from by understanding the place.”

Part of the Brown Brothers success can be attributed to their commitment to innovation. To this end, they set up a Kindergarten Nursery where experimental wine batches are nurtured and grown. One of the varieties they’ve pioneered is Pinot Grigio and it was their Limited Release that they submitted to the tasting. As Katherine explained, “We see it as a wine that really reflects our cool climate region, the King Valley. It’s a variety that we’re very passionate about.

“We’ve gone with the Grigio (rather than the Gris) style because where we’re based in the King Valley has quite a large Italian influence. My grandfather and father spent a lot of time around the Italian migrants in the area so we’ve always made a lot of Italian-influenced wines using Italian varieties because they’re the skills that we’ve actually learnt from those migrants.”

Out of the three Pinot Grigio vintages submitted, the Panel chose the 2010 as the standout and this, Katherine says, comes as no surprise. “The 2010 was James Halliday’s highest rating Pinot Grigio this year, he gave it 96 points.”

Part of its appeal, she explains, is that they’ve been “playing around with a bit of lees stirring and the 2010 had two months of lees stirring during ferment to build texture.”

Fellow Victorians, the Campbell family, have been in Rutherglen since 1870 and they’re now into their fifth generation. The backbone of their winery has always been fortified styles, however, for this tasting Campbells chose a white that’s proving a winner for Rutherglen.

Roussanne is a variety that fourth generation Campbell, Colin, says, “we’ve had, along with Viognier, in our nursery block for probably 45 years. This area is similar to the Rhône region in France and that’s where these varieties do well, so we planted them. We find the Roussanne is looking really good.

I think that’s going to open up a new era, which is exciting, there’s a great future for these Rutherglen white wines.”

Its attraction, Colin explains, is that “it’s got great fruit flavour, a nice character and it’s just an easy drinking wine.”

The bracket of Campbells Limited Release Roussanne 2009, 2010 and 2012 was a definite highlight of the tasting and the whole Panel found a rare moment of agreement on its appeal. They particularly noted its great food matching potential and Trent explained, “it’s perfectly matched with meat dishes like cassoulet, pork, rich French provincial dishes, because it’s got the richness.”

The pick of the vintages was the 2010, which Colin says was “a reasonably cool vintage.” For Panellist Trent Mannell, the 2010 was “almost Chardonnay-like with a bit of extra zing.”

As far as the idea of provenance goes, Colin believes that a greater understanding of regionality would provide wine lovers with a wider perspective. He says that Rutherglen has been pigeon-holed because of its reputation for fortifieds that precludes the perception that it’s a region suitable for table wines. However, he explains, “our area is not what you’d call a hot area, we get the same sort of temperatures as everywhere else in Australia with regards to very cold winters, very cold nights, even in summer, through to quite warm days in the ripening period. In actual fact, our degree days are the same as the Clare Valley, which is recognised as Australia’s best Riesling area.”

Riesling revival

Speaking of Riesling, McLaren Vale’s d’Arenberg chose to demonstrate their propensity for provenance through their revival of this once-ubiquitous white. As fourth generation family winemaker Chester Osborn says, Riesling has a long history in McLaren Vale going back to at least the 1930s and d’Arenberg has been making it since the 1960s. But, unfortunately, its stature has waned, he explains, “McLaren Vale actually had a reputation the same as Clare and Eden Valley back then, but during that period the boom of Riesling really stuffed up McLaren Vale Riesling because people started to machine prune it as they knew they could sell it no matter what. So McLaren Vale got left behind quality wise, people saw its Riesling as being broad, clumsy and hot.”

To set Riesling’s star back into the ascendency, Chester says that, “since the 2008 vintage particularly, I started picking out the oldest and the best Riesling vineyards and pruned them right back so they’re under one tonne an acre and dry grew them and got all the grapes at exactly the same sugar level and picked them early so their acidity is quite high.”

His dedication has paid off with d’Arenberg’s Dry Dam Riesling, the 2008 vintage of which was awarded the Trophy for the Semi Dry Class at the 2012 Canberra International Riesling Challenge.

For the tasting, the Panel tried the 2008, 2010 and 2012 vintages, with the 2008 being the pick thanks to its “smooth, seamless plush texture that’s still amazingly fresh with a savoury, ripe tannin finish.”

While the 2008 is kicking goals, Chester says that despite it being five years old, “it’s not even into its secondary stage yet”.

The style, he explains, “is designed for ageing, it doesn’t have the tannins of some of the Clare wines, it has a very vibrant fruit character and minerality, which will hold the wines for a long, long time.”

The beauty of youth

While the McLaren Vale region has been established since the mid 19th century, there’s huge potential for provenance in Australia’s newer regions.

Of the Australian First Families of Wine, Great Southern’s Howard Park is the youngest. Their vineyard was established in 1986 by John Wade, but is now in the hands of the Burch Family with the first and second generations working together to present Howard Park as a premium Western Australian name.

One of their regional heroes is the Leston Shiraz and they submitted the 2005, 2009 and 2011 vintages to the tasting. Being sourced from Margaret River, it’s a constant competitor with the region’s king of reds, Cabernet, but Richard feels it’s equally suited to the local terroir. “We’ve been making this wine for well over ten years and being able to show the evolution of these wines as the vines get older down there proves it’s really starting to develop some terrific fruit that one day we hope to be on par with Cabernet in the reputation of Margaret River.”

Of the three vintages, Trent remarked on their “amazing consistency” and “very similar traits.” However, Richard’s point that the fruit quality is constantly improving was on show in the fact that the pick of the vintages was the 2011. Richard puts this down to their current chief winemaker Janice McDonald, who, he says, “is an excellent handler of fruit and she’s also been able to add a lovely element of plush fruit and lusciousness to the variety. She also might have eased off on the oak usage, making it a bit plusher, more refined, a bit softer and a bit more elegant.”

This certainly came through in Tasting Panel Chairman Karl Stockhausen’s comments: “obviously oak is there, but it’s got a good mouthfeel and not too much acid.” Christian agreed, saying, “often tannins don’t integrate in Margaret River Shiraz, but it’s not the case with this one.”

With wines like these by the Australian First Families of Wine, the future of Australia’s reputation in the wine world looks healthy. And next issue, you can look forward to reading about another tasting featuring the remaining six families.

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