Single vineyards and sacred sites versus blending
Seminar 10: Presented by Brian Walsh
By Edward Ragg
Brian Walsh, Director of Winemaking at Yalumba, one of Australia’s most dynamic wine producers, has no doubt pondered Australia’s fine wine image both from the perspective of single-vineyard wines and sumptuous blends chosen from multiple sites.
For many wine lovers, Australia is a blender par excellence. The designation South-Eastern Australia frees up wineries to source fruit from New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia in assembling highly consumable blends at competitive prices. In the arena of fine wine, too, Grange and the upper levels of Penfolds are blends, although not exclusively. Penfolds, Lindemans and Yalumba, along with companies like Angove’s and Brown Brothers, have probably done most to signal Australia’s expertise in blending especially, from entry-level to premium examples.
Of course, literally speaking, just about every wine is a blend, when one considers the separation of parcels of vineyards into vats vinified separately as well as parts of wines undergoing different treatments during production and maturation. But what Walsh had in mind, in one of the more academically nuanced presentations at the Landmark, was Australia’s achievements and future potential in producing wines that are the expressions of single sites versus superlative blends.
Walsh noted how wines from single vineyards are on the up in Australia, perhaps a nod to the concept of ‘terroir’, which is better expressed, perhaps, as ‘regionality’ in Australia. But to what extent consumers outside of Australia – or even within it – would begin to see single vineyards as constituting ‘sacred sites’ is debatable, if more the pity for Australian fine wine.
I had raised the issue with Jeffrey Grosset earlier in the week as to whether Australia should simply dispense with ‘terroir’ as a term; not because the country does not have unique sites, but that the very consumers who cling to ‘terroir’ (in the French sense) might be those likely to remain unconvinced that Australia can even trade in terroir-specific wines. But even ‘regionality’ sounds a little amorphous; and perhaps, as Walsh implied, what Australian wineries should be doing is simply to talk of what is specific to their own sites rather than get caught up in the so-called ‘terroir debate’.
Having said that, as in many other wine producing countries, debate does exist as to what is usefully defined as a significant geographical indication, i.e. for a wine’s origin. Australia has numerous GIs (geographical indications) categorized into larger zones and one super-zone; but not everyone, for example, is happy with what counts for Coonawarra as a designation. For consumers unfamiliar with Australia’s label integrity programme, differences such as ‘Barossa’ – the zone including the Barossa and Eden Valleys – versus ‘Barossa Valley’ – which obviously indicates the valley itself – require some elucidation.
But without doubt this was a great part of the Landmark, a tasting chiming with the ‘Historic Perspective’ and ‘Great Australian Blend’ sessions earlier in the week. Wines showing the hands of particular winemakers as blends – such as the 2004 Peter Lehmann Wigan Riesling, Eden Valley (named after winemaker Andrew Wigan) and the collaboration between Grosset and Michael Hill Smith that is 2004 Grosset / Hill Smith Mesh Riesling, Eden Valley brushed shoulders with the likes of Andrew Thomas’s 2007 Thomas Wines KISS Shiraz, Hunter Valley which, despite its sexy name or perhaps because of it, is the expression of a single, winsome vineyard.
The 2006 Hardy Wine Co. Eileen Hardy Chardonnay, Tasmania, Victoria & New South Wales caused a little controversy. For some tasters, most notably some of the Australians present, this wine was a bit of a monster, perhaps even a throwback to an older style of Aussie chardonnay that is plush and lush in texture. For my part, Hardy’s top chardonnay has weight certainly, but also a core of acidity resulting in a well-balanced palate, its acidity possibly aided by a portion of Tasmanian fruit.
The pair of Coonawarra cabernets was equally compelling. 2006 Wynns Alex 88 Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra is taken from a single-plot, planted in 1988, which forms a component in the top cabernet blend of Wynns, shown here in the 2006 Wynns John Riddoch Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. Both wines were of superb quality, the John Riddoch nudging ahead slightly in terms of quality, but both requiring considerable ageing ahead. Looking back at my notes, there was much in common between the two wines, which perhaps suggests what an important component the Alex 88 block is in the Riddoch; although it would be rash to think the Alex 88 cannot fight on its own terms.
I had expected the blends from the Yalumba stable to be superlative and they were, if very young – even the 1992 Yalumba The Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz, Barossa Valley & Coonawarra was still a baby. As in the ‘Historic Perspective’ tasting, we were also highly fortunate to see again the Penfolds philosophy, generally speaking, of blended wines v. Henschke’s often single-vineyard focus, here expressed in 1991 Penfolds St Henri Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon, South Australia and 1991 Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz, Eden Valley.
Perhaps the real stars here, however, were the sublime and extremely rare concluding pair of the 1955 Hardy Wine Co. St Thomas ‘Burgundy’ Shiraz, South Australia/Victoria and 1942 Mount Pleasant TY Light Dry Red Shiraz, Hunter Valley. The former was blended on 25th June 1956 in the days when shiraz could still be called ‘Burgundy’ in Australia (whilst cabernet sauvignon-based wines could answer to the name of ‘Claret’).
The latter wine revealed to scholars at the Landmark a part of Australian winemaking lore. The legendary Maurice O’Shea established the Mount Pleasant winery in the Hunter in the 1920s and set about making blends that are still talked about in Australian wine circles to this day. The two bottles of the 1942 Mount Pleasant TY Light Dry Red Shiraz, Hunter Valley shown at this tasting were sourced from a private cellar for this session and, according to James Halliday and Andrew Caillard MW, were in fine condition.
The ‘TY’ indicates that O’Shea sourced some of the Shiraz from Tyrrell’s winery. Without doubt, this is one of the most complex wines I have ever tasted, both a privilege in itself to taste and an astonishing part of the development of Australia as a fine-wine producing nation (click on wines for full tasting notes).
A final word: did it matter, therefore, that some wines were expressions of individual sites and some were blends? As in the cabernet sauvignon session with Brian Croser, perhaps what ultimately matters is wine quality rather than emphasis of expression. But, without doubt, Australia offers examples both of wines from individual and compelling sites, often tailored to a single varietal, as well as blends which, in the fine wine arena, are likewise capable of considerable ageing.
- 2004 Peter Lehmann Wigan Riesling, Eden Valley
- 2004 Pewsey Vale The Contours Riesling, Eden Valley
- 2004 Grosset / Hill Smith Mesh Riesling, Eden Valley
- 2006 Hardy Wine Co. Eileen Hardy Chardonnay, Tasmania, Victoria & New South Wales
- 2008 Seville Estate Chardonnay, Yarra Valley
- 2008 Giaconda Estate Vineyard Chardonnay, Beechworth
- 2007 Thomas Wines KISS Shiraz, Hunter Valley
- 2006 Wynns Alex 88 Cabernet Sauvignon, Coonawarra
- 2006 Wynns John Riddoch Coonawarra Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
- 2001 Voyager Estate Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot, Margaret River
- 2002 Yalumba The Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz, Barossa Valley
- 1992 Yalumba The Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz, Barossa Valley & Coonawarra
- 1991 Penfolds St Henri Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon, South Australia
- 1991 Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz, Eden Valley
- 1975 Wolf Blass Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz, South Australia
- 1955 Hardy Wine Co. St Thomas ‘Burgundy’ Shiraz, South Australia/Victoria
- 1942 Mount Pleasant TY Light Dry Red Shiraz, Hunter Valley
This article was originally published on Enobytes.com
This is the twelfth instalment of a 14-part series in which Edward Ragg provides an in-depth Inreview of last year’s Landmark Tutorial, a showcase of Australia’s finest wines. Co-founder, with Fongyee Walker, of Dragon Phoenix Wine Consulting based in Beijing, Ragg has also produced detailed tasting notes on all 185 of the wines tasted in the Landmark seminars on Adegga.
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