Friday, October 29, 2010

Annual Clonakilla Dinner at Attica – 28 October 2010

The generosity of Tim Kirk of Clonakilla and the extraordinary talents of Attica co-owner and chef, Ben Shewry, resulted in a truly exceptional dinner. The fact that only two of the eight wines served were from Clonakilla reflected the theme of wines at the very top end of the Langton’s Classification V, Exceptional.

Thus we had 2010 Grosset Polish Hill Riesling; 2008 Giaconda Chardonnay; 2008 Bass Phillip Premium Pinot Noir; 2008 Wendouree Shiraz; 2009 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier; and 2007 Cullen Diana Madeline. Two outriders were the wine on arrival, Clonakilla’s 2010 Viognier Nouveau and the concluding wine, Morris Rare Liqueur Muscat, the latter not included in the Classification because it (in common with virtually all Rutherglen Muscats) is non vintage.

The Clonakilla viognier ($22) is one of the most immediately accessible and enjoyable viogniers I have seen for a long time. It finds that razor-thin balance between bland anonymity on the one hand, and phenolic, oily richness on the other. Made as if it were a riesling, it was bottled in June, with beautiful citrus, pear and a hint of apricot fruit; has really wonderful mouthfeel and a clean finish.

The Grosset was accompanied by ‘snow crab’, one of those dishes that only Shewry could conceive of and execute, in no way derivative, simply coming out of his imagination (and a fair bit of trial and error in the kitchen in the development phase, no doubt). The presentation alluded to a snow-capped mountain, the snow on the outside of the mini-mountain on the plate a profusion of other textures and flavours hidden underneath. A perfect match with the riesling.

Then followed one of Shewry’s signatures, described on the menu as ‘a simple dish of potato cooked in the earth it was grown’. It is a dish which transcends explanation, even belief. How can you make a single, small oval potato taste and feel like this? Sometimes I dilly dally over food where I am too busy talking, and the food is not especially riveting; here, I dillied and dallied by design, stringing out the process of eating the dish and savouring its beguiling texture and astonishing flavour as long as I could. The nutty, layered characters of the Giaconda chardonnay were perfect for the dish.

The Bass Phillip pinot was accompanied by a dish described as ‘pork tail, prawn, onion’. Shewry is economical with his descriptions for dishes which have almost unnoticed complexities, both in appearance and, of course, in their flavour and texture. Heaven knows how many confit pork tails had to be stripped of their flesh for each plate, ultimately coming together in an oblong wedge with a crumbly coating, sitting on a thin apple mousse. The one question I had was the reason for the accompanying two salty prawns.

Beef, sea lettuce and white cabbage followed with the Wendouree shiraz and Clonakilla shiraz viognier. The quantity of each dish in an extensive menu was brilliantly calibrated; the two pieces of beautifully cooked beef, a uniform red to the very edge, yet not cooked sous vide, had so much flavour they carried two massively contrasting interpretations of shiraz without demur. How can you make ‘simple’ triangles of beef fillet taste unlike anything you have previously encountered?

The final dish was ‘lamb, mushrooms roasted over wood, sauce of forbs’. If I remember the explanation correctly, forbs are sour woodland grasses and herbs; soursop, some type of guide. As with so many of the other dishes, you could be given the recipe and technique down to the finest detail, but have no hope of creating a dish to even go close to the quality of Shewry’s. The devil is in the detail, the presentation precisely delineated, beautiful, and yet not tricky. One of the types of mushrooms was a small Paris mushroom, and I would not have believed so much flavour could be infused into such a commonplace and bland mushroom. The lamb was also exquisitely cooked, a variation on the beef theme, yet so different. Vanya Cullen is a soul-mate of Tim Kirk, both obsessed with excellence, and the wine was a perfect match.

I am most emphatically not a devotee of blue cheese, however presented. The menu simply described it as ‘blue cheese, red wine reduction’ which was downright deceitful, for there was a great deal more to it than that. More out of politeness than anything else I cut a portion to accompany the Morris muscat, and before I knew it the dish was three-quarters gone.

All in all, a magical mystery tour of beautiful wines and exhilarating food from one of the very greatest, if not the greatest, of Australian restaurants. Oh, and yes: the 2009 Clonakilla Shiraz Viognier ($85, is superb. Plushly textured, with layer upon layer of flavour in what remains a medium-bodied palate, with a wanton display of exotic spices accompanying the red cherry and plum fruit, the finish perfectly balanced. Tim Kirk is not one of those who takes delight in blowing his own trumpet, but he did admit that this might be his best shiraz viognier to date.

Murray Darling Basin water usage

It’s not only Australian grape growers who are crying foul about plans to radically change water availability and use in the Murray Darling Basin. Reports say that plans to restrict water use in vineyards across California’s Sonoma and Mendocino counties could cost the local economy up to $2 billion per year. The report, commissioned by the iconic pinot noir-producing winery, Williams Selyem, said that up to 8000 jobs could be lost as a result of the move by California’s State Water Resources Control Board, which wants to restrict the wineries’ use of Russian River water for frost protection.

AFFW Blog answers

1. Why did the Smith family that founded Yalumba change its name to Hill Smith?
When brothers Sidney, Donald and Wyndham Smith enrolled at Adelaide’s iconic St Peters College, their classes contained 12 other Smiths. To avoid confusion, all of the Smiths were asked to go home and, in consultation with their families, return to school the following morning with different surnames. The Yalumba trio decided that they would join their mother’s maiden name, Hill, hence today’s name.

2. What was Yalumba’s Brandivino?
It was a very popular, large selling (for a while) forerunner to RTDs, beating today’s drinks by some 80 years. It was a wine and brandy blend.

3. How many consecutive vintages did Dan Tyrrell make?

4. Am I related to the Tyrrell family?
Yes; on my mother’s side via the Hungerford family, in the case of Tyrrell’s forged when Edward Tyrrell married Susan Hungerford in 1869. I have well over 50 first cousins, so normally don’t consider second and third cousins, but a genealogist would be able to spell out the precise relationship between myself and Bruce Tyrrell.

5. Eric Purbrick of Tahbilk came to Australia with qualifications as an accountant, and as a barrister, having been admitted to the Inner Temple in London to practise as a barrister, with an additional Master of Arts Degree. When he enlisted in the Australian Army in 1939, what rank was he given?

6. Vittorio De Bortoli arrived in Australia in 1924 to start a new life with only a few coins in his pocket. How long was it before his fiancée Giuseppina saved enough money to be able to join Vittorio in Australia?
Five years (1929)

7. What was the most notable feature of Vittorio?
He could neither read nor write.

For more information on AFFW, go to

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir – I just can’t help it

I have for long declined to make any comments on the quality or otherwise of the Coldstream Hills wines, and I suppose I could claim that I am simply pointing to facts (and decisions made by others) when I point out that the Coldstream Hills 2009 Pinot Noir has been entered in the Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne Wine Shows (and no others so far) and has already accumulated one trophy (Royal Adelaide Wine Show Best Pinot Noir), three gold medals (Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne), and one silver medal (Brisbane). I don’t think Lindsay McCall of Paringa Estate is worrying too much, but at least he is getting some competition. How did Coldstream Hills produce a pinot in 2009? Well, none was made from Yarra Valley fruit, but Coldstream did buy grapes from Tasmania and the Mornington Peninsula, and procured some from the Seppelt Vineyard at Drumborg for this three-region blend. I fancy it will have further success before it is released some time next year.

Australia’s First Families of Wine (AFFW)

The Families of this venture are (in alphabetical order): Brown Brothers, Campbells, d’Arenberg, De Bortoli, Henschke, Howard Park, Jim Barry, McWilliam’s, Tahbilk, Taylors, Tyrrell’s and Yalumba. Together, the Families represent 17 wine growing regions across Australia and have more than 1200 years of experience in winemaking and 48 generations of winemakers.

The aim of AFFW is to showcase a representative and diverse range of the best of Australian wines, working to engage consumers, retailers, restaurateurs and the wine industry across the globe. Most importantly, it aims to highlight the real character and personality of top quality Australian wine, and about the unique characters and personalities behind it.

Membership is not restricted to the existing 12 wineries, and other wineries with similar aims and histories would be welcome to join provided they satisfy various criteria. These are: being family controlled (in a legal sense); having history of at least two (preferably three) generations involved in the business; the ability to offer a tasting of at least 20 vintages of one or more iconic brands; ownership of established vineyards more than 50 years old and/or distinguished sites that exemplify the best of terroir; a commitment to environmental best practice in vineyards, wineries and packaging; and long-term commitment to export markets. There are one or two other requirements as well.

In Melbourne last night AFFW had a dinner on the 89th Level of Eureka Tower to celebrate its first birthday, preceded by the launch of Heart & Soul, a brilliantly researched, written and produced book telling the stories of each of the 12 Families. The author is Graeme Lofts who, contrary to my expectation, was not commissioned by the AFFW to write the book; rather, he conceived the idea of it after attending the inaugural event at the Opera House in Sydney a year ago. Published by John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd, its 343 pages are printed in full colour on high-quality paper stock, making the RRP of $39.95 thoroughly justified. The photographs, both contemporary and ancient, constantly enliven the book, which is compelling reading once you open the cover. It is full of anecdotes, insights, tragedies and triumphs, and doesn’t gloss over the occasional period of unhappiness in one or other of the Families. The underlying theme is the ability of these families to pick themselves up off the floor no matter how hard the elements try to defeat them, or financial crises beset them.

By virtue of my long friendship with almost all of the members, attending many wine events organised by them over the past 40 years, reading books previously published about them, and some research I undertook for various books I have written, I found some of the incidents quite fascinating, especially those which I had no idea of.

So today I ask questions which are answered in the book, the answers to be posted tomorrow.

Why did the Smith family that founded Yalumba change its name to Hill Smith?
What was Yalumba’s Brandivino?
How many consecutive vintages did Dan Tyrrell make?
Am I related to the Tyrrell family?
Eric Purbrick of Tahbilk came to Australia with qualifications as an accountant, and as a barrister, having been admitted to the Inner Temple in London to practise as a barrister, with an additional Master of Arts Degree. When he enlisted in the Australian Army in 1939, what rank was he given?
Vittorio De Bortoli arrived in Australia in 1924 to start a new life with only a few coins in his pocket. How long was it before his fiancée Giuseppina saved enough money to be able to join Vittorio in Australia?
What was the most notable feature of Vittorio?

I could go on and on, but tomorrow’s answers will hopefully pique your interest.

The book is available through good bookstores.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

This weeks wine events

My wine events for this weeks includes an all-day tasting for the Wine Companion on Monday 25th; the first Australian Sparkling Wine Show at Marysville on Tuesday 26th (more of which anon); the Australian First Families of Wine launch and, thereafter, dinner on Wednesday 27th; the seminal Clonakilla dinner at Attica on Thursday 28th; the Le Club Dinner on Circa on Friday 29th; the Single Bottle Club Dinner at the Sydney Rockpool Bar & Grill on Saturday 30th, and the whole of the following week at the Len Evans Tutorial in the Hunter Valley.

Non-smoking aeroplane

I was delighted to receive confirmation of a Qantas Link flight from Melbourne to Mildura on November 10, returning in the evening of the same day, to find in the official booking form a ‘non-smoking seat requested for Halliday/Francis James Mr’. It made me wonder whether this might be a very old aeroplane, something like Kingsford Smith might fly, but that’s not the case.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Riverland growers are not the only ones feeling the pain

Villa Maria Estate is New Zealand’s best medium-plus size winery. The quality of its wines is extraordinarily good, and extraordinarily consistent. But some time ago (I’m not exactly sure when) its vineyards were sold to an entity called Terra Vitae Vineyards but with an exclusive supply agreement to Villa Maria. For a while it looked like a win-win situation. Now Terra Vitae has racked up successive losses of NZ$3.1 million for the ‘08/’09 year, and NZ$4.5 million for the ‘09/’10 year. It is looking at a third straight loss in the current financial year, and facing an uncertain future amid a deeper downturn in the wine sector than ever envisaged.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Chateau Tanunda’s Everest earns its name

John Geber, owner of Chateau Tanunda, is understandably ecstatic about his success at the 2010 International Wine and Spirit Competition. Chateau Tanunda’s 2005 The Everest Shiraz emerged as the best of 450 entries in the shiraz class from northern and southern hemispheres; 13 of those entries won a gold medal, two of them going to Chateau Tanunda for The Everest and the 2008 Terroirs of the Barossa Greenock Shiraz. Everest won the Trophy for Best Shiraz/Syrah in the World. The tasting note of the judges makes interesting reading: ‘Fantastic nose, framboise, madagascar spices, cherries in chocolate, liquorice, dried herb and vanilla. This enormous complexity is delivered with proud elegance and style. This is beautiful precision winemaking which allows the wine to tod the talking. Amazing stuff.’

The 2008 The Everest Grenache won the Trophy for Best Single Vineyard Red Wine.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Murray Darling White Paper

The release of the Murray Darling white paper has brought the expected howls of rage. It has always struck me as strange that we should be using vast amounts of water to produce cotton in competition with some of the most impoverished African countries (and with subsidised US production), the situation not so different with rice. Since nothing tangible will flow from the paper for several years, Riverland producers of grapes will use their present entitlements to produce 100,000 tonnes of surplus grapes (or thereabouts), sell them at a loss, and top up the amount of surplus wine needing to be exported in the face of a very strong Australian dollar.

Saintly Wine

It was good to hear that the 117 cases of Coonawarra wine have arrived safely at the Vatican. Apparently the shipment had to proceed past Somalia and through the Suez Canal before landing at the port of Genoa. From there it went to Milan and finally Rome. I wonder which part of the shipment was the most hazardous.