Thursday, December 22, 2011

A+ Australian Wine Celebration

What many consider a long-overdue campaign by Wine Australia to feature the best wines of Australia will run from 12-29 April 2012. A preliminary media release giving some idea of the extent of the programme follows.

Australia’s greatest ever wine celebration kicks off nationwide in April 2012
Wine Australia’s A+ Australian Wine Celebration launches for the first time from 12 to 29 April 2012, and all Aussies are being called on to get involved in the country’s biggest collaboration of wine events.
The 2012 inaugural celebration of Australian wine will feature almost 100 events, tastings, parties and wine love-fests from Sydney to the Strathbogie Ranges via Subiaco and Strathalbyn.

The A+ Australian Wine Celebration is an opportunity for the Australian wine community to come together to collectively promote the quality, diversity and value of Aussie wine – on our own soil.

The Celebration is for anyone who enjoys a drop of Australian wine whether it be Tassie Pinot Noir, Hunter Semillon, Margaret River Cabernet, Yarra Valley Chardonnay or Barossa Shiraz (and of course all the other variants from more than 60 designated wine regions).

Wine Australia’s Regional Director, Australia and Emerging Markets Aaron Brasher said it was a unique occasion for all Australians to discover more about this country’s wine and get behind the wine industry.

“We are thrilled with the exciting mix of Australian wine experiences in April next year. Australians can celebrate the great wine created in their own backyard, across the street, down the road or on the other side of this great land,” Brasher said.

A+ Australian Wine Celebration will be launched at a public gala event on 4 April at Sydney’s Ivy Ballroom, in conjunction with the Merivale Group, before events across the nation commence on 12 April.

“For two-and-a-half weeks, Australians can celebrate the most diverse, dynamic and exciting wine producing nation in the world as Australian wine flows across our capital cities and many of our most beautiful regional communities,” he said.

A snapshot of events across the great divide…

14 April:
Join Brokenwood Wines Winemaker for a Day – make great wine and have fun with winemaker Ian Riggs for a lesson in what it takes to make those award winning ‘iconic’ wines from the Hunter.

28 April: If you fancy yourself in the white coat without the Doctorate then join the Sydney Wine Academy - Australian Wine Show Judging Class at the Wine Academy at TAFE NSW. Learn what it takes to be an experienced show judge and educator with behind-the-scenes access to the industry leaders in show judging.

13-14 April:
Join the Coonawarra as its wineries open their doors for the Coonawarra After Dark Weekend, the peak of the grape harvest for two very special evenings giving you the chance to see, hear, touch and learn about the hard work and passion that goes into great Coonawarra wines.

26-29 April:
Head along to the four-day Yarra Valley Food & Wine Festival, Reap & Relish, which will showcase the Yarra Valley’s best wine, food and beer offerings.

18 April:
Come and enjoy what Tasmania is famous for at the Sparkling Tasmania Tasting at Pipers Brook, hosted by Jansz Winemaker Natalie Fryar. You can enjoy the flagship cuvees among other varieties and learn all about the very best of Tasmania’s sparklings.

21-22 April:
It wouldn’t be a celebration without the Elevated Taste – Grazing the Granite Belt. Experience all the Granite Belt has to offer in a long lunch throughout this exciting and interesting wine region.

21 April:
Vasse Felix is holding the Pre-release Heytesbury Tasting & Meet the Winemaker hosted by Chief Winemaker Virginia Willcock within the winery. It will be an opportunity to taste a pre-release of its flagship wine among others.

Do your part for the Australian wine industry and get involved in one or many of the exciting and interesting events in a town near you during April 2012. Register for one or all national events at

For a full list of events go to

For further information relating to A+ Australian Wine Celebration month please contact:

Prue Semler
Account Manager
P 02 9667 4211
M 0404 099 967

Georgie Leach
Account Executive
P 02 9667 4211
M 0415 501 998

Aaron Brasher - Wine Australia
Regional Director, Australia and Emerging Markets
P 02 9361 1227
M 0411 470 856

About Wine Australia
Wine Australia is a statutory Government organisation established to provide strategic support to the Australian wine sector. Its mission is to enhance the operating environment for the benefit of the Australian wine industry by providing the leading role in market development; knowledge development; compliance; and trade.

A+ Australian Wine is the consumer-facing brand which aims to reposition the Australian category via image, price and representation.

Dan Buckle Returns to the Yarra Valley

After eight years as senior winemaker at Mount Langi Ghiran in the Grampians, Dan Buckle is returning to the Yarra Valley, having spent five years at Yering Station (and two years at Coldstream Hills) before moving to Mount Langi Ghiran. He has been appointed senior winemaker for Domaine Chandon, and will take up his position in February 2012.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Kaesler Wines’ Old Bastard Shiraz

Kaesler Wines’ Old Bastard Shiraz has managed to score consistently high points in the recent Wine Companions, notwithstanding alcohol levels ranging between 15.5% and (in the ‘08) 16.5%. Coming, as it does, from a single vineyard planted in 1893, the sheer density of the fruit has enabled it to carry the at times extreme levels of alcohol. It also managed to shake off the toughness that marred many Barossa and McLaren Vale reds from ‘07. What a pleasure then, and what an even greater surprise, to find that the ‘09 Old Bastard has an alcohol of 14%, and is a perfectly wonderful wine. My tasting note reads ‘From the prime estate vineyard, planted in 1893, with the usual, albeit inimitable, Ralph Searle label. What is not usual is the alcohol, 2.5% lower than that of the ‘08; it is beautifully supple, fresh and balanced, but retains the intensity, clarity and integrity of very old vine wine. Bravo. $170, 97 points, drink to 2029, cork.

Very similar comments applied to the ‘09 Kaesler Old Vine Barossa Valley Shiraz at 14.5% alcohol, with the following tasting note: From three estate vineyards with 40, 60 and 112-year-old vines, matured for 12 months in French oak, the colour is good, rather than remarkable; the bouquet, however, immediately signals a change from prior vintages, more perfumed, the palate more elegant, but still crammed with plum and blackberry fruit. $80, 95 points, drink to 2029, cork.

There is much more to be said about this, not the least that numbers don’t tell the whole story, even if they are correct (and that, up to now, has been a major assumption). Thus a wine of 14% alcohol may taste every bit as hot and alcoholic as one with 16% alcohol and vice versa. But even that’s only the start. More anon.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Wine shows, Rick Kinzbrunner and Andrew Jefford

I was fascinated to read the following piece extracted from Decanter Magazine in October:

Decanter magazine - 7 Oct 2011

The Australian show system is holding good wines back and promoting boring wines, winemaker Rick Kinzbrunner says in the latest issue of Decanter.

Kinzbrunner, founder of Giaconda in Beechworth, Victoria, tells Andrew Jefford the shows have become moribund. In the ‘early years’, he says, the system helped ‘drag the bottom end up’ but now it’s doing the opposite. ‘It’s holding people back. It just drives wines to a certain level of interesting boredom, clean boredom.’ The problem is one of winemakers’ egos, Kinzbrunner says, and the solution would be to have consumers in charge. 'Why do winemakers run the show? They're not the people who drink the wine. It's absolutely crazy. You should have consumers in charge, with a small winemaking contingent.' Giaconda’s wines are feted by critics as diverse as Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson and Jefford himself. Berry Brothers, which imports the wines, is begging for a ‘stay of execution’ on a Roussanne vineyard that Kinzbrunner is thinking of pulling out – Giaconda’s Aeolia, pure Roussanne, is one of the most renowned of the range. ‘Despite his success, he’s still very much the outsider,’ Jefford writes, ‘his famed Chardonnay … is the antithesis of modern Australia’s …critically acclaimed ideal.’ In the course of a wide-ranging interview, Kinzbrunner airs his views on a number of subjects, including the Australian need to ‘cut you down to size’, his countrymen’s ‘insane preference for screwcaps’, and his love of Schubert, Bach and Beethoven. ‘Bach's cello sonatas [are a] wonderful example of harmony in art as in nature – it reminds me of the synergy I think there can be between a terroir and a winemaker.’

It is always easy to criticise and/or pontificate on a subject if you have no real knowledge of it. But the arguments advanced by Rick Kinzbrunner really took my breath away when I read them. This is how I see it:

  1. I know Rick Kinzbrunner has never participated as a judge in any of the mainstream wine shows in Australia, and I would be terribly surprised if he had ever attended the post-show [exhibitor?] tastings where the wines which win medals (and those which don’t) are available for tasting.
  2. At last year’s National Wine Show in Canberra the split between winemakers and sommeliers, journalists and retailers was as close to equal as you can have it when the total number of judges and associates was 21. Eleven were winemakers, five sommeliers, four journalists and one a retailer. Last year’s Sydney Wine Show went much further, only 10 of the judges and associates were winemakers, 18 came from sommeliers, retailers and journalists.
  3. Many of the current judges and associates are graduates of the five-day Len Evans Tutorial, which is an intensive series of masterclasses in one way or another putting Australian wines in the context of the great wines of the world. It is absolutely not boring, and is equally absolutely designed to puncture any complacency.
  4. Attitudes and practises within the Australian winemaking fabric have always been in a state of change. Before the mid-1970s there was no pinot noir, and virtually no chardonnay of any lasting worth being made in Australia. How different the situation today. It is ironic that the conversation should have been between Rick Kinzbrunner and Andrew Jefford, for it was the latter who recently ‘came out’ and voiced the opinion that top-end Australian chardonnays (and no doubt he would include Giaconda in that) can effortlessly compete with Grand Cru White Burgundies.
  5. The dinners that Len Evans pioneered for the judges and associates during the currency of each show have always featured French wines, with a solid smattering of German, Italian, Spanish, New Zealand and Californian wines. Once again, the purpose is to broaden vision and defuse complacency.
  6. The Australian wine show system (and that of New Zealand) stands apart from the shows blessed by the key international authorities OIV and INAO. Under the Australian system, every judge and every associate must be able to precisely explain why he or she gave any particular wine points that were at odds with their fellow judges. This is the accountability which is totally and utterly lacking in the European system, where the points go off to a computer, there is no discussion, and, indeed, none of the judges know what points there fellows awarded. In my view, those shows are sterile and devoid of any use other than marketing.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wine & health – pregnant women

Despite intensive and extensive studies over several decades, there is no evidence that a pregnant woman in good health, who does not smoke, and who has a balanced diet, including (say) a glass of wine each day, is in danger of harming the health of her unborn child because of that daily consumption of wine.  There is evidence to suggest enhanced cardio vascular health protection, and there is evidence that the social and stress-relieving impact of strictly controlled consumption is good for the mother’s health, and by extension, the baby’s.

Simply because it is impossible to prove a negative from a scientific epidemiological standpoint, it can’t be proved that there is no risk whatsoever.  And even the warning to a mother that she may cause harm to her unborn baby has an enormous emotional impact, and most GPs tend to dodge the issue when they are asked for an opinion by the pregnant woman by saying it has to be a personal decision.

All of this was reported by Natasha Bita, consumer editor for The Australian newspaper, and lo and behold, the Daily Wine News, published by Winetitles, covers the article and finishes with this sentence, ‘According to The Australian, wine, spirit and beer bottles will have to be labelled with tobacco-style health warnings to tell pregnant women that drinking will damage their unborn baby.’  It’s the sort of headline-grabbing sloppy reporting on this important issue that really makes me cross.  Like countless couples, my wife and I fought for our equal share of the bottle of wine chosen on the night before she went off to hospital to respectively give birth to my beautiful and highly intelligent daughter, and my supremely healthy son with a Masters degree in human movements.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Australian wines in the Old Dart

I had to read a recent piece in the Daily Wine News twice before believing what I was seeing.  At a presentation of Australian wines at the Australian Wine School in London, under the auspices of Wine Australia, Tim Atkin MW said ‘Australia is more exciting today than at any point in my life as a wine writer.’ He was joined by Andrew Jefford, the distinguished English wine author who recently said that top end Australian chardonnays could effortlessly compete with grand cru Burgundies. 

Blog: Wine, Terroir & Climate Change

Dr John Gladstones’ book, Wine, Terroir and Climate Change, has been inducted into the Gourmand Wine Books Hall of Fame 2011. It is the first Australian book to be so honoured, with 162 countries having participated in the awards this year. On the cover of the book you will find this endorsement from myself:

For anyone interested in the future interaction between climate, climate change and viticulture, this book simply has to be read. Dr John Gladstones’s painstaking research is the foundation for his equally carefully constructed conclusions that robustly challenge mainstream opinions.

For further information go to

Monday, December 12, 2011

Bruce Dukes on it

Bruce Dukes is the senior winemaker (and director) of the Naturaliste Vintners custom-crush winemaking facility at Carbunup, in the Margaret River region. He recently received the Winemaker of the Year Award at the West Australian Wine Industry Awards. The sheer quality of the wines he makes is equalled only by his consistency. If I were looking for a contract winemaker anywhere in Western Australia, he would be my first choice.

A second piece of good news for Margaret River, following in the wake of the bushfires, was the title of ‘Best Town’ by Australian Traveller Magazine. Here, too, I have my hand up for one of Australia’s most beautiful, high quality regions.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The gentle art of re-corking old wines

The Grange and rare Penfolds red wine re-corking clinic, run in conjunction with Langton’s, is of world’s best practice. The wine will be eligible for re-corking if appreciable ullage has developed, or there are signs of seeping. The existing cork is removed and a very small amount of the wine is removed to check its condition. If there is any problem with the wine (oxidation, excess volatility, and/or cork taint) the wine will be re-sealed with an unbranded cork, but is not topped up. If it is in good condition for its age, it will be topped up and a branded cork will be inserted. A slip label on the back of the bottle will disclose that the wine was re-corked at the Langton’s clinic, and specifies the date. Re-corking has been a major cause for concern in Bordeaux in particular in the wake of the much-publicised activities of Hardy Rodenstock. Anthony Barton, owner of Chateau Leoville Barton and Chateau Langoa Barton (second and third growth chateaux respectively) has come out in typical forthright fashion saying “I’m against re-corking: 99 times out of 100 it’s a racket...the poor auctioneer says the wine has a good level, but it’s only been good for the last two weeks, not the last 20 years.” When, several years ago, I investigated the possibility of having Chateau Lafite re-cork a double magnum of its 1865 vintage wine, I learnt that the Chateau will not re-cork wines older than 1945. It may have hardened its position since, but the obvious problem is that by topping a bottle up and inserting a cork which will specify the date of the ‘reconditioning’, there is an implied warranty by the chateau that the wine is of good condition for its age, when in fact it may not be.

Brett on the back foot

Once again, the Australian Wine Research Institute has married ground breaking research with an everyday issue for makers of red wine. The thoroughly unwelcome yeast Dekkera bruzellensis (Brettanomyces), commonly known as Brett, has become a scourge for winemakers, especially those who do not wish to sterile filter their red wine prior to bottling. It imparts odours and flavours variously described as horse stable and wet bandaid, and everything in between. Expert tasters who can identify this yeast (which usually infects a wine after the conclusion of fermentation) can detect its presence in minute concentrations. The breakthrough has seen the genetic blueprint of Brett mapped, opening the way to kill the yeast without significant additions of sulphur dioxide or to remove it by sterile filtration.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Wine labels and health warnings

I know it is a victory for commonsense that the government has decided not to require specific warning messages on alcohol labels. Winemakers Federation of Australia head, Stephen Strachan, said ‘this was a sensible, considered and evidence-based response to the recommendations of the Blewitt Review.’ The wine industry has demonstrated a strong commitment to addressing alcohol abuse and its willingness to expand coverage of its existing voluntary commitment to have an on-label message warning against drinking while pregnant. Consistently with this, the Winemakers Federation is encouraging winemakers to use the ‘pregnant lady’ pictogram on labels.

I am well aware that my views on this will not be welcome in certain quarters, but it’s a strange world in which the onus is on wine producers to demonstrate a negative. As I understand the present weight of medical evidence, there is nothing to show that drinking a glass of wine a day by a healthy mother-to-be on a balanced diet (and, above all else, not smoking) constitutes a measurable adverse impact on the health of the embryo and, in due course, the newly born baby. But that is not enough: because it is impossible to prove it is risk-free, it seems the industry has to agree that there is a risk to the unborn baby, even though the risk cannot be quantified.

Monday, November 21, 2011


The Victorian Department of Primary Industries has announced a second round of vineyard surveys in Victoria, covering Ballarat, Macedon Ranges, Sunbury, Broadford, Kilmore, greater Geelong, and a large northern area extending from Cobram to Horsham. The aim is to increase the number of regions within the Phylloxera Exclusion Zone (PEZ); if there is no evidence of phylloxera in the areas surveyed, it will enable growers and winemakers to move grape vine material and grapes into South Australia, New South Wales and those part of Victoria already designated as PEZs with a reduced regulatory burden.

New South Wales (except for a small and largely irrelevant area in the immediate west of Sydney) is phylloxera-free, as is the whole of South Australia (and Western Australia).

Phylloxera appeared in Geelong in 1887, and notwithstanding the enforced removal of all of the vines in that then very important region, phylloxera worked its way north, ultimately arriving in the Rutherglen region in the last few years of the 19th century, and into the early years of the 20th century.

Somehow or other, its northward march spared the Grampians and the Pyrenees. That is where things rested until in the last decade or so of the 20th century, phylloxera appeared in the King Valley, and thereafter the Strathbogie Ranges. Phylloxera cannot travel more than five kilometres without finding grape vines to feed on. Thus it is almost certain the King Valley and Strathbogie infections were carried by viticultural machinery that had been inadequately sterile-cleansed before moving from north-east Victoria to those two regions.

In 2006 it appeared in the Yarra Valley, which – against all the odds – was not attacked in the 19th century. Given that the Swiss were the most important vignerons in the Yarra Valley and Geelong alike, one might have expected there would have been exchange of grape vines or grapes between the regions, but chance intervened to protect the Yarra. Its luck has now run out, and phylloxera has arrived, almost certainly from the King Valley or Strathbogie.

Once introduced, phylloxera is like a cancer. It may move slowly, but it does so inexorably. Moreover, while agricultural equipment and grapes cannot be taken outside the Phylloxera Infected Zone (PIZ) in the Yarra, wine tourists have no such embargo. Four different vineyards are now impacted, and the number will increase in the future.

This, however, is not the cataclysm that headline writers delight in. Contingency plans should already be in place for vignerons, especially those with plantings in various parts of the Yarra Valley, who will have a program mapped out that will focus in the first instance on blocks that are underperforming and need either a replacement variety, a change in row orientation and/or in planting density, or will simply be taken back to pasture. The best blocks will be kept in production until it’s obvious that phylloxera is around the corner.

The cost of replanting the Napa Valley vineyards was estimated to be $1 billion, but the benefit of replanting didn’t take long for the investment to be repaid with higher quality grapes meeting the needs of the market.

In 1991/92 phylloxera began to destroy the vineyards of the Napa Valley; it had been an earlier visitor, but the Californians elected to use a rootstock with one of the parents vitis vinifera simply because it guaranteed high yields. The French warned that it would not be immune to phylloxera, and were proved right. When the damage began, various institutions ran for cover, asserting that the phylloxera that had now arrived was a different biotype.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Penfolds Releases Bin 620 Coonawarra Cabernet Shiraz 2008

Why would I fly to Shanghai for the day, arriving Tuesday night, and leaving Wednesday night? Well, my precipitous departure form Shanghai was dictated by a family commitment of longstanding that meant I had to be home by today. Were it not for that, I would have had a more sensible two-night stay in Shanghai, and attended the formal banquet that followed Wednesday’s press conference – which was the event I did attend.

Still speaking in riddles? Yes, I suppose I had better get to the point. It was the global release of 2008 Penfolds Special Bin 620, made 45 years after the only prior release, 1966 Bin 620. Both wines are 100% Coonawarra, the ‘08 51% cabernet sauvignon and 49% shiraz. Many years ago I purchased a case of the ‘66 from Len Evans’ Bulletin Place Wine Shop at around $20 a bottle, rather less than the $1000 a bottle for the ‘08.

What is more, it’s availability in Australia (and everywhere else, for that matter) is extremely limited. Unless you find it in a duty free international terminal shop (still at $1000 a bottle) Penfolds’ cellar door in the Barossa Valley is the only avenue. It follows from this that it will never, ever be discounted. Oh, and for the ultimate trophy hunters, there are a few magnums, and even fewer (less than 10) imperials.

The launch, at Shanghai’s ultimate luxury hotel, the Waldorf Astoria on The Bund, must have cost many tens of thousands of dollars. Journalists from many countries came on the same mission: to taste the wine, poured from magnums – a nice touch, but giving away gold – and hear Peter Gago’s masterly story of the wine and its making.

At this point, I find myself in a difficult position. When I say this is one of the greatest red wines Penfolds has made in the last 50 years, I can hear the cries “Well, he would have to say that, wouldn’t he?” from polite readers, and a great deal worse from cynical tweeters, bloggers and so forth. My only response is that I have tasted the wine, and my critics haven’t.

I wrote an unusually lengthy tasting note while Gago went through the history of Penfolds, the region of Coonawarra, etc, for the benefit of the many Chinese in the room, and the lavish video clips with deafening music, that preceded the demand to taste. The wine had been poured in everyone’s glass early in the proceedings, and I had no hesitation in breaching the taste embargo.

Key words among many were “seamless” (fruit and oak integration), “balance” (from superb tannins), and “accessible” (far more so than many Granges when three years old, prior to their release). And it turns out that it is these characteristics that have lead to its release now, not when five years old. In an aside, Gago told me its character, balance and so forth now was little different to those it had a year ago.

And so to the tasting note. The brilliantly clear, deep purple-crimson colour is an enticing start, and the seamless fruit and oak integration on the bouquet is perfect. Complex cedar and cigar box aromas are entwined with a basket of perfectly ripened black fruits. The palate is exceptionally intense, yet supremely elegant, with immaculate balance, texture, structure, line and length. Its outstanding tannins give the wine a certain authority: this is not a fruit-bomb style, yet is far more accessible than most Granges at this age. (Gago said to me the ‘04 and ‘06 Granges were ready several years before they were released.) it is without questions the best three-year-old Penfolds red (officially released) I have tasted.

The nuts and bolts are 51% cabernet sauvignon, 49% shiraz, part-fermented (with a few embellishments) and matured in 57% French and 43% American oak hogsheads (100% new) for 12 months. It has 14.5% alcohol, 7g/l of acidity, and a pH of 3.42. The magnums poured in Shanghai had corks, I will have to find out whether the Australian allocation out of a total make of less than 1000 dozen will be screwcapped or not.

Why has it taken 45 years to produce another Bin 620, and how long before the next release? Good questions, but the long answers are for another day.

PS: I very nearly missed the forest for the trees. This event was a powerful statement about Treasury Wine Estate’s commitment to Asia.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

2011 Len Evans Tutorial Scholarship

When this year’s 12 scholars were selected, it was very obvious the field was an exceptionally strong one. The scholars were:

Emma Plumridge, Rockpook, Head Sommelier
Joanna Marsh, (former) Seppelt Wines, Winemaker
Nicholas Spencer, Eden Road Wines, Winemaker
Marcus Satchell, Satch Wines, Winemaker
Courtney Treacher, Houghton Wine Co, Winemaker
David Brookes, Vinosense, Wine Journalist
Anna Pooley, Treasury Wine Estates, Winemaker
Bengt Baumgartner, The European, Sommelier
Mario Vinciguerra, Vintage Cellars, Fine Wine Manager
Daniel Sims, The Wine Guide, Project Manager/Partner
Lisa Jenkins, City Wine Store, Head Sommelier
Paul Gardner, Glass Brasserie, Sommelier

Anna Pooley was stranded by the Qantas strike, but has been given a place in next year’s Tutorial.

Six of the scholars effectively in a dead-heat by the close of business Thursday night. We have had a few clear winners of the Friday morning DRC in full tasting, but, more often than not, little to choose between the scholars. Our prayers were answered this year, when David Brookes was a stand out, correctly identifying four of the six vineyards (switching the other two around) and correctly identifying the vintage. He was the clear winner.

Against the odds, the range of wines presented this year was better than in any prior year, both the judging exercises of the chardonnay, pinot noir, shiraz and cabernet full of high quality wines, and – happily – a few traps for the unwary. Fabulous line-ups of wines for the Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne masterclasses, and the wines presented at the evening sessions generally superb (allowing for the usual cork casualties).

Monday, October 24, 2011

When is wine not wine?

Some time in October this year the minimum alcohol requirement for Australian wine will drop from 8% alc/vol to 4.5% alc/vol. There has been what some might call a conspiracy of silence between the wine industry, the Commissioner of Taxation and Uncle Tom Cobbly and all about the moscato (and a few others) with less than 8% alc/vol being sold and taxed in Australia on the basis that they conformed to the requirements of the legislation being the Food Standards Code of Australia and New Zealand. In other words, it has suited the Commissioner to tax the ‘wine’ turning a blind eye to the alcohol issue, and it has equally suited the producers and (presumably) the Winemakers Federation of Australia not wishing to create waves for no good reason. Anomalously, the EU has for some considerable time mandated a minimum 4.5% alc/vol level, and, under the EU wine agreement, Australia has been obliged to accept those wines and allow them to be sold on the Australian market.

There is always the outside chance that the bureaucracy may not accept the FSANZ recommendation to reduce the alcohol level, but that seems highly unlikely.

What I drank

I had the pleasure of attending a small private dinner at Circa the Prince the other night where we drank the following wines, partnered with the outstanding food the restaurant is providing these days:

Coche-Dury ‘Les Rougeots’ 2006
Ravenau ‘Clos’ 2007
Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne 2005

(with rabbit tortellini, morels, broad beans, garden peas)

Comte Georges de Vogue Bonnes Mares 1996, 1998, 1999

(with suckling pig, salsify and ham beignet, baby leeks)

Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Richebourg 1990
Domaine de la Romanee-Ctoni Grands Echezeaux 2000
Domaine de la Romanee-Ctonee Echezeaux 2002

(with roasted duck breast, beetroot tart tartin, pepperberry sauce)

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Hitler v Parker

Bob Campbell sent me this yesterday, said it is the funniest thing he’s seen in years. I couldn’t agree more.

Regional Wine Shows

The results for the 2011 Riverina Wine Show, published on 13 September, come with a prominent headline ‘Coonawarra Cabernet Crowned at 2011 Riverina Wine Show’. The release goes on to disclose that the cabernet in question was Brand’s Laira The Patron Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, and also that the Nepenthe Ithica Chardonay 2010 won the Best White Wine trophy. The cabernet edged out the chardonnay for the trophy for ‘Best Still Wine of Show’.

While in no way quarrelling with those particular awards, this once again raises the question why regional wine shows should be open to entrants from all over Australia, with little or no prospect of the field of entries from premium table wine regions (such as Margaret River, Barossa and Clare Valleys, Coonawarra, Yarra Valley, Hunter Valley...... the list goes on) being truly representative of the best wines of those regions.

What is more, even if they were truly representative, the basic point still remains: regional wine shows should be for the wines made from grapes grown in those regions.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Q & A on a good shiraz


Hi James,
In June this year I have my closest friends 50th birthday and one ponders as to what to get someone that has everything, so a bottle of shiraz comes to mind.
If your budget was $1000.00 what would you buy?


If Australian, go to the Langton’s website, and you will see the bottles of great shiraz from top vintages on offer. They can be relied upon to give you an accurate description of the appearance of the bottle, and, critically, the level. In the case of Grange, they will also be able to tell you whether the wine has gone through the Langton’s/Penfolds joint re-corking clinic, that in case of 10 to 20 year old Granges gives you a measure of comfort, but cannot protect you from the small chance that the new cork inserted has had TCA (trichloranisole, the mouldy taint). Remember in considering the prices that you also have to pay the buyer’s premium.

Langton’s also auction wines from the northern end of the Rhone Valley which are Shiraz (or in the case of Cote Rotie, Shiraz Viognier blends). The estimated prices is a pretty good indication of the relative quality of each of these innumerable needles in a haystack.

James Halliday

Friday, June 3, 2011

Gruner veltliner – the next big thing?

There has been some e-discussion on the possibility of gruner becoming the next serious new contender for recognition. It has amazed me that it has taken so long for it to make its mark, initially through Lark Hill and Hahndorf Hill. In Austria it is grown side by side with riesling, and therein lies its strength and its weakness. Riesling in Australia shows us there are plenty of places where gruner should do well, the wine it produces having both character and longevity. The downwise is the ‘R’ word; if, despite all of the talk of a riesling renaissance, riesling continues to decline in importance collecting consumer disinterest, why should gruner veltliner succeed? Just because there is no obvious answer to this, it should not mean that gruner is a waste of time. There is plenty of room on the Australian viticultural canvas for a renaissance with riesling, gruner by its side.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The month of May... busy times!

May has been an unusually busy month for me, beginning on May 5 to go to Margaret River for a long weekend for dual purposes: first, celebrating the release of John Gladstones’ imperious Wine, Terroir and Climate Change, which can be purchased through the website at a discount of 20% from its RRP, although that is absolutely not the reason that I sing its praises. Secondly, I was the guest of Vasse Felix, which in turned staged a very large subregional tasting of over 70 wines from the six unofficial subregions of Margaret River proposed by John Gladstones way back in 1989.

Then on May 12 I headed to Noosa for the Noosa Food & Wine Festival; a glorious event from start to finish, with equally glorious weather. This alone would have been reason to get out of the Yarra Valley, but all those who have participated in this event want to come back. I chose the wines for the Qantas Ultimate Wine Dinner at berardo’s on Sunday night with a string of stellar chefs from all around the world, Australia’s contribution from Tetsuya Wakuda.

A dash into Melbourne on May 18 for various meetings and events, the next day travelling to the Canberra District for the 40th Anniversary of the Australian National University’s Wine Symposium (and another long weekend), choreographed by Kiaran Kirk, one of Tim Kirk’s (Clonakilla) elder brothers.

Another four days have gone and today I head of to Western Australia as the guest of Matilda’s Estate. It is a very long time since I have visited Albany and Denmark, the southernmost (official) subregions of the Great Southern, so the visit is well overdue. I am praying devoutly that Qantas will get me back late on Sunday night for meetings on Monday with my dentist, followed by a far more enjoyable meeting with Hardie Grant, before I leave on Tuesday headed to Greece for a 10-day visit to the best wineries of the country, with more than a bit of island-hopping.

The flights to and from the far south west of Western Australia, and to and from Greece will be fully occupied with my work on an upcoming book with a deadline of July 6, before I leave that day to fly to Paris for a wonderful 50th Anniversary of Bollinger RD.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Wine, Terroir and Climate Change

An appreciation by James Halliday

Dr John Gladstones is rightly considered to be an exceptional research scientist. He methodically collects and analyses all the available information on each aspect of his research, and patiently establishes the basis for the conclusions he then draws. On the face of it, there is nothing remarkable in this modus operandi until you realise his ability to think outside the square, and, where appropriate, to challenge what are blithely accepted as self-evident truths.

Inevitably his views on global climate change, and its implications for viticultural practices and choices in particular, will be regarded as highly controversial and lead to heated debate. But that only takes up the last part of the book. In the first two-thirds he further develops the concepts of his earlier book Viticulture and Environment, breaking fresh ground to build a new and more fully integrated understanding of viticultural terroir.

He returns to his proposition that a low diurnal temperature range during ripening, with relatively warm nights, gives best fruit and wine quality because it results in fastest and most complete physiological (flavour as opposed to sugar) ripening. Allowing that this occurs throughout all or most of the 24-hour cycle, more flavour and aroma compounds will accumulate relative to increase of sugar or loss of acid. This contradicts the commonly held belief that a wide range and cold nights are desirable in order to preserve acid. In fact, he says, cold nights slow physiological ripening, while hot days hasten flavour and aroma loss or destruction, and lead to excessive berry sugar accumulation.

Dr Gladstones supports the case for organic viticulture, although he cannot resist pointing to the contradiction that its officially allowed and most commonly used sprays of copper compounds and sulphur are inorganic, whereas the prohibited synthetic compounds are wholly or principally organic, i.e. carbon-containing. In the broader scheme of things, he explains why organic matter is so important in building soil health, indeed to the point where it enhances the expression of terroir. But he sees no merit in the added rituals of biodynamics, which he deplores as an unhealthy retreat into mysticism.

As I have already suggested, Dr Gladstones’ views on climate change will be vigorously disputed, although not by me. Almost 70 pages are devoted to a thorough examination of evidence on the subject, and its implications for viticulture. He carefully documents why he believes the analysis of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is fundamentally flawed, relying as it does on computer modelling unable to encompass the complexity of real climates, on uncertain data, dubious assumptions, and biased statistical procedures. In particular, it ignores the historical and geophysical record of past greater warmth and natural climate fluctuations, preferring instead a misinterpretation of the land-based thermometer record.

The IPCC model suggests that the last 150 years should have seen a global warming of 1°C or more caused purely by anthropogenic (man-caused) greenhouse gases. In fact the thermometer record showed an irregular increase of only about 0.6°C, of which half is well explained by natural fluctuations in the sun’s energy output and magnetic field.

Of the rest, the evidence (including important new insights that Dr Gladstones draws from his studies of viticultural terroir) indicates that most is spuriously related to historical changes in thermometer placement and surroundings, together with real, if still unquantified, general warming due to widespread desertification from land clearing and over-grazing. From this he estimates that greenhouse gases can have produced no more than 0.2°C of any genuine global warming over the period, which corresponds to a largely harmless 0.4−0.5°C for any effective doubling of atmospheric concentration, as opposed to over 2°C in the IPCC models.

Further complicating this is that plants, including vines, benefit from extra carbon dioxide but need higher night temperatures to do so fully. “I conclude,” writes Dr Gladstones, “that the widely held expectation of a viticultural flight to existing cold areas is misplaced. Optimum locations for particular wine styles will probably change little over the coming half century.” To further challenge climate change orthodoxy he adds: “Thus the possibility cannot be ruled out that the best terroirs will continue their historical shift to warmer locations.”

However he also warns that hot inland areas with irrigation are unlikely to benefit. Any migration of viticulture in the dry continents will continue to be coastwards to more equable and otherwise superior terroirs. Growing ability to identify and exploit these means that high-quality wines are becoming more affordable and competitive, to the common benefit of the world’s winelovers and quality wine producers.

This is a fascinating book that deserves the widest possible readership, both within the world wine community and among all with an interest in climate change.

A 20% discount is available to all Wine Companion readers on the RRP of $59.95. Simply enter the code 'Terroir' in the coupon redemption box (note, the code will only work on this specific title). Buy the book here >>

Thursday, April 21, 2011

James Halliday and Toby Bekkers discuss organic and biodynamic grape-growing

Toby Bekkers’ press release re: Organic/Biodynamics

Viticulturist Toby Bekkers has launched a consultancy designed to help winemakers and wineries uncover hidden potential in their vineyards and wine businesses. The cornerstone of the process will be improving wine grape quality by introducing natural farming practices.

“Many producers are enthusiastic about organics and biodynamics but are risk averse,” says Toby.

“I assist wineries to improve their business by introducing natural and organic / biodynamic farming techniques. Some want an immediate, complete change whilst others prefer a slower, staged approach.” “I provide not just vineyard management advice, but also brand, communications and management consultancy to ensure that the principles are integrated throughout the enterprise. I understand the commercial considerations that drive wineries and I know how to incorporate business goals and sustainable practices for commercial success.”

After recently living for 6 months in France, Toby warns that the Australian wine industry is lagging behind its competitors in the adoption of organic and biodynamic viticulture systems, which could impact the industry’s future earnings potential.

“Organic and biodynamic practices offer the potential to improve wine quality and should be viewed as smart, low input farming systems. They are no longer solely the domain of the idealist. Many sophisticated and successful wine businesses around the world are benefitting from these techniques,” says Toby. “My goal is to encourage mainstream adoption of ‘natural farming’ systems whilst recognising that for organics to be truly sustainable it must also be profitable.”

Toby has more than fifteen years of experience as a viticulturist and wine business manager. He was General Manager of Paxton Wines in McLaren Vale South Australia where he was responsible for almost 700 acres of vineyard and the Paxton wine business. He has played a leading role in the introduction and implementation of organic and biodynamic viticulture in Australia.

He is in demand as an industry speaker, and in 2006 on the Annual Trophy for Excellence in Winegrowing by the McLaren Vale Grape, Wine and Tourism Association. In 2009 he participated in the prestigious Future Leaders – Succession for the Australian Wine Sector leadership and development program. He holds a Bachelor of Applied Science, Agriculture (Hons.) from the University of Adelaide and a Graduate Certificate in Management from the University of South Australia. For further information on Toby’s services visit

James’ blog in response to Toby’s press release…


Toby Bekkers has launched a viticulture and wine business consultancy service. Bekkers has an impressive academic background, with a Bachelor of Applied Science, Agriculture (Hons) from the University of Adelaide, and a Graduate Certificate in Management from the University of South Australia. On the practical side, he played a key role in the successful growth of Paxton Wines in McLaren Vale, David Paxton himself having an even longer career in viticulture.

I have to worry about the blithe assumption that it has been established organic and biodynamic grapegrowing results in greater wine quality. Organic maybe, but the packaging of the two practices as if they were one is not on in my book. The press release announcing the establishment of the consultancy says ‘After recently living for six months in France, Toby warns that the Australian wine industry is lagging behind its competitors in the adoption of organic and biodynamic viticultural systems, which could impact the industry’s future earnings potential.’

The press release then goes on to quote Bekkers ‘Organic and biodynamic practices offer the potential to improve wine quality and should be viewed as smart, low input farming systems. They are no longer solely the domain of the idealist. Many sophisticated and successful wine businesses around the word are benefitting from these techniques. My goal is to encourage mainstream adoption of “natural farming” systems whilst recognising that for organics to be truly sustainable it must also be profitable.’

This is not an attack on Toby Bekkers credibility or knowledge, but I think he is drawing a very long bow in suggesting that biodynamics will increase Australia’s earnings potential. The 2010 vintage in France, and the 2011 vintage in South East Australia, suggest the opposite.

And the interchange of emails following James’ response…

Dear James,

Thankyou for taking the time to read my press release. Where ‘sustainable farming’ in all its poorly defined forms fits into the Australian wine landscape is a topic of much discussion and I’m happy that you are interested enough to make comment. I thought I would pay you the courtesy of a private response in order to clarify my position on a couple of the points you raised in your blog entry last week. (Note: Toby Bekkers has agreed to the release of this email in conjunction with my original blog, my short response to this email, and his final – even shorter reply.) My intent is not to try and alter your views, rather I’d like to clarify mine.

I do not contend that organics and biodynamics (BD) are one and the same. From my point of view, some clients are interested in making small changes in farming practice, some want to move to organics and some wish to take a further step and look at the BD method of farming. All offer potential benefits, particularly in regards to soil health, biodiversity, quality and reduction of inputs. Many of the aims and techniques of these systems are recognisable in any list of soil management best practice. I’m not fundamentally aligned to one system or another and I would be best described as a ‘biodynamic moderate’ with regard to my robust interest in that system. However, I’d make the point that whilst organics isn’t BD, by definition BD is an organic farming system. This premise would be accepted by regulators, certifiers, organic practitioners and BD growers alike. By nature BD is a controversial subject and people tend to focus on the perceived ritualistic aspects. My interest centres more around the potential benefits in stimulating soil health and a holistic view of the farm rather than the deeply philosophical, although I enjoy a renewed power of observation that comes from investigating these techniques.

The view that organic systems offer benefits in wine quality is widely held by many practitioners and is the overriding motivator for adoption cited. I believe that this stems from a number of areas, three of which I offer below by way of example:

  1. Consistency: It is well accepted that improving soil structure, porosity, organic matter content and biological function has the potential to buffer the effect of extreme weather events. In my view, it is not unreasonable to observe that this can reduce seasonal variation and buffer the effects of extreme weather in particular seasons.

  2. Opportunity of expression: I contend that greater complexity in a natural system offers more opportunity for the vine to interact uniquely with its environment. For example, it is widely accepted that soils rich in biological diversity differently liberate native nutrients and minerals from the soil in a form readily available to the plant. In my view this more stable, modulated access to nutrient can enhance the expression of subtle differences between vineyard sites. It won’t override basic viticulture faux pas like poor site selection, but does offer another layer of complexity in good vineyards. If one accepts that terroir is a unique signature of place, then additional layers of complexity within the viticultural system must go some way to enhancing or further defining that expression.

  3. Attention to detail: In the absence of a quick fix, attention to detail in well farmed organic vineyards is second to none and undoubtedly accounts for some of the benefits cited by good producers. Good farmers of any persuasion are generally good observers.

Australia is lagging behind the rest of the world in the adoption of organic viticulture. Best estimates of certified organic vineyard area in Australia are around 1%, whilst in Europe figures of 3 to 5% are not uncommon (exceeding 7% in Alsace Lorraine). I don’t think that Australia can (or will) ride a rocket-like BD-led rise in earnings potential, rather I predict that evidence of sustainable practice may well be required to maintain market presence in the future. What I see as a real risk is the potential for large retailers to make very rapid decisions in response to what they think their customers want to hear. With organic food and beverage sales rising (for example, double digit growth over 10 years in the U.S.) there is the potential for retailers to tighten their expectations of suppliers. If large retailers demand a rapid move to organic production our industry needs to at least have considered the options to allow a rapid transition. Availability and quality of organic wine from other countries has never been better, volumes are growing and retailers expect their suppliers to adapt quickly to consumer demand. In Australia, the recent unilateral move by Coles to ban growth hormone in beef is a good example of a rapid shift in buyer requirements effecting producers.

Finally, tough seasons create problems for all growers. Typically, those that are farming the right varieties, on the right sites, in the right way have the best chance of success. That said, no matter the farming system, sometimes nature has the final say. It has to be agreed that both conventionally and organically farmed fruit has been lost to disease this year, but the assumption that organic production will fail where conventional will not is a commonly heard but flawed premise.

Natural systems are so complex we may never understand exactly why things happen the way they do. This should not stop us trying new things when we observe potential benefits. Likewise we should not cease digging deeper and asking the questions, so thankyou for stimulating these few words.

Kind regards



Dear Toby

Thank you for your very interesting email. The only problem is that I agree whole-heartedly with everything you have to say. Clearly, my blog did not make my position clear. Namely, that the advantages of organic viticulture are beyond doubt. The only problem is, of course, the conversion period, and viticulturists weaning themselves from the numerous sprays used in a conventionally-farmed vineyard.

It is when one comes to BD that I hold my hand up and say that I cannot be convinced on anything I have seen or read that BD results in consistently better grapes. Indeed, I would argue the evidence is that, in wet vintages, it leads to irreparable damage. That said, I respect the views of those who believe the system is of net benefit, in the same way as I would not challenge anyone’s religious beliefs.

Best regards
James Halliday


Thanks James for the response.

I think amongst all systems, there are those that farm sensibly and those that chose to place their vineyards in the hands of faith alone. The growers with a sensible plan get good results and those with unrealistic expectations often come to grief.



Christie’s finest and rarest wines auction

Christie’s held a finest and rarest wines auction in Hong Kong spanning April 9 to April 10. In most instances the lots exceeded the lower end of the estimate, and in a number of spectacular occasions realised up to twice the estimate. Sixty vintages of Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1945-2005 had a Hong Kong dollar range of HK$400,000 to HK$600,000. The lot realised HK$960,000. Now you might immediately jump to the conclusion the wines headed off to China. In fact, the buyer was a Latin American private collector. Six bottles of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Richebourg brought an astonishing HK$540,000 (though below the top estimate) which went to an Asian private buyer (not Chinese). However, apart from two lots of 2000 Chateau Lafite Rothschild (the buyer was anonymous) all of the remaining lots bar two went to Chinese private buyers.

FYI: AU$1 = HK$8.32 (at time of publishing)

Friday, April 8, 2011

The best of Hunter Valley Shiraz may be on the way...

I have commented more than once on my renewed love affair with Hunter Valley Shiraz. It was the first wine of any variety and any region that I got my head around, and back in the ‘70s and ‘80s old vintages (even O’Sheas) could be found if you knew where to look, and they were not as exorbitantly expensive as the few remaining bottles are today.

In the third edition of my Classic Wines of Australia and New Zealand I included composite tasting notes (from tastings held between 1984 and 1996) of 19 different Maurice O’Shea wines, the oldest the fabulous 1937 Mountain A Dry Red. Overall, there were also wines from ‘42, ‘43, ‘44, ‘45, ‘46, ‘47, ‘49, ‘52, ‘53 and ’54, in some instances with two or even three wines from the same vintage.

In those days there was no statement of alcohol on the labels, but I am as sure as I can be that the alcohol levels would have been between 13% and 13.5%. The time of harvesting shiraz in the Hunter Valley is not always in the hands of the winemaker, vintage rainfall, hail, searing heat and sunburn, defoliation and a host of other challenges can mean there is no choice. But in the ‘07 and ‘09 vintages, weather conditions were as good as they are ever likely to be for shiraz, and quite beautiful wines were made in these years.

The uniting feature is alcohol levels with a weighted average around 13.5%. The wines have a purity and balance that will see them develop over 20 years (or much longer given screwcaps) gradually picking up that polished leather, sweet earth and forest litter backdrop of great Hunter Shiraz.

Many will be drunk long before they reach this stage, because they are so easy to enjoy in their youth.

Friday, March 25, 2011


Toby Bekkers has launched a viticulture and wine business consultancy service. Bekkers has an impressive academic background, with a Bachelor of Applied Science, Agriculture (Hons) from the University of Adelaide, and a Graduate Certificate in Management from the University of South Australia. On the practical side, he played a key role in the successful growth of Paxton Wines in McLaren Vale, David Paxton himself having an even longer career in viticulture.

I have to worry about the blithe assumption that it has been established organic and biodynamic grapegrowing results in greater wine quality. Organic maybe, but the packaging of the two practises as if they were one is not on in my book. The press release announcing the establishment of the consultancy says ‘After recently living for six months in France, Toby warns that the Australian wine industry is lagging behind its competitors in the adoption of organic and biodynamic viticultural systems, which could impact the industry’s future earnings potential.’

The press release then goes on to quote Bekkers ‘Organic and biodynamic practices offer the potential to improve wine quality and should be viewed as smart, low input farming systems. They are no longer solely the domain of the idealist. Many sophisticated and successful wine businesses around the word are benefitting from these techniques. My goal is to encourage mainstream adoption of “natural farming” systems whilst recognising that for organics to be truly sustainable it must also be profitable.’

This is not an attack on Toby Bekkers credibility or knowledge, but I think he is drawing a very long bow in suggesting that biodynamics will increase Australia’s earnings potential. The 2010 vintage in France, and the 2011 vintage in South East Australia, suggest the opposite.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The start of vintage at Coldstream Hills

Vintage finally got (seriously) underway yesterday at Coldstream Hills, almost one month later than last year. The small House Block chardonnay produced eight tonnes of immaculate fruit, with great flavour and balance. This is the greatest amount off this 25-year-old block, which has always been a cornerstone for the Coldstream Hills Reserve Chardonnay. With all the rain (needless to say, irrigation has not been used in any of the vineyards this growing season) the concern was that berry-size would be inflated, and the ratio of juice to skin and pip reduced. In fact, the berries are small, but very even. It was the even nature of the bunches, and their number, which gave rise to the crop.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

It's a busy time of year!

Time off from daily grind of 7am-3pm tastings for the Wine Companion, last night (Monday) with a wonderful dinner hosted by Jacques Thienpont and wife Fiona Morrison MW featuring the wines of Vieux Chateau Certan and the legendary Le Pin from ‘06, $3000 a bottle, and one was corked! Jacques Reymond (normally closed Monday night) opened specially for the dinner, the dishes showing – yet again – why this is Australia’s best French-based (with a strong fusion accent) restaurant. Off to an assignation with one of the three specialist dentist attending to various teeth this afternoon, then direct to Tullamarine on the way to Adelaide, thence tomorrow to the Riverland for an in-depth (forgive the pun) look at alternative varieties. An unplanned but fortuitous insight into the trials and tribulations of the rain-sodden Riverland will also be interesting. Return Thursday night to resume tasting Friday, then a one-day dash to Sydney as keynote speaker at Warren Mason’s Sydney International Winemaker’s Gala Lunch, returning tastings Sunday, then non-stop for the next 9 days.

Monday, February 21, 2011

What impact will the weather have on this years harvest?

As each day passes, firsthand observers on the ground in the Riverland and Riverina provide evermore dramatic reports on the rampant spread of mildew and botrytis. One of the big company purchasers, that went into this season looking to buy more chardonnay, had seven harvesters picking 24 hours in one day, and taking 12,000 tonnes of chardonnay off the vines. The trucks waiting to receive the grapes were crammed into a 30-acre space. That was 24 hours before the most recent heavy rains hit. It’s such a dynamic situation that no one can predict how many tonnes will come out of Australian’s engine room this year, and I’m certainly not going to try. But it could be a frighteningly small number.

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Tale of Three Yarra Vintages

2009: The vintage was largely over at this point, pinot noir judged unpickable by most producers (including their estate-grown fruit). Merlot, shiraz and cabernet were very problematical. The only bright point was chardonnay.

2010: Picking chardonnay began on Coldstream Hills’ home vineyard this day last year. It was the start of (another) early vintage, but one that was full of promise, and has delivered on that promise.

2011: Chardonnay sampled yesterday on our large home block was at 8 baume. Veraison is only complete in pinot noir and chardonnay, well behind for other varieties. A week ago, it was thought March 7 to March 10 would be a likely start for pinot and chardonnay, with a table wine (not sparkling) destination. Well, the current weather and the outlook for the next eight days doesn’t suggest any earlier start.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Noah’s Ark and Mount Ararat in the Yarra Valley

No one I have spoken to can remember so much rainfall in the growing season. Month after month the rain, as everyone knows, has continued, with regular periods of heavy rain. In the 24-hour period last Friday to Saturday 110mm were collected in the rain gauge at our (Suzanne and my) house. It is situated high on the Warramate Hills, with only forest (no roads or houses) further up the hill. But even here we have had water damage (of relatively minor extent). The Coldstream Hills winery and adjoining estate vineyards have not been affected, and in all our vineyards, constant vigilance and regular copper/sulphur sprays have prevented the outbreak of downy or powdery mildew, and botrytis. So far.

At this stage vintage will take place three weeks later than any vintage since 2002, and given a more reasonable weather pattern between now and early May, things are looking really good.

Others have been more affected. Franco D’Anna at Hoddles Creek Estate sent me the pictures of his vineyard and winery (pictured above), also on a hillside in the Upper Yarra Valley after 121mm on the weekend. Happily, the water did not rise further in the winery, so there is no damage, but a lot of cleaning up to do.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The success of the Orange wine region

The Orange wine region has two advantages: it has consistently produced a series of very good wines in recent years, and has an active PR business supporting it (David Cumming of Define Wine,

In a recent release he points out that its 1500 hectares of vines represents less than 1% of the national total. Its two most successful varieties, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, respectively represent 0.7% and 1.6% of the national plantings. Taste Orange Executive Office Kim Currie is understandably very pleased with the track record of Orange in the 2010 calendar year (coming, as it did, on the back of prior years with similar success). Five wines were in the Top 40 of the 2010 New South Wales Wine Awards, two of those respectively winning trophies for Best Young Sauvignon Blanc and Best Young Red Blend (with a cabernet merlot).

Further trophies at the 2010 New South Wales Small Winemakers Wine Show followed for Best Sauvignon Blanc; trophy for Best Pinot Gris at the 2010 Cowra Wine Show; trophy for Other White Varieties (Pinot Gris) at the 2010 Winewise Small Vignerons Awards; trophies for Best Shiraz Award and Best Red Wine Award at the Shanghai International Wine Challenge 2010; two wines ranked equal fifth with gold medals at the 2010 Great Australian Shiraz Challenge; and a gold medal for a Pinot Noir at the 2010 New Zealand International Wine Show.

A region for all seasons, it would seem.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The NZ Riesling Challenge

New Zealand has recently come up with an interesting competition for Riesling. Called the NZ Riesling Challenge, it involved 12 winemakers pre-selected to each make a riesling using grapes picked from the same vineyard at the same time in 2010. The initiative was that of Mud House Wines, which provided the four tonnes of hand-picked grapes to each winemaker. They were encouraged to use whatever method they considered most appropriate, and the winner was Matt Donaldson of the Pegasus Bay winery. He commented, ‘The fruit was in perfect condition but picked a little earlier than we do for our Pegasus Bay Riesling, so we thought we would have a little experimental fun and froze the bunches before gently pressing. This raised the degree Brix from 22 to 25. Fermentation was clean and cool and stopped according to taste to give a luscious classic style.’

The wines were judged by the participating winemakers under the direction of Chairman of Judges, Bob Campbell MW. All of the wines have now been bottled, and 2000 cases containing one bottle of each of the 12 wines made will be available for public purchase through the participating wineries, the Mud House Wine Group, and a dedicated NZ Riesling Challenge website. For more information on the background of Mud House Wine and its director, Neil Charles-Jones, contact Mark Devlin,

For the record, second place went to Matt Dicey of Mt Difficulty Wines and third place to Mike Brown from Golden Hills Estates.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Constellation deal as clear as mud

A 'clarification' of the Constellation sale posted on the Wine Spectator website written by Tyson Stelzer makes the deal, as Alice in Wonderland might say, curiouser and curiouser. Apart from the fact that separate sale agreements have been entered into in respect to the Leasingham and Stonehaven wineries, with one voice Constellation reiterates it is selling the brands, but in the next breath says it will have no effect on the company's brands and distribution. Anita Poddar, Group Public Relations Manager is quoted as saying 'The arrangement is that existing portfolios and distribution channels will remain unchanged in the US, Australia and Europe.'

So the proposition is that Constellation, faced with a mountain of debt and unable to manage its businesses profitably, is selling the assets but retaining the burden of marketing and distribution. It is hard to see that it will have any incentive to protect the value of the brands, which it no longer owns, and would make me feel very uncomfortable if I were the purchaser of the assets.

I can't believe I understand the deal properly, and only wish that Tony Keys would hasten back from holidays to put the cleaner through it.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Helm Wines rated in top 5 Australian Wines in England

Ken Helm used to manufacture press releases on the back of winning a bronze medal here or there, usually with his Riesling. How times have changed, with gold medals pouring like rain; it was almost more of the same when highly respected English wine writer Sarah Ahmed (The Wine Detective named the 2010 Helm Premium Riesling as one of her five top Australian wines tasted in 2010 (during a Wine Australia visit to Australia in September). For the record, the others were 2008 Kooyong Farrago Chardonnay, 2008 La Violetta La Ciornia, 2006 Tyrrell's 4 Acres Shiraz and 2001 Wendouree Cabernet Sauvignon. An interesting mix of wines, I am sure you will agree.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Constellation licks its wounds

I am still pinching myself to make sure I am not dreaming. Constellation Brands Inc has agreed to sell its Australian and UK operations (excluding Leasingham – see below) to Champ Private Equity of Sydney in a transaction valued at $AUD290 million. This is one of the biggest discounts the wine industry has ever seen: a discount of 85% compared with the acquisition of $1.9 billion in 2003. For reasons which entirely escape me, Constellation is retaining a 20% share of the assets, so the cash payment it receives will be $230 million. The deal also extends to Constellation’s brands in South Africa, but excludes those in New Zealand. There is much more to this story to come out in the new year.