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).