Stags’ Leap Winery Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006

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Stags' Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006

Stags' Leap Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006

I know what you’re thinking.  The photo on the left is looking especially bad, even by the low photography standards of the blog, and for that I apologize.  However, there’s a good reason for that, and it’s that the bottle pictured is in an Enomatic.  No, it’s not a shield designed to obscure bottle shots to the point that they can barely be recognized, though it obviously does a good job at that.  So even if you can barely make out that the photo is of a bottle of wine, please take my word that it is the Stags’ Leap Winery Cabernet Sauvignon 2006.

But before I say anything about the wine, a few words about the Enomatic.  It looks like a glass fronted wine display case.  For each bottle there’s a control panel with a spout for dispensing the wine.  Inside the case, each bottle is hooked up to a series of tubes which draw out wine while replacing it with nitrogen, allowing the wine to be served without exposing the remaining contents of the bottle to oxygen.  The control panel allows a serving size to be selected, typically a taste, a half glass or a full glass.  In conjunction with this, there can also be a magnetic card reader, enabling self-service for people to use cards to pay for their drinks (typically on a pre- or post-paid model, not with actual credit cards).  I’ve seen wine bars with dozens of bottles in a series of Enomatics for self-service, others where they use them to keep by the glass bottles fresh, and the tasting today is brought to you from a bottle shop that has an ever changing selection of 8 bottles available for tasting.

Right, back to the badly pictured Stags’ Leap, and the inevitable explanation of which winery produces this wine, as there are two similarly named wineries.  This is Stags’ Leap Winery, founded by Carl Doumani, known for (among other things) Petite Sirah, and it has its apostrophe after the second “s” in “Stags’”.  The other winery is Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, founded by Warren Winiarski, known for (among other things) Cabernet Sauvignon and the Judgement of Paris, and it has its apostrophe between the “g” and the “s” in “Stag’s”.  In addition to names, the two wineries were both founded in the early 1970s in a corner of the Napa Valley in California which is now the Stags Leap District American Viticultural Area (AVA).  Yes, it’s confusing, and being California, the issue had to be resolved with a lawsuit that determined both producers were entitled to use the name of the region.  Apparently upon resolution the two producers were on such good terms they co-produced a wine called “Accord”.

The estate itself is fairly old (by California standards) and grapes were first grown there in the 1880s.  The property was built up with a manor house in the 1890s and served as a country retreat in the 1920s.  While Prohibition put an end to wine production, grapes continued to be grown though were largely sold to other producers until the property was purchased and improved by the aforementioned Carl Doumani in the early 1970s.  It is now part of Treasury Wine Estates, which I described when I wrote about the Heemskerk Abel’s Tempest.  While some of the vines were planted as recently as 2000, there is a block called Ne Cede Malis that dates back to the 1930s.  Largely Petite Sirah, that block is a field blend planting containing fifteen other varieties, and it used to make a wine that bears its name.

Stags (no apostrophe) Leap District AVA is a small region within the Napa Valley AVA, one of 16 such sub-AVAs.  Named for the original estate, it is six miles north of the town of Napa and home to twenty wineries.  It was established as an AVA in 1989 based on specific characters of the soil which sets it apart from the rest of Napa.  While it shares the loam and clay sediments with the rest of the river valley, it is supplemented by volcanic soil erosion from the Vaca Mountains, in particular the Stags Leap Palisades.  The area is somewhat cooler than its nearest neighbours as it is directly in the path of wind and fog from the San Pablo Bay.  Cabernet Sauvignon is the most widely planted variety, though a wide range of Bordeaux and Rhône varieties round out the reds, and Chardonnay is not uncommon.

I’ve covered two Californian Cabernet Sauvignon blends, from Ridge and Dominus, but since each of those wines were more about the producer than about the grape, it’s worth talking a bit about Cabernet Sauvignon in the context of California, Napa in particular.  What is now California has produced grapes for wine for over two centuries, starting with Spanish missionaries and hence the Mission grape which was a mainstay for 80 years.  European varieties found their way to California in the early 19th century, but production didn’t really pick up until the influx of people for the Gold Rush in the middle of the century.  However, after a boom that included a surge in plantings as the European wine industry was reeling from phylloxera, things went into decline when phylloxera and Prohibition both hit grape growers hard.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that wine production really picked up, in particular with Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, both of which had previously had very little acreage under vine.  While Cabernet Sauvignon had found a home in Napa in the 1880s and was regarded as a good match for the climate and soil, it wasn’t until nearly a century later that it emerged as a sought after, high quality wine.  It was a wine from this era, and from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars specifically, that scored highest in a landmark tasting in Paris where wines from California were tasted blind against their counterparts from Bordeaux and Burgundy.

This wine, while certainly containing estate grapes, is classified as Napa Valley AVA so it likely contains at least 16% grapes from growers outside Stags Leap District AVA.  The fruit is hand picked, fermented over 3-4 weeks in closed fermenters, and matured in French oak (half new) for 19 months before bottling.

In the glass, this wine is dark brick red, with thin quick legs.  It has notes of red currant, pomegranate, plum, and sweet spice. It’s developing, with medium plus intensity.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus fine tannins, medium plus alcohol, medium body, medium plus acidity, medium plus intensity, and notes of pencil lead, cranberry, currant, and sour plum.  It has a medium plus length and a tart plum finish.

This is a very good wine.  It has what I can only describe as a weird mix of flavours, but that’s not to say it’s disjointed.  It’s a big wine in terms of intensity, acidity, alcohol and tannins, but the body has a refined texture that brings elegance to the mix.  It’s a shame there aren’t more wine from California available here, and I hope to try their Ne Cede Malis field blend at some point, but for now I’ll just be grateful that this one somehow made its way to me.

Shaw + Smith M3 Chardonnay 2010

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Shaw + Smith M3 Chardonnay 2010

Shaw + Smith M3 Chardonnay 2010

It’s been a bit of a busy week, between ANZAC Day on Wednesday and having a friend from overseas visiting on Thursday and Friday.  As such, I have not had a new post in a few days, which is not at all how I prefer to run this blog.  Rather than waiting until Monday to post something fresh, I’m instead going to write about something that’s relatively easy and familiar for me.  It’s one of my all time favourites, the Shaw + Smith M3 Chardonnay 2010.

It almost feels like cheating to write up this wine as I needn’t rehash the Adelaide Hills too much, and I’ve covered a number of other Chardonnays, but it does give me more time to wax poetic about Shaw + Smith.  But just to make sure I cover all the bases, a word about the Adelaide Hills.

The second wine I covered, the Ashton Hills Piccadilly Valley Pinot Noir, is from the Adelaide Hills, and as I said then, it’s essentially the hills due east from Adelaide, extending quite a ways north toward Eden Valley and south toward MacLaren Vale.  It’s generally considered cool climate (by Australian standards) and the soil type is sandy loam, but given both the size of the region as a whole and the variation in altitude from vineyard to vineyard, it’s worth looking into the specific location whenever possible.  In this case, Shaw + Smith makes this wine largely out of fruit from a vineyard they own near Woodside, which is pretty squarely in the eastern middle part of the region.  The soil there is sandy loam over clay with a shale base.

Shaw + Smith is named after the two founding winemakers, Martin Shaw and Michael Hill Smith.  Martin Shaw is one of the Australians who formed the core of the flying winemakers movement, whereby an individual winemaker would work vintage in several different locations, typically alternating between hemispheres.  Shaw himself has worked in France, Spain, Chile, Australia and New Zealand and continues to consult around the world.

Michael Hill Smith is likewise a winemaker of renown, but I hold him in special regard because he is a Master of Wine, and was in fact the first Australian to win that honour in 1988.  He founded Shaw + Smith the following year.  As someone freshly graduated with my WSET Diploma, the MW program is like a huge cliff face in front of me that I may someday strive to climb, and I have a huge amount of respect for anyone who has taken up that challenge.  In addition to winemaking, he has a background in running restaurants and apparently is a trained Cordon Bleu chef.  Somehow he manages to find time to contribute to wine education for the likes of me, and I’ve had the pleasure of attending a Chardonnay tasting and lecture he conducted last year.  (He gave a similar one this year but I couldn’t make it, alas.)  For his service to the Australian wine industry, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2008 by Queen Elizabeth II.  Hill Smith’s reaction was allegedly “Obviously, she has made a terrible mistake”.  I don’t think I’m exaggerating to describe him as one of the foremost experts on Chardonnay, and here is how he makes his.

As I said, most of the grapes are estate grown.  Much of the work in the vineyard is by hand, in particular pruning and picking.  Hand picking is essential as the next step is whole bunch pressing, that is pressing without destemming or (prior) crushing.  Machine picking typically gives you individual grapes (or in some cases, a pile of wet mush).  Whole bunch pressing is generally gentler, and does less damage to the skins resulting in less extraction of solids and phenolics into the juice.  You also tend to get less juice than conventional pressing, so it comes at a cost in terms of volumes.  Wild yeast ferments the juice in barrels of French oak, where it stays for maturation with extended time on lees.  Some barrels see malolactic fermentation.

Even though this isn’t the first Chardonnay to grace these pages, or even the first from the Adelaide Hills, a very quick word about the grape.  Chardonnay can be difficult to pin down.  It can consistently ripen to good sugar levels, and so it is successfully grown nearly everywhere, across a wide range of climates and soils, expressing a potentially huge array of flavours.  On top of that, it can be handled in many different ways, to produce still, sparkling or late harvest wines.  And within those wine styles, there are many different treatments that can be applied (or not) to Chardonnay with noticeable differences in the resulting wine.  As described above, the M3 is whole bunch pressed, wild fermented in oak, and then left on lees in oak for maturation, and it yields a particular style, but other winemakers produce quality Chardonnay from machine harvested grapes, no use of oak, specially selected, commercially grown yeast, and no time on lees after fermentation.  Some of those decisions are based on economics, and the M3 is not cheap, but others are purely determined by the style the winemaker is aiming to produce.  Oak, time on lees (especially with lees stirring), and malolactic fermentation can give more body, texture and softness to a wine, which you might want to avoid if you are after a flinty, more mineral Chardonnay with a lighter body and texture.

Shaw + Smith produce a small range of wines, certainly for an Australian producer. Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling round out their whites and they produce a cool climate style of Shiraz that is quite the contrast to the bigger, warm climate styles of the Barossa Valley and MacLaren Vale.  They also produce small quantities of Pinot Noir, though it’s largely only available directly from them.  It’s in contrast to the Sauvignon Blanc which is produced in relatively huge quantities but sells out consistently.

This wine is clear and bright in the glass, with a pale lemon colour and thin legs when swirled.  The nose is clean with a developing character and oaky lemon on the nose, with some green peppercorn and a bit of cream.  The palate is dry, with medium plus to high acidity, medium body, full flavour intensity, medium plus alcohol, and medium length.  The body has a certain softness – there’s substance to it, but with a very gentle texture.  Flavours on the palate include lemon, toast, and white pepper with a lime finish.  One component that’s noticeable for its absence is minerality, but this is not a steely, austere style.  Neither though is it a warm climate butter bomb.  It’s full flavoured with citrus and oak both, but neither overwhelming the other.  If anything, the oak is as much a structure as a flavour.

Obviously, I really like this wine, so much so that in the past I’ve purchased a magnum of Shaw + Smith Chardonnay (at auction) from before it was even branded M3.  While this 2010 is drinking very well right now, this is a wine that maintains its acidity over time, but picks up lovely honeyed notes as it ages.  While I don’t usually talk about price, as I said, it’s not an inexpensive wine.  However, it tastes much more expensive than it costs.  I’m guessing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the expensive oak that goes into this wine (or rather, that this wine goes into) is in some way subsidized by the huge volume of Sauvignon Blanc that Shaw + Smith also produce.  In any case, it’s a lovely wine, year after year, and well worth cellaring.

Eldridge Estate Gamay 2010

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Eldridge Estate Gamay 2010

Eldridge Estate Gamay 2010

Back in February I wrote about the Sorrenberg Gamay, which I enjoyed greatly.  However, it let me down in my quest to post about 100 varietal wines in that it’s made with a small percentage of Pinot Noir.  It’s less than 15% so it need not be mentioned on the label, but enough that I cannot in good faith tick the box for having written up a varietal Gamay.  However, today I intend to do just that with the Eldrige Estate Gamay 2010.

First off, I’m not having this wine just to tick a box.  As I’ve said before, Gamay is one of my favourite grape varieties, but suffers from a trio of disadvantages in terms of popularity – being a light red, inevitable comparisons with Pinot Noir, and Beaujolais Nouveau.  None of these are actual disadvantages in terms of the quality of wines produced, and Eldridge Estate, like Sorrenberg, is another Victorian winery that takes the grape seriously.

It is based on the Mornington Peninsula, which I described to some extent when I covered the Point Leo Road Vineyard Lagrein, and I had the pleasure of a brief visit to the Eldridge Estate cellar door back in September.  Unfortunately, they were sold out of their normal Gamay, but I didn’t leave empty handed as they had a special trio of wines in 500ml bottles that were Gamays with different treatments in the winery.  Those three are in the cellar (along with the note detailing how they differ) for a later date, but I was pleased to find that a local merchant still had a bottle of their Gamay for sale even if none was on hand at cellar door.

Eldridge Estate has been owned and run by Wendy and David Lloyd since 1995, and  exclusively produces estate wines, that is wine made from grapes that they themselves grow.  Their property is near the town of Red Hill, and has nearly 3 HA under vines.  Situated on a north-facing slope (this is the Southern Hemisphere), their soils are a red earth volcanic loam (sand, silt and clay) and their vines are dry grown, though there is a dam at the bottom of the hill in case of emergencies.

Most of their plantings are a mix of a half dozen Pinot Noir clones and five Chardonnay clones, with a small amount of Sauvignon Blanc and this Gamay.  They produce varietals (some from single clones), a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier (which I assume they also grow) sparkler, and a Passetoutgrain, which translate to something along the lines of “pass all grapes” and in Burgundy is a co-fermented blend of Gamay and Pinot Noir.  Their Sauvignon Blanc is sold as Fume Blanc, with a 50/50 blend of barrel and steel fermentation, and then ageing in a 50/50 mix of new barriques and older, larger format barrels.  This Gamay is gently destemmed and fermented by wild yeasts with 90% whole grapes, preceded by five days of cold soak and followed by another four days of the same.

This wine is a bright and clear with a medium minus ruby colour – dark for a Gamay.  Very slow legs when swirled in the glass.  The nose is clean with medium plus intensity, and a developing character.  Aromas range from ripe red berries to pencil lead and a bit of black pepper.  It’s not quite perfume on the nose, but certainly some lifted fragrances are there.  The palate is dry, with medium to medium plus acidity, a medium body, medium alcohol, and a medium plus flavour intensity.  I get plum, black fruit (berries, cherries) pencil shavings and a small bit of liquorice.  There is not much in terms of tannins – certainly some from the skins, but there were no stalks in the ferment, and if there’s any oak, I can’t detect it.    It has a medium plus length with more pencil shavings/lead on the finish.

This is an interesting Gamay, and certainly a very good quality wine.  It was all fruit when I first tasted it, but I revisited my notes and the glass a couple of hours later and it was better than just that, with more of the developed characters being evident, especially the liquorice which wasn’t there at all on first taste.  Also, it’s darker and has a fuller body than most other Gamays I’ve had, which is a pleasant surprise.  I like this wine quite a bit (though I thought I might from the outset, so no great surprise).  Served blind, I think I would have guessed Pinot Noir in terms of the variety.  I will have to try the other, better known, Eldridge Estate wines at some point, the Pinot Noir especially, but I’m both thrilled in general that they’re making a Gamay and pleased specifically with the one I have in my glass.

Tahbilk Marsanne 2010

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Tahbilk Marsanne 2010

Tahbilk Marsanne 2010

It’s been a busy couple of weeks.  I feel like I’ve been doing nothing but complain.  First, I complained about a producer calling attention to replanting native trees on their property, which overlooked the fact that grape vines are not native.  Next I complained that Biodynamic practices are at best pseudo-science, and at worst some sort of cult.  Then finally I complained that any use of the term “natural” with regards to wine is a lie.  The funny thing though, in all three cases I liked the wine in question.  So even if I’ve been cranky, at least I’ve been drinking well.  I intend to continue with the drinking bit, and the wine at hand this evening is the Tahbilk Marsanne 2010.

Within Australia, there is some level of identification of varieties with regions.  While it’s nowhere near as strong (or codified in laws) as in the Old World, and the pairings are certainly not exclusive, Barossa Shiraz, Hunter Semillon, Coonawarra Cabernet and Clare Riesling all resonate.  In the same way, there are some grapes, particularly less common white grapes, that are most strongly identified with a single producer, even if they are in fact widely produced.  Chenin Blanc can bring to mind Coriole for some people, Viognier is strongly associated with Yalumba, and the first producer most people think of in Australia when you mention Colombard is Primo Estate.  Tahbilk has that in spades with Marsanne.  There are certainly other producers making excellent Marsannes, but Tahbilk really owns the space.

Tahbilk is one of Australia’s oldest wineries, having been established in 1860 as Chateau Tahbilk, only dropping the Chateau from the name in 2000.  The Purbrick family, who run it, first became involved with Tahbilk during the excavation of a cellar in 1875, which itself is still in use, and purchased operation in 1925.

Across the 1200 HA of holdings, some 200 are under vine.  While Tahbilk is best known for Marsanne, they also have plantings of the other two main Rhône white grapes, Roussanne and Viognier, and a similar trio of Rhône reds in the form of Shiraz, Grenache and Mourvedre.  They also have red and white Bourdeaux grapes, Chardonnay, Riesling, Verdelho, Tempranillo, and Savagnin vines.

They have some impressive claims in terms of vine ages, with the oldest Marsanne vines in the world, planted in 1927, and in the largest single acreage at just under 100 acres.  They also have some Shiraz vines that date back to the original pre-phylloxera plantings of 1860, with tiny, but highly concentrated yields.

Tahbilk is based in the Nagambie Lakes region of Victoria, part of the Goulburn Valley, roughly 120km north of Melbourne.  The climate is continental, with warm and dry summers but significant diurnal temperature variation.  However, the region is one of very few where the climate is influenced by an inland body of water.  As a result, the area is cooler than would be otherwise expected.  (On the map, Lake Nagambie is actually quite small, though there are a number of other bodies of water nearby, such as the Goulburn Weir and Reedy Lake, so the impact may be cumulative.)

The soil is described as duplex 2.2, which I had to look up.  It’s apparently a term from an influential 1979 work by Keith Northcote, A Factual Key for the Recognition of Australian Soils and duplex refers to a sandy or loamy surface, with a sharp boundary between the surface and a clay subsoil.  In this instance, the sandy/loamy surface is red due to the oxidized iron content, which is generally thought to be good for grape production.

There was some Marsanne in the Robert Duval Plexus I had back in January, but I didn’t say much about it, other than that it’s a white grape associated with the Rhône and that it’s often found in the company of Roussanne and Viognier.  I mentioned Marsanne again when I covered the Yangarra Roussanne, and described it as a better behaved partner to Roussanne, and that it is.  Capable of full-bodied wine with no shortage of aromas or flavours, it’s relative productivity in the vineyard has made it more favoured than Roussanne of late, though it often needs extra pruning to prevent overcropping.  It buds and ripens relatively late, and can ripen with fairly low sugars.

In addition to the fullness of the wines it can produce, one of the things I like best about Marsanne is that it can handle extended ageing.  Tahbilk release several Marsannes, all unoaked, and while this is their entry level wine with two years of age, they also have the 2006 version of the same wine for sale as a Museum Release, and a premium version called 1927 Vines for which the 2002 vintage is the current release.  Over the years, Marsanne will pick up more colour and complexity, with developed characters of nuts and honey coming to the fore.

In the glass, this wine is clear, bright and a pale lemon green colour.  Upon swirling, there is a thin film/sheeting on the sides of the glass, but no legs develop.  The nose is clean and youthful, with medium plus intensity.  I got aromas of lemon, pear, lime, toast, and sandalwood.  The palate was dry, with medium plus acidity, medium alcohol, medium plus body, medium plus flavour intensity, and notes of pear, lemon, white pepper, and honeycomb/wax.  It had a long length.

This is a very good wine, with a very full flavour and body.  I liked the complexity on the nose and palate, though I was surprised that it hasn’t seen any oak.  and very affordable young.  If you have space in your cellar, it’s a good value wine to put away and to enjoy over the next decade.

Maximilian’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

Maximilian's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

Maximilian's Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

On my first trip to Australia, I remember driving through the Adelaide Hills looking for cellar doors and in particular, somewhere to eat lunch.  My girlfriend at the time and I became increasingly hungry and discouraged by our failure to find anywhere at all that was serving food.  Finally we arrived at Maximilian’s Vineyard, remarkable at the time for the emu fenced in a nearby field.  They took pity on our plight, and though their kitchen was closing, managed to provide us with a better lunch than we could have hoped to find.  Flash forward half a decade, and I pass their vineyard whenever I am on my way to the winery where I now work, and I was last at their cellar door with the woman who had been my girlfriend (now wife) on our first lunch outing after the birth of our daughter, who very obligingly slept through the whole meal.  Needless to say, I’m favourably inclined toward any wine from Maximilian’s Vineyards purely out of fond sentiment.  However, sentiment aside, I’m pleased to be drinking this wine right now.  And with that wordy introduction, I give you the Maximilian’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2004.

I am, however, slightly embarrassed that this will be one of my shortest proper posts, as I’ve covered the Adelaide Hills to death and I don’t have much more to say about Cabernet Sauvignon at the moment.  That leaves me just to talk about Maximilian’s Vineyard, though really the discussion needs to start with Maximilian’s as a whole.

Maximilian’s is an establishment in the Adelaide Hills next to a town named Verdun.  It consists of a homestead that was established in 1851, and is surrounded by blocks of vines and paddocks.  The current owner, Maximilian Hruska, purchase all 36 acres of the property in 1974 and opened a restaurant in 1976.  It wasn’t until 1997 that the property produced their first wine, and they have a very limited production of estate wine, which is largely sold directly through their cellar door, located at the same property.

Winemaking is done by Max’s son Paul, who spent six years abroad making wine, in both the New World and the Old, before returning to the Adelaide Hills, where in addition to the family wine, also has a hand in projects with Grant Burge, Scarpantoni and Torbreck.  In addition to their estate Cabernet Sauvignon, they have a line of wines that goes under the label Madhills Wines which includes a Sauvignon Blanc, a Pinot Noir, a Shiraz, and a Pinot Noir Chardonnay sparkler.

In the glass this wine was clear and bright, with a medium plus brick red colour and thick slow legs.  There was certainly some sediment – I should have decanted but it was a last minute choice and it hadn’t been stood up.  The nose was clean, with medium intensity, and a developing character.  It had aromas of red currant, menthol, tobacco, leather, and sweet spice.  The palate was dry, with more red currant, little iodine, cranberry, and some pork/bacon.  It had medium plus acidity, medium minus body, medium alcohol, medium fine tannins, medium plus intensity, medium plus length, with a plum finish.

This is a very good wine, especially given that it is essentially an estate wine for a restaurant.  That’s not to say it’s the house wine – it’s certainly not.  I picked it up last year, and I do love it when you can buy wine that’s been cellared for more than just a year or two, particularly by the producer.  This wine still has fresh fruit, sharp acidity, and some fine tannins, so while I think it’s fully integrated, I expect that it still have room for improvement with more time in bottle.

Lucy Margaux Vineyards Domaine Lucci Pinot Noir 2008

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Domaine Lucci Pinot Noir 2008

Domaine Lucci Pinot Noir 2008

For as much of my brain that is occupied with thoughts of Pinot Noir from the Adelaide Hills, you’d think I’d be writing about one every other post.  Imagine my surprise when I went back and checked to find that I’ve only actually written about one varietal, from Ashton Hills, though to be fair, the Tilbrooke Estate sparkler has a fair whack of Pinot Noir in it as well.  So today the featured wine is the Lucy Margaux Vineyards Domaine Lucci Pinot Noir 2008.

Domaine Lucci is a trio of wines from Lucy Margaux Vineyards, which is run by the winemaker Anton van Klopper along with his wife Sally and daughter Lucy.  They grow Pinot Noir across ten acres in an area of the Adelaide Hills known as Basket Range, and have access to and fruit from a number of other neighbouring vineyards.  The produce a range of wines, including single vineyard Pinot Noirs, an estate Pinot Noir, varietal Merlot and Sangiovese, and a red blend.  That doesn’t really begin to scratch the surface in terms of what this producer is about.

The first thing to know is that Lucy Margaux Vineyards is run according to Biodynamic practices.  I think I made my personal feelings on the topic pretty clear last week when I spoke about the Marchand & Burch Bourgogne, so I needn’t get into that again.  Instead, let’s move onto the second thing to know, and that is that they practice natural winemaking, which deserves some discussion.

Natural wine and winemaking is something of a thing at the moment.  Broadly speaking, it is the belief that there should be as little intervention as possible by the vigneron and winemaker in the process of growing grapes and making wine, and that by not getting in the way, the wine is best able to express its terroir.  As with many high minded philosophies, it has noble intentions.  How it plays out though is where it gets sticky.

A big issue is that there is no standard for what defines “natural” winemaking, or perhaps the opposite is true in that there is no agreed upon standard and many competing ideas.  Common concepts to many definitions include things such as no irrigation, no spraying, no pesticides, no commercial fertilizer, no herbicides, no fungicides, no commercial yeasts, no fining, and no filtering.  Some definitions also include things such as no mechanization in the vineyard, no pumping, and/or no sulphur at bottling.  The fact that different people can mean different things when they call their product “natural” is obviously a problem, but as a modern concept, natural winemaking is relatively young and if it is to move forward, that will be sorted out with time and possibly some standards body.

Unfortunately, “natural” is a terrible term to describe wine.  First off, it is unnecessarily divisive, in that the inverse is “unnatural” – the obvious label that could be applied to anyone who isn’t calling their wine “natural”.

But more than that, it’s not an accurate term.  A vineyard is about as natural as a Christmas tree farm, with perfectly controlled vine density and row spacing.  Furthermore, a vineyard of Vitis vinifera Pinot Noir in the Adelaide Hills is about as natural as a Douglas Fir Christmas tree farm in the Sahara.  Worse still, the practice of cultivating a single variety or clone, over and over, across hundreds, thousands or millions of vines through cuttings (as opposed to planting seeds) is one of the most unnatural things I can imagine.  It would be like cutting off your arm and having it grow into your clone instead of just having a child.  Vines don’t produce grapes for wine – vines produce grapes to carry seeds to make more vines.  It’s a similar story in the winery, where if by some natural process a pile of grapes were to find themselves heaped together in some vessel and underwent fermentation, it would very naturally move from that brief moment when it was wine to something completely undrinkable.  The most perfect butterfly, at the peak of its beauty, is not naturally found contained in a 750ml bottle, or if it is, it doesn’t stay beautiful for long.

So should we only make wine from wild grapes, and drink it right out of the vats when fermentation is finished? No, but then I’m very comfortable with winemaking as an example of humanity bending nature to its will, because that’s exactly what it is.  Calling any wine “natural” is just a lie.

So you might think, therefore, that I hate natural wine, but you’d be wrong.  I hate the term, but I agree that “less is more” with regards to winemaking can be beautiful.  One thing that Stephen Pannell said of winemaking at the tasting earlier this week was “it’s harder to do nothing than to do something” and I think that’s absolutely true.  The temptation always exists to employ the winemaking tricks to make just the wine you want, and for some styles of wine, that’s exactly the right thing to do.  However, if you’re making a high quality wine of a very specific place, the more difficult task of staying out of the way of the wine can be the better thing to do.

So what does any of this have to do with the wines of Lucy Margaux Vineyards?  They in fact are making high quality wine of a very specific place.  They adhere to most of what I described above in terms of natural wine practices, with no irrigation of vines, no applications of chemicals to the soil, vines, or wine, and no fining, filtering (except for their rosé to prevent in-bottle fermentation) or even pumping.  Say what you will as to the impact that any of those practices individually have on the resulting wine, but taken collectively a huge amount of care goes into the process, and I think that absolutely comes through in the wine.

Another thing to know is that Anton van Klopper is one of the members of “a collaborative experiment in natural winemaking” called Natural Selection Theory.  It’s made up of four  innovative winemakers based largely in South Australia.  Together they make what I can only describe as very interesting wines.  Some are fantastic expressions of texture and flavour, while others push the boundaries of what some people would consider drinkable.  But pushing boundaries is what they’re about, and if you want to try something edgy, it’s worth finding their wines and judging for yourself.

After all that, it’s time to actually talk about this wine in the glass.  It has a medium minus garnet colour, and both sediment and cloudiness.  I’ll take the blame for poor decanting as far as the sediment, but the cloudiness is likely because the wine is neither filtered nor fined.  On the nose it is fairly intense, with some signs of development, but much fruitier than I was expecting, with raspberry, some cherry, a bit of peppery funk, and sweet spice.  Overall it’s a very sweet smelling nose.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus acidity, flavour intensity, and alcohol, with a medium body.  The fruit is tending more toward the sour end of the spectrum (and developed in that direction in the glass), with sour cherry and cranberries, but still retaining the raspberry freshness.  There’s also the peppery funk from the nose, along with some dark chocolate.

This is a very good wine.  One complaint some people have with natural wine is that it’s often cloudy, and this one certainly is, but I value aroma and taste far above appearance, so it doesn’t bother me.  I chalk it up to style, not a fault, like volatile acidity in Chateau Musar.  Despite a somewhat light colour, the wine does not lack for concentration on the nose or the palate, nor complexity with fruit, funk and spice.  I recommend this wine without hesitation, just don’t try to tell me it (or any wine) is natural.

Full disclosure – I believe the vigneron/winemaker with whom I’ve worked this past vintage has sold grapes to Lucy Margaux Vineyards and they may be making use of one of his properties next vintage.

Pin in the map is Basket Range, but that’s as specific as I can get.

Thoughts on the Iberian Invasion Tasting

Iberian Invasion Tasting

Iberian Invasion Tasting

I’m very glad I was able to attend the Iberian Invasion tasting with Sommeliers Australia the other day, hosted by Stephen Pannell of S. C. Pannell, and Connect Vines.  Stephen is a master winemaker, and had some very thoughtful things to say about not just the wines, but the state of the wine industry as a whole, and in particular within Australia.  The wines on offer were a good range, and included varieties, regions and styles I had either not tasted, or not tasted enough to consider myself familiar with them.  So on paper, it should have been a winner of a tasting.

Unfortunately, such was not the case for me personally, and it was largely down to execution.  First was the timing.  It was scheduled to start at 5:30 and to run through 7:30, which would have meant 120 minutes for 12 wines, and therefore a leisurely pace of 10 minutes per wine.  However, we started 30 minutes late due to people not managing to turn up on time, and for reasons unknown to me, we rushed through in 60 minutes at a galloping pace of 5 minutes per wine, finishing at 7:00pm.  I know, under show conditions, judges can be expected to go through hundreds of wines in a day, but this was not about judging – this was about understanding and appreciation.

Second, the room was small and a bit cramped, so much so that each taster had a single wine glass.  That meant that when the 5 minutes were up for a given wine, that was it.  Also, it meant that there was no way to compare wines that were clearly chosen to be grouped together, such as the two Shiraz, Grenache blends.  Also, the room was dimly lit, such that I was unable to determine anything as to the appearance of the wines.  Furthermore, it was impossible to take a decent bottle shot, so no gallery of wines this time around.

Finally, I sat near a handful of young winemaking students/winemakers.  Under almost any other set of circumstances that would be an enviable situation, and I the ones I sat near are certainly a nice group of guys.  However, I think their sensory studies have been more focused on discerning faults that are to be avoided in modern winemaking styles than appreciation of wine styles from around the world.  So in the close quarters of the tasting, it was difficult to focus on taking notes amidst the constant complaints about Brettanomyces, oxidative handling, and volatile acidity.

All of that is a bit of a shame, in that it was generous of Stephen Pannell and Connect Vines to host the event and the wines were interesting and carefully selected.  Clearly what I need to do is order a mixed case of all the wines poured and go through them, slowly, one by one, in a quiet, well lit place.

Haute Cabrière Chardonnay Pinot Noir 2009

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Haute Cabrière Chardonnay Pinot Noir 2009

Haute Cabrière Chardonnay Pinot Noir 2009

I’ve visited South Africa twice so far, and while the two trips had very little in common, they were both awesome in their own way.  The more recent was for the World Cup in 2010 and I was based around Johannesburg.  While I did carry home a mixed case and a half of some excellent wines (including the Ross Gower Pinor Noir Brut 2007, as well as this one), I didn’t visit any wineries.  However, on the first trip, my honeymoon in fact, my wife and I had the pleasure of a tour of the producer of this Haute Cabrière Chardonnay Pinot Noir 2009.

I’ve been wanting to write about Haute Cabrière for a while, and have mentioned the producer a few times, either by name as with the Louis Bouillot Crémant de Bourgogne Perle d’Ivoire post, or just by reference as with my Christmas Recap, because it was there that I saw a sabrage demonstration and have been fascinated by the practice ever since.

Haute Cabrière is a producer of still, sparkling, and fortified wines, as well as a potstill brandy.  Established in Franschhoek in 1694 by a Pierre Jourdan, a French Huguenot farmer, it was completely replanted in 1982 in the style of Champagne with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines.  The company is led by Archim von Arnim, who is something of a character.  I remember him very clearly from the tour, when a foreign tourist asked if he could call his sparkling wine Champagne.  He replied “No, but the Champenois can’t call their wine Pierre Jourdan”, implying that he got the better end of the deal.  He personally gave the sabrage demonstration at the end of the tour, which involved picking three volunteers to join him on stage who were, coincidentally, the three prettiest women on the tour.  (Yes, my bride was one of them.)  His personality is as the forefront of the brand, with his name on the front label of the bottle and his poetry on the back.  Since I’ve been there however, Takuan von Arnim seems to be stepping up to his role as heir, if the tasting videos are anything to go by.  I’ve enjoyed their sparkling wines, but today I’m writing about another wine style that they produces that is very interesting.

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, classic grapes of both Burgundy and Champagne, enjoy cool climates and even in the New World are often found planted in close proximity.  However, while it’s not unknown for red and white grapes to be combined in the same wine, particularly in the Rhône, and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir combine to form some of the best sparkling wine of Champagne, they are rarely found together in still wine.  This wine is one of those rarities.

The first reaction among winemakers when I poured it for some last year was “oh, a sparkling base.”  Yes and no.  Yes, in a still, white wine, these two grapes are most typically a blend destined to go through another fermentation.  However, in more important ways this is very much not a sparkling base.  Grapes for sparkling wine are typically picked earlier than grapes for still wine.  That way they will have higher acidity and lower sugar levels, resulting in that particular crispness required of sparkling wines, and can allow for an increase in alcohol and/or sweetness through dossage or a softening through malolactic fermentation and/or extended ageing on lees, depending on the house style.  The resulting sparkling base is often thin and overly tart by the standards of still wine.  That is absolutely not the case for this wine.

But before I talk about this wine in more detail, a word or two about Franschhoek, which I will try desperately not to misspell throughout the course of this post.  It’s one of the oldest towns in South Africa, established in 1688, which makes Pierre Jourdan one of its early settlers.  Its name means French Corner in some flavour of Dutch, and it was essentially an enclave for Huguenots who fled France after their right to practice their religion was revoked in 1685.

I tend to clump Franschhoek together with Paarl and Stellenbosch, as they form a small triangle of wine production, but the official structuring of overlapping wine Geographical Units, Regions, Districts and Wards in South Africa is more than a little complicated.  Franschhoek is officially in the Paarl region, but a popular choice of indicators on the label if nothing more specific is used is Coastal Region, which includes the above, as well as Constantia, Durbanville, Cape Point, Swartland, and Tulbagh.  The climate is Mediterranean, though the intense sunshine is a big factor.  Fortunately, so is proximity to False Bay to the south, and a wind known as the Cape Doctor which clears the air, reducing disease pressure and humidity.  The soil types vary greatly, though decomposed granite is often found on the hillsides with alluvial and sandy plains below.  Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are not the most commonly found varieties in Franschhoek, but the area is home to some soaring hills, and the Haute Cabrière vines are planted at either end of the valley to take advantage of the cooler temperatures afforded by the altitude.

This wine is clear, bright, and a pale lemon/gold colour.  When the glass is swirled, it shows a quick thin film on the inside of the glass that doesn’t turn to legs before it settles back into the wine.  The nose is clean, with medium plus intensity, and a developing character, with notes of butter, lemon, sunflowers, and some oak.  On the palate, this wine is dry, with medium plus acidity, medium plus body, and showing some signs of oak and/or development.  It has medium alcohol levels with medium plus flavour intensity, and flavours of lemon curd, toast, honeycomb.  With 60% Chardonnay and 40% Pinot Noir, I want to say I can taste the Pinot Noir, and so there’s a bit of sour cherry on the finish, but I can’t say if it’s in the glass or in my head.  Also, the notes suggest there may be some residual sugar, though I think with the acidity it came through for me more as palate weight than sweetness.

This is wine of very good quality, though not expensive (roughly $10).  Unfortunately for me, they only ship within South Africa, so I consider it nearly priceless as I have to factor the price of an airline ticket into the cost.  As I mentioned earlier, this is absolutely not a base wine.  It is more full bodied and rounded, with more alcohol and less acid.  As a 2009, it has flavour development that sparkling wine will only get after many more years on lees.  It’s a shame that this wine is nigh impossible to obtain in Australia, as it’s both enjoyable and very affordable.  However, I look forward to having another bottle the next time I’m in a country in which it’s available.

However, there is one issue with this wine which I hope will be addressed soon – do you serve it in a Pinot Noir glass, or a Chardonnay glass?  I’m sure it’s only a matter of time until Riedel comes out with a special glass just for this blend.

 

The Islander Estate Vineyards Majestic Plough 2006

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The Islander Estate Vineyards Majestic Plough 2006

The Islander Estate Vineyards Majestic Plough 2006

Happy Malbec World Day!  I’m a little leery of this as an event, to be honest.  I wrote up a post about a lovely wine for Global Carignan Day and it felt like I was the only one who had turned up at a party.  Then again, to me Carignan is an interesting grape but by no means a favourite.  Malbec, on the other hand, is the first grape variety I sought out by name, so much so that I’ve made a point of visiting both Cahors and Mendoza, two places where it is at home.  Today, it’s a wine from somewhat closer to my home, Kangaroo Island, where a Frenchman is making some very interesting wines.  I give you The Islander Estate Vineyards Majestic Plough 2006.

Malbec is a well travelled grape, having been one of the original red grapes of the Bourdeaux blend, though it’s nearly vanished there.  It is now more at home in the southwest of France, in particular in Cahors, where it’s known as Auxerrois or Côt.  It’s also found in the Loire Valley in France, though when I went looking for it there last July I was told “oh no, you are thinking of Cahors” in most every wine shop I found.  I did manage to find a nice bottle from Touraine where it was also called Côt, despite the person on the desk at the Maison du Vin in Saumur also assuring me there is no Malbec in the Loire.  Sigh.  There are other places in which Malbec is grown within France, but I suspect they would be even more difficult to track down.

Were it not for plantings of Malbec outside of France, the grape might be very obscure indeed.  Fortunately, it’s not only taken root (albeit in limited plantings, generally) around the world, it’s become the national grape of Argentina.  This date for Malbec World Day was chosen to commemorate April 17, 1853 when Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who would later become president of Argentina, submitted a proposal to the Argentine government regarding the future of the national wine industry.  In conjunction with that, the first plantings of Malbec were brought from France to Argentina.

In addition to Mendoza, where it is arguably best known, Malbec is grown throughout Argentina, and in limited amounts across the mountains in Chile.  There are plantings throughout the rest of the New World, both as a component in Bourdeaux-style red wines, and as a varietal, including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the USA.  Within Australia in particular, it has long been found in the Clare Valley and Langhorne Creek, while this example from Kangaroo Island is a relative newcomer to the scene.

A natural question to ask would be why has it largely disappeared from Bordeaux?  As with many regions post-phylloxera, vignerons in Bordeaux took the opportunity to reevaluate their mix of vines as they were replanting, and in most cases decided to replace their Malbec vines with something else.  Malbec, though capable of some lovely wines these days, has a decidedly rustic streak, and in the vineyard has some vulnerabilities that make is less that ideal in Bordeaux.  Thin skinned, it ripens mid-season, but needs more sun and warmth than Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.  It is sensitive to frost, downy mildew and rot.  It can also have poor fruit set, leading to either a complete lack of berries or millerandage, sometimes known as hen and chicken, with small and large berries on the same bunch.

That said, obviously there are reasons that the grape continues to be cultivated.  Under the right care, which can involve very high density plantings and grape sorting tables, Malbec can produce some stunningly good wines.  Care must be taken against over-extraction, but Malbec can give very dark and densely coloured wines, with a rich perfume and plenty of tannins.  It does particularly well in dry areas, particularly at high altitude, notably in Mendoza, where it is the dominant grape.

This is not the first beverage I’ve covered from Kangaroo Island, but given that the other was Kangaroo Island Spirits Wild Gin I should probably speak a bit about the terroir.  It is in fact an island, and kangaroos do live there, so it gets points for living up to its name.  It is the third largest island of Australia, with Tasmania being the largest and Melville Island being second.  (Mainland Australia itself isn’t much thought of as an island by those who live here, but I leave continental discussions to C.G.P. Grey.)  It’s off the coast of South Australia in the eastern part of the Great Australian Bight, about two hours by car and an hour by ferry from Adelaide.

Kangaroo Island is somewhat unique within Australia, in that it’s a cool, maritime climate.  Having only been there in winter, I can personally attest to the cool, wet winters, and the broody atmosphere that made the warmth of the Southern Ocean Lodge so appealing.  (Coincidentally that is where I first tried The Islander Estate Vineyards wines.)  Summers are cooler and winters slightly warmer than the other, nearby wine regions.  While there are convenient hills to allow vines to catch more sun, the island as a whole is not blessed with any great altitude and as such the sea breezes are felt throughout.  No point on the island is more than 30km from the sea, and many vines are planted within sight of it.  The soil is sandy with a limestone base and very little water retention, which means irrigation is typically required.

There have been numerous attempts to cultivate vines on the island over the past hundred years, and a minor trade was established in 1990 with grape growing, but it wasn’t until Jacques Lurton arrived that Kangaroo Island was really put on the map in terms of wine.  (It was literally put on the map in 2000, the wine map that is, with the entire island being declared an official wine region.)  Yes, things have come full circle, and having written about Australians making wine in France, Australians making wine in Austria, and Australians teaming up with Canadians to make wine in France and Australia, finally I’m writing about a Frenchman who has come to Australia to make wine.

Jacques Lurton was famous well before he set up shop on Kangaroo Island with his winery, The Islander Estate Vineyards.  He worked his first vintage in Australia in Griffith, New South Wales in 1984 with McWilliams, but achieved his success and fame in Europe.  He manages a vineyard in Bordeaux, but also produces wine in the Loire under his own name and has acted as a consultant for at least two wineries in Spain.  He arrived on Kangaroo Island in 1997 with an aim to start a winery and in 2000 he planted 11 HA of vines on a 300 HA property in roughly the middle of the island. His plantings include Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, Shiraz, Grenache, Viognier, Semillon, and of course this Malbec.  He built a modern winery from scratch, importing most of the equipment from France.  Most of his Islander wines are blends, but he does a Cabernet Franc called The Investigator (with a dash of Sangiovese so small he doesn’t need to declare it on the front label), as well as this Malbec, The Majestic Plough.

This wine is a deep purple colour, opaque at the core, only showing that it’s not actually black at the rim.  It has very slow legs when swirled.  On the nose it is perfumed, with plums, blackberries, and both sweet and savoury spices.  It’s clean, with signs of development and medium plus aroma intensity.  The palate is dry, with more blackberries, some blueberries, and leather.  It’s very concentrated, with medium plus acidity, medium plus fine grained tannins, medium body, medium plus flavour intensity, and medium plus alcohol.  It has a medium plus length and a pomegranate finish.

This is a very good quality wine.  It’s not what I would call classically big, with the acidity keeping the fruit in check, and not overly extracted.  The fruit is more Cahors than Mendoza, and certainly far from the Malbec grown in Langhorne Creek.  It’s actually a bit tight, despite being six years old, and I expect it will improve with a few more years in bottle.

Big day yesterday…

While I was getting ready for the Iberian tasting yesterday, I noticed there were more people reading the site than usual, that is, more than just me.  In particular, there seems to have been a bit of traffic looking at my write up of the Marchand & Burch French Collection Bourgogne Pinot Noir 2009 by way of Facebook.  Alas, no one left any comments, so I’m dying to know if it was posted by a big fan of M&B, someone who wants my head on a pike because I dared to say what I really think about Biodynamic practices, or just someone who wanted to direct their friends to some top notch online content?  I really want to know if I need to watch my back for horn wielding cultists.  Thanks.