I attended an interesting wine dinner the other night where each person attending brought a bottle of wine they considered to be weird (in a good way) – be it the grape(s), the region, or winemaking. I brought a Tannat blend from Uruguay that I picked up the last time I was there, others brought unusual wines from Greece, France, and a large collection of alternative varietals from Australia. This wine would have fit right in, because it’s certainly not ordinary. Our wine for this post is the Bannockburn Geelong Sauvignon Blanc 2011.
Geelong is an Australian wine region I have not yet visited, but it’s fairly familiar. If you’re in Melbourne and head southeast you can end up on the Mornington Peninsula. However, if you head southwest you’re on your way to Geelong. Vines were first planted in the area in the early 19th century by Swiss settlers, and at one point it was the largest wine region in Victoria. However, viticulture largely vanished for decades after the arrival of phylloxera. It wasn’t until 1966 that vines returned, and today the region has more than 60 producers, most operating on small scale, benefiting from their proximity to Melbourne.
The climate is cool and dry, with maritime climates being the norm in coastal areas moderated by proximity to Port Phillip Bay, the large natural harbour south of Melbourne, but shifting to continental more inland. Elevations also rise from the coast to heights of 400m. Sea breezes keep disease pressure low, and what rain falls is typically in winter and spring. The soil is largely clay, with red-brown loam over a hard base being the norm, though supplemented with areas of black clay with a cracked surface. There are also patches of limestone, sand, shale and gravel. A wide range of varieties are planted, with Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling being the most common whites while Pinot Noir and Shiraz are the most common reds.
Bannockburn Vineyards was set up in 1974 by Stuart Hooper with the intention of producing quality wine to rival Burgundy. All their wines are produced from fruit they grow across 27HA. They describe their soils as “black brown volcanic loam to dense clay sitting on a limestone base” which again reinforces my belief that I will never find a general description of soils of a region that matches the soils as described by an specific producer. It’s almost enough to make we want to give up reporting region soils. Vines are dry grown, which when combined with low fertility in the soil and high winds, means small yields.
While Burgundy was the original inspiration, and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are at the heart of their range, they also have plantings of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and the Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling that went into this wine. They produce a range of ten or so wines, including four single vineyard varietals at the top of their range, a red blend and a Saignée style rosé.
Sauvignon Blanc is not a new variety to this blog, and in fact I had a couple of them last month from Sancerre and Marlborough. However, while the front label proclaims Sauvignon Blanc in big letters, the back label notes that there is a 10% contribution from Riesling in the bottle, which starts to put us in somewhat uncharted territory. From there, it decreases in familiarity.
Some wines are all about the vineyard, and indeed it’s a commonly expressed sentiment among winemakers that the wine is made there instead of the winery. I say commonly expressed because that’s what consumers like to hear, but much more happens in the winery than most consumers want (or really need) to know. Of course it varies from producer to producer, but everything from the skin contact, the duration and temperature of fermentation, oak treatment, malolactic fermentation, and many, many other options at the disposal of the winemaker have an impact on the final wine. Some winemakers prefer to do as little of the above as possible, and “non-interventionist” winemaking is something of a buzzword, but for some wines it’s appropriate to employ any range of techniques to produce the wine you want to make.
So as I mentioned, the first thing that makes this a bit different is the portion of Riesling. It’s less than 15% so I don’t think it even needs to be declared on the label. While Sauvignon Blanc is often part of a blend, it’s typically paired with Semillon and possibly Muscadelle in the manner of white Bordeaux blends. There are actually another six white grapes permitted in the dry white wines of Bordeaux, but Riesling is not among them, and in fact Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc are not even commonly planted in the same regions within Europe.
The fermentation is interesting as well, in that it’s done in barrel using wild yeasts. That in itself isn’t particularly unusual – barrel fermentation for Chardonnay is quite common, and some of the Sauvignon Blancs of Sancerre and Pouilly Fume have levels of oak treatment. However, in addition to the 1/4 new French oak, some of the fermentation is done in Italian Acacia puncheons. I had to double check what a puncheon is, and I’m not sure if the term is being used generically for a barrel, or if they mean specifically the traditional English measure of 318.2 litres versus the 475 litres advertised by a cooperage in Australia . In either case, Italian Acacia isn’t something I’d come across before. Also, a fraction (1/3 for this vintage) of the ferments are done with skin contact, something more typical of red wine making. Finally, after the fermentation is complete, the wine is kept on lees for ten months, which is a technique we’ve encountered before both with Champagne and Muscadet Sèvre-et-Maine Sur Lie.
So while all of the things I’ve described are commonly employed techniques in winemaking (with the possible exception of Italian Acacia puncheons), the fact that they’re all being used on a Sauvignon Blanc is what I find intriguing. When I wrote about the Astrolabe Sauvignon Blanc last month, it was a good example of the most popular expression of the variety. This wine heads in a completely different, and largely unique direction, which is great if you have a sense of adventure when it comes to trying wine. However, if you want a Kiwi style Sauvignon Blanc you are best off looking elsewhere.
In the glass this wine is clear and bright, with pale lemon colour and slow thick legs when swirled. On the nose it’s clean and developing, with low flavour intensity. There really wasn’t much on the nose to start, but I did eventually pick up some citrus, spice, and a hint of cloves. On the palate it’s dry, with medium acidity, medium plus body, medium alcohol, and medium plus intensity, with notes of asparagus, bell pepper, and grapefruit. It had a medium plus length and a peppery finish.
I thought this was a good wine, and would have put it in the very good category except for the nose being a bit restrained. In terms of notes on the palate, it was certainly a varietally typical Sauvignon Blanc, but it was so much more in terms of mouth feel. The body and intensity on the palate were lovely and the resulting wine was at least as big as a moderately oaked Chardonnay. I don’t often look to Sauvignon Blanc when I’m after a robust white, but this one certainly fits the bill.