Olssens Bass Hill Vineyard Carmenère 2006

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Olssens Bass Hill Vineyard Carmenère 2006

Olssens Bass Hill Vineyard Carmenère 2006

I had a run through my backlog of bottles, that is things I’ve drunk but haven’t written up, and I have quite a few wines from Australia, France and Canada to sort.  So in an effort to clear the queue, this week will be exclusively wines of Australia, and next week I’ll tackle the French.  I’ll start with this Olssens Bass Hill Vineyard Carmenère 2006.

I wrote a bit about Carmenère with the Viña Casa Silva Microterroir back in July, but now that I have my copy of Wine Grapes I think it’s worthwhile to dig out a new fact for each variety even if I’ve covered the grape before.  The book makes excellent use of pedigree charts for grapes, and the Cabernet Sauvignon chart is a case in point.  For Carmenère it shows that one parent is Cabernet Franc, and the other is Gros Cabernet, a grape which is no longer cultivated.  What makes that interesting is that Cabernet Franc is a grandparent of Gros Cabernet, meaning that Carmenère has Cabernet Franc as a parent and as a great-grandparent.  Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot also have Cabernet Franc as a parent, which goes some way to explaining how the varieties can be confused with one another.

This is a wine of the Clare Valley, which I described when I wrote up the a Pikes Riesling back in February.  While I certainly like the wines of Clare, it’s that bit further out from Adelaide such that I don’t get to visit very often and as a result I expect I’m missing out on some interesting wines.  There are plantings of Barbera and Zibibbo which would advance my quest for a century of varietal wines, to say nothing of the Assyrtiko vines that Jim Barry put in a couple of years ago.

Olssens of Watervale has some interesting plantings, though some of them are more to do with trying something old than trying something new.  Founded by Kevin and Helen Olssen in 1986, it is one of very few wineries to produce a red Bordeaux style blend out of the six originally permitted grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenère.  Other wines produced include Riesling, Semillon, and Shiraz, as well as red blends.  This bottling of the 2006 vintage is quite possibly the first commercial release of a varietal Australian Carmenère, though there are now at least a half dozen producers with plantings.  Unfortunately it’s not clear if there will be another Carmenère from Olssens or indeed any other wines.  At present, the Watervale property is listed for sale, and while I’m tempted, I don’t think I’m quite ready to make the move.

In the glass, this wine is dark ruby, with the most narrow of rims and quick dark legs.  On the nose it’s clean and developing, with medium intensity and notes of blueberries, chocolate, cherries, and a slight hint of raisins.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium grippy tannins, medium body, medium alcohol, medium plus intensity, and notes very similar to the noses – blueberries, chocolate, and cherries, with some coffee and a touch of prunes.  It has a mocha finish and a medium plus length.

This is a solid good, in fact almost a very good.  It lets me down slightly in terms of complexity, in that the nose tells you the whole story, and I would have expected the development over six years to have given more than just a bit of chocolate and coffee.  But that said, there’s nothing out of place, and it has good varietal typicity as far as the cherries and chocolate go.  I attribute the blueberries to the cooler climate of Clare.

AP Birks Wendouree Cellars Shiraz Malbec 2006

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AP Birks Wendouree Cellars Shiraz Malbec 2006

AP Birks Wendouree Cellars Shiraz Malbec 2006

As I’ve returned to Australia, I really need to get back in the swing of things, and today that means a local hero.  This wine is more than a little bit special, and not just because it’s an interesting blend.  If you don’t live in Australia, it could be one of the best producers you’ve never heard of.  I give you the AP Birks Wendouree Cellars Shiraz Malbec 2006.

When I arrived in Australia I quickly became acquainted with the names and labels of the top producers, and managed to visit the cellar doors of some of them, particularly in South Australia.  I came across Wendouree as a name well represented on the Langton’s Classification and on auction sites, but as they have no website or cellar door I couldn’t find out a great deal.

As it turns out, they were to be my first encounter with a mailing list winery, which is just what you would think – a producer who sells wine (almost?) exclusively to a set list of customers through the post.  It’s quite an enviable situation, where customers are essentially beating a path to your door, and you might think that would make the wines impossible to source.

For better or worse, that’s not so much the case.  While some customers on the list buy their allotted bottles and cellar them away, the fact that demand outstrips supply tempts others to sell theirs, often through auction sites.  One way or another they turn up in some of the nicer bottle shops and every now and again on a wine list.  The “better” part of that is that people who aren’t on the list are able to enjoy the wines, but “worse” is that the prices the wines can command on the secondary market can be multiples of the prices charged by Wendouree.  So almost any time such a bottle finds its way into the hands of someone not on the mailing list, there’s someone other than the producer pocketing a hefty markup.  While I’ve been fortunate enough to buy some wines direct, I’ve also purchased some second hand.  The money I paid was not unreasonable for the wine in question, but it was disappointing knowing so little of it went to the producer.

The term “cult” is often associated with fans of Wendouree, by the likes of Oz Clark, Jamie Goode, and even Langton’s.  Being a fan, I have an obvious bias, but I don’t think it’s apt for two reasons.  First, I associate cults with a disconnection from logic, where people who are part of them believe themselves to have some insight that those outside do not.  While not everyone is a fan of Wendouree for whatever reason, I know of few detractors when it comes to the wines themselves.  Second, people who join cults typically have to give up all their money, but the wines of Wendouree are not overly expensive for their quality, particularly if you are on the mailing list.

If you want the classic cult wine, you need look no further than the archetype, Screaming Eagle, which has no end of detractors (based on the hype, obviously not on the wine as so few have ever tried it) and is completely unaffordable on top of being largely unavailable.  The disconnect from reality is evident in that they think of themselves as “a grand cru – a Napa first growth.”  A tragic case drinking too much of their own Kool-Aid.  Jancis Robinson recently tweeted, “Must say I find French wine names outside France really silly.”  I think that goes double for French wine classifications.

So what makes Wendouree so special?  The winery is a hundred years old, and some of the grapes are off vines planted as far back as 1892.  Even with their younger vines, yields are kept very low, and the winery produces only about 1800 cases per year.  Everything is harvested by hand, often across multiple passes.  The winery itself makes use of open top fermenters, carefully controlled malolactic fermentation in tank, and a mix of new and used French oak.  Wines are made for ageing – a few years back they released a 1991 varietal Malbec in magnums some 18 years after vintage (and yes, I managed to bag one).  As I write this, there is a 1975 Wendouree Cabernet Malbec Shiraz up for auction with Langtons which I would love to try.

If there’s one aspect, beyond the mailing list, that might make people want to put Wendouree in the category of a cult wine, it’s the somewhat shy nature of the people behind it.  Tony and Lita Brady have owned the property since 1974, but their focus has been on the vines and wines.  As far as I can tell, they do no promotion, they enter their wines in no shows, and they do not comment publicly about their wines.  Only rarely do wine writers grace their office, and then the focus seems as much on technique for producing the best cup of coffee as bottle of wine.  There are no tasting notes, and in the case of this bottle, no back label.  (In fact this bottle doesn’t even have an ABV printed – is that legal?  I wasn’t looking closely enough – the ABV is there in very, very fine print.)  Their wines speak for themselves, and in a world that knows no end of self-promotion, I find that refreshing.  More a cloister than a cult.

I hope I can be forgiven for not having much more to say about the Clare Valley, having been there as recently as July with the ArtWine Graciano.  As to these grapes, they are well known to this blog both as varietals and as components in blends, but this is the first time we’ve seen them together.  In France, no region springs to mind as being known for growing both, though as some Syrah used to make its way into Bordeaux blends from time to time (pre-AC regulations), they’ve certainly been found in the same bottle before.  I’m somewhat surprised I haven’t yet come across Syrah Malbec blends in South America because there are a few producers blending them there as well.

As to this wine, in the glass it is clear and bright, dark ruby colour, just starting to edge toward brick red, with quick coloured legs.  On the nose I get sweet spice, roses, perfume, blackberries, and caramelized meat that’s just about to be charred.  It’s developing and intense.  On the palate it’s dry with medium plus acidity, medium body, medium plus alcohol, medium plus intensity, medium plus fine tannins, and a long finish.  There are notes of red meat on the palate, black pepper, liquorice, blackberries, and a little charcoal.

This wine is exceptional.  It’s rich, intense, and complex.  I’m almost certainly enjoying it too young, and at the expense of further development over the next few years.

As I mentioned, there’s no link to the producer’s website because there isn’t one, and there is no cellar door so don’t go knocking on doors near the pin in the map on Wendouree Road without an invitation.

ArtWine Graciano 2010

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ArtWine Graciano 2010

ArtWine Graciano 2010

I’m just about over the winter lurgy for this year, and pleased to be drinking interesting wines again.  This is one of those wines that I found without looking, an alternative varietal wine from a familiar place, the ArtWine Graciano 2010.

Graciano is largely unfamiliar to me, though a quick look at the Grapes page will show that this is not the first time this grape has turned up in my glass.  Rather, it was part of the blend of grapes that made up the Muga Reserva Rioja, and was once widely grown in that region.

A red grape, it buds late and is prone to downy mildew, which combined with low yields, may have been contributing factors to it’s decline (until just recently) in Northern Spain.  It is grown in small quantities throughout southern Europe under a variety of synonyms including Tinta Miúda in Portugal, Tintilla de Rota in Jerez, and Bovale Sadro in Sardinia.  In Languedoc-Roussillon it is known as Morrastel, which is slightly tricky because the Spanish use that term for the grape which is also known in Spain as Monastrell and in France as Mourvèdre.  Apparently it is called Xeres in California where there are some plantings, and Graciana in Argentina which has some vines in Mendoza.

Beyond issues of mildew, yields and confusing synonyms, this is a variety that has had a recent upswing in plantings as modern viticulture finds ways to deal with the first two issues (and DNA profiling has a handle on the third).  It’s a desirable variety for its deep colour, perfume, tannins and young acidity, and some producers within Rioja and Navarra have been using it not only in their blends but also as varietal wines.

This is the first Graciano I’ve seen bottled in Australia, though Vinodiversity lists almost 30 producers with plantings, including some who have been featured here with other alternatives varieties such as 919 Wines, Pertaringa, and Yangarra Estate.

This is not my first wine from the Clare Valley, and in fact it’s the third I’ve written up properly, with the very typical Pikes Riesling being the first and the bit of fun pink sparkler from Jim Barry being the second, so for a bit more detail about the region, check out those posts.  A quick recap though for those who don’t want to click – it’s an area 120km north of Adelaide known for Riesling and cooler climate styles of red wine.  It’s kept cool by altitude and proximity to the coast, and while not as much of a wine powerhouse as the neighbouring Barossa Valley, it certainly has a reputation for excellent wines, many from long established family businesses.

ArtWine is something a bit different.  Glen Kelly, with a background in management, bought a Clare vineyard in 2002 and supplemented the existing plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Cabernet Franc and Riseling with new plantings of Tempranillo, Pinot Gris, Viognier, and Graciano.  He then partnered with Judy Valon, with a background in marketing, and together they founded their brand in 2007, expanded into a second vineyard, and began producing their own wine in 2008.  They also hired in Joanne Irvine, who is from a winemaking family, and who has experience with alternative varieties both in Australia and abroad.  They’ve expanded further with a vineyard in the Adelaide Hills planted with Pinot Noir and Merlot, and they’re looking to open a cellar door at that location.  The company goal is to focus on alternative varieties and lighter styles of wine, presumably in contrast to the big wines for which much of Australia is known.  Wines they currently produce include varietal Riesling, Fiano, Pinot Grigio, Viognier, Tempranillo and this Graciano, as well as a Tempranillo / Graciano / Grenache blend.

In the glass, this wine is clear and bright, a medium ruby colour with quick, thick, and coloured legs.  On the nose it’s clean, youthful, with plenty of perfume, and plum notes.  It has a high intensity of violets and blueberries.  On the palate, it’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium minus tannins, medium plus alcohol, medium body, and medium length.  There are notes of somewhat tart blueberries, a little sweet spice, and some red fruit as well but not as much.

I’m rating this wine as good.  It certainly is very intense, but in an odd way in that it’s fruit driven, but very tart, cool climate fruit.  This is the first varietal Graciano I’ve tried so I can’t really score it on typicity, and while it’s young and fresh, I can’t really say if it would get better with time or if it is at its best now.  Still, an interesting wine and I look forward to trying some other varietal Gracianos so I have a better idea as to how to judge this one.

Pin in the map is an address I found for their office in Adelaide, but as I mentioned their vineyards are in the Clare Valley and Adelaide Hills.

Jim Barry The Nancy 2006

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Jim Barry The Nancy 2006

Jim Barry The Nancy 2006

We had a party a few weeks back and ended up with a bunch of bottles brought by friends, including a decent Riesling and a very nice Fiano.  We also ended up with a few bottles of sparkling wine.  Sparkling wine around our house is a bit tricky, in that we only tend to open it on special occasions.  So right now we have three bottles of bubbles waiting for such an occasion, but rather than just letting them accumulate we decided that opening a bottle of sparkling wine can be it’s own occasion, which brings us to Jim Barry The Nancy 2006.

First off, I have to say that this is not a wine I would have been likely to buy on my own.  The combination of the colour, the clear bottle, the crown cap, and the absence of any information about the wine on the labels is typically aimed at a different target market.  That said, not only was there nothing wrong with this wine, but in fact it was quite nice.  Unfortunately, I don’t know that I’m going to have as much to say about the region, grapes and company as I would ordinarily prefer, but I still think this is worth describing.

Jim Barry Wines is a family run business, one of the foremost wine companies in the Clare Valley, where the eponymous founder has a historic role in the modernization of the region.  Like so many prominent figures in Australian wine, he studied at Roseworthy, and was the 17th qualified winemaker to graduate, and the first to work in the Clare Valley in 1946.  He worked in Clare, first with the Clarevale Co-operative (where he met Nancy, who went on to become his wife shortly thereafter and whose name graces this bottle), and then with Taylors, while also building up a set of his own vineyard holdings which now exceed 200 hectares.  He passed away in 2004 but the business is carried on through his family, in particularly Peter James Barry and Nancy.  With holdings throughout Clare, they have produce at least 15 different wines, primarily based on Riesling, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz, with some Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Malbec, and this Pinot Noir thrown into the mix.  Their flagship wine is “The Armagh”, a Shiraz that is among the most sought after in Australia according to Langton’s who put it in their “Outstanding” category.

I’ve talked a bit about the Clare Valley, and rather than further discuss soils and climate, here’s a fun fact.  The Clare Valley was settled largely by the Irish, and there is an area named Armagh, after Armagh of County Armagh in what is now Northern Ireland.  (Clare itself is another county in the Republic of Ireland.)  The Jim Barry flagship is named in honor of the Irish settlers of 1849.  This is in marked contrast to the Barossa Valley, geographically close, but with prominent German roots.  It might have been easier to keep straight if they had swapped, and the Germany has settled the area in which great Riesling is grown, but nevermind.  If you’re in South Australia and want to know which area, find a church.  If it’s Catholic, you’re in the Clare Valley.  If it’s Lutheran, you’re in the Barossa Valley.  If it’s been converted into a nightclub, you’re in Adelaide.

As far as grapes go, this is a straight Pinot Noir sparkling rosé.  At some point, I’ll talk about the different ways to make rosé, probably the next time I cover a pink sparkler because they have their own special rules, but this is not a wine about which we need to think too technically.

This wine is all about the drinking.  I know that sounds a bit naff, but this was made by Peter James Barry for his mother Nancy, not as a stunning technical achievement, but as something he thought she would enjoy drinking with her friends as they played their weekly card games.  The notes are not about how the wine was made, but about Nancy herself.

In the glass, it is just as you see it through the bottle – pretty.  I put it somewhere between pink and salmon, while the official tasting notes call it salmon pink.  Fair enough.  It has big, fast moving bubbles.  On the nose it’s quite delicate – patisserie, a little biscuit (but not big, serious Champagne biscuit), and some strawberries.  On the palate, it is more lemon and green apple, with the strawberries playing a much smaller role.  There’s a hint of sweetness – not a sweet style, but just a hint.  The acidity is good – mild for a sparkler, but more than you would typically get from a non-sparkling rosé.  Crisp is how I could describe it.

This is not the most serious sparkling wine you’re likely to encounter this year, but that’s obvious even before the crown cap is off.  But I think this wine is a success in that it hits the mark brilliantly in terms of being a light, refreshing sparkling wine that’s very easy to drink.  It’s completely unpretentious.  The bubbles suggest that it was not made in a strict traditional method, as does the price, but I wouldn’t hold that against it.  While I enjoy drinking serious, indeed sometimes challenging sparkling wines, this one was very good at the less serious end of the spectrum.  And if my mother were after a glass of bubbles, I think she’d enjoy this much more than a wine I’d normally buy.

Pikes Clare Valley Riesling 2000

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Pikes Clare Valley Riesling 2000

Pikes Clare Valley Riesling 2000

In the manner of one in a 12 step program, I’m making the rounds of admitting my past failings and trying to make amends.  This week, it’s Riesling, that noble grape so ignobly ignored by this blog over the last few months.  If I were clever, it would be a German Riesling, and then I could make peace with a country that I’ve so far neglected, but alas not tonight.

So tonight it’s the Pikes Clare Valley Riesling 2000.  We hosted a party this past weekend and while I tried my best to pour non-stop throughout, somehow we ended up with a surplus of three bottles of Riesling, this being the oldest of them.  Funnily enough, I took three bottles out of the cellar last week for a special tasting sometime soon, so before dinner this evening I had a half case of Riesling chilling in the fridge, something I don’t think has ever in my life been the case.

This is a good wine for this column, in that it ticks a lot of boxes.  First, it’s from Clare, which is an area I like.  Also in Australia the Clare Valley and Riesling are like the Hunter Valley and Semillon, or the Barossa Valley and Shiraz.  Second, Pikes is a well known and well respected winery, which balances out my penchant for wanting to write about Georgian Saperavi.  Finally, this is an older bottle, and Riesling is a grape that can age as well as any white, and typically more than most reds.

So I’ll start with the grape, Riesling.  As a wine professional, I have an obligation to claim Riesling is my favourite white when anyone asks (though it’s possible to get away with Grüner Veltliner).  However, to be honest, since no one is reading, it’s not my favourite.  I much prefer a well made Chardonnay or a Rhone white, but in the industry everyone must profess their love of Riesling, and mention that it’s without a doubt going to replace Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay or Pinot Gris/Grigio (whichever is most popular) next summer.

As long as I’ve been interested in wine (which is not as long as most, I’m sure), Riesling has not been the most fashionable white.  It’s certainly noble, and people have been making excellent wine from it forever, but it was in fashion at some point in the recent past before I was in the trade, and it’s not been back since.  Fashion is fickle, and it will likely be back at some point, but for now you can observe that the most prized bottle of Australian Riesling, Grosset’s Polish Hill, will set you back approximately $40, while a similarly prized bottle of Shiraz will likely be in excess of ten times that amount.  Yes, the cost structures for reds versus whites are very different, but still, it’s silly.  However, it does mean that if you aren’t a dedicated follower of fashion, you can get some seriously high quality wine for a good price.

So fashion aside, Riesling is an interesting grape.  It’s typically thin skinned, and produces highly acidic, aromatic white wine.  It’s international, and not just with a single home in the Old World and some colonization in the New.  It’s grown widely in Germany, France, Austria, and Switzerland, as well as throughout the New World.  It does best in cooler climates, and has a preference for slate and sandy clay soils.  It is thought that the wine made from Riesling grapes has a particular ability to express the soil in which the grapes were grown, and as such is typically made into wine with very little exposure to air or oak that would change its character.  Wine made from Riesling grapes can range from bone dry to late harvest, to botrytized, and to even sweeter still ice wine.  Sparkling wine is also made from it.  For a white, it has an almost unmatched capacity to age, going from a zingy fruity young wine to an older wine with distinct petrol or kerosene aromas.

Clare is a wine region about 120km north of Adelaide, and is best known for Riesling.  It is a series of valleys in an elevated pocket of land.  Long warm days and cool nights during the growing season are the norm, with cold winters and little rainfall.  Soils are varied, with both red topsoil over limestone and slate being found in different parcels.  Other areas range from alluvial ground to sandy loams with degraded quartz.  Several producers bottle Rieslings under the names of smaller subregions as the nature of the grape and winemaking allows the differences in the soils to show through.  While Riesling is the grape for which the region is best known, the cool climate and altitude also produces Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Semillon.  A mailing-list-only boutique winery, Wendouree, is best known for their reds, and I’m a particular fan of the Malbec they produce as a varietal a few times a decade it seems.

Pikes is a family winery that has roots in South Australia going back to 1878, which is fairly far back for Australia.  The name was first known for brewing beer, and a beer of their name is still made, though I’m not certain that the family has an stake in that business.  The current wine company dates to 1984 when it was established in the Clare Valley.  It is best know for Riesling, though they have a range of about a dozen or so other wines, both red and white.  They produce both this Riesling and a Reserve called “The Merle”.

This wine is a medium gold in colour – nearly 12 years in bottle will do that.  The nose has some lovely kerosene notes, along with some bruised apple and lime.  The palate is zesty, but not quite zingy, if that makes sense.  It has a strongly citrus flavour profile.  Lime is the foremost flavour, with some lemon and a bit of orange blossom along for the ride.  However, despite the citric flavours, it’s not as acidic as they would lead me to expect.  It has a good length and is holding up pretty well, but I don’t think it’s going to improve.  A decent Riesling, but not great, which after twelve years would be a bit of a disappointment.    For me, however, it is a gift I received and then consumed within 48 hours so I enjoyed it.