Honeytree Estate Hunter Valley Clairette 2012

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Honeytree Estate Hunter Valley Clairette 2012

Honeytree Estate Hunter Valley Clairette 2012

It used to be that I would keep my eyes open for interesting varieties, and be pleased when I happened to come across them.  Recently though, I’ve moved to the next level and I’m actively seeking them out.  Here is one I put on my list of wines I’d like for my birthday, the Honeytree Estate Hunter Valley Clairette 2012.

So Clairette.  The name, which can mean pale, clear or bright, is thought to originate with the light hairs found on the shoots and the undersides of mature leaves, rather than with the pale colour of the grapes.  It is vigorous, even in poor soil, and grows unusually straight and strong vines, which do not require stakes even in areas of strong winds.  It ripens late and can produce high levels of alcohol, though sometimes at the expense of acidity.

It is at home in southern France, and gives its name to three appellations there:  Clairette de Bellegarde, Clairette du Languedoc, and Clairette de Die.  The first two are still, varietal wines while Clairette de Die is sparkling and typically a blend dominated by Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains.  The same region produces Cremant de Die which is 100% Clairette.  It’s also commonly found in regional Vin de Pays of southern France, and can be a component of a number of Southern Rhone wines, including  Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  As evidenced by this wine of Australia, it’s planted outside of France, with notable concentrations also found in Italy, Russia, South Africa and even Lebanon.

Even though this is the first pin in the region on the map, this is not the first wine we’ve encountered from the Hunter Valley.  Unfortunately for cartographic accuracy, the Will Taylor Hunter Valley Semillon from last year ended up pinned in Adelaide where their offices are located, but the description of the region from that post is still viable.  As I mentioned in that post, while the region is identified with Semillon, there are a wide range of varieties planted, including Chambourcin which is on my list to try.

Honeytree Estate is a small producer in the Hunter Valley region.  It was planted in 1970 and now owned by Robyn and Henk Strengers.  Henk is originally from the Netherlands, and despite their boutique levels of production, some wine is exported there.  Their holdings consist of 23 acres of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Semillon as well as this Clairette.  Plantings of Traminer were grafted over to Clairette after the very successful 1998 vintage.  They’ve also produced something called Vindouce, and while the half bottle size, tasting note of luscious and low alcohol level suggest it is a dessert wine, I can’t find any firm details, though there is mention of ice wine on their Facebook page.

As to this wine, in the glass it is clear and bright, with a pale, pale lemon green colour.  I use “pale lemon green” quite a bit as these days it’s the industry standard white wine colour, but really, this wine is borderline water white.  It shows very small legs when swirled.  On the nose it’s clean and youthful, with medium plus intensity and bright notes of tropical fruit – passion fruit and rock melon – as well as grapefruit, some lime, and a little vanilla.

On the palate it’s dry, though there’s enough fruit that I had to taste it a few times to decided if there was any residual sugar.  I don’t think there is.  It has medium plus acidity, medium minus body, medium plus flavour intensity, medium minus alcohol, and a medium length with a clean finish.  The palate matches the nose, with the grapefruit notes being somewhat more pronounced, but still with the tropical fruit – melon and passionfruit – as well as a hint of coconut.

This is a good wine – well made, youthful, and while it’s nearly all fruit, all the flavours are crisp and distinct.  While I hate myself for saying so because it’s such a cliché, it’s a perfect summer quaffer.  There is nothing present in the glass that doesn’t please.  If you’re looking for a serious wine with layers of complexity and great ageing potential, this is unlikely to satisfy, but if you want something to drink while the sun is shining, you can do much worse.

This is my first varietal Clairette, and my first Australian Clairette, so clearly I am not an expert on the topic, particularly when it comes to tasting.  However, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say for the record that my first thought when I tasted it was that it was uncannily similar to a South Australian Colombard that I’ve recently enjoyed.  So while Wine Grapes doesn’t list any connection between Colombard and Clairette, it does make me wonder if it’s possible that some Colombard vines in South Australia are actually Clairette, or if some Clairette vines in the Hunter Valley might actually be Colombard.

Robert Oatley Vineyards Montrose Omaggio Barbera 2006

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Robert Oatley Vineyards Montrose Omaggio Barbera 2006

Robert Oatley Vineyards Montrose Omaggio Barbera 2006

I started this week with A for Arneis, and now midway through it’s B for Barbera.  We also get a chance to look at region we haven’t seen before, Mudgee in New South Wales.  Our wine for today is the Robert Oatley Vineyards Montrose Omaggio Barbera 2006.

Barbera is a red grape of northwest Italy.  It’s often found in areas with plantings of Nebbiolo and Dolcetto, sitting comfortably between the two in terms of the esteem with which it is generally regarded.  It is the primary grape (at least 85%) of Barbera d’Asti DOCG, Barbera del Monferrato DOC, and Barbera d’Alba DOC, and has been historically been a blending partner for Nebbiolo, but has also been turned into some very cheap wines as well.  In addition to Italy, there has been some migration of the grape east into Slovenia, Greece and Romania, but it has been more widely planted in California and Argentina.  Within Australia, where the vine arrived in the 1960s, Vinodiversity.com lists almost 100 producers working with the grape.  While in many of those cases it is still regarded as experimental, that number is likely to increase.

One reason is that Barbera does well in dry climates and low fertility soils, both of which are in great supply within Australia.  Also, it is highly productive and capable of very large yields, though strict pruning to prevent overcropping is generally required for quality wines. The vines are susceptible to a number of vineyard diseases, though modern clonal selection has mitigated that to some extent, and plantings in warm, dry areas suffer less from disease pressure.  The grape is prone to high acidity and good colour, but low tannins.

Traditionally the grapes were picked after Dolcetto but before Nebbiolo, to produce a drink-now style without maturation.  However, there has been a recent, but not universal, trend toward lower yields, later harvesting for higher sugar and more fruit, and time in oak barriques.  This push in the direction of higher quality Barbera wines has met with some success, but there is some difficulty in overcoming consumer associations of the grape with cheaper wines.

Mudgee is an area of New South Wales, northwest of Sydney and roughly 200km from the coast.  While the Hunter Valley is a neighbouring region on a map, Mudgee is on the opposite side of the Great Dividing Range, and has a different climate.  The altitude of 450m combines with a great deal of sunshine for warm to hot days during the growing season but cool nights.  Rain is generally confined to spring and summer, with little during ripening or harvest.  While generally thought of as a warm region, the Nullo Mountain vineyard recorded the coldest ripening period in Australia this past vintage between December 2011 and February 2012, based on degree days.  There is “ice wine” made in Mudgee, but by “non-traditional methods”.  I’m fairly certain that means they stick the grapes in a freezer before pressing them, which seems like a bit of a cheat to me.  The region is described as a nest in the hills, and there are mild slopes throughout.  The soils vary, though sandy loam over clay is common.  Water retention is an issue, and irrigation is the rule rather than the exception.

Vines were first planted in the region in 1858 at Craigmoor (which is now part of Robert Oatley Vineyards) and the region has one of, if not the, longest uninterrupted histories of viticulture in Australia.  It is best known for its red wines, though it has also historically been a home to Chardonnay, including a well regarded clone that was unknown to the rest of the country for at least 40 years, and is thought by some to go back to the original set of cuttings brought to Australia in 1832.

Robert Oatley Vineyards is run by the eponymous founder, who built the business in conjunction with interests as diverse as cattle stations and luxury tourism.  His first vintages were with Rosemount Estate in the Hunter Valley in the 1970s, and now his company produces wine from vineyards in both New South Wales and Western Australia.  The company now offers a collection of ranges, largely varietal, of Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc (also in a Semillon blend), Pinot Grigio, Traminer, Cabernet Sauvignon (also in a Merlot blend), Shiraz (also in a Viognier blend), Tempranillo, Sangiovese, and this Barbera.  They also release a Shiraz from South Australia and Pinot Noirs from Victoria.  The wines are widely available on the export market, particularly within the USA.

Montrose Vineyard itself was planted in 1972 on red clay-loam at an altitude of 500-550 metres, largely with Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, though also with some Sangiovese and this Barbera.  Grapes for this wine were picked at 14.0 degrees baumé which is at higher end of the ripeness spectrum for Barbera.  It saw a year in older French hogshead before bottling.

In the glass this wine is clear and bright, with a very deep garnet colour – opaque to the rim, and even then just deep brick – with thick legs when swirled.  On the nose it’s clean and fragrant, with a developing character and spicy black fruit – blackberries and black cherries – with some sweet spice and liquorice.  On the palate it’s dry, with medium plus acidity, medium body, medium plus alcohol, medium plus tannins, and medium plus intensity.  There’s more black fruit, a hint of blueberry, liquorice, sour plum, and a bit of jam, along with some cedar wood notes.  It has a medium length, with a chocolate finish.

I tasted this wine consecutively over two days (the note is an amalgamation) and I liked it much better on the second day after some air.  I’m happy to call this wine good, but I would suggests decanting and some time for it to breathe.  It had a fair amount of complexity of fruit, but the secondary characters have yet to fully present themselves so perhaps some further improvement is in store.

Chalmers Vermentino 2010

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Chalmers Vermentino 2010

Chalmers Vermentino 2010

Another cheeky glass of wine at lunch is what’s inspired this post, and I am grateful that the little restaurant around the corner keeps its “by the glass” wine list fresh and interesting.  Over the last week or two we’ve already had five or so fun varietals produced in Australia, but when I saw the Chalmers Vermentino 2010 on the list, I had to give it a try.

So first, Chalmers themselves.  Founded in 1989 as a vine nursery, this family-run company has developed a unique understanding of the value of quality control vines.  In conjunction with viticulturalists in Italy, they’ve brought scores of new varieties and new clones from Europe to Australia, giving Australian viticulturalists and winemakers a much broader range of choices when it comes to plantings.

In addition, they are one of the forces behind the Sangiovese Awards, which has now become the Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show, a hugely important showcase for lesser known grapes.  Though the nursery was sold in 2008, the Chalmers family has turned to producing wine from some of they very varieties they championed.  With a focus squarely on Italian grapes, they make varietal wines from Fiano, Sagrantino (red and rosato), Lagrein and Aglianico (as well as this Vermentino).

While they’re based in Victoria, they operate several vineyards and this wine in particular is GI Murray Darling NSW, which is the next state to the north.  The Murray Darling region is defined by the two rivers that make up its name, and is broadly warm continental in climate, with little rain and irrigation providing moisture to the vines.  Bulk wine is the destination of much of the produce of the region, though there are a few producers of quality wine.

Vermentino is a white, late ripening, Italian grape, most commonly associated with Sardinia, but also grown Liguria.  It’s found in France as well, on Corsica, and possibly in Provence under the name Rolle, though not all ampelographers are convinced Vermentino and Rolle are actually the same grape.  It has had decent penetration within Australia, with roughly 50 producers making varietals or blends.

This wine is a medium lemon colour in the glass, a bit fuller than the ISO white wine shade, with lemon and grapefruit on the nose.  There’s a little blossom on the nose as well, and minerality to back it up.  On the palate it’s very tart, which did make me ask at one point if that’s how it is supposed to taste.  Really tart.  But there were also bits of sunflower and lime flavours that were very pleasant.  The body was light and crisp, and while the finish was short, it was clean and fresh.  This is a good wine for salty and/or spicy foods.  I enjoyed it and would recommend it for someone wanting something tart.  While not hugely complex, and with dominating acidity, it’s not for everyone, but it could be just the thing paired with strongly spicy food.

Will Taylor Hunter Valley Semillon 2004

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Will Taylor Hunter Valley Semillon 2004

Will Taylor Hunter Valley Semillon 2004

I spent the day going through thirteen exams worth of feedback from the examiners, and it was telling.  It was good in that there are certain consistent elements that examiners require for a given region or wine style, being climate, weather, soil, viticulture, vinification, and grape variety for the former, and colour, ripeness, structure, acid, tannin and alcohol for the latter.  Seeing year after year of people struggling to pass their exams, the reports show clearly that what they want is not rocket science, but many students approach the exams without having spent much time looking at the past feedback.

However, it does make me wonder a bit about the system in general.  The pass rate for exams is not brilliant – somewhere in the 50% range, which varies greatly from question to question.  While I think the WSET is obviously trying to maintain a very high standard in keeping exams difficult, they’re not as good at keeping up the other half of the equation in providing students with the education they need in order to pass the exam.  It’s all well and good to craft challenging exams, and there is a perverse pride as a student in being able to say that you’ve succeeded where many others have failed, but it does seem strange to sign up for a course where the instructors are only able to effectively convey the expectations and the material to half their students.

So while the reading today was equal parts informative and depressing, I did have a drop to console myself this evening.  It’s the Will Taylor Hunter Valley Semillon 2004.  I don’t know very much about Will Taylor, but his website suggest someone who neither grows grapes nor makes wine, but rather is putting together a portfolio of wines based on excellent vineyards and excellent winemakers, which seems like a nice thing to do if you have a huge pile of money.  (Yes, I’m jealous.)

Just a few words about the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, Australia – it is an iconic Australia wine region, and Semillon is the grape with which it is most commonly associated (though Chardonnay is more widely planted and they grow many others as well).  It’s due north of Sydney, though a bit further in from the coast as the coastline moves somewhat to the northeast.  It’s one of the oldest areas of Australia growing grapes for wine, approaching its bicentennial in the next decade or two depending on which start date you pick.  The climate is generally classed as Mediterranean, but it’s one of the warmer Australian regions, and wetter picking up maritime influences from the Pacific as well as cooling breezes and rain.  The soil is volcanic basalt.  Semillon is widely planted, usually on different rootstock due to phylloxera presence.  Some irrigation is used in drier parts of the region.  Mechanization is common, as with much of Australia, but other viticultural practices can very as it is unregulated.

This Semillon is fairly typical for a number of reasons.  First off, it exhibits high acid with is common to Hunter Valley Semillon but less typical of Semillon grown elsewhere, particularly Bordeaux.  On the palate there is a bit of lemon, but more honey, toast, and lanolin.  Finally, this is a seven year old wine and still showing nicely.  While some Australian fine wine is certainly capable of ageing, most is readily drunk young.  Hunter Valley Semillon is one of the few Australian wines that is readily appreciated with more bottle age as in this case.

Appearance

Bright and clear, medium-minus gold, with a thick film that only slowly turns to legs.

Nose

Clean with medium-plus intensity and developing.  Notes of lanolin, honey, toast and lemon.

Palate

Dry, high acidity, medium-minus alcohol, and a medium-plus body and medium-plus flavour intensity.  The palate matched the nose with lanolin, honey, toast, and a bit of quince and lemon.  The length is medium-plus with a slightly sour finish.

Conclusion

This is a very good wine.  The alcohol was low relative to the other characteristics, but the body more than made up for it as far as balance.  The high acid drove the intensity, but the flavours at medium-plus kept up.  I would only slightly fault the wine for a lack of complexity, in that it is almost cliche Hunter Valley Semillon in it’s flavour profile.  It shows both varietal and regional typicity.  Hunter Valley Semillon, while iconic, is not the flavour of the month, and this wine is available from the producer for $22.50.

Readiness to drink – showing well but has potential for further ageing or perhaps five years.  I would expect the honey to become more pronounced though I would not expect the acid to soften at all.

A note on the map – Will Hunter is based near Adelaide, in South Australia, whereas this wine is from the Hunter Valley in New South Wales.  That puts the pin in the map in the wrong place with respect to this wine, but the correct place with regards to the producer.  If I had an accurate address for the vineyard in the Hunter from which the grapes were sourced, I might use that, but I’d rather have a specific address for the main office than a much less accurate pin vaguely in the right region.