‘Australian wine’ is a misleading term used too frequently in the wine trade, grouping together regions and producers that are vast distances apart in more ways than simple geography. We never talk about ‘European Wine’, yet Clonakilla, near Canberra, lies some 2,400 miles east of Cullen, in Margaret River. To put that in context, Reims in Champagne is just 1,000 miles from Jerez in Spain.
Together with the enormous geographical distances that separate the wine producing regions of Australia, they also claim some of the oldest soils and vines, and have wines at every point on the style spectrum.
In May, some of the sales team were lucky enough to make the journey ‘down under’ to experience all that the Australian wine world has to offer. We visited five states and territories in nine days, leaving tired but excited about all we had seen.
There is no doubt that Australian wine is in the best shape it’s ever been. We were lucky enough to be fully immersed in it during our trip and I implore you to do the same on 11th September at our Australian Portfolio Tasting.
- Tim Fordham, Head of Sales, London
Our journey began in South Australia, where we spent the day with Jeff Grosset and Stephanie Toole in the Clare Valley, tasting through their range and driving through the vineyards, with Jeff giving us a potted history of the region. Riesling is king here, and the standout wines might come as no surprise; Grosset’s Polish Hill and Mount Horrocks’ Cordon Cut.
We then headed to the Barossa Valley, where much of Australia’s wine history has been formed. We visited two true legends of the region, John Duval and Charles Melton. They have both spent their entire adult lives making some of the finest wines from this region and built good relationships with growers who allow them access to Shiraz and Grenache from 100-year old pre-phylloxera vines.
Nine Popes continues to be a standard-bearing GSM from Barossa, but it was Charlie’s Shiraz, co-fermented with a little Riesling from the same vineyard in the Eden Valley, that stole the show. John Duval treated us to tastings of the “first ever and current” vintages of his top wines, showing that these wines would reward anyone with the will power to cellar them. One to watch out for, which will be arriving this summer, is the Annexus Mataro. A stunning expression of a variety used primarily for blending in these parts.
Peter Lehmann completed our Barossa journey. People still talk of the late winemaker as “the man who saved the Barossa” when he started his own company. With young head winemaker, Tim Dolan, in charge they are in great hands and the latest vintages of Stonewell Shiraz and Wigan Riesling are up there with the best.
Another stop in South Australia followed at Shaw + Smith, where the immaculate and innovative nature of their winery and cellar door came as no surprise, neither did their pioneering work in the vineyards. They remain one of the most forward-thinking wineries I have come across, always looking to improve the quality in everything they do. The current vintages of their iconic M3 Chardonnay and their Northern Rhône-esque Shiraz are the best I have tasted to date. We were lucky enough to taste the Tolpuddle range here, as we didn’t have time to make the journey to Tasmania. Tasting the first vintage, made in 2012, alongside the 2016s, left us in no doubt that these will be seen as some of the finest Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Australia before too long.
We made the short journey to McLaren Vale, where we were treated to verticals from Dandelion who pride themselves on their old vineyards and age-worthy wines that don’t break the bank. Mitolo, made by Ben Glaetzer, showed us wines that really show off the dense, almost chocolatey black fruit that the McLaren Vale is best known for and with wines like the Jester Cabernet Sauvignon, there can be few wines out there that deliver this level of “bang for buck”.
Another highlight was our time with the team at Willunga 100. Winemakers Tim James and Mike Farmilo, have decades of experience from their time at Hardy’s, Seaview and others to speak of. Visiting the vineyards that they draw fruit from for The Hundred wines in Blewitt Springs and Clarendon Hills was unforgettable. The gnarled bush vines of 70-90 years were strong and healthy and are producing wines of such contrasting style that I would encourage everyone to list both alongside each other.
Steve Pannell laid out his manifesto for Australian wine in a tasting among the barrels at the winery he rents a space in, which was enlightening to all of us. We hope that he will be able to visit us in the UK in September so that more people can tap into the winemaking brain that every other producer we saw on our trip mentioned as one of the industry leaders. When visiting his Koomilya vineyard, which he describes as “his special place”, a kangaroo jumped through the vines during sunset, as we tried the Shiraz he makes from it. A moment as special as the wines are.
In Victoria, attention turned to the Burgundian varieties of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. First stop was William Downie, who is making tiny quantities of single vineyard Pinot Noirs in Gippsland and lives a self-sustainable life on his smallholding. The wines are very ‘hands off’ in terms of winemaking but reflect so well the landscape of Gippsland, the cool region where the rolling green hills would not be out of place in Scotland.
In stark contrast was By Farr, in Geelong. Here, Gary and Nick Farr have used all their experience gained in dozens of vintages at Domaine Dujac to recreate a Burgundian model in Geelong, where their vineyards stand out like an oasis in the desert. Three distinct soil types in a small area produce three of the most powerful and impressive Pinots I have ever tasted, with the ‘Tout Pres’ somehow managing to balance 100% whole bunch pressed grapes and 100% new oak. These are wines that stand up to the very best Burgundy has to offer.
We arrived in the Yarra Valley where Steve Flamsteed and Phil Sexton, of Giant Steps, gave us a masterclass in single vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The wines are classic in so many ways, again showcasing cool-climate sites so well and using both whole bunches and oak in a most considered way. Steve Flamsteed is a fascinating winemaker to listen to and he is always experimenting; the use of ceramic eggs being his latest. Soon to arrive in the UK is their ‘LDR’ - Light Dry Red. This blend of Pinot Noir and Shiraz won us all over and we agreed to add it to the list on the spot. It will be perfect for summer drinking.
Over the road, Innocent Bystander showed us that they continue to make excellent quality wines at affordable prices and their Pink Moscato remains one of the ‘most fun’ wines in our portfolio. After a comprehensive tour of Victorian Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, we were treated to a unique tasting of Rutherglen Muscats from Morris and Chambers. These are truly some of the greatest sweet wines, not just of Australia but the world, and I would implore people to look at them when the weather starts to cool, and we enter the festive season.
We could not visit Australia without visiting Tim Kirk at Clonakilla, so a day trip to Canberra followed. Tasting from barrel with Tim Kirk was to see a master at work, a self-taught winemaker who feels like he was born in the cellar. When we left the cellar, we were met with five vintage verticals of all of his wines in what was one of the best tastings I have ever been a part of. The Riesling, Viognier, Hilltops Shiraz and the iconic Shiraz/Viognier showed why these wines are such valued collectables in Australia and they should be treasured. It was worth every hour it took to get there and back.
Last but not least, we took the long plane journey to Perth in Western Australia. Plantagenet showed us the versatility found in the Great Southern, where distinct microclimates allow them to make a full spectrum of varietal wines. Their Riesling remains excellent value for money and cellars very well too; the 2006 we were shown was testament to this.
A 4-hour bus journey from Perth lies the Margaret River, one of the most idyllic wine regions. It is hard to believe that the first vines were only planted here in 1971, so entrenched does the area seem in wine culture. Cullen was our first stop, one of the “founding fathers” of the region, where their now old vines and dedication to biodynamic principles were clear for all to see. The Kevin John Chardonnay and Diana Madeline Cabernet blend are two of Australia’s finest wines, and to drink them in situ with Vanya Cullen showed them in their best light. Production, and therefore allocations of these wines are tiny, but the name Cullen is a must on any serious Australian wine selection.
A fitting end to our adventure came at LAS Vino, where Nic Peterkin is doing exciting, if sometimes controversial, things that are really shaking up the wine scene in Margaret River and the Australian wine industry as a whole. He is a great example of one of the new faces in a country where they push boundaries like no other. His wines are minimal intervention and often different in style, but always clean due to the lessons he has learned from his famous winemaking family at Cullen and Pierro.