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Wine

Who makes my wine?

Walk the aisles of your local Dan Murphy’s or First Choice store and you won’t find a wine labelled “Dan Murphy’s Select” or “First Choice Home Brand”. But lurking on those shelves are more than 100 brands owned by the supermarket chains with no disclosure on the label. In an age in which we are more interested than ever in the origins of our products, how can we distinguish a small family estate from a supermarket brand?

The growth in supermarket “Buyer’s Own Brand” wines in Australia has been substantial, estimated to have mushroomed from five percent a decade ago to between 16 and 25 percent of the market today. The wine industry is concerned that this growing category of major retailers could mislead consumers.

In February 2016, a Senate Inquiry report into the Australian Wine Industry put forward a proposal from the Winemaker’s Federation of Australia (WFA) “that the Government amend labelling requirements so wine labels must declare whether wine is produced by an entity owned or controlled by a major retailer.”

“What we would like to see is that home brands are identified so consumers can make their choice,” WFA Chief Executive Paul Evans told the Inquiry. The enquiry’s report is not binding, but the government is expected to respond within six months. It can choose to accept or reject the recommendations.

Not so simple

The question of whether it should be the government’s place to legislate on this issue has been widely debated, but even if it is, the dilemma of how it could be defined and regulated is perhaps more pertinent.

Buyer’s Own Brand wines have a fully valid and important place in the market, and the major retail chains own perfectly legitimate wineries under which some of their labels are branded. Some retailers’ own brands are even made by small, private estates. Further, many high profile winemakers, including Giaconda, Clonakilla, Oakridge and St Hallett, make exclusive labels for particular retailers under the winemaker’s own brands. Such relationships are of value for all levels of the wine industry.

And if retailers are required to declare brand ownership, what of companies like Treasury Wine Estates, Accolade Wines and Pernod Ricard, who together own many more brands and a much greater market share than the supermarket groups? And, for that matter, what of the hundreds of private little “virtual” wine brands who own no vineyards, buy fruit and have it contract made in someone else’s facility?

The big issue behind this discussion is the market dominance of Woolworths (who owns BWS, Dan Murphy’s, Cellarmasters and Langton’s) and Wesfarmers (Liquorland, First Choice and Vintage Cellars) and the increasing presence of Metcash (Cellarbrations, IGA Liquor and Bottle-O), Costco, and ALDI stores in the wine market. It is estimated that Woolworths and Wesfarmers together share just under 60 percent of the domestic wine retail market, with some estimates putting this at 70 percent.

There is a bigger picture at play here, of which wine is just one small category. Controversy surrounds the supermarket duopoly and its increasing dominance across many categories. Legislative change for wine would not only be fraught with complications surrounding definitions and implementation, but such a precedent would have enormous ramifications for groceries, fuel, hardware, office supplies, insurance, etc.

HOW TO FIND WHO MAKES YOUR WINE

Without a mandate for transparency in labelling, what hope do you have of knowing who made your wine? This was the question that perplexed Murrumbateman winemaker Sarah Collingwood, who responded by creating “Who makes my wine”, a website listing all the brands owned by Woolworths and Wesfarmers.

When Sarah ultimately discontinued her site, wine writer Huon Hooke offered to host it. Some 280 brands are listed at therealreview.com, more than 100 of which are currently listed in Woolworths and Wesfarmers stores.

The Senate Inquiry into supermarket own brands has perhaps raised more questions than it has answered, and there is much for the wine industry to consider regarding achieving greater transparency in wine labelling.

THE DEBATE RAGES

“At the core of this debate is the accusation that Coles, Woolies and other retailers with ‘own brands’ have no investment in the wine industry, but are opportunists who buy ready-made wine and put their own label on it,” says Huon Hooke. “Of course, there are many so-called wine producers that do the same thing: they own no vineyards nor wineries, but act like negociants,” 

Larry Lockshin, Professor of Wine Marketing and Head of the School of Marketing, University of South Australia, agrees.

“There is no doubt that Buyer’s Own Brands, however they are labelled, take shelf space from branded wineries. But Buyer’s Own Brands are also made from Australian grapes, by Australian winemakers, in Australian facilities. Small growers have sold their wines (and later their grapes) to larger entities for hundreds of years. These entities: negociants, shippers, wholesalers and retailers have always created wine brands. The difference is that none of these historically has had the market power that a few retail companies in Australia currently enjoy.”

The issue of transparency is very different in the UK, James Tilbrook of Tilbrook Estate explains, “In the UK, supermarkets proudly display their brand and what the wine is called, e.g. Sainsbury’s Champagne. If it is good enough for them, why do Aussie supermarkets want to hide behind fake brands?”

Winemaker John Cassegrain also feels strongly about being honest with wine-lovers.

“The expectation from consumers is that they are buying hand-crafted wine from a vineyard estate, but the labelling of ‘home brands’ by the supermarkets is, in effect, cheating. They are not hand-crafted wines, in actual fact, they are manufactured wines, so to me it reeks of misrepresentation.”

“I think wine consumers need to understand what they are buying and where these are made,” agrees Leigh Dryden of Decante This. “There are so many ‘own brands’ out there it has become increasingly hard to tell the authentic from the bogus. Retailers, makers and distributors have nothing to fear of the truth.”

Even more vehement about the issue is Mornington Peninsula winemaker, Garry Crittenden.

“Speaking as someone with first hand experience of the way the major supermarkets treat their relations with wine suppliers, I can honestly say it beggars belief that, in the face of continuing opprobrium, they still treat the industry and their customers with an indifference bordering on contempt. But maybe it’s not so surprising when it’s simply part of the embedded culture surrounding supplier relations,” says Garry.

“Is it asking too much of them that they disclose a particular house wine is just that and the brand is owned by them? I can only hope that in his 2nd term as head of ACCC Mr Sims can dismantle some of the disingenuousness we see from these people.”

However, Hunter Valley winemaker Andrew Leembruggen,  believes the producers need to act themselves.

“I think wine businesses should adopt a labelling code of practice that has words or statements producers could use like ‘estate made and bottled’ or ‘estate made’.”

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Wine
Pretty in Pink
Words by Mark Hughes on 12 Aug 2015
Moscato is in fashion these days. Bottles of the stuff are flying off the shelves at cellar doors around the country. It is easy to understand why. Refreshing, spritzy and sweet, Moscato is a favourite among the Gen Y set, where it is seen as the ideal ‘entry wine’ for those young drinkers who are just beginning to walk the refined path into the wonderful world of vino after weening themselves off those sickly alcopops, or who grew up drinking juices or soft drinks. Here is the reason. Moscato is generally low in alcohol, at around 5-6%, so it is easy to enjoy without getting too tipsy, it has a divinely sweet musk aroma and it is versatile. Serve it chilled as the perfect wine to sip on a steamy summer afternoon, or as an aperitif to lunch, or enjoy it with your meal as a cool match with a fruit salad or dessert – lychees and ice-cream with a Moscato D’Asti anyone? Another reason is the fact Moscato is cheap! Most bottles of the stuff are in the $12–$20 range, so it fits the budget, especially of young fashion conscious ladies who have forked out most of their hard-earned on a designer dress with matching accessories, handbag and shoes. Add to that the fact that Moscato is in fashion. It is the ultimate ‘drink accessory’ if you will, the fashionable tipple to be seen drinking. Rap stars like Kanye West sing about ‘sipping on Moscato’, this in turn has created an unprecedented demand for the wine in the United States and set off a Moscato-planting frenzy in Californian vineyards. So with all these factors going for it, you can understand why every winemaker and his dog is jumping on the Moscato bandwagon – the result of such action is mixed. Because when that happens, you get a range of the good, the great and the downright ugly. So what separates a good Moscato from a bad one? To answer that, you have to know what qualities you should be looking for in Moscato. Simple question, but quite tricky to answer. History of the grape Before we delve into what qualities to look for in a Moscato, it is worthwhile learning a bit about the heart of Moscato – humble Muscat grape, yep, the same grape that makes many Fortified wines! Muscat is one of (if not the) oldest grape varieties in the world. The name Muscat is believed to been derived from the Latin Muscus, and relates to the perfumed aroma of musk (originally sourced from the male musk deer). An interesting fact is Muscat is one of the only grapes whose aroma on the vine matches that in the glass. It is thought that the Muscat grape originated in Greece or the Middle East and was transported to Italy and France during Roman times. It consequently spread all over the world including Europe, Africa and the Americas. It made its way to Australia as part of Busby’s collection in 1832, but it has been noted that other cuttings have since come from other sources including Italy and South Africa. Accordingly, with so much history and being so widely dispersed, the Muscat grape has undergone many mutations and these days there are over 200 different varieties, which is an amazing amount and exponentially more than any other grape varietal. This diversity is an important factor in this story, because it accounts for the subtle differences in Moscato wine made in different countries and regions. Some of the most common types of Muscat grape are: Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (also called Moscato Bianco or Muscat de Frontignan or Frontignac), Muscat Rouge à Petits Grains, Muscat of Alexandria (also known as Muscatel, Gordo Blanco or Muscat Gordo), Moscato Giallo, Orange Muscat and Moscato Rosa. The Italian Asti Traditionally, the home of Moscato is in Asti in Italy’s Piedmont region where it has been made since the early 13th century. Like most things back in that time, the wine style developed due to a natural phenomena occurring in the region. Winemakers would pick the grapes in late autumn and start fermentation, but this process was halted as temperatures dropped as the seasons moved toward winter. This resulted in a wine that was sweet, low in alcohol and lightly carbonated. They would bottle it and keep it cold to keep the fermentation process from resuming, otherwise bottles would explode when fermentation resumed. The region has since developed two styles of Moscato, Asti Spumante (simply referred to as Asti) a sweet sparkling wine and a Moscato D’Asti, a sweet semi-sparkling wine, which is lightly carbonated naturally – the Italian term being frizzante. With such history, the Moscatos of Asti were one of the first to have Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), rules and regulations governing the making of the wines. These rules stipulate that winemakers in the region must make Moscato from the Moscato Bianco varietal and vineyards must be on sunny hilltops or slopes whose soil is either calcareous or marly (calcareous clays). There are also regulations about sugar levels of the grapes. Asti must have sugar levels sufficient to produce 9% alcohol, Moscato D’Asti 10% alcohol. Of course the wines never achieve those levels of total alcohol content because the winemaker chills the wine to interrupt fermentation process. Exploding bottles have been eliminated as winemakers now stop any further fermentation by filtering the wine to remove the yeasts. Moscato in Australia In contrast to Piedmont, it has been virtually open slather producing Moscato in Australia. Winemakers were able to make it from any type of Muscat grape. While we have some Moscato Bianco (Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains) as they do in Italy, many producers use Muscat of Alexandria (Gordo Blanco), which is also used in Australia to make table grapes and even raisins, we use Brown Muscat or Muscat Giallo and some winemakers are adding a dash of other varietals in an attempt to create an interesting twist on the wine. Crittenden Estate winemaker Rollo Crittenden reveals that they use a blend of three varietals for their Moscato. “It is predominantly Muscat of Alexandria and Muscat Bianco, but there is a dash of Gewürztraminer (about 10%) which gives the wine added lift and aromatics,” Rollo says. “We are certainly very proud of it and feel that it closely resembles a true Moscato from the Asti region in Italy.” Gary Reed, chief winemaker at Petersons in the Hunter Valley , and special guest for this State or Play tasting, reveals they source the grapes for their Moscatos from the Granite Belt. “We tend to use the Muscatel (Muscat of Alexandria) grape,” says Gary. “We soak overnight and freeze it after fermentation and keep knocking it back.” According to Gary there is nowhere for the winemaker to hide in making Moscato, it is all about fruit from the vineyard. “Any imbalance is really accentuated,” he says. “A good Moscato should have that long length, good balance and acidity. It should not have any coarseness or hardness and should not be cloying on the palate. “There can be a rainbow of colours, anything from light straw through to dark pinks, even reds. The aroma is generally musky, but it can be a bit dusty as well, with a range of sweetness from slightly dry to fully sweet and from still, to frizzante to bubbly – and all are valid examples of the variety.” The rush Consumer demand for Moscato has a rush to get it on the market. “Ten years ago there were only a couple around, but it has really emerged in the last four years,” says Gary. “We are doing upwards of 40 tonnes of it – I can’t think of another varietal that has gone from zero to 40 tonnes in four years.” This has resulted in vary types of Moscato and varying levels of quality. While some producers have been able to source Muscat grapes from established areas, a lot of Moscato is being made from very young, immature vines. But because there isn’t the same level of scrutiny as there would be for something like a Pinot Noir or Chardonnay , producers have been able to get away with putting out sub-standard Moscato without the market knowing any better. That being said, there are some producers who are taking the time and effort to produce quality Moscato in this country and those sourcing from older vines, and predominantly using the Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains or the Muscat Rouge à Petits Grains are rising to the top. Producers like T’Gallant and Innocent Bystander source their grapes from 30-year-old Muscat Rouge à Petits Grains vines in the Swan Hill region, while Gary said his wine is made from established vineyards in the Granite Belt, originally planted for use as table grapes. “The older vine material gives you a richness and intensity of flavour,’ says Gary. “Really fruity and quite intense.” The Future With Moscato being made as a style in Australia rather than the reflection of the Muscat grape, the industry’s governing body, Wine Australia, has stepped in recently and set some rules and regulations for making Moscato. From the next vintage, Moscato can only be made using any of 13 different Muscat grapes. The list is headed by Muscat à Petits Grains (Blanc and Rouge) and Muscat of Alexandria, but also includes Gewürztraminer, which falls under the banner of Muscat grape as a close cousin and is sometimes called Traminer Musque. Overall, this ruling should result in some consistency and quality control in Australian Moscato. Quality Moscato will also eventuate from recently planted vines getting some age and maturity and via winemakers working out what blend of Muscat grape (and possibly Gewürz) works best for their region. Sure, our Moscato may never be as refined and delicate as their Italian cousins, but they will always be an easy to drink, aromatic wine with low alcohol, and a good introduction for younger people wanting to develop their wine palate. I guess then it only depends on what is in fashion – after all, the rap stars of the next generation could sing about sipping on a ‘Chardy’! Check out Wine Selectors great range of Moscato today.
Wine
Whites of delight
Words by Mark Hughes on 6 Aug 2015
Ahhh summer. There aren’t many things better than kicking back on a warm sunny afternoon and enjoying a chilled glass of white wine. More often than not that wine will be a Classic Dry White. For those of you who don’t know, this is actually a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon (SBS or more commonly, SSB). Did that surprise you? After all, it is the most popular white blend in the country and it has been for ages. Yep. Years, and I am talking decades, before Sauv Blanc cast its spell on us, we were downing this crisp, refreshing white by the bucket load. We still do and probably will long into the future. What really got me thinking is the reason why it is so popular. I mean, we produce world class Semillon in Australia, but (shamefully) we hardly drink it. We also deliver pretty good Sauv Blanc, but for some reason most of us prefer to buy it from across the ditch. Blend these two varieties together, however, and its like Harry Potter has grown up to become a winemaker and put a spell on all the bottles of SSB to make them insanely appealing to the drinking public. Bubble bubble, little toil, no trouble Technically speaking, I can understand why you would blend these two varieties. You take the lazy grassy aromas and tropical flavour of Sauvignon Blanc and smarten it up with the structure and mouthfeel of Semillon. It’s like an overweight teenager with nice skin making use of a season pass to the gym. Conversely, and this is perhaps a reason given by those who can’t take to the super zingy freshness of young Semillon, it softens the acidic nature of Sem and endows it with a subtle fruit-punch appeal. Value-wise, it is also very appealing. Most SSBs on the market are somewhere between $15 and $25. And while it is not the first choice match for most dishes, it goes pretty well with a range foods, especially summery fare such as seafood, salads and mezze plates. Add all that up, and SSBs seem like a pretty handsome proposition. Must be those hours in the gym! A bit of history While Australia has taken SSBs to its vinous heart since the 1980s, this classic white blend has actually been produced for donkeys in the south-west of France, namely Bordeaux and Bergerac. More often than not it is as the crisp, dry white that we are familiar with, but the French also blend Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc to make the sweet dessert wine, Sauternes. Western Australia’s Margaret River virtually owns the Classic Dry White category in this country, which again, is a bit strange seeing the region isn’t really noted for producing either Semillon or Sauvignon Blanc in their own right. But, as you probably know by now, when talking about wine in this country, two plus two doesn’t always equal four. So what gives here? Well, two things (or more if you adhere to my mathematics from above). The Margaret River region was the first to really latch onto the SSB blend. It became popular at cellar door and other producers in the region saw it as their ‘bread and butter’ wine, and jumped on board. When the region started selling their wine to the rest of the country, Margs had already established a reputation for producing refreshing and attractively priced Classic Dry White. They have been running with it ever since. But as we found out in this tasting, there are other regions starting to cotton on. The magic of Margaret The second reason is best answered by Kim Horton, senior winemaker at Willow Bridge Estate in Margaret River. “You would think that by looking at the Semillons from the eastern seaboard, that as a variety it would be the least likely to sit with Sauvignon Blanc in a blend,” levels Kim. “However the weather conditions in Western Australia’s south allow clean and longer ripening of Semillon. The Semillon aromatics are very herbaceous and grassy, but also, depending on the climate, quite lemon dominant or veering towards watermelon and guava. In short, what one variety lacks, the other can assist.” The Tasting and the results For this State of Play tasting we looked at SSBs from across the country. Naturally, the majority of the wines entered were from the Margaret River region, and they dominated the Top 30, with 19 wines. Five of the other top scorers were from other Western Australian regions, namely Great Southern and Frankland River. Of these WA wines, most have Sauvignon Blanc as the dominant partner in the blend. An interesting observation from this tasting was the subtle use of oak which brings a bit of structure to the mid-palate, particularly of the Sauv Blanc dominant wines. This added complexity broadens SSB’s food matching abilities and shows the blend has an exciting future away from its ‘simplistic’ label. The most surprising result was that two of the three top scoring wines were not from WA! The Drayton’s 2013 Semillon Sauvignon Blanc was top of the pops, wowing the judges with its savoury nose and fantastic mouthfeel. While the Grosset 2015 Semillon Sauvignon Blanc earned its spot on the podium with its thrillingly elegant purity and ripe fruit characters. The most notable feature of these wines, as with most of the other standouts from the eastern seaboard, was the fact that the Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc were sourced from different regions. For instance, for the Grosset, the Sem was Clare Valley , the Sauv Blanc from the Adelaide Hills . “For me, the perfect SSB blend must be from two regions,” says Clare Valley winemaker Jeffrey Grosset. “Semillon from a mild climate with plenty of sunshine to achieve a generous citrus and structured palate, and Sauvignon Blanc from a cooler climate, such as the Adelaide Hills, where it can achieve tropical gooseberry-like flavours. To produce a blend from one region alone is unlikely to achieve the depth of flavour and balance.” The sentiment is shared by Edgar Vales, winemaker at Drayton’s, who sees a real future for SSB in the Hunter. “There is a synergy that exists between the two varieties,” says Edgar. “Particularly with Hunter Sem blended with Sauv Blanc from cooler regions such as Orange , Adelaide Hills or Tasmania .” While you can expect to see the emergence of new names in the SSB category, the Margaret River region will continue to shine. And that’s music, a classic (dry white) hit, to the ears of winemakers like Kim, and the drinking public. “The fact most parts of Australia enjoy six months of sunshine, a high percentage live near the coast and with our general love of fresh seafood, the Sauvignon Blanc Semillon blend is a perfect accompaniment to our everyday life.”   The Top 30 Classic Dry Whites (November 2015) Drayton’s Family Wines Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Hunter Valley, $20) Howard Park ‘Miamup’ Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2013   (Margaret River, $28) Grosset Wines Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Clare Valley/Adelaide Hills, $35)   Happs Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (Margaret River, $24) Redgate Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (Margaret River, $22.50) Vasse Felix Classic Dry White Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Margaret River,   $19) Willow Bridge Estate Dragonfly Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (Geographe, $20) Rob Dolan Trye Colours Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2013 (Yarra Valley, $24) Fermoy Estate Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Margaret River, $22) Miles From Nowhere Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2015 (Margaret River $15) Millbrook Winery Barking Owl Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Margaret River,   $17.95) Moss Brothers Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Margaret River $25) Forester Estate Block Splitter Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Margaret River, $20). Trevelen Farm Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (Great Southern, $20) Serafino Goose Island Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (McLaren Vale, $18) Deep Woods Estate Ivory Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2015 (Margaret River, $14.95) The Lane Vineyard Gathering Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2013 (Adelaide Hills, $35) Alkoomi Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2015 (Frankland River, $15) Juniper Estate Crossing Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Margaret River, $20) Rockcliffe Quarram Rocks Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (Great Southern, $21) Killerby Estate Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Margaret River, $26) Driftwood Estate Artifacts Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (Margaret River, $25) Churchview Estate Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (Margaret River, $20) Glandore Estate Wines Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Hunter Valley/Orange, $23) Hay Shed Hill Block 1 Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Margaret River, $30) Evans & Tate Classic Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Margaret River, $14) Pepper Tree Wines Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2014 (Hunter Valley/Tasmania, $19) Forest Hill Vineyard The Broker Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (Western Australia, $22) Cape Mentelle Sauvignon Blanc Semillon 2014 (Margaret River, $25) McWilliam’s Wines Catching Thieves Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (Margaret River, $18) See Wine Selectors complete range of Classic Dry Whites
Wine
Be cool. Cool climate Shiraz
Words by Mark Hughes on 12 Aug 2015
My father-in-law, Neville, is your typical knock-about Aussie bloke. A former brickie, he used to drive his Holden Kingswood ute to work and cruise the weekends in his white Torana LJ Sedan. He loves fishing, hunting and knocking back a couple of Tooheys New while charring some animal flesh on the barbecue. But since his retirement a few years ago things have changed. He mostly spends his time drawing the jack rather than mixing the mortar, he has a flashy new Korean-built SUV to tow his caravan and he’s pretty much swapped the beers for red wine. When he started drinking vino his preferred drop was the big fruit-driven reds from South Australia: juicy, plummy, peppery and pretty big on the alcohol – perfect for his medium rare steak and snags. Recently though, his palate seems to have matured and he asked me for a red with more elegance. I gave him a gorgeous Yarra Valley Pinot , but it wasn’t for him. “Tastes a bit posh,” he said. “A bit too watery.” Maybe I had aimed a bit high. What really caught his attention was a medium-bodied Shiraz from the Canberra Distric t. “Now this is pretty good,” he said, while putting on his glasses to read the label – always a positive sign. I didn’t get to have any more of that wine after he had poured another one for himself and his wife, and my wife, and one more for himself. Now, I’ve never really thought of Nev as a trend-setter. He’s happiest in t-shirt, shorts and those sandals with Velcro tabs, but apparently when it comes to Shiraz, he’s in fashion! Neville is part of a shift in the drinking public that is looking for more restraint and elegance in Australia’s most iconic red wine. If the drinking public was thinking it, the critics confirmed it when in 2009, the judges at the Royal Melbourne Wine Show awarded the Jimmy Watson Trophy for the best young red wine in the country to a wine from the Canberra District: the Eden Road Wines ‘Long Road’ Hilltops Shiraz 2008. It made the wine world sit up and take notice. Just to confirm this trend, this year’s Jimmy Watson winner was the Glaetzer-Dixon Mon Pere Shiraz 2010 from Tasmania. A Shiraz from Tasmania? It was unfathomable. The Jimmy Watson is an award that has almost exclusively gone to the Barossa or McLaren Vale or maybe the Hunter, but not the Canberra District and certainly not Tasmania! Apparently it is not just a trend that is happening here in Australia. At the 2011 International Wine Challenge in London, Adelaide Hills winery Bird in Hand was awarded the trophy for the Best Australian Red Wine and the Best Australian Shiraz. What is cool? The common thread between all these award-winning wines is that they come from cool climate regions. There was something here that definitely needed investigating, so we thought we should do a State of Play tasting on cool climate Shiraz. First of all we had to define what a cool climate is as it is a phrase that is bandied about with almost gay abandon with little regard for the official meaning. Perhaps the strongest definition comes from the International Cool Climate Wine Show. This annual event began in the Mornington Peninsula and has been running since the year 2000, so it has some pedigree. It defines cool climate wines as: Wines made from grapes grown either: south of latitude 37.5 degrees south, or north of latitude 37.5 degrees north or from a property in the Southern or Northern hemisphere which has an average January/July (whichever is applicable) temperature below 19ºCelsius, as confirmed by the nearest Bureau of Meterology site, or vineyard site above 800m in altitude. Therefore Australian wine regions that automatically qualify as cool climate are: Tasmania, the Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, and Western Australia’s Great Southern region. Then there are a few grey areas. According to these criteria, the Adelaide Hills does not qualify as cool climate. Its elevation and latitude are well off and its average temperature in January is 19.1. However, most would agree that it is cool climate, and for the sake of point one of a degree, one must admit that this really does qualify as cool climate. Likewise the Canberra region and Orange in New South Wales should also be considered cool climate. There are some vineyards in these regions above 800 metres, but their average January temperature is around the 20 degree mark. But I challenge anyone to stand out in a vineyard on the slopes of Mount Canobolas in the middle of winter and dispute whether it is a cool climate. Therefore some of the parameters, especially in Australia, still need to be defined. A recent cool climate wine show in Tasmania had the elevations at 500 metres, which seems more logical and perhaps we need to look at a combination of average temperatures across the whole year. However the upshot is: regions where Australian Shiraz has an outstanding pedigree, i.e., Barossa, McLaren Vale and the Hunter Valley, are not cool climate regions. All that jazz It is perhaps the amazing success of Shiraz from these warmer regions that has hampered the progress of cool climate Shiraz. Winemakers in cool climates convinced themselves it would be pointless to pursue Shiraz as the Barossa, McLaren Vale and Hunter were already delivering outstanding wines custom-made for the tastes of the drinking public. Scott McCarthy, winemaker at Helen’s Hill in the Yarra Valley, echoed these sentiments when he joined our Tasting Panel for this tasting, but added that things have changed. “In the past, for us, the focus has been on Pinot and Chardonnay and looking for the best places to plant those,” he said. “Shiraz has always been there as a good workhorse to produce good wines, but no-one has really given it the same attention as they have some of the other varieties. “But now we are looking at clones and root stocks and looking at actually planting it in the best part of the vineyard, not just the part that is left over from Pinot and Chardonnay.” Scott is well credentialed to be the spokesperson for cool climate winemakers. He grew up in a vineyard and spent his first 10 years as a winemaker in the Barossa before experiencing vintages in the Napa and France (Loire Valley and Languedoc). During a four-vintage stint in Marlborough, New Zealand, Scott fell in love with cool climate winemaking and he continued that affair by settling back in Australia in the Yarra, where he makes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Shiraz. While winemakers like Scott are convinced of the future of cool climate Shiraz, critics have traditionally been sceptical. The purveying perception of Shiraz from these regions was of a wine that was green, stalky and under-ripe. That may have been somewhat true a decade ago, but as Scott explains, a better understanding of Shiraz in the vineyard, and in the winery, has allowed cool climate Shiraz to be far more expressive. “My experience in the Yarra is that Shiraz is one variety that is made in the vineyard and probably the biggest decision that has to be made that influences the outcome of the wine is the day that you pick it. “I believe there is only a day or two between really getting out of that green phase and when it is starting to get over-ripe. You have to work with the vineyards and taste the fruit over a period of time to know how each block is going to react, how quickly they ripen and when is the best time to pick each block,” Scott says, while also stressing the attention to detail that must be given to micro-climates, even in the same vineyard. “Instead of testing the whole vineyard as one block of Shiraz we have isolated different aspects. We know the cool, low-lying areas are going to ripen a little bit later and we make sure that we test them independently." “You used to go out and pick your whole vineyard. Now it is literally one side of the hill to the other and we are talking a distance of just 50 metres and we will pick a week, two weeks later in some cases, just because the aspects are quite different. “We want to get it through that green spectrum – so we are looking for that tomato leaf character to go out of the juice and to get a ripe spectrum with those nice blueberry characters.” The tasting The Panel sat down to 40-odd wines from across a dozen cool climate regions. The results were outstanding. Nearly all the wines medalled and the overall scoring was very high. Importantly, the tasting confirmed that these wines had busted the perception of having ‘green and stalky characters’. The key descriptors that came forth were of punchy red fruits and blueberry flavours, some spiciness and pepperiness as well as minerality and earthiness. Furthermore there was a noticeable shift to a more graceful style of Shiraz. While most were medium-bodied, some were full-bodied and fruit-driven, but with an elegant core, great balance and an alcohol content of around 14 per cent. “Some of the traditional descriptors you look for in Shiraz – those big ripe plummy characters, strong tannins and big vanillin oak – they were not in the wines we looked at today,” commented Scott. “We were using descriptors like oyster shell, cassis and minerality; descriptors that lend themselves to be able to match to food.” Wine Selectors Tasting Panelist Christian Gaffey was equally impressed with the elegance displayed across these wines in the tasting. “There was one wine today that was described as ‘Burgundy-like’, which for Shiraz is somewhat unheard of,” he said. “Not that Burgundy is the be all and end all, but for it to be compared to a wine of finesse like a Pinot Noir versus your classic 15 per cent Shiraz, means a lot, especially if you want to match it to food.” Regionality and diversity The top 20 scoring wines contained a great spread of wines from different regions. Five were from the Yarra, four from Adelaide Hills, three each from the Canberra District and Mornington Peninsula, two from West Australia’s Great Southern region, one each from Great Western, the Grampians and Tasmania. Within those wines there was an amazing diversity. While wines from certain regions had similar benchmark characters, each wine had its own life and there were amazing differences between wines from the same region, from vineyards within a stone’s throw from each other. “It really is a celebration of the differences you can get with cool climate Shiraz,” remarked Scott. “I think the biggest thing with cool climate Shiraz is the ability to show the terroir – the sense of place with the wines, which you don’t always see in some of the warmer climates.” Combined with a sense of grace and elegance, it is this diversity in the wines that suggests that cool climate Shiraz is a great food-matching wine. The Shiraz from the Yarra versus Mornington and Pyrenees are all very different so they should lend themselves to a greater variety of food than classic Aussie Shiraz matched with steak. Aging potential and the future Perhaps the most surprising result to come out of this tasting was the superb natural acid balance these wines displayed. This acid lends itself to the minerality character displayed in these wines and, more importantly, suggests superb aging potential. This was confirmed by the fact that towards the end of the tasting the Panel was giving very high marks to all the wines that had a bit of age to them. If that is any indication of what is going to happen over time, then in 10 years time we are going to have some sensational back stocks of cool climate Shiraz. Furthermore, the wine that had the most acid was from Tasmania, which suggests the cooler the climate, the better. “Tassie is going to be a tough place to grow Shiraz consistently,” remarked Christian. “But we have known through the years that sometimes it is the inconsistent places that produce the best wines in the good years.” Finally, as cool climate Shiraz is a fairly recent endeavour, most of the wines are from vines with an average age of 15 years or younger. We know that generally the older Shiraz vines get, the better the fruit they produce. These vines are still in their teenage years, so as they mature we can expect to see some world-beating examples of cool climate Australian Shiraz. I can hear Neville firing up the barbie now. Check out  Wine Selectors great range of Shiraz today .
Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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