The McLaren Vale

The main reason for me undertaking a series of vintages is to learn about making wine. However, a range of other nuggets have been regularly dropping into my lap along the way; for example, just a couple of days ago I stood corrected on the issue of the name of one of the country’s oldest, most famous regions: McLaren Vale. Following a reckless tweet, I now have it on good authority that McLaren Vale is not preceded by “the.” Dear readers, you have been thus advised.

Shameful, really, to perpetuate such an error regarding one of my favourite Australian wine regions, one in which I find myself right now, in the throes of assisting producer Dowie Doole with vintage. I’ve long had warm regard for Dowie Doole wines, which regular readers of this site will already know. The portfolio mixes traditionally styled reds with an adventurous Chenin Blanc-driven white portfolio, always cleanly made and generously styled. I’ve also enjoyed an entertaining email correspondence with Leigh Gilligan, Managing Director of Dowie Doole and McLaren Vale veteran. When he became aware that I was looking for vintage opportunities, he offered me a cellarhand place from late February to the end of March, which takes in the bulk of vintage activity. I’ve not always found wineries amenable to considering a wine writer, no matter how niche, for a vintage cellarhand position, so I am grateful for his willingness to give me a go.

I’m primarily involved with making red wines here, and the learning curve is steep after focusing on Chardonnay at Lake’s Folly. One exception is a rather interesting, oxidatively handled Vermentino that is (wild) fermenting in barrel as I type, hopefully becoming something delicious and beautiful. Dowie Doole’s red styles are in the mainstream of McLaren Vale wines, privileging drinkability above eccentricity, and are made in small lots using highly manual winemaking approaches. Chris Thomas is Dowie Doole’s winemaker, and the red wines are made at the winery formerly occupied by Wayne Thomas (father of Andrew) and now by Tim Geddes. Chris is energetic in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever been and patiently talks me through each decision and operation. He also has strong views on wine, which seems to be a mark of all the winemakers I find interesting. It’s all that I could hope for, really.

To say that I ache all over is a vast understatement, yet each morning when I arrive at the winery, the body warms up and the learning continues. It’s been a while since I’ve had to learn so much every day just to keep up. Pumps, hoses, fittings, cleaning, presses, pump overs, rack and returns, additions, measurements, vineyard sampling; even after less than a week’s work here I’m slightly astonished by the number of winemaking operations I’ve been exposed to. But this is just how it happens, and as my sense of incompetence fades, I’m able to look up now and then and smile at the fact that I’m actually helping to make some pretty damned interesting wines with a bunch of people I really like.

I even had a moment where I thought I might just be able to do this.

The timing of all this proved interesting. In the lead up, I checked with Leigh as to my start date, and all looked good for a gentle easing in from late February. A couple of hot days, though, brought forward several parcels of fruit, and just hours after arriving in the region, I started work in the winery. So far, we’ve processed some Tempranillo (destined for the G&T label), the aforementioned Vermentino, which is bottled under Dowie Doole’s experimental range, and several parcels of Shiraz. It fascinates me how diverse the flavours of fruit can be from day one. Of the parcels of Shiraz we are currently fermenting, some are dark and structured, some are vibrant and fruit driven, others sit somewhere in between. It’s exciting to see them evolve through the fermentation, and a big learning for me is seeing the ways in which flavour and structure change through this process. I can understand a complete lack of interest by some in anything but the finished wine, but for this wine obsessive seeing the evolution of a wine from its raw materials is quite compelling.

Chris made an astute observation the other day about the difference between winemaking as taught at University and as practiced in the real world. Production management is just an idea at school, something to engage with when planning the capacity of one’s theoretical winery with the theoretical budget assigned by one’s lecturer. In the Hunter, I had some glimpses of the importance of logistics in many winemaking settings, but now that I’m seeing first hand the challenges associated with having to process sixteen parcels of fruit through five open fermenters in a single vintage, it has somewhat radically changed my understanding of the options that may or may not be available to winemakers. What does one do if Cabernet is ready to come off but there’s several lots of Shiraz sitting on skins post ferment? Does one delay picking, or press ferments earlier than is ideal? This is winemaking in the real world, encumbered by annoyances like space, time and money.

The next few weeks ought to be bloody interesting.

Crawford River Wines Young Vines Riesling 2011

Yesterday I travelled through the Henty region and called on two producers, Crawford River Wines and Hochkirch. Henty is a mystery to me. Vast, remote, few wineries and even fewer cellar doors, it isn’t a region that invites visitors. Rather, it almost dares one to try and locate its styles, to make sense of the boundaries that define it. I’m not sure I know Henty any better after visiting, but amongst endless farmland, from vineyards that appear like a shock, I found some remarkable wines.

Crawford River Wines is arguably the region’s most famous producer (discounting Seppelt’s presence in the form of the Drumborg Vineyard). Although it produces some lovely red wines, this is a winery defined by its whites, and in particular its Riesling. The vines used for this label aren’t terribly young now (over ten years of age, if I recall) but it is still produced as a separate bottling. I was fortunate to be helped at cellar door by Belinda Thomson, who is surely one of the more self-possessed and enthusiastic young vignerons I’ve met.

A wine of contrasts, this suggests delicacy and finesse before presenting a fullness of fruit that comes as a surprise. The nose is pretty, edging towards flowers rather than juice, soft rather than etched. It’s expressive and generous, but always careful, never even hinting at vulgarity.

The palate carries through with soft, pastel fruit on entry, filling the mouth without heaviness, and moving through a shapely palate structure. Although I can sometimes enjoy a wine with a boisterous structure, this wine is underpinned by ultra-fine acid, firm yet texturally detailed and chalky through the finish. It retains the prettiness of form seen on the nose without sacrificing length, expressiveness or flavour.

There are plenty of great Rieslings in Australia, yet I can’t help but admire one more that, like its region and maker perhaps, is determinedly its own creation.

Crawford River Wines
Price: $A27
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Cellar door

McGuigan Bin 9000 Semillon 2004

I recently spent an afternoon with the iconoclastic Peter Hall and his McGuigan winemaking team, pestering them with all sorts of questions and getting much back in return, including this bottle of wine to taste. This particular Bin 9000 was awarded Best Semillon in the Universe (I may have the name of the award slightly wrong) so I was naturally curious to taste it.

One comes at these things with a set of expectations, in this case that it would be a high octane style in the manner of Lovedale or Vat 1. Refreshingly, it’s an approachable wine in the context of Hunter Semillon, with a softness of mouthfeel and prettiness of flavour that strikes me as highly commercial. The nose shows gentle evolution, with typical aromas of honey and wax in addition to primary fruit, which is gently lemon-like in character. The whole is soft, caressing rather than slapping.

The palate echos these impressions with an ultra-clean, gently evolved flavour profile and the sort of acid structure that might win more fans to the style than not. Does this represent a hard line in Hunter Semillon? Hardly; it does, though, show typicité of flavour and a cuddly attitude without resorting to an obviousness of approach (residual sugar, and so on). Mouthfeel is showing signs of thickening and developing a waxiness that lovers of this style will relish.

Perhaps not one for purists, but the bottle, shared with friends, disappeared alarmingly fast, which perhaps speaks for itself.

Note: some quick research reveals the prize awarded to this wine at the International Wine & Spirit Competition was in fact that of International Semillon Trophy.

McGuigan Wines
Price: $NA
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Gift

Freycinet Vineyard Pinot Noir 2011

I’m in Tasmania at the moment, enjoying as many local wines as I can. My hosts have arranged a big Pinot lineup tonight, but I’ve already sampled a couple, including this one from the east coast. In browsing the Freycinet Vineyard Web site, I was intrigued to see the winemaking notes indicate this, the winery’s premium Pinot, went through its primary fermentation in a rotary fermenter. Refreshingly new world.

To the wine itself, good varietal character on the nose, showing a prettiness of fruit alongside significant spice and forest floor. Getting those balances right is an obvious challenge but it’s amazing how often wines can seem slightly off in the interplay of these basic elements. This, by contrast, seems to elegantly move from bright fruit to black spice to sappy notes and back.

The palate, for now, is quite acidic and this overwhelms one’s impression of flavour a bit. There’s good flavour there, though, with reasonably intense red fruit and sap, backed up by spiced oak. Tannins take a back seat to acid, structurally, but they are prickly and textural when they make an appearance towards the back of the palate. Should the acid fold back into the wine, this may become a really elegant wine. The flavours are spot on.

Freycinet Vineyard
Price: $55
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Gift

Dinner with the men of Lake’s Folly

As luck would have it, we processed some Chardonnay fruit on my last day at Lake’s Folly, so I was in a Chardonnay mood by the time dinner came around. It’s just as well, then, Rod had already arranged dinner for the team at the very fancy Muse. Pooling resources, we amassed quite a collection of wine to taste; about two bottles per dinner guest. Just to taste, you understand. There’d be no pressure to open everything.

I think we opened everything, with the exception of one backup bottle. The following impressions are from memory, as I did not take notes at the time.

I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing when the first wine of the night remains my top pick through the dinner, but for better or worse, a 2002 Dom Pérignon threatened to be just such a wine. Gorgeously detailed and powerful, I especially liked an array of honeyed notes through the extended after palate and the complexity of the flavour profile in general, all sitting atop the creamiest of mouthfeels. Seems in a sweet spot, showing freshness and maturity all at once.

Then came the Chardonnays. A 1991 Lake’s Folly Chardonnay was very progressed in flavour, perhaps too much so for many tastes. I did, however, like an attractive, biscuit-like note in the aroma as well as hints of cinder toffee. Despite the somewhat madeirised flavour profile, the palate structure was fully intact and showed a wine of great acid line and good shape in the mouth. For easy drinking pleasure, however, a 2001 Lake’s Folly Chardonnay was clearly the more successful wine, being much younger and less challenging in flavour. My fellow diners (and they would know) suggested it wasn’t quite the freshest bottle, but I loved its complex flavours and gentle power in the mouth. Fantastic wine.

Two white Burgundies followed. The first, a 2002 Domaine Emilian Gillet Viré-Clessé Quintaine, showed well and provided a point of difference in this lineup. I’ve tasted this wine previously, and my comments in that note stand. It was especially notable for its incredibly freshness at over ten years of age. It was also, however, somewhat outclassed in finesse by the Lake’s Folly wines and subsequent Burgundy, an Alain Chavy Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru Les Folatières from 2010. The Chavy showed great power and purity of fruit on the middle palate, along with gobs of minerality and the sort of chalk dust texture that is curious and rather destructive of the wine’s attempts at length. I’ll put it down to youthful indiscretions.

Onto the reds. A 2010 Mount Mary Quintets was very fine, its light to medium bodied palate carrying an array of leafy, red-berried flavours. There’s something tantalising about this wine’s weight, toying with contrasts of body versus power, substance versus complexity. A 2000 Lake’s Folly red was a superb example of a mature red wine, being mellow and substantial at the same time. As an aside, I find my taste for old Cabernet growing, which can only mean bad things for my finances. So well was the Lake’s Folly drinking that it was the first wine to seriously challenge the Dom Perignon for my favourite of the evening. In this high cheekboned company, a 2010 Wendouree Malbec struggled to look attractive, its jammy red fruit and assertive tannins reminding one of hastily, generously applied lipstick. Its rusticity and youth might have appealed more in a flight of similar wines.

By this time, we’d worked our way through most of the (exceptionally good) meal, with just dessert to go. To accompany our coconut ice, we had a bottle of 2001 Château Doisy-Daëne. Not only was the wine drinking very well indeed, it proved the most startling and successful match with food of the evening. Masses of flavour but not cloying, this struck a lovely balance between sweetness, opulence, acid and texture. By the time I’d finished my glass, it had jumped into what turned out to be a three-way tie for my favourite wine, along with the Lake’s Folly red and Dom Perignon.

Life’s very tough indeed.

Note: wines were contributed by all attendees, including me. Dinner, however, was on Lake’s Folly.

A week on

Today marks one week with Lake’s Folly, and my time with the team will shortly come to an end. Legendary assistant winemaker of twenty eight years, Peter Payard, asked me today whether the experience has been what I thought it would be.

Hard question to answer, and I’ve resolved not to jump to too many conclusions before the year has played out. Two things are obvious, though. Firstly, I’ve an enormous amount to learn not only with respect to winery operations but also winemaking itself. The tree of decisions facing winemakers in the real world is related to what I learned at University in the same way mathematics might describe the path of a bouncing ball – accurate in its way, but quite unable to bring to life the reality of the situation, let alone equip one to catch the ball.

Secondly, and perhaps less obviously, I’ve had a niggling question in the back of my mind since planning this year: what if I hate it? What if I get into a winery, start helping out with things and realise in my gut that it’s simply not for me? To my relief, I am loving it. Even the cleaning. I’m excited by the vineyard, the juice, the ferments, the winemaking decisions, the transfers to barrel, the topping up, the sensory evaluation, the daily measurements; everything. No doubt some is due to the novelty of it, but what is more profound is a sense that I’m only now truly learning about wine, that it’s only in the making of it that I am starting to understand how the finished wine becomes what it is. As a wine lover, that is beyond gratifying.

So with that litmus test passed, what remains is simply to experience this year’s vintages here and abroad, to see how it’s done differently by different people in different regions and, eventually, to perhaps draw some conclusions about what it all means.

Much yet to come, then.

In the meantime, we have more beautiful Chardonnay to process tomorrow, a dinner with the team that promises to be spectacular for various reasons, and the long drive to Tasmania, my next stop.

Lake’s Folly Hill Block Chardonnay 2011

After a fun day of work at Lake’s Folly, on the spur of the moment we opened all four of the Estate’s Chardonnays from 2011 and 2012. I took this one home for further, leisurely tasting with dinner.

It must have been interesting and somewhat daunting to contemplate introducing a new Chardonnay into the Lake’s Folly range, given the renown the traditional label has accumulated over the years. The only thing that would make sense is a different expression of the vineyard, a wine that says something new but that remains fundamentally connected to the Estate. It seems to me that’s what this wine represents and, while it’s a delicious wine in its own right, it becomes even more interesting in context.

While the traditional label is linear and powerful, with an emphasis on length and drive, this tilts the balance towards complexity of flavour. Clearly, there’s more input from the winemaker here, and the range of notes in the aroma profile is noticeably wider, the flavours themselves more opulent in tone. There’s a edge to this wine too, flavour-wise, that takes it into much funkier territory, with hints of leesy cheese and general savouriness. Despite this — and comparative tasting draws this out — this remains highly identifiable as Lake’s Folly Chardonnay, with the same purity of fruit and relative restraint.

The palate is both rounded and quite textural, and its delicate raspiness accelerates through the back palate where a lovely twist of herbal, gin-and-tonic bitterness cleanses the palate. In form, the wine is quite up-front, with less overt drive through the after palate than the regular wine. Acid is fresh and firm, and the palate structure is never less than shapely.

Given the task at hand, an excellent performance and a new insight into an historic vineyard.

Note: I’m currently assisting the winery during the 2013 vintage.

Lake’s Folly
Price: $70
Closure: Stelvin
Source: Gift