Category Archives: Australia
Wirra Wirra Dead Ringer
Australia (McLaren Vale)
We must do something to celebrate Cadel Evans, and the first ever win at le Tour de France by a lad from Australia. And what a win it was. All guts and determination. The win is deserving of a glass from one of the more sporting wineries Down Under.
The name of the winery (like the artful wine holder) is aboriginal in origin, meaning “among the gum trees.” Gum trees have pride of place at Wirra Wirra. Greeting the visitor is a monumental post and rail fence (with the immodest name of Woodhenge), constructed from these would-be giants of the Australian forest. You get the feeling that the folks at Wirra Wirra don’t do anything by half measures.
It would seem to have been instilled in them by the man most responsible for transforming the long-neglected winery into the prestigious producer it is today. By all accounts the late Greg Trott was one of those pioneering spirits whose passion for winemaking knew few boundaries. “Never give misery an even break, nor bad wine a second sip,” he once said. “You must be serious about quality, dedicated to your task in life, especially winemaking, but this should all be fun.” The men and women who followed him seem to be having a lot of fun as well, if the winery’s website and YouTube videos are any indication. Yet, when it comes down to what is going to make it into the bottle, they’re deadly serious.
The McLaren Vale’s Mediterranean climate, with the moderating influence of the sea, rainfall mostly in the winter months, and low humidity makes for very favourable vineyard conditions. Wirra Wirra has turned to biodynamics to further increase quality. Post-harvest procedures are closely monitored, and in the case of Dead Ringer, the separate vineyard batches are matured in French oak (70% new) before blending. Filtering is minimal.
The results have been commendable. The 2007 International Wine Challenge Awards in London named Wirra Wirra the International Winemaker of the Year.
Atop the Wirra Wirra cellars is a mighty ¾ tonne bell, resurrected from an old Jesuit Church, and known as the Angelus Bell. In Australia the estate’s cabernet sauvignon is labelled The Angelus. Bordeaux’s Château Angelus didn’t take to the name, however, leading to the wine becoming a Dead Ringer for the cab in markets outside the country.
Wirra Wirra Dead Ringer 2007
Deep, dark, and delicious. This well-made cabernet sauvignon has a ready elegance. On the nose it hits notes of smoked cassis, spiced plums. Concentrated but not overwhelming, sophisticated. On the palate, swank yet flavourful. A youthful gentleman, growing in complexity, no tannic roughness around its edges, yet still with a trace of alcohol on its breath. Already drinking like a champion, but should keep its winning ways for another decade. $$
Kalleske Wines Greenock Shiraz
I’ve been planning to profile Kalleske from the beginning days of this blog. I very much enjoyed the story behind the winery — a pair of seventh-generation brothers deciding to redirect the family’s vineyard operation from the long tradition of growing grapes for sale, to the beginning of a brand new tradition, the start-up of their very own Kalleske winery. All with amazingly positive results.
The first generation of the Kalleske family sailed from Prussia to South Australia in the mid-1800s. They settled on farmland in the Barossa Valley, near the village of Greenock. From the beginning growing grapes was part of the farming enterprise, something which continued with each succeeding generation. Nobody, it seems, had taken much interest in commercial winemaking until Troy Kalleske came along. His stellar university years studying oenology were followed by stints at various Australian wineries (including Penfolds), as well as time in Somona, California.
In 2002 Troy (right) teamed up with his older brother Tony (then established in a successful business career) to start Kalleske Wines. Today there are about 50 hectares under vine, in 30 individual blocks, one of the higher vineyard elevations in the Barossa. The only vineyard not adjacent to the core farm property is the Greenock vineyard where the grapes for this Greenock shiraz are grown. The 4.5 hectares are made up of a shallow layer of sandy loam atop red clay and limestone.
Kalleske Wines remains very much a family operation. The parents manage the vineyards. Tony looks after the business side of things. Other family members are in charge of various other aspects of the operation. Troy, still only in his early 30s, continues to gather a great deal of attention with his wines, now all under organic or biodynamic production. In 2008 he was named Barossa Winemaker of the Year. Beside the dozen different bottlings from Kalleske’s own vineyards, he is also the man behind Pirathon, a multi-award-winning shiraz made from his blend of grapes from eight different growers in north-western Barossa.
Kalleske Wines Greenock Shiraz 2004
It is everything I like about the best shiraz – deep, rich and approachable. It immediately speaks of Australia, but in the best possible way. It is not over the top in extraction, but feels made by someone who rates subtle complexity over raw power. It is rich yes – black fruit, cassis, spice – with considerable body, but entirely balanced. More than anything it is flavourful, a down-to-earth, very well made wine that makes me wish I had more in my cellar. Alas, the experience is not likely to be repeated. I will just have to move on to other Kalleske offerings. Not a problem.
Paxton Vineyards Paxton AAA Shiraz Grenache
Australia (McLaren Vale)
shiraz (72%), grenache (28%)
Paxton Vineyards is an 80-hectare, family-owned-and-operated wine estate in McLaren Vale, a short distance south of Adelaide. It was founded in 1979, although vine planting in this region of Australia dates back to English settlers in the 19th century. Today McLaren Vale is home to a broad range of wine producers, from giants such as Hardys to dozens of small operations.
The estate’s founder is David Paxton, one of Australia’s premier viticulturists, a man who has been instrumental in laying the vineyard foundations of wineries in several regions of Australia. Self-taught, with opinions rooted in 30 years of experience, he was won over to biodynamics by the dramatic improvement he saw in the health of his vineyards once he began experimenting with the approach. He views it neither as a marketing tool, nor something rooted in moral argument. Quips Paxton, it was “the difference between bringing a child up on Big Macs or healthy homegrown food.”
McLaren Vale’s climate is conducive to premium wine production. The region is a coastal strip wedged between the southern ranges of the Adelaide Hills and the Gulf of St. Vincent. In general terms it has a long, warm growing season, moderated by ocean breezes, although there is significant climatic variation throughout the region.
In red wine production shiraz is king. The shiraz fruit for the 2008 Paxton AAA (the name harkens back to Paxton’s youth when he worked in the wool industry, where the stencil ‘AAA’ signifies prime quality) was drawn from five different premium vineyards, each with its own characteristics. The grenache was drawn from another three. All eight were fermented separately. The 11-month maturing of the wine was done in 225 litre oak barriques (half American and half French), only 15% of them new.
Son Michael Paxton is the winemaker and another son, Ben, manages Paxton’s Cellar Door (on the site of an 1860s sheep farm). Michael took on the task after several years working with wineries in Australia and abroad (U.S., France, Argentina, and Spain). He oversees the production of the six estate grown wines, both white and red. Production is very much hands-on, yet with minimal intervention to take full advantage of the natural fruit characteristics. One of the results is this handsome shiraz/grenache blend, showing sophisticated restraint and delivered at a surprisingly good price point.
Paxton Vineyards Paxton AAA Shiraz Grenache 2008
AAA…hey, hey, hey.
Deeply berried, hints of chocolate and spice. A welcoming wine, with herbaceous notes, and tannins that swim along smoothly. Bright and fresh, juicy, not jammy, and with fine depth of character. $
Castagna Genesis Syrah
syrah, voignier (‘a touch’)
Beechworth is a small region in the Northeastern Victoria Zone, in the shadow of the Australian Alps, with Melbourne a couple of hours to the southwest. Modern vineyard plantings here date only from the 1980s, and wineries, though numerous, are generally small. Once the owner of a high profile advertising agency, Julian Castagna came in 1997 to check out the wine potential of the area, and stayed. His vineyards cover just four hectares. You might suspect, considering Castagna’s background, that it was only a passing fancy, without a solid commitment to viticulture on his part. That has been anything but the case. In a few short years Castagna has established a reputation as a producer of exceptional Australian wines.
For some wine drinkers that is not saying very much. Castagna himself would be the first to admit that the perception of Australia is not that of a producer of fine, terroir-expressive wines. With a few noteworthy exceptions, the country’s wineries are often thought of as pumping out easy drinking whites all tasting much the same, and vast amounts of high-alcohol, jammy fruit bomb reds with little finesse. Big on initial impact, but little to credit it in the long run.
Castagna bemoans the fact that many distinctive small and mid-sized producers are consistently overshadowed by the big companies that dominate the industry and which are content with its generic, Yellowtail-like image world-wide. Four companies produce 70% of Australian wine, yet there are close to 1500 wineries across the country.
I suspect there are those in the industry who look at the complaints of a small, (and in this case with the added moniker ‘biodynamic’) operation such as Castagna with amusement. After all it produces less than 2000 cases per annum. It is a flea on the country’s wine map. Yet, for knowledgeable journalists and critics who have taken time with Australian winemakers, it most often the offerings of small producers which bring any measure of excitement.
That would include the wines of Julian Castagna, and now his son Adam. It had not been an easy road. In some years drought has been a major problem. 2003 saw a rash of devastating fires in Victoria, the heat and smoke turning into serious issues. The yields of 2006 were unusually low. Yet they have persisted. And the results generally, to judge by this 2004 vintage, have been entirely wonderful.
Castagna Genesis Syrah 2004
It is autumn. Temperatures have dropped and the leaves are turning. Where I live bright red dogberries fill the dogberry trees. A man turns away from light summer wines…
Royally deep and dark, with aromas of spiced leather, of rich, cassis-thickened fruit. This is a wine with a velvet sting of flavours, a pleasant peppery fullness that seems to encircle the drinker. It leads along a lengthy path, enlivened with bright acidity. Seamless integration of its fine-grained oak. Intense without loosing its finesse. $$$
Australia (Margaret River)
Observe the Cullen chilling in the snow. Wine casting an elegant shadow.
See the Cullen amid the salad of mache, pecans & pear. Feeling at home.
This is Vanya Cullen, a world away in Australia, where it’s 30C degrees warmer today than what I’m experiencing. Her wines bring me sunshine.
Her parents, Dr. Kevin Cullen and his wife Diana, founded the winery in the early 1970s, the first of note in the Margaret River area. Diana Cullen took control of Cullen Wines a decade later, while her husband devoted himself to his medical research, the famous Busselton Health Study, of which he was the founder. (And still today 10% of the sales of Cullen is given in support of the project, one of the longest running population health studies in the world, with over 300 articles in medical journals to its credit.)
Eventually the vineyard mantle passed to Vanya, who had worked closely with her mother for many years. And today the Cullen winery remains at the forefront in Margaret River, in no small measure to Vanya’s drive and constant need to improve the wines. In 1998 she made the commitment to organic cultivation, and within a few years initiated the move to biodynamics.
Perhaps the best known of the Cullen bottlings is the cabernet sauvignon/merlot blend named for her mother, the Diana Madeline. But the white wines have grown to significant stature as well. The chardonnay is considered among the very best to come out of Australia.
Cullen Chardonnay 2002
Instantly, it’s the colour — a vibrant turn of yellow, a cast of green. Fresh in the fields. Welcoming. The aromas not brazenly seeking attention. Yet there to be embraced. Roaming aromatic mysteries, difficult to unravel. Stone fruit? Cheese? Perhaps. With glass tipped, it shows sophistication beyond its years. Steeped in minerals, yet it plays nicely to the palate. It confidently measures up, and will not desert in haste. Wise and steadfast. $$
A few days later and the temperatures have risen, though the Cullen seems content still in the snow. It adds to the charm of walking along Rennie’s River, one of several trailways through the city. There is much to breathe in, much to invigorate a morning. The wineman could be miles into the country, not in the centre of his city.