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One Brilliant Bottle

organic/biodynamic/natural wines in Vinland

Tag Archives: Australia

Wirra Wirra Dead Ringer

Australia (McLaren Vale)

cabernet sauvignon

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.  $$


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Castagna Genesis Syrah

Australia (Beechworth)

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.  $$$

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Cullen Chardonnay

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.



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