Jefford on Monday: On The Big Hill

The last time I blind-tasted 35 top Australian Chardonnays, the wine which seemed to me to proclaim regional origins more clearly than any was the 2010 vintage of Penfold’s Bin 311, which came in that vintage from Tumbarumba.

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When I was living in Australia, too, other bottles of Tumbarumba Chardonnay (from Hungerford Hill, Chalkers Crossing, Eden Road and the McWilliams Barwang label) had intrigued me.  

Sure, they were slender, with insistent acidity; my natural preference tends to be for something richer and fuller.  Yet … that acidity was rounded, not angular.  You could taste the fact that it had waited out an entire season, somehow; there was a taut ripeness and a vinosity inside the wines that gave the tongue something to tussle with.  The oaking was generally discreet (311, for example, is all barrel-fermented, but none of the oak is new).  

They had my favourite kind of aromatic intrigue: enough to keep you returning to the glass, and hunting, and smiling, and half-remembering landscapes in which you had once stood; but not so much that you say ‘butter’ or ‘honeycomb’, kick back, and switch the conversation to politics.  I wanted to visit.  On a crisp autumn day last May, I did.  (The weather has deteriorated since – the picture above was taken a week or so ago.)

“We don’t like to talk much about Tasmania round here,” smiled Cathy Gairn, the personable head of the local producers’ association.  Cool Tumbarumba is the closest Australian GI to the continent’s highest spot, Mt Kosciuszko --but trucking times from here to the capital cities and the big blending vats are long, and Tasmania has hoovered up Tumbarumba’s former niche for sparkling-wine base and Chardonnay very successfully.  Tumbarumba’s 300 ha of vines now jostle the slopes with 240 ha of blueberry bushes; their purple-red leaves stained the hillsides while I was there.  The town’s soft wood timbermill is said to be the biggest in the southern hemisphere, and world champion wool of just 11.1 microns has come from Tumbarumba’s hungry sheep.  The place has a mountain look to it – but there are 80-year-old olive trees here, too, and chestnut trees, and truffle plantations.  Intriguing.

There’s only one little winery in the region, belonging to a consortium of growers and run by the talented young winemaker Adrian Brayne, whose 2010 Obsession Chardonnay (just a single barrel, fermented with wild yeast, with 18 months on lees and full malo) was perhaps the most exciting and ambitious Chardonnay I tried there.  Adrian is the son of Jim Brayne of McWilliams, who personally owns the highest vineyard in the region (at 842 m); Cathy’s own vineyard is at 730 m; others dip down to 450 m.  

Wine-growing isn’t easy here: everyone has a frost story or two; drought years can be difficult; while in the La Niña year of 2011, recalled Cathy, “it just rained, and rained, and rained.”  Tumbarumba is close to the watershed of the Great Dividing Range, over which the incontinent clouds came slopping; the 2011 vintage of Penfolds Bin 311, consequently, is sourced from Henty, much further west.  Most winegrowers in the region are now in their 50s and 60s; there’s a certain amount of beard-stroking going on.  Will the next generation continue the struggle?

I certainly hope so.  It happened, last week, that I found a bottle of McWilliams 2011 Mount Pleasant Isabelle Chardonnay (which, despite the confusing Mount Pleasant branding, comes from Tumbarumba) sitting in the fridge next to a bottle of the 2010 Chablis from William Fèvre, brought by a friend, so I blind tasted the two side by side.

It wasn’t easy for the Isabelle: this difficult vintage gave the wine a slightly drying, bitter-edged quality, and the Chablis was clearly the better wine.  The point, though, is that there was a kinship between the two in terms of articulation and gastronomic aptitude; had both been from good vintages, they might have been harder to call. Jim Brayne at McWilliam’s, I remembered, told me he was planning an ambitious, $100 Tumbarumba Chardonnay – and he’s a canny man.  The name’s a dream: what could be more Aussie than Tumbarumba?  Don’t give up yet; we need more wines like this.

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com