Australia’s high-volume brands dominate supermarket shelves, but are criticised as soul-less, and made to a formula. HUON HOOKE meets three ex-corporate winemakers, John Duval, Philip Shaw and SC Pannell, who made the break, and decided to go solo.
Three of the most exciting new labels to appear in Australia in the past two years are John Duval, Philip Shaw and SC Pannell. They are a cut above the usual new entrants, and with good reason: all three men have distinguished themselves in previous careers with major wine companies, where their skills were developed and honed in the disciplined, pressurised, professional world of the high-volume but also high-quality big production wines. For Duval, it was 30 years at Penfolds, 15 as chief winemaker in charge of the entire Penfolds portfolio from Grange down; for Pannell it was nine years at Hardys, culimating in five as chief (red) winemaker; and for Shaw it was 20 years at Rosemount Estate and then five at Southcorp following its merger with Rosemount in 2001.
Their wines are all seriously good, hardly a surprise given their credentials. Knowing what they know about sourcing the best grapes, handling and then fermenting and maturing the raw materials in order to extract the best from them, and manoeuvring the wine into bottle without losing anything, they should have an unrivalled shot at turning out great wine. They have all travelled widely, they all know intimately the great wines of the wider world, they know what they want to achieve for themselves and they know how to do it…
Philip Shaw is loose-limbed with close-cropped grey hair: a slightly shambling kind of guy who often comes across as a bit vague and disembodied. But there’s a lot going on inside that head and Philip Shaw has a kind of brilliance that often goes hand in hand with mild dyslexia.
His ‘daytime job’ is running the Orange region’s biggest winery, Cumulus, with chief winemaker Phil Dowell. He created and launched Cumulus’ Rolling and Climbing brands, which are good value. But the real excitement of Shaw finally living full time in Orange was always going to be his own venture. The first Philip Shaw wines, four 2004 vintages (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz and a red Bordeaux blend), were released without fanfare in early 2006, and the 2005s arrived in early 2007. The grapes are all sourced from his own mature vineyard, Koomooloo, planted in 1988. The vineyard is high altitude, around 900m, at the foot of an extinct volcano, Mount Canobolas, and the climate is quite cool, resulting in a finer style of wine. The 2005 Chardonnay is restrained and not at all overt; it needs coaxing out of its shell but has underlying complexity, intensity, and should reward some cellaring. The Shiraz-Viognier is very spicy, quite oaky, succulent and thoroughly delicious. The Sauvignon Blanc is less herbaceous (read riper) than most New Zealand offerings but has the same varietal cut and tang that savvy drinkers cherish. And the Bordeaux blend is subtle and all about drinkability and complexity. It doesn’t overpower, like so many high-octane modern Aussie reds. Indeed, this is a Philip Shaw hobbyhorse. ‘It’s frustrating to see people like Parker giving 99 points to 16.5% wines. Lighter, more delicate styles are my direction now.
‘At Southcorp I had a reasonable amount of freedom but people were always trying to interpret what I wanted.’ The chain of command meant many people were involved in making and implementing decisions. It’s a lot simpler working for himself. ‘I thought I’d get it right from the start, but I’m learning that it takes more time than I expected.’
His pet theory about Orange is that it has high ultra-violet light without the heat of most high-UV Australian wine regions. Altitude gives the coolness – ‘it rarely goes much above 30?C, but at 25–30?C we’re getting maximum UV, which they only get in other areas at much hotter temperatures. And when it’s really hot the vine shuts down and theres no photosynthesis, so you don’t get the benefit of the UV.’ Philip Shaw believes Merlot especially will benefit from this and thinks Orange will prove to be the Merlot region of Australia. He’s put his money where his mouth is: Koomooloo has more Merlot planted than any other grape.
‘Growing grapes in a cool region, everything has to be right – shoot thinning, cluster thinning, canopy management – whereas in hotter regions you can get away with being a bit slack.’
Stephen Pannell and John Duval are both in hotter areas. Pannell’s SC Pannell wines are all sourced from McLaren Vale – the region he worked in and knew best while at Hardys. At the top end, there’s a Shiraz, a Shiraz-Grenache and a pure Grenache, plus a bigger-volume rosé and an Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc. The last two wines are about 4,000 of his total output of 5,000 cases.
Pannell’s outward appearance is that of a happy-go-lucky chap, all smiles and bonhomie, one of the industry’s Mr Nice Guys. He’s like an alter-ego of his father, Bill: the fiercely intense, highly driven founder of both Moss Wood and Picardy in Western Australia. If Pannell seems unusually relaxed on the outside, under that exterior he is focused, efficient, secure; an intelligent, thoughtful man but one who never needs to grandstand.
The SC Pannell brand has no growth strategy, no grand plan to Pannellise the world. ‘I’ve got no illusions about just doing my own wines,’ he says. ‘Just let it go where it wants to go; take the pressure off; just make the wines I want to make, rather than trying to make a certain quantity.’ His main commitment is at Tinlin’s, a large owner of high-quality vineyards in McLaren Vale with a winery that makes mostly top-level contract wine for other companies. He also consults to Shaw + Smith, Coriole, Tarrawarra, Qantas, and in Europe he makes the house wines for David Gleave MW’s Liberty Wines. He consults for Catena in Argentina too. ‘There’s a lot on my plate but it’s good fun and I can spend plenty of time with my kids,’ he says. ‘Tinlin’s is full-time during vintage and in essence that’s why I left Hardys – to get my hands black again. The big companies can’t sell premium wine. Everything’s judged on show success. Just look at Ed Carr (Hardys’ great sparkling winemaker): he’s won every award invented and still they can sell very little of his premium sparkling wine. They give [Hardy’s premium wine] Eileen away in Nottage Hill deals. Life is much better now. I’m more in control.’
The perfect contrast to the Pannell wines are those of John Duval. They are Barossa Valley sourced, and where Pannell’s McLaren Vale wines tend to be more opulent and fruit-sweet, Duval’s Barossa reds are a little more structured, savoury and firmer. Both men employ the oak barrel far less than they did when working for their former employers.
Duval is a gentle man in the old-fashioned sense: reserved, quietly spoken, low-key; a man who never uttered a controversial sentence and even when he was being given a hard time by Southcorp never had a bad word, either on or off the record, for anyone. When I spoke to him for this story, he and his wife Pat were bushwalking in a rainforest near Seattle. Later in the day, John would be in Walla Walla in Washington State’s Columbia Valley, where he consults for Long Shadows, a cluster of high-profile international winemaker wines assembled by former Stimson Lane boss Allen Shoup. For Shoup, Duval makes a Syrah called Sequel; other winemakers are Michel Rolland, Napa Valley veteran Randy Dunn and Germany’s Armin Diel.
Duval’s life has undergone major changes since leaving Penfolds. ‘One of the good things is that I have the flexibility to be involved in new ventures,’ he says. Later, he was to fly to Chile where he consults for Ventisquero, which has ‘fantastic Syrah vineyards at Apalta in the Colchagua Valley (see p38)’.
‘I enjoy the freedom of following my own style paths. No regrets from the time I spent at Penfolds, but to use my gut feeling and express the way I think, taking into account soils and climate, and putting the John Duval stamp on it…’
One of his Australian consultancies is Songlines, which debuted last year with a $110-a-bottle McLaren Vale Shiraz. Old vines, small output… an opulent, concentrated, satin-smooth style of definitive Aussie red, it was sold out before it hit the shelves.
Like Pannell, Duval has no intention to make oceans of his own wines. The range has just two so far: a wonderful pure Shiraz called Entity, and a multi-dimensional Shiraz-Grenache-Mourvèdre blend called Plexus. Both are generously flavoured but avoid the excessively alcoholic style popular in some Barossa wineries. And the Shiraz sees 100% French oak – Duval was the man who originated Penfolds’ RWT Barossa Shiraz, which broke the mould with 100% French oak. ‘Stylistically, my aim with Entity is to produce a Shiraz with elegance and structure,’ he says.
The total John Duval ‘make’ is just 5,000 cases, but later this year we will see a third wine from ‘JD’ – a small quantity of 2005 reserve Shiraz, which he is quietly excited about. That should be worth raiding the piggy-bank for.
Huon Hooke is the author of The Penguin Good Australian Wine Guide (£8.99, Penguin)
John Duval, Entity Shiraz, Barossa Valley 2004 HHHHH
A concentrated yet elegant wine in which the fruit does the talking. Aromas of plum, blackberry, mixed spices, cedar and new leather are beautifully balanced and deliciously complex. Wood character takes a back seat. Velvet texture and great persistence are the hallmarks. Up to 15 years. £18.95; Lib
SC Pannell, Shiraz-Grenache, McLaren Vale 2004 HHHHH
A stunning concentrated red. Little wood intrudes, instead the bouquet is all about spices, especially clove and nutmeg. In the mouth it is big, rich and fleshy, with ample tannins but not over-built. There’s lovely fruit sweetness with no hint of jamminess. Some aniseed and ironstone characters chime in and the tannins provide excellent structure. Up to 12 years. £19.95; Lib
Philip Shaw, No 11 Chardonnay, Orange 2005 HHHH
A restrained, understated Chardonnay with a faintly buttery, vanilla, melon and mineral-scented aroma that translates directly onto the delicate but intense palate. Fine natural acids give a lively taste without the harsh tang of an over-adjusted Aussie Chardonnay. Up to 6 years. £16.99; Bbo, Tes
For UK stockists, see p82