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Anson on Thursday: Where Cabernet is ‘a swear word’…

Jane Anson takes a break from Bordeaux to explore the rising reputation of cool climate wines in Australia's Victoria region, and finds several wines to recommend.

Cabernet Sauvignon has pretty much become a swear word in Victoria now,’ importer and MW student Victoria Sharples is telling a small group of sommeliers and journalists in London.

‘There are some wonderful old vine Cabs still going strong, but producers all over the state are field-grafting to get away from the image of the swaggering Ozzie cab’.

We’re here for a cool climate tasting of mainly Rieslings and Pinot Noirs from Victoria, so I guess it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that poor old Cabernet Sauvignon is getting a mauling from winemakers who are frustrated with the one-dimensional image of Australia internationally.

Lined up in front of us are examples of family-owned, artisan wineries that are starting to make an impact back in Victoria, and are keen to get a stronger audience in Europe. As proof of how serious they are, this tasting was held twice over recent weeks in Spain’s San Sebastian in a bar owned by Melbourne bar owner Gerald Diffey.

I had wanted to drive down to San Sebastian from Bordeaux, as it’s only a few hours away, but the dates didn’t work out. So I’m here instead at the beautiful Levin Hotel in Knightsbridge, owned by David and Lynne Levin who are both Victoria and Loire winemakers. Less unusual to be drinking Australian wine in London of course, but I’ll take what I can.

‘The major challenge for these cool climate wines is navigating the regulatory complexities of Australian exports to the EU,’ says Lynne Levin. ‘This is one of the reasons why most of these bottles never make it out of Australia.  There is also a lot of work to be done to reposition top quality Australian wines within the UK market, and it is a challenge for them to be knowledgably represented once they are here’.

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There’s cool climate and there’s cool climate, of course. But nobody should be surprised that nuanced, balanced and decidedly exhilarating wines can be produced in Victoria. This is, after all, the state with the highest number of ski resorts in Australia, and of the major wine regions in Victoria, six are classified as cool (Geelong, Sunbury, Macedon Ranges, Mornington Peninsula, Gippsland, Yarra Valley) and one cold (Beechworth) – in total sub-divided into 21 smaller Geographic Indicators (GIs).

Across the wines that we are tasting in London, nothing goes higher than 14% abv, with most coming in at 13% (not accounting for the 1.5% allowable variation in labeling and reality, something that they would have to address to fit with EU regulations – although maybe that won’t be a problem in the British market soon).

‘Most are these estates make only a few hundred cases per year, and are conscious of combatting the usual perception of Australian wine’, Sharples says. ‘They are anti big-business, and usually organic, something that is pretty easy in the Victorian climate. Certainly they are all conscious of the environment, of being close to the land, looking for purity of fruit and experimenting with new varieties’.

Victoria is about half the size of Spain, and while not exactly as diverse in terms of climate, its numerous mountains and valleys gives plenty of options for growers, as well as day-night temperature variations that can be marked by up to 20 degrees centrigrade. You’ll find pockets of interesting European varieties here, including a renaissance in Italian grapes from nebbiolo to glera up in northeast Victoria where there is a large community with Italian ancestry who were once tobacco farmers and are now moving into grapes. Australia’s strict quarantine system is slowing down the import of certain vines and clones, but experimentation is still going on. This is helped, according to Sharples, by the fact that Victoria is also the state with the most individual growers in Australia – of the 2,500-or-so across Australia, around 800 of them are in Victoria.

Of the wines we tasted, there were some excellent aromatic whites, but it was the pinots that impressed me the most. More New Zealand or Oregon than Burgundy in style, with beautiful fruit integrity, a gourmet edge and mouth-watering freshness. Only 5% of plantings across Australia are Pinot Noir, and much of that is used for sparkling wines, but recent years have seen the establishment of movements such as Pinot Massive, a group based out of Daylseford in the (cool-climate) Macedon Ranges but within easy reach of Melbourne.

‘Pinot Massive brings together Pinot producers across Victoria,’ says French winemaker Gilles Lapalus, born in Cluny and now a full-time Victorian. ‘It’s not publicised much but once a year they meet up for a three-day conference to share research and taste their wines alongside legendary pinot producers from France and other countries. It has really pushed the way Pinot is being farmed and vinified across the State, and Pinot has a great future here’.

Jane Anson’s wines from Victoria to try:

Paradigm Hill, Riesling, Mornington Peninsula 2015

From iron rich soils, this is fermented in stainless steel tanks and left on the lees for six months. A steely, lean Riesling, with no residual sugar, this is clean citrus and slate, fresh, aromatic and utterly delicious. Just 450 cases made. 91 points (/100)

Yeringberg Marianne Roussanne Yarra Valley 2013

Roussanne is barely seen in Australia except for a few plantings in Victoria. This one is tank fermented then aged in 300 litre barrels for 10 months. It doesn’t quite have the noble bitterness of the Rhône versions and starts out almost neutral. But grip comes in through the mid-palate, as the hand of savoury herbs tinged with apricot closes around you and the structure of the wine starts to exert itself. Give it time in the glass. 90

Moorooduc Estate, McIntyre Chardonnay Mornington Peninsula 2013

The winemaker here is MW Kate McIntrye. From sandy loam soils, natural fermented with all wild yeasts, 20% new oak, with the rest in older oak barrels. This is rich and round fruit on the first attack, with luscious citrus that narrows and heads upwards through the palate, finishing with a clean flourish – a lovely example of how Australian Chardonnay is changing.  92

Paradigm Hill Pinot Noir l’Ami Sage Mornington Peninsula 2013

Another excellent wine from Ruth and George Mihaly. The Pinot grows on volcanic soils, with natural yeasts for the tank fermentation then aged on 30% new oak. The whole thing is done with minimum intervention, and held back when bottled until they feel it is ready to drink. This has a beautifully toasted, gourmet edge balanced by juicy cherry and redcurrant. Lean structure overall but with juicy fruit, excellent. 94

Eastern Peake Intrinsic Pinot Noir 2013

From an interesting winemaker called Owen Latta who is concentrating on several single-site plots to grow his range. This pinot is from mountain fruit grown at 400m altitude on the Great Dividing Range, whole bunch vinification that is then filtered but not fined. A lovely lean, fresh dark cherry fruit, with a eucalyptus note and gorgeous spicy cinnamon and pepper pulsing underneath. 92

Luke Lambert Crudo Syrah 2015 Yarra Valley 2015

You’ll see a lot more Australian wineries using syrah instead of Shiraz when naming this grape on their label; another sign of how things are changing. Luke Lambert has long been a leading proponent of hand-crafted, terroir-driven wines from Australia (his Nebbiolo is pretty infamous at this point), and here you get a true expression of the wilder side of Syrah in all its intense, red-blooded perfume. I can feel the wind whipping through the vines, keeping the acidity high and emphasising both the balance and the soaring personality in the glass. 91

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