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Old Vines and New Wines

You think Australian wine necessarily means bursting jammy fruit and ultra-high alcohol? Think again... By Panos Kakaviatos

You think Australian wine necessarily means bursting jammy fruit and ultra-high alcohol? Think again. Michael Fragos, chief winemaker at Chapel Hill, McLaren Vale and Steve Flamsteed, winemaker at Giants Steps/ Innocent Bystander, Yarra Valley, co-hosted a master class to show that Australian wines can also convey freshness in more terroir-driven, vintage-determined fashions.

Examples included a Chapel Hill “Unwooded Chardonnay” 2010, which Fragos said is “meant to challenge Sauvignon Blanc drinkers”. Flamsteed spoke of harvesting at “11 o’clock”, not when the grapes are too ripe, as he described his Giant Steps Sexton Vineyard Chardonnay Yarra Valley 2008 as more “citrus driven”. He also made a Chardonnay more like what one would perhaps expect from Australia, picked three weeks later, the Giant Steps Arthur’s Creek Vineyard Chardonnay Yarra Valley, which proved thicker and richer. Participant Jessica Fevre, a medical student and wine enthusiast, was particularly charmed by the Vasse Felix Heytesbury Chardonnay (Margaret River) 2008, with floral notes and butterscotch sweetness on the nose and palate.

Fragos’ Shiraz wines from McLaren Vale illustrate his toning down philosophy: “We are trying to embrace our terroirs more, taking a step back and trying to do less to the wine, and let the vineyard and vintages speak out more.” He stressed subtle climate and terroir differences between the Chosen House Block Shiraz and the Chosen Road Block for example. “We do not want to dish out alcohol levels that are too high,” he explained. Afternoon sea breezes cool down the vines, but beyond the maritime influence, Fragos said cropping levels are moderated and harvesting is done earlier. At roughly 14.5% alcohol, the wines are rather low when compared to many bolder styled Australian Shirazes.

Winemakers from other wines at the tasting also addressed the class, including chief winemaker Phillip Ryan of McWilliams Maurice O’Shea Shiraz Hunter Valley 2007, one of the most popular wines at the tasting: sweet yet nuanced, and made from vines nearly 130 years old, and aged in nearly 100% new French oak.

Another example of Aussie toning down: Jacob’s Creek recent switch from American to French oak. Chief winemaker Bernard Hicklin said told participants that while the 2004 tasted at the master class – indeed very sweet and big – was aged in 70% American oak, the winery is “swinging” to 70% French oak, because it is more subtle. Said Hicklin: “We are moving away from high alcohol styles” …
Change is afoot in Australia.

Written by Panos Kakaviatos

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