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| Tim's Ravings
As another year passes, I feel moved once again to write (not rave – I fear I may be mellowing…) in praise of age. Isn’t one of the perks of getting older the license to repeat yourself?
I love a good aged wine and good ageing style wines, and I love making them. Using time and nature to soften a wine, instead of stripping or sugaring it up in the winery, results in such subtlety and complexity it exposes most young wines for the brash, overblown (or worse – bland and jammy) upstarts they are. It’s why I continue to frustrate my bean counter, cellar and warehouse staff with the cost, complexity and challenges of storing our reds for 4-5 years before releasing them to you, and justifies my treasure trove of museum wines dating back to the ‘70s that those of you who attend my winemaker’s lunches and a privileged other few get to sample with me every now and then!
My faith in the capability of old vines to produce superior fruit is also undimmed, even as I see them feeling the stress of a hot season like this one (aren’t we all…). Old vines produce lower yields of more intensely flavoured fruit; smaller berries with a better ratio of tannins and acids (skin and seed) to fruit; and have the ability to weather climatic extremes thanks to deeper, thicker roots and years of experience. For great wines, I will always choose an older vine over a new one.
What I haven’t done before on the topic of age is to celebrate the contribution in the workplace of the mature employee. Now maturity can come without age, so don’t jump down my throat for being ageist; we’re very lucky indeed to have the skills and hard work of some fantastic younger folk. It just so happens that a couple of my new-ish young employees didn’t work out, their replacements were more “seasoned” and it got me thinking. I’d just like to say I’m heartily appreciative of the attitude, work ethic and professional and life experience the mature bring to the table, and any employer who discriminates on the basis of old(er) age has got to be barking..
Hello, my name’s Tim and I’m a perfectionist and a control freak.
You might not want to live with me or work for me but trust me, you want to drink my wine.
I’m sure Bob the founder wouldn’t mind me saying that he was too. It’s why Estate grown, made, bottled (and sold) is a cornerstone of Huntington Estate’s approach.
I’m trying to make great wines, and what separates the great from the really good is chasing the extra 1% of quality at each and every step of the process. That means doing the right thing at the right time. All those 1% improvements add up to a lot when you’ve got the quality of raw materials we have at our disposal here – the terroir, outstanding vine clones and age, winery infrastructure, people.
I am absolutely convinced that no-one else could ever care as much about the quality of our wine as we do, which is why we’re the only ones who touch it.
Great wines are made in the vineyard. We’re good (modest too) but we can’t make great wine from ordinary grapes. We live among these vines and lean soils and know every inch of the vineyard, weathering the seasons alongside it, and give the grapes our best which they repay in quality.
Great wine comes together in the winery. Picked at the perfect moment, we respect the fruit, and use the finest yeasts, oak fermenters and barrels plus patient attention as and when required to bring out its full potential.
Great wine can be diminished in the bottling process – there’s a right time and a right way.
And last but not least, we love having a relationship with our customers that comes from talking to them on the phone and at the Cellar Door and develops over the years. And why give a cut to a middle man when we can split the difference so I get to keep making wine and you get to buy it at great prices?
I’m proud to offer you some wines that I think are almost great (perfectionist remember), and I’m sure you’ll enjoy. Cheers!
It’s the end of October and bushfire stoking 35 degree days alternate with a series of devastating frosts that have wiped out vineyards less favourably situated than ours across NSW and the ACT. The last “black frost” hit our Block 9 Cabernet pretty hard.
As a farmer and a country dweller almost all of my life, it certainly feels like the weather is getting more extreme. As a grape grower and producer of some of the nation’s finest Cabernet, I’m sensitive to even minor temperature increases – projected or actual.
I don’t want to get into the debate about cyclones and bushfire, whether climate change influences them and the impact this may have on other parts of society here, but I do want to talk about the potential impact on vineyards. For example, the difference in mean growing season temperatures between two great but starkly different French regions, Burgundy and the Northern Rhone Valley, is just 1.5 degrees celsius. Here in Australia, this is the same difference between the Yarra and Barossa Valleys.
While other factors also influence wine styles – soils, slopes, continental vs maritime and sunshine hours – these temperature differences do serve to illustrate the affect that climate change can have on vineyards. Another factor is how wet or dry a season is, and climate change science asserts that we are likely to get greater extremes. Anecdotally, I reckon we are already seeing this.
You may think me unwise as the owner of a commercial enterprise to express what has been turned into a political opinion in this country (as in many). Certainly my peers will not thank me for raising attention to the notion that some once ideal cool climate vineyards may not be as viable in the long term. It seems simply ridiculous however that the majority of us engaged in any form of agriculture, whose livelihoods depend on the climate feel compelled to pretend this issue doesn’t exist instead of contributing a “down to earth” and credible voice to the debate.
If climate change is happening, all vineyards are likely to see some impact on wine styles and this is something that needs to addressed not ignored.
If for no other reason than you love Australian wine and are partial to the finest drops we produce here at Huntington, all I ask is that you engage with the issue. Sit down with a glass of something delicious in your hand, and consider the costs and consequences of inaction vs those of action on the off chance that the weight of scientific opinion is right.
Mudgee produces the best red wines in Australia.
This is a claim that I am sure will be disputed by many but allow me some space to explain exactly why I feel this.
There is no doubt our style of red wine is unique; we have high levels of high quality tannin and acid that can the wines somewhat astringent when young. I make no apologies for this as this structure makes the wines great for ageing and great with food.
These tannins in particular also make our wines unpopular with national wine shows where judges are consumed by freshness, softness and immediate-appeal. When young our reds can lack freshness and seem awkward, but in time the fruit and tannins integrate to become sublime.
To put it simply our wines are old-style and don’t suit tastes where body and complexity are not important. This worries me about as much as knowing what Justin Bieber had for dinner last night.
The style of Mudgee reds is not something we can change, even if, God forbid, we wanted to. This is because of our unique climate and soils which are what they are.
The soils are old and lean, and the climate is Mediterranean and dry; both aspects punish the vines into producing concentrated and tannic fruit. We have a hot climate during the day, pushing the vines hard, but at night it cools down dramatically, giving the vines a rest. It is not unusual to have days at 32 degrees Celsius, while the temperature drops to below 10 degrees at night.
Time and again I have seen Mudgee winemakers (myself included) try to tame these tannins by manipulating the vineyard conditions or playing with the wine too much in the cellar. Invariably the wine becomes stripped or dull. Handled properly, Mudgee wines are full-bodied, have loads of super-fine tannin, good acid levels, with concentrated and complex flavours that last on the palate.
The trick is to be guided by the vineyard and intervene as little as possible. Go with the tannins, not against them.
Huntington Estate has consistently been at forefront in producing red wines that age beautifully and drink best with age and food. This is not something that will change. Ever.
10 years of Screw caps!
The greatest revolution I have seen as a winemaker is the dramatic switch from cork to screwcaps. For me, it was akin to the discovery of the theory of evolution or that the earth revolved around the sun.
My vinous eye-opener happened around 10 years ago. The Clare Valley in South Australia will be recorded as this revolution’s epicentre - winemakers there were sick of having their marvellous Rieslings ruined by off-flavour linked to cork, and they made an en-masse switch to screwcaps.
Other domestic producers had made similar declarations but the fact that a premium and world-recognised wine style had made a joint and forceful decision made the market sit up and take notice.
In Australia cork sales dropped by almost two-thirds over the next few years as consumers voted with their palates and joined the winemakers in protest against cork.
The reaction from the cork industry was like the backlash against Darwin or Copernicus. If the earth really did revolve around the sun, why didn’t people spin-off the earth, and there was no way man could be related to apes; screwcaps similarly went againt the orthdoxy and made no sense. A decade ago websites were abuzz that wine would not age under a screwcap, that ecosystems would be destroyed if cork plantations were shut down and even, most hysterically and shamefully, that screwcaps caused cancer.
The last remaining excuse is the nostalgia of the pop of a cork. If this is the main reason for drinking wine, you should be legally restrained from corkscrews and other sharp objects.
The facts are that screwcaps are a better seal than the vast majority of corks can ever be; they provide a perfect seal as the best corks do (and therefore there is no random oxidation), while also never contaminating wine with the dreaded TCA off-flavour. Plus the seal does not appear to rupture as cork frequently does when subjected to constant heating-cooling cycles; the bottle doesn’t need to be stored in a special wine cellar.
And winemakers everywhere are reporting their red wines are ageing under screwcap as well, and mostly better, than they do under cork.
For customers of Huntington Estate - which prides itself on ageworthy, classical reds – this is only good news.
Old wines, old vines and me
I have often spoken of the need for old vines to produce our wines. Here goes an attempt to explain why.
Firstly, what counts as an old vine? There are no official definitions but the general view is that anything over 30 years is old, although some vines in Australia’s more historic districts have managed to clock up a spectacular 150 years.
For the wine, the important thing is that the vine has a big root, trunk and cordon system in order to store reserves of carbohydrates to get it through the inevitable lean times. It’s also critical that the vine is healthy, and free of viral disease in particular that can block water and nutrient flows. With vines such as these, yields can be kept low, allowing the vine to generate concentrated flavours in fewer grapes.
That describes the scientific aspects of old vines, but it doesn’t account for the metaphysical aspects of great wine quality from aged vines. As a recent first-time Dad at 46 (positively ancient for a vine…) I can well testify to the pros and cons of being an older provider.
We – the vines and me – have been through a few seasons, we know what can go wrong and we can take action early to minimise mistakes. It’s called experience. Vigorous young vines, for instance, can misdirect their energy chasing high yields because it’s raining today, even though tomorrow it will be dry. The result is that young vines can produce wine that is fresh and friendly, but they can lack complexity, depth and elegance.
Us older types might not have the energy to sprint around after a football, but we make up for it with wisdom, patience, and being able to balance our time better to extract the best rewards, for father and son, grower and grape alike, from the relationship.
At Huntington Estate, where we believe that time is the true test of a wine, having vines that are 45 years old is a critical ingredient to our wine style.
An exciting mix of craft and science…
A bottle of wine from a single vineyard is truly rare and special.
All year, year after year, vines are rooted to the one spot, growing and ripening their fruit amid sometimes dramatic climate changes. This year it’s floods, last year it was drought.
The vigneron requires discipline and experience to be able to react to the unique rhythm each growing year offers.
Traditionally the best wines in the world have come from a single vineyard. Over centuries, Burgundy and Bordeaux in France, and Tuscany and Barolo in Italy, have built their reputations on such a premise. Generations of vignerons have each accumulated small pieces of knowledge that add up to the sum of a great wine.
Knowing that the final wine must be made from this one patch of vines is a great discipline on a vigneron. There is no easy option of blending from other vineyards or even districts for this would surely dismantle the complexity and personality of the wine.
It’s like children from the same parents - the DNA is the same for each and defines underlying traits, but it is a curiosity that each has its own complex personality that has been layered by personal experiences both good and bad.
Wine should not be the product of a factory. At Huntington and other committed Estates, wine is craft and science carefully weighed, the bottle is reflective of the toils of vines and vignerons, and the varying weather conditions they have conquered.
I would urge you to hunt down these single vineyard wines, and enjoy the rare complexity offered by each hand-crafted bottle.
Owner-Winemaker, Huntington Estate.
Bogged but happy
We’ve just had 3 tractors bogged in the vineyard, each one trying to drag the other out. It was quite a sight watching this tractor-train plough itself through the row. The vineyard manager had a beer or two that night.
And we left the special cow poo spreader slowly sinking in the middle of Block 8 – hopefully we’ll get it out sometime in the next month or two.
What a far cry from the dust storms, searing heat and rock-hard dry soil of this time last year. It’s great for the vines as they start to grow again – 5 years of drought have taken their toll on our 40-year-old vineyard and this spring has been a great time for replenishment, especially with all that poo we managed to spread before the bog.
The 2010 vintage was an awful one for us in terms of yields - just 30 tonnes of fruit from a vineyard that normally yields 300. On the other hand (there’s always an ‘other hand’ in viticulture) the quality was great. Bank manager sad, winemaker happy.
Over the next few months our 40 hectares of vines will flower with each becoming a grape. They will slowly fatten to pea size, then grape size before the New Year after when they will ripen their sugars and flavours before being picked, depending on variety, between February and April 2011.
Will this be another 1979 or 1999 (both considered the truly great vintages at Huntington Estate)? Thanks to the rains we already know it won’t be like 2010. By the time the vines shredded their spartan leaves in June and headed for a winter rest they looked as battered and exhausted as an ageing footballer heading for the off-season.
Unlike the footballer though, these vines will be back for more, many more times. Sometimes I worry about myself; I really think I am falling in love with the vines. I really admire their ability to stay in the one spot and cop everything that’s thrown at them, and still come back and give us this miraculous and wonderful thing called wine. Although I do feel sorry for the ones that are stuck next to the spreader with a tonne of poo in it.
Owner-Winemaker, Huntington Estate.
How do you buy wine?
Buying fine wine today is nothing like it was 40 years ago. Back then, when Huntington Estate was established, there were merchants galore, mostly operating independent wine shops.
These merchants travelled extensively through wine regions in Australia and overseas, finding the best wines. They discovered and nurtured winemaking talent and celebrated diversity, and in response the wine industry flourished and millions of Australians found a lifelong passion for wine. They lived or died on their ability to supply interesting and different wines to customers who they knew by name and by palate.
Then about 20 years ago wine shops started to be bought out by multi-nationals, in particular the Coles and Woolworths grocery chains who now control three quarters of the liquor retail market.
Today there are very few independent merchants and the wine market is driven by price not knowledge and passion; and mass production rather than craft.
The other day I walked into a Dan Murphys store, part of the large Woolworths chain. I asked one of their staff where the Coonawarra wines were. He grunted and referred me to his store manager who pointed at the New Zealand section.
I was also speaking to a leading wine critic who had just enjoyed one of our wines – in his words it was “regional, complex and great drinking”. When, I asked, would he be writing about it. “I’m not,” he replied. “There’s no point in writing about a wine if you can’t get it anywhere.”
It is now pretty tough for small wineries to get their product into the marketplace. The scale of production necessary to reduce margins is simply not compatible with producing wines that are regional, individual and complex. For customers, that means less diversity and ultimately the loss of choice.
At Huntington Estate we have long had the philosophy of bypassing the middlemen and only selling direct to our customers. We keep our margin low and put it back into producing the highest quality wine at the lowest price we can. We can continue to produce the wine we know our loyal customers want to buy – and we know what they want because we have discussions with our customers every single day whether at the Cellar Door, by phone or by mail.
Owner-Winemaker, Huntington Estate.
A Great Time to Visit Mudgee
The weather in Mudgee is glorious at the moment; cool, crisp nights followed by clear, sunny days. Winter and Spring is a great time here, invariably green and languid.
For those who haven’t been to Mudgee lately, allow me to paint the scene. Mudgee has rejuvenated its famous streetscape in recent years and is one of the most impressive examples of historic towns in Australia.
Most of the accommodation in Mudgee is B&Bs (there are no large resorts), but these are not like the B&Bs of old. Many are located among the vines, in town or on the river and are more like boutique hotels.
The town itself is a busy one, particularly on Saturday mornings when a dozen or so cafés offer sunny sidewalk breakfasts the way only a pretty, historic country town can.
Following breakfast, a typical Mudgee weekend is likely to have you visiting some of the 30 Cellar Doors, most of which are within a fifteen minute drive. Almost all are family-owned and offer high quality hand-made wines of all descriptions, from delicate whites to thumping, traditional reds.
These are wines that are often little known by all but loyal followers and international critics. The makers are invariably passionate and motivated not by commerce but the desire to produce food-friendly and exquisite wines to their own liking. Service is unrushed, informative, personal and most importantly, friendly.
Following your winery visit, it’s back to base for a read and a nap in front of a log fire.
Next you saunter out to dinner at one of Mudgee’s handful of excellent restaurants that feature our amazing local produce (pork, lamb, rabbit and vegetables in particular), or simply pop into one of the smart country pubs for excellent atmosphere and food. You will sleep well, I promise – they say it’s the pristine mountain air that does it, but I reckon it’s just that you are a world away from the city.
Wake up late the next morning to chirping native birds, another country breakfast, pick up a bit more wine and then reluctantly head back.
Mudgee is a leisurely 3½ hour drive away, but it’s a transformative journey that you won’t regret making.
Owner-Winemaker, Huntington Estate.
A mess of our own making?
The Australian wine industry is in trouble. Deep trouble.
Despite a vision 10 years ago to put Australia on the world wine map with premium, regional wines –such as Barossa shiraz and Coonawarra Cabernet – we’re now seen internationally as ‘cheap and cheerful.
We all rallied behind that premium, regional goal. All except the big companies who knew better and employed beer salesmen to go to London and New York and sell blended, commercial wine for under $10 a bottle. The buyers pulled the obvious bluff; “Discount please”.
The salesmen complied – after all, wine is made in factories. Mass marketing campaigns meant they sold heaps of Jacobs Creek, Rosemount and the like. Three-quarters of wine exports now don’t have a regional label. In the past decade exports doubled while our prices dropped by a third.
In short, we created a tidal wave of commercial, cheap wine that washed away the success that may have been achieved by our unique regional producers.
Giggling from the sidelines were disciplined old world producers like France and Italy who kept selling their regionally-based wines for good margins.
Soon big companies realised they were losing money and produced more wine – strangely they lost more money. So they discounted harder to increase cash flows. Curiously enough, this didn’t solve the profit problem.
Next they raised cash, selling off vineyards and wineries, and screwed desperate growers and bulk suppliers. Yippee. The industry is still losing money and taking on more poisonous debt.
Today, our Australian-based large wineries are on the brink of ruin, growers are in peril, there is a wine lake, and our goal of producing regional wines is in tatters. What happens next is as inevitable as it will be ugly.
I am actually quite annoyed about it. I urge you to support Australia’s small, regional winemakers and help keep our wine industry alive through the rocky times ahead.
Owner-Winemaker, Huntington Estate.
Chardonnay Here To Stay!!!
I appear to have recently lost a bottle of Grange to friend in a bet. He is yet to receive the wine; I have lawyered-up, to examine loopholes.
The bet (which, Your Honour, was not witnessed) was a friend trying to convince me that Sauvignon Blanc would topple Chardonnay as Australia’s top white. I do admit I was blinded by my love of the style of Chardonnay that’s fruity, crisp and flavoursome, like our well-pedigreed Barrel Fermented version at Huntington Estate.
At the time of the bet (alleged bet, Your Honour, and, I might add, without paperwork) five years ago, there were very few good Savy Blancs made in this country. As wine show judges,, we’d all moan if unlucky enough to be given this class; its wines were generally regarded as insipid, lacking in varietal characters and generally too sweet or over acidic.
Since then, spurred by the dramatic increase in popularity of Savy Blanc from Kiwi land, winemakers did their homework, found the right climates, the right techniques – in both the vineyard and winery – and produced some excellent wines.
As you know by now, us winemakers find it hard to walk and chew gum at the same time, so while we were concentrating on Savy Blanc, Chardy became our attention-deprived ‘middle child’. Many of us threw out the recipes that drove our Chardy export success of the past few decades and went off on some Burgundy-inspired kick – many picked the grapes greener, with acid levels too high and the fruit characters undeveloped.
Today, the result is a marketplace with too many Chardys that are neither ‘lean and elegant’ nor ‘sunshine in a bottle’, just wines that are too acidic and flavourless or overripe and unbalanced.
The sadly predictable result is that Savy Blanc has taken the crown. Whether this trend continues will depend on how winemakers react, particularly in terms of the style of Chardy we are making.
There are positives from all of this. Firstly, we are now making some really good Savy Blancs and this trend won’t go away. Secondly, there are those of us who never stopped making Chardys that are fruit-driven and flavoursome. As many of you will testify our Barrel Ferment ($19) and Unwooded ($15) Chardonnays have good fruit flavours and great palate weight without being too tight or too broad. They’re great drinks.
The final positive in all of this: I did naively purchases a few bottles of early ’80s Grange from from less than impressive vintages, and the ullages seem to have suffered. I’ve only got one left, and I had been wondering what to do with it…
Owner-Winemaker, Huntington Estate.
Estate Grown Made and Bottled.
There is a popular phrase among wine lovers that ‘great wines are made in the vineyard’.
It’s a flippant aside that bends reality, because the vineyard is just the beginning of a very complex and treacherous journey to bottle.
The analogy is that of a Car Racing Team. Having a great driver is only the start; without a great engine, tyres, flash looking computer thingies and a great support team, the engine is just a very expensive heap of junk that would give the Top Gear TV show team much fun and merriment.
Britains ‘next big thing’ Lewis Hamilton, last years Formular One champ and this years Formular One champ is a case in point. He’s clearly a great driver but his car this year is a dog. The expensive heap of junk under him is the equivalent of a poorly managed vineyard on unsuitable soils in a poor climate.
Discussing this issue with a winemaker for a multi-national wine company, he jokingly expressed surprise at the notion of vineyards, saying ‘But grapes come from trucks don’t they?’. It is a view as equally illogical as the increasing number of Cellar Doors who grow their fruit only then simply send their fruit away to a contract winemaker who has never seen the vineyard and have the wine returned a year or two later in bottle.
You will too-sparingly see the words ‘Estate Grown, Made and Bottled’ on wine labels. The phrase proves a strong commitment by that winery to build its own ‘racing car’.
Getting the wine through the intricate process of winemaking – from nurturing the vines to making and getting the wine safely into bottle – involves hundreds of difficult decisions and actions by an experienced team committed to its goals. To get everything right requires strict discipline and skill. Most decisions have the potential for either vinous slaughter or glory.
Next time you are choosing a wine look out for ‘Estate Grown, Made and Bottled’ because it is evidence of commitment and passion. Huntington Estate is celebrating our 40th birthday this year and this tagline has appeared throughout our life – its one of the secrets to our survival. You wouldn’t see Lewis Hamilton jumping on ebay to try to find his car and team for next years championship.
Owner-Winemaker, Huntington Estate.
Its Our Birthday!
40 years ago Bob Roberts came to Mudgee, shoved a few thousand sticks in the ground, and hoped they would grow.
Bob had a vision, developed in the company of the fathers of the modern Australian wine industry at Bulletin Place in Sydney. The group included the likes of Len Evans and Max Lake who shared the ’wine bug’ that, as I can testify, is far more virulent than any strain of the flu!
Bob’s vision was different though - he always has been an awkward bugger. His vision was egalitarian – he wanted to make dry table wines, in the style of Burgundy and Bordeaux, at affordable prices.
And while Evans, Lake and their ilk headed for the Hunter Valley for its history and proximity to Sydney, Bob chose Mudgee. It seemed to Bob that Mudgee, with history of its own, but more importantly a cooler, drier climate had better pre-requisites for Cabernet in particular, so he broke with the pack, bought a rundown orchard and rolled-up his sleeves.
His hunch about the climate proved correct with Mudgee soon establishing itself as a better producer of full bodied dry red table wine than most.
There was another thing the awkward bugger firmly believed in – the key to any of the classic styles is that the wine must age. In a nutshell that the grapes should provide the basis for the winemaker to make something that will soften and blossom after some time in the bottle.
Today Huntington Estate is one of the few Aussie wineries left with this ideal. The market demands wines that are to be drunk young and fresh. But I have a belief of my own: that there are still more than a few people out there who love the more crafted styles of wine that are made to stand the test of time. Bob knew his wines would stand the test of time, but he wouldn’t have been human if he hadn’t had some doubts that Huntington Estate would make it too. Congratulations Bob!
The question all Aussie winemakers are asking themselves at the moment is what the trend will be over the next decades. Will customers continue to want fresher and simple wines? What’s the next hot variety? But to me the question is largely irrelevant – I’m no slave to fashion, and neither are true lovers of fine wine. What won’t change is that for those in the know, craft and time will remain the true test. And yes, I am confident that Huntington Estate will be here in another 40 years – I am an awkward bugger too, it’s one of the secrets Bob shared with me.
Owner-Winemaker, Huntington Estate.
I'm Not into Facelifts
I am not into facelifts or other enhancements, as you can see from my photo. I mean, just look at Madonna.
In the end, age and time don’t lie. So it is with wine.
Traditionally wines - red ones in particular – have been made to age. Its what the French and Italians do so well, particularly in Bordeaux, Burgundy and Barolo.
These wines are made so that as time passes the tannins become finer, the acids soften and fruit matures. The combination of these things means a wine that is soft, elegant and complex, a joy to all of the senses.
It starts in the vineyard, where the skill is to craft fruit with excellent flavours and tannins at lower sugar ripeness levels. The wine is slightly lower in alcohol but higher in acid which combines with other components to preserve the wine. On the other hand, fruit with less acid, higher alcohol and broad fruit and tannins mean the final wine will not age.
In the winery the extraction process ensures the right components are converted to the wine and this recipe varies depending on the vineyard characters. Finally there is the conditioning process of ageing in barrels with infinite variables to ensure longevity.
It is all incredibly difficult and not for the impatient, but the rewards are immense. It often takes generations to perfect.
In Australia, most wineries employ shortcuts to get the wines soft when young. These ‘face-lifts’ include higher alcohol (giving sweetness and less acid), overt oak treatments, added tannins and a host of additives which take the rough edges off. The wines are designed to drink well at a young age and believe me, it keeps the accountants happy. But they won’t age.
I know which route I prefer – the non-surgical one and to hell with bean-counters I love you to death, Bert Newton, but I don’t wanna look like you.
It’s the tannin, stupid
There has been much debate lately in Mudgee Winemaking circles about trying to describe the style of our red wines.
The debate has been spurred by continued frustration over the generally low level of promotion Mudgee wines. I must confess to finding the debate a little odd for while I agree we could all certainly be doing better in terms of promoting Mudgee’s wines, I don’t see any ambiguity over the style of our red wines in particular.
For me, the style is unique, transparent and obvious. Seen in wine line-ups from all Australian regions, Mudgee sticks out as clearly as a competent Minister in the NSW Government.
It’s the tannin, stupid. They are fine, prominent, lengthy and smooth. I would only use the word silky for them as aged wines. Try a bottle of Huntington Estate 1993 Shiraz next to anything else and you’ll see what I mean. (BTW, I’m serious, drop me an email and I’ll send you a bottle for $30, no kidding.)
These tannins come from our unique climate. We are relatively north and therefore don’t receive long days during the autumn. We are at altitude so we get cool nights that help preserve acids, tannins, flavours and all those things structurally necessary for building a long-lived wine. We get good storms in spring which get the vines off to a good start and dry autumns which allows full ripeness to develop.
And there is one other thing; we wine makers are all small wine producers so are producing wines to our own food-loving palates. We are not trying to get big jammy flavours that fall apart after a few years in the bottle, we want wines that will stand the test of time and that can be drunk with strong provincial flavours.
It is worth buying a case of excellent Mudgee red wine - drink a bottle every year, next to a Barossa red and a wild rabbit stew. Let me know in 12 years what you reckon. I’ll give your money back on the 93 if you disagree with me.
Wine fashions frustrate
The wine scene has always got caught up in fashions. A great example is in white wine. One day we like overoaked chardonnay, the next we like unoaked chardonnay, the next we hate all chardonnay and critics tell us we must switch to riesling.
Invariably, as statistics reveal, well balanced chardonnay comes back and remains the undisputed king of whites – riesling remains popular among the critics who seem to me to be the only ones actually drinking the stuff because its accounts for less than 10 per cent of white wine drunk.
Red wines undergo similar trends. The current one is shiraz-viognier blends. These are great if they come from cool regions similar to the northern Rhone Valley in France (like Canberra pioneer Clonakilla) but a total con if they come from warmer regions (like the Hunter Valley). I have no doubt as to the long term future of these wines in the marketplace.
Interestingly, there is a spin-off of this trend which threatens to transcend fads. This is the issue of northern Rhone style shiraz wines. At a number of wine shows over the past few years I have noticed these peppery, spicy wines being rewarded purely because they are peppery and spicey.
The problem is Australian shiraz is a unique style throughout the world. Where french shiraz is peppery and spicy, Aussie shiraz is ripe fruit and mocha, typified by the Barossa Valley style. It would be a shame to see this latter style subjugated on a permanent basis, although I don’t believe it will. I am sure a balance will be found.
Another trend which frustrates at the moment is in the case of Cabernet Sauvignon. Show Judges and critics are now definitely penalising minty, eucalyptus, cassis (i.e varietal flavours ) of cabernet sauvignon, claiming it too often to be green and leafy when, if viewed through the Bordeaux prism, it certainly is not. Instead we seem to be leaning towards overripe, non-varietal, cabernets that are alcoholic, too soft and will not age. This trend is not sustainable.
I guess one thing all of this does show is that as a winery, it is important we hold your nerve in terms of style. Stake our territory; back the style we do best and hold our nerve against the swings and roundabouts of fads.
My predecessor Bob Roberts once told me that he has never seen two vintages even vaguely the same. We were talking not just about the actual weather conditions but also the tastes of the wine. From my limited perspective in Mudgee, he is dead right. The red wine vintages from 1997 to 2007 were, respectively; elegant, thumping, fine, best forgot, dry reddy, bold,clunky, medium-bodied, average, ripe and boofy.
Which brings us to 2008. For the southern grapegrowing regions of Australia it was dominated by drought, leading to very few good wines, by all reports, thanks to dramatic and unavoidable over-ripening. Nothing could be further form reality in Mudgee.
A really unusual flow of rains from easterly off-shore events near Newcastle fed unlimited rains to the Hunter Valley and Mudgee, without going much further south.
Every three weeks from October to March the heaven gave us 50 millimetres of rain. Plus, it was colsd. Our hottest day for the season was in early October. There was only a handful of days in February (normally our hottest month) when the temperature rose above30 degrees Celsius. Disease was impossible to avoid. Downy and Powdery mildews crept through the vineyards during summer. By March the dreadful botrytis wasendemic and unstoppable.
Yet somehow the grapegrowers of the district kept much of these diseases at bay. A textbook ould say we should have been wiped out. Perhaps the weather-beaten growers were motivated by anger that floods would prove to the aftermath of drought. Instead of running aound endlessly turning on irrigation systems 12 months prior, this season these hardworking vignerons were constantly on tractors with spray carts.
In the end we produced wine, a minor miracle and ripeat that. Good flavours too, some are great. Perhaps we should simply tag 2008 vintage as 'miraculous'.
Let's hope that Bob's words continue to be true - my heart could not stand another vintage like 08.
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