Taltarni remains a French Enclave

Frenchman Loic Le Calvez is a young man in a hurry. At the age of 32, he’s already been chief winemaker of an important Australian winery for two and a half years. He arrived at Taltarni (tastings) eight and a half years ago for a vintage job; went away again; worked in other countries; came back to Taltarni; met an Australian woman six years ago; married her four years ago; and was offered the chief winemaker’s job. And he has no plans to go home.

Taltarni is in Victoria’s Pyrenees district, where Le Calvez quickly established himself as a highly competent winemaker who has the respect of his peers.

Not only does he make excellent full-bodied red wines, for which Taltarni has always been famous, he’s put his own stamp on the whites, and Taltarni’s fume blanc is probably the last wine labelled ‘fume blanc’ in Australia. It’s an interest-packed Loire-like style which will appeal more to serious wine drinkers than those who scoff buckets of the cheapest Marlborough they can find in the supermarket.

But perhaps most noteworthy of all, he makes outstanding sparkling wines under the Taltarni and Clover Hill (tastings) labels. Unlike many smaller independent wineries, who use contractors to ‘champanise’ their bubblies, Taltarni does every part of the methode champenoise process itself, on its property at Moonambel. The maturing bottles are housed in temperature-controlled tunnels, dug into the hillsides on the property.

Taltarni’s regular $24-$26 Brut Methode Traditionelle, blended from Pyrenees and Tasmanian grapes, and its rose running-mate Brut Tache (tastings), are well-made and highly drinkable sparkling wines that manage to over-deliver despite their youth and limited time on lees (the 2008s are current).

The other thing that seems to show Loic Le Calvez is a man in a hurry is his prematurely smooth head. But one thing he’s in no hurry to do, is go back home to France – much to his parents’ dismay.

If you’re familiar with French names you might already know where he’s from. With the first-name Loic and a ‘Le’ before the sur-name, he has to be from Brittany (the surname is also Breton, not Spanish). Brittany, while it has lots of cider and apple-brandy, is one of the few French provinces that doesn’t have a wine industry, so how did this tall, slim, athletic-looking chap become a winemaker?

His father had a wine-shop in a small Breton town near St Malo. “At 15 years old I had never seen a vine – we don’t have them in Brittany – but I already wanted to become a winemaker,” he says. “I was fascinated that wines all tasted different although they were all made from the same fruit. Even wines made from the same grape variety tasted different.”

As soon as he left school, he was off to study wine at the University of Bordeaux. Oddly, it’s pure coincidence that he is the second chief winemaker at Taltarni to be a graduate of that august school: Dominique Portet’s name was synonymous with Taltarni for its first 25 years. Taltarni’s owner is also a Frenchman: John Goelet. He acquired Taltarni in the mid-1970s and established Clos du Val (tastings), run by Dominique’s brother Bernard Portet, in California’s Napa Valley about the same time.

The Taltarni estate-grown reds, cabernet sauvignon (tastings), shiraz (tastings) and the Moonambel Vineyards Reserve (tastings), a $65 shiraz cabernet blend, are renowned as some of Australia’s longest-lived and most cellarworthy. I took my last bottle of the inaugural vintage cabernet sauvignon, the 1977, to a wine show dinner last year, half-expecting it to be past its best, and it was a sheer delight. The judges of the 2009 Air New Zealand Wine Awards, by nature a highly critical mob, lavished praise on it.

The 2006 ($35-$40) (tastings), the current release, is from the same vines (planted in 1969) and cast in the same mould. Inevitably, this kind of wine is firm and tannic in youth and by its nature doesn’t usually show well young – especially when lined up against its peers which are almost always softer and more approachable.

The ’06 is cedary, briary, tobacco and cassis-like to sniff, and more open than it might be, thanks to being released with four years of age instead of the two that’s customary for full-bodied reds in this country. It has lashings of mouth-coating tannin, which dries the fruit from palate and leaves a savoury impression – but it’s designed for aging and we shouldn’t expect it to be soft and easy at this age. I like it a lot. You can drink it now with food that contains protein, or cellar for at least 20 years.

So, why is Loic here instead of in France, the home of great wine? His answer is in two parts. He deeply loves Taltarni and Australia. “The challenges I get at Taltarni are very interesting. I couldn’t find them elsewhere. From Tasmanian sparkling wines to Pyrenees reds, and the new Tasmanian vineyard we are establishing at Tea Tree, it’s a unique job. And it’s a small family owned company with just four wineries (there are also two in France).” The second reason is that he married Simone who, despite her name, is Australian.

“I also love Australia and am deeply into its culture. I love football and cricket. The opportunities I get here you cannot get in Europe. While I respect the French appellation system, I also love that Australians can experiment, and blend. I couldn’t make Taltarni Fume Blanc in Europe: a barrel fermented sauvignon blanc blended from two places as far apart as Victoria and Tasmania.”

There’s also a certain frontier spirit. “In France we’ve taken several centuries to find out which varieties grow well in which regions. After one century in Australia, we’ve already got a pretty good idea. In the future we’ll know a lot more. There is still a sense that we are part of something new: we are building something for the long term.”

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 29 June 2010.

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