‘Three or More’ White Blends
Australians could be accused of being obsessed with mono-varietal wines, with some justification. Just look through your local bottle-shop and you’ll see the labels mostly carry the name of just one grape, such as chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling, shiraz or pinot noir.
Yet a study of the wider world reveals many classic wines are blends of several grapes. Bordeaux is seldom a single varietal, but usually merlot blended with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and other grapes. Cotes-du-Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-Pape are blends based on grenache, shiraz and mourvedre.
Mono-mania is especially entrenched with white wines. Where are the great blends here? Well yes, white Bordeaux is normally a mix of sauvignon blanc and semillon, a blend that’s caught on in a big way in Western Australia. But you need to look hard to find more examples. France’s Alsace is a mostly mono-varietal white-wine region, but it also has a blending tradition. But north-eastern Italy – especially Friuli – is home to perhaps the most acclaimed multi-varietal white blends. Winemakers such as Silvio Jermann are practitioners of a great tradition, which is also the inspiration behind a new Australian movement known as 3 Or More. Jermann, with his Vintage Tunina, blended local Friulian grapes such as tocai friulano, malvasia, ribolla gialla and pinot bianco with French grapes such as sauvignon blanc and chardonnay to create marvellous wines – blends where the whole is truly greater than its individual parts.
The 3 Or More movement is a promotional vehicle for local winemakers led by the likes of Brian Freeman of Freeman Vineyards (tastings) in the Hilltops, and Kevin McCarthy of T’Gallant (tastings) and his wife Kathleen Quealy of Quealy Wines (tastings), both on the Mornington Peninsula. Tastings and workshops were held late last year at Longrain restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne, the prime mover being Longrain’s proprietor, Sam Christie. As the website www.3ormore.com.au puts it, these are food-friendly whites which are aromatic, textural and especially suited to Asian and modern Australian cuisines. The 31 wines in the showcase were sourced from France, Italy, New Zealand and Australia. I sampled a selection of 18 of these and while I’m enthusiastic for the concept, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, why the European wines (blind tasted) are significantly more fascinating than the Australians.
Before looking at the wines, I’ll ask what is the point in promoting blended white wines? I suspect the main aim of blending is to come up with a more complex wine than a mono-varietal. Not that there’s anything simple about a good barrel-fermented chardonnay, of course. But the idea that a wine made from a number of grapes, which all possess their own flavour spectrum and structural characteristics, should be more interesting than a mono, is sound reasoning. A secondary reason may be that a blend can be varied year to year, acting as insurance against seasons in which one particular variety fails to thrive. For example, when the cabernet sauvignon doesn’t quite ripen in the Medoc, they step up the merlot content.
The flavour and textural complexity of wines like Jermann Vintage Tunina, Livio Felluga’s Terre Alte (tastings) and others in Friuli is obvious for all to taste. I see a similar kind of charm in several of the 3 Or More wines I tasted, such as Zuani’s Vigne 2009 ($39 tastings), a Collio Bianco fashioned from friulano, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay. I also see it in Franz Haas‘s 2008 Manna ($65 tasting), a riesling, traminer, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc; in Kellerei Kaltern‘s 2009 Terlaner ($28), a pinot bianco, chardonnay, pinot gris and Baron di Pauli Enosi 2009 ($40 tastings), a riesling, sauvignon blanc, gewürztraminer, pinot blanc – all from Italy’s Alto Adige.
What is wrong with the Australian blends? They mostly tasted pretty pedestrian by comparison. The most interesting to me was Quealy Pobblebonk 2008 ($25 tasting), a blend of pinot grigio, friulano, chardonnay, moscato giallo, traminer and riesling. Showing the benefit of a little bottle-age, it tasted quite intriguing. Freeman’s 2008 Fortuna ($25 tasting), mostly pinot gris with a little chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling and aleatico, was a very good wine but still failed to escape a certain mono-dimensionality.
The Franz Haas Manna exemplified the European style’s multi-faceted nature. My description was “medium-full yellow, quite forward for an ’08. Developed, quite complex lychee (gewurz) and dusty/pot-pourri (pinot grigio) aromas coupled with hot-buttered toast and tealeaf. Soft, light palate, clean and juicy with a tickle of sweetness but a clean finish with plenty of soft, balanced acidity which keeps it clean without being overt. Above all, soft and round on the palate with true harmony.”
It’s a wine I could drink several glasses without being bored. And one of the Rhone wines, Font de Michelle Chateauneuf-du-Pape blanc 2008 (clairette, bourboulenc, roussanne; $65 tasting) was simply wonderful: a lovely array of profound apricot, peach and honeysuckle flavours, an almost oily texture but somehow light and lively at the same time.
On the other hand, several Australians were one-glass (if not one-sip) wines.
Knappstein Three 2010 (gewurztraminer, riesling, pinot gris; $25 tasting) was very straight up-and-down Aussie dry white with a floral accent and a rather clinical lack of charm. This pristine, technically correct but rather yawn-inducing lack of excitement was shared by several Aussies: Heartland Stickleback ’09 (verdelho, viognier, semillon; $14 tasting) and S.C. Pannell Pronto Bianco 2010 (sauvignon blanc, riesling, pinot gris; $26 tasting) the main ones. In their defence I acknowledge they were generally younger and less expensive than the imports.
Aja 2008 (tasting), an Australian wine blended to go with Asian foods (quite simple and sweet) and Te Whare Ra ’09 Toru (tasting) from New Zealand’s Marlborough (much too sweet) were a bit out of place in this tasting.
On the plus side, Torbreck’s ’08 Barossa viognier, marsanne, roussanne ($40 tasting) was decadently rich, round, honied and layered and the Pobblebonk was honied, nutty and quite complex with solids-fermented and sulfide-related characteristics. It also had textural interest and a quite exotic and compelling eccentricity.
A couple of other 3 Or More blends I tasted at the same time but which weren’t in the ‘team’, also impressed me. Turkey Flat Butchers Block 2010 (marsanne, viognier, roussanne; $25 tasting) had a restrained barrel influence, and latent spiced-honey character that promised much in a year or two. And De Bortoli Hunter Valley 2010 Field Blend (semillon, vermentino, viognier and verdelho; $18 tasting) was also heading down a very appealing track. Again, I’d like to see it in another 12 to 24 months.
But where does that extra degree of fascination come from? I suspect it’s largely terroir: a special symbiosis between certain grape varieties and the soil and climate of a certain site, brought to life by winemakers who practise the time-honoured techniques of their culture. We’ll get there eventually.
First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 18 January 2011.