Poole’s Rock’s French Adventure

The untimely death of David Clarke last April was a great loss to the Hunter Valley wine industry, where his Poole’s Rock winery has emerged as one of the leaders. The winery was sold to the Agnew family, already owners of Hunter vineyard Audrey Wilkinson, and its original vineyard – in the Hunter’s Broke-Fordwich sub-region – was sold to AGL. The gas company is controversially exploring for coal seam gas in the Broke-Fordwich area.

The award-winning restaurant Rock – which was cheffed by Clarke’s nephew Andrew Clarke and won two chef’s hats in the 2009, ‘10 and ‘11 SMH Good Food Guides – has been closed, and the premises turned over to cellar door sales.

So it’s all-change and many upheavals, although the talented Usher Tinkler remains Poole’s Rock winemaker (also in charge of the Cockfighter’s Ghost and Firestick labels) and Jeff Byrne remains the winemaker in charge of Audrey Wilkinson. All the wines will be made in the same winery.

Tinkler had been sweating on whether the new owners would allow him to release some French wines he had been working on for the last three years. In the end they agreed, and the wines – red and white Burgundies – have been released as Poole’s Rock International Series.

Tinkler travelled to Burgundy the last three vintages to make wine with his friend Arnaud Desfontaine, whose family have a winery and vineyards in Burgundy and agreed to help Tinkler make some wines. Tinkler, a third generation Hunter vigneron, and winemaker at Poole’s Rock since 2004 and chief winemaker since ’09, met Desfontaine in 2006 when he worked a vintage in the Hunter. In the 2009 Burgundy vintage, Tinkler made three wines – two of them at Desfontaine’s winery, the third (and less-interesting in my view) is a Chablis made in Chablis by a grower who insisted on vinifying the wine himself.

All three are premier crus, the stand-outs being a Montagny Premier Cru Les Burnins Chardonnay (tastings) and a Fixin Premier Cru Clos du Chapitre Monopole Pinot Noir. The prices are exceptional: whites are $55 and red $85. The only bad news is the availability – only 100 dozen of each was produced. They are available from Poole’s Rock (4993 3688). The Chablis Premier Cru Mont de Milieu Chardonnay is a slightly fusty old-fashioned style which is good but lacks brightness and clarity of fruit. The Montagny has this in spadefuls: it’s a delicious, pristine chardonnay which successfully combines fruit definition and complexity, and well exceeds its appellation on the Cote Chalonnaise. The Fixin, from one of the northernmost appellations of the Cote de Nuits, is a rich, powerful and ageworthy wine typical of the ’09 vintage. Both saw 20 per cent new oak.

Tinkler has made follow-up wines in 2010 and 2011, and has been given the green-light to continue the project – which was begun with David Clarke’s encouragement.

Tinkler is already accustomed to making wine in the Hunter from grapes grown in other places. Poole’s Rock produces Tasmanian pinot noir, Clare Valley riesling and Langhorne Creek cabernet sauvignon under the Cockfighter’s Ghost label.

At just 32 years of age, Tinkler has many distinctions to his name: 2008 Hunter Valley Rising Star of the Year; 2007 Wine Society Young Winemaker of the Year; 2009 finalist in Hunter Valley Winemaker of the Year; and 2007 Len Evans Tutorial scholar.

In addition to all this, he makes the wines for the family label, Tinklers (tastings). The vineyard, started by his grandfather who was also named Usher Tinkler, is close to McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant (tastings) – the main buyer of grapes from the 35-odd hectare plantings. Indeed, Tinkler worked at Mount Pleasant (tastings) before Poole’s Rock.

Tinkler says the main lesson he learned about white wines working in Burgundy is that in France they build as much as they can into the wine to make up for lack of fruit, while Australians try to keep the wine fine and tight and control the generous fruit. It’s a matter of sun, he says. More than enough sun in Australia; not much sun in Burgundy. “Sun gives you fruit. Australian winemakers try to restrain their fruit, to give the wines more finesse, delicacy and tightness, often harvesting earlier than they need in order to retain more natural acid. In Burgundy, they try to optimise richness: they work the wines in the cellar to make up for the lack of richness in the fruit. Hence barrel fermentation and lees stirring, malolactic and chaptalisation.”

They have to chaptalise (add sugar) much of the time because the wine must have at least 12.5% alcohol to qualify as premier cru, and often the fruit is harvested at 10.5 or 11. It can be good fruit, but it won’t make a wine with sufficient alcohol to be a premier cru by law.

No doubt Tinkler will put what he’s learnt to good use in Poole’s Rock’s already excellent chardonnays. There is one cloud on the horizon: since the Broke vineyard was sold, the best fruit in every Poole’s Rock chardonnay up to 2011 is no longer available. It’s undecided whether the vineyard will be uprooted in the name of coal seam gas. David Clarke would be aghast.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 24 January 2012.

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