It’s what’s inside that counts

Something was missing at the recent Saltram museum tasting. Here was a rare opportunity to taste Saltram Mamre Brook reds (tastings) from the current vintage to the first one from 1963, and Stonyfell Metala (tastings) from now to the first from 1959. Yet only one member of the younger generation of wine writers was present. Everyone else was grey-haired – or no-haired. And it’s not that younger guests weren’t invited. My regret was the chance to taste history and learn about the evolution of Australian wine was not shared by the up-and-coming generation.

There were 96 bottles lined up, 50 of them Mamre Brook, 46 Metala. These are hardly high-end wines. Indeed, they’re inexpensive. It goes without saying they’re not fashionable. Hot-climate South Australian red wines from big companies (Saltram is part of Treasury Wine Estates, formerly Foster’s) are a bit on the nose these days. But these are both excellent red wines, much improved of late, very affordable and distributed widely. Metala is about $19-$23 and Mamre Brook $29-$33. These are wines for the people.

Metala 1970 and Mamre Brook ’71 are two of the first wines I ever bought to cellar, in the late ’70s. Both were made by Peter Lehmann and his team, who walked out of Saltram in 1979 when new owner Seagram began to change things. Consequently, the wines of the 1980s are disappointing, partly because Seagram was not quality-oriented and was, temporarily, in a region and a business it knew nothing about. Even in great years such as 1986, ’90 and ’91, they managed to make below-par wines. Both in Mamre Brook and Metala, the alcohols are low – due to harvesting too early – and the acids high, most likely due to over-acidification. The wines are same-ish and bland. It’s a reminder of how picking the grapes too early can result in loss of terroir, just as in more recent times winemakers have been accused of picking their grapes too late.

It’s likely other factors were at work, too: lesser-quality grapes and vineyards overwatered to gain higher yields. But this cannot be the case at Metala, which has always been a single-vineyard wine. Mamre Brook is Barossa; Metala is Langhorne Creek – grown by the Adams family and their forebears the Formbys, who have owned and farmed this iconic vineyard since they first planted it in 1881. Today’s manager, Guy Adams, took over the job in 1981. Metala was vinified at the vineyard until 1952, then at Stonyfell’s Adelaide winery and then at Saltram’s Barossa winery, to the present day.

The wines of the early 1970s were impressive from both labels: none of the wines we tasted was ”over the hill” and there were no significant technical flaws. Metala, for instance, was outstanding from 1959 to ’63 inclusive, and the more successful seasons of the ’70s were also excellent, including ’71 and ’72. But there were few exciting wines until the ’90s, except for standouts such as ’80, ’84 and ’86.

With Mamre Brook, the early wines (1963 to ’78) were a pleasant surprise: really excellent, mellow and complex. But there wasn’t much to excite between 1980 and 2001 except the ’84 blend and ’96 cabernet. This is an indictment of the winemaking.

Until 1995, the wine had always been a cabernet shiraz blend, but in 1996 then-winemaker Nigel Dolan decided to split the crop and make two separate wines. Quality improved during the latter part of Dolan’s term and has continued to rise. Shavaughn Wells joined Dolan in 2004 and Dolan left in 2007. Certainly, Wells’s recent vintages, produced with assistant winemaker Richard Mattner, are outstanding; none better than the current release 2010. The only recent vintage to rival 2010 is 2006, when both wines were rippers – especially the shiraz.

Oak and alcohol emerge as historical concerns, and while the oak situation has been addressed, alcohol hasn’t. The alcohols started creeping up in the late ’90s and since 2002 Mamre Brook and Metala have been between 14.5 per cent and 15 per cent alcohol almost every vintage. A few have touched 15.5 per cent. The wines don’t taste unbalanced, but I wonder if they are going too far? When we consider the earliest wines were substantially lower, you’d have to conclude it did them no harm. In the ’80s, the wines for which there are records (by no means all) were between 12 per cent and 13 per cent alcohol, but no one would turn the clock back to this period, as the wines were very ordinary. There’s no doubt their richness, charm and character is better today, but maybe the makers could shave a per cent off.

The other startling feature of the older wines, both Metala and Mamre Brook, was that they were aged for 2½ years to three years in large 500-gallon vats – 2250-litre casks. It’s become accepted wisdom that small oak barrels, some new, are necessary to make great red wine. But the older vintages had no small or new oak, and are still wonderful. Perhaps they weren’t so ”pretty” or aromatic as young wines, but is that enough reason to hit them with a lot of oak?

Wells doesn’t think so, because she’s gone back to large vats for at least part of the maturation – with some difficulty. These barrels are not easy to come by today. But she is gradually building up a cellar of them, and is very pleased with the results. Certainly, the recent vintages don’t show overt oakiness.

Don’t expect to find these wines in smart restaurants and groovy wine bars. Look for them in supermarkets and unfashionable bottle shops everywhere.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 3 July 2012.


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