A Lesson in French

When a heatwave in early February wrecked her 2009 McLaren Vale vintage, Rose Kentish decided to take her family to France and make wine there. Not that unusual, you might think in this day and age, when winemakers flutter here and there making wine in various countries, seemingly on a whim. But Rose had four school-age children between six and 15, and an artist husband happily painting in his McLaren Vale studio. She proceeded to talk them into going to Provence and Corsica so she could make wine. It took some doing, but Rose Kentish is a determined woman.

The first thing to understand is that this is no ordinary family, and no ordinary winemaker. Rose and husband, artist Sam Harrison, in 1997 bought a vineyard in McLaren Vale called Ulithorne, which they expanded and managed for several years. In 2001 Rose began making wine and with her tutor, veteran McLaren Vale winemaker Brian Light, looking over her shoulder, made successive vintages of Ulithorne Frux Frugis (tastings), which is an opulent, full-bodied, chocolaty McLare Vale shiraz, priced at $45 at cellar door. She also has a sparkling shiraz called Flamma ($38 tasting), a grenache shiraz called Chi ($38 tasting) and a cabernet shiraz called Paternus ($40 tasting), which won her the 2008 Bushing Queen title and trophy for the best wine of show, at the McLaren Vale Wine Show.

Kentish and Harrison sold the vineyard and bought a disused 1855 flour mill at Middleton, a coastal town on the Fleurieu Peninsula between Victor Harbour and Port Elliott. It’s not in the McLaren Vale wine region, but that was probably intentional. Why be just another cellar door in a busy, congested wine region, when you could be the only one in a different town? It’s typical of Kentish’s creative thinking.

Rose set up a wine bar there, serving not only the Ulithorne wines but other local beers, wines and platters of regional food. In order to finance the mill’s purchase, Kentish and Harrison sold the Ulithorne vineyard – retaining the right to buy back grapes for their own wines.

The building also serves as a studio for Sam and a gallery for his finished works. It all worked spiffingly – until the 2009 scorcher.

To cut a long story short, none of the family wanted to uproot to spend a harvest in France, except Rose. But they ended up having the time of their lives, Harrison finding new inspiration for his art and the children going to local schools where they learnt French.

They lived in a small, charming “medieval town with a neglected chateau” called Aubais, between Nimes and Montpellier. Rose’s first move was to place ads in local newspapers to find a winery where she could make her own wines.

“I met a selection of winemakers to see who would be best equipped to work with a small-batch winemaker like myself,” she said. “I checked out their vineyards, tasted their grapes and tried their current and back vintage wines. I didn’t try to force a working relationship, just met with plenty of people and quickly worked out who I’d like to work with. Language differences aside, it’s all about personalities and who best understood what I was trying to achieve.”

She ended up making a rose which she named Epoch at a winery called Domaine de Sanglier, near Toulon. And a vermentino on Corsica, at Domaine Vino Vecchio from 70-year-old vines. It’s called Corsus Vermentinu (tastings), the latter being the local spelling of vermentino and Corsus meaning ‘from the Corsicans’. Rose went back for the 2011 vintage (sans family) and is preparing to go over for her third vintage in 2012.

Both the current-release 2011 wines are very good, and happily quite different from anything she might have made in Australia from the same grape varieties. The rose, a Cotes de Provence (tastings), is very pale and light-bodied, dry but soft and very quaffable, in traditional Provencal style, with scents of strawberry and vanilla. The vermentinu is a richer, spicy style of dry white with a slight tannin grip, and built to partner food. It’s full of personality, and bears the rather lovely appellation Vin de Pays de l’Ile de Beaute (tastings). Both are $34.

This year, Rose plans to make a Corsican dry red, and shows me a list of unpronounceable native Corsican varieties, that she’s been told she can choose from: niellucciu, sciacarello, murescolo, morescono, minustello, corcagolo nero. Oh, and also syrah.

There’s a sideline event happening here too. Struck by the similarities between Corsican and McLaren Vale climates, Rose is researching a thesis on the two regions, the grape varieties, and the idea that the native Corsican grapes may suit McLaren Vale and other hot Australian regions. The thesis is part of her master of winemaking course at the Dookie campus of Melbourne University.

She seems to have a need to cement her winemaking credentials by gaining a formal qualification. It’s an unexpected twist for such an unconventional person.

Rose expected the learning process in France to be one-way, but was pleased to realize that she could share her skills and knowledge with the French winemakers. Both later revealed she’d made an impact on their winemaking knowledge. “I did not expect to influence them at all, nor was I intending to, but clearly our shared experience brought them benefits as well.”

No doubt it also benefited the family, although she didn’t insist they go with her on the second trip.

Each Ulithorne wine is limited in production to between 300 and 350 cases, giving a total output of 2,500 to 3,000 cases. The 2008 Frux Frugis (tastings) is current (there won’t be an ’09, of course) and is being poured by the glass at several restaurants including Otto and Rockpool. Retailers who stock Ulithorne wines include Australian Wine Centre, Ultimo Wine Centre, Avalon Fine Wines, Annandale Cellars and Vintage Cellars Double Bay. Or go to www.ulithorne.com.au.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Living – 17 July 2012.

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