Quiet confidence is its own reward

The other day I was invited to the Yarra Valley to look at a new wine venture – to be flown in, wined and dined, treated well – and this producer doesn’t even have a wine in the bottle yet.

Presumably, the idea was pre-publicity. I declined of course. But it wasn’t the first time. Pre-publicity seems the name of the game.

That’s one extreme of a wine producer’s attitude to the press. At the opposite extreme is the Bowen family of Coonawarra. They seldom wave their flag and they don’t get much press. But they make better wine and have more to show than most.

The family business dates back to 1973 when they planted their first vines on Coonawarra’s cigar-shaped strip. The first wines, from the 1976 vintage, were excellent and for a long time, Bowen Estate (tastings) was at the forefront of Coonawarra wines. To their credit, owners Doug and Joy Bowen ignored the mania for mechanical and minimal pruning that gripped the region in the ‘80s and ‘90s. They declined to raise their prices while many around them did. In my opinion, their wines strayed off the path somewhat in the noughties, with high alcohols, often tipping 15 per cent. Not my idea of elegant Coonawarra reds.

But they knew things had gotten off the rails, and set about fixing them. This meant replanting much of their 38-hectare property. Not all of the blocks were producing wine of high quality. And the clones in their vineyards were inconsistent. Some made great wine, others, ordinary wine.

But the Bowens have always espoused the philosophy of estate-grown wine. The only year they bent this rule was 2007, the terrible frost year. If you want to be self-sufficient in grapes and vineyards need to be replanted, you must change things gradually, block by block. Otherwise you won’t have any wine to sell. Grapevines take several years to reach production after replanting.

Doug Bowen is half-way through a 10-year replanting program. But he’s not going around telling people and making a noise: his softly softly approach means he won’t publicise it until he has the proof in the bottle.

There is plenty of good wine, don’t be mistaken. But the output is reduced as blocks of vines are out of production for years at a time. Beside the winery is a patch of cabernet that was replanted after the 2006-7 frosts, to a clone that Doug discovered in the Banks Thargo (tastings) vineyard, whose wine he and daughter Emma make under contract. The vineyard is over the back behind Bowen Estate. Doug confides that the Banks Thargo wine is better than anything on Bowen Estate. He wondered why, of course, then discovered the clone was an unusual one in the district: G9V3. He resolved to use this for his own re-plantings. That block beside the winery is now five years old and is already producing Bowen Estate’s best cabernet, says Doug.

Just a little way south along the Riddoch Highway is another Bowen block, at present a glorious four-hectare heaven of perfect iron-red terra rossa soil, ploughed up and naked, trellis posts in place, ready to receive more cuttings of cabernet sauvignon G9V3. It’ll be planted next winter.

Beside the block is a derelict house, coloured sickly blue-green, and I say to Doug, only half-joking, that he should doze the house and plant the land, because it’s some of the best soil in the district. He agrees. But things move slowly in Coonawarra. It’s a project for the future.

The next night I find myself in Heyward’s Royal Oak Hotel in Penola, and in the name of research I order a bottle of Banks Thargo ’08 Cabernet Sauvignon (which costs a ludicrously cheap $30 – in a pub!), and it’s very good indeed (tasting). I can see where Doug’s coming from.

“G9V3 is not a fashionable clone,” says Doug, “but I suspect it suits the terroir around here.”

That’s cabernet, Coonawarra’s signature grape variety. But shiraz is another important side to the story. Years ago I drank a bottle of 1998 Bowen Estate Ampelon Shiraz, a great wine. It’s still the one and only Ampelon shiraz. Now I find out that the Ampelon vineyard is part of the Bowens’ original plantings in 1973 (yes, they’re celebrating 40 years next year). The first planting was 2.8 hectares of shiraz and 1.2 hectares of cabernet. This has always been far and away the best shiraz they grow. But they have no idea what the clone is.

When Doug and Joy decided to plant a vineyard they went against the usual pattern of just lazily asking a neighbour for cuttings from whatever vines they happened to have.

“We brought our own rootlings from a nursery in the Riverland,” says Doug. “The cabernet was hopeless, but the shiraz was sensational. It still consistently produces our best shiraz.” In bringing in an unknown clone, they inadvertently boosted the local gene pool. The ’98 Ampelon was a decadent, fleshy, sumptuous wine; spicy and rich, voluptuous and delicious. Two weeks ago I tasted the 2012 (as yet unbottled) from the same vines, and wrote almost the exact same description.

Little surprise, then, that the Bowens have taken cuttings from the Ampelon vines and established two new blocks of this clone, the first planted in 2004. These will be the new ‘mother vine’ blocks.

So, despite their best intentions to remain stum, news has seeped out, like red wine escaping between the barrel staves. The Bowens, despite their shyness, their lack of a single self-promotional bone in their bodies, have let the press see what they’ve been up to. I’m confident we are about to see a new era at Bowen Estate.

The 2010 reds, shiraz and cabernet sauvignon (they stopped the Bordeaux blend a decade back), are excellent. The 2011s are an aberration because of the terribly wet, cool year, when a lot of people in Coonawarra did not bottle anything. The Bowen ‘11s are light but pretty: very attractive early-drinking wines. But watch out for the 2012s. The barrel samples I tasted were simply great. This is a fabulous year in Coonawarra. But the wines are more than a year away from your bottle-shop.

Doug and Joy’s daughter Emma is now the winemaker, their son Simon is chef in his own local restaurant, Pipers of Penola, and things look hunky dory for the family.

Doug Bowen has his own ideas about viticulture and seems immune to the fashions that sweep through the region from time to time. His new plantings are closely spaced, the vines 60 centimetres apart, giving twice as many vines per row as before. They total 1600 vines per acre. The theory is that with twice as many vines, pruned to half the number of buds per vine, the crop level will be the same but the quality is improved because each vine is putting more goodies into fewer bunches.

Time will tell. But the reasoning behind all Doug Bowen’s decisions in the vineyard reconstruction seems rock-solid.

As for PR? The Bowens don’t have a PR department or PR agency, and the irony is that they are sitting on a great story.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 6 November 2012.


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