The Cool Customer

Tim Knappstein is one of the wine industry’s great survivors. He started out in the Clare Valley in the late 1960s where his uncle Mick Knappstein was a winemaking legend at the Stanley Wine Company. After serving his ‘apprenticeship’ there Tim started his own company Tim Knappstein Enterprise Wines, in the old Enterprise brewery in Clare which he converted into a winery. It still bears his name today although he hasn’t owned it for many years.

That’s because Tim discovered cool climate. It happened on a trip to the Yarra Valley around 1978. “I was impressed by some of the wines I saw, with their bright fruit flavours. I was soon sold on cool-climate.”

He bought land at Lenswood high in the Adelaide Hills the same year the Henschkes bought their land, and one year before Geoff Weaver. All were in the same Lenswood locality. “I bought and planted in 1981 and moved there in ’85,” he says. He wasn’t permitted to use his own name as he’d sold that along with the Clare winery to its new owner.

He used the name Lenswood Vineyards for a while, and in 2004 had to sell the vineyard, which was later on-sold to Henschke Wines (tastings). The wheel has come full-circle as Tim now buys grapes off his old vineyard from the Henschke family for his Riposte wines (tastings).

Meanwhile, a friend in the Adelaide Hills, John Wicks, wanted to get into wine. Wicks was involved in fruit growing, chook farming, earth moving and property development. He engaged Tim to help, and Tim has been making the wine at Wicks Estate (tastings) since its first vintage in 2004. He also makes his own wines there, eliminating the need to build an expensive winery of his own. “I’m a virtual winery, following in the footsteps of Wolf Blass (tastings), who was the first virtual winery in Australia – I have no vineyards and no winery of my own.” He devotes 75 per cent of his time to Wicks Estate and several small vineyards whose wine he also makes.

As for the relationship with Henschke, Tim grins as he says “Your best guarantee of quality is a profitable grapegrower.”

As for Wicks Estate, it’s become synonymous with value-for-money, especially with its shiraz, which is about $20 a bottle. “They’ve been doing good things with sauvignon blanc,” says Tim. “They’re probably third in the Hills for sauvignon blanc sales after Shaw + Smith (tastings) and Nepenthe (tastings).”

Tim’s label today is Riposte by Tim Knappstein, so he’s managed to sneak the name back on the label, and he makes two pinot noirs, a pinot gris, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, shiraz and gewurztraminer, as well as a barrel-fermented white blend named The Halberd (tastings). All the wines are named after types of sword, which, together with the name Riposte, is his reply to the financial and other challenges life has dealt him over his 50 years in the wine business. There’s The Foil sauvignon blanc (tastings), The Stiletto pinot gris (tastings), The Scimitar riesling, The Dagger (tastings) and The Sabre (tastings) pinot noirs and The Cutlass shiraz (tastings). All the wines are a better-than-fair $20 retail, except The Halberd and The Cutlass (both $26) and The Sabre ($30-$35).

Tim’s main passion is for pinot noir. “We’re living in the age of pinot noir,” he says. “Today’s wine drinker wants more medium-bodied, cool-climate red wines.” But here he runs into some problems. “Pinot noir is the most versatile red variety,” he says. “But South Australian pinot noir is still a hard sell. We need more trophies, more recognition.”

Australian drinkers associate pinot noir with places like Yarra Valley, Mornington and Tasmania more than the Hills. It’s the same conundrum with riesling: “People associate South Australian riesling with Clare and Eden Valleys, not the Adelaide Hills, although riesling is very good in the Hills. There’s an increasing tendency to identify certain regions with certain varieties – to an extreme. The truth with pinot, though, is that the Hills has few great pinot noir sites, whereas we have lots of potential for shiraz.”

Pinot needs a cool climate, usually provided by high altitude, and Tim has moved away from 100 per cent Lenswood, because his early pinots were a bit too big and dry-red-like. He now sources as much fruit from high-altitude Summertown as from Lenswood. “The high-altitude sites over 500 metres produce deliciously fragrant light to medium-bodied pinots, not the ‘dry-red’ style that you get from warmer sites.” The Sabre is 50/50 Lenswood and Summertown, the Lenswood portion contributing richness and body, the Summertown portion aromatics and finesse.

By Australian standards Tim’s an old hand at pinot noir. He made his first in 1991 in his old Clare winery. By his own admission, he vinified it as though it was shiraz. “We had a French guy working with us that vintage and he made some wine his way and did everything I thought was wrong. But he came up with something pretty decent, so we kept a few ideas that worked and ditched the things that didn’t. Like stems. We de-stem everything.” He can’t hide his belief that stems in pinot noir fermentations are the devil’s work. More than that, they’ve harmed Australia’s progress with the pinot noir grape.

Today, he makes two pinots: the $20 The Dagger is virtually unwooded, an entry-level wine that has seen tremendous sales growth, jumping from 1,000 cases in 2009 to 1,500 in 2010. It was developed for sale through the Wine Selectors club. Being unwooded, it works especially well with spicy foods, according to Tim’s wife Dale, who also works in the business. The wine undergoes some carbonic maceration and is bright, fresh and fruity. It’s also a great cash-flow wine. As Tim says, it’s grapes on the vine in February and it’s wine in the shops by November.

“It’s a patio pinot,” says Dale. “It can be served chilled like a Beaujolais.”

In his late sixties, Tim is still judging in wine shows and still getting his hands dirty making wine. His son Nick is now involved in the business, so it’s likely the famous Knappstein name, which has been connected with Australian wine since the 1890s, will continue.

First published in Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 21 Jan 2014.

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