Pannell Wins Jimmy Watson

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Stephen Pannell thinks the spirit of the late Melbourne wine bar operator Jimmy Watson must be watching over him. He’s won the Jimmy Watson Trophy twice now, and both times Australia’s most famous wine award came at a point in his career when he ‘really needed it’.

Pannell recently won the 2014 Jimmy Watson with his 2013 S.C. Pannell Adelaide Hills Syrah. The award was given on October 16 at the Royal Melbourne Wine Awards (formerly Royal Melbourne Wine Show) for the best red wine entered in the show. The same wine also won the Trevor Mast Trophy for the best shiraz in the show.

Just three months earlier Pannell and his wife Fiona had bought a property in McLaren Vale with an established 8-hectare vineyard and buildings, including a function centre with a thriving business in wedding receptions.

At the time, Pannell says, he was exhausted and running himself ragged, with half a dozen consulting winemaker jobs, not to mention making and marketing his own wines and judging in wine shows. But it was the opportunity of a lifetime. The property is the former Tapestry, in Olivers Road. The first thing the Pannells did was to repaint the garish main building a more subtle shade, knock out a few walls to create a decent tasting room, and pull out several rows of chardonnay vines immediately in front of the main building. Some people got upset, he says, because those vines were where newlyweds liked to be photographed, with the vines behind them and the stunning view of the vale and the sea beyond. He’s replacing the vines with touriga and tempranillo, the two varieties he has difficulty buying and is most excited about.

But Pannell’s hardline attitude that “this place is about wine, not weddings” softened when he saw how important the functions would be in paying off the mortgage.

Fiona Pannell says she tries to keep Steve away from the phone when wedding arrangements are being booked. He’s not always patient when people ask if they can bring their own bottles of moscato.

The S.C. Pannell label has been on the market for 10 years, and for the first eight, Steve and Fiona owned no vines or winery. They made their wines, and still do, at Tinlin’s, a major contract winemaking facility in McLaren Vale where Steve consults. They plan to build their own winery eventually.

Then, two years ago, they bought their first vineyard, which was also the result of a stroke of luck. “About 18 years before, when I was at Hardys, I’d met the owner of the property, Don Cant. We bought his grapes and I told him if he ever wanted to sell it, please give me a call first.” The call came, ‘out of the blue’ in 2012. The Blewitt Springs property includes patches of original bushland, an old tumbledown mud-walled winery, a house and several blocks of vines. The Pannells replaced the white varieties with touriga and tempranillo and fixed up the run-down old vines. Although the property isn’t far from the centre of McLaren Vale, it’s quiet and peaceful and feels remote. It’s their little slice of heaven.

Fiona, a solicitor, has given up working full-time in the law to run the business side of S.C. Pannell. She also looks after the functions and refurbishment.

When Pannell won his first Watson in 1996, he’d not long been chief red winemaker for Hardys. The wine was the 1995 Eileen Hardy Shiraz. The timing was fortuitous, as Pannell had instituted major changes in the way Hardys made red wine and was facing some doubters, who worried about the change in style. Winning a Watson put paid to that. (Some of Don Cant’s shiraz went into the ’95 Eileen Hardy, which completes a neat circle for Pannell.)

This year, he was given a clue by the Melbourne show people that he might win something, but no hint as to what. Pannell was scheduled to host an event for his agent’s customers in Brisbane. Then he broke his foot ‘fooling about’ on a skateboard. Then he got the call from Melbourne, and had a gut feeling that he and Fiona should head south. But, with his right foot and lower leg in a ‘moon boot’, he decided to go to Brisbane and then back to McLaren Vale for another commitment, then down to Melbourne, arriving an hour late for the awards dinner. It was no easy thing, hobbling on a moon boot, but “I had a sneaking feeling something important might happen in Melbourne.”

He now proudly displays the trophy, a crystal claret jug, inscribed with the name of the 2013 S.C. Pannell Syrah, in his tasting room. It was christened with Champagne on the big night.

One of the best things about the wine is its price: $30, and not about to increase.

“I am particularly excited that the Jimmy Watson has gone to a wine whose style and expression speaks of place, and that also has the ability to touch a wide audience – at $30 retail, it is a wine for drinkers, rather than collectors,” he says.

The result will warm the hearts of those South Australians who thought they’d seen the last of the Jimmy, as the Melbourne judges had signaled a shift in favoured styles away from big, full-bodied traditional South Australian reds for the past seven years. The last three winners have been a Mornington Peninsula pinot noir, a pinot-like Tasmanian shiraz and a lighter-bodied, spicy Victorian shiraz.

The Pannell wine is no blockbuster. It’s full-bodied, yes, but it’s a more elegant and spicier kind of shiraz than, say, a traditional Barossa or McLaren Vale wine. It was made from Adelaide Hills grapes grown at Echunga, and is the first Adelaide Hills wine to claim a Watson.

It is intense and powerful, with concentration and backbone, and will be long-lived. But it’s not oaky, tannic or high in alcohol. As Pannell himself says:

“I have always been interested in the struggle between power and intensity on the one hand, and delicacy and detail on the other. I don’t see the point in letting the fruit get so ripe and alcoholic that the wine ends up being a study in corrected acidity, sweet oak and added tannin. I am looking more for fruit that is still ‘alive’, with natural balance and good tannins.”

He believes the wine illustrates the ongoing journey of Australian wine, coming as it does from a region founded on sparkling wine, which became famous for sauvignon blanc and chardonnay and is now adding distinctive shiraz to its song-sheet. His use of the synonym syrah – which the French favour over shiraz – indicates the wine is a cooler-climate style with a more Rhone Valley-like elegance compared with Aussie shirazes from hotter climates.

The Jimmy Watson is a great 10th birthday present for the Pannells and a perfect way for them to announce the opening of their first cellar door sales. 

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