Dawson James gems
The Meadowbank* vineyard owned by Gerald Ellis and family in the upper Derwent Valley is one of Tasmania’s finest vineyards. Some, like Peter Dawson and Tim James, would say it IS the best. Its fruit is highly sought-after, not only by Dawson & James for their eponymous chardonnay and pinot noir, but a raft of others, currently including Brown Brothers, Frogmore Creek, Accolade (Arras, Eileen Hardy), Kate Hill, Domaine Simha, Glaetzer Dixon, Ministry of Clouds, and Meadowbank’s own wines.
Dawson and James are long-time close friends since working at Hardys/Constellation/Accolade, where they both rose to senior winemaking positions. Both are retired from full-time corporate winemaking and reside in McLaren Vale. Their grapes are processed at the Accolade-owned Bay of Fires winery.
Their first vintage was 2010 and all the chardonnays have earned high ratings from me. They’ve also excelled in wine competitions. The 2011 is a marvel, from a cool, wet vintage that created havoc on the mainland. The only vintage they’ve missed is 2012, due to a devastating fire that ravaged the Meadowbank property, singeing vines and causing smoke taint in the grapes.
The latest vintage tasted, 2015, is arguably their best yet: a beautiful wine of great fruit purity and finesse.
Peter Dawson says Dawson & James takes its grapes from the same vines each year.
“The idea is that there’s no variation except vintage,” he says.
“The pinot noir patch is right next to the chardonnay patch.”
These vines are managed according to the instructions of Dawson and James, the yields restricted and the grapes picked on acid – in other words, they wait till the normally high acidity falls to an acceptable level before picking.
“The grapes have very low pH and high acidity, but also sweet fruit at the same time. The vineyard has very good natural chemistry: the numbers are similar to top Burgundies.”
This year, 2017, the chardonnay grapes were harvested at 11.6 degrees Baumé, which is low for Australian chardonnay.
“We rarely pick over 12 degrees, and the alcohol of the finished wine is rarely over 13%. We can do this in Tasmania because the fruit flavour is there in the grapes early (at low sugar levels compared to warmer sites).”
The Dawson & James pinot noirs also began in 2010 and skipped 2012. Again, the 2011 was surprisingly successful for a difficult year. The 2010 lacks a little varietal charm at this age, but the ‘13, ‘14 and ‘15 are all very smart wines. They are just a shade below the high level of the chardonnays, but this is quite normal for pinot noir, as the degree of difficulty is higher than for chardonnay.
Dawson & James recently hosted a tasting where they pitted several vintages of their own wines against highly-regarded Burgundies, whites and reds, and their wines were not outclassed. The Burgundies included 2013 Blain-Gagnard Chassagne-Montrachet 1er cru Morgeot, 2014 Joseph Faiveley from the same vineyard; the reds, 2014 J-M Vincent Santenay 1er cru Les Gravières, 2014 J-M Bouley Volnay 1er cru Clos des Chênes and 2014 J-M Bouley Pommard 1er cru Rugiens. If anything the Dawson & James chardonnays were a little softer, fruitier and less acidic; the pinots more charming and varietal but less structured.
And of course the prices – AUD $48 for the chardonnays and AUD $65 for the pinots – are way below premier cru Burgundy prices.
*The vineyard, well upstream at Glenora, shouldn’t be confused with the winery called Meadowbank Estate in the Coal River Valley. Gerald Ellis was also involved in its establishment, but no longer: it’s now owned by Frogmore Creek.