Bell adds more strings to her bow
“Climate change is being really kind to Coonawarra now,” says Sue Bell, one of the region’s smallest boutique winemakers. “We can ripen cabernet sauvignon eight out of ten years, whereas it used to be two or three out of ten in the (distant) past.”
Bell is talking about her 2013 Bellwether Cabernet Sauvignon, which is her current release even though most other wineries would be selling their 2015s and 2016s by now. But she is making a style that is built to age and needs time to show its best. It is rare for any winery, especially a micro-boutique, to hold a wine back like this – even Cullen is already releasing its 2016 Diana Madeline Cabernet Merlot.
Bell is a highly experienced, savvy and intelligent winemaker, who has worked in the region for many years. Prior to buying the abandoned Glenroy Woolshed and striking her own Bellwether label, she’d been Constellation’s chief winemaker in the south-east of South Australia, at its Padthaway winery, 1999 to 2008.
She is pragmatic about the way the wine shows reward softer, more up-front young red wines – often awarding trophies and gold medals to cheaper, drink-now styles while highly structured, long-term wines might only win bronze medals in their youth. It pleased her that her 2013 cabernet won a gold medal at last year’s Limestone Coast Wine Show: the judges acknowledged its quality but it took a few years to score a gold, merely landing bronzes in its earlier years.
Bell harvests her grapes earlier than most in Coonawarra.
“Everyone thinks I’m mad. But the grapes (off the Wetherall vineyard) have ripe flavours and ripe tannins, and the alcohol is just 13%.”
As good as the cabernet is, there are more strings to Bell’s bow than cabernet and Coonawarra – even though she lives there and her winery is there. She makes an outstanding Tasmanian chardonnay from grapes grown at Relbia near Launceston; a vermentino from the Chalmers family vineyard at Heathcote; a rosé labelled Rosato from alternative varieties (the 2017 is nero d’avola, barbera and pinot grigio, the nero grown in the Riverland at Ricca Terra Farms, the others from Wrattonbully). And a bianco d’alessano from Brett Proud’s vineyard at Loxton.
The last is a very rare bird indeed, made from the only planting of this Pugliese grape in the Southern Hemisphere. This dry white varietal hit the headlines back in 2010 when Salena Estate’s Bianco D’Alessano scored the ‘best wine of show’ trophy at the Alternative Varieties Wine Show. But the glory was short-lived and failed to make it an overnight star; indeed, the grower was about to pull the vines out, when Bell stepped in.
“I’ve been buying it every year since,” she says. “The 2018 is the fourth year. It has amazing tannins. Coonawarra cabernet tannins in a white variety!”
But she manages those tannins well. The 2016 Bellwether Ant Series Bianco D’Alessano has an intriguing musky floral aroma, a hint of pot-pourri, and the palate, while textured, is far from grippy or astringent. It’s savoury and has the backbone to handle flavoursome food.
“A portion of that wine was left on its skins for nine months,” she says. “The tannins do initially get hard, but if you leave them long enough they soften again – just like a long-macerated cabernet. Another portion had seven days and another 24 hours. I don’t like fining: it removes too much flavour, so I don’t fine the wine. And the tannins are a natural part of that grape so I like to work with them.”
Bell is fascinated by tannins in white wine, which she sees as a big part of how the whole wine scene has improved in recent years.
“The Mediterranean white varieties have more drought resistance, so it makes sense to grow them in places like the Riverland, and they also tend to have more phenolics in their skins. Maybe that’s part of why they’re drought-resistant. I tend to think so.
“I also think the trend towards more phenolics in white wines has something to do with seeking more complexity in wine, as opposed to just fruitiness. And better compatibility with food is part of it. And it is one of the learnings from the natural wine fad.”