Pepper Tree makes a statement

John Davis has turned Hunter Valley-based Pepper Tree into a substantial wine company with vineyards in four regions. (Photo: Pepper Tree Wines)

“If you were coming to this area (south-east South Australia) to plant vines today, you’d choose Wrattonbully, not Coonawarra.”

To cut a long story short, the quality of the Pepper Tree 2016 Wrattonbully and Coonawarra reds is superb.

So says Pepper Tree Wines owner John Davis, a highly credentialed geologist who has turned Hunter Valley-based Pepper Tree into a substantial wine company with vineyards in four regions.

He says the topography of Wrattonbully is its advantage over Coonawarra. The topography is varied, and this sets up different soil types, whereas Coonawarra is flat and the soil is the same*.

“Coonawarra doesn’t have a dune as we do in Wrattonbully. The quality sites in the south-east are planted on dunes, which are old coastlines, and there’s a 20-metre relief.”

In other words, there’s a 20-metre variation in altitude, which provides slopes with a range of exposures and soil types.

Davis (assisted by chief winemaker Gwyn Olsen) has put his money where his mouth is and released a wine which sets a new high-water mark for the region. It’s the AUD $175 Pepper Tree PJP Single Vineyard 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon. That’s AUD $110 more than the company’s previous highest priced Wrattonbully wine, the Block 21A Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (the outstanding 2016 is AUD $65), and AUD $30 higher than their dearest Hunter wine, the Tallawanta Shiraz (the 2014 was AUD $145).

Davis is making a statement.

He and Olsen chose the 2016 vintage to wave the flag for the region for several reasons. It’s an outstanding vintage for them at Wrattonbully, it’s the first vintage Olsen has had total charge of the wines ‘from go to whoa’, and it’s Davis’s 36th year in viticulture.

Davis’s first vineyard investment was in 1982; he later bought Briar Ridge in the Hunter and when Pepper Tree came on the market, he added that. He felt the Hunter was too restricted “with just shiraz, semillon and verdelho” and expanded into Orange, where he bought 80 acres and focused on sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and cool-climate shiraz. But he also wanted to produce cabernet sauvignon and merlot and it was a ‘no brainer’ to go to Coonawarra – Margaret River being ‘a bit far away’.

“We looked at Coonawarra but the prices were very high and there was little terra rossa soil left.”

Wrattonbully, by contrast, had lower land prices, plenty of good land available and a similar climate to Coonawarra’s. Davis now has a 100- hectare vineyard there.

Recently, Pepper Tree has won the trophy for the champion wine at the Limestone Coast Wine Show two years in succession (in 2015 and ’16) with Wrattonbully cabernets.

“I’ve seen some fantastic Penfolds wines from down there – they go into Bin 389 and so on, but it’s disappointing that they don’t produce a wine with Wrattonbully on the label.”

Davis says he felt the need to champion Wrattonbully because no-one else was. (He obviously has not heard Brian Croser or Xavier Bizot on the subject!)

The 2016 vintage was also the first time Pepper Tree harvested The Gravels shiraz blocks by hand, instead of machine. They compared this wine with wine made from the adjacent rows, which was machine-harvested, and there was an obvious lack of eucalyptus in the hand-harvested shiraz. (This is because harvesting machines take everything including leaves and bark, and these bits of MOG, or ‘matter other than grapes’, go into the fermenter and flavour the wine.)

To cut a long story short, the quality of the Pepper Tree 2016 Wrattonbully and Coonawarra reds (they also have a Coonawarra cabernet, named Calcare) is superb, crowned by the new super-selection, PJP cabernet sauvignon. During the barrel tastings, Gwyn Olsen identified 10 barrels that were superior to the rest of the cabernet, so these were bottled separately, creating 200 dozen bottles of PJP. The name comprises the initials of Pete Balnaves and Pete Bissell, both of Balnaves Wines, who consult to Pepper Tree on viticulture and winemaking respectively, with J for John Davis. Evidently, Davis values the input of the two Petes so much that he felt moved to enshrine them on his flagship label. High praise indeed.

The wine is also exceptional. Tasting notes for the six 2016 Pepper Tree Wrattonbully reds are on the website now.

*To be fair, Coonawarra is not all the same, as there is red terra rossa, black rendzina and ‘transitional’ soils, which are between the two.

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