The job of a wine writer is misnamed: it should be ‘wine taster’ because we spend a lot more time tasting the stuff than we do actually writing about it. I spent the last four weeks between mid-December and early-January catching up on tastings: I had never been so far behind before, and the pressure was on to get the stockpile of samples down to a reasonable level. I tasted 950 wines and as I write, still have about 350 to go. Unlike some wine writers, I still taste everything that is sent to me. I haven’t yet given up the fight, although the deluge increases yearly.
Pinot noir must be the most dissected and psycho-analysed of all wines. It fascinates and frustrates all of us, whether winemakers or drinkers. At the many pinot symposia, such as the annual SIPNOT (Stonier’s International Pinot Noir Tasting) pinots from Australia, New Zealand and the US are tasted blind and compared with Burgundies. The Burgundies are often found to be disappointing. In the three SIPNOTs I’ve attended, as a panel member but still tasting blind like the audience, the most expensive wines, the grand cru Burgundies, are often the most disappointing. The highest-rated, on the other hand, are usually New Zealand and Australian wines. They are deemed the most enjoyable on the day. Inevitably, a question is posed, along the lines of: “”Why is Burgundy still regarded as the benchmark?”” And “”Why do these Burgundies cost several times as much as the best Australians and Kiwis, which were preferred?””
Last August, the public relations firm whose job it is to talk up cork, on behalf of the leading Portuguese cork producer Amorim, issued an astonishing press release. “TCA NO LONGER A MAJOR PROBLEM IN USA, SAYS INDUSTRY LEADER”. Essentially, the report said that Dr Christian Butzke, an American professor of oenology and wine judge, said in an article in a wine industry magazine that TCA, the main cork-derived taint that results in ‘corked’ or ‘corky’ wines, was no longer a major problem in the US for either producers or consumers.
Red wines, especially Stonewell Shiraz, are what most of us think of when the name Peter Lehmann comes up, but the development of the Lehmann white wines, especially riesling and semillon, is perhaps even more impressive. Great shiraz is no rarity in the Barossa, the story of Stonewell has been told, and Peter Lehmann Wines now makes a battery of superb reds. But chief winemaker Andrew Wigan’s success with white wines is less talked-about. When Wigan and Lehmann worked at Saltram in the 1970s they made good reds, but the white wines by Wigan’s own admission were rather ordinary. They had no finesse. Wigan’s refinement of the dry whites at Lehmann, right down to the entry-level riesling and semillon, has been nothing short of revolutionary. Reserve whites Margaret Semillon and Wigan Riesling now regularly top the shows and often excel in overseas judgings.
The 1959 red Bordeaux vintage was an outstanding one, and the best of the wines, the first growths and other highly rated wines, are still drinking well if they’ve been well cellared. They have become very scarce and extremely expensive, and opportunities to taste them are increasingly rare. Hence, the decision by co-owner of Sydney’s Rockpool Bar & Grill, David Doyle, to open no fewer than five of the best reputed ’59s from his own vast collection could be regarded as an opportunity, if not to die for, then at least good reason to suffer a significant hangover.
Sarah Fagan, 28, was brought up on a farming property at Cowra, and it was odds-on that she would end up doing something in agriculture. By the time she went to Sydney University her parents Peter and Jenni Fagan had already become late entrants in the winegrowing business, planting vines on their diversified farm Mulyan in 1994. Sarah completed one year of horticulture and agricultural science before realising that she wanted to specialise in wine, heading off to Wagga Wagga the next year to do the wine science course which she completed in 2003. While in her final year, she worked her first vintage at Poet’s Corner, Mudgee, before heading down to the Yarra Valley to De Bortoli. Notwithstanding trips away, she’s never really left. She worked with Ted Lemon at Littorai in California in 2004. Lemon taught her a lot about individual vineyard expression, a mantra at De Bortoli Yarra Valley, where she is now white wine and pinot noir winemaker under Steve Webber.
The biggest problem with Australian red wines is not ‘brett’ or oak chips or residual sugar, but something more fundamental: the ripeness of the grapes. Judging in shows across Australia and tasting in many different contexts, I find ripeness is the key issue that brings winemakers unstuck. It’s the main difference between those making very good wine and those just failing to. It’s a matter of the grapes, or a proportion of the grapes in the mix, were harvested at the wrong level of ripeness. They were either underripe (green) or overripe.
Julian Alcorso is probably the first Winemaker of the Year finalist ever who doesn’t have a wine of his own. As head of the contract winemaking company Winemaking Tasmania, the 61-year-old son of the founder of Moorilla Estate, Claudio Alcorso, and his team make wine for ‘about 55’ clients. “I hate putting myself forward, that’s why I don’t put my name on any label. I get more than enough satisfaction from seeing the wines we make for other people do well in shows and in the market.”
I’d like a dollar for every time I’ve heard a send-up of the language used by wine tasters. The unenlightened delight in lampooning any suggestion that wine could smell or taste of fruit, vegetable, flower, herb or spice. Even a hero of mine, Michael Leunig, had a go. He once penned a cartoon of a wine-taster sniffing a glass and intoning: “Mintiness with peaches and strawberries, a chocolate smokeyness with leathery insinuations… hessian, apes and peacocks… and a faint, elusive yet startling aroma of wine!”
Peter Lehmann’s Stonewell Shiraz is one of the benchmarks among the full-throttle, rich, flagship red wines of South Australia’s warmer regions. There are many of these ‘pedestal wines’, but relatively few that I actually enjoy drinking. Distressingly common are wines made from overripe grapes, with their porty, raisiny aromas (‘dead fruit’ at its extreme), syrupy palates and excessive alcohol levels. Stonewell has never been that kind of shiraz. Indeed, Peter Lehmann the man and Andrew Wigan, the company’s chief winemaker, profess not to like those wines. Amen to that!