TORB’s Tenth SA Tour Diary (The May 2008 South Australian Tour Diary)
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Bloody hell! I am in seriously deep hot excrement now. In the last few Tour Diaries my opening paragraph has me banging on about how it was the best trip to date, and how marvellous the wines have been. I am now in the unfortunate position where I have no idea how to kick-start this Tour Diary, because we tried more “much more betterer” wines than on any previous trip, tried a huge number of unreleased wines, and had the opportunity to meet some of real characters. Two interviews in particular will be unique. The first is contained in this chapter. That's the good news.
The bad news was the food. As well as spending a week trying to avoid meat pies during the day, which is par for the course when I have the Pie King (John Davis) and Red Bigot (aka Brian Handreck) with me, the food at night was too often not up to normal trip standards.
The boys and I did a fairly extensive tour of South Australia last September, and so on this trip we tried to cover different wineries, whilst making sure there was a mix of old favourites, as well as a number of first visits. Of all the wineries I contacted, only two failed to respond positively, and most bent over backwards to support my request. Without such fantastic cooperation from the wineries involved, these Tour Diaries would not be possible. All wine lovers in Australia should realise how lucky we are to have such a hospitable wine industry. That's not the case in many other countries.
In the past, I have traditionally kicked off the May Tour Diary stories with a detailed vintage report. However, on this occasion I am going to break with tradition. The vintage report will be exceptionally brief, because that is all that is required.
I have now tasted my way through many of the South Australian wines coming from 2004, 2005 and 2006. All three vintages were well above average and have produced and inordinate number of terrific wines. There is a disproportionately low number of mongrels coming from these three years. Although 2007 was a dog of a vintage, with incredibly low production, most of the barrel samples we tried indicated there will still be some good wines produced from this year. 2008 was a very difficult vintage. The wineries that got their fruit off before the heat wave conditions hit are over the moon with the quality of the wines. However those that were late in picking will certainly show the effects. So 2008 will be a mixed year of very good and very ordinary wine.
The TORB Rating System has been used throughout these notes. If you are unfamiliar with the TORB Rating System, it worth spending a minute or two becoming familiar with it; click here for details. It is important to understand that I am a very hard marker.
On the previous Sunday I had woken up feeling like crap. My nose was leaking worse than a cocaine addicts, but although it was flowing freely, it wasn't blocked. I hadn’t lost my sense of smell. Still, if it kept up like this the trip would have been off. I took it easy and stayed in bed. Monday saw a vast improvement, but on Tuesday I woke up feeling as bad as I did on Sunday. The trip was now touch and go. On Wednesday I woke up feeling a lot better, my nose was still running but not as badly, and I was prepared to risk it the trip.
The drive to Brian's place in Canberra was uneventful and I arrived on time, to the minute. We bolted down a quick cup of espresso coffee and headed to the airport. Although we got there are early, our favourite escape row seats with lots of leg room had been taken, but the Virgin “check in chick” said she could give us seats towards the back of the plane with the seat between us blocked off, so we would have extra room. Good stuff.
The last time we were at Canberra airport, we bought some “chips and stuff” that must have been gold plated given the amount they charged for it. Now that Brian is a retired pensioner (he always gets mad unless I add the words “self-funded”), he has got time to work out more ways of saving money, so he came prepared with a couple of bags of nuts. He had gone to the local markets and purchased some tamari almonds and roasted macadamia nuts. They were some of the best Australian nuts I have ever eaten.
By the time we landed in Adelaide my ears with killing me and my nose had started to stream. The pressure in the plane certainly didn't do my cold any good. (Brian: It didn’t do me any good either, Ric had enough germs active to give me his cold, it hit me the last few days of the trip.)
Since our last trip, John had changed positions within the Council and no longer qualified for the council stretch limo. He had gone out and bought himself a Triton dual cab and had proposed we use this for the trip. No way. An anorexic midget would lack the leg room in the back of that vehicle. With Brian driving, and John being 5 foot 19 inches tall, I was going to be the poor bunny that was stuck in the back with my knees tucked behind my ears. Before the trip I checked out rental cars. Thrifty had an incredible deal. Since the announcement of the closure of the Mitsubishi plant in Adelaide, Mitsubishi have just about been giving away their Model 380. Thrifty must have been paid by Mitsubishi to take a few off their hands. They were renting these large cars for $39 a day, less a discount if you are a member of a motoring organisation. When I signed the credit card for $350 for eight days car rental including taxes, I checked behind me to make sure there were no police there ready to arrest me for burglary.
The Pie Kings New Limo - A Paddock Basher with No Rear Leg Room
Life is tough; life can be a real bitch some times. They didn't have any Mitsubishi Model 380’s, so we had to settle for a Ford Falcon XR6 instead.
We decided that Brian would do the majority of the driving. As we loaded up the car, Brian cranked up his GPS and we headed out towards Blewitt Springs. For those readers that don't know, Red Bigot is a rev head, so driving a car like the XR6 would be way more appealing to him than driving the mega butt ugly Model 380. Instead of taking the freeway, Brian decided we should take the winding route through Happy Valley and Clarendon. The XR6 must have really impressed Brian. After he had thrown the car around a number of tight bends, he quietly muttered, "It’s all right for a Ford.” That's enormous praise coming from a committed, life long Holden man. (Brian: But the Falcon is impossible to get in and out of without hitting your head and the boot space is very poor and badly shaped. TORB: True, but typical of a Holden man. They will complain about anything in a Ford.)
When we arrived at Pie King Bridge Vineyards, I hardly recognised the place. The jungle at the front and side of the house was missing. When I first saw their new puppy, Nimh, which is a cross between a Chihuahua and a Jack Russell/Miniature Foxy, I thought they might have cut back the foliage so she didn't get lost. That wasn't it. According to the Pie King, they grow the best Shiraz grapes in the world at Blewitt Springs, a comment I was to hear with regular monotony, again, on this trip. Talk about delusions of adequacy. Nevertheless, growing grapes is a profitable business again so John is spending some of his ill-gotten gains renovating their house. They have added a huge dining room, a brand new inside laundry/bathroom as well as a new main bathroom. Best of all, they now have a pump on the hot water service which means that you can have a hot shower without having to play “let’s dance” through the occasional drops of hot water, trying to get hit by them.
We had hardly walk through the door when John threw a glass of Sparkling Shiraz into my hand and said “What do you think of that?” I thought it was quite quaffable. It finished reasonably dry, it had some fruit behind it, but it was a little simple. I managed to drink about half a glass. When John told me that was the wine that he had got made from grapes from his block, I thought I must be sick and should definitely see a doctor. My taste had finally failed me completely. Still, at eight dollars a bottle as a clean skin, even though it didn't have much fizz, it was reasonable value.
John also served the next wine blind. I was in good form with the options he gave us, I got exactly none of them right. The wine turned out to be a Mount Langi 1998 Shiraz. It's a very good wine. The tannins have resolved almost completely leaving the wine seamless and harmonious. The fruity bouquet was amazingly fresh showing a little pepper, some formic acid type character, a hint of leather and more beautiful fruit below it. On the palate, the wine showed excellent complexity with a little black pepper, loads of plum and although the wine was primarily off-sweet, there were some boysenberry like sweetness as well. An ample-weight wine, it is rated as Excellent. Best of all, it wasn't corked. Given John's history with us on our last trip, that was a good start.
To accompany the wine, and provide a snack before dinner, there was a cheese plate waiting for us. There were three cheeses on the plate. Dear readers, guess what they were? A blue, a brie, and what's this; no cheddar? I don't believe it. The third cheese was Jarlsberg. That's almost a Cheddar, but still, no cigar. The brie was just the way I like it; aged and runny. There was nothing wrong with the blue either.
By the time I had eaten some cheese and drunk a glass of Mount Langi, I had stopped thinking about having John arrested for trying to poison us with his Sparkling Shiraz.
The next wine opened was also served blind. It had some cool climate, green spectrum characters and some aged leathery characters on the nose. It was more into the blueberry, rather than the blackberry spectrum, and there was a load of menthol and mint too. On the palate there was also a hint of tobacco and some aniseed, so I picked it is a Coonawarra Cabernet. Hallelujah, it was unveiled as a Murdoch 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon, so I had my redeemed myself in the options game. The wine was incredibly smooth and a fantastic result for the vintage. The wine still has many years left in front of it and is rated as Excellent. After a couple of glasses of this wine, I had almost forgiven John for serving me his rot gut Fizzy Red Shit (that lacked fizz.)
His Pieship is a master at cremating steaks, and Sue didn't feel like cooking, so we gave Brian the job of preparing the meat. I don't think I know anyone (who is not a professional chef) who can cook a steak better than Brian, so needless to say, it was cooked to perfection. John assisted in the kitchen by preparing the veggies, the potatoes and making the gravy. By the time I had finished dinner, I had forgiven John for serving me his not too bad Sparkling Shiraz.
The boys decided they were going to explore John's (extensive) Single Malt collection, so discretion being the better part of valour, and knowing we had a big week in front of us, I chickened out and went to bed.
Going to bed early was certainly a smart thing to do. Although I didn't feel great, I certainly looked and felt a lot better than the Pie King. I am not sure if it was despite the way he looked, or because of the way he looked, but he had no trouble in scoffing down a large plate of home-cooked bacon, eggs and toast for breakfast. Seeing as how it was a low-cholesterol, healthy breakfast, by John standards, I naturally partook. After a couple of belts of good espresso coffee, we headed out for our first appointment.
|The First Book End|
This Tour Diary will be framed by two bookends. These are stories about two wineries and their owners, that I believe will be unique, and if you, dear reader, get one eighth of the satisfaction reading the book ends as I did in gaining the information, then we will both be well satisfied.
I first met the owner of this winery about eight or ten years ago, I can't remember exactly when. At that stage, he hadn't been discovered and although his wines sold reasonably quickly, getting onto his mailing list was dead easy. I remember the visit well. What struck me about the guy was his genuine humility and his kind nature. Although he is definitely not a wimp, he doesn't have a mean or aggressive bone in his body. In some ways, he comes across as being naive, but the reality is a different story. He’s not. Not at all.
Since I first met him, he has been "discovered." Well and truly discovered. (Twenty five percent of the total production is exported and split over fourteen markets.) His mailing list has been closed for years. Ninety five percent of (the 75%) of his wine that is allocated to Australia is sold out within days to his mailing list subscribers, and the other five percent is sold out over the few week ends the winery opens to the public. Parker frequently awarded his wines astronomical scores. Ninety seven to ninety nine is commonplace. The wines regularly sell on the secondary market for anything up to a $150 a bottle, or more, and that's both in Australia and the US.
Those who are lucky enough to be on his mailing lists pay $25 a bottle, and have done so for years. And when the wines arrive, there is a handwritten note from the winemaker thanking you for your business and saying he hopes you enjoy the wines.
He has no published e-mail address. If you want to contact him, it's either by phone or by fax. When he responds in writing, it is exactly that. It's handwritten and never typed. Now if that makes him sound like an antiquated, old fuddy-duddy, nothing could be further from the truth.
Many wineries would kill to obtain the Parker scores that this winery has achieved, yet when you have a look at their website, there is no mention of the wines successes or the Parker scores. The winery's website is one of the most stylish around, and whilst it provides lots of information, it doesn't sell wine.
The owner of this winery is a Master of Wine, yet he does not use this highly sought after and exalted qualification to make one cent. Let's face it, the Master of Wine qualification is a licence to make money. Lots of it. Yet this guy doesn't use his MW qualification in a commercial way.
Some would say that given the position that this guy is in, he is certifiably, stark staring bonkers not to take advantage of it and make piles of dough. Dollars; and lots of them. It would be so easy. He wouldn't even have to actually do anything to make a small fortune, and with a tiny effort, he could probably make a large one.
Sorry, not interested. So what makes a guy like this tick? For many years I have watched from afar and I have wondered. Every time I open a bottle of his wine, and that's done on a regular basis, I scratch my head and think about it. This winemaker doesn't go looking for publicity. In fact he probably intentionally, or possibly unintentionally, tries to avoid it. But let’s face it, he doesn't need it. Not in the slightest. Not one scintilla of it.
Many years ago he agreed to be interviewed by me. Unfortunately the first time I tried to make an appointment, our diaries did not coincide. He promised we would meet next time I was in McLaren Vale. A year later I tried to make another appointment and once again our diaries did not coincide. When that happened a third time, I was beginning to wonder if he was trying to avoid me. But he still maintained he would be happy to see me. When I made my trip last September, I was hopeful because we would be well and truly away from vintage. Foiled again! He was going to be bottling whilst I was there. After about four years of trying we finally got together. And it was worth the wait.
Yes, many of those who look at his pricing structure will think he is crazy for not taking advantage of his situation, but if you ask anyone who has met him what they think of him, the answers will always be nothing but positive. Without exception. Ask anyone in the McLaren Vale area what they think of him, and you will quickly find he is well regarded, but more importantly, highly respected as a human being.
The last time I was at the Noon Winery, it was in a tiny building. And I do mean tiny. There was not enough room to swing a possum. This time when we arrived, there was a spacious, brand new winery. None of this tin shed stuff for Drew and Raegan Noon. When they build a winery, they do it properly. Bricks, mortar and concrete! It's stylish and elegant in its simplicity. Classy too.
We had a chat about things in general and then wandered off through the new winery. When you walk into any winery, you expect to see winemaking equipment. Sometimes it's old. Sometimes it's new. Or a combination of both. What you don't expect to see is art work on the walls. Unless you are in the Noon Winery, where it is de jure. Different? You betcha! The artwork is courtesy of Raegan; it’s all her own work and adds style and personality to the winery. It helps humanise it and firmly imprints the Noon difference, and that stamp means that it is not just another soulless, winery building, like so many others.
If you ever have a chance to go to the winery, have a good look at Raegan's black-and-white photographs on the wall across from the counter. They are brilliant. Believe it or not, the theme is umbrellas. Sounds boring? It's not. Anything but. The series ranges from a child up a ladder holding an umbrella, to a picture of Drew's father sitting on a motorbike with an umbrella, and finally the pièce de résistance, Drew’s four sisters, in a very tasteful shot, sans clothing, with umbrellas protecting their modesty. Sheer artistic brilliance!
Imagine this for a minute. You have a tiny winery and badly need to expand it. Preferably now! You'll wine is selling out in less time than it takes for a politician's promise to evaporate and you haven't got the dollars to build the sort of winery you want to build. So what do you do? Put the price of your wine up? Seems like a sane and sensible thing to do, doesn't it? Not to Drew and Raegan it doesn't.
They hire a builder. To save money, Drew is the labourer and does most of the hard yakka himself. Raegan did the fit out and the painting. Herself. Two years of bloody hard work. And then Drew says, "We are very lucky.” Some people would scratch their head and wonder why, after spending two years of hard work building your own winery, how you could possibly think yourself lucky. Another one of the Noon imponderables. And one of the questions I was determined to get an answer to.
We went upstairs to the office so that we could have a deep and meaningful chat, and I could get answers to all these difficult questions that were running through my mind. My number one objective was to find out what made this unique guy tick.
Drew's grandfather was an Anglican minister. He had parishes in the Adelaide Hills, Barossa Valley and Clare, so Drew's father David, grew up around vineyards. As an adult, he trained as a French teacher and taught high school students. In the 1960s, he was lucky enough to score a twelve month gig teaching English to students just outside of Montpelier, France, courtesy of the South Australian Education Department. David was hooked. He took advantage of his situation and drank a lot of good wine. After David returned to Australia, he develops some health issues. Some years before, prior to the advent of safety belts, he had had a car accident and hit his head on the metal dashboard. They think this caused him to develop adult epilepsy.
Let's be blunt about it, a teacher having an epileptic fit in front of a classroom of young, impressionable students would not be a good look. David had to leave teaching. In a way, it was a good thing because in 1967 he bought the twenty five area property which today contains the Noon vineyard. At that time, the property had Grenache grapes (planted in 1934) as well as almonds and apricots. That was typical for a mixed, McLaren Vale holding in those days.
In David’s early days, all the fruit was sold off. Most of the grapes went to d'Arenberg and Wirra Wirra. There is nothing new about growers from established vineyards deciding to make their own wine. Drew's dad started doing it in 1972 and officially opened the winery cellar door in 1976. So much for this being a recent phenomenon. The sale of red wine was on the increase. People, (like me,) would drive down to McLaren Vale and fill up their boot (trunk) with wine. Most of the wines from this area were not available in bottle shops and were only sold at cellar door. (Sounds just like modern times.)
Their Cabernet came about in an interesting fashion. The late 1970s was an age of wine discovery. Those in the know would come into cellar door and ask if they had any Cabernet Sauvignon. It was the thinking man's grape variety.
The sign on the side of the road paid big dividends and in a very short period of time, they were using all their own grapes. When David was in France, he drank a lot of Châteauneuf du Pape and Rhône wines, so the hunt was now on for some Shiraz grapes. In the 1980s, a relationship was formed with a family in Langhorne Creek, and they are still using fruit from that same Shiraz vineyard today.
Of Noon’s twenty five acres, fourteen acres of the property are under vine. About ten acres are the original vines planted back in the 1930s, and the last four acres were planted about ten years ago. In Langhorne Creek, they have access to four acres of Shiraz and three acres of Cabernet.
Drew knew that as soon as he finished his degree at Roseworthy in 1981, he wanted to leave McLaren Vale and do his own thing. As part of his degree, he had to do vintage at a winery. He headed off to the Hunter Valley and completed vintage at Tyrrell's. Drew must have impressed Murray Tyrrell, as Murray offered him a job. As soon as he completed his studies, Drew headed back to the Hunter, where he remained until 1986.
Drew said, "That turned out to be a really good experience. They had dirt floors and big old Fuders (large wooden barrels) and used natural ferments. This was all happening in a place that was making wine with low alcohols and that were low in acid. It was microbiologically dangerous to be doing what they were doing. On top of that, I had just come through Roseworthy when I had learnt about the latest in centrifuge and filters, stainless steel tanks, the newest trellising techniques and drip irrigation. That could have made me lose the plot, but seeing Tyrell’s equipment, or lack of it, was a revelation. It made me realise that the big old vats, the basket press and lack of equipment in dad's winery was probably the best way to make red wine.
I had luck. A lot of luck. Murray Tyrrell was a big fan of Burgundy. Murray's wife had recently died and he took me and Andrew Spinaze under his wing. We didn't realise it at the time, because he was loud and critical about much of what we did, but he was mentoring us. Right through harvest, for two months we would eat with him. Growing up in McLaren Vale, I didn't know much about life. Most nights we went to a local restaurant with him and drank wines of the world. That was exactly what I needed.”
After Tyrrell's Drew spent five years in central Victoria working for the Department of Agriculture as the local oenologist. People would ring up and Drew would offer viticultural and winemaking advice. The position had been established because the government realised there was a large opportunity for farmers to diversify and go into the wine grape business. It also wanted to encourage people who were not in the business to think about sinking money into it so that the Victorian wine industry could be expanded.
A good example was Summerfield. They were sheep farmers in the Pyrenees region and their neighbour, Taltarni was doing well out of growing grapes and making wine. Ian Summerfield had a go at planting vines and making his own wine. He had an advisor, but then the person giving him assistance retired. There is nothing like free government advice, so that's where Drew came in. To this day, the relationship between Drew and the Summerfield family is still strong.
After five years working for the government, Drew had had enough and landed a job in a rather strange location: Cassegrain in Port Macquarie. Drew had first met John Cassegrain in his early days at Tyrrell's, ten years previously. Drew told us there were a number of good things to come out of his trip north. The first was he met and married his wife Raegan.
Both the Hunter and Port Macquarie are not exactly the easiest places in the world to go grapes, and this gave Drew a renewed appreciation for the qualities of the McLaren Vale wine region. Drew said, "You can grow grapes in McLaren Vale and be pretty lax because it is blessed winemaking country, but Port Macquarie really makes you tighten your skills, because unless you are spot on, you are in trouble.”
Drew had used the word "lucky" a few times in the conversation, but up until now this was the first time I had heard him use the word "blessed" but it certainly wasn't the last time he would use that word. In fact, the closer we came in the conversation to the present day, the more the word was used.
Drew's parents were getting ready to retire and asked if he was interested in coming home and running the winery. He was quite happy doing what he was doing and declined the offer. If the property had to be sold, so be it.
Some time later the property went on to the market and it actually was sold. A group of investors had got together, paid the deposit, and were going to retain David as their consultant. Before the sale could be completed, the group split up and that was that. Drew's parents rang them to give them the news.
Drew said, "By that stage my circumstances and life of had changed in various ways. I had met Rae. We had a discussion, and in 1996 moved back to run the property.” The 96 was the last wine made by the old team. Initially I didn't make any major changes, but we did changed lots of little things.
Fruit selection is always critical. Old vineyards are great, but often the fruit variation is greater than you would find even in a young vineyard, so where and when we pick is critical. From 97 on, we were more careful in this regard.”
I then asked Drew what was the first thing he did when he got back. There was an embarrassing pregnant pause, and half jokingly said, “Mum and Dad may be listening. We had borrowed money to buy the winery business and it was marginal whether the banks would lend as the money or not. We had to go to two banks before we got the finance. We had arranged to lease the vineyards for five years with an option to buy. We were strapped for cash. The last thing I wanted to do was to throw anything out, especially wine, but the place needed to be cleaned up. There was some fibreglass tanks dad bought that were literally tainted with fibreglass. They had to go. There was also (a reasonable quantity) of wine in bottle that had been there too long and so we specialled them out.
There was some wine that literally had to be poured down the drain.”
You could literally still see the pain on Drew's face when he thought about that time.
“We started work in the vineyard. The old vines were in good nick but some significant cleaning up work was required.
After that, my next job was to work out where the best fruit was coming from in the vineyards. You only get one go at it is each year. I wanted to find out about the subtleties of the place. I needed to find out why the vines grew differently in different parts of the vineyard. Only then can you work out which vines will produce the best fruit for each wine.”
Noon Wines are known for their heroic proportions. They are big, often high in alcohol and the sort of wine that appeals to Robert Parker. They are also well balanced, rarely shows signs of heat and do age quite nicely. I asked Drew why he made wines in this style.
This was an easy question for him to answer. He sat up straighter in his chair and you could see the passion rising. The answer came out like machine gun bullets. "We never decided to make that style of wine. That's what we have to make. If you were here, you would be making them too. The fruit we've got dictates the style. You couldn't make anything else. You could make lighter wines but they would not be as good because they would not be the best expression of the site. We don't let them hang out there for the sake of it; sometimes we can't get them in fast enough.”
I then asked Drew to comment about the push for lower alcohol, more elegant wines. Brian interjected, “he sells out so quickly, why would he care?"
Drew's response was surprising. "But we do care; it’s a reflection of the broader market place. There is not a lot we can do about it, but we hope that we are small enough so that there will always be a market for the style that our land dictates we make. If I was Mr Foster's I would be looking for technology to start reducing alcohol, but that doesn't fit with what we do.”
By this point, I had noticed something about Drew's phraseology. As the story progresses, from the time he first mentioned Raegan coming into his life, as the story unfolded, he never used the word “I” once. It was all ways "we." This is very telling and gives us a little insight into what makes the man tick. It's not about him. It's about the partnership he has with the woman he so obviously loves deeply. Very deeply.
Time for another pointed question. I asked Drew what motivates him to get up in the morning. Why does he do what he does?
“I am not looking to fill my time in doing something, and Raegan feels the same way. We have been given an opportunity to look after some land and make wine from it. We decided that if we were going to have a go at this, we would both do it the best we can, and not just do it casually. That commitment requires a lot of work and that means we have to get out of bed.”
Much later on in the conversation Drew went on to say something which is worth inserting here. “If today was 1996 and we came back it would be a lot harder for us. Trying to get the marketplaces attention now would be a lot more difficult. When we came back the timing was right. In some sense, we were blessed with our timing. A lot of people work hard and don't get rewarded. We are aware of that and feel lucky to have what we got.”
Once again, we have some interesting phraseology that gives us some further insight into what makes both Drew and Raegan tick. "Given an opportunity to look after some land and make some wine from it" is not the sort of answer that you would get from most people, but then most people are like Drew and Raegan. More is the pity.
I asked Drew why he decided to do the Master of Wine course. I am willing to bet, if you asked most people that have qualified as Masters of Wine, you won't get the response I got from Drew.
"I wanted to learn about wines of the world. That was the only reason. It came out of my experience with Murray Tyrrell. I was lucky enough to drink lots of great French wine with him, the likes of which I had never experienced before. At Roseworthy we were focused on the wines from home. It was a good way of forcing myself to open myself up to the whole world of wine out there. An MW is a legitimate industry trade qualification for those in the trade, and it’s perfectly reasonable for those with it to use it to make money. It has nothing to do with winemaking. I did it because I wanted to learn more.”
I then broached the subject that many regard as the meaning of life. The cost of the Noon Wines. Twenty five dollars a bottle for wines that regularly achieve points from Parker in the high 90s, many people would regard as ridiculous inexpensive, especially when you consider that a percentage of them are flipped at auction straight after release for up to five or six times that amount. Many people would also have difficulty understanding the link from the Noon's Web site to the Langton's auction site, which could be seen as a tantamount endorsement, or at least overt recognition that his wines are being flipped. I had to know why Drew didn't charge more, or even produce more. It would certainly sell straight away.
"Maybe. When quantity is limited people want more. We are blessed and I don't knock it. It is interesting to think about having an endless amount and how much you could sell, but I don't think it is as much as you would think.”
The way Drew answered that question, the words coming out of his mouth faster than Carl Lewis out of the starters blocks, it must have been too easy, so it was time for a more difficult question. I said, "you haven't put your prices up for some years, aren't you tempted to increase the price a reasonable amount so that you can make your life easier financially?"
That's better; he had to think about this one for a half a second and the speed of his speech came back to a normal level. "We charge what we think is fair and reasonable, in the sense of what is a reasonable return to us and a price that offers fair value to our customers. If the market is prepared to pay more, you have to make a decision if you want to cash in on that and adjust your price accordingly, hoping that you will get it right, or do what we are doing and stay with a return that we think is reasonable for us. The first course of action is speculative and can change quickly. I have seen it happen and it can be embarrassing. If we can make a reasonable living and people are happy with our pricing, and I would rather stay with that and be blessed with not having to struggle to sell the wine. That's worth a lot to us in monetary terms. I am happy. The customers are happy. So everyone is happy.
We are lucky. People's ego's get tied up in that pricing thing. For whatever reason, we are either too stupid, or something, not to care. People get funny about it. They think he is getting $50 for his and mine is better so I should be getting more. (As an aside, remember this point when you are reading about another winery later in this Tour Diary.) People used to come to cellar door and whilst they were talking to each other would say, ‘this wine can't be as good as the Fox Creek Reserve because they charge $50 and this is half the price.’”
When I arrived home there was a fax waiting for me from Drew. Naturally it was handwritten. In the fax, he basically reiterated a couple of the points he had made above but went on to state, "Here is something I forgot to mention (which could be important, depending on what you are writing) is the fact that Rae I are presently considering raising the price of the next release (the 2007’s). The quanity is very small (as you know) and we quite happy with the quality. It has been five years since our last price rise with our costs rising slightly every year! We may or may not decide to go ahead with the price rise but we wanted to let you know in light of our discussions.”
It was signed “With best wishes from us all, Drew, Rae and the kids.” A fax like that is food for thought.
I asked Drew what he wanted from here on in. The answer was simple. “To maintain what we have built, which will be a challenge, and to have time with the kids.” Drew went on to say, "Climate will be a challenge. If global warming keeps up, we will need to think about growing grapes in the Adelaide Hills. The winery will stay here, but we may need to source our grapes from a cooler climate. The other thing that concerns me is the anti-alcohol, anti-drug movement. It's understandable but drinking in moderation is fine. I think it is a risk to the future of our industry if they start trying to control alcohol for the sake of trying to control alcohol. Look what happened in the US during Prohibition. If that movement gets stronger and stronger the industry will be in trouble.
We went downstairs to try some samples from the 2007 vintage but before we got stuck into the samples, Drew made us coffee. I have often stated the quality of the wine that a winery can produce is directly proportional to the quality of the coffee they make for their visitors. Experience has shown that most good wineries have good coffee making equipment. We normally find it's anything from the Saeco espresso machines to full-blown commercial equipment; however I have never seen the sort of equipment that Drew used to make coffee in a winery before. I used to use one of these machines at home, but upgraded to something a little more sophisticated over twenty years ago. The more I think about Drew using this traditional, old fashioned device, the more I realise how appropriate it is, and it is perfectly suited to his character and style.
He certainly makes a mean cup of coffee; it's just like his wine, strong. Very strong! Naturally both Brian and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Whilst he was making the coffee Drew did say, "we should probably save up for one of those automatic jobs,” but in reality he seemed quite happy with what he had.
The 2007 samples were all good. Unfortunately there will not be much of it. Mailing list customers will be restricted to two bottles of Shiraz, one bottle of Cabernet and three bottles of the Eclipse. To put that in perspective, the normal allocation is six bottles of each. The wines will also be released later than normal, because to quote Drew, "they need time to grow into their bones.” They all have terrific structure of not as opulent as they are in better vintages. The Shiraz was very full-bodied and showed loads of dark chocolate. It's impeccably structured with fine, reasonably firm tannins and fresh, bright acid. The Cabernet shows loads of mint and menthol with beautiful bright fruit. The quality fruit seems a little lean at this point in time but it should fill out. It has a massive amount of tannins which is also probably hiding a lot of the fruit character. It's still very tight and is beautifully balanced and structured but will need ages for the fruit to surface. The bouquet is positively intoxicating. Given time, this wine will be a blinder.
Looking back at one of Drew's earlier comments and the reaction Drew had when he talked about taking over the winery and having to pour out wine that was not up to scratch, and having to special off wine that had not sold in a timely fashion, that situation had left a deep impression on Drew and Raegan. They don’t want to be caught in that trap again. Not even close to it. That is one of the reasons for their pricing attitude, but the most important clues are located in Drew’s earlier comments. They are certainly not stupid. Far from it! Drew and Raegan are not motivated by money and are not greedy. They aren't part of the "I want it, and I want it now" mentality that pervades the world today. Looking at them and talking to them, one can't help but admire and respect both what they are doing and their approach to it. They are probably significantly more content with their lot in life than many of the people who are getting that $50 a bottle.
The wines might be big, but everything about this operation, from the people that own it, to the bottles design and labels, are understated. There is absolutely no flamboyance here in any way shape or form. Except for the wines, and they are only doing what comes naturally; much like Drew and Raegan.
It's not often you walk out of winery on a high, especially when all you have tried is three barrel samples. Yet all three of us walked away from Noon's on an incredible high. Drew and Raegan have that effect on people.
The First Book End
We had a reasonably extensive tasting at Gemtree last September, but I had recently opened up a bottle of their wine that was corked and needed to pick up the replacement that was waiting for me at cellar door, so we headed their next. We hadn't planned on tasting anything here, but when we arrived we found they had new releases available, so we decided to try them.
Gemtree 2006 Uncut Shiraz sells for $20 at cellar door and is sealed under screwcap. The bouquet was lifted with perfumed violet fruit, aniseed, chocolate, and a slight leasely character. This is a bloody smart, clean, modern Australian wine driven by pure fruit and well backed by fresh acid and silky tannins. It's ample-weight with a supple consistency, a solid, harmonious structure and a well developed complexity. It's savoury and spicy but there is a slight sweetness to the lingering finish. Plum, chocolate, aniseed and black pepper flavours complete the profile. There was no Obsidian made so the fruit that would have been destined for their icon Shiraz wine went into the Uncut. Rated as Recommended with **** for value if you can find it on special, it would get five stars for value. It's approachable now, but will last for ages.
Gemtree 2006 Cadenzia sells for $25 at cellar door and is sealed under screwcap. This is the GSM blend, and given what I thought about the previous version, I was almost reluctant to try it. I am glad I did, this one is way better. The bouquet shows lightly floral, perfumed soap like notes; it's attractive with red and blue fruits and milk chocolate. (Initially it seemed boring, but the wine is well-made and quickly grew on me.) The wine has a silky consistency; it is modern, clean and a good food wine. It's sweet on the uptake with red cherry, and a spicy, peppery mid-palate that flows into chocolate, star anise and more chocolate on the finish. The acid is fresh and the wine is medium-weight. Rated as Recommended with *** for value, the wine is approachable now but will probably improve in the short term.
Their Pieship's New Dining Room
Gemtree 2006 Bloodstone Tempranillo sells for $25 at cellar door and is sealed under screwcap. The bouquet seems mysterious and broody. The pure, deeply-seated fruit is good and is seamlessly welded to the silky tannins. It's an ample-weight, solid wine with an almost seamless structure that is simply yummy, incredibly easy to drink and food friendly. The red fruit, chocolate and Dutch cocoa flavours hold one's interest and finish with great persistence and good length, riding a wave of long, dusty tannins. Rated as Highly Recommended with **** for value, drink over the next five years.
We also visited Pirramimma last September but as they were about to roll out their new releases, we decided to call in there again for a quick visit. There was news on the Pirramimma front. Pirramimma has been a family owned company since its inception in 1892. Essentially the business was owned by two arms of the family. A reorganisation has now taken place and Geoffrey Johnson, the winemaker, now owns the winery and the Pirramimma brand. The vineyards that support the brand are now 40% owned by Geoff and the other 60% is owned by the other part of the family.
Pirramimma 2005 Stocks Hill Cabernet Merlot sells for $15 at cellar door and is sealed under screwcap. Damson plums and mocha scents explode out of the glass. The pure, deeply-seated fruit is juicy and has loads and intensity but there are enough silky, unobtrusive tannins to hold the wine together. It's medium-weight with a soft consistency, a solid structure and a harmonious construction. It's slightly rustic in style but that adds character. Plum, dark blackberry, chocolate, and aniseed flavours linger well. It's very drinkable and food friendly. Rated as Recommended with **** for value.
Pirramimma 2005 Stocks Hill Cabernet Sauvignon sells for $15 at cellar door and is sealed under screwcap. Chocolate and mocha characters dominated dirty, earthy notes. Although this is a good, old-fashioned Cabernet Sauvignon it has a terrific mouth feel. It's a serious wine for the price maintaining a tight structure to its medium-weight, firm and solid frame. Fine, dusty tannins support the pure fruit which delivers rich, dark chocolate, mint, cherries and plum; it's primarily savoury. A very credible wine that just needs time, it is Rated as Recommended with **** for value but the rating should increase as it enters its peak drinking window between 2010 and 2015.
Pirramimma 2005 Shiraz will sell for $26.50 when it is released shortly and is sealed under cork. It was bottled only a few months ago. The bouquet was completely closed and showed nothing but the dominant coffee oak. Silky tannins and fresh acid dominate the deeply-seated, dark chocolate and star anise flavoured fruit, and whilst it's hard to judge the wine at this stage, it is consistent in style with previous vintages, and history shows that the fruit will surface in time. It's a muscular-weight supple wine with a solid structure and is rated as Rated as Highly Recommended with **** for value. It should be in its peak drinking window between 2012 and 2017.
Pirramimma 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon will sell for $26.50 when it is released shortly and is sealed under cork. The bouquet is dusty, tight, and deep with coffee oak, and blackcurrant. One sniff and you know this is a serious wine. The silky tannins are lovely and are beautifully matched to the pure, deeply-seated, strong fruit. It's a muscular-weight, supple wine with a tight and solid structure and a well developed complexity. The juicy fruit with its dark chocolate and blackberry flavours is sufficient to eventually absorb the oak. It is consistent with McLaren Vale Cabernet but comes across more as a big red rather than a varietal Coonawarra style Cabernet. Rated as Highly Recommended with **** for value, the rating may improve as the wine reaches its peak drinking window between 2013 and 2020.
Pirramimma 2004 Tannat sells for $26.50 at cellar door and is sealed under cork. This wine has improved greatly since last year so there is some hope for it. It needs a Brontosaurus steak that has been cremated on the outside and is blue on the inside to balance the "quaint level" of drying tannins. The deep, pure fruit which is savoury, spicy and plummy will probably eventually do something, I just not quite sure what.
Pirramimma 2004 ACJ sells for $55 at cellar door and is sealed under a Stelvinlux. We tried a pre-release sample of this wine last year and were suitably impressed, so we decided to have another look at it. This bottle had been opened two days previously (although there was only a small amount out) but the bouquet and palate were both still locked tight. Ultra-fine, drying tannins combine with fresh acid and sensational quality fruit to form an ample-weight, supple wine with a tight, elegant and solid structure. The plum, blueberry, and rich chocolate flavours add to this refined wines level of complexity; it can only be described as posh. Rated as Excellent with *** for value, the rating should improve as it enters its peak drinking window between 2012 and 2025+. Brian and I couldn't resist forking out some cash for it.
As usual, that was a good line up of wines at Pirramimma. The winery is certainly very consistent. In the past, whilst the Stocks Hill range was okay, it never really impressed me, however if I look back on previous tastings, the quality has been slowly improving for some time, to the point where now the improvement is very noticeable.
The Old Tatachilla Cellar Door ...........................................
Pie o'clock was upon us, so it was off to the McLaren Vale delicatessen that has become our favoured McLaren Vale lunch spot. It's not because the food is great, but it offers a compromise. The boys can get their Villis pies and I can order a baguette. I say “order”, because for the second time in a row I have ordered a baguette and they have been out of stock.
Whilst we were waiting for the food to arrive I decided I had time to visit the nut shop, if it was close. Bloody Brian conned me. I asked him if it was close and he said, "Yes it's only a short walk.” It was a short walk all right, so short that by the time I returned, I needed new soles on my shoes and the boys had finished their lunch. Bastard; Brian will do anything to trick me in to getting exercise. Two can play this game. If Brian insists on looking after my health, I will ensure that I return the favour. I won’t offer him any of the dark chocolate coated macadamia nuts that I bought, because they are not good for him. In the finest Anzac spirit, the sort of selfless sacrifice that one will only do for ones best Australian mate, I will eat all those dark chocolate macadamia nuts myself; you understand solely to protect Brian from their terribly unhealthy consequences. That's just the sort of caring and sharing, self-sacrificing person I am. (Brian: He did too! My waistline thanks him, but his doesn’t. J)
During my walk I had built up quite in appetite, which was just as well given the enormity of my turkey and salad focaccia with cranberry sauce.
Brian had a very boring lunch; just one plain Villis meat pie. His Pieship was true to form and 100% consistent; one plain Villis meat pie and one Villis chicken pie. He also happened to mention that the chicken pie was "sensational and a defining moment." The mind boggles. At the least I didn't have to sit there and suffer the indignity of watching them eating that rubbish, so there was a silver lining to that bloody walk after all.
I do all the trip planning, Brian does the majority of the trip driving, and John does…. well John does nothing. However, our next appointment was at a location that I had never been to previously. John had been copied on the e-mail giving directions, so this morning I asked him to print off the directions and bring them along. When I asked John for the directions he said, "I only had to do one thing, and I didn't even get that right. I am useless. I have no redeeming social values whatsoever. We had better go home and get them.” Actually, I don't think that comment of his is entirely accurate. He does have one socially redeeming value; he is single-handedly responsible for the employment of at least six pie makers across the State of South Australia.
Ever heard of Lazy Ballerina? James Hook is the man behind this label and although I have tried a few of his wines, we had never met. He communicates fairly prolifically, and very well, from his website. From those communications I had a picture in my mind of what he would be like. I had pictured a short, thin, outgoing sort of chap, much like James May from Top Gear. Boy was I wrong. Way off track with that one, James is a big fella and very quiet.
We met James at his new cellar door, so new it hasn't even been completed yet. We were his very first visitors. He is located on Brookman Rd Kuitpo, and although it's technically McLaren Vale, it could almost be the Adelaide Hills. James didn't name his winery because he has a fetish for women frolicking in tutus and funny slippers, well least I don't think he does; it's actually the name of the vineyard trellising system that acts like a solar panel to trap the maximum amount of sunlight. His vineyard hasn't been certified as organic yet, but he practices organic principles. It's only a matter of to gain certification.
By trade, James is a viticulturalist and consults to a number of wineries in the region. His list of customers includes some of the most respected names in McLaren Vale.
In the early stages of our conversation with James one thing became immediately apparent. The guy is a perfectionist and pays an incredible amount of attention to detail. No half measures or shortcuts for him.
The Lazy Ballerina operation is a labour of love for James. When I asked him how much he was charging for his wine, he said, "My belief is to make my wine available at a good price. It’s $20. I know commercially that's silly.”
More like bloody stupid. The wine is certainly worth significant more than a measly twenty bucks, but he is happy; his customers are delighted, and the wines sells out incredibly quickly, so who am I to argue. He is seriously short-changing himself. He should be charging at least $21.
James was kind enough to open a sample of every wine he has made so I could get a complete picture on what he was attempting to achieve.
Lazy Ballerina 2004 Shiraz is sealed under Procork and is a back vintage. The colour is incredible; it looks like a barrel sample. It was matured in 100% new oak; half American and half French. Fine, chewy, powdery tannins solidly frame the youthful, fresh acid and pure, intense, deep, pristine fruit. On the palate the wine is incredibly youthful and shows plum, savoury cherry, chocolate and menthol flavours that finish with fantastic intensity. They must have used the ramjet to cram so much flavour into the bottle. It's a muscular-weight with a firm consistency and intricate level of complexity. It has a rustic style and feel and is rated as Highly Recommended with ***** for value.
Lazy Ballerina 2005 Shiraz is also a back vintage. The nose shows coffee oak with menthol and dark berry fruits. Fine, dusty tannins combine with the piquant acid and pure, deep, strong fruit to form a muscular-weight wine with a supple consistency, solid structure and an agreeable level of complexity. It's slightly lighter than the previous vintage but more refined, however I prefer the flavour profile of the 2004. It has a huge amount of flavour intensity but has a sappy mid-palate with prune and dark chocolate. Rated as Recommended with **** for value, drink from 2012 to 2016.
Lazy Ballerina 2006 Shiraz sells for $20 and is sealed under Procork. The wine is as black as the ace of spades and the bouquet exhibits nose-clearing menthol. The chewy tannins are silky and drying and beautifully support and balance the strong, deep, pure, juicy fruit. The wine has a lovely mouth feel and a huge punch of flavour. Plum, black pepper and aniseed flavours harmonise into a minty finish. This muscular baby with mouth-coating tannins is the best of the three but needs time. Rated as Highly Recommended with ***** for value, and the rating should increase as the wine enters its peak drinking window between 2014 and 2022; this is sold out at the source, but there may be a little at retail, so don't delay.
Lazy Ballerina 2005 Shiraz Viognier sells for $16 and is sealed under Procork. The bouquet is very ripe and in your face, there is nothing subtle about this black wine. It has a lovely mouth feel but there is something almost disjointed about it. The flavour profile does not mesh for me. It's a full-bodied wine with a supple consistency and whilst it has a lot going for it, the Viognier component is too noticeable. Rated as Agreeable with **** for value, it should last for some time.
Lazy Ballerina 2006 Shiraz Viognier sells for $16 and is sealed under Procork. The Viognier was very noticeable on the bouquet but there was some black fruit below. This wine is better than the previous vintage showing less overt Viognier characters. The silky tannins combine with strong, pure fruit to form a full-bodied wine with a supple consistency and an agreeable complexity. It has a pleasant mouth feel with intense plum, and aniseed and whilst it's attractive, there is nothing subtle about it, yet it seems to work. Rated as Recommended with **** for value, the rating should improve as the wine matures over the next few years.
The Shiraz wines are far better than the Shiraz Viognier wines. The value is absolutely sensational and if you are not on the mailing list, you should be.
James likes a good party, so he asked a couple of his mates to join us and bring a few bottles of wine with them. The more the merrier. Have you ever heard of Inkwell Wines? That makes two of us. Inkwell is owned by a transplanted septic tank and his partner who owns a vineyard in California Road Tatachilla. Given his accent, it is a fitting street name. They bought the property in 2003 and have been concentrating on getting the thirty acres of young vines into balance ever since. The vast majority of the crop is sold off to other producers.
Dudley Brown’s philosophy is simple. If you take care of the vines, they will take care of you. They are currently cropping at about two tonnes to the acre, which is pretty low for young vines in this region. He feels there are two ways of achieving the right cropping yield in his vineyards. One is to control the water, the other is to get the pruning right.
Oooh! Your card says what!
Inkwell 2004 Shiraz has now sold and is sealed under screwcap. The nose is very spicy which leads to an attractive palate profile showing violets, spice and blackcurrant that has big punch of flavour. It's an ample-weight wine that is very tight and backed by dusty tannins and supported by crisp acid. It needs time. Rated as Recommended with *** for value, it should loosen up and enter its peak drinking window between 2012 and 2016.
Inkwell 2005 Shiraz is sealed under screwcap and has not been released yet. The bouquet showed spicy, coffee oak notes over clean fruit. The wine was made using reductive handling. This wine is nowhere near together yet it has all the right components in the right proportions. The fruit is pure, the acid is youthful and the tannins dusty. It's an ample-weight, firm and solid wine and has both better fruit and better oak than the 2004. The fruit is sweet but the flavour profile is savoury and finishes dry with cherry, plum, chocolate, aniseed and other black notes. Rated as Highly Recommended with **** for value (based on a possible price of $30) the rating should improve as the wine enters its peak drinking window between 2013 and 2020. It's pretty smart stuff for the price. Since the tasting a few weeks ago, the 05 has been released and has just about sold out.
Inkwell 2006 Rebel Shiraz is way off being released and is sealed under screwcap. The wine opened to reveal oak and slightly reductive notes, which should either blow off or be absorbed in time. The dusty tannins are unobtrusive but well and truly there and solidly back the pristine, pure fruit that is driving the wine. The fruit in this wine is better quality than the previous vintage but the previous vintage had a better flavour profile. It's in the black fruits spectrum with lots of aniseed. The complexity is well developed in the supple, ample-weight wine. Rated as Highly Recommended with **** for value, it should be in its peak drinking window between 2014 and 2022. They are taking pre-orders for this wine now.
The work that Dudley is doing in the vineyards is paying dividends. The fruit is getting better as each season goes by. I just hope he resists the urge to increase the black attributes of the wine in the future. Too much of a good thing is not necessarily a good thing. However, in an email exchange after the wines were tasted, as an aside, Dudley wrote, “Dark fruit is what the gods (and drought stress) give us. We prune to balance, don’t use nitrogen, pick sooner than all but 3-5 shiraz vineyards in McLaren Vale (out of many hundreds and in the 14’s Baume) and never use more than 40% new oak – all top shelf French. Our goal is to express the site with the highest quality fruit we can grow and make the best we wine we can. The methods are the same in both pursuits – minimal intervention. Like all fools’ errands, we will always come up short of what we aim for.
Interestingly, the wine you like most was the ripest (highest sugar) we ever picked. It’s a puzzle this business.”
So, where-ja-geddit? Email dudleyb @ internode.on.net (remove the spaces).
The other friend that James invited to the party was Paul Petagna who is the winemaker for both Sellicks Hill wines and Petagna Wines. Paul has a 25 acre property and does all the vineyard work and the winemaking himself. The vines range in age between five and ten years old. In the short space of time they have been going, the fruit has been sold to a number of respected wineries including Mitolo, Two Hands and Sparky Marquis. It is now primarily sold to Chapel Hill, and together with Dudley’s fruit, they form much of the backbone of Chapel Hill’s relaunched The Vicar (now their top shelf Shiraz.)
Trying to get Pauls profile straight is not easy. He has more names on his business card than the average conman has aliases. Besides the two names already mentioned, Sellicks and Petagna, his card has the names Diavolo, Piombo and Valetta. It’s busier than the casualty unit’s nurses on Saturday night after a big football game.
Total production is 1,000 dozen so it’s a pretty small, boutique operation. The vineyard is located at Sellicks Beach, almost right on the ocean. Like many good wine grape vineyards, the soil is poor. It's almost nonexistent. There is no topsoil, there is a little bit of red soil and then broken down quartz below.
Valetta 2005 Grenache Shiraz retails for of between $25 and $30 a bottle. The wine sits beautifully in the mouth. Although it's driven by deep, strong, persistent fruit and backed by crisp acid and dusty tannins it is well-balanced. Plum, rich chocolate and a spicy finish provide a good level of complexity in this solid, muscular-weight wine. It's approachable now but will soften and integrate further. Rated as Highly Recommended with *** for value, it should enter its peak drinking window between 2012 and 2017.
Piombo 2005 Shiraz sells for $50 and the entire production of two hundred dozen is exported to the US; what a shame we don't get any locally. The bouquet is unyielding. The pure fruit is pristine and sensational, and with the fine, very tight tannins and fresh acid, nothing sticks out and the fruit is doing all the talking. And it’s sweet talk at that! Red, blue, and black flavours are all interwoven in both sweet and off sweet layers. It's ample-weight and shows some elegance and should become seamless in time. The construction is harmonious and the wine is Rated as Highly Recommended with *** for value, but the rating should improve as the wine enters its peak drinking window in a few years time.
Petagna Wine 2005 Diavolo is a blend of 70% Shiraz and 30% cabernet, sells for $40 and is sealed under cork. The bouquet shows coffee, chocolate and loads of spice but those characters are from the fruit rather than in oak, as only 20% new oak has been used. The pure, deep fruit is simply splendid and provides a striking flavour profile of mocha, milk chocolate, plum, spice and milky coffee flavours. The juicy-fruit is brilliantly matched to the fine, tight, chewy tannins that completely fill the mouth. This is in elegant, refined and classy wine that finishes with good length. It's also an excellent food wine and would be perfect with anti-pasta. Rated as Excellent with **** for value, it should enter its peak drinking window between 2012 and 2022. You godda get summa this one. Email paul @ piombo.com.au (remove the spaces). Only two hundred dozen have been produced.
That was a great little party. It just shows how well those boutique wines can be made and what wonderful value they can represent. In the scheme of things, the amount of wine these tiny boutique producers make is peanuts, but all serious wine lovers should be thankful for these producers, who give us such a wonderful, diverse range of wine, much of which is wonderful value. But then, their primary motivation for producing wine is the love of the grape, and whilst they do need to make a buck, return on shareholders funds is not the driving factor.
We got back into the car and John said, "Have a look at those guys. They are so happy. I can do that (make wine)! It's not rocket science.” Unfortunately, we had tried the Pie Kings “Mandingo Sparkling(less) Shiraz” and knew that he couldn't even get it made properly, let alone have the ability to do it himself. His delusions about his ability to make wine are in the same realm of his self-styled delusional wish it to be known as Mandingo, instead of the Pie King.
By this stage, my nose was not in good condition. Although I had taken an antihistamine tablet this morning, the histamines in the wine were playing merry hell. My nose resembled a dripping tap, and was just as annoying. My sneezing sounded like a ferry's fog horn, but at least my sense of smell hadn't deserted me. That would have been big trouble.
Our next appointment was with one of the larger than life characters in McLaren Vale. Some say he doesn't know how to do things by halves, and they would be right. His passion for making wine had seen him get into trouble, and now that he had extracted himself from his past mess, I wanted to see what he was doing and how he was going.
This part of the story should probably be headed “Big Tony Round Three – Mr Irrepressible Rises from the Classic McLaren Ashes.” I have known Tony De Lisio since round one, and that was well before I started writing about wine. My first contact with Tony was about ten years ago. I had heard on the grapevine that he made some pretty good plonk and decided to track him down and buy some.
The conversation was certainly not what I expected. Normally, when you speak to somebody to buy their wine over the phone, the whole transaction is done and dusted in a fairly short space of time. Not with Tony it's not. As I wanted to buy a mixed dozen, he was determined to make sure I was going to enjoy every single bottle. He wanted to fully understand the types of wine I liked and the types I didn't like. We spent close to an hour on the phone and agreed on the dozen he was going to send me. There would be a mix of vintage and varieties. That did not include Grenache. When the wine arrived, Mr Irrepressible’s enthusiasm had got the better of him and there was some Grenache in the box. He just had to inflict it upon me. I wasn't overly concerned, because if he said it once, he said at a dozen times in the conversation, "I personally guarantee you will like every bottle of wine and if you don't you can get your money back." That's confidence with a capital C.
Many of the bottles had sticky labels that had come off a computer with no more than the name of the wine and the vintage. At that stage, "Round One" Tony was not much more than a home winemaker.
Round One seamlessly merged into Round Two when he became the winemaker and part owner of the Classic McLaren winery. Although he started off small, he was a man with big ideas. Bloody big ideas. He is a big fellow, with a big ego, but it's not the ego that's driving him. It's his unshakable belief in his own ability to make damn good wine. I might add, a belief that is not misplaced.
Tony's Overpriced Legal Team
Armed with his unbreakable self confidence, some of his own money, and many, many millions of dollars of backing from his partner he built a winery. When you've got a big winery, and lots of money, what do you do with it? The answer is obvious. You spend a few million on Rolls-Royce oak barrels, and you fill them with wine. That's exactly what Tony did. He built a thumping great big winery, and filled it with wine.
He wasn't worried about selling the wine, Robert Parker had given his 1997 Shiraz a very high score and Tony felt the world could beat a path to his door. Only they didn't. All that wine, far too much of it, and no marketing plan in sight. The entry-level wines were phenomenal value. The top end wines were ludicrously overpriced. There was no solid reputation to anchor sales or industry hype around the winery. It was destined to crash and burn from the start. It did. That was the end of round two.
They say you can't keep a good man down, and they are right. Like Phoenix rising from the ashes, Mr Irrepressible was on his feet there for the start of Round Three. De Lisio wines was born.
This much I already knew, the rest I wanted to find out, so we drove down Seaview Road to his new location. He has rented a shed for his new venture. It's only a stone's throw from his old location. He feels at home in this area. He knows the vines here like the back of his hand. Tony may be a talented winemaker, and although you won't hear him mentioning much about it, he’s a sharp viticulturalist, because that's what he was doing before he was making wine.
By comparison to Classic McLaren, his new operation is small, but considering this is a winery that is just starting out, it's not as small as many may expect. Tony is still buying fruit from the growers that provided him with grapes when he was at Classic McLaren. Access to good grapes is a great way to start a winery, especially when you have proven winemaking skills. But more is needed. Lots more! Like money. And a sensible marketing plan. That never goes astray. A realistic business plan can also help.
The last time I saw Tony, the stress was showing. He looked like his blood pressure was higher than Kosciusko, was about to erupt like Vesuvius, and had one foot in the grave. On this occasion, when we arrived, it looked like a bit of the spark had gone out of him, but that was to be expected as he has been to hell and back over the last few years. That look remained until he started talking about his wines and what he was doing. And then like magic, the old, irrepressible Tony was back in full form. He is processing between hundred and twenty and a hundred and fifty tonnes of fruit year. That's about a hundred and ten thousand bottles of wine. Gulp!
Tony decided they needed an inexpensive entry level wine and wanted to produce a blend. He was told that if he called the wine a blend, in the US, it would not sell. He was mulling the problem over as he sat in the LA airport waiting for a plane home. Everywhere peoples eyes were glued to the TV. The Super Bowl was on.
Tony said, "There is nothing more boring than watching a game of American football. Don't quote me on that, but you probably will.” Only because it's the truth Tony, the truth and nothing but the truth!
He went on to say, "And then it dawned on me. I worked it out. I worked out why they were all watching it. The commercials. They are the best part of the program.”
He wanted to produce a wine that would be perfect having around the barbecue; basically a wine that was an easy drinking, fruit forward style. Tony has always thought that Merlot, Grenache and Cabernet do not get their just desserts in McLaren Vale. As a result, these grape varieties are much cheaper than McLaren Vale Shiraz. Tony went on to say, "I have learnt that people think that you blend because the wine is no good. Not that you blend because you want to make a better, more complex wine. By creating a blend, I would be able to over deliver on quality.
The De Lisio Unique View of the Langtons' Classification ...................
As I sat there watching people watching TV and mulling this over, it hit me!
I couldn't believe it when I found out that the name Quarterback hadn't been trademarked. And that's how this wine came about. It's our volume brand, about five thousand cases."
Whilst we were discussing the difficulties of selling wine, Tony came up with another one of his classic philosophical gems. "People take the path of least resistance; but tell that to the trout and salmon.” Deep. Very deep.
The vast majority of the De Lisio production is exported. Where it states that the 2006's have not been released, it refers to domestic release only. Exporting is becoming more difficult for all producers, especially into the US, as the A$ climbs, so Tony is trying to reduce the reliance on export and increase the local presence.
Quarterback 2005 sells for $20; is sealed under cork and is a blend of Shiraz 30%, Cabernet Sauvignon 20%, Merlot 22%, and Grenache. It's sealed under cork. Pristine fruit drives the bouquet and shows on the palate as dark chocolate, coffee oak characters, plum and raspberry. The velvety tannins provide a soft consistency, and the structure in this ample-weight wine is seamless. It has an unusual flavour profile but I'm not sure it's quite meshes. Rated as Recommended with *** for value.
Quarterback 2006 will sell for $20 when it is released and is sealed under cork. This is a better wine than the 2005. The pure fruit is backed by just enough velvety tannins to hold this soft, seamless, harmonious wine together. It's ample-weight, easy drinking; a good food wine, it has been perfectly matched to the watching of football, even the Super Bowl. It's savoury on the uptake with a spicy mid-palate and dried herbs on the finish. Milk chocolate and all sorts of other goodies add to the complexity. Rated as Recommended with **** for value, it's perfectly drinkable now.
We also tried a blended tank sample of the 2007. The texture of the wine is very similar to the previous vintages. As it is younger, there is no surprise that it is more tannic. If anything, the flavour profile is even more complex than the previous two vintages and the wine has better length.
De Lisio 2005 Grenache sells for $40 from the winery and is sealed under cork. This is a seriously good Grenache with loads of rich chocolate on the bouquet. The velvety tannins are unobtrusive but well and truly there, and perfectly back the pure, deep, luscious juicy-fruit. The wine maintains a lovely flavour profile with loads of chocolate and black cherry flavours that finish very long. One of us described one of the dominant flavours of the wine as concentrated, jamless strawberry jam. It is ample-weight with a soft consistency, seamless structure and a harmonious level of complexity. Rated as Highly Recommended with *** for value, drink over the next eight years.
De Lisio 2006 Grenache will sell for $40 from the winery when it is released and is sealed under cork. This wine is the complete antithesis of the previous vintage. The colour is very light and the bouquet shows cedar, menthol loads of earthy characters, dark chocolate and red fruits. The very-fine completely unobtrusive tannins are perfectly balanced to the strong, deep fruit and fresh acid. It has been brilliantly put together. The flavour profile is unmistakably Grenache and completely savoury and off sweet with incredible power and persistence for its weight. Black chocolate, coffee, red fruits, milk chocolate and strawberries linger for ages. A tight, very elegant wine that will become seamless in time, it has a harmonious and intricate complexity. Naturally it's food friendly. Rated as Highly Recommended with *** for value, drink over the next 10 years. Given the colour, it was a pleasant surprise!
De Lisio 2005 Catalyst is a Grenache Shiraz blend, sells for $35 from the winery and is sealed under cork. This is a brooding little bugger, it's earthy and you shows cedar and pine notes. The wine has all the components in the right proportions and is well balanced and constructed however it's hard to judge as it is in the giant hole at present. The fruit is deeply seated, the acid fresh and the tannins smooth, tight and fine. Just ample in weight, it shows some elegance and the off sweet flavour profile including dominant dark chocolate and oregano flavours which are harmonious. Drink from 2010 to 2016, the wine has not been rated as I would like to see what it looks like when it comes out of the other side of its Rip Van Winkle trick. It should be good!
Tony's Idea of "Cask Wine"
De Lisio 2005 Kristina Shiraz sells for $45 and is sealed under cork. Initially, the wine was completely shut down but as I was trying it at home, time was on my side and I was able to let it open up. The bouquet was delightful; red and blue fruits with sexy perfumed characters. Intoxicating. I am grateful I don't have to spit this wine. It's far too good. The smooth, tight, fine, slightly-dusty tannins beautifully underpin the deeply-seated, pristine fruit and crisp acid. Red cherry, chocolate, and mocha flavours are primarily off-sweet but the wine has good natural fruit sweetness too. A muscular-weight wine with a supple consistency and a solid, tight structure, it shows some elegance and class and should become seamless in time. It's approachable now with a good decant, but will be better once it has softened and integrated further. The finish is beautiful. Rated as Excellent with *** for value, this will go fifteen years. Unfortunately I have one concern. The corks. The first bottle’s cork was stained right through to the rim and was starting to leak out the top. It was oxidised and undrinkable. The cork from the second sample was well on the way to looking like the first. In places the wine had travelled more than halfway up the cork.
De Lisio 2006 Kristina Shiraz will sell for $45 when it is released and it is sealed under cork. The dusty, unobtrusive tannins are ultrafine and brilliantly matched to the delightful, pristine, juicy fruit which is in charge. Flavours of dark chocolate, plum and coffee are luscious and finish with beautiful length, and whilst there is some fruit sweetness to the wine the flavour profile is both luscious and savoury. It's a clean, modern wine and I wanted to keep sipping, or better still, drink it. It's just ample in weight with a silky consistency, a tight and seamless structure and harmonious complexity. Rated as Excellent with **** for value drink over the next 10+ years.
I asked Tony when he planned to release the 2006 Kristina Shiraz in Australia. Once again, he answered with another one of his wonderful philosophical gems. Laughingly he said, "When I get a bloody order!"
De Lisio 2004 Shiraz sells for $70 and is sealed under cork. The bouquet is serious and spicy but doesn't want to reveal much. This wine is immaculately constructed. Sex in a bottle! Rich chocolate, mocha, liquorice, aniseed/star anise flavours finish fresh, crisp and dry. It is already completely seamless, elegant and ultra-tight. And ample-weight quality wine that is approachable now but still a baby, its rated as Excellent with ** for value, drink over the next 12+ years.
De Lisio 2006 Shiraz will sell for $70 when it is eventually released and is sealed under cork. The wine is driven by pristine fruit and perfectly framed by fine, unobtrusive tannins and off-setting fresh acid. It is very similar to the 2004 but if anything, this has better structure. The flavour profile is similar, showing some fruit sweetness that’s complemented by a savoury flavour profile of chocolate, coffee, mocha, and star anise. A solid and tight wine that will become seamless in time, it is ample-weight with a supple consistency and sophisticated complexity. A seriously good wine that is still a baby and needs time, its rated as Excellent with *** for value, but the rating will probably improve as the wine enters its peak drinking window between 2012 and 2026.
Later in the conversation, there was another one of Tony’s wonderful to philosophical gems, and I am in violent agreement with him on this one. "Oak should be in the foundations of wine. It should be there but not seen.”
I hate to even think it let alone say it, but I wonder if history is repeating itself and we will have a case of deja vu all over again. Tony is an irrepressible winemaker that doesn't know how to do things by half. I just hope the size of his current operation is not too big given its early days, the market conditions and the strong Australian dollar.
If anything, Tony's winemaking ability has improved. The tannin management is even better and the wines are finer and more elegant. He is having the fruit picked slightly earlier which gives the wines an even more attractive flavour profile.
During the conversation, Brian told Tony that he'd picked up some 2002 Le Testa (both Cabernet and Shiraz) at the clearance sale when the winery was sold and said “You wouldn't want to know how much I paid for it”. Tony responded, "When there's a financial gun to your head, you are being held over a barrel, and your accountant tells you to pull your pants down, there's not much you can do about it.” But Tony was only joking, by that stage he was well and truly out of the Classic McLaren business and doing his own thing at De Lisio Wines.
That the end of the day's formal proceedings and we headed back to Chateau Pie King Bridge Vineyards. I was not in good shape. (And no rude comments from the peanut gallery, or editor Brian, about my normal shape please.) My throat sounded like a bullfrog had taken up residence. Farmers would have liked the flow from my nose; it was more prolific in the Murray River, although that's not particularly difficult. Miraculously, my sense of smell was still all right.
When we locked in dates for the trip, his Pieship told me that he would like to be at home on the Friday, as it was the 21st anniversary of his marriage to that living saint, the Pie Queen. His Pieship also stipulated that as it was their anniversary, we should take them out for dinner. In a magnanimous gesture of untold generosity, Brian said that we would take them to the Grange Restaurant at the Adelaide Hilton. I love the way Brian volunteers to spend my money for me. In other words, we were prepared to take them where ever they wanted to go and there was only one condition stipulated (besides BYO). The Pie King was banned from having any input into the choice, because if he is involved, you can bet your sweet bippy it will be a disaster. He has an unblemished, proven track record of selecting poor restaurants for us.
A zillion e-mails went backwards and forwards, forwards and backwards. I then threw a bloody great big spanner into the works. Because of accommodation availability in Coonawarra and the Barossa, being in McLaren Vale in Friday night was not going to be a viable option. Alternate plans had to be made and the celebratory dinner was going to be on the Thursday night instead. That created new problems. To cut a very long story short, their Pieships decided they would have their real celebratory anniversary dinner after Brian and I had departed, (which is reason enough in itself to celebrate,) although we would still have the “privilege” of taking them out to dinner on Thursday night.
Regular readers of this Tour Diary will be aware that McLaren Vale is not the gastronomic capital of the universe, especially at night. Finding a good place for dinner in this area is like looking for a lost diamond ring at the tip. You think it's out there, you hope it's out there and you pray like hell that you will find it quickly, before the experience of looking for it makes you start to feel sick. Sue chose a place in Macclesfield, about half an hour's drive away. Not an expensive restaurant, a pub. Offer Grange at the Hilton and we wind up in a pub. By this stage, given the way I was feeling, I wouldn't have been able to appreciate great food anyway, so the Three Brothers Arms pub was just fine.
The first bottle of wine opened was a Primo Estate 1997 Joseph Moda. This wine makes a mockery of the poor vintage. Even Sue, who normally does not like red wine thought it was a good drop. The fruit showed wonderfully intense blackcurrant; the tannins have softened and have started to integrate, but this wine probably has another ten years ahead of itself. It's muscular-weight and the acid is still fresh. It's a shame this is my last bottle. Rated as Excellent.
Fine dining this place is not, but you wouldn't expect that in a pub. The tables are timber, and bashed up at that. The chairs are something else. I had to try four of them before I found one that I was confident would not fall apart when sat down. They give a whole new meaning to the word “rickety”.
The rustic menu is extremely limited, but what was there looked good. For a starter I ordered a small pizza with tomato, basil, mushroom and extra hairy fish. A pizza is not a pizza without anchovies. My pizza tasted alright, but it was not as hot as expected. Given the time it took from order to the arrival of the food, the pizza (base) had to have been premade/cooked and then just heated up. Brian ordered soft shell crab and whilst he thought the crab was okay, the batter was a bit ordinary. John ordered salt and pepper squid and didn't say a single word whilst he was eating, that's always a good sign. Sue loved her entree and thought the dressing was, "great."
For our main courses, both Brian and I had beer battered garfish. Garfish is a South Australian specialty, and beer batter is a pub specialty, so by rights it should have been spot on. The fish was good, totally as expected however our chips were half cold.
Pate. Good stuff. Jewish style chopped liver, even better. Lambs fry and bacon. Not fit for a pig to eat. Guess what John ordered? It arrived with a huge pile of mashed potato. The only comments we heard from his Pieship whilst he was scoffing down his food was the occasional grunt in agreement to what had been said. Sue finished her Indian inspired, lamb back strap in record time.
By this stage, I was feeling decidedly ordinary, and listening to the playback of my recorded notes, sounding even worse. I needed a bed. We skipped dessert and headed for home. In past Tour Diaries regular readers may remember the comments I have made about the singing in the car on the way home. Without John knowing it I turned on my recorder, and you can listen to a couple of minutes of his singing and commentary by clicking here. It’s quite something.
When we arrived home, it was straight to bed for me, hoping that I would feel better in the morning.
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From: Paul Petagna.
Absolutely in love with John’s singing….. what a voice; it’s like listening to Angels…… DYING!!!! Just shitting Johnny.
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