Trial by Fire: Raising a Glass to Australia’s Recovery from the Bushfires

somerled
Adelaide Hills – A vineyard on the edge of disaster. Photo credit: Somerled.com

If you’d like to help support Australia’s recovery from the bushfires, consider lifting a glass of Aussie’s finest.

Like so many local businesses, Australia’s wine producers have felt the impact of the devastating bushfires and many top producers will not be making wine in 2020. While research suggests only 1% of total vineyard area suffered burnt vines and property damage, many more are reporting smoke taint. In the Hunter Valley – New South Wales, for example, venerable producer Tyrell says 80% of the crop will be lost.  Slightly east, Hunter Valley’s other iconic producer Brokenwood should be fine. According to the Australian Wine Research Institute, the smoke taint matrix includes a number of factors including grapevine growth stage, grape variety, elevation, proximity to the fires, length of exposure and type of smoke i.e. young, fresh (the worst) or old (not as bad).

Damn, Mother Nature can be cruel.

But she’s had a helping hand from us humans, as we – largely unabated – pump carbon into the atmosphere creating a weighty, dystopian legacy of greenhouse gases. GHGs create an increase in the earth’s atmospheric temperature causing corresponding changes in climate. Extreme weather, increased temperatures, lower precipitation, drier soils, drought, grape shrivel, increased and earlier photosynthesis, advanced budburst, tinderbox fields and forests are just some the ecological hallmarks of climate change. Sadly, Australia has felt the impact in spades.

To support the Australian wine industry – and in the hope you will too – Canadian distributor Lifford Wine & Spirits (a carbon-neutral company) partnered with the Canadian Association of Sommeliers (CAPS Ontario) on February 18, to host a master class in Australian wines.

Lifford’s president, Steven Campbell, dipped into his cellar and surfaced with eight, superbly crafted wines from down under. To help deconstruct these wines, Campbell invited three heavy hitters: Veronique Rivest, Canada’s preeminent sommelier and the 2016 runner up in the world’s best sommelier competition, José Luis Fernandez – Ontario’s top sommelier and Michelle Bouffard, a wine educator, author and founder of Tasting Climate Change.

Veroniqe Rivest, MSteven Campbell, Michelle Bouffard
Veronique Rivest (left), Steven Campbell, Michelle Bouffard drinking down under. Photo credit: CAPS Ontario
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Veronique Rivest (left), Michelle Bouffard and José Luis Fernandez drinking down under. Photo credit: CAPS Ontario
Shaw & Smith
Photo credit: Shaw & Smith

Shaw and Smith 2018 Sauvignon Blanc – Adelaide Hills – ~$29.99

We started with this gorgeous, ripe Sauvignon Blanc from the higher elevation, cool-climate region of Adelaide Hills. It’s loaded with citrus and tropical fruit aromas and flavours and bursting with succulent freshness.  “There are no annoying green notes to this Sauvignon Blanc,” declared the straight-shootin’ Rivest about this elegant wine. “It’s ripe – but not ‘cartoon-like’ ripe – just quality, finesse and balance.” Shaw and Smith are one of Australia’s premium white wine producers. In a country known for heat and where everyone is searching for the best red wine, Shaw and Smith wanted to make the best white wine. Both Michael Hill Smith and his cousin Martin Shaw are Masters of Wine – the highest level of wine education available – and not surprisingly, their Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc reflect this attention to detail.

According to Bouffard, the winery will be able to produce wine in 2020. The fires that ripped through Adelaide Hills stopped at their vineyard and the grapevines and estate were spared. The website features a few photos of the fire and the horrible devastation to Smith & Shaw’s neighbours. Visitor numbers for the region are down but the good news is the tasting room has resumed normal hours.

Mitchell
Photo credit: Mitchell, Clare Valley

Mitchell 2008 Riesling – Watervale, Clare Valley – ~$25

This South Australia Mitchell Riesling comes from a cool, windy and cloudy location. It sounds a tad inhospitable, but that weather translates into slow-ripening viticulture and some beautiful, elevated Riesling acidity. Producers in this Clare Valley region can also see a 40-degree diurnal spread between day and night temperatures, adding another layer of cool-climate wine-making.

The age on this wine contributes delicious meyer lemon aromas, and a steely lime, ripe apple and pear palate. Veronique Rivest says the limestone-based Watervale vineyards create wines that are imminently more approachable when young than blue-slate-based, neighbouring Polish Hill. “The difference is you don’t have to wait 30 years to drink these wines!” she exclaimed. “Twelve years of aging, and this wine is still beautifully vibrant. It’s got grit – maybe dry extract – and it can easily hold for another 10 years.”

According to Steven Campbell, the Clare Valley region and Andrew Mitchell in particular, led the screw cap revolution that led to 95% of Australia and New Zealand being under screw cap closures.

“Yes, BUT…” cautions Michelle Bouffard, “some of these producers – including Mitchell – are experimenting with cork again.”

“Research seems to show screw caps keeps a wine closer to what it originally was, but cork’s oxygen transmission is better for a wine’s evolution. And cork- particularly oak cork – is renewable and therefore, much more sustainable than the aluminum and plastic production required with screw caps,” said Veronique.

Cullen Kevin John 2015

Cullen 2015 Chardonnay – Kevin John – Margaret River

This one’s a stunner. I admit, I’ve been off chardonnay for a while (who can afford Burgundy?), but this crisp, flinty, super-delicate, honeyed, slightly reductive, lightly-oaked beauty completely won me over. Where do I find this?

Cullen is a revered producer – one of the top pioneers in Margaret River,” says Michelle Bouffard. An organic and biodynamic producer committed to all things sustainable, the Wilyabrup-based winery in Western Australia was certified biodynamic in 2006. According to Michelle, the winery is more than carbon neutral; it’s carbon negative.

“Winemaker, Vanya Cullen, is crazy in the best way possible,” Michelle laughs. “She’s a true environmentalist and mother of nature and devoted to quality and integrity in the vineyard. I mean they grow vegetables in the middle of the vines, they use barrels harvested with moon cycles and last time I was there I spent three hours with her corralling bees back into the hives.” She also believes in the harnessing the rhythms of the cosmos. “She had 40 bottles harvested at different phases of the moon that she was testing that day. That’s how much she cares.”

mornington
Mornington Penninsula  Photo credit: VisitVictoria.com

Kooyong 2006 Pinot Noir – Haven Vineyard – Mornington Penninsula, Victoria – “around $75” – S.C.

This 2006 Victoria Pinot Noir was a heavenly highlight and with 14 years aging, “shows what Burgundians have always known: that great Pinot Noir is meant to be aged,” says José Luis Fernandez.

Grown in Australia’s foremost cool-climate maritime wine region (Port Phillip), this fresh and vibrant red is as gorgeous in colour as it is in concentration. Ripe raspberry, cherry, smoke, sweet spices, walk-in-the-woods underbrush and velvety-smooth tannins are highlights of this beautifully balanced, texturally superb wine. The good news: this area was not affected by the fires. I loved this wine!

Cullen 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon – Diana Madeline – Margaret River

Another sensational wine from Cullen’s biodynamic viticulture in Margaret River.

Eleven years of age, this cab comes from vines planted in 1976 and boasts 12.5% alcohol. “Whoa – so low!” was the response from many in the room. As Michelle points out – alcohol goes down with biodynamic viticulture and it’s a reminder that Margaret River – with one of the most reliable climates in Australia – still has a cooler maritime influence coming off the Indian Ocean.

Lively, fresh, clean, beautifully structured – the elevated acidity makes this a real beauty. The wine offers notes of green bell pepper, pencil shavings, tomato leaf, and according to Veronique, “noble vegetable-ness”. The tannins are super ripe, smooth and the oak beautifully integrated. “2009 was a Mozart vintage – all warmth and in perfect balance,” she adds. “This wine offers harmony and completeness in a delicate framework, and it easily has another 10 years.”

yalumba-tri-centenary-barossa-grenache
Photo credit: Yalumba

 

Yalumba 2013 Grenache – The Tri-Centenary – Barossa Valley

Grenache in Australia is going through a revolution. Gone are the big-oaked varieties and Yalumba is leading the way. “Yalumba is backing off oak in a big way,” says Veronique. Their wines are much more restrained today.”

Deep purple and plush with loads of ripe cherry, chocolate and clove spice. “I drink Aussie Grenache and I think After 8 mints,” says Veronique.

According to Michelle Bouffard, there are 800 vines making this wine. “It’s own-rooted, dry farmed, and the old vines – with 125 years of age on them – offer depth, complexity and freshness.”

“Yalumba is the locomotive pulling the whole industry forward in Australia, and they’ve been doing that since 1889,” says Veronique. “They are a steady presence in the industry and sustainability underpins all they do.”

Tricentary means they’ve been around for three centuries – not 300 years, clarifies an Aussie in the audience. The old vine charter started in Barossa in 2009, was introduced by Yalumba. It registers vineyards by age so older, continuously producing vineyards can be preserved and promoted.

shingleback
Photo credit: Shingleback

Shingleback 2004 Shiraz D Block Reserve – McLaren Vale

This legendary Aussie Shiraz is from Shingleback, one of McLaren Vale’s flagship vineyards. The winery was founded by brothers Kym and John Davey in the 1990s on farmland that had been owned by their family since 1957. This 2004 is packed with black berry fruit.  It’s rich, powerful with a seductive chocolate and vanilla nose. 16 years in the bottle has added a gorgeous velvety texture and supple, easy-drinking tannins. At 16.5% alcohol this wine will take its toll, which is why I have limited experience with big Aussie reds. Personal consumption aside, I have enormous respect for the sustainability leadership coming out of McLaren Vale.

Drought has also fuelled innovation and McLaren Vale has led the triple bottom line approach to sustainability (environment, economics and social) with early efforts led by the Davey family and Shingleback. In fact, the Sustainable Australia Winegrowing (SAW) program – and the water management program – developed by McLaren Vale has now evolved to become to become Aussie’s national umbrella sustainability program Sustainable Winegrowing Australia.

In the 1990s McLaren Vale was Australia’s first wine region to self-impose water restrictions on its underground resources. Growers banded together with planners to find innovative ways to get water to the vineyards.

Today, an exciting wastewater or “used water” recycling project has water being diverted from Adelaide suburbs, 40 km north. The treated water is a mix of grey water (bath, sink, household) and black water (sewage or toilet-to-tap – filtered, treated, purified by reverse osmosis) and has given growers access to new water supplies and reduced the pressure on stressed groundwater resources. The water supply now has a 120km network of pipes delivering treated wastewater to more than 140 wineries irrigating more than 2000ha of vines. Gotta LOVE innovation!!

kaesler-wines-home-page-vineyards
Photo credit: Kaesler

Kaesler 2007 Old Vine Shiraz – Barossa Valley, South Australia

Our tasting ends with a big finish Kaesler Shiraz: a full-bodied, intense, black cherry and blueberry wine that’s uber plush and completely coats the palate. Loads of chocolate, and spice lead to a light menthol finish with soft, velvety tannins. “There is an obnoxious richness to these wines,” concedes Veronique Rivest. “But let me just say there’s as much wrong with a 15% pinot as there is a 12% Shiraz. This is a restrained expression of old vine Barossa.” “These are big BIG wines and what you have here is the concentrated flavour of 60-year-old vines,” adds José Luis Fernando.

Barossa Valley is home to some of the oldest vineyards and wineries in Australia. Vineyards go back to the late 1800s and because quarantine practices allowed them to keep phylloxera at bay – many vineyards have beautiful stretches of ancient, dry-grown, gnarly old vines. “The amazing thing is there are still so many of them,” says Veronique. “They could rip them out for younger, higher producing vines, but that would create a whole other style of wine.”

According to Michelle, the abundance of eucalyptus trees in Barossa means the oils find their way into the soils and eventually, the wine.

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Thank you, Steven Campbell for the wonderful selection of wine, and for being such a strong supporter of planet earth. Thank you Michelle, Veronique and José for a fabulous discussion.

#winelovers  – if you want to make a difference through your drinking, consider Aussie wine. Better still, consider a trip to Australia. Our Aussie friends (human and animal)  would love some tourism love right about now and will appreciate our wine $$ and travel support in the months’ ahead.

If a trip isn’t in the cards, donations can be made to the Australian Red Cross (www.redcross.org.au/campaigns/disaster-relief-and-recovery-donate)

 

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