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Cool Down Under

Australian vintners seek to make brighter,
fresher wines from cooler locales.

Daenna Van Mulligen sends greetings

Australia is home to four of the largest deserts on the face of the Earth. The mere mention of the “the land Down Under” brings to mind parched earth and russet coloured soils, endless kilometres of outback dotted wiath dingoes and kangaroos or perhaps sandy beaches, surfers and sharks. We think of brazenly fruity Shirazes and ripe, tropical Chardonnays made from grapes that have flourished in Oz’s long days and hot southern sun.

On a recent trip to Australia I logged an impressive number of kilometres, criss-crossing New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria visiting not only the expected warm winegrowing regions, but also several very impressive cool ones. In fact, by the end of my trip, what really inspired me were the exceptionally bright and elegant cooler climate wines.

Cool is, of course, subjective. What is considered a cool growing region within Canada, New Zealand or Germany would be quite different from those in Australia or Portugal. As an example, a region with an average daily temperature during prime growing season (July in the Northern Hemisphere and January in the Southern) of at least 24º or more would be considered hot. Griffith in Riverina, New South Wales; Mildura in

Murray-Darling in South Australia; Montpellier in Midi, France or Alentejo in southern Portugal are all considered hot climates. To contrast, a cool region would be Champagne in France, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand or Ontario’s Prince Edward County, which would average 17º to 19º.

Why this sudden attraction to cool-climate wines? One would imagine the warmth of the sun ripens fruit better to create the raw materials for deeply flavoured, plusher wines. It does. Cool-climate regions meanwhile allow the fruit to ripen slowly during long, warm, sunny days and then cool down at night to retain the freshness and acidity in the fruit. Perhaps after years of drinking wine made from excessivelyripened grapes from hot climates we are getting tired of the jam in our expensive glassware and are looking for a little elegance and refinement instead?

The longer a grape hangs on the vine the riper it becomes and, in a very warm climate that means the sugar levels climb, producing a sweeter “jammier” wine. But during that extended hang-time the acidity drops off. Acidity lifts a wine, gives it juiciness and longevity. And, the consensus among wine lovers is acidity is beneficial to food pairing.

A common thread I found as I travelled was the Aussie desire to create more stylish wines with less fruitcake flavours. And, Australia is the place to do it — they have the warmth to achieve fruit ripeness and a fine selection of cooler climates to brighten it up.

South Australia | Eden Valley
Climbing up, along winding roads lined with scrub and gum trees, away from the stifling February heat of the Barossa Valley floor I entered Eden. At first, I was baffled by how this region could produce such taut, focused Rieslings. But the Eden Valley sits high above Barossa, its lean, shallow sandy, loamy soils; cooler temperatures and long growing season are perfect for Riesling.

Eden Valley’s most famous vineyard, Pewsey Vale, is its own microclimate. Resting some 250 metres above the Barossa Valley floor, Eden’s oldest vineyard resembles a crater carved into the top of an ancient, rocky hilltop. Vines roll and undulate, following the contoured slopes in this venerable hidden pocket. How it was discovered and the decision made to plant Riesling vines here in the mid-1800s is a wonder.

However, after all this time (because of those first Pewsey Vale plantings) Riesling is still the most important grape grown in the region. By no means is it the only one. Some of the most celebrated wines in Australia, notably from Henschke, Yalumba, Pewsey Vale, Peter Lehmann, Elderton and Heggies are made from Eden Valley grapes. Mouthwatering Cabernet Sauvignons have vivid fruit and lifted eucalyptus/menthol notes. Shirazes are elevated from opulent to ethereal. Two excellent examples of Eden’s offerings are the Yalumba Virgilius Eden Valley Viognier and its Hand Picked Single Site Shiraz from the Swingbridge Vineyard. The differences from the Barossa Valley floor to Eden Valley’s elevation is quite stunning, the results in the glass are compelling.

Clare Valley
On the upper portion of the Mount Lofty Ranges, roughly 140 kilometres directly north of Adelaide is where you will find Clare Valley. Main North Road dissects this small, geographically varied region. Clare Valley is actually a plateau; anchored by broad swaths of open land in the south and north, dissected by beautiful valleys of lush hills and dales. Known as the Riesling Trail, Main North Road stretches 27 kilometres south to north, starting in Auburn before arriving in the Valley’s namesake town of Clare. Most of the 50 or so wineries in Clare Valley have cellar doors, but don’t expect glamorous digs — this isn’t a heavily touristic area like the others closer to Adelaide. Clare Valley is rustic, quaint and very, very casual.

I came looking for great Rieslings, and thankfully I found them. Despite being known for its snappy, dry and floral version of this German classic, Clare Valley has a remarkably diverse portfolio of both red and white wines. A small family winery called Skillogalee is a perfect example of this diversity. Having enjoyed both their sparkling and still Rieslings in the past I was prepared for well-made wines but not for the bright Shirazes and Cabernets poured for me. To traverse the Skillogalee vineyards you need a four-wheel drive, there isn’t a flat spot on their 120 hectares of vineyards. The microclimates are obvious in this rollercoaster geography known as the Skilly Hills.

Across Main Road North where the landscape shifts dramatically, Taylors Wines (known as Wakefield in the Northern hemisphere to avoid conflict with Taylor’s Port) holds nearly 600 hectares of Cabernet, Shiraz, Merlot, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Semillon and Viognier. The size of the vineyards, the production facilities and the terroir at Taylors differ greatly from those at nearby Skillogalee but the wines are all well made and affordable.

Travelling north on the Clare Valley plateau to Polish Hill River you’ll encounter the charming Pikes Winery. The Pike brothers started this winery in the mid 1980s — 100 years after their family founded the Adelaide Hills-based Pikes Oakbank Beer Company. The family brewery has been re- established and the Pikes have entered into a vinous partnership with the Joyce family in the sub-appellation of Lenswood in Adelaide Hills. I sampled the Pikes Clare Valley Rieslings as well as their tasty Viognier and a supple but elegant Shiraz. Their Pikes & Joyce, Lenswood Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were excellent examples of what I was to taste in Adelaide Hills the next day.

Victoria | Yarra Valley
The Yarra Valley is recognized as one of Australia’s coolest winemaking regions. It’s also the oldest winemaking region in Victoria. Yarra has gained international recognition not just for its fine Pinot Noirs, but also its bubbly. International sparkling wine houses like Domain Chandon and Henkell chose this Southern Hemisphere region to set up house and produce both sparkling and still wines. Despite being a cool region Yarra (like most of Australia) has had its share of heat and drought.My landing in Australia coincided with the anguishing bush fires that ravaged parts of Victoria in early February. Ten days later I arrived in Yarra Valley to witness pockets of destruction amid a surreal sense of calm. The destruction was, in some places severe. Driving near the town of Yarra Glen I saw homes of blackened rubble and shells of burned out cars, then arbitrarily, only feet farther, no damage at all. It was stunning to witness.

But despite the severe losses and the heart-heavy emotions of its inhabitants, the people of Yarra wanted to make one thing clear — it was business as usual. Those who lost farms or equipment were being assisted by those who hadn’t. The loss of vineyards was minimal where I travelled and no one seemed overly concerned about the fires we could still see burning in the hills. And no one seemed to be worried about smoke or a contaminated 2009 vintage.

One morning, at De Bortoli Wines, I tasted several tank samples of fermenting Pinot Noirs with chief winemaker Steve Webber — all had been harvested after the fires. They were clean and juicy with no discernable smoke taint. Then I grabbed a handful of just-picked Chardonnay grapes right off the sorting table — sweet and fresh — certain to make good wine.

Later that day I visited Yering Station, an architecturally delightful winery and restaurant so close to the fire path it was haunting. But as proof of adaptability, a nod to normalcy, a helicopter landed on the lawn as I tasted, bringing wealthy diners out for lunch from nearby Melbourne. The Yering Station sparkling wines, their Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are wonderful representations of the cooler Yarra climate.

At Domaine Chandon, winemaker Matt Steele took me on a tour of the winery where I tasted not only a number of the excellent Chandon sparkling wines but also a lineup from their second label called Green Point.

The wine producers of the Yarra Valley stick together. Knowing that they live in a unique corner of the world is not enough, so they work to spread the word on how special their cool-climate wines are. I met with a small group one evening for a typical, casual Aussie dinner. After sitting down, talking to the producers and tasting the wines of Giant Steps, Punt Road, Five Oaks and Seville Estate, I was convinced that not only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay benefit from Yarra’s cooler climate, but so do Viognier, Syrah and Cabernet.

Adelaide Hills
After experiencing the constant flatness of Adelaide city, a quick drive up into the verdant Adelaide Hills is a treat. A beautiful wine region, residing close to a large city never hurts cellar door sales or winery restaurants, no matter where in the world you are. Only a 25-minute drive east from the city centre, this cool-climate region (on average five degrees cooler than the city) is made up of winding roads, quaint towns and stunning vineyards. Although noted for pristine Sauvignon Blancs, the Adelaide Hills producers are not resting on that reputation alone.

Take the Shaw + Smith Winery, operated by cousins Martin Shaw and Michael Hill Smith since 1989. If the view from the winery doesn’t inspire you about the beauty of the Adelaide Hills sufficiently, the wines will. The gorgeous, creamy M3 Chardonnay has aromas of praline, but they also make a snappy Riesling, a fragrant, floral Pinot Noir and a very juicy, mineral-laden Shiraz — all from Adelaide Hills’ fruit.

Nearby, almost smack in the centre of the region is a relative newcomer, The Lane Vineyard. John Edwards and his family run this small estate winery and bistro where they not only serve delicious food but also produce wines made from nine different varieties growing on their land. Under the labels of The Lane and Ravenswood Lane I tasted Gewürztraminer, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon all planted by Edwards to take full advantage of the diversity of the Adelaide Hills.

The early success of the region can be traced to Brian Croser, one of the most recognized names in the Australian wine industry. When Croser founded Petaluma in 1976, he planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in Coonawarra, Riesling in Clare and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Adelaide Hills.

I enjoyed the Croser Piccadilly Valley sparkling wine made from a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay while taking in the scenery around Mount Lofty. Although Petaluma continues to make wines from Clare Valley and Coonawarra fruit I thought their citrus-y Piccadilly Chardonnay, their restrained, minerally Viognier and spicy, fruity Shiraz emphasized the multifaceted Adelaide Hills terroir the best.

New South Wales | Tumbarumba
Tumbarumba is the new kid on the block. Early in my trip, I arrived in the Hunter Valley and paid a visit to the Hungerford Hill Estate. Winemaker Michael Hatcher led me through some fermenting tank samples of Hunter Valley Semillons before we dove into a series of Hungerford Hill’s wines from Tumbarumba. This region that I hadn’t even heard whispers of instantly intrigued me. Located in the southern part of New South Wales, far below Hunter Valley, Tumbarumba sits just above the state of Victoria.

A mountainous, snowcapped region, Tumbarumba was initially planted with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris less than 30 years ago in hopes of producing income for local landowners. Hatcher, who is understandably passionate about this region, explained that a few years after that initial private planting, Seppelt purchased the vineyards specifically for use in their sparkling wines. This generatedinterest from other producers interested in making cool-climate wines.

The key players in Tumbarumba, besides Hungerford Hill, are those who have the resources to buy grapes from this isolated region, producers like McWilliams, Fosters and Hardy’s. With Hatcher, I tasted three elegant, complex Hungerford Hill Chardonnays as well as a Sauvignon Blanc and a Pinot Noir, all made from Tumbarumba grapes. Hardy’s delicious Sir James sparkling wine is also from Tumbarumba fruit and McWilliams uses Tumbarumba Chardonnay as a component in their well-recognized Hanwood Estate Chardonnay, as does Penfolds for its top-of-the-line Yattarna Chardonnay.

Warm, hillside days and very cool nights help the grapes retain acidity and allow the pure, crisp fruit flavours to shine. Primarily decomposed granite, the vineyards here range in height of 300 to 800 metres above sea level, which is significant, especially in Australia. And while there is some interest in expanding the varietals being grown in Tumbarumba, 75 percent of the plantings here still favour Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Tumbarumba has garnered a lot of attention in Australia lately and I think you’ll be hearing a lot more about this new kid — let’s hope you’ll get to taste more too.

Suggested wines from Eden Valley
Yalumba Virgilius Viognier $51
Henschke Julius
Riesling $36
Henschke Mount
Edelstone Shiraz $85

Suggested wines from Clare Valley
Pikes Winery Traditionale Riesling $18
Skillogalee Wines Sparkling Riesling $20
Wakefield Cabernet Sauvignon $16

Suggested wines from Adelaide Hills
Croser Sparkling Wine $28
Petaluma Adelaide Hills Shiraz $48

Suggested wines from Yarra Valley
Yering Station Yarrabank Cuvee Sparkling $18
De Bortoli Wines Yarra Valley Pinot Noir $40
Punt Road Yarrahill Pinot Noir $23
Five Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon $53

Suggested wines from Tumbarumba
Hungerford Hill Winery Tumbarumba Chardonnay $19