Big or small, craftsmen aim to create the best they can
IN the September WineBusinessMonthly , young pinot noir specialist winemaker Bill Downie let loose with an all-too-familiar tirade against the large corporate wine companies.
‘‘ I think we need site-focused individuals in Australia, not portfolios,’’ he said. ‘‘ The whole world knows that we can do inexpensive homogenised products, but the world doesn’t quite realise what is possible.’’
Warming to his task, he adds: ‘‘ They continue on a daily basis to make appalling decisions. They have a pool of amazing talent and all they seem to do is stand on them and say: do not do anything interesting, do not work to the best of your ability.’’
By chance, I had just spent two days with the winemaking team at Constellation Wines Australia (aka Hardys) when I read Downie’s words. On the other side, as it were, I had spent the previous two days with Wirra Wirra and Roman Bratasiuk of Clarendon Hills in South Australia.
It did not change my perception of the big picture: for better or worse, more than 80 per cent of Australia’s wine production (hence sales) emanates from the big companies. These wines are sold on price, invariably discounted, and store position. The consumers of these wines seldom, if ever, read this wine column or any other and have no interest whatsoever in the dreams or frustrations of the winemakers who are responsible for them, even less in the niceties of wild yeast fermentation, and would presume terroir comes from somewhere like Afghanistan.
When you turn the coin, both Foster’s and CWA have numerous single-region wines in their portfolios made by winemakers who, without exception, seek to make a better wine next vintage than the one before. One of the approaches is to push the envelope, to try new methods. (Thus Foster’s winemakers from across the country have an annual internal competition to produce the funkiest single-barrel white burgundy lookalike wine.)
Of the 107 CWA wines I tasted, 92 were from a single region and more than 30 of these were from single vineyards. Where regional blends are made, it is because the winemakers are looking for the sort of synergy achieved by Penfolds Grange and Yattarna, using multiple regions across more than one state in some vintages. Thus Hardys’ Eileen Chardonnay is typically 50 per cent Adelaide Hills and 25 per cent from each of Victoria’s Yarra Valley and NSW’s Tumbarumba: three regions from three states. It so happens that most of these top-flight wines are also single varieties, but this does not mean they are inherently better than multi-region, multi-varietal wines. One of Australia’s greatest winemakers post World War II was Hardys’ Roger Warren, a master blender who in the 1950s created shiraz-cabernet blends from NSW’s Hunter Valley and Goulburn Valley (Tahbilk) and SA’s McLaren Vale, with the occasional assistance of SA’s Coonawarra.
It is in deference to those wines that the CWA winemaking team has created the HRB range, or Heritage Reserve Blend. But to return to the main theme, that team is headed by Paul Lapsley, who has a steely will that allows no compromise: just look into his eyes, don’t bother reading his lips.
At his side are Ed Carr, without question the greatest Australian sparkling winemaker of his generation, arguably of all time. Rob Bowen knows Western Australia like the back of his hand and is responsible for Houghton and Brookland Valley wines, the latter my Winery of the Year in the 2009 Wine Companion.
Group white winemaker Tom Newton, I suspect, has won more show trophies and gold medals for his wines than any other winemaker today.
Fiona Donald has moved from Foster’s to CWA with a fully deserved reputation.
If you put those winemakers in a room with the Wirra Wirra team headed by Samantha Connew, and with Bratasiuk, you might find spirited debate, but it would all come from deeply held conviction about the genesis of great wines.