It’s Sustainable, it’s Australian and it’s Wine

Let’s talk about eye-openers, those you look forward to with great excitement before the drop and the palate have said hello. Here in Helsinki, we’re rubbing our palms together, salivating at the thought, allowing our minds to run wild with what they’ve come up with this time. It’s the Australian Wine Tasting Event with a Master Class lead by Mark Davidson and the subject is Sustainability.

Vine of the Riesling

Call it trendy, call it hip but don’t you ever call it a passing fad because we all know where we’re heading as far as this planet is concerned. The numbers are too scary for words: species die out between 1000 and 10 000 times higher than their natural rate; CO2 levels are rising consistently; the planet’s average surface temperature has increased by 1.1° C turning 2016 into the warmest year ever recorded.

What happens to wine in this bad-case scenario and how do winemakers get those labels with that magic word ‘organic’ or ‘biodynamic’ printed on them? Strange as it may sound, hard-earned capital leads the way: money is what it takes to use methods that are minimal and money is what is required to get official authorisation. And not just a one-off payment but a year-by-year commitment to stick to your principles no matter what. The maze of organisations out there with recognised authenticity to declare a winery sustainable is in itself a hard task to sift through. But when you’ve got it, you make the best of it even when the odds are stacked against you.

Organically grown and treated Rieslings from Australia

Pewsey Vale ‘The Contours’ Eden Valley Riesling 2011 is one such wine. Louisa Rose and her crew went biodynamic in 2011 and even through it was a wet, cold, challenging period they pushed on, risked failure and came up with this superb example of Riesling. It tingles on the tongue, mingles toasty brioche with citrus fruit and leaves you with a long, lemongrass flavour for pure savouring or cutting the grease in a leg of roast duck.

Grenache in a blend, Grenache on its own – organic and purely delightful

Drought makes us all sit up and place bricks in our toilet cisterns. Australia reminds its citizens every day of conservation and recycling of this valuable asset, a commodity the wine industry cannot do without. When aquifers are used, they are kept at replenishable levels. Mulching is common practice on organic farms and grey water is pumped for irrigation. Grenache is the most widely planted red wine grape in the world. It’s hardy, it’s not too thirsty and it outperforms its siblings on yields. Australians have recognised these facts and made good use of this versatile varietal. John Duval’s Annexus 2015 is a new venture with a delightful floral character and savoury spice. Tannins caress your tongue in the finish with long brush strokes of velvet.

New innovations

Where do they go from here? The thing is, Australian winemakers are already pushing the envelope with the varietals that we all expect from them so why not fool around with a Touriga Nacional for instance, or a Graciano, so popular in Spanish blends? The latter used on its own is the edgy path Paxton McLaren Vale Graciano 2016 follows. It presents you with a plate of nutmeg, cinnamon and other spices with a touch of oak to keep those flavours lingering.

Organic or biodynamic, irrigated or dry, Australian winemakers who chase the elusive star of purity without sacrificing taste, are on a trail-blazing track to that point of excellence.

Why I Always Attend Australian Wine Master Classes

Because it shakes up my thinking. It’s unsettling when you think you know something and then find out that you were way off the mark. When you expect robust and you get lean, it messes with your perspective and that means that you’re just plain wrong, something most of us would not like to admit.

This time we celebrated the evolution of Chardonnay, Grenache and Shiraz. You’ve seen the map and probably know that it’s a vast country, so vast that it could be called a continent. You expect diversity. You automatically think that there’s a lot of wine being produced judging by the ubiquitous product on your shop shelves in other parts of the world. Surprise #1 – It produces a mere 4 % of all wine but is the 5th largest exporter by volume.

Justin Fairweather from Alpha Box & Dice
Justin Fairweather from Alpha Box & Dice

Then you hear there are no less than 60 wine regions stretching across the southern coast and that South Australia has some of the oldest vines in the world, some 150 years old. Not so surprising Shiraz, Chardonnay and Cab Sauv are the top 3 varietals. And just when you think that what you’re going to be faced with are heavy, overoaked offerings, the wines trip off your tongue like light, wisps of purity but not without structure and finish.

Ever heard of Orange County as a wine region in Australia? Yep, behind the Blue Mountains vines are growing at a high altitude and some of these belong to Philip Shaw. His #11 Chardonnay 2015 with citrus and honey and a good backbone of minerality and acidity that is balanced by the well integrated oak exposure, counts as one of the top ten. Next up is one huge kangaroo hop to the West Coast and Margaret River, an area that consistently amazes me with its uniqueness. The grapes for Woodland Wines Wilyabrup Chardonnay 2015 made by Andrew Watson come from a small, low-yielding vineyard, which apparently brought forth even less grapes than was expected due to heavy rain and wine which damaged the canes causing a 40% crop reduction. Fermented in French oak, the nose is toasty with plenty of citrus and pears notes followed by a full, rounded, fruity palate and an added flavour of apricots. Again, gorgeous acidity to keep it elegant. Out of a line-up of four, these were just my picks but the other two were just as stylish: Ten Minutes by Tractor 10X Chardonnay 2015 from Mornington Peninsula, Victoria with the ocean surrounding the vineyards on 3 sides and The Pawn Wine Company Jeu de Fin Chardonnay 2015 from Adelaide Hills.

Tom Keelan - The Pawn Wine Company
Tom Keelan – The Pawn Wine Company

While Shiraz is what most of us associate with Australia when it comes to reds, Grenache is making huge, delicious inroads with innovative winemakers blazing the trail. These wines are astonishing, some richer in style than others without sacrificing the fruit of this great grape. Grenache, Shiraz & Tempranillo blend is what Alpha Box & Dice Tarot Grenache 2015 consists of. Youthful and excellent, just like the winemaker Justin Fairweather, this wine is luscious with raspberry jam and a touch of savoury spice to keep it on its toes and by that I mean, not falling into the trap of jamminess. The label bodes ill but we’re told not to worry. The face of death on the Tarot card only spells new beginnings after the blade has cut away dead wood. Let’s climb the hill north towards the Barossa Valley where 60 year old vineyards sprout forth Langmeil Fifth Wave Grenache 2009. Here is the richer, fuller example of this versatile grape and even with 15,2% alcohol, it retains its sophistication finishing up with chocolate, spice, fruit and silky tannins. Others of the same ilk: Yalumba Tri-Centenary Grenache, 2011 and Ochota Barrels The Fugazi Grenache 2014.

Enter Shiraz and might I remind you that it’s come a long way from the old bold and brassy attitude it used to have. West of Melbourne lies the area of Grampians where old vines of Shiraz are transformed into Mount Langi Ghiran Cliff Edge Shiraz 2014. Distinctly mineral with fine acidity underpins this mellifluous wine that has just the right amount of pepper intermingled with cherries and oak. The finish just goes on and on. Coriole Scarce Earth Old House Shiraz 2014 highlights the single vineyard and distinct geology of McLaren Vale dating back millions of years. It comes through on the palate when you get this earthy taste of graphite, then cloves, then a bit of liquorice and plum all dancing together in harmony. No new oak was used keeping it smooth and velvety.

Languishing in the luxury of ignorance never got me very far and even if I have to admit that I was wrong, I do so gladly especially when I know that it’s going to get better and better from here on out.

Here’s where you can find these wines:

Philip Shaw#11 Chardonnay 2015

Woodland Wines Wilyabrup Chardonnay 2015

Ten Minutes by Tractor 10X Chardonnay 2015

Alpha Box & Dice Tarot Grenache 2015

Langmeil Fifth Wave Grenache 2009

Yalumba Tri-Centenary Grenache, 2011

Ochota Barrels The Fugazi Grenache 2014

Mount Langi Ghiran Cliff Edge Shiraz 2014