Chuck’s Down Under

No Difficulty Tasting a Vertical of New Zealand Pinot Noirs

No Difficulty Tasting a Vertical of New Zealand Pinot Noir

Post by Chuck Hayward | August 2nd, 2011

New Zealand is a relative newcomer to the wine scene in the United States. Though the arrival of the 2011 vintage will mark my 20th year working with Kiwi wines, their real growth in America has only occurred over the past decade. Given that New Zealand is a Johnny-come-lately to our shores, there aren’t many chances for a retrospective look at older vintages of any wine. Unless someone in the States actually saves multiple vintages of the wine (how would I find them?) or a winery pulls them from their cellar and ships them over (an expensive proposition), the only option is to cross the date line and taste them in New Zealand (even more expensive).

A vertical tasting of Mt. Difficulty arranged horizontally

So when I heard Mt. Difficulty was going to host a vertical tasting of seven vintages of their estate wine, I cleared the calendar. Sourcing fruit from their vineyards located in the Bannockburn subregion of Central Otago, Mt. Difficulty is one of the region’s leading pinot noir producers. Their estate pinots show the rich and concentrated, yet soft, style that comes from that particular appellation. One of the few New Zealand wineries with a long-term history in the United States, sales date back to the 1998, their first-ever release. (more…)

Regional Spotlight: Tasmania

Regional Spotlight: Tasmania

Post by Chuck Hayward | January 19th, 2011

Tasmania has a hold on many people, enthralling them with its controversial history as a prison island or mesmerizing them with its lush foliage, numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites, the endangered Tasmanian devil and a burgeoning wine industry. With some 90 wineries scattered across the island, the Tasmanian wine industry only produces 0.5% of all the wine made in Australia. However, the small output from the “island of inspiration” has captured the interest of wine enthusiasts worldwide.

Frogmore Creek in Tasmania

Home to nearly 175 producers and 250 vineyards which comprise almost 4000 acres, grapes were first grown near Hobart in the 1820s. (Cuttings from those vineyards were later taken to Sydney and Melbourne to establish viticulture there.) While there were a few plantings by Italian immigrants in the 1950s, modern winemaking really began in 1973 when Andrew Pirie, Australia’s first PhD in viticulture, founded Pipers Brook Vineyard in the northern portion of the island. Meanwhile, the wine industry has grown rapidly over the past forty years, and winemakers look towards Tassie as a source of pinot noir and aromatic varieties like riesling and pinot gris. Nevertheless, most of the island’s  pinot noir and chardonnay are used for sparkling wine that is destined for thirsty Australians on the mainland. (more…)

Australia’s Independent Wine Shops

Australia’s independent wine shops: Educating locals and tourists alike

Post by Chuck Hayward | October 8th, 2010

Wine enthusiasts often seem drawn to browse through wine stores on their travels, as if they were answering a magnet’s pull. They do this partly out of curiosity, as visiting a wine store in another country reveals a bit about their wine culture, and partly for comparative purposes.

 

Front of Prince Wine Store

 

Of course, there is the ever-present desire to uncover an amazing bargain or to nab that rare bottle. For me, wine stores represent ground zero in my effort to discern new trends and discover new wineries. So it should come as no surprise that I headed to a few shops on this recent visit.

Melbourne’s Prince Wine Store is at the forefront of showcasing imported wines and promoting new winemaking projects from up-and-coming winemakers in Victoria. This large store has a contemporary look and a very strong selection of Australian wines, as well as imports, including quite a few from California and Oregon.

 

Emily Laughton at Jasper Hill tasting

 

The interior is dominated by a large room with glass walls dubbed “The Cube,” where tastings and wine classes are held. In fact, it was a tasting of new releases with Jasper Hill winemakers Ron and Emily Laughton that brought us there. Ron is one of the leaders in Australia’s growing biodynamic movement and producers of cult-level shiraz from Victoria’s Heathcote region. The wines highlighted the intense yet elegant fruit that comes from Ron’s site. (more…)

Realizing What Rockford Is All About

Realizing What Rockford Is All About

Post by Chuck Hayward | September 8th, 2010

the press in Rockford "Basket Press" Shiraz

When I first began to promote boutique estates from Australia, I asked around to see which wines I just had to try: iconic wines that were rare and hard to find.

The name that came up repeatedly was the Rockford “Basket Press” Shiraz. At that point, it had never been sold in the US and only a few bottles had even been brought to our shores. It was almost ten years later when the Grateful Palate arranged to import the wines that I had the first chance to try a bottle. After all the hype and the decade-long wait, I tried some. And in my then-Aussie-wine-infancy, I didn’t get it.

one of those old pumps still in use

Rockford was founded by Robert O’Callaghan in 1984, during a dark period in the Barossa Valley, when century-old shiraz and grenache vines, which, due to lack of demand, were being ripped out and replaced with chardonnay under a government scheme. O’Callaghan had left the Barossa’s famed Seppelts winery to start a new project dedicated to preserving what was rapidly becoming the lost heritage of the valley–the traditions of winemaking and grape growing threatened by modernization.

His winery was founded in a rough-hewn building constructed by Johann Henschke almost a century ago. With no real money to start a new venture, he got by with old machines being discarded by other wineries as they purchased new equipment. The pumps, presses, and tanks might look like they belong in museums, but they are still in use today.

(more…)

Welcome Home

Welcome Home!

Post by Chuck Hayward | September 1st, 2010

Over the past 15 years, I have probably visited Australia 25 times. The purpose of almost every trip has been to visit wineries or attend wine conferences or tastings. As things happen in the wine business, you get to know a few people over the years. Nowadays, visiting Australia is becoming less about the business of the wine industry and more about catching up with friends.

The wine business is very special due to its convivial nature. It provides folks with a unique window into a country’s culture. You learn about the politics and history. You essentially have your own tourist guide as the locals tell you where to find the best coffee or croissants. I can’t count the times where I have been invited to homes, some mornings eating eggs I gathered from the chicken coop after a brisk morning walk. So when planning my first day back to Oz, I thought nothing would be better than organizing a dinner with friends in the business and getting sucked into some good food and trying some new wines.

 

the infamous Ying Chow

 

And in Adelaide, the only place to have this feast is Ying Chow. More incredible wines from Australia, I dare say from anywhere in the world, have probably been poured at the tables of this venerable Chinese restaurant than at any other restaurant in the country. Located near the city’s produce market, it has seen numerous lunches and dinners hosted by winemakers, wine writers or average folks taking advantage of the restaurant’s BYOB/no corkage policy.  (more…)

Chuck Is Off to Oz!

My Upcoming Journey to Australia

Post by Chuck Hayward | August 26th, 2010

Just like JJ Buckley’s recent trip to Bordeaux, my upcoming journey to Australia is to gather more information about the wines there. Nothing beats traveling and talking firsthand with winemakers, sommeliers, and writers to learn more about the many facets of a country’s wine business. Previous trips have been instrumental in boosting my understanding of Australia’s wine regions and the industry’s history, along with discerning future trends. As a bonus, it’s also pretty fun.

 

 

Trips to a wine region often have contextual issues which frame a visit. Many visits are educational in scope (i.e. to learn more about soils or winemaking), and for the most part, information travels both directions. In many cases, meeting winery owners or government officials leads to conversations about wine trends in America and/or ideas about improving business. Given the current state of Australian wines in today’s American market, I imagine there will be a lot of talking and listening on this visit.

So, what is happening with Australian wine today and what can I expect to find? (more…)

Winery Spotlight:Dry River Wines

Winery Spotlight:Dry River Wines

Post by Chuck Hayward | August 22th, 2010

Dry River is widely acknowledged to be one of New Zealand’s most monumental wineries. Without a doubt, Neil McCallum and his staff produce world-class wines across the board that represent the pinnacle of what’s coming out of the country. The wines from this property have always been scarce, as the 3000 case production is mainly sold to mailing list customers and fine restaurants, with only the most passionate promoters of New Zealand wines seeing any of their output.

map of New Zealand

map of New Zealand

Founded in 1979 during the beginnings of New Zealand’s modern wine industry, Neil McCallum set about planting pinot noir in the Martinborough area located about an hour east of Wellington, the country’s capital. Along with Clive Patton of Ata Rangi, Larry McKenna of Martinbourough Vineyards (and now at Escarpment) and Stan Chifney of the now defunct Chifney Estate, the four winemakers are credited with being amongst the first to make serious attempts towards the production of quality pinot noir in New Zealand. While pinot remains the core of Dry River’s production and its concurrent fame, the winery also excels in other varieties including riesling, syrah and gewurztraminer… with a total of 8-10 different wines produced each year.

Neil came to winemaking from a background in botany, in which he received a doctorate from Oxford. His scientific background led him to be an articulate spokesman on topics regarding the intersection of wine, terroir and viticulture. Nowhere does that fact appear so clearly as on the winery website which contains numerous essays by Neil that delve into these themes (e.g. “Where does the expression of terroir end and that of winemaking begin?,” “Tannins, palate structure and longevity in pinot noir,” or “Musings: The Brain is a blunt instrument.”  Click here to read these and more). They are more direct, detailed and serious writings compared to the sly humor often found in similar jottings from Randall Graham of Bonny Doon.

Dry River Vineyard

Dry River Vineyard

Pinot Noir makes up a majority of Dry River’s production (about a third of the total production) and given Neil’s passionate opinions about winemaking, his style is a personal one. Accordingly, Dry River pinots have become quite controversial compared to the classic burgundian model. As Neil Martin of Parker’s site declares about McCallum’s approach: “It is beautifully crafted in a style that is contradictory to what I believe pinot noir should be.”  The pinot noir of Dry River is devoted to finding the optimal colors and flavors that can be derived from its site. The gravelly soils of Martinborough, along with viticultural innovations from Neil, such as reflective mulch, have created pinots that are intensely dark and opaque in color with a similar density of fruit on the palate. He is devoted to understanding what New Zealand pinot noir is capable of becoming.  He knows, however, “it will take some time before the new styles are completely accepted because Burgundy has been centre stage for so long.”

Where Dry River’s pinot elicits much debate and discussion, the rest of the portfolio seems to garner more universal praise by the wine world. The aromatics (riesling, gewurztraminer and pinot gris) all share pure varietal expression with an initial sense of youthful restraint. It is with brief time in the cellar that the power of the wine reveals itself. Neil’s stickies are rare releases but always have a combination of pristine fruit flavors with botrytis. Meanwhile, the peppery syrah showcases why the grape is poised to become New Zealand’s new wine star.

Dry River Post

Dry River Post

I have been fortunate enough to have sold more than 10 vintages of Dry River pinot noir and have never been less than blown away by the intensity of this wine as well as its impact on those customers lucky enough to have tried it. But as is so often the case with wineries that make more than one iconic wine that captivates critics and consumers, it is tasting Dry River’s entire portfolio that makes one realize the strength of vision Neil McCallum has enshrined within his wines. His commitment to wines that require cellaring– the chance for them to unwind over time– is rare to find in a world of instant gratification. The ability to balance a wine’s flavors on a pinpoint shared equally between power and lightness is a rare skill in the wine world, and Dry River has done that again and again.

Regional Spotlight: Margaret River Chardonnay

Regional Spotlight: Margaret River Chardonnay

Post by Chuck Hayward | August 14th, 2010

Margaret River has a reputation as one of Australia’s best chardonnay growing regions for a reason. Located on a small peninsula in the southwest corner of Western Australia, the cooling breezes coming off the Indian Ocean help maintain moderate temperatures and preserve necessary acidity. The proximity to water also limits the impact of droughts that plague other growing areas throughout the country.

Margaret River map

Map of Margaret River

A relatively new region when compared with the century-old vineyards of South Australia, the first plantings here occurred in the late 60s at Vasse Felix. Yet in less than 40 years, Margaret River has gained international prominence for producing world class chardonnay and cabernet whose styles bear a striking resemblance to those of Burgundy and Bordeaux, respectively. The region accounts for more than 20% of the nation’s premium wines, even though it only produces 3% of the grapes.

When it comes to chardonnay, Leeuwin Estate (2006 Art Series, $69.99) may be the most famous producer in the region, but there are many top quality wineries who have carved out a name for themselves over the years and at more affordable prices. These new arrivals showcase the recent trend towards chardonnay with more finesse and elegance. Interestingly, each of these well-known properties has recently hired new winemakers with incredible track records, poised to take these already renowned wineries to even greater heights.

So explore a few of the following wines to get a better understanding of the beauty of Margaret River:

2008 Cape Mentelle Chardonnay (Margaret River) $21.99

Cape Mentelle Chardonnay
Rob Mann comes from Western Australia’s most famous winemaking family but gained his fame as the head winemaker for Hardys in South Australia. He returns to his home state to take the reins of Cape Mentelle, founded by David Hohnen and Kevin Judd, who also set up Cloudy Bay at the same time.

2008 Hay Shed Hill Chardonnay (Margaret River) $18.99

Hay Shed Hill ChardonnayMichael Kerrigan’s background began as the winemaker at Howard Park but he is now the proud owner of Hay Shed Hill where he can now focus his efforts on a more intimate scale. He has a great understanding of Margaret River’s varying microclimates which allows him to craft multidimensional wines.

2007 Vasse Felix Chardonnay (Margaret River) $15.99

Vasse Felix ChardonnayVictoria Willcox is one of Margaret River’s legendary winemakers. Passionate and knowledgeable, she throws her considerable energy into her work as well as her post-work activities. She is now in charge of Margaret River’s oldest winery and is “stoked” to be a finalist for Qantas/Gourmet Traveller Winemaker of the Year.

Penfolds’ Icon Releases 2010

Forget the Maypole, gimme some Grange!

Post by Chuck Hayward | May 1st, 2010

May 1st is an important day to the world’s working classes and neo-Pagans, but it is also an unofficial national holiday in Australia as the new

Penfolds place setting

release of Penfolds Grange and other “Luxury & Icon” wines enter the local and international markets. This is a major cultural event, with every major television and print outlet leading off with stories of the newly released Grange and the roads to Penfolds H.Q. in Adelaide clogged with everyday people and well-off collectors alike—many in line for over 48 hours, vying for the opportunity to purchase just one bottle of Grange.  Chief Winemaker Peter Gago spends May 1st besieged by the media, all seeking his assessment of the vintage while he signs autographs and meets with consumers. In many markets and especially within Australia, this is the only opportunity to get one’s desired Grange allocation, widely seen as the country’s most prestigious wine.

Aussie superstar chef, Curtis Stone with guests.

Because these wines now have a global demand, Penfolds has a new approach to marketing the release of their world class “Luxury & Icon” wines—and if there’s one thing Penfolds knows how to do, it’s throw a party. I was fortunate to be invited to the first Penfolds Icon release dinner ever held in the US, where I had the opportunity to taste all the top new releases accompanied by excellent cuisine prepared by Aussie superstar chef, Curtis Stone (whom you might recognize from Donald Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice”.) This was a great evening to be sure, as Grange collectors mingled with members of the wine trade for a festive evening of food and wine while Matt Lane, Penfolds Ambassador for the Western Hemisphere, acted as our informative and entertaining emcee.

So what about the wines? Below are my tasting notes for each of the wines, but overall, the new releases showed

Penfolds schwag!

that Penfolds continues to assert its exalted position in the world of fine wine.  The latest Grange returns to a bold, rich style following the elegant interpretation released last year. St. Henri Shiraz celebrates its 50th anniversary by continuing to shed its oft-worn mantle “sleeper of the lineup”. This year’s release is a wine for the ages and destined to last years in the cellar. And in one of the most difficult vintages for South Australia in the past ten years (and a year when Penfolds could declassify a poor wine), the Bin 707 Cabernet is one of the most succulent, approachable releases in a long time.

Tasting Notes

2007 Penfolds Chardonnay “Yattarna”

A blend of fruit from Tasmania, Adelaide Hills, and Henty. Pale straw color. Moderately intense and open aromas of lemon zest, delicate hints of creamy oak and burgundy-styled mineral elements prevail. Rich yet zesty on the palate, the citrus infused flavors soften with air and fan out across the palate. The minerals emerge again at the end, subtle and elegant in their presence. More refined and elegant, yet more complex than the ’06. Each vintage of Yattarna has seen the Penfolds team head further south to source fruit from cooler sites. The 2007 release continues the trend towards a refined and elegant Yattarna style.

2006 Penfolds Shiraz “St Henri”

89% Shiraz, 11% Cabernet Sauvignon. St. Henri continues to go from strength to strength as the Penfolds winemaking team tweaks its style. Now in its 50th vintage, the latest release has an opaque center with the barest hint of a rim. The nose is moderately powerful at this point with roasted notes and dark pepper spices lying underneath. With air, soft and rich chocolate infused fruit appears but the wine is a bit backwards. Still creamy and full-bodied on the palate, this is a more structured and ‘reined-in’ St Henri that finishes with spicy tannins and a touch of nicely integrated acid to lighten the palate. Where the voluptuous 2005 was juicy and thick, this vintage will clearly reward some time in the cellar or a vigorous decant if popping the cork today. 1976, 1986, and 1996 are some of the best St. Henri’s ever made. This release will continue the trend and add to that illustrious collection.

2007 Penfolds Cabernet Sauvignon “Bin 707″

A blend of fruit from Padthaway, Barossa and Coonawarra. The Penfolds 707 Cabernet is one of the winery’s most historic wines and exemplary of the Penfolds style. Recent years have seen a restrained, more tightly wound wine on release, however the 2007 is another wine entirely and a throwback to the more open and opulent years such as 1988 and 1990. Super attractive, cedar and mint infused aromas leap out of the glass, while kernels of sweet, currant-laced fruit lie underneath. The palate is round with spicy tannins and toffee laced flavors to complement the moderately weighted fruit. Easily one of the most immediately appealing 707s in a while, it’s hard to believe this juicy wine was matured in 100% new oak.

2007 Penfolds Shiraz “RWT”

Another winning vintage here. This RWT continues a string of successful releases that belie the wine’s full name “Red Wine Trial”. Clearly, the trial has been deemed successful quite awhile ago! Initially closed and restrained, the bouquet hints at roasted meats and a touch of coconut while the palate shows a purity of fruit and rich textures that seem almost weightless. Not a heavy style, it nevertheless has a pleasing, palate coating viscosity. The finish is youthfully short as the wine ends with subtle, talc-like tannins. An excellent wine in an open and approachable style from a vintage where many other South Australian shiraz are raisined and hard.

2005 Penfolds Shiraz “Grange”

96% Shiraz (88% Barossa); 4% Cabernet Sauvignon. This is a more open, generous and immediately appealing vintage compared to the elegantly profiled 2004. The latest release has the classic, effusive Grange aromas and palate of previous vintages, but is maybe not as dense as some other years. This wine is no slouch, however, with savory flavors of cherry flambé and marinated mushrooms. Sage and rosemary notes add high-toned elements to the bouquet. Tangy acidity at the end adds a lift and elegance to the midpalate and lengthens the finish. As usual for Grange, the concentrated fruit masks the structure that guarantees this wine a long life. An excellent Grange that shows its class and pedigree in an unabashed manner.

Regional Spotlight: Martinborough Sauvignon Blanc

Regional Spotlight: Martinborough Sauvignon Blanc

Post by Chuck Hayward | April 26th, 2010

The Martinborough region has gained worldwide acclaim for its pinot noir

Photo courtesy of winesfrommartinborough.com

but few people realize that sauvignon blanc is an important aspect of the area’s wine production. In the last vintage, 47% of the grape production in the Wairarapa region (which includes Martinborough along with the Masterton and Gladstone subregions) was pinot noir while 35% was sauvignon blanc. Yet it is Marlborough that has established itself and gained international recognition for sauvignon.

Sauvignons from Martinborough are quite distinctive and different from the prevailing Marlborough style. The palate profile is typically elegant and restrained with a long, lingering mineral presence on the finish. Flavor-wise, there are the classic lime and lemon citrus elements that are tightly wound about the mineral laden spine. Most examples are tank-fermented with a small portion (usually 10-15%) of barrel fermented juice added to the final blend for complexity. There are some notes of herbs and spices that show the grape’s varietal characteristics, but you rarely see the more pungent, herbaceous aromas that are prevalent in Marlborough.

Photo courtesy of winesfrommartinborough.com

The minerality that is so clearly evident in Martinborough sauvignons is probably a result of the soils of the region. The so-called “Martinborough Terraces” are considered the geological backbone of the area and are composed of deep layers of alluvial and gravel deposits. These soils are perfect for drainage, but also retard vegetative growth that can increase a grape’s grassy components.

There are relatively few Martinborough sauvignons in the American market despite their ability to offer a distinctively different style to what Marlborough produces. This is partially due to the fact that pinot remains Martinborough’s principal attraction. But it is also a very small region, only 3% of New Zealand’s grapes are planted there yet it only accounts for 1% of the country’s wine production to due consistently low yields. Nevertheless, brands like Ata Rangi, Palliser Estate, Craggy Range and Martinborough Vineyards are worth the search.