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Days five to seven: Australian wine trip blog

Published:  25 October, 2010

Becky Leach is online development manager for Majestic Wine and winner of the James Busby Twitter competition

October 24

The beginning of our second week in Australia.  We said goodbye Victoria, hello South Australia, slightly hopeful that the weather would be warmer here.  Our bus driver Wayne breathed a sigh of relief as we were back in his home territory.  Our plans for today were to leave Dunkeld, get a couple of hours driving done and visit Majella in Coonawarra, then after lunch, hit the Great Ocean Road and head to McLaren Vale, hopefully making it to the Victory Hotel for sunset, which is apparently breath taking there.  Well, as the saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

However, let's not get ahead of ourselves.  We left Dunkeld and the Royal Mail Hotel rather too early for a Sunday morning - however the thought of warm croissants for breakfast (detox calling!) made it that bit easier to get out of bed.  We got to Coonawarra in good time and went to Majella where Tony Lynn and winemaker Bruce Gregory were there to meet us.  Tony along with his brother 'The Prof' Brian Lynn are part of the family that own this vineyard and have been making wine here since the late 1960's.

Modern, clean and spacious, Tony was involved in the design of the winery in the early nineties.  Pneumatic presses, rotary fermenters, static fermenters, this is the hub for where these full, classic Coonawarra wines are made.  For the first time this trip we saw vines that are machine pruned and harvested, this allows Majella to get the fruit in quickly when it is at its optimum ripeness.  With manual labour being in short supply here, this is simply a must.

Only 100km from the sea, pretty much every afternoon they will get sea breezes through the vineyards.  A fairly constant 65m above sea level, Coonawarra is flat, with no hills, perhaps just the slightest if inclines here and there.  With cool nights and warm days, the diurnal range gives an extra dimension to the wines that are produced here.  We tasted The Musician, a cabernet shiraz blend from 2009, it had eucalypt and mint on the nose, with ripe primary fruit characters and a lick of vanilla on the finish.  The 2008 Majella Cabernet was lovely.  Eucalyptus and mint again on the nose, integrated tannins and ripe blackcurrant fruit gave it depth of flavour.  The 2004 Mallea had a depth, concentration and structure that showed it was a wine for the long haul.  Just starting to open up, coffee and chocolate, spice, vanilla and ripe black fruits were displayed in this full wine.

Back on the road, we hadn't gone too far when we had to make an unexpected stop - a problem with the wheel bearing on the trailer.  After two hours spent in a small town called Kingston, which happily had a giant lobster to keep us entertained (honestly!), we were ready to get on the road again, however our plans to eat at the Victory had unfortunately by this time gone by the wayside.  Plan B came into force.  We headed instead up to Wellington for dinner.  To get there we had to cross the mighty Murray river on a ferry.  In a local bar we were introduced to the chicken 'parmie', (of which we had heard a lot), Australia's contribution to world cuisine (it has been said).  With all feeling replete, we continued with the final leg of this particular journey, ready for what McLaren Vale has to offer us.


October 23

Best's Winery in Great Western, a sub region of the Grampians GI was founded in 1866 by Henry Best.  Amidst Gold Rush territory, the winery remained in the Best family until Henry's death in the 1920's, at which point it was bought by the Thomson family.  Now in the hands of 4th generation Viv and Chris Thomson, the winery has a great mixture of new and old; a rich history combined with modern aspects means this is an exciting place to be.  Though Best's has been around for nearly 150 years, it is still a relatively small outfit, with focus on quality, It is considered one of the hidden gems in the Australian wine world.  At the heartland of cool climate Victoria, one of its specialities is Shiraz, though it has many other varieties planted.  Unusually for Australia, the focus of Best's has always been on dry wine as opposed to fortified wines.  Also unusually, there is a nursery block of vines, planted in the 1860's by Henry Best and his family.  The nursery block is scatter planted, and even today, there are varieties that remain unidentified.  Despite the sense of history that is omnipresent at Best's, there is also modernity and innovation.  This year at the beginning of September, in order to launch the new vintage of their Great Western range of wines, they organised a tweet-up.  Embracing social media is one way Best's is moving forward.  Adam Wadewitz has been with Best's since 2005, a young and dynamic winemaker, he is also proof that Best's is forward thinking.

Adam showed us round the winery, from the Cellar Door, an old barn filled with memorabilia and wine making artefacts of years gone by, to the underground cellars filled with barrels, old and young.  In the depths of these cool cellars Adam took us through a component tasting of Best's flagship Bin 0 Shiraz.  Blended from small vineyard parcels, it was fascinating to taste the individual different components.  Some wines were fragrant, rose petals and violet notes coming through, others more robust.  One in particular was quite heavy in eucalypt tones.  As Adam has come to know and understand the vineyards, he knows when to pick to get the optimum from the fruit in order to get the correct final blend.  In the Bin 0 Shiraz there is even wine that comes from the original 1860 vines.  There are two parcels of the 1860 vines in the Bin 0, one block of four rows, and another block of 11 rows.  When the conditions are right these will make a small amount of single vineyard wine.  When they are added to the Bin 0, they add a depth, concentration and completeness to the finished wine.

After our morning at Best's, we had a whistle stop tasting at Crawford River.  In south west Victoria, the climate here is also cool, however has a maritime influence due to its relative proximity to the sea.  Planted in 1975 by John and Catherine Thomson they specialise in great Riesling and Cabernets.  In their modern cellar door facility we had a tasting of three whites, two reds and a 'sticky'.  The 1995 Riesling was surprising in that it didn't display the aged characters that I was expecting.  It had a hint of toastiness, but the primary fruit that was still present gave it a positive linear streak.  Age had given it texture, and we all decided it would go really well with pate.  The 2009 Riesling was picked early due to frosts.  With balanced acidity, hints of delicate honeysuckle and white blossom it also had a certain minerality.  Lovely!


On to the reds.  We tasted the 2004 and 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon.  2005 was a cool year, so the fruit was picked early.  It showed lovely black fruit character, an hint of herbs and well integrated oak.  The 2004, with an extra year's bottle age and the different vintage conditions - 2004 was a cool year - there was less sweet fruit on the nose, more savoury characteristics and an aroma reminiscent of cold tea.  These wines are restrained, balanced and had a long length.


After the tasting at Crawford River, we headed to Dunkeld for the Regional Producers Dinner held at the Royal Mail Hotel.  With a beautiful backdrop of the Southern Grampians the setting was stunning.  An evening celebrating wine beer and food produced in Western Victoria, what better way to finish the day?

October 22


Yabby Lake winery was our next stop on the trip.  We were in Heathcote to meet Tom Carson, winemaker.  Though the fruit comes from the Mornington Peninsula, where we were at the beginning of the trip, the wine is actually made in Heathcote.  Trying to make wines that are not complicated by wine making, wines that are not manipulated in any way, that are able to show the true expression of the place is Tom's aim in making Yabby Lake wines.  Attention to detail in the vineyard is key.  Tom is converting to organic practices in the vineyard, and in the next couple of years hopes to have full accreditation for this, though this is clearly something that doesn't happen overnight.


Red Claw, Mornington Peninsula Chardonnay 2008 and 2009 were the first wines poured of the day.  Pristine purity of fruit is what Tom is aiming to create in these wines.  Getting the picking day right is important in order to achieve this.  The cooler end of the picking window, before the fruit gets too ripe gives white blossom and pear notes.  The cooler picking affords natural acidity and a natural balance so that manipulation throughout the wine making process is minimal.  Yabby Lake Vineyard, Mornington Peninsula Single Block Release Chardonnay 2008 was next up.  On the label the block and row the fruit comes from is printed, as well as the bottle being numbered.  In this case, the wine we sampled was Block 6, Rows 1-15, number 318 of 2400.  Seeing this on the label brought a simple sense of honesty and clarity to the wine for me. 


The wines that we were trying were elegant, had layers of complexity and so reference to Burgundy often gets mentioned.  Tom however explained that he doesn't like this comparison.  Burgundy and the Mornington Peninsula are thousands of miles apart, so the way he sees it is that it's difficult to draw such similarities, even if sometimes the wines he produces are eerily like those from that famous region.  Australia, being the new world has the freedom and flexibility to make noticeable differences to the wine they produce, something that gives them a great opportunity.


Moving on to the reds, we started with Red Claw, Mornington Peninsula  Peninsula 2008 and 2009.  2008 was a more classic year.  In 2009 there was a three day heat wave in January where temperatures reached up to 45.5 degrees Celsius.  This heatwave lead to a 50% loss of fruit, however the fruit that remained was of good quality.  Only a week later was 'Black Saturday', the bush fires that swept through the region.  Mornington Peninsula was unaffected, however in the nearby Yarra they weren't so lucky.

Yabby Lake Vineyard, Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir 2008 had a depth of character and complexity.  The single block release pinot noir, again with the individually labelled block row and number was next - we tasted the block 2 and block 5 from 2008.  Both blocks had a common theme of fragrant textural wines, but there were nuances of difference that separated them, After tasting wines round the lunch table, we headed to the barrel store.  Large, airy and modern, Tom selected barrels which we tasted samples from.  Though clearly not finished wines, it was really interesting to see them at different stages in their evolution, and it gave an insight into how Tom and other winemakers get to know their wines.  This intimate knowledge that only comes from tasting, tasting and more tasting.  They are able to blend wines mentally, and then actually go and taste to confirm what they already think will go together.  Seeing this in action you get a real sense that it is art in the making and a real skill.

After a lovely afternoon at Heathcote, we headed over to Bindi in the Macedon Ranges.  As the coach pulled in to the estate, we could see kangaroos in the distance.  As we got closer, the sight of a Union Jack flag flying welcomed us.  On the label of Bindi wines is a man named Kostas Rind.  Of Lithuanian origins, he fled his homeland and came to Australia, introducing Michael Dhillon's father Bill to wine for the very first time, he became a mentor and friend to Bill and his family.  Kostas was clearly a man who made a difference, as Bill explained, he made both him and his son the men they are today.  It was Kostas Rind that advised Bill to buy the farm that Bindi sits on today.  The  family have been making wine at Bindi for 20 years.  Even though a lot can be learned in 20 years, the vineyard is still in its infancy.  We walked round the vineyard, Michael pointing out the differences in soil and how that effects the vines they plant and ultimately the wine that is made.  As soon as we arrived at Bindi the genuine passion for quality was tangible.  In the barrel store we had some samples direct from the barrels lined up to taste.  First up was the Bindi Composition Chardonnay 2010.  500m above sea level, the cool climate and favourable site lends itself to wines that are balanced, have a lovely linear streak and would be perfectly matched with scallops.  The Bindi Quartz Chardonnay 2010 was sublime.  Elegant, refined, with a savoury element, the vines for this wine are situated higher  up the vineyard where, surprise surprise there is more quartz in the soil.  This gives a higher level of minerality in the finished wine.  Tasting the finished product, the Bindi Quartz Chardonnay 2009 was stunning.  Great texture, balance and length, perfect with fresh lobster.

In the dimly lit barrel store, surrounded by amazing wines it struck me that if an outsider were looking in, he would think it a strange sight.  Sixteen of us stood in a circle, all tasting wine and then taking it in turns to step forward and spit in a bucket on the floor.  Strange indeed!  As the evening went on we left the barrel store and had beautiful oysters and fresh prawns accompanied with Bindi 2003 sparkling wine.  Made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, it spends 6 years on lees.  It was absolutely amazing.  A lovely golden colour, despite being 7 years old, had a purity of fruit that was wonderful.  As we sat down to dinner, we were treated to older vintages, Composition Chardonnay 2006, followed by Quartz Chardonnay 2005 - this had focus, elegance and a pure expression of fruit.

Michael follows biodynamic principles in his vineyard.  The high quality wines that he makes have an elegance, balance and integrity.  Meeting the man that makes these wines and spending time in the vineyard gives you a greater understanding of where his focus is coming from.  In such a beautiful setting, keeping the wine making as simple as possible in order to retain the fruit's character and to let the expression of the land speak for itself is easy to understand.  We all felt extremely privileged to be able to spend time at Bindi, to try amazing wines that are produced and to experience the peace and tranquility that seems to emanate from there.