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Around the World with Corney & Barrow: Australasia

June 3, 2020

Around the World with Corney & Barrow: Australasia

‘We are in unprecedented times’ goes the standard phrase. Running any business at this time presents its challenges, so you can only imagine what life has been like for vine-growers and winemakers down under. I spoke to a number of our favourite growers in Australia and New Zealand to find out how they have been facing up to the significant challenges of the last few months.

‘A rollercoaster of conditions this vintage!’ said Ben Tolosthev of The Lane Vineyard, our longstanding partners in the Adelaide Hills. The early part of the growing season had been unusually cool and rainy, promising a drawn-out ripening period set to yield grapes with the magic combination of intensity, concentration and fine acids. But then, as if a switch had been flipped, Mother Nature turned up the heat. Devastating bushfires, well-documented in terrifying images across the media, decimated much of the Northern Adelaide Hills. The Lane was extremely fortunate, spared the ravages not only of the fires but smoke damage too.

Meanwhile, Trent Burge, of Barossa Boy, woken in the middle of the night to news of the same Cudlee Creek fires, found himself on a mercy dash to the family winery in the Adelaide Hills in a bid to crank up every sprinkler available. Fortunately, the Burges too were spared, and, like The Lane, were able to produce a vintage that promises to be of exceptional quality.

Fast forward to March and a few thousand miles south-east, the team at Muddy Water in New Zealand’s Waipara Valley was looking forward to a stellar harvest, a small but perfect crop promising wines of length and poise.

Then, enter Covid-19, stage right. While wineries were granted special status and allowed to continue operating, there were strict rules to follow. ‘It has been exhausting’ said Nik Mavromatis of Muddy Water ‘trying to do everything and comply with the huge list of rules to stay open – and we were inspected every other day to ensure compliance. For picking we had to make people work with rows in between each other which slowed down the hand picking massively’. He is hopeful that the team’s efforts will pay off, as the wines are looking to be in great shape.

However, Nik has wider concerns, beyond the current pandemic: ‘As much as we are currently worried about Covid, if we don’t fix the environmental impacts, then future generations won’t be able to enjoy wine as we have known it. Imagine a world without Burgundy or Barolo! Wine is the canary in the goldmine, as it is so affected by climate’. Words like this remind us that climate change remains the driving issue of our times.

Meanwhile, 300 miles away over the Cook Strait, the Hawke’s Bay has been basking in blissful grape-growing conditions through 2020. At leading winery Elephant Hill, Andreas Weiss and his talented team are upbeat about the 2020 vintage, after an extraordinary summer yielded a picture-perfect crop. This is fantastic news, but Weiss is circumspect, always thinking ahead and highly aware of the impact of Covid-19 on his own business and the wider wine industry. Like many vineyard areas, the Hawke’s Bay is a mecca for tourists, both local and further afield.

The loss (however temporary) of the tourist industry and hospitality trade is likely to have a significant knock-on effect for wineries like The Lane or Elephant Hill, both of whom run successful cellar door businesses, as well as award-winning restaurants (the latter now closed, for the foreseeable future). It is fortunate that both these businesses are well-run and resilient.

The current shutdown of the wider hospitality trade is affecting us here in the UK also of course. The wines featured in this special selection can be found on the wine lists of restaurants and other ‘on-trade’ establishments up and down the UK. While we will continue to support our restaurant customers, and hope to see them return to some kind of ‘normal’ before too long, we hope you will also support our talented winemakers by enjoying their wines at home.

This special selection is our tribute to our brilliant producers and a celebration of Australasia’s extraordinary wine scene today. Contemporary classic styles, all of exemplary quality, these wines are made by small, family-run producers striving for excellence. Please read on to learn more about them, their unique stories and distinctive wines.

Lonely Vineyard, Eden Valley

The clue is in the name. Lonely Vineyard is a tiny parcel of vines, hidden high in the hills of the rural Eden Valley. This is a bucolic area of natural beauty, known locally as the ‘Garden of Grapes and Gums’, its contoured hillsides carpeted with vines and punctuated by ancient red gum trees, silent sentinels of this ancient landscape.

Lonely Vineyard was founded by Michael Schreurs and Karina Ouwens, with the aim of producing small quantities of characterful wines from special sites in the Eden Valley. This is one of the world’s most distinctive vine-growing areas, with its unique topography and ancient sandy-loam soils high in quartz and granite gravels. At 460m above sea level, temperatures plunge at night, allowing the grapes grown here to preserve their delicate aromatics and fine natural acidities. This is also why Riesling can thrive here, spared the heat – at times alarming – of vineyards at lower altitudes. But these are also old vines, gnarly septuagenarians with the wisdom and resilience to withstand extremes.

Michael has extensive winemaking experience, gained from a period spent at Seppelts Great Western then six years at the revered Henschke winery before moving to The Lane Vineyard in the Adelaide Hills, one of Corney & Barrow’s anchor Australian agencies. This was how we got to know Michael, and the rest is history.

Michael’s philosophy is rooted in a deep respect for the land, and his goal is to express the character of that land in his wines. Attention to detail is the name of the game here. The vines are tended meticulously by hand, and yield tiny quantities of concentrated grapes (and let’s put ‘tiny’ into context: the vineyard produces around two tonnes to the acre, which in European wine vernacular translates to less than thirty hectolitres per hectare, akin to the finest vineyards of the Mosel or Rheingau). Michael’s winemaking approach is careful and delicate, including whole-bunch pressing to obtain only the finest juices, then fermenting at cool temperatures to retain freshness and aromatic integrity.

An exemplary Eden Valley Riesling, Michael’s wine has all the hallmarks of its origins: the delicate floral notes, intense lemon-lime fruit with a whiff of kerosene, the powerful backbone of acids. Elegant, fine, taut, a steely ballerina of a wine. Over time the wine will soften a little at the edges, take on a little weight, evolve subtly as great wines do. Worth keeping a few bottles in the cellar, if you have the discipline to do so!

The Lane Vineyard, Adelaide Hills

The Lane was first recommended to us in the Corney & Barrow buying team some fifteen years ago. We were looking to expand our Australian range and had received quite a number of approaches from wineries but The Lane’s rationale ticked all the boxes: small-scale, hand-made: tick.  ‘Old World structure meets New World fruit exuberance:’ tick. Adelaide Hills = cooler climate profile: tick (for C&B buyers, acid is our catnip). So far so good.

I still remember that initial tasting at Thomas More Street, our London Headquarters. We had tried quite a number of wines that day with similar marketing messages, and while the odd few contenders were decent, most were thoroughly underwhelming. So by late afternoon, we were rather jaded and felt ‘done’ with Australia. Wine-buying princesses have a hell of a lot of frogs to kiss, so it seems. As we were about to go home, a courier arrived with The Lane samples – they had been delayed. It was almost 6pm, but we resolved to open them anyway, and ‘get them done’.

I attacked the first white, aiming to move onto the reds at lightning speed but stopped. The wine stopped everything, refusing to be overlooked, demanding attention. Vibrant with its grassy, lemon-lime fruit yet somehow so refined, silky and luxuriant yet tantalisingly taut, the wine was an exercise in poise, but edgy too. Up flashed that breathtaking tight-rope scene from ‘Man on Wire’ (humour me! I’m not the only one to visualise film sequences or a riff of music when tasting a wine). Anyway, this wine was The Gathering Sauvignon-Semillon, and just the first of the stunning line-up of wines from The Lane that evening. Our faith in Australia was restored! And over a decade later, the Gathering is still treading that exquisite tight-rope all the way from the Adelaide Hills. And though this is not normally the way as a wine buyer, the deal was pretty much done.

High in the Adelaide Hills, The Lane is in a gorgeous spot, the vineyards enjoying the warm days and cool nights the region is so famous for. The hillsides provide exceptional aspects and microclimates for a diverse range of grape varieties, providing the talented winemaking team with a vast palette of blending options.

The Lane now boasts an enviable range of wines, all different and distinctive, but there is a theme running through all, a certain duality where brightness is toned, ripe fruit is tamed, richness refined.  This is partly down to the impeccable provenance of the grapes, but also the human factor: sensitive winemaking, in tune with the land and its produce.

Critically acclaimed these days, and enjoyed by wine-lovers all over the world, The Lane Vineyard has something of a cult following locally too. The award-winning winery restaurant has made Hahndorf, the village where The Lane is based, something of a destination. Its seasonal menu – based on local ingredients, impeccably sourced – is created to match the wines, and the beautiful space is created for enjoyment. All this reminds us that food and wine are made to be shared together, with friends and family. I write in the time of covid, when gatherings (except on zoom perhaps!) are not on the agenda. But never mind, there is always the bottled version to lift your spirits! As I have done since that first tasting back in 2007, simply keep a bottle of Gathering in your fridge at all times.

Muddy Water, Waipara

‘Hand-crafted, no compromise’ has long been the official maxim of Muddy Water. Discreet in scale and demeanour, this estate continues to thrill us with exceptional wines year on year, two decades after we first tasted them. The estate is based just north of Canterbury in New Zealand’s South Island. While the area can be quite cool, the Waipara Valley itself is something of an oasis for vine-growing, protected from cool ocean breezes by a range of coastal hills. The soils are special too, unusual for New Zealand as they are formed predominantly of calcareous clay and limestone, mirroring those of Burgundy.

As you might expect therefore, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the predominant grapes here, developing impressive flavour intensity while retaining impressive natural acidities, one of the hallmarks of the region.

Muddy Water – the name a direct translation of the Maori ‘Wai’ (water) and ‘Para’ (sediment) is a small family business. Set up in the 1990s, the estate is still family-run by a dynamic, tight-knit team, passionate about their particular corner of land.

The Muddy Water mantra is absolute, touching every aspect of the business, from the vineyard to the bottle – everything is carried out by hand, with painstaking attention to detail.  The vineyards are farmed organically, following biodynamic methods, themselves demanding more time, greater care. The vines are now naturally self-balancing, disease is rare, and typically the grapes are harvested in immaculate condition.

The wines are beautifully put together in the Burgundian mould, classically structured. Yet they possess a certain flavour profile, intense yet somehow pristine, that turns the volume up and places them in the New World – a factor perhaps of the bright sunlight here, and the play of warm and cooling influences.

The Chardonnay is made from ungrafted vines, planted in 1993 on rare Omihi soils, highly prized for their complex mineral content and moisture-retaining qualities. For the wine anoraks among you, the vines are the Mendoza clone of chardonnay, often found in the New World. This clone has a tendency to ‘millerandage’ (also called ‘hens and chickens’) – a phenomenon whereby the vines produce grapes of different sizes, giving winemakers in warmer climates the opportunity to obtain grapes with higher acidities and potentially greater flavour intensity. After the gentlest of pressings, the musts were fermented in large French oak puncheons, following Burgundian traditions.

The 2016 is like a white Burgundy from a ripe vintage, and indeed the 2016 was dry and warm here, giving wines of great intensity yet always retaining their fresh acids. Classically structured, the Chardonnay 2016 is expressive yet refined with exotic notes of frangipane and stone fruits, toasted almonds and a twist of minerals on the finish.

Muddy Water’s Pinot Noirs come from a small 12-hectare vineyard, its vines also on their own roots. The Pinots here have a certain signature, a dark, savoury character and spice, and the 2017 is no exception. Another warm, dry year in the Waipara yielded a delicious, intriguing Pinot Noir, with its flavours of blackberries, kirsch and dark chocolate. The finish is spicy, fresh and uplifting.

Elephant Hill, Hawke’s Bay

New Zealand may still be better known for its tropical fruit Sauvignons and juicy Pinots particularly from Marlborough, the largest and best-known wine region by far. But for those chasing an insider’s secret, Hawke’s Bay is the place to go and Elephant Hill the name to know.

A tiny enclave on New Zealand’s North Island, the Hawke’s Bay is a little warmer than Marlborough, so, like the Waipara in the South Island (see Muddy Water), Hawke’s Bay can ripen Chardonnay to absolute perfection, and even satisfy heat-seeking Syrah. But the real key to this viticultural oasis is its unique landscape and geology – the result of two enormous earthquakes and a cyclone, which raised the ocean shore by several feet, sculpted hills where none existed, and changed the entire course of the local river, revealing scintillating gravel beds. Elephant Hill is one of just a handful of producers to be harnessing these exceptional natural treasures.

The estate was founded in the early 2000s by German businessman Roger Weiss, and is run today by his son Andreas. Similarly visionary, perfectionist, and with high ambitions, Andreas continues to uphold his father’s legacy in supporting the team’s progress. Longstanding Head Winemaker Steve Skinner has been given carte blanche. Pioneering and detail-obsessive, he and his team at Elephant Hill push every boundary in pursuit of quality and balance.

The team works at a micro-level, scrutinising every vine in every row in every block for its potential. Vinifications are then carried out in multiple tiny batches, to better understand the character of each vineyard block. This also gives them an exceptional range of components, all subtly different, from which to create their final estate blends. As Andreas says :’Each vintage is a blank canvas and you need to give the painter as many colours as possible to paint with. The broader the palette, the better the painting.’

Elegance, refinement, purity: these are the watchwords at Elephant Hill. The team’s philosophy respects the time-honoured approaches of the Old World, while harnessing modern techniques to refine them for the Hawke’s Bay. There is no mistaking the appreciation for France’s classic fine wine regions and Elephant Hill honours them. This is particularly evident in the estate Chardonnay and Syrah, for which Elephant Hill is achieving increasing critical acclaim.

We have included the Syrah 2016 in our special selection, as an outstanding example of its style. This wine simply sings of the Northern Rhône, with its aromatic profile sliding seductively between dark fruit and savoury characters – the unmistakable pepper notes and warm spice of a Côte-Rôtie, Crozes-Hermitage or St Joseph. The fruit of three different vineyards in the Hawke’s Bay and three different clones of Syrah, each with subtly different characters. Winemaking techniques mirror those of some producers in the Northern Rhone incorporating a small percentage of whole clusters in the blend, to give a savoury, spicy style, the ageing in French oak barriques for a year.

Classicists of the New World, Elephant Hill shines a light on the Hawke’s Bay, a fine wine region in its ascendancy.

Barossa Boy, Barossa Valley

For those with a love of Australian wine in general, and the Barossa Valley in particular, the Burge name is likely to be familiar. Barossa Boy is a young winemaking venture, founded by Trent Burge, the latest generation of Burges to make wine here in the Barossa. In the mid 1800s, John Burge emigrated from England to settle here and learn the craft. Every generation since, has followed in his footsteps.

Trent is his great-great-great grandson, and also the son of Grant Burge, whose legendary icon wines have set the bar high. No pressure then! But vine-growing is in the blood and Trent’s understanding of the land is profound. He spent his childhood tearing through the vineyards on his bike, scratching around in the dust (and generally causing mischief, so it seems… hence the moniker of ‘Little Tacker’). So it is unsurprising perhaps, that he would know every slope and dip by heart, the flow of the air and the pockets of cool, the taste of the soil itself.

This deep knowledge of the vineyards is fundamental to Trent and has informed his entire approach as a winemaker. He sources grapes of the highest quality from specific vineyards he has known since he was a boy, and the wines of Barossa Boy are his homage to the land he loves.

With every new generation comes the possibility and promise of renewal, and Trent brings a fresh approach, but it is firmly rooted in his deep appreciation for the Barossa. His wines are classically Barossa in structure and flavour profile, with a tangible and timeless sense of place. But they are also fresh, with a lightness of touch that makes them resolutely modern.

Little Tacker honours the Barossa’s signature varietal blend – often simply termed ‘GSM’: Grenache, Shiraz and Mataro (the Mourvèdre of France and Monastrell of Spain). It is the fruit of old, low-yielding bush vines (the Mataro was planted in 1950!) giving small quantities of ultra-concentrated grapes.

Trent is a careful technician in the winery, approaching the grapes with something of a paternal eye: watchful, gentle but no-nonsense. As always he seeks to retain a sense of freshness and fruit vibrancy, drawing on both traditional and modern winemaking techniques – using a fine mechanical basket press to crush his grapes; plunging the grapes by hand during fermentation; ageing in a combination of old and new French and American oak barrels. All this gives him a palette of options from which to create his final blends.

Little Tacker is a fresh and beautifully-balanced iteration of the classic GSM blend, with its generous raspberry-blackberry fruit, lightly-spiced, and notes of chocolate, lavender and minerals.

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