Australia’s Secret Treasures

For over 20 years I have staged what I call The Last Supper to mark the end of vintage at Coldstream Hills, the Yarra Valley winery I founded in 1985. The wines have always come from my personal cellar, thus it has survived the changes in ownership of Coldstream Hills over that time. Since 1996 Coldstream Hills has been part of what has become Treasury Wine Estates, but that has in no way changed my attitude to Coldstream Hills. My wife Suzanne and I own the major house on the property, with its panoramic views out over the Yarra Valley, and House Block Chardonnay 30 metres down the hill from the unmarked boundary line between it and the house. In due course my ashes shall be scattered on it to ward off any depredations of a future corporate owner.

Two nights before writing these words we had the 2012 Last Supper, marking the end of one of the best vintages since 1988, the pinot noir superb this year. But that's another story. The format of the dinner has changed in one respect: I used to cook the four courses for the dinner, but my dashes from the upstairs room where the dinner is staged to the still-primitive kitchen and outdoor barbecue, have been barred for occupational health and safety reasons. So while I decided what will be on the menu, I have been relieved of cooking duties.

The wine side has remained unchanged: there will be at least one bottle of wine for the birth year of each of the winemakers and vintage casuals, this year 15 in all. After a magnum of '82 Bollinger, a bottle of '83 Krug and '85 Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame we came to the first food bracket of three Lindemans Hunter River Semillons from '64, '67 and '68 respectively.

I had successfully recorked two of them about 15 years ago, but all had the same golden-yellow (not orange or brown) colour, and a similar flavour spectrum of lightly browned and buttered toast, a smear of honey and nuts within a web of still-bracing acidity courtesy of the low (11%) alcohol of the wines.

There was, of course, much discussion, because only the three permanent winemakers had tasted similarly aged semillons - and who provided the birth years. For all the others, the wines were made well before they were born, and they had never encountered such wines. I was able to reassure them that in bygone decades the occasional English Master of Wine who ventured to this colonial outpost populated by the descendants of convicts refused to believe the wines were fermented in stainless steel and bottled within months of vintage, and thus had never seen oak.

The fascinating but unanswerable question (in the absence of Dr Who) was what would the wines have tasted like if they had been bottled under screwcap. We now have experience of 10-vintage vertical tastings of Hunter Valley semillons, and know there are ongoing changes starting to show clearly once the wines are five years old, but where will they be when over 40 years old?

To use an Australian expression, they will be bloody marvellous, but very different to the golden oldies we were tasting. Since well over 90% of all Australian white wines sold in Australia are screwcapped, there will be no shortage of the new generation wines, and every bottle of a given wine will be identical to every other (good, bad or indifferent), whereas with cork every bottle will be different to every other.

From a food perspective, the choice for a one- or two-year-old semillon could be oysters, sushi/sashimi or plain grilled fish. Five years later veal or sweetbreads might beckon, at 10 years a runny-ripe epoisses or aged comte. All of the foregoing came from Matt Stamp's suggestion I might touch on: some of the country's most interesting and unique wines - aged semillon and some of the great, mature, fortified wines. I shall come to those fortified wines shortly, but will first give you a walk past pinot noir grown in appropriate cool regions, principally Tasmania and southern Victoria.

Here I must disclose a personal interest. When I moved to Melbourne from my then Sydney-based law firm in 1983, it was ostensibly to build the office from its embryonic single partner and staff of five or six. My real motive for making such a supreme sacrifice (having been the first managing partner in Sydney in late 1976 with more than 100 people) was to get close to Victoria's Yarra Valley, which had been first out of the blocks in the mid-1970s with pinot noirs that had some true varietal character if one accepted Burgundy as some form of yardstick. (Up to that point of time, pinot noir had been grown in warm regions making what we now describe as 'dry red', the ultimate condemnation.)

Later the same year ('83) I was a vintage cellar rat at Domaine Dujac, having previously (and later) made a number of visits to Burgundy as a journalist, wine buyer for a large Australian department store, and - most importantly - as an avid consumer of burgundy. By sheer coincidence I am continuing to write these words (after a gap of some weeks) on board a Singapore Airlines flight from Melbourne to Paris, where I will catch the TGV to Beaune (via Dijon) to meet my wife, already ensconced in the house in Monthelie we jointly own with a group of like-minded professionals and wine lovers. We have owned it for 14 years, and it used to be my R&R after the Yarra Valley vintage, although I no longer have to hop in and out of open three-tonne fermenters, bucketing out the skins.

But I digress. The epicentre of pinot noir in Australia these days is Tasmania, yet the small size of most of the producers, and the number of tourists from the Australian mainland and overseas, means that relatively little Tasmanian pinot (and superb riesling) gets to retail shelves on the mainland. Traditional method sparkling wines, by far Australia's best, do cross to the mainland. Tasmanian's pinots are stylistically close relatives of those of New Zealand's Central Otago region, deeply-coloured, richly robed, and - by pinot standards - long-lived. Ten years is a minimum for the best vintages.

Those of the Mornington Peninsula are bright, with great clarity of varietal expression, some red fruited, others more to black cherry and plum. Those of the Yarra Valley develop greater complexity than Mornington once they are five years old. And continuing these outrageous generalisations, mixed French/Australian blind tastings can cause those who only ever condescend to drinking burgundy acute embarrassment. Finally, there are one-offs of Bannockburn and by Farr in Geelong; Bass Phillip in Gippsland; and Curly Flat and Bindi in the Macedon Ranges, all falling within what I have long called the dress circle of Melbourne.

Chardonnay is changing day by day; alcohol levels are plunging down to plus or minus 12.5% alc/vol by dint of earlier picking; puncheons are starting to supplant barriques; oak vats in lieu of stainless steel fermenters; malolactic fermentation used more in cool regions than warm; wild yeast fermentation of cloudy juice - the list goes on. It is as ubiquitous as shiraz, but most would agree Margaret River's depth and complexity spars with the extreme length of palate achieved in the Yarra Valley, the choice a question of personal taste. Nor can the Adelaide Hills chardonnays of Penfolds - Yattarna and Reserve Bin A - be easily relegated from the very best tier.

Chardonnay (375,000 tonnes) and shiraz (380,000 tonnes) are found in every one of Australia's 63 registered Geographic Indications. Both accept the vicissitudes of nature, and less-than-subtle winemaker thumbprints, yet still provide wine quality commensurate with price. However, there is a subtext for shiraz coming from the heat of the Hunter Valley and bursting into song with alcohol levels of 12.5% to 13.5%; the richly structured wines of central Victoria, Heathcote grabbing the headlines, but the Grampians capable of outflanking Heathcote and the Pyrenees; next come cool-grown wines from the Canberra District where Tim Kirk lit the flame of co-fermented viognier at Clonakilla, a blend most suited to the cool regions of southern Victoria; and finally, the superbly structured wines of the Great Southern region (and its five subregions) of Western Australia. And no, I haven't mentioned Coonawarra, McLaren Vale, or the Barossa, Clare and Eden Valleys, not because their wines are not worthy, but simply because they are best known. (I shall pass by the discussion of the 15%-plus shirazs of the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale, except to say they are a threatened species.)

One region stands apart for its Bordeaux blends: Margaret River. There is no fixed formula, the wines ranging from cabernet sauvignon with a dash of merlot through to the full five varieties - malbec-dominant blends are not unheard of, nor are 100% single varieties from this family. Both Bordeaux and Margaret River are profoundly maritime-influenced, the largely constant water masses lapping their western boundaries resulting in stable growing-season temperatures, ripening continuing throughout the daily 24 cycle. (Contrary to common belief, sugar accumulation continues are night if the temperature does not fall below 10˚C.)

The most expressive, classically-structured cabernet sauvignons come from the Great Southern region of Western Australia and Coonawarra in South Australia, complete wines needing no mid-palate support from merlot on the one hand, shiraz on the other. Those of Coonawarra have a rounder mouthfeel, with nuances of mint and fresh-turned earth; those of the Great Southern are stricter, with firm tannins needing time to loosen their grip, but not so strong as to obscure the well of cassis-accented fruit that will sustain the best wines for 30 years or more.

Australia's wine professionals - from winemakers (even those who, like myself, may have never made a riesling) to retailers to sommeliers to winewriters - are united in their love of riesling, and utter despair at seeing tsunamis of sauvignon blanc (much from Marlborough, New Zealand) and - worse still - pinot gris/grigio swam retailers' shelves and restaurant wine lists, relegating riesling to second-class status.

Ironically, this has happened while high quality riesling has spread from its ancestral home of South Australia's Clare and Eden Valleys to Western Australia's Great Southern (and most notably to the continental climates of the Frankland River and Porongurup subregions); the high elevation of the Canberra District; and to very cool niches in Henty (far southwest Victoria) and Tasmania. The further irony is that the cause of riesling was dealt savage blows by cheap, sickly Liebfraumilch, Black Tower and so forth made from excessively high yielding vines (then its retreat to flavourless dry [Trocken] wines which were even worse).

Inherited folklore gave rise to the knee-jerk response 'I don't drink/like riesling', even though the person wasn't sure whether riesling was sweet (the majority) or dry (the remainder). This raises yet another paradox: as the 1970s dawned, there was a concerted move to dry rieslings (defined by wine show regulations as having less than 7 g/l of residual sugar). Small quantities of fully sweet rieslings labelled as spatlese or (more rarely) auslese were made by John Vickery, unchallenged as Australia's greatest riesling maker for upwards of 30 years, his reputation founded on his dry wines, notwithstanding the great quality of his sweet wines from the Clare, Eden and Barossa Valleys.

The surviving bottles from the early '70s are seldom as they should be: some or all of ullage, oxidation and madeirisation are rampant, good bottles a rare event. But the unanimous move by all the best Clare Valley winemakers to screwcaps in 2000 has changed the game forever. The initiative was in no small measure a response to the wall of denial from Portuguese cork makers that the mouldy taint imparted by trichloranisole (TCA for short) was due to the corks they delivered infuriated the Clare Valley winemakers. The Portuguese said it was due to chlorine used in wineries as a sterilisation tool, and/or to shipping containers being similarly treated (both with some short-lived, episodic truth); to vineyard sprays (laughable); and to my face on a trip to Portugal that (and I quote) 'You cannot expect that a natural product (cork) should marry well with the chemically manipulated wines you make in Australia.' I was struck dumb by this (from the second-largest cork producer in Portugal), unable to laugh, cry or protest.

I am only too well aware of the widely-held beliefs in the United States that screwcaps cause reduction; that they impede the natural development of wine over time; and (most farcically) that they are suitable for wines intended for early consumption. The truth is precisely the opposite: as wines pass their 10th birthday it becomes clear that no two bottles sealed with corks are precisely the same, whereas those sealed with screwcaps will be precisely the same (unless there were defects in the filler heads of the bottling line) on an unthreatened march to full maturity 20, 30 or more years down the track.

Having got that off my chest, I come to Matt Stamp's invitation to finally write about the two unique fortified wine styles of Australia, wines that have no correlative anywhere else in the world.

First there is Seppeltsfield Para Liqueur (not quite a tawny, not quote a colheita, not quite a luscious madeira) of Seppeltsfield in the Barossa Valley. It was born in the tumultuous gold rush years of the last half of the 19th century (though gold was mainly found in Victoria and New South Wales, not South Australia). In 1878 Benno Seppelt directed that the best cask of fortified wine should be laid down and not bottled for 100 years. Moreover, there was to be a sufficient quantity of the same wine available to top up the cask to replace the 'Angel's Share', that lost by evaporation in the first 30 or 40 years of the wine's life.

Amazingly, Benno Seppelt's direction was scrupulously followed by the generations of the Seppelt family who followed, and because there are still small quantities of the wines from the late 1870s and 1880s (plus larger quantities of following vintages), Seppelt is the only producer that has over 100 vintages of the same wine in its cellar, and releases each 'new' vintage on its centenary: thus the most recent vintage to be released is the 1912.

James Godfrey was the winemaker/custodian of the cellar (and maker of all Seppelt fortified wines) from his arrival in 1978, and was the first to carry out a detailed analysis of every vintage, tracking the changes in chemistry over 100 years. From the outset he recognised a paradox: the wine had to be in balance once fortified in the first months of its life after fortification, but will be thrown out of balance thereafter by the differing rates of change of its chemistry over the next 50 to 60 years, when once again it will come back into balance.

After fortification, the wine will have 17% alc/vol, and over the next 20 years the level will reach 20% alc/vol, whereafter it reaches an equilibrium point. At the other extreme, the sugar (expressed as grammes per litre) takes 60 years to slowly increase from its starting point of six g/l, to 13 g/l, with a further infinitesimal shift to 14 g/l over the next 40 years.

Acidity rises from 4 g/l to a little over 9 g/l over the first 40 years, combined with the higher alcohol and lower concentration of flavour compounds, acidity is the major cause of imbalance at this point. Volatile acidity tracks alcohol, rising quickly from 0.2 g/l to 1.2 g/l by 40 years much of that increase in the first 20 years.

There are two colour changes: one in the first 20 years of the maturation cycle, from red-purple to distinctly tawny; the second at 50 to 60 years, as the intensity of dark brown/black approaches its maximum. pH is the one constant at 3.6, surprisingly low for a wine of such extreme age.

So, I hear you ask, grinding your teeth in frustration, what doe the 100-year-old (and older) wines smell and taste like? I have had the good fortune to participate in a number of vertical tastings over the years, some sequential vintages, some at intervals of 10 years. No matter how large the room, nor the number of glasses poured, you can smell the wines long before you enter the room. Pick up a glass, and inhale directly, the impact is enormous: it is not like the anaesthetic effect of deeply inhaling an old cognac, but reveals a far greater array of scents.

The complexity of the bouquet and palate is such that, with a vertical tasting, James Godfrey says you must taste by exception - in other words, find aromas or flavours that are different. Given the explosion of flavour in your mouth caused by even a small sip, deconstruction is not as easy as it may appear. The wines have gone past the range one looks for in normal tawny port styles, although it is undoubtedly there.

Recurring descriptors are raisin, toffee, brandysnap, coffee, dark chocolate, earth, though not all to be found in every vintage. What is constant is the strong rancio, that at once binds the flavours to almost painful intensity while cleansing the finish and aftertaste.

Moving from the middle of the  Barossa Valley of South Australia to North East Victoria you arrive at Rutherglen, the home of two unique fortified wines, each made from a single variety: the first from muscat a petites grains or brown frontignac, the second from muscadelle. The first was (and is) always called muscat. The second used to be called tokay, until the wine agreement Australia has with the EU forced a change because of the Hungarian wines of Tokaji, the anglicised pronunciation of tokay and tokaji being too similar. After an expensive process of endless consultation, and focus group views, the wine is now called topaque, with one notable maker (Chambers) going the direct route of muscadelle.

Only one producer (Seppeltsfield) in the Barossa Valley makes wine in the Para style from a blend of shiraz, mataro (mourvedre), grenache and cabernet sauvignon, produced in the same winery using similar techniques from 1888 to 1984; storage conditions and barrel size are identical for every vintage.

In Rutherglen there are 23 makers, each with their own techniques, each with wines from various vintages blended using a modified solera system. In XX the makers voluntarily created a four-tier system: at the bottom, simply called muscat or topaque (as the case may be); then Classic, Grand and Rare. While the makers of these wines have decided not to specify an average age, they have agreed on a description of each level, and have benchmark tastings of all the wines every few years, often attended by outsiders such as myself. The wine show system in Australia provides a further check.

It so happens that the Rutherglen winemakers have used muscat as the examples, but similar changes occur with topaque. I cannot improve on their explanation of the background to each wine, when they say 'vineyard management, picking times, vinification, storage and blending are all very similar for muscat and topaque. Differences occur in the colour and flavour profiles, with descriptions of muscat typically including "rose petal", "fruit cake", and "freshly crushed grapes" (muscat is one of the few varieties where a natural grapey flavour is evident, most notably in the foundation classification, Rutherglen muscat). Topaque descriptions can include "toffee", "caramel", "malt", "butterscotch" and "tea leaf". For both muscat and topaque, the flavour of the wine is driven by the varieties - extended barrel storage adds complexity and concentration, not oak character.'

Given the explanation of the varietal differences, the ascent of each through the four stages is virtually identical, so I have twinned the description of the changes of age and rarity. I should add that while the hedonistic opulence of muscat is greater than that of topaque, I am not alone in often choosing to drink Grand or Rare Topaque.

Rutherglen Muscat and Topaque is the foundation of the style; displaying the fresh raisin aromas, rich fruit, clean spirit and great length of flavour on the palate which are the mark of all the muscats and topaques of Rutherglen.

Classic Rutherglen Muscat and Topaque display a greater level of richness and complexity, produced through the blending of selected parcels of wine, often matures in various sizes of oak cask to impart the distinctive dry 'rancio' characters, and a complexity which imparts layers of texture and flavour.

Grand Rutherglen Muscat and Topaque take the flavour of Rutherglen muscat and topaque to a still higher plane of development, displaying a new level of intensity, depth and concentration of flavour, mature rancio characters, and a complexity which imparts layers of texture and flavour.

Rare Rutherglen Muscat and Topaque are rare by name and by nature. These are the pinnacle Rutherglen muscats and topques – fully developed and displaying the extraordinary qualities that result from the blending of selected parcels of only the very richest and most complete wines in the cellar. Rare Rutherglen muscats and topaques are only bottled in tiny quantities each year, but for those privileged to taste them, these are wines of breathtaking complexity, texture and depth of flavour.

  • Just want to add to Michael's suggestions (which were excellent and comprehensive as to be expected.. :) : Bay of Fires Riesling from Tasmania. I concur on his suggestion of Mount Langi as well, I consider it to be the most typical style of Syrah from Grampians

  • Hi Geoff,

    Here are a few producers:

    Riesling from Tasmania:

    -Pressing Matters (Coal River Valley: bone dry (R0) -dry (R9) -medium sweet (R69) -sweet (R139) Each cuvee has a number which indicates the approximate level of RS.

    -Bream Creek (Southeast Coast)

    -Freycinet (East Coast)

    -Pipers Brook Vineyard

    -Stefano Lubiana (Derwent Valley)

    -Tamar Ridge (Tamar Valley)

    -Pooley (Coal River Valley)

    Syrah in Grampians: (one of the prettiest wine region I've seen by the way)

    -Mount Langi Ghiran (probably the most savory and spicy of the list; some granite can be found in the vineyard which is pretty rare in Australia)


    -Best's Great Western (Great Western sub-region; one of the most historical winery in Australia, also very famous for the Old Vine Pinot Meunier, oldest in the world? First planted in 1868!)

    -Seppelt (another historical producer since 1851)


  • Wonderful piece. Thank you for sharing.  

  • Any suggestions for the best cool climate style Syrah in Grampians? Riesling in Tasmania?

  • What at treat to have such insight.  Thank you.