At first glance they seem unlikely bedfellows: Larry Cherubino, the young star from Western Australia, former winemaker at Houghton and one of the most sought-after winemaking consultants in the country, links up with the Oatley family, founders of Rosemount and former owners of Southcorp.
The Oatleys, led by 84-year-old Robert Oatley, big-time sailor and owner of the Wild Oats fleet and owner of Hamilton Island, are traditional winemakers.
Cherubino, 42, who was yet to be born when the Oatley family planted its first vines in the Hunter Valley in 1969, has roots in the great Australian traditional styles of Hardys/Houghton but is a creative, modern winemaker, exploring newer regions and pushing the boundaries. Twice a finalist in the Gourmet Traveller WINE magazine winemaker of the year award, he's widely seen as one of the most talented winemakers in Australia.
The cynical might observe the Oatleys were desperate to update their image. Not that there's much wrong with that. But the real story is one of substance, not just style.
First, the Oatleys - including Bob Oatley's long-time right-hand man, Chris Hancock, and son, Sandy Oatley - had come to admire the wines of Western Australia and begun sourcing grapes and wine for their brands, Wild Oats, Tic Tok and Robert Oatley, from that state.
Cherubino became their man on the ground in WA. As Sandy Oatley says: ''The Oatleys and Larry are big believers in WA. It has been dodging the problems the rest of Australia has experienced; it has motored on through it all with a run of great vintages.'' He is referring to the problems of droughts, frosts, bushfires, smoke-taint and then excessive rain of the past six years.
The second part to the story is opportunity. Always opportunists, the Oatleys saw the downturn in the wine industry leave a lot of good grapes without a home - not only in the less fashionable regions but also in Margaret River, Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula. And there are also good winemakers either out of work or short of work for the same reason.
The centrepiece of the grape sourcing is the large Justin vineyard in WA's Frankland River region. This 80-hectare vineyard is one of the oldest in the Great Southern, first planted in the 1960s and supplying grapes to many wineries but leased by Houghton for the past 30 years.
As part of the recent cut-backs in Houghton and the Accolade group in general, that vineyard became available and the Oatleys, through Cherubino, snapped up part of it.
''A lot of our fruit comes from that vineyard,'' Cherubino says. ''We are processing the equivalent of 18,000 tonnes of fruit for the Oatley brands this year.''
Most of it is vinified at the Houghton winery at Nannup (between Pemberton and Margaret River), which is somewhat underutilised these days.
''There are a lot of really high-quality grapes on the market that others have walked away from,'' Cherubino says. ''We've been in a really good position and we've been able to take advantage.''
This good fortune is not confined to WA but extends to the Mornington Peninsula, Yarra Valley, McLaren Vale and other regions. As well, Oatley has former Accolade winemakers Mark O'Callaghan in the Yarra Valley and Phil Christiansen in McLaren Vale as consultants. ''These guys know their areas really well,'' Cherubino says.
He has given up all six of his consultancies and is now working only for Oatley plus his own brand.
The upshot of these changes is the Robert Oatley Signature Series of six wines, recently released, which includes Great Southern riesling, Margaret River chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon, Mornington Peninsula pinot noir and McLaren Vale shiraz.
One senses the relationship with Cherubino, which began in 2007 and is now formalised (his title is director of winemaking), and the availability of the Justin vineyard has given the Oatleys a boost. The original intention when they launched Robert Oatley Wines in 2006 was to make use of the grapes from their 350-hectare Mudgee vineyard holdings. But, while they have a winery there and will continue to develop Mudgee brands such as Montrose, Craigmoor and Stony Creek, the big growth in premium varietals is likely to come from WA.
At a recent Sydney launch of the Robert Oatley Signature Series, the founder soberly apologised for ''the mistakes we made in the last days of Southcorp'', for which he was ''ashamed'' and the family hoped the ''new era'' might make up for it. One can only assume he was referring to the discounting and poor management, which was largely blamed on his son-in-law, Keith Lambert, who was in charge at the time.
It was a rare moment of candid reflection: Oatley is not one to dwell on the past. He regrets where the Rosemount brand (that he started and was part of Southcorp) has ended up today, with the changes to the brand and wines, and the closure of what was then a state-of-the-art new winery at Denman.
Out of flames and ashes, phoenixes do arise …
Great Southern ... and Western
The Robert Oatley Signature Series wines are impressive, and excellent value at $24. I especially like the 2011 riesling, the 2010 shiraz and the 2010 cabernet sauvignon. The marvellously refined, delicate, fragrant Great Southern riesling, a blend of mostly Frankland River but also Mount Barker and Porongurup, was reviewed here on April 17. The Margaret River cabernet, based on Wilyabrup but including fruit from the south of the region for its herbal aromatics, is a beautifully elegant, cassis fruit-driven and very regional wine. And the shiraz is sumptuously fleshy and rich, but also unusually elegant and spicy for McLaren Vale.
ALDI EXTENDS LIQUOR REACH
The competitive supermarket house-label wine market will soon gain a new player as the Aldi group enters the liquor business. Extending its liquor retailing from Victoria and the ACT, Aldi has started in country NSW, with liquor departments opening in stores at Mittagong, Bowral, Ulladulla, Wagga, Tahmoor and Shellharbour. Sydney is next, starting in July. Aldi has a bundle of own-label wines, assembled by wine buyer Jason Bowyer, who was formerly with Cheviot Bridge. There are several price levels, mostly under $20. I tasted the $10 A.C. Byrne & Co and $6 Claire Creek chardonnays, all good value for money. So were the $13 Tudor and $10 A.C. Byrne & Co shirazes. Even a $5 cheapie, Dearborn '09 Cabernet Sauvignon was amazingly good at its price. But the star of the range was the $20 Blackstone Paddock Shiraz 2010, a typical rich, chocolatey Barossa red, that I rated 91/100.
SA DOMINATES DESIGN
South Australian wines have blitzed Australia's Wine Industry Design Competition 2012, which judges the country's best wine packaging. All 10 prize-winners came from South Australia, and Taylors won two categories with its Crooked Horse Semillon Sauvignon Blanc 2010 and Winemakers Project Clare Valley GSM 2010. Best open-class white went to the constantly evolving Yalumba brand Christobel's Barossa Classic Dry White 2011 (pictured). Kalleske JMK Shiraz VP 2009, a vintage port in an unusual squat bottle, won the open-class dessert category - not a bad effort from a small family winery using in-house design. Sydney graphic designer James David won the Designers' Choice Award to create a fictitious label. The competition's overall winner will be announced at the presentation tonight.
CHINA BOOSTS PRODUCTION
There's more Chinese investment in the wine industry's production side: Woodside Valley Estate in Margaret River and Western Range in the Perth Hills have been sold to Palinda Wines. The Hong Kong-based company is owned by Jacky Wong, a Chinese businessman with extensive interests in drinks distribution in Hong Kong and mainland China. The Woodside Valley Estate deal involves the brand and stock, but not vineyards. There is no winery: the wines have been contract-made by Kevin McKay at Forester Estate.
PORT OF CALL
Ramos Pinto is a Portuguese port house majority-owned by the family that also owns Louis Roederer Champagne. Export director Jorge Rosas visited Australia to promote the wines recently, and the tasting climaxed with a run of great vintage ports, none better than the mature 1983, a magnificent port of unfathomable complexity and elegance (98/100). But, of the affordable - and available - wines there are four tawny, or wood-aged, ports, culminating in the 20-year old Quinta do Bom Retiro ($128; 96/100), a very beautiful wine. The best value for money is undoubtedly the popular eight-year-old Adriano Reserva Tawny Port ($37; 89/100). A real step up from the four-year-old tawny port, for little extra cost, this has vanilla, caramel, espresso coffee aromas that are youthful but appealing, while the taste is nicely balanced, has good length and is not overly sweet. Stockist: Best Cellars.