The reign of terroir

What is it about Dalwhinnie? Is it that this Pyrenees vineyard manages to produce great shiraz more often than anyone else in the region - elder statesman Taltarni included? Is it that Dalwhinnie manages to avoid the regional eucalyptus and peppermint characters in its red wines more successfully than any other in this densely gum-tree dotted region? Or is it because I have an early affiliation? I was involved in the 1981 and '82 vintage wines while working at the original Yellowglen vineyard near Ballarat.

All of the above, probably.

Dalwhinnie was established at Moonambel in the Pyrenees in 1976 when Ballarat architect Ewan Jones bought 120 hectares of land from his friend Wal Henning, an earth-moving contractor who established Taltarni vineyard but sold it soon after. Jones was also a friend of Stuart Hooper, who established Bannockburn vineyard at Geelong, and Ian Home, who established Yellowglen at Smythesdale, near Ballarat, at much the same time. The triumvirate were all successful Victorian businessmen who concurrently discovered a love of wine and food, and were determined to explore southern Victoria's aptitude for viticulture.

Bannockburn and Dalwhinnie were unqualified successes. Yellowglen, where I worked my second vintage immediately after studying at Roseworthy, was the least successful: Smythesdale's gold-bearing soil was just too poor for vines and the climate too severe. The uneconomic vineyard and nascent wine brand were eventually sold to Mildara Blass, and rapidly became a huge bubbly brand with no affiliation to any particular region. It's now part of Treasury Wine Estates.

In the first three vintages, 1980 to '82, Dalwhinnie wines were vinified at Yellowglen with Neill Robb (of Redbank winery) nominally in charge. As dogsbody at Yellowglen, I fondly recall driving from Smythesdale to Moonambel repeatedly in the autumn of '82 to sample the Dalwhinnie grapes and test them for ripeness. It was my job to look after the 1981 reds in barrel (rather badly, I'm afraid), but they did turn out better than the '82s.

So it was with great interest that six months ago I attended a retrospective Dalwhinnie tasting to mark the 30th vintage.

Every Moonambel shiraz and cabernet, with a smattering of chardonnays and pinot noirs, and several single-block shirazes - Eagle, South West Rocks and Pinnacle - were on the table.

The Moonambel shiraz is the star of the range. It showed promise from the beginning in 1980, and steadily grew in stature as the vines matured, reflecting the seasonal vagaries with the inevitable ups and downs, and building depth, concentration and extract as the vines matured. Since 2000, the wines seem to have slipped into a higher gear. They're not only deeply flavoured, rich, fleshy and dense - at the same time spicy and elegant, as you might expect in a moderately cool climate - they have an extra dimension of complexity, too. Is this what happens as vines mature fully? I'd like to think so.

Tasting back through the 30 shirazes, we can clearly see the cold summers when the grapes didn't ripen to their optimum ('82, '87, '02) and the hot, droughty years when stressed vines spat the dummy ('81, '93, '03).


And yet 1996, ''the coolest vintage on record'', according to vigneron David Jones, produced a great wine. It seems as the vineyard matured and the vigneron and winemakers gathered experience, they made better wines from the cool, marginal seasons. On the other hand, the climate-warming phenomenon means there are fewer seasons that lack sunshine and heat to ripen the fruit adequately.

For the record, the greatest shirazes in my view are 2004, 1996, 2008, 2009 and 2010 (the '10 may trump them all in time). These all score 96 on my card. Then, with 95 (also a gold-medal score) are 2006, 2005, 2001, 1998, 1994 and 1992. Then come a number of wines on silver-medal scores: 2007, 2000, 1997, 1991, 1990, 1988 and 1986. If the high marks have gone mainly to later vintages, it's because the wines have improved - rather than because the older vintages haven't aged well. Today's wines will provide an even more exciting retrospective tasting in another 10 or 20 years.

As well, screw caps were introduced from 2008, which should ensure the wines open more consistently when mature.

As much as I love the hedonistically rich, monumentally powerful, dense red wines of Warrenmang, and in a different way Summerfield, and the value-for money of Blue Pyrenees Estate, for me Dalwhinnie most enshrines great Pyrenees red wine. It hits the sweet-spot most often and its best vintages set the standard for the region.

I'm not a big fan of eucalyptus or gumleaf aroma in red wine and it is icing on the Dalwhinnie cake that this vineyard manages to mostly avoid that characteristic.

Another remarkable fact about Dalwhinnie is that its Moonambel range - shiraz, cabernet and chardonnay - have always been made by contract winemakers. After the Yellowglen years it was Mitchelton (under Don Lewis) throughout the '90s, Mount Langi Ghiran in 2001-02, then Punt Road (under Kate Goodman) to the present day. Winemaking consultant Gary Baldwin of WineNet has been a guiding influence since 1990. Ewan's son, David Jones, has been Dalwhinnie's viticulturist since the mid-1980s (and sole owner with his wife, Jenny, since 1994).

David's viticulture has been fastidious all along. But it's not the winemaker or vigneron alone that make a wine great, it's the terroir.

In the final analysis, the Dalwhinnie site is special. It explains the greatness of the wines.

The 2010 reds will be released later this year; the chardonnay in a few weeks.



The founder and owner of leading Margaret River winery Voyager Estate, Michael Wright, has died at 74 after a brief illness. Wright was the son of Peter Wright, Lang Hancock's partner in mining exploration. He was a long-time teetotaller, who never drank wine but had a special grape-juice produced, bottled and labelled for him at Voyager. Wright bought the fledgling vineyard in the 1980s when it was called Freycinet (confusingly, as there is, and was then, a Freycinet in Tasmania). Renaming it, he proceeded with great energy to expand the vineyards and build the brand and the infrastructure, which includes an underground cellar beneath a rose garden, landscaped grounds, and a grand restaurant, office and cellar door in the style of Cape Dutch architecture. It is one of the region's showpiece wineries.


Chinese investors are taking an increasing interest in the Australian wine industry. Two important winegrowing properties in southern Victoria are believed to be in the throes of selling to the Chinese. And a Chinese-owned company, Winston Wine, has recently bought Barossa Valley winery Ross Estate. Before that, Winston purchased two wine properties in the Hunter Valley: Capercaillie and Wynwood Estate (formerly Golden Grape Estate). The 45-hectare Ross Estate property, at Lyndoch, was developed by Darius and Pauline Ross during the 1990s. Aged 83 and ready to retire, Darius Ross reluctantly put his winery up for sale but is "happy that his brand will maintain high integrity.". Winemaker Alex Peel is staying on. Winston Wine will increase the brand's exposure nationally and internationally. General manager Desly Harris says Winston is looking for more premium vineyards in Australia.


Australia produces mostly ''industrial'' wine, if you listen to ill-informed commentators in other lands. But more than 75 per cent of our wine producers crush less than 100 tonnes of grapes a year and thereby qualify as micro-boutiques. The figures are in the latest Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Directory. The 2012 edition of the industry's annual ''bible'' is the 30th published. Today, Australia has 2532 producers. In 1983, there were just 344 listed. There are more than those listed but it does provide a good guide - the best available. The rate of increase in wine producers has slowed but there is still a net increase of 55 in the past year. Over the past 30 years, a new producer has opened its doors every five days, on average. The directory lists wine producers, suppliers, distributors, retailers, events and more. It costs $124.30 from or (08) 8369 9500.


The President's Medal at the Sydney Royal Wine Show has more than a whiff of the Emperor's Prize about it. You know the story? In the 1881 International Exhibition in Melbourne, a bottle of St Huberts Yarra Valley red wine was judged off against a steam engine and a ladies' felt hat for a prize for the most meritorious exhibit, donated by the German Emperor. Don't ask me how the judges arrived at their decision but the wine won. Casella's 2010 Yellow Tail Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon is up against a King Island cloth-wrapped cheddar, a Grandvewe blue cheese, Tathra Bistro Grade Oysters, St Agnes XO Brandy and Milly Hill grass-fed lamb for the NSW Royal Agricultural Society President's Medal, which is being judged as we speak. The wine (as yet unreleased) won top gold medal in its class at February's Sydney Royal Wine Show. It's not only quality that the judges assess but environmental, sustainability and financial aspects. The result is announced on July 26.