There’s no doubt about it. When it comes to producing wine, geography - or rather geographical conditions are of the utmost importance. It’s these physical geographical attributes that go in to defining flavour and characteristics of a wine, influenced and often heavily defined by a wine region’s terroir (soil) and its climate prior to fermentation. But there’s another element of geography that is of equal importance in how these wines come about. And that geography is of a human kind.
A couple of weekends ago, I had the pleasure of meeting just this kind of human geography that I’m talking about. ‘Australia’s first families of wine’, little did we know, were to host a secret speed tasting and lunch for a handful of bloggers at Farringdon’s well revered wine bar and restaurant: Vinoteca. Organised by the legend that is Andrew Barrow (aka @wine_scribbler) for an event otherwise known as #ARSE4 – Andrew’s Really Secret Event (mark 4) we congregated outside the tube station before the mystery of the afternoon was unveiled.
Grins were worn all round by the bloggers and producers alike as we were welcomed into the restaurant and seated at one of three tables. There were 10 representatives of these 12 families dubbed ‘custodians of the soil’ ready and waiting to take us on a virtual tour of their wines and vineyards. This group of wine producers represent seventeen wine-growing regions across Australia, and forty-eight generations of winemakers. They are identified mainly for their longevity and prominence in Australia’s wine industry (i.e all of the producers within the group go back at least two generations – although some of them date back as far as 1849). They have been singularly identified for their sustainable wine practices, leadership in the Australian wine industry and for their significant resources of old vines – using these vines to focus on styles that best express the local terroir. When I spoke to our representative from Brown Brothers, Ross Brown, he added that in addition to these qualifying characteristics the families are of course united by a raw and genuine passion for their trade.
Tables were numbered in accordance to themes. Along with fellow bloggers Eamon Fitzgerald (@grape_escape http://mygrapeescape.ie and Lisa Greensill @Lisa300662) we switched between the three, with a short five minutes for each representative to talk us through their wines. Each had their own family story to tell, and it was fascinating to hear the histories behind the bottles. What was striking with the majority, if not all the wine producers I spoke to is their real intent on being environmentally and ecologically focused, not only so that they can produce wines with a better conscience, but because this, for all of them, is a family business which one day will want to be passed down to the next generation. Mitchell Taylor from Taylors, on the banks of the Wakefield River in the Clare Valley put further credence to this, showing me a photo on his iPhone of his three young children all dressed in high vis vests, sitting on top of barrels, clutching wine glasses during the harvest. It’s an all encompassing, everyone mucks in kind of task here, so the photo demonstrated, that amongst everything else fosters a real feel of family bonding. Another example of such inter-generational ties that these wineries continue to maintain is in the case of Henschke. One of the oldest wineries in Australia this was set up in 1868 by the original Johann Henschke in 1868, and the winery is now into its fifth generation of owners – award winning Stephen and fellow oenologist wife Prue. But at the tasting I attended was 6th generation Johann Henschke, currently studying for a masters in viticulture and oenology in Europe. He reiterated comments made previously ‘My parents didn’t pressure me into studying wine. I had thought I would like to study something else, but after looking into wine courses a little more, I realised that becoming a wine maker is something I really wanted to do.’ Once he finishes his studies, currently just outside of Frankfurt, Johann will return to Australia to re-join the family business. The passion for this business is something that really comes through, as do the Henschke’s strong family bonds. Johann also comments ‘I have a really good relationship with my siblings, something which I don’t think every family has so I feel very lucky really’. And with stories such that he and his younger sister and brother, Justine and Andreas pretended to run the company using the winery paging system to call each other from their parents offices as children, it can’t be denied that the family business has been a big factor in forging these rich relationships that got into producing their equally rich, sophisticated wines. We tried the 2005 Mount Edlestone Shiraz; a great vintage year with blackcurrants on the nose, and elements of fern and sage. The 93 year old vines give it a certain complexity whilst still maintaining juicy plum fruit and ripe tannins on the palate.
Sitting opposite Chester Osbourn from d’Arenberg over lunch unveiled some further interesting tales. As one of the most charismatic of the group - his ‘uniform’ largely consists of loud floral shirts – ‘I had this one made for me in Vietnam’ he tells me. His wines do well to reflect exactly these more unorthodox elements of his playful personality. Names on his bottles include: Dead Arm Shiraz – so called after the particular fungus that kills off the arm of the vine; The Feral Fox (a wine that should have been called the farting or flatulent fox, but whose name was vetoed at the last minute for being just a little too indiscreet); The Stump Jump, The Footbolt, The Coppermine Road, The Ironstone Pressings, The Hermit Crab, and the Money Spider – one of the wines we tasted on the day. This last wine is so called for the spiders that would crawl over the grapes on the vines before being picked – a 2009 unoaked Roussane, it is basket pressed with a minerality that comes from the lack of cultivation, it has notes of honey, herbs, flowers and lots of stone fruit. True to form, as ever – so I’m told, Chester brought a humorous selection of props to lunch to help further illustrate these more unusual names. He’s been previously quoted as saying ‘the quirky names for the wines never come before about 2am and after a few, or more, wines.’ His father, d’Arry, at age 84, is still on the road (driving himself) all over the place for nearly a third of his time promoting and selling their family’s wines, ever passionate about and committed to their provenance. D’Arry’s mother, as Chester tells me, sadly died in childbirth, but her input to their winemaking history still lives on in their winery’s restaurant – called Darrey’s – his father’s mother’s maiden name. Chester tells me how for him winemaking is still ‘as fun as being a kid making mudpies. All you need is soil, water and sunshine’ except these days they’re better described as ‘noble mud pies’, particularly in the case of his viognier, made from the noble rot botrytis. He talks about a recent visit the families all made to Vancouver and how the Canadian’s are receiving their wines over there “they like to think of themselves as ‘trend-setters’, more relaxed in their attitude to wine’ and he goes on to talk about how Australian wine in Canada is now on a par with the French.
Of course most of the wines that these families make come from old vines, originating in Europe, which is where much of their human geography also comes from. Leanne De Bortoli from De Bortoli wines tells me about her family, emigrating from close to the Dolomites in north western Italy to New South Wales in 1924. And Australia’s land of opportunity has certainly proved fruitful. From Vittorio de Bortoli’s heritage as a farmer leaving his terra madre for the other side of the world, the company is now into its third generation and can call itself successfully international. Leanne in her cool cosmopolitan persona embodies the characteristics of her 2008 De Bortoli Estate Chardonnay that she brought over for us to try; calm and serene with not too much oak. Leanne emphasises how it’s not an easy process learning how to make wine. She, like many others of these wine makers, studied at Roseworthy Agricultural College in Adelaide. ‘It’s like being taught how to paint without a canvas to practice on.’ She now looks after the Yarra Valley arm of the business with her husband Steve.
Of the other family members I met, their passion shone through by the bucketful. There is a sincere and fierce loyalty to what they do (just ask Bruce Tyrell about the chance he'll ever blend his Semillon with anything else). Everyone has something to say from the heart rather than just a brand to sell; and for these families it comes deep rooted…(no pun intended).
Thanks to Vinoteca who opened specially on a Sunday for us, lunch included:
Salt baked celeriac, Jerusalem artichoke, red onion and aioli.
Braised lamb followed with minted peas and spring vegetables.
Williams pear and almond tart with vanilla ice cream: this was served with a glass of Campbells’
Muscat Topaque (formerly known as Tokay) - we all bemoaned the small glass we were served as it was so drinkable - toffee goodness in a (half) bottle.
Finally, here are the rest of the wines we tried:
McWilliams, Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon, 2005, Hunter Valley, £25.00, Wine Society, Berry Brothers & Rudd
Tyrells, Winemaker's Selection Vat 1 Hunter Semillon, 2003, Hunter Valley, £29.99, Wine Society
Howard Park, Riesling, 2009, £13.49, slurp.co.uk, Bibendum, everywine.co.uk
Jim Barry, The Lodge Hill Riesling, 2008, £9.67, AG Wines, slurp.co.uk, everywine.co.uk, Hennings Wine Merchants
Tahbilk, Tahbilk Viognier, 2009, Nagambie Lakes, £11.99, Oxford Wine Company, slurp.co.uk
Brown Brothers, Banksdale Chardonnay, 2008, Yarra Valley, £13.33, Waitrose
d'Arenberg, Money Spider Roussane, 2009, £11.99, Bibendum and everywine.co.uk
Henschke, Mount Edlestone Shiraz, 2005, £60.00, Noel Young, Harper Wells, Wine Direct, Drinks Direct
Yalumba, The scribbler, Shiraz, 2008, £12.95, Berry Brothers & Rudd, everywine.co.uk, slurp.co.uk
Wakefield, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, 2008, £11.65, Four Walls Wine Company
Campbells, Bobbie Byrns Durif, 2006, £10.26, New London Wine