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Harpers on Tour: Indies Down Under

Published:  13 March, 2019

There is a point on every trip, once travel fatigue has passed and the daily rhythm of tasting, talking and tucker becomes the norm, when a borrowed moment of freedom over a bottle of wine captures the spirit of the tour. During a recent indie merchant buyers trip to Australia this came in the refreshingly left-field shape of a magnum of Brash Higgins Zibibbo, providing a rather early sundowner in the leafy garden of the McLaren Vale Motel, as the group relaxed ahead of a big tasting and dinner.

Harpers had hitched a ride, keen to discover more about how such a trip works, what agenda the assorted buyers had, what impressed them, their approach to buying and what their takeaways would be from visiting the dominant wine-producing nation for the UK.

On board were Nicholas Corke from Thos Peatling, Kenny Vannan and Alister Rae of Villeneuve Wines, Mark Jeffries of RD Wines and Bin Two’s Mike Boyne and Kate Miller, representing a good geographical spread of the UK’s regional merchants.

Each merchant had a slightly different agenda, but all were looking for potential finds to refresh their Aussie portfolio – not least with the renewed buzz that has been building around the country’s wines.

McLaren Vale and Tasmania were the ports of call, promising quite varied experiences, along with a good taste of the evolving face of Australia.

The trip began on a high (albeit a somewhat surreal and jetlagged one), with a visit to the phantasmagorical d’Arenberg Cube, hosted by the irrepressible Chester Osborn, which, followed by a tasting of his diverse and funkily-labelled wines, set the scene for much of what was to come in McLaren Vale.

As Mike Boyne later put it: “I thought, ‘when we leave d’Arenberg, how will anyone follow that?’, but we went on to Brash Higgins, and it was the other end of the scale and some of his wines blew me away. We didn’t have a duff note anywhere. I kept thinking, ‘can there be anything more that we have not seen?’, and then there was.”

Veering towards the natural end of the scale, Brash Higgins’ founder, sommelier-turned-winemaker Brad Hickey, explained that he “got involved with biblical stuff – yeast, beer, brewing and baking bread” back in the States, before combining this passion with wine, the natural takeaway from his high-end sommelier life, and heading for the Vale to make the stuff.

One of the draws for Hickey, which also became clear across a series of quite contrasting visits with other winemakers, was the possibility of “doing esoteric things”, which has become something of a signature for this multifaceted region.

Certainly Shiraz is still much in evidence, as a masterclass tasting of the variety with several leading winemakers revealed. But the unanimously-voted best Shiraz of the trip was tasted later, at Gemtree Wines, where co-owners Mike and Melissa Brown’s sublime, biodynamic 2017 Subterra Shiraz, made in very limited quantities from a barrel buried under the vines where the grapes grow, stole the show with its mix of elegant intensity and vibrant character.

As the indies themselves discussed, while the winemakers here still produce big Shiraz and often present it as their flagship wine, there was a real sense that McLaren’s strengths lie in more esoteric varieties, including Italian, Portuguese and Greek grapes. This came both via tastings of producers as diverse as SC Pannell, Chalk Hill, Paxton Wines, Chapel Hill, Wirra Wirra and Alpha Box & Dice, and at further masterclass tastings in Grenache and Mediterranean varieties.

Emerging modernity

Cooler, fresher, lighter styles were also much in evidence, along with many organic, biodynamic and generally sustainably made wines, delivering a quite remarkable breadth of emerging and modern examples of innovation.

“The changes in this region are enormous. Part of the problem is that what we’ve always struggled with is making wines that reflect who we are, reflect the region, the food we produce and eat and where we live, by the ocean,” said Steve Pannell, who is passionate about Nebbiolo, along with many other varieties he works with.

“It’s all a search. There’s Nero, Aglianico, Montepulciano, Fiano, Touriga, Tempranillo, Tinta Roriz, Nebbiolo… we’ve got Ribolla, Assyrtiko, Limonia, Xinomavro, they’re all coming – it’s a whole sea of different things. And it’s really, really interesting, and people buy them,” added Pannell.

If McLaren was a hotbed of cooler-focused, more restrained innovation, with Grenache increasingly being pushed as the region’s new, more restrained and vibrant calling card – pointing to what it can best do stylistically – then the next leg of the indies’ trip, to Tasmania, couldn’t have been more of a contrast.

Mainland contrasts

With the “cooler climate” McLaren tag being superseded by a very definite “cool climate” vibe, this was a foray on to an island that revels in its contrasts with the mainland, and which has clearly established heroes in its sparkling wines and Pinot Noirs.

“One sense flowing through about Tasmania is that the whole island is very much focused on sparkling and Pinot Noir, whereas in McLaren Vale or Western Australia they are all experimenting,” said Nicholas Corke of Thos Peatling. “Here they know what they can do well and they’ve also got a really good sense of the vintages, which can be harder to pick up elsewhere.”

Again, the first visit set the tone well, with winemaker Jeremy Dineen at Josef Chromy Wines showing a faultless range of elegant Pinot Noirs and sparkling wines, along with an outstanding Riesling, pointing to the future for the island’s aromatic whites too.

More visits and further high points followed, ranging from the polished fizz at Clover Hill to exceptional Pinot Noirs at Holm Oak, mixing up characterful smaller producers such as Stoney Rise with seminal sparkling winemaker Jansz, along with bigger but no less quality-driven labels such as Arras/Bay of Fires and Tamar Ridge.

“Some of the sparklers were absolutely up there with some of the best I’ve ever tasted,” said Kenny Vannan. “They were outstanding, they have a good story, and export has to be seen as the icing on the cake.”

From both legs of the trip the merchants were impressed by not just the quality of the wines, but also the way the producers pull together, collectively supporting each other and their region. This, coupled with ample and fascinating stories behind the wines, led to much excitement, with a general feeling that the UK is quite far behind when it comes to listing the best of what is now on offer from Australia.

There’s little doubt that some interesting listings will follow, showing the real value inherent in many of the new wave of Australian wines, which seem ideally placed for customers seeking excitement and points of real difference in the independent trade.

Buyer Feedback

“It’s a changing picture from what it once was, which was bulk topped up with a bit of quality. Now the emphasis, for us, is on individual producers, and some good value for money at whatever price point the wine sits.

“Australia has changed dramatically, and slowly but surely consumers are seeing the regionality as well. It’s just taken a long time. Australia has moved on to a different level. Perception is that it’s moving away from the big brands to the quality and interesting stuff and now independent merchants are bringing these wines into the UK, so consumers can discover this for themselves.”

Alister Rae, Villeneuve Wines

“Customers are interested in alternative options and they are prepared to experiment. It’s nice to encourage customers to experiment with these alternative styles. Also, one of the things I liked about McLaren Vale is that there is a real group movement to progress things. There is common ground, they are working together, not against one another. And that, along with the sustainability movement, has been really impressive to see.”

Kate Miller, Bin Two

“My rationale in coming to Australia is to discover something we can bring back and have as points of difference. I am interested in wines that I can buy direct. Coming out here says ‘we’ve made the effort, gone to the other side of the world to find wines we like’, and then I can offer my customers something different.”

Nick Corke, Thos Peatling

“One thing I’d really hoped to find was interesting wines with people and stories behind them that I can use to sell those wines. And I thought I might come away with one or two in a sea of big Shirazes, but actually what I’ve got is a huge shortlist of stories about great grapes making great wines. I don’t know how I’m going to make the selection.

“For me it’s no exaggeration to say [the trip] has given me the nudge to redesign the way we present wines in the shop. We’ll stop ranging by country and variety and start organising it by style and encourage people to try things in the style they are looking for, which will help with the wines I am hoping to bring on board.”

Mike Boyne, Bin Two

“It’s interesting seeing what they are doing with different varieties – not just Shiraz and Cab Sauv, but with Grenache, some of the Italian grapes coming through. I wanted to get a better understanding of what quality is like across the board and the Italian grapes especially have been phenomenal. All these exciting, lighter, touch-style wines, not just the classic smack-you-around-the-face at 15.5% abv Shiraz and Cabernets.”

Mark Jeffries, RD Wines

“There are already so many wines in our market, so by coming here the question is what can we find that is not there? We are looking for wines that can compete with what is there and maybe be better. And value for money. And 99% of the wines here are screwcap as well, which we like. Our job is to say ‘we’ve been there, this is what we are doing, if you like [that style], then try these wines that we found’, and introduce these wines. And some of the wines are quite exceptional.”

Kenny Vannan, Villeneuve Wines