Spitbucket Sessions Vol 13: Western Australian Wunderkinds with Mark Gifford

13 04 2011


(The man himself, sharing typical Western Australian hospitality at Prevelly Beach)

The picture above serves several purposes. First of all it shows just how stunning the Western Australian coastline is. It was taken at Prevelly Beach, just a stone’s throw from the Margaret River township and dozens of top wineries. What it also does is illustrate the generosity of Mark Gifford, who with his mate Brad Wehr (of Wine by Brad and Mantra Wines fame), hosted an impromptu beach-side tasting for my wife and I on a recent trip there. Cracking wines and fantastically friendly people. The third thing it does is show you what Mark looks like, so that when you pass him on a Sydney street this week, you’ll be able to grab him by the arm and take him to the nearest watering hole.

Mark has rounded up a special selection of top WA wines for this lucky 13th installment of the Spitbucket series. He has modestly only included one wine from his own estate, so I suggest you get online sharpish and check out the others from the fantastic Blue Poles range.

Bracket 1:
Mantra SSB 2010 [@mantrawines]
Moss Brothers Moses Rock SSB 2009 [@Moss_Brothers]

Bracket 2:
Howard Park Chardonnay 2008 [@HowardParkWines]
Fraser Gallop Estate Chardonnay 2009 [@FraserGallopEst & @kate_morgan]

Bracket 3:
Mantra Shiraz 2008 [@mantrawines]
The Collection Shiraz 2008 [@vinedrops]

Bracket 4:
Blue Poles Reserve Merlot 2008 [@BluePoles]
Greedy Sheep GA HANNETT Premium Reserve Malbec 2009 [@GreedySheep]

Bracket 5 :
Fraser Gallop Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 [@FraserGallopEst & @kate_morgan]
Cape Mentelle Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 [@Mentelle]

As usual, #spitbucket is free to attend and will take place at the Coast Roof Top Bar. It is on Wednesday 13th April from 6.30pm sharp. I’m a bit late with the wine posting this week so it is now sold out – sorry! In future just tweet @coastrestaurant and ask to book a space before they’re all gone. More details here.


Where next for wine in Australia?

2 04 2011


Wine is missing its golden opportunity. It’s got two tickets to the Gun Show and it’s not using them. Fact: there’s more good and great wine made in Australia today than ever before. Fact: wine is the drink of choice with good food and there are more top rating food shows, columns, books and blogs than ever before. We are obsessed with food (though I hope not Conviction Kitchen…God help us). Fact: social media has seen wine chatter levels rise to pitch never seen before.

But we’re missing something here. We are preaching to the converted. And the converted are preaching to each other. And everyone is having a grand time. But what about the unconverted and the sort-of-converted? Who’s talking to them? For most wine drinkers (and please try to be really honest with yourself here), wine is a tasty, accessible, sociable liquid, enjoyed in relaxing surrounds with friends. It’s usually refreshing and let’s face it…allows people to “unwind”. They don’t want to talk about wine on Twitter, or read a newspaper column, or pay to go to a tasting. They don’t remember long wine names and it doesn’t worry them. They buy wine for many different reasons or occasions and most don’t want to have a very involved, agonising time deciding.

What is the industry doing to make wine easier for them? Not more intellectual or more involved, but simply more welcoming. Apparently the only answer here is to make wine cheaper, have more sales and generally race to the bottom until mutual self-destruction is assured. In real terms, the average price of wine (and cars) has grown very little over the past 20 years, so why do we insist on trying to outdo each other with low prices? Price is important, but it isn’t the only thing. Drawing people into a store with cheap booze isn’t sustainable.

Don’t get me wrong…thanks to improved viticulture and winemaking, the grape glut and squished export markets, the quality of this cheap wine is pretty good. But it isn’t sustainable (there’s that word again which everyone uses, and which everyone mentally files to try to challenge manana…manana). A lot of small wineries have already given up on retail, understanding that their wine clubs, mailing lists, cellar doors and increasingly social media marketing are the only ways they will achieve the margins necessary to survive.

I’m all for social media, which has created an interactive community where wine lovers, producers, suppliers, writers, sommeliers and enthusiasts interact like never before. And sure it reaches a portion of new or less involved drinkers, but how many really? People are time poor, so are they going to research and engage with the topic via social media if it isn’t one of their primary interests? Probably not. I’m no Facebook expert, but perhaps its mass reach, superficial interactivity and accessibility offers more here. Online peer reviews are the way forward. They already dominate other categories, like travel, so use them!

But online still only accounts for a relatively small portion of wine sales. And I suspect that those highly engaged in wine social media are happily serviced by Australia’s high quality (but shrinking) independent retail sector. What I am really trying to get across here is that our wine retailers are failing the average wine drinker i.e. the majority. I’m not talking about the evil corporate side of the argument, but more the engagement side. There’s no imagination in our retail wine category, only price wars and endless aisles of hundreds of complicated labels.

Back in Boston, USA in 2005 I was so excited when I first walked into Best Cellars, a wine store that brought a small (100 max in about 8 style/taste categories), cheaper (around $15) range of wines to life. It made everyday wine cool and interesting. That’s why I was very sad to read just this week that most of the stores have been bought out and converted to something else. It wasn’t dumbing wine down, it was bringing it to life.

Wine education is important…there should always be wine open in a wine shop to try. See how The Sampler has brought interesting wine to life in London with sampling machines. But it isn’t what everyone wants. DON’T expect drinkers to want to learn more, but DO try to engage them and excite them on a wine level that they are comfortable with. This isn’t a nice-to-have, but in a retail future where something has to give, it will be a must-have.

This post was originally written for the Wine Communicators of Australia blog. You can find their blog here.

Spitbucket Sessions Vol 12: Hogan’s Heroes

26 03 2011

(Lifesize Hogan action figure available on the night)

The year was 2003 and Tom Hogan was working in several of Adelaide’s finest establishments: Supermild, Rhino Room and B Sharp Records. His life was populated by Too Many DJs, not Too Many Winemakers. Then one day Tom, his girlfriend (now wife) Alice, and I took off to the Barossa and I took them around some of my favourite cellar doors. At Torbreck he had some sort of epiphany. Must have been serious as he and Alice proceeded to snore quietly in the back seat all the way back to Adelaide. Up in the front seat I had an amazing run of green lights along Main North Road…and no one to share this wonder with – but I digress.

Little did I know that just like Usher, I had discovered my Justin Bieber. Ok Bieber has more hair than both of us put together but you get the point. Tom has gone on to put vintage hours in at some of Australia’s top wineries and work the floors of some of Melbourne’s top restaurants. Currently he is Head Sommelier at the Two-Hatted Lake House Daylesford where his wine list is recognised by Australia’s Wine List of the Year Awards as one of the best in the country.

Sadly he now knows much more about wine than me and much more about music than Usher, though if you manage to get a ticket to this Spitbucket tasting this is pretty good news for you. The topic is intriguing and brings together 10 of Victoria’s hottest producers, some established, some up-and-coming, but all doing exciting things. I suggest you get your seat request in early for this one! Those of you on Twitter will know Tom well as @iloveriesling.

To Start
2005 Brown Brothers Patricia Pinot Chardonnay Sparkling (@BrownBrothers)

Pair 1
2010 Crawford River Riesling

2008 Gembrook Hill Sauvignon Blanc (@GembrookWine)

Pair 2
2009 Oakridge Mackay Vineyard Chardonnay (@BicknellFC)

2008 Sutton Grange Viognier

Pair 3
2008 Curly Flat Pinot Noir

2007 Greenstone Sangiovese

Pair 4
2009 Syrahmi Shiraz (@monsieurfoster)

2008 Wantirna Estate Amelia Cabernet Merlot

To Finish
Bress Bon Bon Cider (@bresswinecider)

As usual, #spitbucket is free to attend and will take place at the Coast Roof Top Bar. It is on Wednesday 30th March. All you have to do is tweet @coastrestaurant and ask to book a space before they’re all gone. More details here.

Spitbucket Sessions Vol.11: Italian Varieties in Australia

12 03 2011


Italy has given so many great things to the world: Silvio, quite a lot of good food, Paolo Maldini, some pretty slick art and over 900 grape varieties. Of course the rest of the word hasn’t got around to planting all of those 900 varieties yet but we’re definitely having a good crack. Always remember my WSET exams and trying to get to grips with the Italian elements…just how many major regions, the intense viticultural differences between them and the myriad indigenous grape varieties.

Well Australia is going at it as hard as anyone else in the world, and while sales of imported wines are falling, interest in Italian grape varieties vinified on Australian soil seems to be increasing. If made well these should be perfect food wines and so are the perfect foil for Adam Lord’s food at Coast. This should be a pretty special Spitbucket I reckon so get involved!

Pair 1: Vermentino
Ducks in a Row Vermentino
Chalmers Vermentino

Pair 2: Fiano
Oliver’s Taranga Fiano
Coriole Fiano

Pair 3: Nebbiolo
Pizzini Nebbiolo
Primo Estate Joseph Nebbiolo

Pair 4: Sangiovese
Coriole Vita Sangiovese
Capel Vale Cellar Exclusive Sangiovese

Pair 5: Sagrantino
D’arenberg Cenosilicaphobic Cat (DISASTER has struck – d’Arenberg have sold out of this extremely interesting 91% Sagrantino, 9% Cinsault blend with a name that take’s a little practice. I will have to hustle to find another suitable Sagrantino! Any ideas?)
Oliver’s Taranga Sagrantino

As usual, #spitbucket is free to attend and will take place at the Coast Roof Top Bar. It is on Wednesday 16th March. All you have to do is tweet @coastrestaurant and ask to book a space before they’re all gone. More details here.

After David (from Eldridge Estate) did such an amazing job at the last Spitbucket, there have been calls for me to “sit this one out again” and at the very least “raise my game”. I will, of course, do neither of these 🙂

Spitbucket Sesssions Volume 10: Mornington Peninsula

25 02 2011

Our tenth edition of the Sessions will be a little different. I’m knackered so I’m off on holiday to Perth and Margaret River. But that sort of thing doesn’t wash with spibucketeers so we have press-ganged a guest host in to help out. We didn’t have to twist David’s arm too hard though and he was dead keen to fly up from Mornington and share his time and considerable wisdom with the group.

David Lloyd has been making wine since 1977 (previously in Coonawarra and Yarra Valley) before striking out on his own when he and his wife Wendy bought the Eldridge Estate Vineyard (above) in 1995. Eldridge Estate is an 800 case vineyard and winery at Red Hill on the Mornington Peninsula. Immediately the Lloyds changed the vine canopy system to Scott Henry and started a grafting program to add Gamay to the existing plantings of Pinot and Chardonnay. In subsequent years the grafting program was extended to build a collection of Pinot Noir clones that perform best at the Red Hill site. The current plantings of Chardonnay is a blend of 6 clones and the Pinot Noir 7 clones. The vineyard is mostly 26 year old vines and the main varieties are based around the special clones of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on a very unique and cool 3 hectare site. Most people are surprised to hear that the wine that he enjoys the most is actually Chardonnay.

David has managed to cajole some of the very best producers on the Peninsula to provide wines for this Spitbucket installment so it should be a real treat.

Pair 1: Pinot Gris
Ocean Eight Pinot Gris 2010
Paradigm Hill Pinot Gris 2010

Pair 2: Chardonnay
Eldridge Estate North Patch Chardonnay 2009
Stonier Chardonnay 2009

Pair 3: Gamay
Eldridge Estate Gamay 2009
Eldridge Estate Gamay 2007

Pair 4: Pinot Noir
Stonier Windmill Pinot Noir 2007
Eldridge Estate Pinot Noir 2007

Pair 5: Shiraz
Foxeys Hangout Shiraz 2009
Paringa Estate Shiraz 2009

As usual, #spitbucket is free to attend and will take place at the Coast Roof Top Bar. It is on Wednesday 2nd March. All you have to do is tweet @coastrestaurant and ask to book a space before they’re all gone. More details here.

Spitbucket Sessions Vol 9: Kiwi Reds that ain’t Pinot, part 1: Hawkes Bay

16 02 2011

This Spitbucket theme came about after a chat with Monty James – New Zealand wine’s main man in Australia. We’d already decided to focus on non-Pinot Kiwi reds for a change after having successfully covered Pinot before. So that left world-class Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet from the North Island. “How about a two part tasting? Hawkes Bay up first, compared with Waiheke Island which I’ll help to host next time I’m up?”

Sounded like a PLAN to me…so here we are…

Pair 1: Hawke’s Bay Syrah
Villa Maria Private Bin Syrah 2008 (@villamaria_wine)
Elephant Hill Reserve Syrah 2008 (@elephanthill)

Pair 2: Gimblett Gravels Syrah
Mission Estate Reserve Syrah 2009 (@missionestate)
Te Awa Syrah 2009 (@teawawinery)

Pair 3: Merlot
Villa Maria Private Bin Merlot 2009 (@villamaria_wine)
Elephant Hill Merlot 2007 (@elephanthill)

Pair 4: Left Bank Style Bordeaux Blends
Mission Estate Reserve Cabernet Merlot 2009 (@missionestate)
Cornerstone Cabernet Merlot Malbec Blend 2006 (@forestwinesNZ)

Pair 5: Right Bank Style Bordeaux Blends
Wild Rock Gravel Pit Red (Merlot Malbec blend) 2008 (@TheWildRockGuy)
Trinity Hill The Gimblett 2007

(Aerial shot of the Gimblett Gravels, top, with close up below, both courtesy of Trinity Hill)

The tasting is full up now unfortunately, but you can still get your fix of great New Zealand wines and awesome Coast food when the winemakers come to town in a week or two. Chef, Adam Lord, will be matching his dishes to a range of wines from the length and the breadth of the North and South Islands. More details here.

When is a gold medal not a gold medal?

11 02 2011

…when you lose the argument! I was lucky enough to enjoy a fascinating Royal Sydney Wine Show behind-the-scenes judging experience earlier this week, thanks to McWilliam’s and the WCA. First of all it was extremely good fun, though the genteel, academic way we examined 30 wines in two hours is far different to the real coalface where judges go hard from dawn til dusk, with only the odd egg sandwich to keep them upright.

I have to admit I was quite daunted before I arrived as I hadn’t done much scientific tasting in this style since those heady Adelaide uni days. You have to leave your prejudices at the door and break the wine down in quite a methodical way, at least until you get a real feel for it. After squeezing into the tighest labcoat ever we were faced with fifteen 2010 Sauvignon Blancs. We whipped through these in 30 minutes of silence, tasting each in turn, scoring and then returning to any high scoring or contentious ones at the end.

We then discussed some of the wines and the stylistic questions and decisions that come into play when the judges get together at the end of a bracket to retaste and assign golds. Nick Bulleid MW, who was leading our session (above), was also able to discuss with us the views of the real judges and what medals were awarded where. In this class of 15 I gave 1 Gold, 3 Silver and 4 Bronze, compared to the judges tally of 2 Silver, 7 Bronze. So I was slightly more generous overall, but pleased to find out that my selections roughly corresponded with the judges’ and that my top wine, was also considered the best by the judges, if not quite gold medal standard. You could spot the Marlborough wines in there quite easily and their intensity, acid and drive stood out quite clearly (hasty postscript – I thought NZ wines were allowed in show when in fact they aren’t. Oops! Only in Perth and Hobart of the capital city shows). At the start we had been told that, flavour-wise, we were really looking for a balance of green fruit/herbaceous and tropical fruit, so high marks were on offer for wines that showed true varietal definition and really fit the judging panel’s view of where Sauvignon Blanc should be heading. This is a very important point to bear in mind, as the Wine Show system in Australia sees the improvement of wine overall one of its primary goals; hence judges have to take a position on what characters point towards a Gold medal.  

With the threat of humiliation now out of the way I was able to relax a little in the second flight of fifteen Pinot Noirs. This was interesting again as I wasn’t sure whether the really dark, rich, almost Shiraz-like Pinot you find sometimes these days would fit the constraints of what the judging panel was looking for. Once again I was in agreeance with the judges on the top wine of the bracket (actually the Top Gold of the whole class), but I disagreed with them over another Gold that they awarded, which only merited a bronze for me. Many in the room agreed with this view, as did Nick, who had scored it Bronze but lost out in the debate. The main bone of contention on this wine was the use of oak, which was very apparent on both the palate and the nose. Too much for me, but not apparently for the final judging decision. It’s fascinating (but dangerous!) to think that as a judge your debating skills come into play as well, as the Gold contenders are retasted, discussed and ultimately decided upon. Have your arguments ready and make your voice heard! This is where subjectivity and taste really threatens to play a part, but also where decisions about the stylistic directions for grapes / regions etc. are formulated.

I would say as a general rule that some of the weightier Pinots scored slightly better with the judges than they did with me. Oak will always be contentious with Pinot and where I thought a couple were overdone, the judges thought they still retained elegance. I gave 1 Gold, 2 Silver and 4 Bronze. The judges went for 3 Gold and 4 Bronze. 

It was a brilliant experience and has left me wanting more. That said I really hope they get in some bigger labcoats for next year…