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Plonk’s chief wine buyer and all-round lovely bloke, Mark, is the guy we can all thank for sourcing such an array of incredible small-batch wines. On a trip to Australia pre-pandemic, Mark documented what part of his job entails, to give you an insight into the life of a wine buyer. Don’t be fooled though, it involves a hell of a lot perseverance! Visiting winemakers and tasting bottles genuinely isn’t always plain sailing, as we’ll soon find out…
Growing up in Australia there was a hint of ‘been there, done that’ when looking through some of the producers we were visiting on our trip. That small thought was expelled pretty quickly though. The main realisation come the end of the journey was the sheer amount of passion producers have for their product. Personally, and professionally, I was pleasantly surprised that we weren’t the only importer bringing in some good quality Aussie kit. Producers like LAS Vino, S.C. Pannell, By Farr, John Duval, Charles Melton, Willunga 100, Giant Steps, William Downie, Clonakilla and Cullen are really flying the flag of what it means to make Australian wine. They are all, mainly by a mutual passion, heading in the direction of putting sub-regional Australia on the wine map.
However, it was the sheer diversity over relatively small areas that also really stood out. To put into perspective the distances we were travelling brings to light the marked differences in vineyards and wine. From a Giant Steps vineyard in the Yarra Valley (Victoria), we looked at a vineyard 250m away that displayed such a different fruit profile to that of one in Gippsland, where we travelled to a mere two hours away later that day, that it was almost altogether a different country in wine terms. Western Australia was probably the defining moment in regard to this theory, where there was 50-60km separation between Margaret River and Great Southern, providing a contrast akin to that of Spain and France.
What I have done below is an overview of my professional opinion on some of the wineries we visited. Not just on their wines but the total package - ethos, direction, style and wines – the way I approach analysing a winery as a wine buyer. I also thought I would include some stats for all you budding wine buyers to put into perspective the palate fitness you need to have and also, just as importantly, the 2-palate requirement. In short this means, one for pleasure and one for business, where the business palate is short of bias but large on analyse of fruit quality and value for money in the glass.
My trip and tasting stats:
General health before tour: Fit
Trip length: 10 days or 2400 hours
Total plane rides not including flights to and from London: 4
Total hours on a plane not including flights to and from London: 8 hours 45 mins
Total hours on a bus: 21 hours 48 mins
States visited: 5 - South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, Australia Capital Territory and Western Australia
Total regions visited: 9
Total sub-regions visited: 22
Wines tasted (not including barrel samples): 270
Total number of wines tasted: 358
Average number of wines tasted per day: 35
Most wines tasted in a day: 86
Youngest wine tasted: 2018 vintages out of tank
Oldest wine tasted: Basedows 1969 dry red, McLaren Vale
Worst wine: More than one Dandelion PX—pig dog filthy
Best wine: 2008 Clonakilla Viognier
Best Producer: Close between By Farr, William Downie for sheer lifestyle and ethos and S.C. Pannell
Total number of sparkling wines: 4
Total number of white wines: 90
Total number of rosé wines: 10
Total number of red wines: 164
Average number of hours sleep per night: 5
General health after tour: Broken
Grosset – Clare Valley
Personally, I have never liked Clare Valley Rieslings, I have always found them to have this lime cordial/lemon grass, cut grass flavour that makes my tongue shrivel. Professionally though, these wines really do show a sub-region divergence between Polish Hill and Springvale (they are sub-regions within the Valley). Amazingly, there is blue slate here too, but in the soil, it’s more like that of the Rheingau, spread out in fields with veins popping up through the vineyard rather than all over the place like in the Mosel. Clare is also quite high, upwards of 450m so benefits from a slightly cooler average temperature (remember, for every 100m you travel up, the temp drops by around .5 a degree). Wines were pretty good here over all standouts below:
2017 Polish Hill Riesling: Very fresh crispy green apples with pure and clean fruit. Palate was dry, with the same apple profile and a lick of lemon. Textured throughout with a medium scented, fresh finish.
2016 Chardonnay: Clean and pure fruit, spicy lemon cheesecake, creamy oak, mouth-watering acid, complex autolytic length, very layered.
John Duval – Barossa
It’s not often you get to sit down with arguably Australia’s most legendary winemaker. I’m not going to talk about his former days heading up Penfolds (Google him) but I will mention that they don’t make a lot. Very traditional approach but importantly he is rolling with the times and his wines showed a restrained and elegance. Stand outs:
2017 Plexus white Marsanne Rousanne Viognier: Ripe pear, floral orange blossom, citrus restrained and delicate nose overall but complex. Palate has a crispness to it then the pure fruit kicks in, fresh melon, pear, lemon and a lick of apricot. There is texture here too and a restrained creamy length.
2016 Mataro: Ripe and fragrant cherries, currants and blackberries with a touch of candy shop fairy floss. Palate shows tannin grippy and youthful, with mid palate cream and a scented black fruit length. Super tasty.
Charles Melton - Barossa
The relaxed and casual approach to the tasting was not a reflection of the wine style. With access to some great vineyards there is a lot of subtle nuances across his brand. Interestingly, they cut down the food selection at their cellar door as they noticed people were not there to taste wine but there to eat, obviously not the point of a cellar door. Now, they offer a few simple pies and cheese boards to chow down on. Stand outs:
2015 Charles Melton Grains of Paradise: Ripe black cherry, currents and Ribena, very concentrated fruit profile on the mid palate, proving quality in the glass. The fruit was juicy, and expressive and a long-scented length.
Shaw and Smith – Adelaide Hills
I have to admit, Shaw and Smith had fallen out of favour with me, mainly due to the turn their M3 Chardonnay took a few years back where it when lean and green. So, this is one of the biggest surprises.
Slick operation here with a gun of a winemaker called Adam, who took over in 2013. The Sauvignon Blanc they produce is probably the most popular SB in Australia, and it’s justified.
The 2016 M3 was nothing short of stunning, I was over moon to see its return to form here and hopefully will make a small appearance in one or two of our shops. We also tasted their Tasmanian project, Tolpuddle. Tolpuddle is the name of the vineyard that I think is 50/50 Chardonnay Pinot Noir. These are serious wines with a hefty price tag, but really did show of the vineyard quality across the Tasman Sea. The other project named ‘The Other Wine Co’ was less inspiring, and the wines here were non-descript and very one dimensional. Stand outs:
2016 M3 Chardonnay: Toasty lemon cake, hint of spice and mouth-watering upfront. Mid palate was short only because it was all about the length. All the concentration was here, oak spice, honey suckle, autolytic tones with a restraint about it. Long layered length that you taste for minutes.
S.C. Pannell - McLaren Vale
After the Lehmann visit and hearing about adding acid, and other less savoury adjustments, it was refreshing to hear this man share his ethos. His belief is, if the varietal is picked for the region, rather than forcing a wine that shouldn’t be there, then he finds he doesn’t need to add or take anything away. This sounds so simple, but I assure you it’s not. Changing over 100 years of wine making is no easy task. We pretty much looked at his entire range and it was a thing of beauty. Too many to mention here!
Dandelion and Heirloom - McLaren Vale
This was a huge tasting after an already huge day drinking reds. They brought out close to 50 wines to go through and it was tough.
In direct opposition to Pannell, Zar Brooks thinks everyone adds acid and if they say they don’t they are lying - a bold statement. I was also slightly taken aback when he mentioned that at no point should we ever compare wines nor should we have a preference. This was said during a pretty interesting vertical of Eden Valley Rieslings from 2009 to 2017.
It took all of my strength to bite my tongue and not say, that our job as buyers is exactly that. We professionally analyse wines and benchmark differences with an aim at finding something that fits our parameters.
The Rieslings were the stand out, but only because a flight of 9 Riesling from the same area is a geeks delight. The other 40 odd wines were overdone, over extracted and made with a marketing plan in mind rather than making what the vineyard produces. Also, the lack of understanding or care for customers who are buying their wines was also quite upsetting. The winemaker remarked their prices were going up just because. Not exactly something you want to say to a buyer! By this time, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut and opened up a can of worms about pricing. There was more that happened that made this night the least enjoyable but I’ve spent too much time talking about them. Stand outs: None to mention…
I was struggling from last night’s tastings (Dandelion and then a morning at Mitolo), the sheer amount of heavy reds and brain draining presentation, followed by an average Mitolo tasting had me in the reeds.
Thankfully Willunga 100 turned it up to 11. Picture this: 2 old blokes who look like cattle farmers rock up with one wearing a ‘dry as bone’ t-shirt, who clearly new something about the weather we didn’t. We jump in the bus and both Tim and Mike proceed to deliver a masterclass in McLaren Vale sub-regionality. After a while I started to realise who these blokes are. They are stalwarts of the Vale. They know everyone and everyone knows them. All the grower agreements they have are all done on handshake and you don’t want to be the first person to break that contract.
It was so amazing to see these old dudes both in their late 60s, early 70s, with so much passion and enthusiasm. Dinner was prepared and cooked by a German called Horst Berger. Luckily, we didn’t have horse burgers. I did ask. Amazing value for money and over delivering in price (the wine that is, not the dinner – although that was class too!). Stand outs:
2015 Cab Shiraz, 70/30 split 14.95 on 41%: Black and red ripe fruit, warming Christmas port nose, juicy tannin with a hint of elegance. Smoked meat, creamy black fruit yogurt and very pure fruit concentration.
2016 Shiraz Viognier same price as above: Fragrant floral tones, perfumed blossom with touch of apricot. Savoury front palate, juicy mid palate, creamy texture with medium scented cherry length.
By Farr - Bannockburn and Geelong
I was lucky enough to meet and work with Nick earlier in my career, so I was already a fan. He gives no f*&%s when it comes to his winemaking. It’s his way or you’re doing it wrong. He refers mainly to the areas he makes wine, in case that’s not obvious. He trained a lot in Burgundy and a lot of the practices he deploys he learnt at Dujac. All of his wines are truly stunning, the only issue is price. They are expensive and up there when compared to other Pinots, Viogniers and Chardonnays out there, but I think they are worth it. Stand outs:
2017 Farrside Pinot Noir: Vibrant crunchy, youthful cherries. Fresh and crisp acid with a hint of toast. The palate, smoky meat, grippy tannin but not clawing, long autolytic length partnered with cherry giving this wine another layer. Belter.
2017 Gamay: Fresh and fragrant crunchy cherries and strawberries. Soft tannin throughout showing mid palate concentration and a scented fruity length. Very smashable.
2017 Viognier: Expressive nose, ripe but delicate apricots, honey and apple pie. Palate is oily, mouth-watering texture, ginger spice, bready texture and a scented length.
Giant Steps - Yarra Valley
Some of the most Australian Australians work here. I didn’t know a lot about this producer so was looking forward to both a dinner and a huge tasting. There is a lot of experience here, the owner, Phil Sexton, set up businesses like Devil’s Lair, Innocent Bystander and Little Creatures. All these brands achieved some really good accolades.
Phil sold them all and now focuses on Giant Steps. These guys have some of the most amazing vineyards which are surrounded by Phylloxera vineyards, so all vines on their own rootstocks. Whenever they replant, they replant to Phylloxera resistant rootstocks. All in all, some really good quality wines. Stand outs: Lots!
Clonakilla - Australian Capital Territory
Meaning ‘meadow of the church’ in Gaelic, Clonakilla is nothing short of magnificent. The tasting was huge but filled with some interesting back vintages to give a real window into the development of their wines. Stand outs: lots again! but I will focus only on what was available! The 2003 Riesling, was stunning and the 2008 Viognier spectacular. Family-owned and operated with a huge focus on quality. Right up our street.
Cullen - Margaret River
Wow, just wow! This biodynamic producer is arguably one of the best in the world. The health of the soil and the vineyards is nothing short of unbelievable. When we arrived, I noticed that all their vines are still green with only a hint of autumn brown, where their neighbours’ leaves are close to falling. According to them this is due to the health of the vine. They have a hefty price tag mind, but show none of the biodynamic characters you may have seen in other wines. All of them have an amazing restraint and delicacy. The wines are great, so many to speak of but you need a pretty hefty pocketbook to afford them. Stand out:
2014 Mangan Red East Block Petit Verdot, Malbec: Dark cherry, fresh vibrant currants and a hint of mint. Grippy tannin and mouth-watering acid. Flavours of chocolate, red cherry and sweet spice show through with a creamy length.
That’s pretty much it! A monster blog post we know, but hopefully provides an insight into the life of a wine buyer.