Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Barrels of fun - the article!

Here’s the unedited/uncensored/unsubbed version of a piece on Margaret River’s growing fraternity oaked SSB I filed for Scoop magazine about a year back.

According to conventional winemaking wisdom, blends of semillon and sauvignon blanc are all about freshness.

Get the fruit in, press it, tank-ferment it then get it on the market as quickly as possible to retain those vibrant fruit flavours.

Climbing towers of wooden barriques stacked six-high and tasting your way through parcels of oaked semillon and sauvignon blanc fermented in American steel barrels isn’t in the script.

Not that anyone showed the script to Fraser Gallop Estate winemakers Clive Otto and Kate Morgan.

Having finished their “work” of blending the regular Fraser Gallop SSB for 2009 – although despite being primarily a tank fermented wine, a fifth of it contains oaked material – the duo are now in “play” mode, their minds buzzing at the excitement of putting together the winery’s first all-wooded SSB blend, Parterre (French for “of the earth”, released June).

“People are starting to turn off the in-your-face Tutti Frutti style of semillon sauvignon blanc. They want better food wines with a bit more interest, complexity and ageability,” says Clive.

For inspiration, Clive turned to Bordeaux where producers like Chateau Pape Clement, Chateau Haut Brion and Domaine de Chavelier in the Left Bank appellation of Graves have forged international reputations for long-lived semillon and sauvignon blanc blends.

Working vintage at the latter gave Clive the chance to learn from Domaine de Chavelier proprietor Olivier Bernard while ageing the Parterre in barriques from Bordeaux-based coopers such as Nadelie and Tonnellerie D’Aquitaine kept things Bordelaise. In his mission to create an SSB style with an interest span greater than two glasses, Clive makes no apologies for his French bias.

“Those Graves wines are fascinating and every bit as good as Burgundy chardonnay,” insists Clive.

“Sem-sav here has a better chance of ageing than chardonnay. When semillon ages, it has lovely lime and toast complexity, but with chardonnay, they tend to age flabby and oily. We want to make wines that can be aged for at least a decade.”

When it comes to age-worthy semillon and sauvignon blanc, few in Margaret River and indeed Australia can match the track record of Wilyabrup pioneers, Lenton Brae.

In 2010, the Tomlinson family will release its 24th consecutive semillon sauvignon blanc, a wine that’s traditionally been able to live for decades, as proven by a resilient bottle of the 1987 Lenton Brae SSB opened in 2007 for Lenton Brae’s 21st anniversary celebrations.

Fittingly, those celebrations were the catalyst for the birth of the Wilyabrup blend, a tiny-volume production (less than 100 cases each vintage) starring hand-picked estate fruit aged entirely in new French oak. Fortuitously, 2007 was an excellent year in Margs and the blend sold well at cellar door. The rest, as the saying goes, is history and the fourth Wilyabrup blend will be available by the end of 2010.

“I guess it was curiosity more than inspiration that led me to make the wine,” admits Lenton Brae winemaker, Ed Tomlinson.

“We monitor everything very close. Sometimes the wine will be in barrel for as little as four months and as long as 10 depending on how it’s coping: it’s a work in progress. We’re more interested in what the fruit and vineyard are doing than trying to mimic something.”

A similar spokesperson for vintage and vineyard is Cape Mentelle’s Walcliffe sauvignon blanc semillon, named after the vineyard its fruit is sourced from.

First produced in 1999 by then-winemaker John Durham, Walcliffe is now being made under the watchful eye of Robert Mann who is doing his best to lift the fruit profile in a wine that, in the past, has had “the whole winemaking book thrown at it”.

A major part of this overhaul is refining the oak treatment, specifically, less new barrels and more one and two-year old ones.

“My aim is to make it a less funky, less extreme example of the style and align it more with fruity purity,” he says.

“When you taste through past vintages of the wine, there’s similar characters from year to year. That’s the strength of the terroir that we want to keep.”

Mike Kerrigan is another non-believer when it comes to new oak. The winemaker shows his disdain for overt vanillin flavours by only using second-hand wood for Hay Shed Hill’s Block 1 SSB. 

“New oak doesn’t bring anything to the party,” he believes.

“It’s always been intentional not to have new oak. I’m not really after oak flavour, more texture. But to be honest, I never set out to make an SSB. If you look at semillon and sauvignon blanc, they’re two of the most unhip varieties on the planet.”

But even the straight shooting Michael Kerrigan changes his mind.

All it takes is a 1975-planted block of unirrigated, small-vine semillon and sauvignon blanc that produces berries that, by Mike’s reckoning, are without equal in both the flavour and intensity stakes.

“I’ve never seen fruit like this, I don’t think anyone has,” he says.

“I thought I should do something different and not stick it in an aromatic blend like everyone else. It was the fruit that told me to do something.”

Freely admitting to being out of his comfort zone when dealing with such powerful fruit, Mike consulted the white Bordeaux playbook for advice. It implored him to trust tradition, thus, fruit was picked together in the vineyard and co-fermented before a brief spell in three-year old barrels previously used for ageing chardonnay.

The result is a pristine lemon and guava-driven wine with fine-beaded, spindly acid that gently ushers zesty citrus flavours through the long finish. It’d be a tricky wine to ID as a Margaret River sem-sav in a blind tasting.

Yet if winemakers continue to redefine and push the boundaries of Margaret River (and indeed, West Australian) SSB and SBS, my palate and I would both be more than happy to go back to square one for a recalibration.

Or in this case, Block 1.