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Wine Growers

Burgundy Goes Down Under

Aficionados David and Lynne Hammond have championed wines from the small independent wine growers of the Burgundy region through their business Bringing Burgundy to You. In March they headed down to Australia and here, they contrast and compare the differences from the old world order to the new

'Given that records show that vineyards existed here in Burgundy since Roman times, and Australia has only a fraction of this history, the quality and range of the wines is remarkable'.

Yarra Valley Vineyards Australia

'Our first impression was of the sheer vastness of the country. Although we were in Australia for four weeks clearly it was impossible to do justice to all the wine areas (there are over 60) and we chose to visit Margaret River, Yarra Valley (above) and Tasmania which are very different geographically and climatically. Margaret River in the far south-western tip of the country is around a three hour drive south of Perth, experiencing hot summers with cooling ocean breezes. Yarra Valley is less than an hour's drive north of Melbourne, a large sub-divided area and one of the oldest established wine areas in Australia. Tasmania is the island-state around an hour's flight south of Melbourne with a cooler, maritime influence where climate and grape varieties most closely resemble those of Burgundy.

Comparisons and Contrasts

Think Big: One on the first discoveries was the size of many of the estates. One, in the Yarra Valley, produced one-third of the total production of all of Burgundy. There are a number of massive wine businesses, often with significant outside corporate investment. Production can be in the tens of millions of bottles per annum across a number of sites. These tend to be much more technical wines, using hugely sophisticated technology which will achieve a consistency no matter the differences in weather each year. Artisan winemaking is a growing force with more people combining the entrepreneurial spirit of Australia with the style of the "old" world working with terroir, climate and in some instances lunar patterns just as in Burgundy. The world market for wine is expanding rapidly and there is space for both the artisan and the mega-producer."

David Hammond and Geoff Barrett owner of Watershed a large estate in Margaret RiverTending the Vine, Making the Wine: With notable exceptions, invariably the Australian wine estates employ a winemaker while here in Burgundy the proprietor will work in the vineyards, make the wine and the sell it. In smaller Australian estates, the owner may work in the vineyard but there was a clear separation between vineyard work and winemaking. In Burgundy, winegrowers say that they need to work the land to understand how they want to make their wine.
Right: Geoff Barrett owner of Watershed a large estate in Margaret River with David Hammond

"Velo" Estate.  Tamar Valley, TasmaniaTourist Attractions: In Australia the operations are much more commercial than in Burgundy. Frequently, the “cellar door” included a tasting room with many staff, restaurant and perhaps a shop selling cheese or other local produce. On one estate visited, there were more people working in the restaurant than the winery. In Burgundy the typical domaine is run by the family with, at most, a handful of staff and usually the person taking the tasting will be the person who makes the wine. Right: Velo Estate, Tamar Valley Tasmania

A Host of varieties: The range of grape varieties at most of the estates is vast. Many would offer, typically, depending on location, Merlot, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Semillon, Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, and Cabernet to name most and, unlike Burgundy, many would be blends. So, we asked, how can so many varieties grow well on such similar land and climatic conditions? To our palate not all did and we soon appreciated that some areas were better than others for a particular variety. And, to be fair, we felt that Australian growers were appreciating this too and focussing in on fewer varieties and beginning to appreciate the role of terroir– except for the huge estates that had vineyards throughout a region or, indeed, across the country.

The Yield: Yields tended to be much higher than in Burgundy and estates appeared to maximise yields whereas here growers will deliberately reduce yields. We found exceptions to this rule, particularly where estates produced a “Reserve” wine from a single vineyard. Unlike in Burgundy there are no regulations to limit yields by the classification of the wine. Quantity is measured by weight (tons), not volume (hectolitres).

Name or place: The “branding” of wines is hugely advanced in Australia. Of course, they identify first by grape variety whereas in Burgundy – and in most of France - we focus on Appellation, in other words, where the grapes are grown (e.g. region, village and vineyard). Once you appreciate that Burgundy is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay then the huge difference in terroir make sense. Australia, without Burgundy’s longevity, initially had to differentiate by variety. We sense this may be changing.

Marketing: We noticed that single vineyard wines, in the opinion of growers, were increasing in importance. We weren’t sure, though, whether this was down to differing terroir or more about building a “value-add” to the brand. Also, some wines were bottled as “Reserve” which again seemed to be more about marketing and higher pricing. Not that this is wrong, rather that it contrasts greatly with the approach in Burgundy where regulations stipulate exactly what can go on the label.

Oak aging: Some growers are experimenting with the use of oak – using different ages of barrel rather than just new oak. French oak is prevalent and we saw wood from familiar forests and barrel-makers. However, one grower admitting she cut up old barrels and put the staves in tanks left us open-mouthed. A definite “no-no” in Burgundy.

Screw cap or cork: Virtually every bottle we drank in Australia had screw cap closures, compared to those in Burgundy which use cork. The arguments for and against can, and do, fill pages. Burgundy growers will claim cork is better for ageing and Australia will claim screw cap is better – although most Australian wines will be drunk sooner than in Burgundy. The markets are very different and we concluded that it is foolish to compare – ultimately it is what you are used to and we must admit, in restaurants, we did miss the sound of the cork being pulled.

The Good and the Not So Good

Tamar Valley Wine Growing Region TasmaniaTasmania was the stand out wine area for us of the three we visited. Partly, because the two main grape varieties planted are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and the cooler climate produced lower alcohol wines that truly allowed the best expression of aroma and flavour. We also found, in the Tamar Valley, some great small wineries. We talked with people who are experimenting with different terroirs and not afraid to dig up vines and replant another variety if they felt the soil and exposure
suited it better.

We tasted some stunning Pinot Noir here from excellent growers. People say Burgundy wine is expensive (it needn’t be, if you know where to look) but we were surprised by the high price of some of the wines in Australia.

Cullen Wines AustraliaIn Margaret River we met a superb organic grower, Cullen Wines, right, who worked with the terroir and exposition of their vineyards to produce excellent Pinot Gris, Shiraz and Pinot Noir.

In Yarra Valley we visited extremes – one grower whose annual production was one-third of the total of Burgundy’s 4,000 domaines. Equally, we met two other growers working with similar sized estates to Burgundy of around 6 hectares. Talking with the owners, one described how a bush fire passed within 10 metres of her vineyard and home. In Burgundy, we have hail which can destroy a season's crop but not the whole vineyard and winery. Another grower, in Yarra produced stunning single vineyard Pinot Noir, and having visited Burgundy, he truly appreciated the principle of terroir.

On the down side, in the Tasting Rooms, we found the knowledge of some of the “sales” people to be very poor. We were keen to learn, but often the people serving didn’t know basic information about the size of the estate, yields, vinification techniques and use of barrel compared to tank for instance. Once or twice when we said we came from Burgundy we may as well have said we lived on Mars. We found this surprising as we receive many Australian visitors in Burgundy and this type of information is second nature to us here.

So, in our opinion a number of great Pinot Noir compare with top Côte de Nuits Burgundy. There are excellent Riesling and Pinot Gris, different to Alsace but aromatic and full of flavour and stunning Shiraz (Syrah) too, comparable with top Côte de Rhone. Not being Bordeaux fans, we don’t feel qualified to comment on the Merlot and Cabernet.

And what about the Chardonnay? With one or two exceptions, we were disappointed finding them short on the palate. In Europe Australian Chardonnay a few years ago had a reputation of being high in alcohol and unsubtle. We felt many we tasted had swung too far the other way, producing very acidic wines. We are sure there will be a happy medium soon.

Ultimately, it is down to everyone’s personal palate and that is the beauty of wine.

Overall, a fantastic month in a wonderful country. A vibrant country with varied scenery, sensational coastlines, exciting cities like Melbourne and Sydney and our time on Hamilton Island will stay in our memory forever. Magnificent food, excellent wines. It also confirmed what we already knew – lovely, friendly people. Thank you Australia for an unforgettable month in your country.

David & Lynne Hammond

www.bringingburgundytoyou.com

+33 6 30 42 02 98

April 2016.