WTN: NSW Southern Highlands

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WTN: NSW Southern Highlands

Postby Graeme Gee » Wed May 17, 2006 9:20 pm

Completely co-incidental to the regional feature article in the April/May 2006 edition of Gourmet Wine magazine, the NSW Southern Highlands was the object of the 2006 Noble Rotters Annual Formal Weekend Away and Official Piss-Up. When the group started in the late-80s, it would have been inconceivable that this particular part of NSW so close to Sydney (100km-odd to the south-west) could have provided any wine-related entertainment beyond a post-lunch quarter-hour tasting of unripe (and otherwise faulty) wines before setting off to somewhere with real wine to offer. How times have changed! A report on our Friday night dinner (and non-Highland wines) is posted elsewhere; the themed wines began next day…

The first visit of Saturday morning was to
Greenbrier Vineyard
the site of a relatively recently-built mock-Georgian house at the centre of an award-winning garden, which includes a growing example of the famous/historic/ancient/rare Wollemi Pine. Surrounding vineyards (7 years old) are planted to sauvignon blanc, merlot, and cabernet, the last-named of which is yet to complete picking; a common theme through the weekend, and certainly helping justify the claim that the Southern Highlands’ vineyards are among the last-picked in the country. At somewhere between 700-800 metres altitude, they’re also likely to be among the highest.

2003 Riesling {$20, 11%, screwcap}
Low intensity ripe green apple aromas. Surprisingly soft acid, gentle, dry, and really quite mature. Ready to drink.

2004 Sauvignon Blanc {$30, screwcap}
Classic clean modern varietal notes, touch of green, medium intensity aromas. Not unripe, but not too tropical – some gooseberry notes. Medium acid, quite light body and soft yet crisp finish. Pleasantly undemanding. Expensive!

2004 Riesling {$20, 12%, screwcap}
A low intensity nose, but showing honeydew/apple aromas, hinting at sweetness. It is medium-sweet on the palate, quite rich in fruit and on the mid-palate, unobtrusive acid (overshadowed by sweetness) does give some structure. Clean and well-proportioned. Somewhat in the style of modern NZ riesling rather than the strong lime/phenolic style associated with Australian riesling.

2004 Cabernet Sauvignon – Merlot {$24, cork}
Medium ruby colour. Plummy notes running second to generally herbaceous aromas. Tight palate, persistent acids, fine, soft low-level tannins. Light weight, moderate length finish. Quite pleasant.

2004 Cabernet Sauvignon {$22, cork}
This wine rather points out the significant influence the Merlot had on the preceding offering. The nose here is more reminiscent of very cool climate shiraz, being composed largely of white pepper and capsicum. The palate lacks the acid expected, being quite soft, and with low-level tannins too. Only mid-weight at best, this is let down a little by a minimal mid- and back-palate. Clearly a better wine with the Merlot.


Our next stop was at the offices of host and guide Mark Bourne, for a tasting of the wines of
Cuttaway Hill Estate
This large local producer has a bigger reputation overseas than locally; some 80% of production is exported, chiefly to the UK, Ireland and Canada. The brand-emblazoned semi-trailer visible from the motorway between Mittagong and Bowral is the only local clue to the existence of this largish (10,000 case) producer who does not have a cellar door operation. Who wants to work on Sundays, anyway?

2005 Sauvignon Blanc
A stony, flinty nose adds subtle musky fruit on the palate. Acid low. Clean simple finish.

2005 Semillon Sauvignon Blanc
Sixty percent Semillon, which is obvious in the grassy/straw nose. There’s a twist of lemon on the palate, and the two varieties combine to cover the palate pretty well. Good summer wine.

2004 Chardonnay
A medium-intensity nose of nuts and grapefruit, with subtle spicy oak. The palate presents cleanly, with medium acidity, depth of fruit on the front palate, and a good long finish. Very good wine – I think the best of the whites.

2005 Pinot Gris
A varietally correct nose of gunflint and grey stony notes. There’s low acidity on the palate; the texture is quite oily, perhaps partly a result of 14.2% alcohol, thus the wine is at least medium bodied in weight. Good length of finish too – but I’m not generally a fan of the style.

2005 Rosé (Cabernet Sauvignon)
Almost an orange/onionskin colour; it’s enough to make you fear for oxygen. Yet the nose is clean, and shows kind of confected jam/strawberry/custard fruit aromas. Unusual. Palate is pretty unmemorable though…

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon
A spectrum of soft ripe blackberry fruit is tinged with herbaceous notes which add an aura of varietal correctness to the nose. Still, it’s ultimately quite tart, with the balance of weight towards the front of the palate.

2004 Cabernet Sauvignon
This is an improvement over the previous wine; the herbal notes remain on the aroma, but there’s a riper warmth to the cassis-tinged fruit. The palate is almost plummy, the oak discreet – it’s a better result all round. The alcohol has risen from 12.8% to 13% for this vintage. Fairly low tannins still; it’s not a bad wine, just needs a little more personality.

2005 Merlot
Lots of plum and coconut on the nose here. Round body on the palate, low acid and low tannins. The fruit balance all hangs on the front palate here and the finish I find a bit short – it really needs blending with a lean cabernet!

A pretty sound and reasonably interesting collection of wines here, generally low in alcohol, with the chardonnay the pick of the bunch. Apart from the 2003 cabernet, all are sealed under screwcap. With a little more vine age they should develop more personality, which will help them to distinguish themselves further from the over-ripe alcohol-hot style which almost seems the Australian norm these days.


Our combined tasting and lunch-stop took place at the elegant downstairs dining room of
McVitty Grove Wines
a recently-established producer who have hung their hat on Pinots Gris and Noir as their signature wines. Over a relaxed meal of antipasto and fresh bread we drank:

2005 Pinot Gris Silver Label
2005 Pinot Gris Reserve Black Label

You’d have though it enough for a winery to make one pinot gris, let alone two… Perhaps there’s an intention to try and distinguish between the Italian and French styles here, with the Reserve wine seeing a little oak. Certainly the pear aromas are more intense in this wine, underpinned by some spiciness, a bit more acid and a fuller, more luxuriant mouthfeel; weightier midpalate and longer finish. The Silver Label is cleaner, slighter and thinner, with soft smoky fruit prominent and a short clean finish at the end. Both wines were terrific with the food though – pinot gris doesn’t seem to me a variety that constitutes a floor show by itself.

2004 Pinot Noir
This is a clean fruit-driven pinot; pure cherry and strawberry aromas cover only the vaguest hint of earthiness underneath. Spice & smoke, even some bacon notes follow on the low-acid, minimal tannin palate. Paradoxically, these reticent structural elements make for a well-balanced wine, even if not a memorable one.

2004 Cut Arm Pinot Gris {375ml 12.8%, screwcap}
A glowing gold-green, this wine is the product of both cordon-cut techniques and a little botrytis. Smoky notes. Apricot and green cane aromas. Syrupy texture, quite sweet, but wants a little for acid to keep it fresh. However, the light-bodied style keeps it from cloying. In this case, less is more.


Our single afternoon visit was to the not-yet-open cellar door of
Blue Metal Vineyards
Doubtless the interior decorators will be around shortly; just now weldmesh, bare concrete and corrugated iron form the interior modes, a theme not entirely out of place with what is apparently the southern hemisphere’s largest deposit of blue metal both lying beneath the soil, and supplying the property’s name. Vines were planted in 1999, so we’re looking at pretty young material here.

2004 Sauvignon Blanc {screwcap}
Bright, clean sparkling citric and tropical fruit. Soft acid, front palate; yet another sauvignon in the ‘modern’ style, removing the polarising aromatics and palate of the first kiwi examples of this grape and replacing them with something more tropical and less offensive, but also more bland.

2005 Sauvignon Blanc {$19, screwcap}
The fruit is even brighter here than it’s older sibling, with plenty of ‘p’ – passionfruit , pot-pourri, pear and peach – to the fore. Oddly, despite the flamboyant aromatics the palate is a little more subdued than the ’04. Weird.

2005 Pinot Gris Sauvignon Blanc {$24, screwcap}
A blend I’ve never knowingly tasted before. Likely I never will again. Reticent slate and citrus at low intensity. Soft, bland palate. Why are they asking a price premium?

2004 Sangiovese Cabernet Sauvignon {$25, 13%, screwcap}
Smoke and cherry aromas. A savoury palate, quite tarty despite the moderately low acid. Minimal grape tannins, short finish. Ho hum.

2004 Cabernet Sauvignon – Merlot – Petit Verdot {$20, cork}
There was some confusion as to which order these next two wines were served in, but I think I have it right. This has a blackcurrant-like nose, but there are enough vegetal notes underneath to make me just wonder about the grape ripeness. It’s clean, but lightweight on the palate, and generally lacking in the structural department. Acceptable enough, but needs some intensity.

2003 Cabernet Sauvignon – Merlot – Petit Verdot {cork}
Twelve months on, and it’s a whole different game. This shows some initial vanillan notes, followed by cool-climate menthol aromas. More focussed, this has decent palate weight and intensity and is much the more interesting wine. Still weighted towards the front palate, it’s not a world beater, but a pleasant cabernet.

2004 Merlot {$25, cork}
Another dull merlot. Muted nose, extracted palate, plummy, harshly tannic. Really not nice at all.


For Saturday’s dinner we were joined by several local wine growers and makers in the reception room at the rebuilt Fitzroy Inn in Mittagong. All wines were from local winemakers or growers. I’d like to have made more notes on colour, but time and light were in short supply.

2003 Farrow & Jackson Maple Hill Chardonnay {screwcap}
Presented in person by proprietor Brian Farrow. Stonefruit/minerals and nuts on the nose. Medium acidity, good palate balance. Minimal malolactic influences, if any. Subtle oak. Persistent spicy finish – good wine.

2001 Cuttaway Hill Chardonnay {13.7%, screwcap}
Young producers have small museums. This was a great ambassador, however. Some cheesy, lees-like developed characters belie the apparent youth and freshness here. Only 20% of the wine saw new oak. There is some aged butteriness on the palate (no malo ferment here), but still acid holds the interest. Good balance, mid-weight body, attractive length. Probably the best white wine of the trip so far.

2004 Cuttaway Hill Sauvignon Blanc {screwcap}
Stonefruit and melon aromas here. They certainly do make a different SB in this part of the world – more Sancerre than Marlborough. This is quite earthy in flavour, the acid is low and the wine is round and soft on the palate. Medium weight and length of finish.

2002 Cuttaway Hill Pinot Gris {13%, cork}
Muted mineral nose, dark aromas; it turns out this was a bush-fire affected vintage, and the smoky flavours are becoming ever more apparent as the wine ages. Low acid, and the wine is becoming resin-like. Drink soon. As Glenn points out, bushfires are one characteristic you can’t find in French wines…

2004 Cuttaway Hill Merlot {13.5%, screwcap}
Singing from the same district merlot songsheet as wines mentioned already. Plum and coconut, ho hum. Apparently we only have second-rate clones in this country? This one has some woodspice on the palate, despite the low tannins it still has a certain coarseness about it.

2005 Cuttaway Hill Pinot Noir {13.5%, screwcap}
A garnet red of pale intensity. It’s quite sappy and gamey on the nose, even a bit sulphurous. Strongly varietal, it has high acids, low tannins and is chewy and savoury on the palate – not bad at all.

2004 “Grumblebone” Cabernet Sauvignon – Merlot {barrel sample}
2004 “Grumblebone” Cabernet Sauvignon {barrel sample}
There are wines made under contract by local winemaker Anton Balog using grapes from the property of Dr Paul Sibraa, who brought them to the dinner. They were made up the night before (the cab-merlot blend is about 50/50) from wine lying two years in barrel, and are to be bottled shortly; possibly even sold somehow! The Cab-Merlot is an intense ink-ruby colour. The nose is of dark chocolate, blackcurrant, medium intensity, clean, and very pure. The flavour spectrum suggests cool-climate, but it’s beautifully ripe; any vegetal/herby notes are quite within character. The palate has a fine spine of tannins, persistent ripe cassis fruit, medium body, and a beautifully balanced persistent finish. It has style and real class about it, this wine – the best red of the weekend. The straight Cabernet stablemate is similar in colour, somewhat more austere on the nose and palate. It’s also a bit more vegetal (although still with liquorice elements about the fruit), bigger in body, more tannic, yet balanced, but still tight and intense. Nicely integrated oak, but still very primary in character. Both wines weight in around low 13% alcohol, and surely are ready to bottle. Availability is unknown. Could we see some wine show glory and the launch of a new label? Hard to say, but wines this good deserve to stand under their own label and bring respect to their region, even if total production will stretch only to a few hundred cases.

A mystery/options wine was served. We lost one bottle to corktaint, but the survivor offered a nose of sweet, ripe blackcurrant/chocolate/spice aromas. The palate is a little confected, almost sweet, but pleasant enough, even if it does fade a bit on the finish. Obviously a pinot, it turned out to be
2003 Marist Brothers Pinot Noir
Not a recognised brand name, these are grapes grown by the local Marist Brothers (their first vintage) and normally sold to Southern Highland Wines.

nv Middlebrook Liqueur Sauvignon Blanc (McLaren Vale)
The label claimed ‘15 years old’; with metric volume labelling (750ml) I’d presume the bottling dates from the mid-70s. Who’d have thought there was sauvignon blanc growing in South Australia in the early 60s? Supplied by industry stalwart and ex-McWilliams man Doug Hamilton, this tawny-orange wine held plenty of sediment in its thick, viscous swirl of a grip. The nose of was of lightly oxidised honey and cold tea, the palate was think, warm, alcoholic and moderately persistent. A layer of VA serves to lift the wine. Overall something of a curio, pleasant enough, but not earth-shattering.


An ultra-relaxed Sunday lunch began with a tasting at
Centennial Vineyards
the Central Highlands’ answer to Voyager Estate. The vast Tuscan-style buildings host a tasting room and restaurant which dwarf the 120-ton capacity winery, but there is room to expand. The long driveway winds its way between the immaculately trimmed rows of wines glowing in the autumn sunshine; it really is very easy on the eye. For the first time ever, the Hunter has a rival as a serious wine-tourist-magnet; moreover it is only half the distance from Sydney, and with considerably better roads. Three ranges of wine are offered here, the quaffing ‘Bong Bong’ wines, then an extensive varietal ‘Woodside’ range, with the ‘Reserve’ wines completing the collection. We preceded the tasting with a tour of the winery; it must be one of the few in the country to actually have reverse cycle temperature control in part of the winery; when you pull cabernet off the vines in May and get a cold spell in Bowral there’s evidently the risk that the fermentations will grind to a halt altogether unless the winery can be heated!

2004 Pinot-Chardonnay Sparkling {11.5%, cork}
Clean and simple bubbly, a whiff of strawberry on the palate, pleasantly dry on the finish. No great depth, it’s undemanding summer drinking.

2005 Woodside Sauvignon Blanc {$20, screwcap}
A pungent, greenish gooseberry nose. This is ‘old-style’ new-world sauvignon, and is no less polarising nowadays than it was ten years ago. Medium weight acid, it’s an early drinker that needs seafood!

2004 Woodside Unwooded Chardonnay {$19, screwcap}
A butterscotch-aroma-ed, tropical, low-acid, off-dry kind of early-drinker with a short finish.

2004 Reserve Chardonnay (Orange) {$27, 14%, screwcap}
Oddly enough – a reflection of the newness of the estate no doubt – many of Centennial’s reserve wines are not in fact made from local fruit. This wine has a almond and peach nose, but the palate is refreshing, not over-worked, and mercifully free of malolactic characters, despite carrying a fair degree of oak flavour. Overall it’s quite light though, a middle-of-the-road style which is pleasant, if over-priced, drinking.

2004 Woodside Tempranillo {$20, 12.8%, screwcap}
A clean, fruity, bitter cherry nose. The palate is light, oak free, but with some grape tannin astringency. Front palate weight and a short finish establish this as a food-friendly quaffer.

2003 Reserve Shiraz (Orange) {$27, cork}
Precious few wines on this trip have been sealed with cork, so the resourceful TCA gremlins need to take every opportunity left to them. Bullseye! The second bottle opened showed some black berries on the low-intensity nose. It’s soft and smooth on the palate, resulting from the fairly low levels of acid and tannin apparent. Not especially distinctive; and it is ripe, at least, but rather pricey…

2003 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (Orange) {$26, cork}
Yet a third reserve wine from across the dividing range. This is more interesting, with medium intensity blackcurrant, charcoal and liquorice aromas. Medium weight tannins and a herbal note to the palate fruit all add up to a decent sort of wine.

We then adjourned to the restaurant for lunch and sampled the following;

2004 Bong Bong Rosé {$17, screwcap}
Pale yet vivid pinky-red in colour, this has lots of strawberries and cream on the nose. It’s a soft wine on the palate, with a touch of residual sugar that seems unsupported by much in the way of acid. Predictably short finish.

2004 Reserve Pinot Noir {14.2%, screwcap}
Clean raspberry notes lead the palate, but there’s a whiff of game underneath. Very correct, if quite low in intensity. There’s touch of oaky smoke on the palate, with medium tannins and soft low-level acid. It’s quite focussed, ripe and even, but generally low key. Light body, good balance, not profound. Quite acceptable and probably not too expensive either.

2005 Woodside Pinot Noir {tank sample}
Intense pure ripe cherry fruit. Lightbodied and proud of it, but nicely balanced all the same. Simple, clean, pleasant. A kind of NSW Bourgogne Rouge…

2004 Reserve Tempranillo {14%, cork}
Medium ruby/purple colour. A low intensity nose of tar and violets with floral notes. Tastes ripe, with medium/high tannins quite good balance, and some persistence. Little oak, if any. Of some interest.

2004 Reserve Rondinella Corvina {$nr, 15.2%, cork}
Here’s two-thirds of an Amarone della Valpolicella a long way from home! And it’s even got a good write-up from His Holiness Robert Parker and a score in the 90s! I find a nose of raisins, bitumen and fruitcake, with a touch of volatile acidity. Perhaps not too far in style from a modern pumped-up Barossa Grenache. Obviously ripe – perhaps too ripe – with warmth on the palate giving way to hollowness and a bitter finish. Acid is low also, but the tannins are quite prominent. Unusual but flawed – a wine for tasting rather than drinking…! Parker’s review is quoted in the cellar door tasting sheet; he recommends drinking within 5-8 years, but I think that five years is the very limit for this wine. Despite the displays in the tasting room, this is apparently not yet for sale, so price is a mystery.

The lunch was very good indeed; value was probably in keeping with a boutique-type affair in a tourist-oriented region. And the place was full as well, which bodes well. (I can’t imagine that the overall operation is making money at the moment.) Let’s hope they can get some decent local fruit for their flagship wines as soon as possible.

Very enjoyable weekend – despite what appears to be a lot of lukewarm tasting notes above the wines were generally fault-free, sound examples of cool-climate winemaking from mostly young vines. With some more vine age, and a little more personality to the wines, I think this area has an excellent future and will give the Hunter a scare on the tourism front. Once the word gets around, that is. The other especially recommendable thing is how many of the wines are available for under $25 – less than $20 is probably a better psychological barrier, but low-$20s prices shouldn’t discourage anyone from buying who finds a wine they like – and that won’t be hard.

Disclosure: in addition to cellar door tasting samples, the following was provided free-of-charge; the lunch with accompanying wines at McVitty Grove, wines at the Fitzroy Inn dinner, lunch wines at Centennial vineyards.

Cheers,
Graeme
Graeme Gee
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