On wine…and wine snobs

Not pretending for one nanosecond to be a wine expert, I did appreciate three years ago in Tasmania being well tutored on “how to be a wine snob”, by one of Australia’s most successful wine entrepreneurs, Gerald Ellis of Meadowbank.  Around a roaring log fire in his barrel room, Geoff’s tongue in cheek, but highly entertaining presentation, culminated in the ultimate one liner to take the hot air out of wine snobs – “this wine’s got a hole in the middle palate”.

Last week in the Yarra Valley a preview of the new regional food and wine festival, Reap & Relish proved to be yet another occasion not to pull out the killer quote.

Here at Mt Rael Retreat, overlooking the glorious Healesville valley were three of the biggest names in Yarra Valley winemaking, but also three of the most down to earth. Winemakers Dan Buckle (Domaine Chandon), Willy Lunn (Yering), and Steve Webber (De Bortoli)

Over lunch Dan is laconic, even in explaining that we are tasting a 1996 sparkling (Cuvee Prestige) which had developed over one “spectacular Indian summer” and had since spent 15 years on the lees before being disgorged and released last June with “the oldest lees time on the Australian market.”  They might all be competing for our palates, but Willy and Steve agree this is a special drop, so who are we to argue? If you hurry Dan might still have some ’96, but only at the cellar door.

We eat a magnificent selection of courses prepared by Mt Rael’s John Knoll, well matched by the winemakers with their chardonnay and pinot.  Given that these blokes seem to tell it like it is, we ask a few of the harder questions based on the theory that many drinkers were “chardonnayed-out”.

Typically blunt Steve Webber (pictured above) admits that, as winemakers, many of them made mistakes trying to produce wines that were “not of this place” and better suited to Margaret River than the Yarra.

“There’s no doubt we have got ourselves to blame about the fate of chardonnay, but we have learned a lot over the past 10 years: pick early, lower alcohol, finer flavour, not oaky.”

Willy agrees: “In the nineties we were into big fruit, malolactic fermentation, oak – we were not making a style that was true to the region.”

Even within Yarra Valley there are sub regions which deliver different characteristics they say…the three winemakers nod agreement. They talk often. Mostly at the pub.

“Yarra Valley doesn’t make big chardonnay well.  Now it is elegant, minerally. We don’t use lots of new oak,” Steve says, defending chardonnay as “always the noblest of all grape varieties around the world, along with reisling”.

Lessons must have been learned, because he says sales of chardonnay are “going crazy”, particularly in the $25 plus bracket…”people are no longer prepared to spend silly money on Sauvignon Blanc.”

– Graeme Kemlo

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