A far-ranging visit with Castagna, Beechworth
I cannot recall when I first tasted Castagna wines from Beechworth, Victoria. But I do remember that they made quite an impression. Though not short of body, they had a dryness about them – a relatively emphatic acid and tannin structure and savouriness. It’s surely no coincidence that founder Julian Castagna was an early adopter of biodynamic cultivation and alternative (Italian) grape varieties. For his part, biodynamics brings out “the freshness and life that’s there.” I was excited to visit the 4ha vineyard in March at long last.
I say vineyard, but it was so hot atop the exposed, north-facing 500m ridge that we made a bee-line, toute suite, for the cool confines of Castagna’s light and airy kitchen to taste. Castagna’s customary head-to-toe black garb, the stylish, art-filled house and his sharp opinions betray the winemaker’s previous life as a globe-trotting documentary film director. It’s as if he and his wife, Carolann, a film producer/writer, landed from outer space. But they have been here, making wine in the foothills of the Australian Alps, for some 20 years.
Not that they have stayed still – now joined by their son Adam, Julian continues to push the envelope. For a 4ha estate, the range is pretty eclectic – lively minds at work. The straw bale winery is home to egg-shaped fermenters. Castagna is “playing around with Jura type wines on skins.” Even making a Vermouth which, Castagna pointed out, “happened because of 2011 [the wet year, with 630mm of rain between mid-November and the end January] – I hated the wine so I turned it into alcohol!” In the works he planted Chenin Blanc two years ago, which I look forward to tasting down the track – I thought his new-to-me whites were super-interesting.
Like the wines of fellow biodynamic Beechworth estate Sorrenberg (my visit reported here), a selection of Castagna’s range is imported into the UK and retailed by Les Caves de Pyrene. I tasted the mini-verticals of La Chiave, Un Segreto and Genesis at a generic ‘anything other than Chardonnay’ Beechworth tasting and my notes reference the relatively dry tannin/acid structure of Castagna’s wines – a real positive (though I wondered if the older wines, especially the Genesis, needed a bit more air to fill out). The other wines were tasted together with Julian and Adam at Castagna.
Castagna La Chiave 2013 (Beechworth)
With floral notes and a tight knit core of lively sour cherry with tea leaf riffs, this Sangiovese is more finely drawn on nose and palate than James & Co.’s example. As you’d expect from premium examples of this variety, the tannins leave an impression on a firm, tapered finish. 13%
Castagna La Chiave 2004 (Beechworth)
A burgundy hue, this is showing nice development, but has a ‘Sangio-ness.’ Sweeter and broader, with a soft ‘edge’ of chocolate the cherry fruit still retains a juiciness and I particularly liked the backdrop of black tea – a savoury and textural reminder of provenance. 14%
Castagna Un Segreto 2012 (Beechworth)
This Sangiovese/Syrah blend incorporates all Castagna’s Sangiovese in this vintage (i.e. there was no La Chiave). Those trademark tea leaf tannins add nuance to a sweet-fruited nose and palate with interest and mineral tannins. The Syrah brings a nice generosity of ripe blackcurrant, sweet cherry and juicy plum to the mid-palate. Going through, it is leavened with lingering spices and pine needle (dry) forest floor notes. 13%
Castagna Un Segreto 2005 (Beechworth)
No doubt Castagna selected this back vintage because, once again, it incorporated all Castagna’s Sangiovese. Despite some interesting liquorice and kelp notes on the nose, the 2005 seemed to be on a downwards trajectory, with the Syrah and Sangiovese going through a divorce. On the one hand it seemed overripe, with prune and raisin notes and, on the other, quite drying, the tannins overly astringent, quite rustic. A sweet and sour affair, with Camp Coffee to the finish as well as the more delicate pine needle riff I found in the 2012. 13.5%
Castagna Genesis 2013 (Beechworth)
This muscular, ripe Syrah’s creamy, sweet raspberry and blackberry fruit is deliciously interwoven with savoury layers of charcuterie and cedar and bay leaf spice. A fine web of tannins and ripe but present and persistent acidity cradle and caress the seamless yet well-structured palate. Expressive, but with plenty in reserve. 13.5%
Castagna Genesis Syrah 2004 (Beechworth)
With a tarry sweetness to nose and palate the 2004 comes across as overripe but, in the mouth, it’s a little push me pull me sweet and sour. Perhaps it would have come together with more time in glass to allow the fruit to open up? It certainly has presence. 14%
Castagna Growers’ Selection Harlequin 2013 (Beechworth)
This lightly filtered skin-fermented white blend came about because, said Julian, “I have friends I respect who make f**king awful wines on skins and because I don’t understand wine on skins, I’m making my own.” Roussanne, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Viognier grapes are sourced from the Indigo vineyard over the road. It spent 30 days on skins in stainless steel where it was fermented, prior to pressing into barrel and concrete egg for ageing. Initially round and soft, very textural, it assumes a weight in the mouth and yet the apricot fruit is very much on the backfoot. This is no mid-palate wine. Rather in tempo and structure it builds in the mouth, a conundrum of freshness with (attractive) alcohol warmth and a stole of spicy tannin which steals across the palate. Bids you to break bread. I liked this very much. 13%
Castagna Ingenue Viognier 2014 (Beechworth)
Castagna planted Viognier in 1997 and, vis a vis clones, told me he has “everything available in Australia, mostly from Clonakilla with a bit from Yalumba via d’Arenberg.” Despite the eclectic sourcing this is a rather singular Viognier. Very classic on the rich, waxy, apricot nose, with its honeysuckle and candied ginger perfume. But much drier than you’d expect on the palate, though it has body. Castagna attributes this the vineyard’s bony soils (mainly decomposed granitic-loam over clay). Plus, he says, “when it’s overblown I don’t like it.” In the mouth it reveals waxed apricots with not a jot of oiliness. Au contraire this Viognier has a freshness which is accentuated by a saltiness to the finish – down to the granite, according to Castagna. A perfect companion for sweet shellfish – scallops, or lobster. 13.5%
Castagna Sparkling Allegro Rosé 2010 (Beechworth)
True to the house style this pale salmon, delicate and dry sparkling Syrah rosé has a distinct savoury, mineral edge which put me in mind of a Moroccan vin gris. Said vin gris is a super-pale rosé which, prior to visiting Morocco, I was reliably informed works brilliantly with oysters (but did not put to the test since I was walking in the Atlas mountains!) Perhaps it’s this wine’s saltiness – here, quite oyster-shell-like – which also put me in mind of vin gris. Aged for 4 years on lees which has accentuated its freshness and line, it’s a lovely, food-friendly, refreshing, crisp, mineral style with just 1 gram dosage. You’d never guess it weighs in at 14%.
Castagna Allegro Rosé 2014 (Beechworth)
Dry but a little creamy with an attractive, incipient oiliness, I loved the waxy petal texture of this Syrah rosé with its herb nuances and signature granite saltiness. Again hard to believe that this weighs in at 13.5%
Castagna Adam’s Rib 2013 (Beechworth)
Although it seems to be growing in popularity ith his neighbours, Castagna told me “I don’t think [straight] Nebbiolo is right in Australia…when I get a Nebbiolo from Australia, I buy a $50 Nebbiolo from the Langhe and, so far, I’ve not found anything that beats it.” Which is why he adds Syrah in this Nebbiolo/Syrah blend “to smooth out the holes.” I wrote up the 2010 vintage in an Expert’s Choice for Decanter last year and reckon this vintage is a cracker too. In fact better for being drier, with a more overt sense of (grape tannin not oak) structure. It has gorgeous pine needle, dried petal and chinato herbs and spices on nose and palate, the Syrah a fruitier, suppler presence – yielding where the nebbiolo is uplifting/higher toned. 13.5%
Castagna Sauvage 2007 (Beechworth)
This is a hyper-unusual, quite probably unique blend of Syrah, Sangoivese, Viognier and Nebbiolo. It’s a dark wine with a pronounced clove-edged smokiness to it. Beneath that it retains good acidity, but it is quite unforgiving vis a vis the flavour spectrum. Smoke taint was an issue in this year. 14%
Castagna Sparkling Genesis Syrah 2008 (Beechworth)
I reckon I had the most sparkling reds of any trip to Australia this year. My Arblaster & Clarke punters were far from convinced. Sparkling Shiraz is an acquired taste, I guess, given we Europeans are so used to fizz being taut and, Prosecco aside, not so very fruity at all! All the examples we had on that tour were stellar, premium styles. For Castagna, the genre’s “lovely style is often spoiled by sweetness,” which is why he leaves it for longer on lees (4 years) so he can keep the dosage low (14g/l). As you’d expect from this estate, Genesis sparkling has good freshness and an attractive, wild bilberry intensity to its fruit, with balancing smoky clove nuances. 13.5%
Castagna Aqua Santa (Beechworth)
This sweet Viognier with 100g/l residual sugar is a non-vintage blend of five vintages of picked then dried grapes – “some very sweet, some very acidic.” Castagna tells me it was inspired by Didier Dageneau’s Vin Jaune. A deep orange/light amber hue, it looks liked vinified marmalade and has more than a little bitter sweet orange to nose and palate; dried apricots too. Though it’s a little buttery, it’s naughty and nice with the structural rectitude to keep this wine in line – a long nutty spine and impressive freshness. Perfectly lovely.
Castagna Classic Dry Vermouth (Beechworth)
Based on the Syrah Rosé wine from the hateful (to Castagna) 2011 vintage, the spirit was infused with more than 30 botanicals, including herbs from round and about. Amber with salmon pink flashes this delicious dry vermouth is pungent, bitter but fresh – the ultimate saliva-inducing aperitivo designed to awaken the palate for dinner. It’s awash with pink grapefruit,orange peel, aniseed, angostura bitters and earthy sandalwood. Let’s just say I wouldn’t want a tank of this a stone’s throw from my back door – it’s way too dangerously drinkable! 17%