More pots: a visit with Yangarra Estate
It’s pot head week. What with Monday’s post about Alentejo’s tradition of talha wines, now a look at the wines of Yangarra Estate. The McLaren Vale winery arguably has the cutest pots of them all – nestled in this crate, they look like a Grayson Perry spin on bowling balls!
I visited in August with Chief Viticulturist Mike Lane and Assistant Winemaker Shelley Torresan, before catching up with Chief Winemaker Peter Fraser in London last month. They’re a tight knit team who are clearly have fun and a great deal of success pushing the envelope with the backing of Jess Jackson and his wife Barbara Banke, the Californian owners of Jackson Family Wines.
The Americans acquired the estate in 2000 from Normans and promptly re-christened it Yangarra Estate. Lane and Fraser who had been working for Normans effectively stayed on board. For Fraser, this Blewitt Springs “real true blue estate model – one contiguous property” was Norman’s “jewel in the crown.” Even, he believes, “one of the greatest Grenache vineyards in Australia.”
Located on the north east tip of Blewitt Springs, Yangarra Estate benefits from cool air at night which descends from the Adelaide Hills. It’s more important than maritime influence according to Fraser. But it’s not just about climate. The property, now certified biodynamic, currently has 240 acres under vine which is divided into 35 separate blocks.
What differentiates the blocks? Elevation is part of the story. The estate rises from around 150m at the winery to 210m at the top of the ridge (the High Sands old vine Grenache parcel). It has eastern (cooler) and western aspects. But perhaps more importantly, the estate encompasses three different geologies which you can find described in detail here. The presence of more ironstone and sand higher up gives a more lifted floral, prettier profile to the Grenache in particular, while the gravelly loam lower down gives a more robust fruit character.
In line with the holistic philosophy of biodynamics, 25 hectares of the property comprise pure vegetation (a home for useful predators) and 30 hectares pasture (sheep and cattle graze the land and help fertilise the vines). They’re not the only animals. Yangarra breed (sacrificial) fantail and tumbler pigeons to attract raptors, including goshawks, who help to keep other pesky grape peckers at bay. Lane doesn’t have to cast the net far to top up his compost. Just fifteen kilometres away lies the Gulf St Vincent – a great source for the fish and seaweed foliar applications.
Save for a little Chardonnay, the focus is on Rhône varieties and not just the usual suspects. Grenache and Shiraz are joined by Carignan, Cinsault,Mourvèdre, Counoise, Muscardin, Vaccarèse, Piquepoul noir, Terret noir, Roussanne, Viognier, Grenache blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc and Piquepoul blanc. Some fruit is sold from the flatter parcels, but none is bought in – the wines are all made from estate fruit.
Many of the red Rhone varieties, even young vines, are planted as bush vines (without a trellis). There are lots of advantages, but it’s largely for the openness of air flow, says Lane, which helps reduce disease pressure. It also helps to avoid sweet and sour characters because, with a bush vine, you can spread the fruit around the canopy for better exposure/even ripening. Because the grapes are closer to the ground, you get flavour ripeness earlier so can pick earlier.
When we drive up to High Sands, which was planted to Grenache in 1946, Lane speaks reverentially about “the old guys.” These charismatic gnarled old vines exude sturdiness of character and individuality. As for the old guys who planted them he observes, “they clearly knew the best sites for Grenache – there’s not much on the flats.”
From a viticultural point of view, he explains older vines always have more consistent balance, while Torresan says they produce finer tannins. Lane elaborates “they can have 20-40 buds and the vines will regulate themselves seasonally, picking up on the climate conditions and shattering in a hotter year [when they cannot sustain a bigger load].” As for younger vines which, Lane observes have bigger berries and bunches and thinner skins until they reach 12-15 years old, they “are adolescents with variability across the years.” The danger is, he adds, if you prune them too hard, you get too much sugar/raisining – the sworn enemy of a winemaker like Fraser.
Heavily influenced by the European wines he has been exposed to in California (the Jacksons import lots of French wines), at The Victory Hotel in McLaren (which has a superb cellar) and through tasting with the wine writer Philip White (who lives on the estate), Fraser is after the restraint which will allow him “to showcase the character and style and our places really well.”
With reference to Grenache, we discussed the multitude of factors which have helped Fraser better to express the fragrance, brightness and elegance he loves to see in wines from Blewitt Springs. Take the investment in an on site winery in 2010. Referring to the “huge difference” it has made logistically and in terms of equipment, he believes they are now making “the genuine artefact” whereas before [using contract winemaking], “we were not the first cab off the rank.” Certainly, the earlier wines that I’d tasted prior to visiting and a couple of old vintages I tasted during my visit were a good deal heavier, riper and oakier – more old school.
Explaining that he has often had to let Grenache get pretty ripe because of its low pH (which gives the impression of high acidity) and, “even if you pick early you can get as much as 10% raisining,” the new winery’s sorting table which de-selects raisined berries has been a real boon. A disadvantage is that it makes it difficult to do whole bunch ferments. Although Fraser used to like whole berry ferments, he has found that too much can create conditions for brettanomyces; he is crushing more grapes for a cleaner ferment.
Prior to fermenting, Fraser favours cold soaks for a gentler extraction of more vibrant water soluble tannins and fragrance. Once fermented, maintaining fruit vibrancy and freshness throughout the winemaking process involves “locking the wines up by keeping them on the lees [an antioxidant]” and using bigger format fermenters and storage vessels (eggs, pots and mostly seasoned oak). Vessels which, he emphasises, benefit from cold barrel storage (at 15 degrees centigrade) to avoid evaporation. Recent vintages have gone to bottle sooner.
Obviously the ceramic bowling ball pots are small but the idea here is to put a lid on the ferment and practice extended maceration on skins “because it adds polish to the tannins which need taming a bit.” Not a characteristic (or the low pH) one would have attributed to yesteryear’s “lolly water” cheap and cheerful Grenache wines. Fraser agrees – “we’re teaching the old guard that Grenache can have tannin and structure.”
Finally, when I observed that the 2010s look relatively fruit focused and a little broad compared to later vintages, Fraser concedes that the cool 2011 vintage “taught us elegance is not fatal…It was the biggest turning point.”
Here are my notes on the wines:
Yangarra Estate Roux Beauté 2013 (Blewitt Springs, McLaren Vale)
This 100% Roussanne comes from the estate’s older Roussanne vines which, in 2003, were grafted over Cabernet Sauvignon roots at 150m on weathered sands mixed with ironstone gravels. It was naturally fermented and aged in ceramic eggs for 18 months, with 60% of the blend fermenting on skins for 120 days before pressing. Unsurprisingly given the winemaking, it’s a savoury, round, very textural expression, but with lively acidity to tease out the flavours. Good. 13.5%
Yangarra Estate Small Pot Ceramic Egg Grenache 2013 (Blewitt Springs, McLaren Vale)
Small pot wines are winemaker selections that can be as small as one or two barrels, and never more than 300 dozen bottles. They can be a winemaking trial, a favourite barrel, or a wine style that’s a little different and of interest. In this case the fruit came from 69 year old vines atop the ridge at 200 – 210m on deep sand. The Grenache was hand-picked, then 100% was de-stemmed and mechanically berry-sorted, with only 50% crushed and tipped into two 675L ceramic eggs where it fermented naturally and remained on skins for 120 days post-fermentation. Only free run juice produces a wine with a marked red fruited quality with bright red currant and cherry on the attack; not as exuberant as the Old Vine cuvée. 14.5%
Yangarra Estate Old Vine Grenache 2013 (Blewitt Springs, McLaren Vale)
The fruit came from 69 year old vines atop the ridge at 200 – 211m on deep sand. It was hand-picked, de-stemmed and sorted; the resulting whole berries were tipped into open fermenters (to avoid macerating the skins) and cold-soaked for 5-6 days prior to naturally fermenting. After about 12-14 days, the wine was pressed to older French barriques and aged on the lees for approximately 9 months prior to blending. The wine received no fining, just filtration. It’s more expressive/effusive than the pot wine, spicier too, with a lovely freshness and chalky, or should I say sandy, tannins. Lovely. The alcohol is worn very lightly (and in all the wines). 14.5%
Yangarra Estate High Sands Grenache 2013 (Blewitt Springs, McLaren Vale)
A micro-selection (just two barrels) from the 6 blocks of 1946 Grenache taken from the very top of the estate. There is a circle of the lowest vigour vines in Block 25, and a similar section in Block 31, both adjacent to Schuller Road. Winemaking techniques aim to express the minerality of the deep sand, a more intense fruit expression and grittier tannin structure. It was open fermented (natural yeasts) with a careful regime of plunging, rack and returns. The free run was drained off direct to barrel (1 year old French oak) and kept on lees for at least 12 months. In total the Grenache spent 15-18 months in barrel. Deeper fruited, complex with kirsch, very pronounced Turkish delight (musky florals) and sandy, chalky tannins. Long and as balanced – deep rooted– as the vines, with great clarity of expression. A very serious Grenache. 14%
Yangarra Estate High Sands Grenache 2012 (Blewitt Springs, McLaren Vale)
Cooler, bluer fruits well supported by sandy tannins and rolling acidity make for lovely fluidity with precision – great line and length.
Yangarra Estate High Sands Grenache 2010 (Blewitt Springs, McLaren Vale)
Quite gamey/barnyardy on the nose. Richer and seemingly more developed than I expected; Fraser attributed this richness to the slow ripening cycle which meant he had to leave the fruit on the vine for longer to let the acid drop. That said, it’s long and quite juicy in the mouth with grainy, sandy tannins and an incipient bloodiness gaminess which Fraser believes is down to the ironstone beneath the Maslin sand (sand which is white silica with no mineral content, he says). It was aged for 22 months in one to two year old French barrels.
Yangarra Estate High Sands Grenache 2006 (Blewitt Springs, McLaren Vale)
Bloodier, gamier and sweeter than the others, yet with those consistently chalky, sandy tannins. It was aged for 24 months in French oak barrels, 10% new.
Yangarra Estate Old Vine Grenache 2005 (Blewitt Springs, McLaren Vale)
Quite raisined on nose and palate, with some confection and elbowy alcohol. A very different animal. I imagine this wine would have spent longer in oak again and featured some new oak.