Does this look like an Australian wine? Aye, Claudius

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T’Gallant Claudius 2008

It ain’t squeaky clean, that’s for sure.   Made by T’gallant, Claudius is not only Australian, it’s from the 80-brand Treasury Wine Estate stable, which sells 32 million cases a year.

Claudius reflects a seismic shift towards minimal intervention (vineyard and winery) among not just family-owned, boutique wineries, but now big players too.  What could be more mainstream than Jacobs Creek’s Shiraz from a biodynamic vineyard? Jacobs Creek has also released an Organic Chardonnay and Montepulciano (click here for details).

And while the UK’s Real Wine Month takes places in March, February seems to have been Australia’s au naturel month.  Rootstock Sydney’s inaugural Sustainable and Artisan Wine and Food Festival played host to 25 Australian producers.  Meanwhile the Max Allen- chaired Organic Wine Show received 164 entries from 37 vineyards (7 from New Zealand).  Battle of Bosworth Puritan Shiraz 2012, the show’s Best Preservative Free Wine, is a cracker – the whole fruit and nothing but the delicious, every so slippery juice plum fruit.

Returning to T’Gallant, I had a good old natter about this shift in winemaking culture with winemaker Kevin McCarthy who, with his wife Kathleen Quealy, founded the Mornington Peninsula estate.  The couple are renowned for pioneering Pinot Gris in Australia, which Kathleen first encountered at Charles Sturt University, where she studied under Australia’s “Father of Pinot Gris,” Dr Max Loder, who had planted the variety in the college vineyard.

McCarthy told me that working with Pinot Gris “opened an extraordinary drawer he’d never expected to see opened.” Because the variety was an unknown quantity in Australia when they planted it at T’Gallant in 1988, learning about it entailed trips to Europe, where McCarthy says “we learned Pinot Gris has an extraordinary ability to make a range of styles which is derived not from winemaker manipulation, but from understanding what individual sites do to the variety.”

Having established good friends among the Alsace and Collio winemaking communities meant “we learned to relax making the wines,” he says, especially about phenolics.  Adding “we were taught to hate phenolics in wine – wines should be fined etc” – McCarthy reckons it’s the worst thing you can do with Pinot Gris.

Pointing to Alsace’s success with the variety, he reckons that the French region’s textured style really comes back to phenolics and is the product of cool sites, where the variety is just on the edge of flavour ripeness.  Also the use of lies and long press cycles which, McCarthy says, “seem outrageous” – perhaps 4-6 times longer than typical in Australia!  It’s an approach which he observes “was so crucial to the structure of wine” but “very hard to understand because, in Australia, we came at wine in complete ignorance of this path of structure with white wine.”  These days, he says, “texture is now almost a mantra; minerality too – people are striving to understand them in Australia.”

Cautioning you have to be sensitive to changes in phenolic composition during harvesting, McCarthy points out the hardest styles are the early picked styles because, if you pick too early and it’s underripe, “it’s appalling…you’ve got to pounce on fruit.”  On the other hand in Mornington Peninsula’s cool climes (and T’Gallant enjoy a cool location on the peninsula close to the Bass Strait), the ripening process is very slow, which results in opulent wines with high baumes, which he likens to powerful Alsace styles, such as Zind Humbrecht’s wines – “you can’t look at numbers…we have to wait to get flavour ripeness.”

McCarthy’s hands off approach has filtered down to T’Gallant’s crisp, early picked Murray Darling budget Pinot Grigio too. Admitting he “never ever” thought he’d see a big production wine which wasn’t made using the Australian technical approach, he says Juliet (picked at 10 baumé) “makes itself…it’s not a press cut, a lot of it is wild [fermented] and it’s not fined.”  I’ve not tasted Juliet or Tribute (the opulent top Mornington Peninsula cuvee), but here are my notes on two different T’Gallant expressions of the variety, one labelled Pinot Grigio, the other Pinot Gris, followed by a word or two or there on the pictured wine, Claudius.

T’Gallant Grace Pinot Grigio 2011 (Mornington Peninsula)

This is as far removed as it’s possible to be from those commercial tutti frutti or neutral styles of Pinot Grigio which have fuelled this variety’s sales boom.  Suffice to say it’s one I would buy!  Lots of interest to this dry, funky, savoury style of Pinot Grigio, with evident wild ferment character (texture & red apple skin bloom) to its fresh, sustained, minerally palate of apples, pears and green almond.

T’Gallant Imogen Pinot Gris 2011 (Mornington Peninsula)

Pinot Gris in name and nature, this cuvee is rounder and fruitier than Grace, so more of a nod to Alsace than Italy.  Lovely grapy freshness, with complexing wild fennel and aniseed spice notes to its leesy, flinty palate.

T’Gallant Claudius 2008 (Mornington Peninsula)

This, the subject of my atypical Australian wine picture of the day, is a blend of Chardonnay (46%), Traminer (45%) and Moscato Giallo (9%) sourced from two vineyards in Mornington, one in Main Ridge and the second at Balnarring. All of the fruit was handpicked and 30% was de-stemmed by hand. The wine was then aged on skins in the fermenter for 7 months, so McCarthy takes phenolics to a whole new level! It’s the second release and taking his inspiration from Italy’s Josko Gravner, McCarthy himself describes it as an exercise in “exploring and harnessing those phenolics in white grapes which we totally ignore in modern white wine making.”  As you can see, it’s a cloudy wine – pale but bright yellow in hue with its greenish tinge.  Despite its sweet, faintly spicy scent, it’s a bone dry style. My one and only taste of the Gravner put me in mind of a red wine and, similarly, this has a very fine edge of tannin and red fruits – currants and plums, as well as woolly apple and tighter grapefruit and tangerine notes.  A delicate lick of spice (aniseed?) and dried honey chime in on the finish.  I thought (hoped) it might flesh out a little over a few days, but it remained quite austere and a little unforgiving (unlike the more generous Gravner). While I’d describe the other cuvees as really food-friendly wines, the Claudius really demands food. With its palate weight and mouth cleansing finish, I found it worked well with roasted red peppers and al dente lemon olive oil marinated courgettes on grilled polenta. 12.8% abv

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