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S.C. Pannell: delivering drinkability

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It’s been another good year for Steve Pannell.  The Gourmet Traveller 2015 Winemaker of the Year Award capped it off with a home win – the 2015 McLaren Vale Bushing King crown for S.C. Pannell 2014 Grenache Shiraz Touriga.  I visited his impressive new cellar door in the Vale in August and caught up with the man himself in London the following month.  We discussed how the Australian wine scene has developed since his controversial (but prescient) “All for One, Drink Australian Wine” campaign.

A question of identity

Pannell draws an analogy between his country’s art and wine.  It took 150 years, he says, for Australian artists to paint what they actually saw, as opposed to producing very European looking art.   As for wine, he’s not sure if Australians would now choose to plant Semillon and Riesling, or that winemakers have really been making the wines they want to drink.

Arguing that the root cause of the problem is that “everyone was looking to France,” he observes “our understanding of wine has been very francophile.”  Instead, he contends, the starting point should have been whether grapes/wine styles have a natural affinity with a country’s climate and its food given “that connectivity of wine and food drives the circle of what wines we drink.”

With a menu to match

Tapas at S.C. Pannell cellar door

I suppose back in the 19th century, when Australia was “John Bull’s vineyard,” strapping, warming reds had an affinity with English consumers’ climate and food.  What’s more Australian wines labelled Hock, Burgundy, Hermitage and Claret (and which bore some resemblance to the real deal) were an easier sell for English merchants. But in the here and now when “the most local things I eat are squid and garfish,” he’s got a point when he says “which 15% Shiraz does that work with?”

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The pursuit of making wines which “reflect who I am and what I really want to drink” has led Pannell to explore alternative (non-French) varieties better suited to McLaren Vale’s warm, dry climate. Touriga Nacional, Tempranillo and Tinta Cão have infiltrated his portfolio, while Aglianico has infiltrated the vineyard (with Carignan, Nero d’Avola and possibly Xinomavro to follow).  As for regional classics Shiraz and Grenache, in a bid to make “our naturally big and sweet wines” more food friendly and drinkable, he has employed some new wave Australian Chardonnay tricks – earlier picking and reduction (i.e. minimal exposure to oxygen during the winemaking process).

Not that it’s out with the baby and the bathwater.  Pannell may pick early, but he is still after the strong fruit which he believes is the base from which to start building in complexity.   To secure this strong fruit entails ensuring that vines ripens evenly.  It’s a labour-intensive, expensive exercise in canopy management.  Hopefully less new oak and his reductive approach in the winery (Pannell is a huge advocate of bottling wines earlier) helps balance the books!

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Reductive red winemaking involves putting his wines through the malolactic fermentation in concrete or tank rather than (oxygen permeable) barrels, “because oxygen between the end of ferment and malo is like steroids to a body builder and I need to make it [wines] not bigger, but more refined.”  Large format oak also reduces oxygenation (there is less surface area of oak to wine), as does less racking.   Finally, applying Gerard Potel’s ‘if you think Pinot Noir is ready to pick, you’ve missed it’ comment to bottling his red wine, Pannell says “I wind it up and put it in the bottle and let them go when they have a tension between intensity, power and elegance – that’s what makes great wine, not obviousness.”

It’s an approach which my August visit thrillingly confirmed has taken hold in McLaren Vale.  Doubtless, Pannell can take some credit for that.  Who better than the man Peter Fraser (Yangarra Estate) described as “one of the most sensitive winemakers in the region” to recognise and take on the challenge that, in McLaren Vale “it’s easy to make a big impressive wine, but it’s harder to make a wine with drinkability.”

Check out these links for more of my new wave McLaren Vale highlights:

Bekkers Fine Wine

Ministry of Clouds

Yangarra Estate

S C Pannell  Grenache Shiraz Touriga 2014 (McLaren Vale)

Aged in seasoned 500l French oak barrels for 8 months this is a distinctly spicy, red-fruited wine with lifted pine needle/resin, liquorice and chinato notes.  Lovely freshness and subtly textured sandy Grenache tannins ramp up its food-friendliness. At the lighter end of medium-bodied.  Super-drinkable.  14%

S C Pannell Tempranillo Touriga 2014 (McLaren Vale, Barossa Valley)

This is the first vintage to which Pannell has added a splash (12%) of Tinta Cão, sourced from the Barossa.  The balance – the advertised ingredients – comprise 46% Tempranillo, 42% Touriga Nacional.  It was aged for 7 months in 500l French oak puncheons (20% new).  Though focused on non-conventional Iberian varieties, in contrast to last year I found this to be the slightly more conventional of the two.  It’s medium-bodied but fuller-bodied, rounder and riper than the GST with seemingly more developed (panforte) fruit. Fleshy, juicy plum and firmer tannins bring balance. Reductive meaty, savoury undertones and chinato herbal and liquorice spice notes add complexity.  14%

S C Pannell The Vale 2012 (McLaren Vale)

As of 2012, The Vale is the label for Pannell’s Shiraz/Grenache, this wine a 77:23 co-fermented blend.   It’s a super savoury rendition with an unusually savoury, kelpy/iodine note to its blackberry and plum nose and palate and pronounced liquorice.  Ripe but firm, tapering tannins to the finish suggest it has a long life ahead. 14%

S C Pannell The Vale 2014

This vintage is a blend of 79% Shiraz, 21% Grenache.  The Shiraz’s reductive, savoury, charcuterie notes mingle and contrast with the Grenache’s musky floral/Turkish Delight top notes.   That pronounced liquorice character reverberates through a long, very persistent finish with a lovely push of (natural and well-integrated) acidity and fine fretwork of tannin. 14%

S C Pannell Grenache 2012 (McLaren Vale)

This pure Grenache my pick of the bunch (and from a great vintage for McLaren Vale Grenache)

I’ve waxed lyrical about Pannell’s Grenache before.  I reckon this is his best yet.  From a 70 year old vineyard (Old McDonald vineyard) it has classic old vine musk and spice to nose and layered palate and, best of all, a quite formidable structure.  For Pannell,  it’s as important to express Grenache’s tannins as the fruit and this brilliant example of his touchstone McLaren Vale variety has the energetic “rasping, sandy Grenache tannins like a piece of sandpaper dragged over your palate” which we evidently both love.  They underwrite a long, extended finish, anchoring its taut, very focused and not in the least confected red cherry from A to Z.  This wine was aged for 14 months in old French oak puncheons.

S C Pannell Old McDonald Grenache 2014 (McLaren Vale)

Muskier, more perfumed than the 2012, with silky, langorous fruit.  Really lovely but the 2012 gets my vote for its tightly wound, superbly structured palate.  14%

S C Pannell Nebbiolo 2010 (Adelaide Hills)

A blend of five different clones from Gumeracha in the Adelaide Hills (now certified bio-dynamic). With an extended maceration on skins (21 days) and 21 months in old Hungarian oak puncheons this is a very dry, austere Nebbiolo, classically pale in hue too.  It has pine needle hints to its black fruit and gently, if persistently, mouth-coating tannins.   Tannins which, for Pannell have flavour – a terra cotta/wet cement quality.  For me a fluidity (the gentleness) with the dryness/astringency.

S.C. Pannell Syrah 2014 (Adelaide Hills)

This Syrah also comes from Adelaide Hills’ cooler climes.  It was sourced from Echunga, 410 metres above sea level in the Southern Adelaide Hills. The fruit is grown on well-drained, granitic soil – Pannell’s prefered soil-type for Syrah (and, of course, the soil-type which distinguishes the northern Rhône); it was co-fermented with 4% Viognier.   Previous vintages (including the Jimmy Watson Trophy winning 2013 vintage) have seen around 20-30% whole bunch fermentation but, in 2014, the stalks were still green so whole bunch was a no go.  Still, in this low yielding vintage (38% down on 2013) this wine is not short of what Pannells describes as “real tannin, papery cool climate Syrah tannins.”  Like the Shaw & Smith, flesh and bone – savoury tannins – are on show and the oak is lightly worn (it spent 12 months in large format French oak vats and puncheons, 30% new). As for the fruit, this is a black-hearted wine, with great intensity, definition and perfume to its very vivid, very juicy, cool blue and black berry fruits. The finish is long and resonant; terrific.  14%

S C Pannell Koomilya DC Block Shiraz 2013 (McLaren Vale)

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This wine is the first release from aged vines which Pannell acquired in 2012 (the first vineyard he has owned).  It’s located on the Amery Road between Kays, Seaview and Hardy’s original Tintara vineyard.  Which is why it put me in mind of Kay Brothers Basket Pressed Shiraz 2013 and Ministry of Clouds Blewitt Springs Shiraz 2013 from the nearby Patritti vineyard, which I tasted in the same week. DC is a reference to the previous owner, Don Cant, while Koomilya is the name of a ship whose bell a young Pannell found while diving of Busselton jetty.  It’s a really unshowy, very grounded wine of quite superb balance – savoury, with a subtle glow of spices (liquorice, then coltsfoot) to its plum pudding autumnal fruit.  Animated by very well-integrated acidity, super-fine, silty tannins build deliciously in the mouth in pebble in a pond ripples.  Soft  – really quite mellow – yet strong, very long and lingering with a dry, assured finish.    Iron first in velvet glove.  I can well understand why Pannell has said Koomilya is his attempt to make a Wendouree-like wine in McLaren Vale.  It was aged for 16 months in a 4 year old 2700l French oak vat and 3 year old French oak puncheon.  356 dozen made. 13.9%









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