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Friday, Nov. 12, 2010
BY THE GLASS
Australia bottles a touch of class
A few weeks ago a decadent dinner held at the American Club in Tokyo showcased some top-notch wines from two Australian family-owned wineries. Though the tablecloths were stiff and well starched, the staff — who served up some cracking fusion cuisine that brought out the best in the wine — were not, fostering a convivial and informal atmosphere.
A couple of affable Australians — Nathan Waks (right) of Kilikanoon winery and Brian Lynn of Majella — also circulated around the tables, answering questions about the wines on show.
I got a chance to sit down with the pair before the event and chat with them in detail about a range of subjects, from the breaking of Old World winemaking rules to the affinity between music and wine. Both men discussed their wines with the refreshing directness and lack of pretension for which Australians are renowned, but if you were to infer from their relaxed attitude that their wines lacked class or pedigree, you'd be way off beam.
Phylloxera, the blight that wiped out vines in Europe and other parts of Australia, never hit South Australia (where both Majella and Kilikanoon are located) and, due to strict controls, the region remains unaffected. Incredibly, Kilikanoon in the Clare Valley possesses vines planted in 1865 that are still used for producing a very special wine, Attunga 1865.
"Attunga is an Aboriginal word meaning 'a high place,' and that's because the Clare Valley sits at an altitude 600 meters above sea," explains Waks, adding that a tiny quantity of Reserve wine is made just from these vines.
The region's winemaking history dates back to the 1800s. The first plantings in the Clare Valley were made by Jesuit priests in the 1850s, while Coonawarra (where Majella is based) was established a little later, in 1891, by John Riddoch, a Scot who'd made his money in the goldfields.
"Australia in its early days of winemaking was very isolated: There wasn't the means for people to travel backwards and forwards to Europe to look at what was happening there," says Lynn.
As a result, Australians independently developed their own winemaking style. For instance, Australian Rieslings developed in a much drier style than German Rieslings, partly because the grape easily reached full ripeness in Australia without the need to add extra sugars.
"Winemakers just used the natural expression of the grape, so if the grape wanted to ferment to dryness — and Australians tend to have quite a savory palate, we don't have a sweet palate — they liked that style and it's just grown up," explains Lynn.
Australians were also free of preconceptions about where they could plant their vines. "The Morts Reserve Riesling and the Blocks Road Cabernet are from the same vineyard, which is something that Europeans can't beat. You would never find Riesling and Cabernet in the same vineyards (in Europe), but in Australia we're allowed to plant whatever we like," says Waks. "Riesling and Cabernet do share one thing in common . . . in that they are very happy with warm days, but they like cooler evenings. Both the Clare and Coonawarra share that cool evening in summer."
Majella also goes against the accepted European wisdom about blending grape varieties. "I'm a lover, and so is our winemaker, Bruce Gregory, of the great Australian blend which is Cabernet and Shiraz," says Lynn. "It's nothing you would do in Europe. It's mixing Rho^ne with Bordeaux. It's unheard of: not allowed."
Majella the Malleea, with what Lynn describes as "lashings of soft oak" alongside rich Cabernet fruit and spicy Shiraz pow, was one of the most interesting on the wine list that night.
While Old World purists might turn their noses up at such newfangled ideas, when it comes to the soils of both the Clare Valley and Coonawarra, there's no argument from Europe about them being first class. Majella is located on a limestone ridge of crumbly red soil that has excellent drainage. Lynn relates the reaction of Prof. Klaus Schaller of the world-famous Geissenheim Institute in Germany — "tall, elegant, in his early 60s" — who sank to his knees in his Armani suit on encountering the soil and declared, "Champagne, champagne!" "I'd never seen anything like it," says Schaller. "His eyes were shining!"
Kilikanoon, by comparison, has a wider variety of soil types and produces a plethora of single-vineyard wines. "The house policy is that the best wines are as individual as the vineyard can make them," says Waks. "We have 13 different cuvees of Shiraz because we've got a lot of different vineyards, so if we think something's capable of making a single vineyard wine, then we'll do it, even if it is a small quantity."
When we met, Kilikanoon was celebrating the fact that its Oracle Shiraz had just been accepted into Langton's Classification, an honor given to Australia's best-performing and most-prized wines. It joins Majella, which already has two wines listed in the prestigious guide.
"It's our first entry into Langton's; we're thrilled," says Waks.
While Waks, who is the proprietor and managing director of Kilikanoon, is not actively involved in the winemaking process, leaving the job in the hands of winemaker Kevin Mitchell, his background as a classical cellist gives him an understanding of the difficulties involved.
"Winemaking is an art, like music, and I guess my role is to ensure that we have the best raw materials to run the company effectively and to give the winemakers the artistic freedom that they need," he says.
Lynn, again, is not the chief winemaker but is instead a committed vigneron. He describes the pleasure he gets out of practicing his craft: "To walk through the vineyard just at harvest and, say, pick out a bunch of Coonawarra Cabernet, which when it's really ripe should taste like ripe blackberries, and just bite into it and have that flavor and say, let's pick it tomorrow, let's put that flavor through the winery into the bottle," he says.
That joy was communicated to us that evening when we enjoyed a glass of Majella's Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, its rich scent of blackberries, oak and eucalyptus brought into even more vivid relief with the similarly sumptuous flavors of lamb chop in a balsamic marinade.
Tokyo's American Club hosts regular wine-tasting dinners. Nonmembers may attend selected events. For more details, visit www.tokyoamericanclub.org/wine-a- dining/unique-circle-friends.html.