Digging for Gold - The Limestone Coast

Sarah Ahmed discovers a gem of the Australian wine scene

Thirteen. Unlucky for some, but not me. My thirteenth wine trip to Australia took me to the tip of South Australia for that most rigorous of immersions – a regional wine show. Specifically, the Limestone Coast Wine Show 2017 (LCWS). It unearthed the broadest and most comprehensive list of trophy winners in the event’s 17-year history, with all 22 trophy categories awarded and all regions within the Limestone Coast represented.

Australian wine shows are something of an institution. While the LCWS is relatively new, others trace their history back to the 19th century. Judging in 2015 at the Hunter Valley Wine Show (founded in 1848), it sent a shiver down my spine to think that we might have been awarding medals to wines from the very same vineyards as our 19th century counterparts.

Today, there are around 70 shows - regional (local entry), state (state entry), capital city (national entry) and niche, like the Australian Alternative Wine Variety Show, at which I judged last year. Teams of judges individually blind taste and score flights, then discuss them as a panel. Potential trophy-winners are vetted by all the judges and trophies selected by majority vote on the last day. It means that wines get the full 360 degrees, especially when, these days, panels (which are drawn countrywide and include an international judge) comprise winemakers and members of the wider trade, including retailers, sommeliers and writers. “It ensures a range of opinions, reflecting the many wine styles” says acclaimed wine writer and LCWS Chief Judge, Jane Faulkner.

Traditionally run by agricultural societies, the goal of wine shows is to educate producers by highlighting benchmark wines which is, of course, useful for the wider trade and consumers too. This focus on ‘improving the breed’ is reinforced at the post-show ‘Exhibitors Tasting’ where producers can taste their wines alongside other entries and are given written feedback on each class or, should they wish, individual feedback from attending judges.

It can be a humbling process. Results reflect what showed best on the day and, inevitably, context comes into it. But there’s comfort in the rigour of the judging process, which itself undergoes fine tuning to optimise tasting conditions and eliminate unconscious bias. Bellwether’s winemaker Sue Bell participated in the Australian Society of Viticulture and Oenology’s 2015 review of Best Practice Rules for wine shows. She observes, “blind randomised repours of potential golds [trophy taste-offs too] have been a good innovation; it removes judge ego.” Others include “a maximum 30 wines at a time and three judges going in different order, forwards, backwards and middle, which helps identify more subtle wines over the extremes of ripeness or spiciness.” For Jane Faulkner, Best Practice Rules on panel diversity mean “we are judging wines so much better. It is really important not to have a dominating voice or an agenda – that sort of bombastic attitude, traditionally the domain of male winemakers of a certain age, well those days are over….”

Addressing recent criticism about over-inflation of scores at wine shows, LCWS committee member Ulrich Grey-Smith contends, “[I]f a goal of the wine show is to improve the breed and if that goal is being met, then we should see an increase in medal strike rate over time.” On which note, I was thrilled to see under-the-radar Limestone Coast sub-regions Mount Gambier and Mount Benson bag trophies for those styles which most impressed during my 2013 visit. Take the aromatic, distinctly mineral Mount Gambier whites from Kongorong’s unique flint over limestone soils. White Wine of Show Ottelia Mount Gambier Riesling 2017 was a stellar example, with phenomenal energy, precision and length. From Mount Benson, Best Shiraz of Show - Norfolk Rise Vineyard’s medium-bodied 2016 - showcased this region’s signature savoury, earthy, spicy style.

Few would argue that Coonawarra is king for Cabernet Sauvignon (indeed, 2015 Wolf Blass Gold Label Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon won the Bill Redman Trophy for Best Wine of Show). However, there is a challenger for the throne, now neighbouring Wrattonbully’s vineyards (also on terra rossa) are hitting their straps (few are more than 20 years old). Especially when, reports Tim Fletcher (Wrattonbully Wine Region Chair), Wrattonbully has rapidly gone from “no labels to lots of labels.”  Having sold grapes for prestigious marques for 20 years, the Malones, who established Malone Wines in 2005, are a case in point. Their 2009 and 2014 Cabernet Sauvignons won the LCWS Best Museum Wine and Best Individual Vineyard Wine trophies, building on Pepper Tree’s Wrattonbully Cabernets’ runaway success at previous shows. 

I met with both producers during pre-show visits. Confidence was high. Will Malone is planting a new Cabernet vineyard, while oil exploration geologist Dr John Davis of Pepper Tree is having a ball isolating different parcels to tailor rootstocks, clones and new varieties, including Petit Verdot, Merlot and “selling like the clappers” Tempranillo. Refined individual ‘cru’ ‘PJB’ a perfumed, juicy, fresh, vivid 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon, exemplifies the direction Fletcher thinks Wrattonbully should take – “more fruit-driven…not a traditional [oak-driven] style.” Terre à Terre’s Xavier Bizot and Michael Cloke and Colleen Miller of Ruckus emphasise freshness and restraint. New Merlot clones (8R, Q45 and ENTAV 181) introduced by Yalumba are usurping Australia’s traditional, tricky D3V14 clone and, judging by Smith & Hooper’s and Ruckus’ wines, producing lower alcohol, more refined Merlots of greater fruit purity. Meanwhile Bizot reckons “Cabernet Franc is the best variety for Wrattonbully;” he makes a single varietal example and adds a splash to other reds.

A singularly perfumed, fresh Cabernet Franc introduced me to the most beguiling discovery of this visit – early release (current vintage) ‘vin de soif’ reds. I awarded the inky, spicy but exuberant and fresh Karatta Wine Co. Lost Ram Syrah 2017 the International Judge’s Trophy. From Robe, it seemed a truer, more interesting expression of this coastal sub-region than the 2010 Karrata Shiraz I’d tasted during my 2013 visit. As for that Cabernet Franc - Penley Estate’s Spring Release 2017 from Coonawarra - I rubber-necked the vintage! After all, Coonawarra is rightly renowned for the age-ability of its wines - a quality deliciously underscored by White and Red Wines of Provenance Trophy winners Ladbroke Grove Wines Schoolhouse Riesling 2016, 2010, 2005 and Redman Wines Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, 2009 and 2000.  Fourth generation winemaker Dan Redman is getting in on the early release act too. Made with minimal sulphur at bottling “to combat the hipsters,” he makes Cabernet Sauvignon-focused Punch Down Boys Field Blend 2017 with Leconfield Estate’s Tim Bailey.

These bang on trend early release wines add a new string to Coonawarra’s bow, refreshing its rather staid image. Kate Goodman, who joined Penley Estate in 2016, sees the Cabernet Franc as “a good example of things to come.” Her shift towards “more clarity and brightness in the wines and less alcohol” for Coonawarra’s classic reds (Cabernet Sauvignons, Shirazes and blends of the two) mirrors current trends. Comparing Wolf Blass’ Gold Label Cabernet 2015 with the 2010 vintage (which won Best Wine of Show in 2012), Wynns’ Sarah Pidgeon observes the 2015 spent six months less in oak which reflects the season, but also “modern drinking trends, which see people seeking freshness and brightness in wines.”  

A huge amount of work is being done in the vineyard to produce such high quality, vibrant fruit, including selecting top vine material. Although Bordeaux’s salt and pepper varieties Petit Verdot and Malbec are on the up (Tannat too at Katnook), Balnaves’ Pete Bissell points out, “in Coonawarra we’re not interested in new varieties but new clonal material, including ENTAV clones -  the best of French clonal work.”  Balnaves Entav 2016 is an elegant, new, approachable red made from Entav Cabernet Sauvignon clones and young Petit Verdot plantings (which Bissell values for “holding acid in warmer years for freshness.”)  At Wynns, Chief viticulturist Allen Jenkins agrees “why plant Tempranillo if you have got Cabernet that is adapted?” Planted in 1954, Johnsons Block is Coonawarra’s oldest surviving Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard and, from an initial selection of 140 of its 11,000 vines, Jenkins has whittled down 11 top performers – a massale ‘heritage clone’ selection – for propagation.

I absolutely agree with Faulkner that regional shows are “a gem of the Australian wine scene - more than a snapshot of vintage.” LCWS gave me a terrific regional/varietal overview. I already look forward to another visit, so I can keep tabs on how Coonawarra’s and Wrattonbully’s generation next clones perform and continue to follow the upwards trajectory of other Limestone Coast sub-regions.

Sarah Ahmed

Sarah Ahmed, aka The Wine Detective, is a London-based wine writer, educator and judge. Sarah started her wine career at Oddbins in 2000 and since 2005 she has been writing for a number of publications and her own website.

Discover the Limestone Coast at the Australia Day Tastings

To discover more about the Limestone Coast and taste a selection of wines, sign up to attend one of the Australia Day Tastings in the UK. There will be over 1000 wines across this three city roadshow, which takes place in London, Edinburgh and Dublin. Producers that are showing wines from the Limestone Coast include Brand’s Laira, Dorrien Estate, Katnook Estate, Penley Estate and Petaluma.


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