White rhone – Oz Style – the tasting

Yesterday the talented Ben Haines (of the eponymous label) and I hosted a few winos for a tasting of Australian Marsanne/Roussanne style wines from 2010, 2009, the early 2000s and a few french examples to see what sort of stylistic differences currently existed in the little-made oeuvre. With the help of a few swaps and donations we amassed 25 examples and at with the generous patronage of excellent local restaurant Ilona Staller 12 of us sat down and double blind tasted them all. With lively discussion about what attendees liked and didn’t like, it seemed there were indeed a broad range of styles on offer, delineated in the main by the degree to which grapes were ripened, and then the degree of winemaking influence such as oak, lees and exposure to oxygen.

The Northern Rhone Valley itself seems to be split into two camps – those that aim for higher ripeness, unctuous texture and glycerol, and then those that aim for more floral, mineral expressions of their site and grape. This seemed mirrored in the Australian examples, climate and region less obvious than style and winemaker influence. Site expression was a spirited talking point throughout the tasting, with some feeling that many wines were more about winemaking than place. Others found compelling examples in the line-up to challenge this.

The 2010 brackets showed some more delicate, floral wines, beeswax and lanolin characters mingled with blossom and stone fruits. The Collector 2010 Canberra Marsanne was one such example, a well- pitched and moderate wine with lees complexity, length and texture and no overt heat. The 2010 Yeringberg Yarra Valley Marsanne Roussanne was clean, delicate and almost simple, but I suspect it simply needs time in bottle to unravel. Pedigree suggests this is the case. With equal pedigree yet a warmer climate the Mitchelton 2010 Airstrip Marsanne roussanne viognier showed burgundian, cheesy sulphide and beeswax funky notes, great structural phenolics and lovely length. I think it will settle in to be an excellent wine. Of similar quality but with less oak influence and a touch more ripeness was the Michael Hall Barossa Roussanne – another to watch. The Tahbilk Marsanne, with its heady aromas and fresh palate attracted great respect once unveiled, for its value.

The transition to the 2009 bracket from the extensive 2010 bracket was interesting and intriguing, somewhat splitting the room. Many in the room saw charm in 09’s with their extra weight, blossoming aromas and generosity. All remarked on the extent of difference in the wines to the 2010’s with only one extra year of age. The organic/biodynamic 2009 Yangarra Roussanne from McLaren Vale was particularly fascinating, largely challenged initially for its degree of background artifact with distinct cheesy & leesy notes surrounding the core fruit, but later lauded by some as it evolved. The Box Grove was in a similar ilk, with perhaps a little more youthfulness.

I found the extra year simply magnified the winemaker’s fingerprint. Aldehyde and oxidation began to show in some wines, as did over-ripeness and oak influence in some others. 2009 was a hot vintage across the entire country (as it was in France) and I was disappointed with the lack of freshness in these examples – with the exception of the ‘worked’ but stunning Giaconda Aeolia. Perhaps with the first flushes of youth fading, these wines are yet to resolve themselves into what they want to be. Perhaps in another 12 -24 months they will be better again?

Ben also raised the issue of varietal typicity, posing the question of whether we really understand the varietal identifiers of these wines (aroma and flavor profile, texture, phenolic behavior etc), particularly as they evolve over time. The sheer lack of older Australian examples makes this a difficult question to answer in the short term, but perhaps a more defined reference point is something to build in Australian regions for these varieties.

The Older wines included Giaconda, Tahbilk, Mitchelton and Tallarook in an all-central Victorian showdown, and age further showed the winemaker’s influence. Giaconda 2000 Aeolia was almost chardonnay like, with cheese, honey, toast and barrel char beginning to get back on top of the fruit, whereas the Tahbilk 1927 vines unfortunately showed some cork derived oxidation. Nevertheless you could see similarities to old Hunter Semillons in it’s early-picked, acid driven and linear styling underneath the faults. The bolter was the 2003 Mitchelton Roussanne, possiblly the wine of the tasting, with cold tea, straw, wax, bickford’s lime cordial and chewy phenolics that swirled with the wines inherent generosity and built through the palate – plenty of fuel in the tank too. Impressive.

Then it was on to the french examples, mainly 2010 wines and 3 from the north and 3 from the south. Yves Cuilleron’s two St Joseph’s La Lombard and Le coteau St Pierre were rich yet just controlled as young wines, with barrel influences but just as much influence from fennel, nettles, stones and straw. I found myself not noticing fruit as much as the Australian examples, and less of a preoccupation with acid. Still, there was structure and freshness. Domaine Belle Crozes Hermitage was a little less intense but perhaps more refined and drinkable for it, and then came the outliers, two Chateauneuf Du papes from Mont Redon and Clos De Papes. Warmer climate, and different technique – both tank fermented and matured, no malo, yet showing aldehyde and flint from oxidative juice handling. I think some of the warmer climate Australian examples could learn much from this, as it seemed to prevent flabbiness in the wines. As we discussed however, few of us that are new to making the varieties would have the courage to walk the aldehydic line that the clos du papes does. It was remarked that in Australia we might be pilloried for it whereas the french are lauded!

In all, more questions arose than were answered. There were few ‘stars’ in the Australian brackets, many overripe, ‘stylised’ wines and few that shouted their terroir. Then again, there aren’t many exponents at all in Australia, so perhaps each is simply forging ahead without much guidance or support, unlike chardonnay or shiraz or Pinot Noir. Still, it made me determined to trust in a direction that delivers freshness, balance, and some nuance of structure as opposed to ripeness, broadness and bitterness. The evolution may be slow, but we have begun.

1 comment to White rhone – Oz Style – the tasting

  • Great post. I just stumbled upon this and I agree with you 100%. David’s wine is a great asset to the Margaret River rieogn along with his lamb which is the envy of many. You can also now buy his lamb, pork and wine at their latest venture the McHenry Hohnen farm shop on Caves Road Margaret River. Happy eating and wine matching.