HARVEST AT ABEL MENDOZA MONGE'S RIOJA VINEYARDS
Even More Grapes Ending In O
by PHILIP WHITE
Australian winemakers are a funny lot. Like the rest of us, they’re very clever, but often really dumb and clumsy. Sometimes they/we need a pig-a-back to school.
In our scramble to produce new varieties, many grand ones unequivocally proven elsewhere simply don’t get the treatment and research they deserve in Australia: they are due much better attention than our winemakers have afforded them.
This is largely due to the arrogance which dominated the Australian wine world during its technological revolution in the '80s. The wine schools, the wine shows, the consultancies, the heroes were all set up to prove that we'd show Old Yurp a thing or two, and that sanitary stainless steel winemaking and vineyard automation would easily overwhelm the vagaries of nature and terroir. And unfortunate and inconvenient shit like history and culture.
Great and noble varieties may have done very well for centuries somewhere in the Old World, but our lot still does very little, if anything, to properly discover how they were grown, made, and matured – how they evolved within their terroir and their gardening and winemaking communities. One wonders what the hell the Australian Wine Research Institute thought it was doing, spending all that money on crap like bionic noses instead of researching basic practical things like these varieties which Australia obviously needed to trial. Instead, the effort goes into getting these new types onto the market more than learning how to make them, and as occurred for twenty years with Chardonnay and Pinot noir, the poor old customer paid for the winemakers’ experiments for a long time before some of them began getting it right.
Tempranillo, the grand red of the Spanish, is one that’s being crunched by Ockers. It’s one of the legion of mega-trendy varieties that end in O that are being bashed around by makers learning what to do with them, or even teaching them how to behave, in the hope that we’ll pay well for the stuff they make in those vintages they use up trying to get it right.
Last week I jumped into a couple of proper Tempranillos from Dave and Mel Worthington (left) whose excellent Cosecha Imports is a Melbourne outfit which specializes in very high quality, small-production, environmentally-responsible winemakers in Spain.
Abel Mendoza Monge painstakingly gardens a 16 ha Rioja vineyard to supply his winemaking wife, Maite. Their Jarrate Maceration Carbonique Rioja 2010 ($20; 13% alcohol; cork; 92+ points) is a true revelation as in saucy revel; a romp. As in finally foot-treading Tempranillo and a little Graciano which had commenced fermentation in its skins, still in bunches in concrete vats for several days. The expressed juice then goes into clean steel to complete a more conventional ferment to dryness.
Jarrate has a disarming squish of raspberry and some meaty blueberry. And while it may well be berries all the way down, tantalizing tweaks of fruity fresh-polished leather emerge, and not your modern petrochem waxes that require acetone to remove – I’m talking snicker-snack Zorro old style natural water-based polish. It’s all black stuff, with a savoury hint of licorice.
Even more importantly, it’s sufficiently elegant and delicate, that even at only 13% alcohol, there’s a cheeky reek of heat in the exhalation. Which is kinda what I expect of alcohol. But we can learn from this. It doesn’t need to be 15%!
The wine is startling in its overt healthy juiciness. Yet it’s slender, with those slithery tannins drawing the finish out til you’re starving for tapas. Never seen anything like this here.
While Rioja’s in the centre of northern Spain, south of Bilbao, Toro is close to the Portuguese border, a little south but mainly west. The ancient Greeks first brought grapes there well before the Italians arrived. It’s called The Bull because of its extreme weather: blistering summers (up to 37C) and very cold winters (-11C). All the vineyards are above 620 metres. Toro is not easy. They call their Tempranillo Tinta de Toro.
The provenance of Matsu is a fog to the unSpanished Blanquette, but I know Recio means robust and Matsu is Japanese anyway: it means confident patience. Which seems to suit a winery that makes wine like Matsu El Recio 2009 ($31; 14.5% alcohol; cork; 94+ points). From vineyards of 105 years of age, in sand and rock where rain is sparse, somebody entices this remarkable zen brilliance to emerge. The bloke on the label seems to be the grower. It’s certified bio-dynamic.
I QUITE LIKE HAVING THIS BLOKE AT MY TABLE photo PHILIP WHITE
Neither have I drunk a Tempranillo like this before. After ferment in cool concrete vats it does malo and fourteen months in new French barrels – tight-grained oak which is entirely supportive of that intense fruit. It has the purring submission of a long slow ferment: more than three weeks on skins has properly softened and assimilated the tannins.
To smell, there’s still a handsome acridity, indicating leafy tannins. They’re never leafy in the flavour sector, however. So that edge is probably rocks as much as the phenolics of the tough thick skins of Tempranillo. And some oak, of course, which never intrudes.
As with the Rioja, the cool thing is the wine’s disarming fruitiness. It’s raspberry, it’s cranberry, it’s baby beetroot, it’s that naturally-made water-based saddlesoap of R. M. Williams. It’s as cute as the Rioja, but with layer upon layer of gentle surprise as the doors of its consecutive rooms open. It’s fleshy and pulpy, but always elegant and composed. You can follow it through this journey over two or three days if you manage yourself: the first bottle I tried, brought about by one of the thirstiest enthusiasts in my neck of the woods, vanished in about half an hour.
What pulls the heart hawsers particularly taut is the manner in which the wine projects a wave of sheer mellow fruit, and then a glorious wash of soft polymerised tannin as it ebbs. The nature of these feelings and flavours changes constantly: they never seem to repeat themselves, but they stay in that determined recio direction: upon them, we’re ever-so-gradually surfing ashore. But then, the mala gana sets in: we don’t seem really to want to get there after all. Or need to.
And all along, that delicious delicate syrup of grape essence, almost conserve, coddles and cuddles the tongue. I say conserve rather than jam, because conserve contains entire fresh fruits: it is neither mashed nor boiled to such an extreme as jam.
So why can’t Australia make Tempranillo like these? To start, I’m afraid our Greeks came in too late. But the little matter of us not having too much 105 year old Temp in 2,000 year old vignobles notwithstanding, I’m sure climate and ground makes the difference. No Australian in their right mind would be planting bush vine Tempranillo in country like Toro, with such extremities of geology, geography and climate, if indeed such a province was extant here.
Perhaps the best Australian Tempranillo and Graciano blend I can recall was made from a vineyard of these two varieties that was planted, I think, in the 'sixties near the little cemetery adjacent to Ross Estate, at Lyndoch in the Barossa. David Wynn knew of it, and I seem to think Colin Gramp had something to do with its planting - I recall a mature bottle consumed with great relish in the mid '80s. When Rod Chapman became Darius Ross's winemaker in the '90s he made a couple that were bashed, too, with the sappy American oak fashionable here at the time. But the wines were robust and seductive, and if the vineyard had been let survive, we might be drinking much more sensitively-made blends from them by now. Apart from some of these varieties growing at Mudgee, and some Tempranillo growing at Peake's at Clarendon in 1860s, this was the earliest planting I know of in Australia.
Steve Pannell cleaned up this year’s McLaren Vale Bushing Crown with his mighty 2010 blend of Touriga nacional, the Portuguese variety, and Tempranillo. Interestingly, I’d always felt that the tannins of Touriga would meld perfectly with good Nebbiolo, which is also extremely rare in Australia. During the three days I’ve spent tasting these two Tempranillos, I thought of Nebbiolo often. It’s something to do with the way the tannins float above that sublimely elegant fruit like a cloud, rather than grumble away in the belly of the wine, like they do in surly Shiraz. This strange, other-worldly phenomenon makes possible that very gradual waves sensation of the Matsu.
While everybody gets their Nebbiolo, Tempranillo and Touriga growing right, and then learns to make them properly, the notion of blending them for racy, inexpensive blends makes me dribble.
The Vinodiversity blog lists about three feet of Australian wineries which make Tempranillo. I wonder how they made their decision to plant this stuff, and how much research they did of the types of ground it prefers in its homelands, and how it is best handled there.
And I wonder how many of them can get it ripe at 13% alcohol?
AUSTRALIA NEVER QUITE LEARNED TO MAKE CARS LIKE THE HISPANO-SUIZA J12 FERNANDEZ & DARRIN COUPE DE VILLE, EITHER