Story by Rob Geddes - Read his full newsletter here
Imagine putting away 20,000 bottles of wine, knowing that they would probably be served in 20 years' time. That's what the Clare Valley did and that's how the Clare Valley could recently stage a remarkable Riesling celebration which included tasting local Riesling from 2002, 2012 and 2022.
This is the sort of Tasting that the trade or wine writers anticipate, as one can get very deep insights into the region and its wines. Led by local boy and international wine writer Nick Ryan the day was full of insights from Mitchell Taylor of Taylors Wines
Kevin Mitchell of Kilikanoon Wines, David O'Leary of O'Leary Walker Wines, Hilary Mitchell of Mitchell Wines, Sam Barry of Jim Barry Wines,
Matthew Paulett of Paulett Wines, Will Shields of Sevenhill Cellars
At 5093 hectares of vineyards, the Clare Valley is larger than the Yarra Valley, Mornington and Tasmania combined. It has a special and unique climate within South Australia.
Clare has a higher altitude than most wine regions in South Australia, with many vineyards situated at 400-500m above sea level. Varying altitudes within the valley up to 608m at Mt Horrocks create a funnel effect for sea breezes from Gulf St. Vincent, which cool the land creating the remarkable diurnal temperature variation, ensuring cool nights, even in the heat of summer. This allows the fruit on each vine and on each bunch to ripen at a gentle pace. Its gentle ripening is why vines in particular Riesling and Shiraz prosper in the Clare Valley and is the region's greatest asset in adapting to climate change.
In the height of summer, when the grapes are ripening, the mean daily maximum temperature is nearly 30°C and the average night-time minimum is only 13°C. In winter, the mean maximum temperature is 14°C (57°F) and the average minimum is 3°C (37°F). In addition, it has the lowest average yield in South Australia, further concentrating on nature's goodness.
In 2000, Clare Valley was the first region in Australia to come out collectively with wines under screw cap, which with the benefit of hindsight, was a very wise move, but at the time, it was bold and it had its risks.
The arrival of the Stelvin screw cap, which had failed in the 80s, was a response to the increased confidence of Australian wine consumers and the determination of winemakers to produce wines on their customer's tables that taste just like they did in the tank before bottling. We all know the success today, but at the time, it was by no means certain.
Consumers appreciated the ease of opening, the resealable closure as well as the freshness of the wines. The trade also appreciated the closure's freshness and reliability, which meant less returned bottles from ullages, spoilage and oxidation.
Brand owners such as Mitchell Taylor on the day told stories of the problems of slow insurance claims for 100,000 bottles of their Riesling while Paulett told of recalling every bottle from retailers' shelves and distributor's warehouses and pulling their corks in the cellar, in the most extreme year throwing 50% away and putting the rest into a tank before bottling the remaining under screw cap.
The Hotel Centennial was the venue and provided canapés and two courses of very delightful food that complimented the wines.
It's the sort of afternoon tasting that leaves you invigorated rather than weighed down.
Because of the spread of vintages and properties, it was possible to see the house styles of different producers, starting in the south at Taylor's and finishing in the north at Jim Barry's. It was also an opportunity to taste how soil, site, aspect and altitude all reveal themselves in Riesling.
There was not a bad wine all day and, interestingly, the improvements in viticulture mean 2012 will age better than 2002, which will still have some years to go but is starting to look brown, lime, honey butter burnt toast and burning paraffin. When 2022, will achieve the same over maturity, but I guess this would be after 40 years in bottle.
For me, the most notable were O'Leary Walker from Watervale with the classic regional fruit sweetness without sugar, Mitchells from Watervale/Sevenhill, which tastes just the winery house style and region in every vintage, Paulett Wines from Polish Hill River with their classic lime fruit, linearity and length and Jim Barry Wines from their Lodge Hill vineyard north of Clare which shares slate derived soils with Polish Hill but has addition pine lime fruits on top of the structure of Polish Hill.
There are two very important human decisions. The first is when to pick, and the second is how many litres of juice to take out of each tonne of grapes.
Most parts of the wine growing cycle have changed including, importantly how they train the vines which used to be sprawl and are now more upright with vertical shoot positioning and the yield of juice from a ton of grapes which has reduced from 600 litres a ton to 400 litres, both reasons why good wine costs more today.
The sheer consistency, thanks to quality winemaking and Stelvin, was extraordinary.