Australia – but not as we know it

A tasting with Steve Brown, winemaker at Bellwether Wines

We were delighted to welcome Steve Brown, winemaker at Bellwether winery, to open our 2018/19 season. Together with winemaking partner Sue Bell (Australian Winemaker of the Year, 2014), Steve has created a remarkable négociant-style micro-winery in a historic sheep shearing shed in Coonawarra (a winery accidentally stumbled on by our Chair whilst using Trip Advisor!!).

Bellwether is a far cry from Sue and Steve’s roots in corporate wineries such as Penfolds and Hardy’s in Australia, the USA and France. As you may expect from their location, they specialise in making classic cool climate Coonawarra Cabernet and Tasmanian Chardonnay, but what may be a surprise is that they also dabble with growing trend in Mediterranean varieties historically almost unheard of in Australia... the times they are a changin’!

Australia is, on the whole, a warm and dry land mass. Unlike more newly formed countries like New Zealand, millennia of erosion have flattened the land and stripped out nutrients. The French varieties brought over to plant the first vineyards suffer with this combination and increasing temperatures and drought all work against these vines. The result is an increasing trend to plant varieties that naturally cope with these conditions, with the current flavor being classic Italian and Portuguese varieties.

Bellwether’s winemaking encapsulates the new wave, artisan spirit in Australia, with a great respect for the interaction between where fruit is grown and the wine it becomes - although they don’t own any vines themselves, the story of their growers is integral to their own. Their process of winemaking relies on small batches and wild yeast fermentation. Whole bunches, stalks, bunch pressing and fermentation on skins for white wines are all tools they use to deliver expressive wines that reflect the grapes and the regions. Their wines are also focused on earlier drinking – the ability to store wines for ageing is rare with a lack of cellars and the growth in city living being driven to apartments. This also matches the tastes that many younger Australians are looking for – freshness and vitality. Maintaining acidity is there fore key (restricting MLF) along with some ageing on the lees to add additional texture and maintain the freshness of the wine in bottle.

This trend is growing in Australia as along with planting varieties that can thrive in the conditions, volume is being sacrificed in favourof quality. No longer can a price only offering compete on the global stage, where so many developing wine economies can do more or the same for less. Is this the end of 2-for-1 on Yellow Tail?! We will have to see.

Anyhow, on to the wines!

  1. Bellwether Ant Series Heathcote Vermentino 2015 £26 retail
    A classic Italian variety reinvented for Australia! Grapes from an organic vineyard and using wild yeast and a warm fermentation, this is a fruit forward wine with citrus, herbs and rubber tones with a hint of exotic fruit and butteriness from the 6 months spent on lees. 2 years spent in bottle before being released.
  2. Bellwether Ant Series Riverland Bianco d'Alessano 2016£26 retail
    The only vineyard outside Italy that they know to grow this rare grape variety from Puglia. Fermented on skin (being “skinsy”) with a short ageing with 1/3 on lees. Grapefruit, minerals, herbs with a well balanced acidity and some reasonable tannins for a white wine. One to enjoy with food (and I don’t mean that in the same way as a voice for radio!).
  3. Bellwether Tamar Valley Chardonnay 2013 £40 retail
    These grapes are grown in Tasmania where they find granite soils and a cool climate that helps preserve the acidity needed to balance this fuller bodied, oaked wine. These vines are spur pruned rather than VSP/ Guyot. The wine displays a combination of citrus, minerals and butter with the toasted nose that comes from the use of a combination of new, but mostly old oak barrels. Fermented in 500 litre small batches with some MLF to manage acidity. An Australian take on a “burdungian” classic! Not cheap but certainly worth a try if you can get hold of a bottle of this small production.
  4. Bellwether Ant Series Wrattonbully Tempranillo 2016 £26 retail
    The region provides a high diurnal range and thus helps maintain acidity whilst waiting for the grapes to reach phenolic ripeness. Tempranillo can turn quickly to a very uninteresting wine if ripeness goes too far and the acidity falls, so careful vine management and harvest is needed. The grapes are fully destemmed for this wine. It displays attractive fruit along with some eucalyptus / mint, tarry undertones with a top note of clove and pepper.
  5. Bellwether Ant Series Riverland Montepulciano 2017 £27 retail
    This is a fresh and fruity “Monte” with abundant red fruits, minerality and an earthy undertone. Approachable light tannins complete the picture for a delightful and enjoyable red. Possibly the favorite wine of the evening (certainly on a value basis) and worth a place in your cellar – but not for too long!
  6. Bellwether Ant Series Wrattonbully Shiraz-Malbec 2014£26 retail
    Grown on limestone ridges, this cool climate red benefits from 1/3 of the grapes being fermented whole bunch, adding a note of lightness and freshness to classically “big” varieties. Aged in puncheon (i.e. small) barrels. Dark, stewed fruits, leather and tar.
  7. Bellwether Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 £40 retail
    Coonawarra Cabernet is one of the iconic wines of Australia, this one grown in famous terra-rossa soils along the World Heritage listed Limestone Coast. 1/3 of the wine sees new oak barriques. The 2014 suffers from vintage variation and lacks some fruit to balance the pallet despite the modest alcohol content of 13% for an Aussie Cab. Otherwise displays a pleasant herbaceous undertone with dark fruits and a developing tertiary element of tar and leather.
  8. Bellwether Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 out of stock
    The 2010 on the other hand is a prize winner, and has sold out! Some bottles were held back especially for this tasting and not wishing to take a quote out of context but, (ladies and) gentlemen in England now-a-bed shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here! Again a modest 13% alcohol, with full body and balanced dark fruits with stewed fruits, leather and smoke supported by a herbaceous undertone. Good, grippy and well-integrated tannins. A lovely wine!

So there we are! We can recommend all these wines (perhaps apart from the 2014 Cab Sav at £40) but the Monte and the Chardonnay are pretty good bets.

Not only did we learn a lot about the ways that each wine in the portfolio is made, but we also learnt some new words that will no doubt become common parlance in wine club corridors! For those that missed the event we are officially introducing “Burdungian” and “Skinsy” and we have forwarded these to Jancis Robinson for inclusion in the next Companion.

See you soon!

Philip Spinks
Vice-Chair, Oxford Wine Club