When you think of Australian red wines, it’s easy to immediately imagine big, bold, concentrated fruit bombs you could cut with a knife. But did you also know about the lighter side of Aussie wine?
In this episode, Contributing Editor Christina Pickard explores the current state of Australian red wines with Aussie wine writer, speaker and journalist Mike Bennie. While sun-soaked Australia may not be the first place that comes to mind when searching for light-bodied reds, cool-climate regions abound in Oz, as do acidity-loving producers of all shapes and sizes.
Pickard and Bennie explore regions like Yarra Valley, Tasmania, Great Southern and Mornington Peninsula, as well as the producers to keep an eye on and what bottles to pop to experience the fresher side Down Under.
Wines discussed in this episode include:
- Tolpuddle 2018 Pinot Noir (Tasmania); 95 points, $75.
- Moorooduc 2016 Pinot Noir (Mornington Peninsula); 93 points, $38.
- Forest Hill 2017 Highbury Fields Shiraz (Great Southern); 92 points, $20.
- Mac Forbes 2017 Pinot Noir (Yarra Valley); 92 points, $32.
And this piece covers even more about Australia’s cool-climate regions that make lighter-bodied wines.
Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.
Lauren Buzzeo 0:09
Hello and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast, your serving of wine trends and passionate people beyond the bottle. I’m Lauren Buzzeo, the managing editor here at Wine Enthusiast, and in this episode, Contributing Editor Christina Picard explores the current state of Australian red wines with Aussie wine writer, speaker and journalist Mike Bennie. Think all Aussie reds are big, bold fruit bombs that you could cut with a knife? Well, it might just be time to think again. Sure, sun-soaked Australia may not be the first place that comes to mind when looking for lighter bodied reds. But in a land as vast and diverse as Oz, cool-climate regions abound, as do acidity-loving producers of all shapes and sizes looking to lighten things up. We’ll give you the tips on where to look, producers to keep an eye on, and what bottles to pop to experience the fresher side of the Down Under.
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Christina Pickard 1:52
Mike, thanks for taking the time to chat with me from lockdown Sydney.
Mike Bennie 1:57
Thank you very much for having me.
Christina Pickard 1:58
Honestly, I think the only way I was ever gonna be able to pin you down for this, being the busy, highly in-demand wine guy that you are, was to catch you in the middle of a global pandemic when you’re being forced to stay at home. Kidding. Seriously, I’m very grateful for your time and I feel really lucky to be able to chat with you about this specific subject. That said, you are a prolific writer, editor, presenter, wine judge, etc, etc, Down Under. And so, I really could have asked you virtually about anything Aussie-wine related and I know that you would have an ocean of interesting info and stories to tell. But because we are limited on time, I have to pin you down to talk about one still very broad topic within Aussie wine, and that is about light reds, light red wines, which although it might be hard for many Aussies to believe, feels like a contradiction in terms, somewhat, to many Americans who I think still associate Australia with being a producer solely of big, rich Shiraz. And if you’re a lover of that style, there is another podcast episode I hosted with another Aussie called Tim Harris, where we do talk about all things, Aussie Shiraz, but today, it’s the complete opposite of that style. And Mike, you’re the perfect guy to walk us through it. So, let’s talk light red wines in Australia.
Mike Bennie 3:14
Well, look, I like first of all to frame such discussions by describing what I call the cultural vernacular of Australia. So if you think about Australia as this very big island, right in the southern bit of the globe, and you think about its warm, sunny days, the Indian summer is indeed the last sometimes seemingly like nine months of the year. And you think about the fact that most of the cities, the big cities of Australia, coastal, that we live within proximity of the ocean, that we have a wealth of seafood, that for a lot of the year, our dining experience is a plane in that they’re outdoors, that we’re picnicking, that we’re by the beach, eating and drinking, and that we have most of our food cues coming from Mediterranean cuisine the great Italian migrants of the 1950s into Australia. And by and large, of more recent times the great influx of Southeast Asian immigrants who have very much so influenced our pantries, giving us ginger, garlic and chili as staples that we’re using most of our cooking. The interesting thing about Australia and its image of wine is that we’ve got it kind of the wrong way around that those big reds aren’t really synonymous with outdoors, seafood, spicy Asian food, the Mediterranean cuisine that’s light and grilled or salady. And indeed it is the light, fresh red wine styles, the stuff you can put in the fridge, drink with a little chill in it, take into the parks with tumblers and carafes. That’s the stuff that really speaks more fluently about how we eat, live, breathe and sleep in Australia. And so therefore, it’s increasingly an important part of the conversation around what Australian wine looks like. That being said, Australia is one history which stretches back to 1788. When the first colonists came and planted flags and erected tents in Sydney Harbour came with grapevines with the ambition of creating a colony that would have some of the heirs and sophistications of back home in England, where wine was part of culture, particularly of the more highfalutin bluebloods set. So Australia’s history with wine stretches right back to its first colonies. And the idea was to frame most of Australia’s wine in the same way that Europe had been producing wine. And indeed, if you look to the very first wine region of Australia, the Hunter Valley, which is a warm climate wine region, but the ones that inherently come out of that place produced from Shiraz, from vineyards that are over 150 years old, at times at 12.5% to 13% alcohol typically, and can last very long periods of time in cellar and drink young and fresh when they are presented in their youth that we really have got the image of Australia about-face in terms of historical context and then cultural context. It’s an interesting thing to discuss and I’m very grateful that you have me here to do so.
Christina Pickard 6:23
I thought that was the perfect way to open with kind of flipping the image of what I think a lot of us here in the States have of Australia. I mean, certainly, like you say, you have this lifestyle of, of beaches and outdoor, you know, outdoor living. And then on the flip side of that, these wines that are, you know, pretty high in alcohol and pretty rich and pretty big and certainly there is a place for those and they also come with their own, you know, their own history and tradition in some warmer regions like Barossa and McLaren Vale, but also you know, stretching back even further than that you have the Shiraz that are still at 12.5 to 13% alcohol and much more sort of in a mid body range, and not maybe quite as big as the picture here might be of those. So can you kind of lay the map out for people in terms of Australian wine regions, you don’t need to name all 64. But if you could just talk about, particularly those that would specialize in and focus on lighter bodied styles, both grape varieties and styles and the reasons for where they might be on the map.
Mike Bennie 7:36
Definitely. Look, I think that’s a two part question, but I’ll approach it in different ways. Because there’s an increasing interest in lighter body red wines being produced from warmer climate regions in a sort of inverse proportion theory. A lot of the warmer climate regions have given birth to younger generation or avant garde sector of winemakers who are approaching the personality of wines from those warm climate regions differently, picking earlier, more judicious whole cluster usage, generally just looking to produce lighter, fresher wine styles. That’s an important part of a conversation. But I think for the larger answer to that question, Australia’s 60-plus wine regions are almost universally thought of as warm climate because that is the image that Australia has portrayed through its full-flavored, full-throttle, higher alcohol, higher concentrated red wines. That is an issue for me because a lot of Australian wine regions are defined strictly as cool climate. And indeed, we would find snow in winter in many of these wine regions.
Christina Pickard 8:56
I think that that comment right there would blow a lot of people’s minds. The concept of snow in any place in Australia.
Mike Bennie 9:04
Yeah, I mean, it’s mega snow. It really resembles more, you know, a slushie at a gas station more than, say, feet of powder in Vail. But we do have an Alpine area that actually forms a sort of important nexus point for a couple of different wine regions, both in New South Wales, which is the, I guess you’d say the premier state, it’s the first large state of Australia it’s where Sydney is. And in the south of this state, which is on the eastern seaboard of Australia, there is the Alpine region that’s spans into a very small wine region called Tumbarumba. Tumbarumba is a sub-Alpine district that was, I guess, planted initially with the idea of producing high quality sparkling wine. Now if you’re going to the other side of the Alpine area, then you’re in Victoria, which is another state of Australia. That’s the southeast part of Australia, and in the northern part of Victoria, there is a wine region called Alpine Valleys appropriately so that produces extraordinarily cool climate wine styles and has a wealth of plantings to Italian grape varieties. The segue from that is into the adjacent wine region of King Valley. King Valley was planted effectively in the 1950s and 1960s by Italian migrants to mixed agriculture then to tobacco. And then when tobacco excises crushed that industry, the Italian families turn their plantings to grapes. And this is the beating heart of Prosecco production in Australia, let alone where, again, a lot of the emerging and interesting Italian-Australian wines come from, mostly with a lighter, brighter sense of red wine personality. Further towards the west of the northern part of Victoria let’s call it central northern Victoria, there’s the very premium, high-quality and somewhat boutique wine region of Beechworth. Beechworth is, of course, famed for producers like Giaconda—which would be, let’s call it a grand-mark estate in Australia—extraordinary and exquisite Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and there are a sort of little sector of small producers up there that adorn the wine lists of all the threes.
Christina Pickard 11:30
Mike Bennie 11:31
Yeah, all the top—exactly. Castagna, Sorrenberg, Vignerons Schmölzer and Brown, these are names that are not necessarily readily found outside of the great restaurants and wine bars of Australia but are important in terms of the greater picture of Australian wine. So this Alpine area is probably one of the most important things to talk about in terms of cool climate winemaking. But of course, if you’re even in New South Wales and you visit Sydney, it’s often the first port of call for many travelers to Australia. The metropolis of Sydney located almost equidistant between the northern part and southern part of the state of New South Wales right smack bang on the harbor that then extends out into many of the more bucolic beach scenes of Australia. If you drive approximately three hours west of Sydney, you reach the wine region of Orange. Orange actually enjoys quite a high elevation. Some let’s call it 3000 feet above sea level. This is a place that decidedly finds snow in its wintertime. Plantings at that sort of height include Pinot Noir, Syrah, to an extent some Cabernet, Chardonnay and Riesling. The wines here you know, very light, ethereal and often driven by acidity rather than deeper fruit character. And so, New South Wales, which is often sort of seen as a warmer climate state, indeed has hotspots, for want of a better expression, that are extremely cold in terms of wine growing. Of course, most people when they’re talking about Australian cool-climate draw themselves directly into Victoria and use the reference points of places like the Yarra Valley. And I know you’ve visited the Yarra Valley on several occasions. This is a place where red wines from the region are notoriously and traditionally low alcohol. You’ll find Cabernet, probably one of the most significant red grape varieties of the region in its early days. The region has a very long historical context in terms of Victorian wine growing, but it was revitalized by boutique estates in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is a region that’s not necessarily high in altitude but sort of has a very undulating landscape of hills and valleys, quite verdant and green. And a picturesque scene of let’s say Australian bush between farms that intersperse this landscape. In amongst all this the the main primary agriculture seems to be grape growing. And it’s a place where some of the more exceptional producers that do make landfall in United States, people like the wonderful Mac Forbes, the exuberant personality that he is and his great focus on Pinot Noir, specifically, though he does make great Cabernet and Syrah in his downtime. Then he’s joined by some of the, let’s say, more recent high-quality wine producers for the Yarra Valley—Giant Steps, Jamsheed, Luke Lambert—all who are producing on smaller volume scales, but all who have got a very good handle on cool climate winemaking. Of course some of Australia’s greatest estates, those who have produced very long-lived, very cellarable red wine styles that are lighter and fresher by their inherent personality: Yarra Yering, Yeringberg, Yering Station. There’s a lot of Yerings in here.
Christina Pickard 15:25
It took me ages to wrap my head around that. To keep them all stright.
Mike Bennie 15:31
And of course Mount Mary, and Mount Mary would be, if you asked me to name my top 10 wine producers of Australia, Mount Mary would find its way firmly into that list without fail. A lot of these wines have been the inspiration for the younger generation producers who could see that long lived and bright and fresh lower alcohol wine styles were de rigueur if you’re producing wine in this region. These are wines from Yarra Valley, particularly of tension and, you know, shape of tannin and form of acidity, which doesn’t necessarily tell the story of light, bright and fresh, let’s say gluggable, thirst quenching reds. That, for me, seems to be more a story of places like the Adelaide Hills, which is the wine growing region just outside the city of Adelaide in South Australia. South Australia is of course, the beating heart of Australia’s wine industry. It’s located in the southern part of Australia. Basically, if Australia looks like a big cookie floating in the ocean of the south of the globe, somebody has taken a big bite out of the bottom part of Australia.
Christina Pickard 16:53
You quite literally call it the Australian bite.
Mike Bennie 16:55
Yeah, that’s right. It’s called the Great Australian Bite. This is the southern part of the state of South Australia. And it’s interesting because the southern part of South Australia basically sticks out into the Southern Ocean that rolls straight down into the Antarctic. So you can get quite a lot of cool climate influence coming off the ocean. And of course, in and around the central parts of the south of South Australia. There’s a lot of native Bush, there’s a lot of greenery there’s a lot of again, rolling hills and dales and little villages. But as you stretch up into the northern part of the state, it gets warmer and warmer, and indeed becomes progressively desert-like and then ultimately is a desert in the center of Australia. So it’s quite an extraordinary and diverse landscape in South Australia. But for me, the main story here is, of course, about reversing the image of Australia’s big, bold, muscular, red wine styles that have emerged from places like the Barossa Valley, so renowned for well-balanced at best times, but sometimes too overt, perhaps for a lot of drinkers. The concentrated dense red wines that have come from here are heartland stuff, delicious when done well, but sometimes, perhaps, a little bit too monochromatic in their image, and sometimes in their drinking. And of course, McLaren Vale, which straddles the sea, it’s a beautiful wine region that sort of cascades down off, again, bushland, into varying soil profiles that run all the way down to the more sandy soils of vineyards that are adjacent to the ocean. And here again, full-flavored, full-throttled red wines have been the calling card. But between those two regions is of course the Adelaide Hills. This wine region that’s some 25 minutes in an UberX from downtown Adelaide city, and you’ll find yourself in these statues of vineyard bush and cherry orchards that make up this very interesting wine region and of course it’s a cooler climate one region wedged between two warm climate wine regions.
Christina Pickard 19:11
Thanks to elevation really, right? I mean, because we’re kind of talking about different factors, but really it’s the elevation and some maritime influence, right? But more elevation in Adelaide Hills that would cause it to be able to produce more cooler climate styles?
Mike Bennie 19:26
Absolutely. It’s a force of evolution, and I guess microclimate as well. You tend to find the cold air pockets and stores itself in these. I mean, at times quite vertiginous hillsides, these big, angular slopes that fall into little gullies and valleys. And all these pockets keep cool air in them quite well. It’s a very beautiful part of Australia. Lots of very tall old trees, little rivers running through, koalas in the trees, a lot of native wildlife here. And these vineyards, which predominately have been planted through the 1970s to today. A sort of cornucopia of interesting producers have emerged both from the latter part of that planting and also more current day, where of course, the, I guess you say, the commune of natural winemakers have emerged from, particularly from the parish of Basket range. But that’s probably another story in some respects. In terms of general conversation about the Adelaide Hills, the wines are brighter and fresher and people’s takes on Pinot Noir and Syrah, some of the original plantings of Cabernet and Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot. And now increasingly, the Italian orientated grape varieties. Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, Nero d’Avola, creating these bright, crunchy, vivacious, thirst-quenching styles that are much more, I think, in line with the general conversation we’re heading towards, which is that these are the these are the neo-wines of Australia. These are the wines that reflect much more accurately how we live, eat, drink and sleep in Australia. And it’s interesting that it sort of has no rules approach in some respect in wine regions like the Adelaide Hills where judicious blending of whatever grape varieties you enjoy can find groundswell in popularity in the more savvy wine bars and restaurants in Australia. So people blending say, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc would not be something that was unheard to try and produce something that was a few grades up the pay scale from rosé to be drunk, young, fresh and chilled during summer months, or even very quickly after harvest. That’s sort of the idea of with many of these wines is relatively quick turnaround from harvest in January, February, March, and have wines out in the market in the dying days of autumn where it’s still quite warm in places like Adelaide. And if not, then the ubiquitous conversation in Australia with some of these producers is spring release. So as soon as the relatively short period of winter is over, there’s these delightful, dancing, pretty red wines that are ready to drink as soon as people are willing to start drinking them outdoors again or drinking them with fresh seafood or whatever might be the pathway that people are taking in that new season.
Lauren Buzzeo 22:38
Now for a quick break. We’re very excited to tell you about an all-new podcast from our partner site ThirstyNest, the first wine and spirits registry for the modern couple. This podcast is called Can I Buy You a Drink? and on it founder Jackie Strum will interview wine and wedding industry up-and-comers about their very own meet-cute stories and their path to finding The One. It’s a dreamy break from all the scary headlines that will warm your cold, cold heart. So, check out Can I Buy You a Drink from the ThirstyNest team on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or any other platform that you prefer.
Christina Pickard 23:13
It’s interesting, you’ve already touched upon this a lot. It’s hard to talk about something like light reds, you know, as broad as that is. It’s hard to talk about that and then not also talk about the cultural side of it. They sort of run parallel. So you know, even even in a place like Barossa you still have producers who, like Ruggabellus, like Abel, for example, who are you know, just choosing to make a lighter style because it’s what they like to drink and it’s what a lot of their customers like to drink. And then you have a region like the Great Southern in Western Australia, which has this maritime influence is very cool climate, but I would say things are shifting recently, but for a while was still making like pretty meaty, bigger style Shiraz. Certainly they were a more savory, maybe more medium body style than Barossa was, but still a big style for the climate. So, you know, there is something to be said also just for the taste of the winemaker and for the culture of that particular place and the time, you know, the time and the place as well. They run parallel with each other, I think.
Mike Bennie 24:20
Yeah, 100%. You’re very astute in that observation. And of course, that’s your dedicated groundwork in Australia, which has been so welcomed as a great journalist and, in some respects advocate, let’s say, of looking to the diversity of Australian wine rather than pigeonholing for certain styles. And I’m really grateful you brought up Great Southern. Great Southern is a wine region in Western Australia. And of course, Australia’s naming of states is far less interesting than the United States. We literally just give graphical landmarks.
Christina Pickard 24:56
I don’t know you’ve got Tumbarumba Come on, that’s a pretty awesome.
Mike Bennie 25:01
We’re pretty lazy when we call things South Australia and Western Australia, because Western Australia, incredibly enough, is in the west part of Australia. It’s the largest state—it basically takes up a third of Australia almost, taking up the entire west of the big island of Australia. And the wine regions of Western Australia basically span the southwest of Western Australia. And Great Western is about a four and a half hour drive south of Perth.
Christina Pickard 25:34
Great Southern, yeah. Great Western is another one.
Mike Bennie 25:40
Right. The Great Southern is in the southwest of Western Australia, about four and a half hour drive south of Perth. Perth being the major city, the capital city of Western Australia. Perth is often described as the world’s most isolated capital city. So I would wager that Great Southern, which is basically four and a half hours drive on a straight road through almost desolate farmland and native Australian forest, probably is the world’s most isolated wine region.
Christina Pickard 26:23
And it’s also Australia’s biggest, in terms of landmass. That’s what’s crazy.
Mike Bennie 26:29
Gippsland, there, and Tasmania would be the three that formed the largest wine regions in Australia by my judgment. But Great Southern, as you said, sticks out into the sort of Southern Ocean and takes on a lot of the maritime influence that whips its way up from Antarctica. The wine region itself is broad and diverse and it’s, again, a very creative and very communal place. It’s a wine region that seems to feel very comfortable doing its own thing, not worrying about it slightly further north well by three hours neighbors of Margaret River, the very prestigious wine region that excels at Cabernet blends and Chardonnay. Great Southern is sort of formed its identity around Shiraz and to an extent Riesling, as well. But in conversation about the wines and wine styles there, you’re right. There sort of was a bit of a me to me to feel to the mid 90s and early noughties, wines that are coming out of Great Southern weather were trying to amplify and turn up the volume on local red wines. And I think the Great Southern producers have become very comfortable over the last decade with producing medium weight, even at times lightweight, fragrant, spicy, svelt red wine that doesn’t indeed mimic the warm climate regions that are found in South Australia, let’s say predominantly pumping out the bigger, fuller flavored red wine styles that seem so synonymous with Australia. And it’s a place where a lot of regional spice character can be found in the wines which I find very appealing. And almost a sort of DNA thread of minerally, silty, you know, like the feel of sort of pumice stone.
Christina Pickard 28:30
Totally, yeah. And there’s a really distinct—I’m just not nodding vigorously. And in agreement with that. They’re fun to taste blind because you’re always, “Oh, that’s Great Southern, it’s so distinctive.” It’s that tannin structure and that spice that’s really distinctive to the region. And I agree, I think the Reds particularly have come a long way and what I’ve seen over the last decade or so. They’ve really come into their own and I think they’re in a really good spot right now. So moving back—we’ve been jumping and that was my fault I kind of tore us away from the east and brought us over from the south, I should say, and brought us to the west. Going back over if you kind of picture on a map, we’ve gone to the west going back over to Victoria just briefly to talk about Mornington. We can touch on Mornington Peninsula because I think that’s an important region we shouldn’t shouldn’t forget about in terms of the maritime influence that is overlooked a lot, I think, in Australian wine. Then we have elevation, maritime and latitude, of course, which are all three major factors in being able to create these cool climate wines. Then talking finally, I’d love to just end on Tasmania and be able to spend a little bit of time talking about Tasmania. So could you could you just orientate people a little bit to Mornington Peninsula, Mike?
Mike Bennie 29:49
Sure thing. So Mornington Peninsula is about a 45 minute drive east and south of Melbourne, which is the capital city of Victoria. It sort of sits in the middle of the south bit of Victoria, which is in the southeast of the great Australian continent. And Mornington Peninsula forms the eastern part of a large bay that has Melbourne at its center. It’s almost like a crescent shape. And on the eastern part of the crescent shape is Mornington Peninsula and on the western part of the crescent shape, again about 45 minutes drive away, from Melbourne this time heading west is Geelong, another wine region. Geelong and Mornington Peninsula effectively are peninsulas that stick out into the ocean. If you imagine a crescent moon, a frowning smile, let’s say, then the bottom bits of that frowning smile are the Mornington Peninsula on the east and the Geelong wine region on the west. Now, both these places are for me, fascinating because they’re so exposed to maritime influence, particularly Geelong with its hungry soils, almost sort of desert like appearance, and at times quite insufferable wind. Very interesting places to grow grapes. Mornington Peninsula has a little bit more protection but does take on a lot of influence from the ocean. Basically vineyards sit on this very narrow peninsula and just get whipped over by the wind, the take on the first cold weather from the south, and growing seasons are very long and slow, and produce by and large wines that are relatively delicate and fine. These are wine regions that, again, champion in Syrah, but to an extent have also looked at the fine wine paradigms possible from Pinot Noir. They are both renowned for producing very high quality, at times very high priced, and at times sustained by very fancy cellar door experiences. Wines of great caliber and wines that have really captured the imagination of the fine wine market in Australia. Mornington Peninsula I like a lot because it does do a diversity of style despite having a kind of overlay of similarity between a lot of the producers. You get quite rich fruit character, but very fresh feeling fruit character in Mornington Peninsula. And of course great producers like Paringa Estate have produced wines of almost power, using Pinot Noir and Syrah. It’s quite unsuspecting for a cool climate wine region, but still managed to retain this incredible acidity and freshness. There’s of course other producers in Mornington Peninsula like Main Ridge Estate, a boutique operation that would sit in the really high upper reaches of fine wine in Australia and smaller scale production. They almost have wines that are undrinkable in youth because of their tension, tannin structure and just general fruit personality. They’re so reluctant to come out of the glass and be friendly when they’re first poured that good, long, hard decanter are almost, you know, required activity around them. And if not, then a long time in cellar. That doesn’t mean that everybody’s producing wine in that way. Younger generation outfits like Polperro, a duo of fun loving guys who are producing more vivacious, fruity, lighter, fresher wine styles and experimenting a bit, sit alongside producers like Ocean Eight, who have made their name reasonably well known in international markets for being champions of Mornington Peninsula, but producing wines with a bit more vivacity and levity in their youth.
Christina Pickard 33:53
Yeah, Ocean eight is actually one of the few Mornington producers we have in the States. Sadly, not enough Mornington gets over here and I think again it’s a product of word about how good Pinot Noir from Australia can be has just not gotten out. Of course they have quite a bit of competition with domestic wines here in that department. But we do get Ocean Eight and I was just tasting them recently and was really impressed. We get Moorooduc Estate, who I think are really solid and always produce really both pretty but really pretty powerfully structured wines but always with a prettiness about them. So we do get a few Yarra Valley, we get a fair amount, they’re pretty relatively well represented here. And Great Southern we’re getting more and more too. We have Franklin Estate, who are always excellent. Forest Hill, who have I think been really killing it the last couple of years. I’ve been really impressed with with where they’ve gone to. I don’t know if you’ve been able to taste them recently, but like their Highbury Fields. They’re a perfect example I think of Shiraz that’s in that sort of spicy, medium bodied style. I’m really thrilled—they’ve just come into the country recently. So I’m really thrilled that they’re here, and I think we’re finally going to get some La Violetta over here too, which is exciting.
Mike Bennie 33:53
That’s one of the probably the most exciting. I just tasted through a large suite of his wines. He would release 25 or so wines a year, I think. They are just like, you know, a clown has vomited into multicolored mini clown car. They’re just fun and exciting and different.
Christina Pickard 35:11
But good, like always just really solid. I don’t think I’ve ever had like a bad wine from this guy called Andrew hoadley of La Violetta. He’s just been, I agree, one of the most exciting but just fun but good. A really talented winemaker, you know, who has kind of proven that you can be experimental and do funky stuff, but also make really clean, delicious wines over and over again.
Mike Bennie 36:08
Very much so. They’re very elegant, very finely tuned red wines and he’s quite clever with judicious blending of grape varieties that don’t seem to be easy bedfellows, but he finds a way. And he is a bit of a master of blending white grape varieties with red grape varieties to sort of bring that out inherently.
Christina Pickard 36:29
Yeah, no, I’m really excited that he’s finally [here]. I’ve been begging for him to be. It wasn’t that there was a lack of interest. It was you know, I’m sure, many other factors, but anyway. Word on the street is he’s finally going to be in the States, so look out for La Violetta. And we need to start start bugging some of those Mornington producers to get over here and hopefully see a little bit more of them. So I’m just going to steer us, because we’re running out of time a little bit, just steer us to Tasmania now because I really want to make sure we give it a little bit of time. It’s a really important wine region. Again, it’s one that we get woefully few wines over here and partly that is because, similarly to Mornington boutique region, you a lot of small high end producers. So by the time the wines make their way over here, they’re usually not cheap, but I highly, highly recommend trying to seek out some Tasmanian wine. So tell us a bit about Tasmania, Mike.
Mike Bennie 37:22
Well, Tasmania is an island that sits off Australia. If you hop in a plane from Sydney, it takes about an hour and a half to fly there. If you hop on a plane from Melbourne, it takes about an hour to fly there. The island is a sort of almost equidistant east to west, north to south almost. It’s this very beautiful, surprisingly dry climate down there that’s one of the largest native wilderness areas on earth that is untouched forest is located in the southwest of Tasmania. This is basically a place where people aren’t allowed to go into. It’s actually sort of off limits unless you are on a guided path to actually access this extraordinary, unexplored wilderness area. But most of the winemaking takes place in the north, along what’s called the Tamar River, or it takes place in the south in various wine regions that sit around the capital city of Hobart. Or there is a small, but not insignificant wine area on the east coast of Tasmania. That’s kind of it. Its north, east and south. If you drive from the south, where Hobart city is located, which is very beautiful, one of Australia’s oldest cities—lots of big sandstone buildings, open parks, and of course, as with most Australian cities and beautiful harbour. If you drive north from Hobart, through the center of Tasmania, it takes you about three hours to get up to the Tamar River and to start exploring the wine regions that sit within the banner of Tamar Valley wine growing area. Tasmania, the entire island, is one wine region, which irks a lot of people because the North is so distinct from the south. I mean, three hours drive is effectively—you can get from Zurich to Piedmont in that time if you’re in Europe. I mean, this is a gigantic area to span for a single wine region. And of course, it’s about an hour and a half either direction from the north or the south to the east coast where the wine region is planted on extraordinarily volcanic soils. It’s actually where they make a lot of the gravel that produces the roads in Tasmania is digging up the old volcanic rock on the east coast of Tasmania. So you’ve got in the north, slightly—and it’s all and it’s all very cool climate is also the message here this is this is the very south of Australia. This is about as close as you can get to Antarctica without being in The southern part of Chile or in the very southern part of New Zealand. So growing grapes in the south is very marginal. I mean, this is wine making on its edge. And a lot of the wines from the south, which are typically very small producers, notwithstanding some of the stalwarts, particularly the biodynamic superstar of Stefano Lubiana down there in the south, but the little producers like Sailor Seeks Horse, Chatto Wines, Stargazer, Meadowbank, are all wine producers that perhaps a completely unfamiliar names to a larger audience, but are all becoming quite significant in these very edgy, lean, skeletal, but very incredibly complex ones produced predominantly from Pinot Noir that exists in the south of Tasmania. And if you if you sort of go north of Hobart city about 35 minutes, you end up in the Coal River Valley and you begin to see pretty juices like Domaine A, which is actually a Cabernet producer and produces very leafy, very light bodied but still quite intense Cabernet wines, unusually. Almost entirely dedicated to Cabernet in an environment that’s so very much so orientated towards Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. And of course, Tolpuddle which is the Tasmanian project of Shaw and Smith. And Tolpuddle has gained a lot of traction internationally for being, you know, an important new estate in Tasmania and globally a bit of a touchstone for fine Pinot and Chardonnay wines from Australia. But if you travel up to the north to the Tamar Valley, this is sort of the engine room of Tasmania in terms of particularly sparkling wine production. But in terms of the red wine styles from they’re slightly fuller body, than you get down south and slightly less gravelly tannin than you’d find from say the east coast. The East Coast. Pinots are almost distinct in that, when I often taste them I’m sometimes drawn straight to Mount Etna. I think about Nadella, maskull, az and I think about the talent profile that you get from that extraordinary volcano in the northern slopes of that now. And the tannin profile on the east coast of Tasmania can find a kindred spirit in some regards. But up north there’s a little bit more plushness there’s quite a few degrees more warmth per year in the northern part of Tasmania along the Tamar, but the wines again, these are these are light, ethereal or pin and while this is not full throttle Pinot, this is not being able to pump up alcohols in Pinot Noir. And by and large, a great number of producers like Dalrymple, Jansz, Ninth Island, Clover Hill, dabble in Pinot Noir and then also produce sparkling wines of extraordinarily high quality. I mean, Northern Tasmania, for me particularly, is where I would take the Champenois to say, “See, other people can do it just as good as you if not better.”
Christina Pickard 43:14
Apogee, which we do have here—taste that blind against any top Champagne, it’s extraordinary.
Mike Bennie 43:20
Yeah, I mean, House of Arras, the singularly focused, sparkling wine project from Ed Carr is a landmark thing. So
Christina Pickard 43:33
What’s Natalie Friar’s label?
Mike Bennie 43:34
She’s got Bellebonne, which is her own independent.
So Tasmania for me, if I’m asked, and this is sort of to draw us out to the conclusion of the conversation about cool climate Australia. Irrespective of cool or warm climate, or lighter, fresh styles from Australia, I’m very much interested in Tasmania. To me, this is one of the regions of Australia that needs a lot of conversation internationally because it’s such a interesting, beautiful place to visit and produces an array of wine styles that are both compelling for quality, but also for distinguishing themselves from what is perceived as the norm in Australia.
Christina Pickard 44:19
I completely agree, completely agree. I was just blown away by Tasmania. I just managed to get there for the first time recently and thank you very much, you gave me some wonderful recommendations as well and I was absolutely blown away by the island on so many levels, but the wines were just outstanding. So I really hope that we can see more of them here and I guess the more conversations like this we have, hopefully the more that we will see, but you can certainly get Tolpuddle here and Clover Hill a little bit of Apogee a little bit of Seller Seeks Horse but I think more people that know and drink Tasmanian ones the more that we’ll we’ll start to see them over here.
Mike Bennie 44:58
Great, yeah, and please seek out these ones for the diversity and interest that they posit in your glass.
Christina Pickard 45:08
And just a quick mention in terms of some of the wines that we’ve talked about today, if you do want to see some of my reviews and recent reviews, I have recently reviewed Tolpuddle, Forest Hills in our buying guide as well. And, let’s see, Mac Forbes I recently reviewed, so you can just get a little bit more info about those specific wines and my thoughts about them by going to the buying guide at Wine Enthusiast. So we’re going to wrap this up Mike. You make my job so easy because you are just a wealth of info and it’s so appreciated and I know that listeners will take away so much about, and hopefully if they take away nothing else, it’s just how incredibly diverse Australian wine is. So really, really appreciate you taking the time to share all this knowledge with us.
Mike Bennie 45:56
Look, thank you for having me. It’s such a treat to be able to speak with you and catch up and generally just in Australia, as we say, talk broadly about things.
Christina Pickard 46:06
Absolutely. Thanks, Mike.
Lauren Buzzeo 46:11
Thanks for listening to this episode of the Wine Enthusiast Podcast. There is definitely a wide world of lighter bodied reds worth checking out, And we certainly covered a lot of them today, including recently reviewed selections from Yarra Valley, Tasmania, Great Southern, Mornington Peninsula and more. Be sure to visit winemag.com/podcast for ratings and reviews from these regions, including specific producers highlighted in the show, as well as additional links to learn more about these wines and where to find them. Subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever you find your podcasts. If you like today’s episode, we’d love to read your review and hear what you think. And hey, why not tell your wine loving friends to check us out too. You can always drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more wine reviews, recipes guides, deep dives and stories, visit Wine Enthusiast online at winemag.com and connect with us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @wineenthusiast. The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Lauren Buzzeo and Jenny Groza. Until next episode, cheers.
Last Updated: June 5, 2023