Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A Winemakers’ House Call

When I contacted vineyards on the Mornington Peninsula of Victoria, Australia I was very hopeful of tasting the wines of Yabby Lake Vineyard. Established in 1998, the first vintage of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir had been produced in 2002 from the 40 hectare vineyard. Stephanie Duboudin, Marketing Manager for the BMK Family Vineyards that oversees Yabby Lake, informed me that although there are no visitor facilities she would travel to the Peninsula to meet with me while we were visiting with other vineyards. That seemed a bit extreme, especially as she was going to be coming from Melbourne and we were staying in Melbourne anyway. Why not just meet in Melbourne later in the week? And so it was arranged, or at least that is what I thought. As the day approached Stephanie called to say that Tod Dexter, Winemaker for Yabby Lake, would be doing the tasting. But there was a problem. The hotel where we were staying did not have a room suitable for the tasting. I offered a simple solution. Why not use our room? The only problem would be glassware, but if that was going to be the only problem we could get by.

Tod Dexter has only been with Yabby Lake since January 2004, but his experience with vineyards of the Mornington Peninsula is impressive. He took Stonier’s from a fledgling 250 to 30,000 cases during which time it became one of the most highly regarded wineries on the Peninsula. He was also winemaker at Elgee Park and established his own vineyard on Mornington Peninsula in 1987. Almost a winemaker by default his career started in 1979 at Cakebread Cellars when he found himself in the Napa Valley. After an education at Cakebread and at the University of California at Davis he returned to Australia to study at Roseworthy College before vintages at Brown Brothers. Winemakers always seem to have an international route to their destination.

Like any good wine man Tod came prepared with two bottles of each wine and we could do nothing less than provide cheeses and other nibbles and possibly the worst wine glasses known to oenology – generic bowls. The wines were going to have to be good to make an impression.

First up were the wines from the Yabby Lake Vineyards. The 2004 Chardonnay (French Oak, 30% new) was a light straw with a colorless edge. Nice peach, citrus, and floral aromas with a little anise were released with some swirling of the glass. Excellent oak treatment was revealed in a beautifully textured wine that was soft, round and full in the mouth. The oak is truly understated, allowing the juicy acidity to provide elegance to the lengthy finish. This is a classy wine that conventional wisdom would give 5-7 years of life. I’ll go out on a limb and say that you can easily double or triple that. We consumed the rest of the bottle later in the day with smoked salmon on toast which highlighted the floral aromas and the crisp, invigorating acidity of the wine. 2, 2, 4.3, 10.5 = 18.8/20, 94/100. 13.5% alcohol.

Next was the 2004 Pinot Noir (French Oak). Cherry red in color with a pink edge and loaded with dazzling Pinot character of spices, plum, bright cherry, and faint cinnamon. Medium bodied with wonderful mouthfeel. The supersoft tannins firm up on a lengthy finish that is supported by bright acidity. Simply excellent. It should be at its best in 3-5 years and could well live for two to three times longer. 2, 2, 4.5, 10.3, =18.8/20, 94/100. 14.5% alcohol.

The third wine was not from Mornington Peninsula but from another cool climate Victorian wine region, Heathcote. The Heathcote Estate 2003 Shiraz (French Oak) is not quite pure Shiraz as it has 6% Grenache. It’s surprising to realize that this is only the second vintage of this single vineyard Shiraz from this new estate. An intense chocolate aroma can be smelt as soon as the cork is pulled. The wine is densely colored, literally glass staining. It’s a big fruity wine loaded with blueberry and blackberry and a little nail polish (EA). This full bodied wine has wonderful mouthfeel and great balance. The big, firm tannins will need a few years to soften and by then it should be a beauty. It will live for at least 5-10 years and hopefully much longer. 2, 2, 4.5, 10.5 = 19/20, 95/100, 14.5% alcohol. Tasted December 7, 2005.

We spent two hours tasting the three wines and discussing wine in general, and that is really how wine tasting should go. No fuss, no rush, no bother. All you need is a friendly, down to earth, intelligent winemaker, who makes bloody good wine. There is no doubt about it the wines were excellent to outstanding, especially the Yabby Lake wines. The mouthfeel is almost a sensual experience. The best recommendation I can give these wines is that I have purchased a six-pack of the 2003 Heathcote Shiraz and a dozen of the Yabby Lake 2004 Pinot Noir. And if my wine merchant is true to his word he will have my order for the 2004 Yabby Lake Chardonnay in the distributors’ hands tomorrow.

Yabby Lake and Heathcote Estate are part of the BMK Family Vineyards P/L. Other products in the group include Cooralook which is a second label for the former two vineyards. The other vineyard is Escarpment Vineyards which is in Martinborough, New Zealand. Escarpment is home to Larry McKenna, Consulting Winemaker and the guy who actually made the first two vintages at Yabby Lake. Guess where yours truly will be visiting this December?

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