Friday, January 18, 2013

Saperavi from Australia: Ridgemill Estate The Czar

18.01.2013. Today’s wine was a gift from a fellow wine writer, Stuart over at The Vinsomniac.  It’s very much a curiosity, and while there are some things that can be determined from the bottle and the producer’s website, writing up this wine has left me with more questions than answers. If answers are found subsequently, I’ll certainly update this post.  And with that puzzling introduction, I give you Ridgemill Estate The Czar Saperavi 2012.

This wine is produced and bottled in Severnlea, which puts it in the Granite Belt wine region in Queensland, Australia.  For those not familiar with this country, Queensland is the state in the north east corner and is home to Brisbane, Cairns, Surfers Paradise, Gold Coast, and the Great Barrier Reef.  It’s the tourists’ image of Australia, with kangaroos hopping along the beach, and it’s not an image that lines up well with growing grapes for wine.

Obviously it’s much more than just that, and while there are certainly lovely beaches, it’s a big place.  To put it into perspective, it’s not just bigger than California – you can throw in Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado and it’s still bigger.  Or if you prefer, it’s bigger than France, Spain, the UK, Ireland and Portugal combined.  Across the expanse of such a large area, there’s bound to be climate and soils appropriate for viticulture, which brings us to the Granite Belt.

Located in the south east of Queensland, centred on an area roughly 160km in from the coast, the Granite Belt has the coolest climate in the state, largely due to its elevation of 450m to 900m (with 810m being the average), though being nestled along the southern border helps as well.  It is the textbook definition of a continental climate with warm summers and cold winters.  Snow in the winter, while not common, is not unknown.

There are two main soil types – a brownish-grey speckled soil well suited to vines, and a sandy, granitic grey-black soil which is less so, both supported by deep clay.  Drainage is good, which is to say water retention is bad, and so irrigation is often essential.  Hazards include spring frosts and rain at vintage, though both can be mitigated with thoughtful site selection.

I started to write that the Granite Belt is a fairly young region, as James Halliday’s Wine Atlas of Australia dates the first wine grapes as having been planted in 1965.  However,  Granite Belt Wine & Tourism claims vines were first cultivated by an Italian Catholic priest in the 19th century and cites vineyards and wineries dating back to the beginning of the 20th century.  As a region, it is known for small producers making boutique quality wines, though some of its appeal is certainly wine tourism with easy access from Brisbane.  It’s also home to a number of interesting grape varieties, which are highlighted through the Strange Bird Alternative Wine Trail, co-founded by the Ridgemill Estate winemaker.

I’ve written about Saperavi twice before, with the Hugh Hamiliton Oddball of McLaren Vale, Australia and the Taliani Valley of Napareuli, Georgia, so I think it’s time to move on to the producer.

What is now Ridgemill Estate got its start as vineyards under the name Emerald Hill in 1998 with plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot and Chardonnay.  Tempranillo followed two years later, and in 2004 the property was purchased by the current owner, Martin Cooper who set about making some changes.  He hired Peter McGlashan as  winemaker and manager, rebranded the estate as Ridgemill, established cabins in the vineyards for wine tourism, and expanded plantings to include Saperavi, Verdelho and Viognier.  The current line up of wines includes varietal Chardonnay, Verdelho and Shiraz, blends of Cabernet Sauvignon / Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon / Malbec / Merlot, and Monastrell / Tempranillo, as well as a Merlot rosé.  They also produce a sweet white wine, two fortified wines and a traditional method sparkling wine.  Apparently they also have plantings of Jacquez, which is banned in France.  How cool is that?

None of that is exceptionally out of the ordinary (except for the Jacquez), so what has left me scratching my head so much?  Primarily that the back label of this wine says that 60 bottles were produced, unfined and unfiltered.  Sixty bottles, five cases, or 45 litres of wine.  It’s an impossibly small amount, and I say that having worked three vintages with a winery that is effectively a one man band.  Saperavi is a reasonably productive grape, and as the vines were planted in 2006 I have a difficult time imagining their harvest only came to 60 bottles.  Then again, since this was released the same year it was produced, perhaps there is a 2012 reserve that will be released after further maturation.  Or maybe they sold off a portion of the harvest to another winemaker.

If there is no reserve 2012, then there’s the question of how you go about making 60 bottles of a wine.  Of the equipment I’ve used in a small winery, most would be overkill for such a small batch.  It would take more time to clean a destemmer than it would to process the grapes, and that applies to the crusher as well.  I can well imagine a very small kvevri, possibly a repurposed earthenware planter, as a fermenter, and as for pressing, I have seen some pretty small basket presses, but still.  This wine is unlikely to have seen the inside of a barrel, because except for tiny barrels for storing fortified wine at home, such small volumes are not easy to accommodate – a standard barrique would only be 20% full with 45 litres.  Bottling and labelling would almost certainly have to have been done by hand as the overhead cost of getting a bottling line running would be prohibitive.

All of that is pure speculation based on the label, so perhaps it’s time to have a look at the wine itself.  In the glass it’s clear and bright with a medium minus purple colour and quick, thick legs.  Interesting colour – in my experience if a wine is purple, it’s also fairly dark.  This one, while certainly purple, is not so dark at all.  On the nose it’s clean and youthful with medium plus intensity and notes of mulberry, some peppery character, blackberry, plums, a little soda pop and a hint of perfume.  On the palate it’s dry with medium body, medium plus acidity, medium fine tannins, medium intensity, medium plus alcohol, and medium length.  It started out quite candied with notes of cherry and bubble gum.  It developed somewhat in the glass, and other berries emerged, as did some chocolate and a bit of black pepper.  However, the fruit was still very candied – something from a sweets shop instead of a green grocer.

I don’t know what to make of this wine.  While I’m not an expert on Saperavi, I’ve had a few and this is nothing like those.  The colour, while purple, is not nearly as dark as I would have expected, particularly since Saperavi means “dye” in Georgian and is a teinturier, meaning its juice is coloured instead of clear.  The spectrum of berry flavours is fine, but the bubble gum and candied notes suggest carbonic maceration, which is certainly a possibility, particularly if whole bunches were used.  While I like a little of that in Gamay and some Point Noirs, I’m not sure how I feel about it in heavier reds like Saperavi.

Really though, I can’t properly assess the quality of this wine because it was a gift.  I generally don’t accept samples for review, and even though this wasn’t sent from the actual producer, I’ll keep my conclusion to myself.  However, I couldn’t resist the chance to write about a new (for me) wine region and a producer who is clearly innovating with interesting varieties.


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