Tasting some of Australia’s “First Families of Wine”

For all of its decidedly New World status when it comes to wine, Australia has some extraordinary winemaking heritage. Some of the very first settlers of Australia brought vine cuttings that they picked up in South Africa, one of the common waypoints on the long journey from Europe. Australian wine was sold commercially starting in the 1820’s and a number of wineries still operating today began producing in the 1830’s.

Some of these wineries have been continuously family owned and operated since that time, and remarkably some of the original vines planted by these families continue to produce wine. While there are a few wineries in Europe still in existence that can claim an unbroken line of family ownership stretching back five generations, almost none can boast that they are working the original vines that their forbears planted more than 150 years prior (the ravages of Phylloxera in the early part of the 20th century left Australia largely untouched).

Despite such heritage, ask most consumers what they think of when you mention the phrase “Australian wine” and you’re likely to hear some variation on the massive critter-label brands that dominate supermarket shelves in America and the UK. In many ways Yellow Tail is one of the best, and one of the worst things to happen to Australian wine. The brand both firmly established Australia as a source of tasty, drinkable wine for many consumers, as well as created a stereotype of the region’s wines that many people cannot see past.

Which is why a group of some of Australia’s oldest family-run wineries recently decided to band together to promote what they describe as “the other Australian wine story” — the story of incredible family heritage, tradition, and quality that really should take precedence over the massive, industrial wine producers when it comes to Australia’s identity in the wine marketplace.

Calling themselves Australia’s First Families of Wine this initial group of 12 of Australia’s oldest family-owned and operated wineries came together in August of last year to speak with a united voice about the aspects of Australian wine that they collectively represent.

The initial twelve wineries are Brown Brothers, Campbells, d’Arenberg, De Bortoli, Henschke, Howard Park, Jim Barry, McWilliam’s, Tahbilk, Taylors, Tyrrell’s, and Yalumba.

Steve Henschke, one of the folks behind the creation of the group told me about how they came up with the idea.

“We first got together about six years ago. It was just one of those situations where a few of the old traditional family wineries found ourselves together in a room. We all knew each other pretty well and got to talking about maybe forming a loose alliance between us to really further the understanding that Australian wine is more than just large brand names. We got together and had a brainstorming session, and came up with a list of things that we believed were really important to the future of Australian wine, and one of the most important was the idea that Australia makes much higher quality wine than most people think, and has been doing so for a long time. Australia needs to be recognized for making some really special wines and for its special heritage of old family wineries.”

Another founding member, Bruce Tyrrell, suggested that while the group has great ambitions about changing the perception of Australian wine around the world, they are not unrealistic about what really is possible. “If we do nothing more than simple ensure that all of our children end up as friends, we will have made a great contribution to Australian wine,” he said.

I asked Henschke how they figured out who would be in the group.

“We set up a series of criteria for what we thought made sense to define our group. You needed to produce a highly recognized single vineyard wine that you have made for many vintages. You needed to be involved and visible in the industry in some form. You needed to own your own vineyards, et cetera. Based on these criteria, we invited around 30 wineries to participate, and we ended up with a starting group of 12 and some more who are eagerly working towards fitting the membership criteria.”

Like all such groups and industry affiliations, there are plenty of political intrigues, and more than a couple of wineries who would obviously fit the bill but are surprisingly not included on this list. Having said that, the group quite vocally advocates growth and inclusion of as many of Australia’s old, family-run wineries as possible.

I happened to stumble into Melbourne at the tail end of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival about 2 weeks ago, just in time to attend a wine dinner focused on the wines of this association. Held at the well regarded Lamaro’s in Southern Melbourne, the dinner matched these wines to the cuisine of chef Michael Lambie.

Here are my tasting notes for the wines that were poured in the order that they were consumed.

2009 Jim Barry Watervale Riesling, Clare Valley, South Australia
Near colorless in the glass, this wine has a crisp and bright nose of green apples and rainwater aromas. In the mouth the wine offers a core of juicy lemon fruit surrounded by a wet stony quality. While not overly complex, the wine is quite tasty. Score: around 8.5

2007 Howard Park Chardonnay, Western Australia
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine smells of freshly buttered french baguette and cold cream. On the palate the wine has a rich texture and very nice flavors of cold cream, lemon curd and sourdough toast with melted butter. Nicely integrated with good acidity and a fine balance, the wine offers a tart pink grapefruit quality on the finish. Excellent. Score: around 9.

2007 Tyrrell’s “Vat 47” Chardonnay, Hunter Valley, New South Wales
Pale greenish gold in color, this wine has a deep, stony/mineral aroma tinged by bright lemon zest. In the mouth that lemon zest and lemon pith flavor dominates the palate with a deep river of wet rock underneath. A light bitter note creeps into the finish. Tightly wound, this wine will loosen and spread its wings over time. Made from the oldest Chardonnay vines in Australia. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $35. Click to buy.

2005 Mount Pleasant (McWilliams) “Lovedale Vineyard” Semillon, Hunter Valley, New South Wales
Pale gold in color, this wine smells lightly floral with aromas of lemon and wet stones. In the mouth the wine offers lemon zest, candle wax, and chamomile flavors wrapped in crisp, stony acidity. A chamomile note emerges in the finish. The wine isn’t fully put together, and seems to be showing less than its potential. Still, it was tasty. Score: around 8.5.

2004 Tahbilk Marsanne, Nagambie Lakes, Victoria
Light gold in color, this wine has a remarkable nose of fresh chamomile, pomelo zest, and beeswax aromas. In the mouth the wine is equally remarkable with beeswax, orange peel, and chamomile flavors that swirl and shift from the mineral to the petrol in quality on a lively bed of fantastic acidity. Really intriguing wine made from what are likely the oldest living Marsanne vines in the world. Score: around 9. Cost: $14. Click to buy.

2006 D’Arenberg “The Dead Arm” Shiraz, McLaren Vale
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells slightly nutty, with more dominant cassis and blackberry jam aromas. In the mouth the wine offers rich blackberry and cassis fruit with a hint of eucalyptus menthol. Good acidity and a nice texture make this a pleasure to drink, but this wine isn’t showing as well as it usually does. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $40. Click to buy.

2006 Henschke “Tappa Pass” Shiraz, Barossa Valley
Inky garnet in color, this wine has a compelling nose of chocolate and blackberry aromas. In the mouth it offers a complex melange of cedar, blackberry, raisins, and cassis fruit flavors with a nice velvety texture and faint tannins. Slightly less acidity than I might like doesn’t keep this wine from being quite delicious, especially as the cocoa powder and peppermint qualities emerge on the finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $60. Click to buy.

2006 Yalumba “FDR1A” Cabernet Shiraz, Barossa Valley, South Australia
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of eucalyptus, cassis, and black cherry fruit. In the mouth it offers spicy blackberry and cherry fruit that swirls amidst bright, even sharp acidity and grainy tannins. The finish is long and peppery. Score: between 8.5 and 9.

2005 Taylors “St. Andrews” Cabernet Sauvignon, Clare Valley, South Australia
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of black cherry and tobacco. In the mouth it seems focused on black cherry with auxiliary flavors of cedar and tobacco mixed with dark earth and tree bark. With a bit of air, the fruit seems to dry out a little, and a tree bark flavor emerges that lasts through the finish with a slight bitterness. Interesting though. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Click to buy. (note wine is sold under the “Wakefield” label in the USA).

2007 De Bortoli “Noble One” Semillon Dessert Wine, Riverina, New South Wales
Medium gold in color with amber highlights, this wine has an intense nose of candied orange peel and pineapple aromas. In the mouth the wine has fantastic acidity, which keeps its flavors of pineapple and dried mango from becoming syrupy, despite its silky texture. The wine lacks some deeper complexity, but ice cold, it’s a nice little dessert in a glass. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $45. Click to buy.

NV Campbells “Classic” Muscat, Rutherglen, Victoria
Medium coffee brown in the glass, this wine smells of roasted nuts, molasses, and crushed vanilla bean. In the mouth the wine offers a dark bouquet of flavors mixing toffee, candied orange, raisins, and a vanilla sherry or cream soda flavor that is quite compelling as it lingers through the finish. The wine lacks some zing from my perspective, both in terms of acidity as well as high notes of flavor, though. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $18. Click to buy.