Australian First Families of Wine Masterclass

Published by Sally on May 18, 2010

Australia’s ‘first families of wine’ rocked into London last week, marking their first port of call on an international road trip, aimed at re-igniting interest and enthusiasm for the sort of  posher Aussie wines that lay above the big volume brands.

The so-called first families have more than 1,200 years of winemaking experience between them and they own just over 3% of the national vineyard, though they also buy in fruit from contract growers.  Their wine portfolios span 16 regions across Western Australia, South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales.

Aus. First Families Masterclass

Aus. First Families Masterclass

They launched their group in October 2009.

To kick off the tour, and introduce a few of the younger generation to some of the key markets, a two-dozen wine tasting was put on.  And if gravitas of personnel is anything to go by, the list of men, all men, should be enough to make the most recalcitrant of Aussie wine lover think again: the august panel lining up to show their wares comprised Peter Barry (Jim Barry), Ross Brown (Brown Brothers), Colin Campbell (Campbells), Chester Osborn (d’Arenberg), Steve Webber (De Bortoli), Stephen Henschke (Henschke), Jeff Burch (Howard Park), Doug McWilliam (McWilliam’s), Alister Purbrick (Tahbilk), Bruce Tyrrell (Tyrrell’s), Mitchell Taylor (Wakefield) and Robert Hill Smith (Yalumba). When guys of this calibre roll into town on the same wagon there’s bound to be a show.

Alister Purbrick set the scene, saying “the ‘first families of wine’ started its journey four years ago when a small number of people, now all members, started to formulate what we might be able to do s a group in the Australian category, lifting the image of the category.  We set a very high bar on membership criteria, for example the ownership of icon brands, aged vines and vineyards. Not so obvious is environmental credentials and industry service over generations. Of the 2,400 hundred [producers], 16 met the criteria, and 12 saw the merits of what we’re proposing.”

He added “we’re not saying we’re the best winemakers in Australia. We are saying we make wines that are representative of the best.  There are many producers making exceptional regional wines.” 

But what they are trying to do is overcome a loss of favour in some export markets, and a glut of wine at home, by bringing some of the old razzamatazz back.  Purbrick said “the global markets are as competitive as any of us can remember. We’re getting on to the front foot to get Australia back into sustainable shape, i.e. profit.” Though he admits both winemakers and brands need to disappear to get the Australian industry back into balance, suggesting up to 30% of the vineyard area needs to go.

Read here for an interview with Bruce Tyrell, November 2009.

Tasting notes, and producer comments, London May 2010. 

There was no clearly discernible theme to the tasting, other than perhaps to show the diversity of style and price, and each company put up two wines. All very egalitarian, but it rather suggests these guys are still at a fairly early stage of thinking about strategy. Nonetheless the wines were plenty interesting, from sparkling through to fortified.

Both iconic, unique Aussie styles were in the line up: Hunter Valley semillon, and Rutherglen muscat.  More cabernet sauvignon than shiraz was shown, despite shiraz being Australia’s ‘thing’.  Shiraz accounts for nearly half of all Australia’s red grape plantings, and are not quite double those of cabernet sauvignon.

Brown Brothers Patricia Sparkling Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier 2004, Whitlands, Victoria, ~£22
Creamy, yeasty, toasted nuts (5 ½ years on the lees), with fine bubbles, and perceptibly dry (dosage 5g/l). Savoury, steely note, some layered spiced white flowers, with dry baked lemon. Quite a delicate style.  Good.

Brown said “for most sparkling wines three years on lees is the most you’d see, commercially.”

Tahbilk Marsanne  2007, Nagambie Lakes, Victoria ~£9
Creamy, smoked white nuts, hint lanolin, toastiness, quite complex notes coming through on the palate, modest acidity, medium full palate. Bit of steeliness, decent balance.

Purbrick said his marsanne starts with “lime, citrus and tropical fruits. After 2-3 years, toastiness, and honeysuckle flavours start to develop.”

Henschke Julius Riesling 2006, Eden Valley, South Australia, ~£18
Petrol, lime, galvanised steel, intense lime pith, lots of youthful fruit. Quite full bodied, and round alongside edgy, steely acidity.

Henschke said “Clare Valley is more floral and forward; Eden is more restrained, with better ageing; and Adelaide Hills riesling has tight, citrus blossom aromas.” 


Tyrrell introduced the three semillons, saying: “there are three sources [for semillon]: Western Australia, which are lighter, more cut grass, more sauvignon blanc than sauvignon blanc when young. Barossa, with higher alcohol, 12-13% and wood. Hunter Valley is the real home of a unique style that can’t be mirrored anywhere else in the world.” 

McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant Elizabeth Semillon 2005, Hunter Valley, New South Wales, ~£10
Lemon toast, lanolin complexity coming through; rich, warming fruit, and layered. Lemon toast core and long finish.

McWilliam’s Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon 2005, Hunter Valley, New South Wales, ~£25
Citrus and white flower perfume, fresh, lifted, good degree of elegance. Lemon pith and zest combo yet to develop a lemon toast complexity.  Youthful, balanced, intense, with attractive concentration. 

Tyrrell’s Vat 1 Hunter Semillon 2002, Hunter Valley, New South Wales, ~£25
Lemon curd on toast, with toastiness just coming through at back palate; dense, with massive concentration. Tart acidity cleans the end of the palate. Long finish.

Yalumba Eden Valley Viognier 2008, Eden Valley, South Australia, ~£9
Intense nose jumps out of the glass, peachy, perfumed, aromatic, glycerol smoothness, hit of warming alcohol on the finish, but it doesn’t detract too much. It is a big mouthful of a wine with good varietal definition.

Hill-Smith said of viognier: “there’s a cacophony of flavours once you go past 13.5% ripeness. We try to harness all that, restrain it and not neuter its personality. We use neutral casks and natural fermentation.”  

MadFish Gold Turtle Flint Rock Chardonnay 2009, Great Southern, Western Australia, ~£13
Light nectarine, very clean white fruit. Hint of oak touch. Fairly simple on first tasting, somewhat innocuous rather than enticing.  Don’t think I’m being harsh.

De Bortoli Yarra Valley Reserve Release Chardonnay 2007, Yarra Valley, Victoria, ~£20
First peach, white flowers, smooth attack, stony note, aromatic smoke, smooth texture, some restraint, attractive long internal length, light-fresh-cream notes, light and elegant and with good density of layered fruit and texture.

Tyrrell’s Vat 47 Chardonnay 2006 Hunter Valley, New South Wales, ~25
Fresh cream and aromatic toast, some lanolin texture akin to semillon, with oak nicely integrated. Perky freshness and linear palate intensity. Long, rich aromatic spicy finish.  

De Bortoli Yarra Valley Reserve Release Pinot Noir 2007, Yarra Valley, Victoria, ~£23
Showing some warm development, hint of grip, elegant perfumed strawberries in a leaner style, with crunchy redcurrant fruit. Just 12.8% alcohol.

Webber said: “People are now looking for beauty and perfume, there’s a growing up in terms of style … we taste green, we taste green, we don’t taste green, we pick.”

d’Arenberg The Ironstone Pressings Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre 2006, McLaren Vale, South Australia ~£26
Iron filings and haemoglobin on the nose, some grip of attack, with smooth baked strawberry fruit, with quite a hot back palate. Tannins clench the palate a little, but fruit carries through the finish. 

Henschke Lenswood Abbotts Prayer Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Adelaide Hills, South Australia, ~£36
Hints capsicum on the nose, lush attack, plummy, soft, not getting massive complexity, though it could just be this is very easy to appreciate. Good quality merlot with fine varietal definition, no mean feat in Australia, blended into cabernet sauvignon.

Henschke said: “merlot is a big pussycat of a variety. It soaks up rain like blotting paper. It shrivels in sunshine. The best merlots in Australia are now coming out of cool climates. As merlot ripens it goes through intense mulberry spice, then into plummy, and if it’s in a warm area, into fruitcake.”

Wakefield Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Clare Valley, South Australia, ~£9
Simple, juicy plum nose, and palate. Sits proudly in the value spectrum, supple, soft tannins, nicely balanced and flavoursome.  

Howard Park Leston Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Margaret River, Western Australia, ~£17
Green blackcurrant leaf, capsicum nose, dry chalky tannins on attack with lush, sweet fruit underneath and rising to surface. Fine tannins, and quite dry. Good length, with almost mint leaf greenness.

Tahbilk Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Nagambie Lakes, Victoria, ~£11
Ripe, sweet plum nose, supple attack then bit of grip mid palate, warmth mid palate, bit spiky and edgy.

Wakefield St Andrews Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, Clare Valley, South Australia, ~£30
Cinnamon spice and warm, aromatic nose, hint of aromatic tarry fruit just beginning to rise. Supple, sweet fruit core to palate, supple grainy tannins, appealing with attractive hints of complexity and length.

Brown Brothers Patricia Cabernet Sauvignon 2000, Victoria, ~£22
Almost no age showing on rim. Blackberry fruit, dark and brooding, tarry, not really showing much development, still showing sweet berry fruit. Fine tannin structure, firm acidity perception, balanced and integrated. Long finish.

Yalumba The Signature Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz 2005, Barossa, South Australia, ~£28
Sweet plum, spice, and strawberry. Juicy, with plentiful tannins yet of beguilingly light texture. Elegant body, lush and toned at the same time. Quite seductive. Alcohol there yet held in check.

Jim Barry The Lodge Hill Shiraz 2008, Clare Valley, South Australia ~£10
Elegant, smooth, currant and plum. Fine, light tannin texture, with juicy flavours and hint of grip at the end. Good value.

Jim Barry The McRae Wood Shiraz 2005, Clare Valley, South Australia ~£19
Menthol and blackcurrant, spiciness, big, powerful palate, succulent, spiced, mulled berry fruits, sweet lush core. Lush and overtly seductive.

Campbells Bobbie Burns Shiraz 2007, Rutherglen, Victoria, ~£13
Bright crunchy red berry fruits, sweet, medium body, quiet and soft approachability, light, sweet tannins. Good value. Alcohol held in check.

Campbell said: “we’ve produced this wine since 1970. I believe in fruit flavour, and not overpowering the wine with oak.”

d’Arenberg The Dead Arm Shiraz 2006, McLaren Vale, South Australia, ~£26
Rich, spicy, smoky nose, open knit, grainy textured tannins, in a spicy spectrum, with fruit back-up, layered, within structured tannin frame. Earthy element, balanced, wholesome. Long finish, with warm alcohol note at the end.

Campbells Rutherglen Muscat, NV, Rutherglen, Victoria ~£10
Amber with ochre sheen. Intensely aromatic, caramel, toffee, honeysuckle. Smooth, sweet, honey-caramel. Dense, and mouth-coating. Lush and plush. Baked marmalade and dry roast fruits, early nuttiness providing complexity. Long and lovely.

Campbell said: “We’ve produced a classification of muscats: Rutherglen, Classic, Grand, and Rare. They get darker as they get older, and tend to lose fresh fruit and become more integrated, with rancio characters.”

Please feel free to comment on this article

Jump to the top of this page