Monday, June 5, 2017

Plonk's Winter Wine Tour

I may have mentioned this before, but one of the perks of working at a boutique beer and wine store, is that the staff outings are pretty good. This is our winter wine tour.

The first stop is Wily Trout at Poacher's Pantry where vineyard manager, Will, talks us through the latest wine releases and matches them with specialty meats cured, dried and smoked on the premises. We begin with the 2015 Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot (60/40) which has had 12 months on lees, has a really delicate mousse, and consists of 6g residual sugar, so it's deliciously dry and crisp. It is served with a smoked chicken breast that takes eight hours to smoke (in the smokehouse out the back).

Will from Wily Trout

Next up is a 2014 Chardonnay, made mainly in steel with a little bit of oak at the end, but predominately showcasing the fruit. It is matched with smoked ham, which is cured first in brine then hot smoked with beechwood for five hours. 

The 2015 Pinot Noir is grown in a vineyard that gets the morning sunlight but is protected form the afternoon heat. It is aged in French oak for 12 months and is delicate, gentle and on the dry side - which pairs it perfectly with the smoked duck we were offered. Lastly, the Shiraz made from 30% whole bunch grapes is smooth and well-balanced with subtle pepper spices. This is served with kangaroo prosciutto which is so good, I think we all bought some to take home. 

We press on to Helm, established in 1973 and one of the first commercial wineries in the Canberra District Wine Region. The tasting room is located in the 1888 Toual Public School House, whose bell was the inspiration for the image on the Helm labels. This building was once used for meetings of the Temperance League where locals signed the pledge against alcohol. Oh, how times have changed.

Toual Public School House bell
Winemaker Ken Helm is a fourth-generation descendant of German vinedressers from the Rhineland, who established vineyards near Albury and Rutherglen in the 1860s. His flagship wines are Rieslings and Cabernets, but we had limited time so we stuck to the Rieslings. Canberra is one of the premium areas for Riesling production and Ken Helm is one of the premium producers. The first wine he produced in Canberra in 1977 was a Riesling, and this won him his first award - the first of many national and international awards over the next four decades.

He states that Riesling is the "Queen of Grapes" but that it is also "the most demanding of mistresses; if not treated with care and respect, it is unforgiving." He explained to us that Riesling vines must be planted east/west rather than north/south because otherwise they would get sunburned. He is also planting rosemary and lavender among the vines to assist with the terroir. Rieslings keep longer than many reds - in Germany they are traditionally drunk at 3-5 years old (and go exceptionally well with pork and schnitzel), whereas in Australia they are drunk much younger and make a fine accompaniment to seafood.

Ken Helm of Helm Wines
We taste the several different Rieslings for comparison, beginning with the Classic Dry, which displays crisp mineral characteristics. The Premium Riesling has only been made on eleven occasions when the wine is considered to have reached a quality benchmark. This year the wine contains fruit from both the Lustenberger vineyard and the new 1832 vineyard (so called because they used the Pewsey Vale Riesling clone, believed to be a part of the James Busby vine collection of 1832, and the oldest clone of Riesling in Australia). It has a delicate floral and citrus aroma, with apple and lime cordial flavours, a steely minerality and a lingering refreshing finish. I note a touch of honeysuckle and it seems sweeter than the Classic Dry but both have exactly the same residual sugar (3-5g). So much for perception! When asked about cellaring, Ken replies that it is up to personal preference. "Enjoy now while it is young and crisp, or cellar for 20 to 50 years."

Any wine with more than 7g residual sugar can no longer be called dry and so we move to the Half Dry Riesling. Other terms are semi dry and off-dry, but Ken Helm scoffs at these - 'Why would you label your wine as off?". This is a very approachable wine with a floral aroma and tastes of pomme fruit, such as pear and quince. This style was made for the American palate after the Treaty of Versailles when the Rhineland was occupied by the Allies. It has 15g of residual sugar but Riesling has so much natural acidity (there is so much residual acid left behind in the tank that they can make cream of tartar from it) that there is no need to add any. Ken nods sagely; "It's all about balance."

We try a few more including the 2017 Tumbarumba Riesling (floral aromas; deep honey flavours; complexity in development; long finish) and the Central Ranges Riesling (smooth balance with nothing clashing or competing for attention). We could stay all day - and Ken could probably talk passionately about his product for that long too - but we have other appointments, so we bundle back into the van.

And so we go to Clonakilla, where winemaker Bryan Martin takes us straight out to the sheds, where the magic happens, and pours us a 2017 Riesling fresh from the tank. It is high in acid, fine and flinty (almost chalky) made from whole-bunch pressed grapes and presenting a great fully-rounded depth. Ravensworth is also Bryan's label and we tried some of their 2017 Riesling for comparison - it seems drier (3g RS) and more acidic with a zest that tingles the side of the tongue and a fine blend of citrus and floral with a hint of fennel. Apparently the fruit was whole-bunched pressed to four ceramic eggs, where a much warmer un-innoculated ferment proceeds - two of these eggs are still in the cellar for release next year: it's all a little bit 'Alien'.

Ceramic eggs at Clonakilla

Barrels are always beautiful, especially when they are full of wine. But not all of the wine comes from within the wood, and Bryan pours us several different varieties. The Ravensworth Seven Months is a blend in which whole bunches of Pinot Gris grapes spend seven months on skins with Riesling, Gwertztraminer and Sauvignon before being pressed - they pick up some of those lambic characteristics in a fine, spicy, clean, refreshing wine. 

The Pinot Noir is light in colour and presents as fragile and delicate with a sense of spicy, herbal, floral, berry flavours and strawberry fruit. The Ceoltoiri is a GSM (plus Cinsault, Counoise, and "a rumour of Rousanne"): medium bodied with vibrant red fruit, a twist of leather and silky smooth chocolate characteristics.

Plonksters and Bryan Martin
Tell me you don't think this looks like a Dalek.
Back inside in the new tasting rooms, we have a 2015 Ballinderry, which is a Cabernet Franc - the tanins come through the oak towards the back of the palate with subtle leafy tobacco flavours and olive notes. The 2015 Syrah is earthy and rich; the grapes are from the oldest vines in the warmest part of the vineyard and are barrel-aged in French oak for two years. This is sublime: black cherry; blackberry; anise; cloves; gunsmoke - this is the sort of wine that demands to be sipped beside an open fire. I'm game.  

Our final stop is Long Rail Gully, where we sample a number of their wines, beginning with the 2016 Riesling which is a classic local variety with intense citrus and mineral notes. The 2016 Pinot Gris is a showcase for stonefruit, peach and pear flavours, and the 2016 Pinot Noir is a medium-bodied wine with a sweet fruit palate (dark cherries and strawberries) and an excellent savoury length. We also try the 2014 Merlot which suggests fruitcake and plum pudding to me with its rich aromas and flavours (but I'm also getting very hungry), and the 2015 Cabernet Sauvignon, which is fine, soft and subtle with the desired level of fruit and hints of berries. 

Tanks and equipment at Long Rail Gully

Richard Parker (the winemaker; not the tiger) and the lovely folk have laid on a big barbecue buffet feast for us, so we all tuck in - sitting in the cellar surrounded by (and drinking) the freshest wine directly from the source is a wonderful experience. We are lucky to live here where people maximise the climate and harvest the fruits of the land to make such fantastic wine and food. Cheers!

Winery lunch bespoke to Plonk

Monday, May 22, 2017

Champagne Masterclass

Calamity Sue and I went to see Weatherwise and Mild Oats by Noel Coward, performed at Teatro Vivaldi. Sadly it is the closing performance at this theatre restaurant. The one act plays were entertaining and the company, as always, was wonderful. It is such a shame this venerable institution will no longer be providing such diversions, as it is knocked down to make way for 'progress'.  

Calamity Sue at Teatro Vivaldi
When we have our house inspections (one of the horrid things about renting is that people come and judge you on your standards of cleanliness every few months) we received a black mark for our gardening skills. Apparently we had let the grass die (although in scorching Canberra temperatures it's hard to see how that can be avoided), so in the cooler months we planted some seed. And then it rained and this happened.

Him Outdoors and I went along with some friends to a champagne masterclass with the Champagne Dame (Kyla Kirkpatrick) at Marble and Grain. She's charming charismatic, informative and funny, which all makes for a great afternoon. 

Kyla Kirkpatrick, the Champagne Dame
Each course (there are five of them) is matched with a champagne, sparkling wine or rose. An added bonus was the opening glass of Blanc de Blanc Non Vintage (made from grapes from more than one year; a blend of different year's harvests) from Gallagher, right here in Canberra. It is dominated by fruit and has a creamy rich texture and a clean crisp finish.  It's really good.

Calamity Sue and General Philosopher with Gallagher Blanc de Blanc
The menu

The first course was bilini pikelets with caviar and lemon mascarpone. Him Outdoors has never had caviar before - he's not a big fish fan at the best of times, and so was highly suspicious of the unfertilised fish eggs. The accompanying wine was a Claude Cazals Vintage 2008 Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay)

The goat's cheese soufflé was matched with a Arbeaumont Non Vintage Brut: the wine has an even ratio of the Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay grapes, which are the three varieties accepted in champagne.

Smoked duck breast and red cabbage goes beautifully with an Aubry Brut Jouy-Les-Reims consisting of 45% Pinot Meunier, 25% Chardonnay and 25% Pinot Noir. As the Champagne Dame explained, champagne goes with anything (or nothing) at anytime and any where. Quite right.

Smoked duck breast and red cabbage

General Philosophy and Gindelle
Next up was a Jean Vesselle Saignée Rosé, which is made from 100% Pinot Noir. The term Saignée means to bleed and, when it comes to wine, it means that the red wine juice has been in contact with the skins and seeds. This Pinot Noir is grown in Bouzy, which is both a great name and location - it is within the champagne region and where the red wines used in the production of champagne come from.

It offers red fruit aromas (strawberries and raspberries) and a subtle meaty, yeasty character resulting from extended lees contact and exposure to the grape skins. Although more usually consumed as a celebratory drink - not accompanied by food - it is extremely versatile and goes well with strong food flavours and textures. The bold acidity and forward fruit aromas make it a good match for simple grilled seafood, roast pork or even ore exotically spiced dishes. We had it with salmon confit, green apple, fennel and sorrel. Utterly delicious.

Gindelle and The Minister

The Champagne Dame does enjoy her theatrics and she was not going to let this opportunity for sabrage pass her by. Sabrage is the technique of opening a bottle of champagne with a sword, or sabre. It became popular just after the French Revolution when the sabre was the weapon of choice of Napoleon's light cavalry - the Hussars. Napoleon fought all over Europe and the survivors partied hard. He allegedly said, "Champagne! In victory one deserves it; in defeat one needs it."

One story goes that Madame Cliquot used to entertain Napoleon's soldiers in her vineyard (after she inherited her husband's champagne house aged 27), and as they rode off in the early morning with their complimentary bottle of champagne, they would open it with their sabre to impress the rich young widow. Kyla Kirkpatrick did not ride a horse, but she did make quite an impression opening that bottle. She admits it could also be done with a spatula or even the base of a wine glass, but that wouldn't look quite as cool.

The final drink was a sec champagne from Besserat de Bellefon, which is based in Epernay. Sec means dry, but it is sweeter than brut. A sec champagne will contain between 17 and 35 grams of sugar, while a brut champagne will have less than 15 grams. It's relatively a dessert champagne, which was handy as we had it with lemon cheesecake, citrus salad and mandarin sorbet.

Cheers from the group!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Jogging the (Photographic) Memory

One misty morning I took these pictures while out running, and then played with the mood and atmosphere of the trees with my phone photography app. I quite like the results. 


Other jogging days lend themselves to unfiltered, unadjusted autumnal shots.

Stepping stones across Ginninderra Creek in Umbagong District Park