The irrepressible Jane Ferrari and the wines of Yalumba
By John Schreiner
September 19, 2009
In a 1985 book, James Halliday, the leading Australian wine writer, showed concern that Yalumba would be eaten up by the tide of corporate takeover.
“It is desperately important for the wine industry, and even more important for the consumer, that Yalumba … survive,” Halliday wrote. “If rationalisation of the Australian wine industry is to take the course which many predict, Yalumba must be one of the companies which stand most threatened.”
Well, rationalization did occur. Constellation Brands of the United States and Fosters, the brewing giant, both control vast winemaking empires in Australia (and Foster is rumoured to want to shed its wineries).
But Yalumba, established by in 1849 by Samuel Smith, an English brewer, remains the oldest family-owned winery in Australia.
That speaks to the indomitable spirit of the Hill-Smith family, as it is now known. Yalumba’s contributions to Australian wine are numerous and legendary.
This is the winery, to take an example, that championed Viognier in Australia at a time (1986) when, as Jancis Robinson observed, there was almost too little grown to include the variety in her 1986 book, Vines, Grapes and Wines. There were then about 80 acres in the whole world, most of it in France.
It would not surprise me if Yalumba alone is growing much more than that now. The firm has 13 clones in one of its vineyards alone. No doubt, the quality of Yalumba’s Viogniers has turned a lot of consumers onto this delicious varietal, and encouraged others to grow it.
In the Canadian market, the company has what it calls it “Y” Series Viognier, remarkably good value at $18 a bottle in British Columbia. The 2008 is tasty indeed, with dried apricot and peach aromas, flavours of citrus and pineapple, and a crisp and refreshing finish. My score: 89.
This was one of the Yalumba wines in display at a recent Vancouver tasting hosted by Jane Ferrari, the winery’s brand ambassador. A winemaker by training, a baseball nut by avocation, she is a larger than life character, even by Australian standards, and brings entertaining irreverence to wine tastings.
But Robert Hill-Smith, the winery proprietor, is also rather colourful. He once hosted a barbecue in the Barossa Valley for a group of wine writers, myself included. When a huge nasty black snake tried to join the party (Australia is home to seven or eight of the world’s deadliest snakes), he saved his guests with a well-aimed shotgun blast at the snake.
You have to appreciate a host like that.
In its nursery, Yalumba has championed other varieties as well. Since 2001 the company has been planting Burgundy clones of Chardonnay, aiming for better quality than the Australians are getting from the high-yielding American clone which was first planted there in the 1980s.
Currently, the winery has begun a trial with Vermentino, a fairly obscure Italian white.
None of these were available at the tasting, which – after the Viognier – focussed on serious reds. Among them:
The Scribbler 2007 ($25.99). This is a Cabernet Sauvignon/Shiraz, a blend that Ferrari claims is “the best story never told by the Australian wine industry” which is such a varietally-focussed industry. However, these two grapes are great partners. This wine, with vanilla and blackberry aromas and flavours of spiced plum and black currant, is a satisfying red. My score: 88
Patchwork Shiraz 2006 ($25.99). This dark, chewy wine begins with a nose of anise and liquorice. The rich flavours recall the taste of Christmas pudding. 91
Signature 2003 ($59.99). This is another Cabernet Shiraz blend, made from only the best barrels – “pulling the eyes out of the blend,” Ferrari says. In 2007, nothing quite made the cut and the wines were blended into The Scribbler, yielding a better than average Scribbler. This is a complex red, with lovely sweet fruit aromas and with flavours of plums and prunes. The six years of age have given the wine great polish. 90-91
The Menzies 2004 ($59.99). This is a very fine Cabernet Sauvignon from Coonawarra, with an ethereal aroma of berries, mint and iodine. It is full and ripe on the palate, with flavours of currants and chocolate. 92
Octavius 2001 ($109.99). This is a Barossa Shiraz with aromas of oak, fruit, tobacco and, according to the winery’s notes, violets. It is a bold, concentrated wine with flavours of plums, black cherries and spice. The tannins are still firm, suggesting that the wine has at least 10 more years of life. 94
Museum Muscat NV ($19.99 for a half bottle). This is one of those mouth-filling Rutherglen Muscat dessert wines virtually unique to Australia. You should look for this in better private wine stores. It is a luscious wine, with the aroma of raisin pie and flavours of caramel and spice cake. Very long finish. 93
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