Tag Archives: Elderton

Celebrating the 120th birthday of Elderton’s Command vineyard

It’s not every day that you get invited to celebrate the birthday of a vineyard. But then, this wasn’t just any birthday, or indeed, any vineyard.

2014 marked the 120th birthday of Elderton’s Command vineyard in the Barossa Valley. To celebrate I was invited to a masterclass of Command Shiraz led by Elderton’s co-Managing Director, Cameron Ashmead. Leaving aside the fact that this particular party was really a belated birthday (happening a week ago – firmly in 2015), it made a fantastic hook for a tasting of these old vine wines.

Elderton Command Shiraz

Elderton Command Shiraz

When the Command vineyard was planted in 1894 it was in quite a different world. Queen Victoria was still on the throne here in the UK. Aeroplanes, world wars and the civil rights movement were all still yet to happen. And we three monkeys were not even a twinkle in our grandparents’ eyes. So much has changed in the world in those intervening 120 years, and yet that vineyard is still there and still producing wine from its gnarly old vines. Impressive stuff.

The story of the Command Vineyard begins rather unusually in a country not known for its love of alcohol: Saudi Arabia. There Cameron’s father Neil made a living selling tractors, whilst also making his own ‘wine’ for home consumption from grape concentrate. The family returned to the Barossa in the late 1970s and started looking for a home to buy. Eventually Neil found a suitable house he liked in Nuriootpa and was told by the agent “If you buy the house I will give you the surrounding 72 acres of old vines for nothing”. Of course, he bought the house – and that vineyard is now known as the Command Vineyard and has gone from being worthless to being considered as one of the top single vineyards in the Barossa. I wonder if it was really the house that attracted Neil – or, after time making ‘wine’ in Saudi Arabia, it was the vineyard that did it.

After a few years of selling the grapes to local wineries, Neil decided to try his hand at making his own wine in the early 80’s – and in 1984 produced the very first vintage of Command Shiraz from those old vines: then labelled as Command Hermitage. Since then there have only been three vintages where Command Shiraz has not been made: in 1989 and 2011 due to very wet years, and in 1991 due to the recession. In typical Aussie tell-it-like-it-is style, Cameron explained that his parents needed cashflow that year and so downgraded the Command fruit into the standard Estate Shiraz blend. With less time ageing in oak and bottle, it could be released for sale much earlier than the Command Shiraz could have been.

To celebrate the 120th birthday of the vineayrd, Cameron presented us with seven vintages of Command, spanning 2010 to 1992. As well as allowing us some insight into the wine’s capacity for bottle ageing, this also highlighted the difference closures can make. Both the 1998 and 1992 were under cork and Cameron had brought along three bottles of each. Of these, 1 bottle of 1992 and 2 bottles of 1998 were corked. As Cameron put it: “soul-destroying”. He also told us that last year he had overseen the recorking of all of the wines from the 1980s and up to 50% of each vintage was either corked or oxidised. No surprise then that the wine has been 100% under screwcap since 2006.

Onto the wines:

2010 – This was my favourite of all of the vintages, showing a lovely freshness and real elegance. Vanilla and coconut aromas from the American oak were obvious on the nose, but on the palate these softened into more savoury brown spice notes. Driven by juicy, red fruit with fine, taut tannin and bright acidity – clearly made for the long haul.

Cameron said this new, fresher style was something they were aiming for and a slight departure from the more intense styles of previous vintages. He thinks it is the best they’ve ever made.

Winemaking – the grapes were handpicked in four different picks, each at a different level of ripeness in order to give more complexity as well as retaining acidity. Fermented in open tanks at 20-24C: a surprisingly low temperature for reds. This was explained by Cameron as a method of stopping too much overextraction and preventing any baked character in the wine. After ferment the wine was aged in new oak for 18 months – 65% American and 35% French – and then a further 12 months in old oak. It was then stored in bottle for one year before release.

2008 – Softer fruit, plums and blackberries. Concentrated and layered with hints of herbaceousness. Not quite as fine as the ’10, somehow a little blurry around the edges.

2007 – A hot year with only 20% of their normal yield, showing in the slightly paler colour and more baked nose. This showed more herbal, minty notes than the 2008 did and lacked the fruit concentration both the 2008 and 2010 had. One to drink sooner rather than later.

2006 – Served in magnum. Incredibly deep, inky colour: indicating the intensity of the wine to come. Despite being nearly 9 years old this was still full of primary dark fruit flavours with notes of mocha, pepper and spice giving complexity and depth. Dense and concentrated with lots of fine tannins: this has a very long life ahead and I’d love to try it again in another 5-10 years.

2004 – At 10 years old this was just beginning to show some evolution with a core of lingering juicy fruit surrounded by more savoury, complex aromas. Still that concentration of flavour, but here the tannins were softening and allowing the layers of complexity to shine through. Very long and at a lovely stage in its development – unlike the 2006 I could happily drink this now.

1998 – Just a hint of oxidative character around the edges. Much more delicate texture than the younger wines, although that core of dark fruit was still there along with a real exotic spice mix: caraway and fenugreek.

1992 – Somehow fresher than the 1998. Delicate with brown spice notes along with that savoury mocha character that was present in many of the other vintages. Tannins have softened and integrated, with just a whisper of grip on the finish to keep everything together. Complex and really quite pretty.

All in all this was a fascinating tasting. Happy birthday Command vineyard.

Emma


The magic of old vines – one for the geeks

I was lucky enough to attend an Old Vine Seminar put on by the Institute of Masters of Wine last week. It was interesting on many levels, the speakers were engaging and the 13 wines spoke volumes about the sort of complexity and intensity that one can expect from old vines. The moderator, Nancy Gilchrist MW, set criteria for inclusion as being wines made from vines 80 years of age or older.  The speakers were from South Africa, Spain, California and Australia and so (with the exception of a Greek Assyrtiko) were the wines.

So, what is it about old vines that makes them produce such high quality wine? According to Rosa Kruger, viticulturist from South Africa, it is their structure rather than their root system (the thick stems and wood provide apt reserves to keep them going) and the fact that the vines produce only the amount of grapes the climate allows them to. Old vines are generally better at preserving acidity and don’t rely on irrigation much, therefore are able to thrive in dry climates such as we can see in the Barossa in Australia. Their leaves don’t wilt as easily, which is better for photosynthesis and the vines stay fresher and greener and also build more disease resistance. Although how disease resistant a vine is depends very much on the variety, also. Australian winemaker Dean Hewitson has a great example of this – his 160 year old Mourvedre is thriving in his Old Garden vineyard whilst neighbouring Shiraz vines of a similar age suffer from eutypa dieback and botrytis.

There is no doubt that old vines are capable of producing serious, dense, mineral wines but, to be honest, the budding MW in me was looking for a counterargument. It never came. The seminar was an ode to old vines. And whilst this is completely on my wavelength and I definitely worship at the altar of old vines, I can’t help but mention some examples of where ‘quality equals old vines’ does not compute. There aren’t many, but some high profile producers have differing opinions. Vega Sicilia, Spain’s most famous winery, famously rip out and replant vines once they’ve reached 60 years. This is because these older vines become more susceptible to disease and produce bad fruit. Equally, the average age of vines that comprise Chateau Lafite is 45 years. Considered a baby by Barossa standards. Much like Vega, Lafite replant vines once they’ve reached 80 years, for similar reasons.  Some of the greatest and most famous wines ever produced were made from young vines. Take the example of the famous 1973 Stag’s Leap Cabernet which won the Judgement of Paris tasting 1976 and put Californian wine on the map. It was made from 3 year old vines. And, from what I am told, it is still going strong.  I haven’t tried it though we do have the ‘74 in our cellar, which I look forward to trying soon!

Here are some interesting notes and observations I made, some you may know and some you may not:

          The oldest vineyard in the world is in Maribor, Slovenia and the vines are 400 years old

          The oldest vine still living in South Africa was planted in 1781 and produces 20 litres of wine

          Old vines don’t necessarily mean low yields – there are 80 year old Sultana vines in South Africa that yield 40 000 tonnes/hectare

          Old vines don’t respond well to shoot thinning and green harvest so this is often not necessary

          Spain, which has the highest amount of old vine Garnacha in the world, has gone from

189 000 ha in 2000 to 69 000 ha now, thanks to the EU vineyard grub up schemes.

In 1912 there were 44 varieties grown in Rioja, now there are only 7.

The wines shown at the seminar were:

1.       Assyrtiko de Mylos, Domaine Hatzidakis, Santorini 2011 (here the vines are woven into a basket to protect them from the fierce winds). I prefer the 2012 vintage of this wine, sampled recently at Vinoteca with my fellow monkeys, but I do love its saline, nutty, volcanic goodness and chalky texture.

2.       Soldaat Grenache, Eben Sadie, South Africa 2012 (100% whole bunch, completely unoaked and made without additions aside from a small amount of SO2). Very elegant and restrained wine with lovely red fruit expression.

3.       T’Voetpad Field Blend white, Eben Sadie, South Africa 2012 (Semillon, Semillon Gris, Palomino and Chenin, 108 year vineyard). This blew my mind with its aromatic, mineral and chalkboard nose and beautiful juicy mouthfeel with a touch of maltiness and a cantaloupe melon and waxy finish.

4.       Boekenhoutskloof, Marc Kent Semillon, South Africa 2004 This was quite evolved already with butterscotch and nuts, though still had the waxy lemon and lanolin texture. Probably my least favourite wine though.

5.       El Puno Garnacha, Calatayud, Spain 2009 Made by the flying Scotsman and one of the speakers, Norrel Robertson MW, I liked its sweet spice and strawberry scented fruit, fresh acidity and granular tannins and the anise finish.

6.       Pena El Gato Garnacha, Rioja Alta, Spain 2011 (14 m in large oak) This was cedary and savoury in the mount with a bitter chocolate tone and some fennel on the finish. Food wine for sure.

7.       Flor de Silos, Cillar de Silos, Ribera del Duero, Spain 2005 I am biased as I did vintage here in 2011 but this is made by lovely people and it’s ridiculously complex and young still. There is very little evolution here showing this has miles ahead of it with its finely grained tannins and fresh ,plummy fruit.

8.       Numanthia, Toro, Spain 2009 (recently bought by LVMH) This wasn’t my bag, big with with a dried fruit character, liquorice and a lot of oak evident. Concentrated though very ripe with a fig and date character and high alcohol.

9.       Old Hill Zinfandel, Ravenswood, California 2008 Pleasure in a bottle. Not ashamed of itself and we all loved it for it. Quintessentially American flavours with cherry cola notes , sweet liquorice but this beautiful raspberry chocolate note that carried through to the finish and gave it freshness.

      To Kalon I Block Napa Fume Blanc, Robert Mondavi, California 2010 For someone, who doesn’t like Sauvignon Blanc unless it’s oaked, this was a delight with its lemon butter and passion fruit cream flavours  with a little vanilla and subtle grassy overtones.

11.   Elderton Command Shiraz, Barossa, Australia 2009 Made by the lovely people from the Ashmead family from vines planted in 1894. This has vibrant acidity and a spicy, peppery profile with blackberry juice flavours and the sweetness of American oak.

12.   Hewitson Old Garden Mourvedre, Barossa, Australia 2010 Best vintage of Old Garden I have tasted to date and it’s the vintage we have this to thank for. This is normally very  intense and black-fruited but the 2010 has beautiful, seductive perfume and a red fruit profile with a touch of Chinese five spice.  Gotta put some away!

 Lenka (Evil Monkey)