Burgundy & the Northern Rhone

As I write this I am preparing to head off to France to visit my two favourite wine regions in Europe: Burgundy and the Northern Rhone.

In terms of inspiration in the world of wine, for me these two are at the top of the list.

The wine producers of Cote Rotie are a determined lot. They work the most precarious slopes anywhere in the world of wine (though the Riesling growers of the Mosel might beg to differ.) Loose granite on frighteningly steep inclines, some terraced, some not. The producers are largely family concerns, often with more than one generation working in the business. The cellars are usually to be found under the family home.

The wine they make is for me the benchmark for cool-climate shiraz. In the good years it displays an array of complex spice characters woven through red berry fruit and floral notes (think violets) along with, let’s call them ‘warm oven characters’; here I’m thinking roast meats, the caramelized skin of a game bird and smoky bacon.

These are medium bodied reds with fine tannins and naturally balanced acids. They can be delicious when young and yet age with great distinction.

When I first tasted some of the great single vineyard Guigal Cote Roties from barrel in 1991 I found them distinctly different to the full-bodied, robust styles of Shiraz we see from the warmer vineyard areas of South Australia for example. They had an elegance, a fineness, an ethereal quality to the aroma and a silkiness to the palate that I fell in love with. Given the parallels between the Rhone and the Canberra District – a cool, continental climate and decomposed granite soils – I became determined to see whether we could produce something of similar quality and style from our vineyard in Murrumbateman.

The last twenty years of my life and my career as a winemaker has been about realising that goal.

The wines of Burgundy have also long held a fascination for me. Is there any variety that treads the exquisitely fine line between sweet and savoury better than Pinot Noir? I have been privileged to taste some of the greatest Burgundies there are and the best of these have a haunting perfume, intensely pure berry fruit on one hand (there’s the sweetness) and an almost otherworldly savouriness on the other, think rhubarb, blackcurrants and wild mountain herbs, and even characters that remind me (pleasantly) of compost, or freshly tilled soil, or peat; the famous “forest floor” characters.

Texture is another key element to great Pinot Noir. Pinot should not display the sternness of Cabernet tannins nor the enveloping warmth and roundness of Shiraz tannins. In great Pinot it’s almost as if the tannins aren’t there at all. Of course they are, but you are not left with a distinct remembrance of them, just an impression of something silky and fine having passed over your tongue.

One of my little sayings is that at Clonakilla we make Shiraz for Burgundy lovers. Our decomposed granite soils and cool climate tend to give rise to red fruit characters in our Shiraz, think raspberry, cranberry, redcurrants. The floral element that is present in our Murrumbateman Shiraz too, supported in some by the co-fermentation of Viognier, has at times made me think of Burgundy.

But the primary connection between Clonakilla Shiraz and Burgundy is a philosophical one. What I’m chasing is beauty rather than power. I love subtle, alluring characters in a wine rather than potent, overblown ones. I love the idea that wine captures something good and noble in a landscape and presents it in liquid form for us all to enjoy. That’s a more Burgundian mind-set: Respecting the personality of the site.

No doubt I’ll be thinking a lot more about the debt I owe to these two great wine regions as I trapse through vineyards and taste wine in the cellars over the next week or so. It’s always good to connect with other passionate wine people who are trying to do with their own landscape what we here at Clonakilla are doing with ours: working hard in the hope of finding something beautiful there.