Thursday, July 21, 2011

Savaterre (Beechworth)

The drive up to Savaterre is the kind you picture when imagining a special vineyard (maybe you don’t imagine special vineyards or driving up to them, but as a wine tragic it’s a regular day dream of mine). Off the main road you take a left onto a steep dirt track that heads up for a 100 metres or so to the top of a hill, from which you get a glimpse of a pretty special panorama. You then continue along an undulating road for a few more hundred metres, until arriving at the winery and vineyard, where you are presented with a commanding view of the hilly surrounds, including site of the snow-capped Australian Alps in the distance. It almost feels like a Piemonte vista (in a very Australian way). Rather than Nebbiolo, however, it is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that do the talking here.

Keppel Smith, owner and winemaker, was actually a policeman in the suburb I grew up in as a kid in Sydney. I was a pretty well behaved kid, however, and Lane Cove is a pretty safe and uneventful suburb, so our paths had not crossed until my visit to Savaterre.

In leaving Sydney and pursuing his wine dream, Smith engaged in a search across Australian wine regions for the perfect site to grow Pinot and Chardonnay. In overlaying a soil map with a topographic map, he found his mark in Beechworth. A cool, elevated, south facing site, sitting on buckshot gravel. The land itself had also been been sought out by other winemakers, however, the farmer there had not been willing to leave. Smith, however, managed to convince the farmer to sell his site by letting him keep a corner of the land on which he could continue to run some animals. And so the land was acquired and the Savaterre vineyard planted in 1996, with the first wines being produced from the 2000 vintage.

Since that time both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir have built up formidable reputations, with the Chardonnay having recently been added to the Langton’s classification. While there I tried the 2008 vintage of both wines.

The 08 Chardonnay is a good’un. It’s powerful, yet refined. Rich yet textural. It has a lovely nuttiness and excellent length. In the current debate about “natural” wine and levels of winemaker intervention, Smith’s approach is very much one of minimal intervention (without wanting to wear the “natural” tag). A part of that approach is allowing his Chardonnay to run its natural course through 100% malolactic fermentation. He posits that anything less than 100% Malo is interventionist and a move away from a natural expression of site and grape. It’s a view I’m inclined to agree with.

The 08 Pinot is equally impressive. I tried it while at Savaterre and then also had it over a couple of nights once home. It’s made with 100% whole bunch, and results in a beautifully aromatic Pinot Noir. It smells of cherry, five spice, a hint of sweet oak, and some lovely dried herbs. It’s savoury and structured on the palate, with a lovely sense of texture. Without food it might almost appear too savoury and a touch stalky, but with some duck breast it just drinks beautifully. It’s a Pinot that demands good food. There’s some good drive and intensity through the mid-palate, before delivering a long finish. Fine tannins and acidity are all nicely integrated. It’s probably 3-5 years from drinking at its peak, and cork permitting, should age for a number of years after that.

A beautiful site, a winemaker committed to expressing that site, and two very impressive wines. Great stuff.



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