Sunday, March 11, 2012

A week with Jim Chatto and the Pepper Tree crew (Part II) . . .

(In my previous post I focused on vineyards and the 2012 vintage during my week with Pepper Tree. This post I look more at the winery and their chief winemaker, Jim Chatto)

The Pepper Tree story and situation is an interesting one. Having started in 1991, it’s a winery that doesn’t have the history that a Tyrrell’s or Mount Pleasant does. Nor does it perhaps have the name or cache of some of the newer breed of Hunter wineries. Moreover, Pepper Tree make wines from the Hunter, Orange, Coonawarra, and Wratonbully, not an approach that necessarily gains kudos in an age in which people are increasingly looking for greater focus and greater regional specialisation. The corollary of this is that Pepper Tree is a medium sized winery that hasn't had a strong image or brand name within wine circles. And yet over the past 5 years, they’ve increased sales by 20% year on year, the quality of the wines have undoubtedly improved, and I think the Alluvial Semillon and the Coquun Shiraz are fast becoming Hunter benchmarks. So in a tough period for many Australian wineries, Pepper Tree is a quite uniquely positive story.

Jim Chatto, chief winemaker at Pepper Tree, has been the driving force behind this improvement of Pepper Tree’s fortunes, and is I believe beginning to make some truly great Australian wine. In taking over the show at Pepper Tree 5 years ago, he was taking control of a portfolio of wines that were arguably overpriced and underperforming. He has since turned this around and Pepper Tree wines have received wide acclaim in the past few years. Improving things in the winery, including cleaning up a problem with Brettanomyces, as well as both accessing better vineyards and improving things in those vineyards, have all led to better wines. Looking through the history of Pepper Tree wines reviewed by James Halliday (which go back to a 1993 Pepper Tree Frost Hollow white!) there are 39 wines that have received 94 points of more. Of those wines, 29 have come since the 2007 vintage. Moreover, there has been plenty of acclaim from other wine critics for Pepper Tree wines of recent vintages. The two wines that arguably stand out are the Alluvius Semillon (off the Braemore vineyard), and the Coquun Shiraz (off the Tallawanta vineyard). Neither wine quite has the history to sit in the lexicon of great Hunter wine just yet. But based off the past few vintages I can see that both wines are on track for a place amongst their peers given a few more vintages of similar quality. If that is the way things do pan out over the next few years, then I think Pepper Tree if perhaps never becoming a trendy label, will at least become a name synonomous with benchmark Hunter wine.

The other part of the Chatto winemaking story is his own Pinot Noir vineyard in Tasmania. He has a passion for Burgundy, and this little plot will be the outgrowth of that. He spent a number of years finding the site he wanted, eventually settling on a warm site 5 years ago that is one of the most southern vineyards in Tasmania. He was looking for latitude rather altitude. It has been planted with a number of different Pinot clones and 2012 will be the first vintage where he makes wine from the vineyard. It’s his personal long-term wine project. Given how long he took to find his site, the length of time he has waited to produce his wine, and the quality that can be seen in his winemaking more generally, it will be a Pinot Noir I follow with keen interest.

Back to Pepper Tree, and the portfolio starts with a $15-$18 varietal range and goes through to single vineyard wines in the $40-$50 range. In having such a portfolio, Chatto's winemaking ranges from the commercially made through to premium wines where less intervention and expression of site are the aim. Those in the varietal range are likely to see more winemaking as such. Fining and filtration, acid adjustments, concentrate, enzymes etc. All of which may be viewed as untrendy winemaking, but to me makes perfect sense for your cheaper, commercial wines, where consistency and flavour are going to be more valued by the consumers who will buy the wines than notions of authentic site and vintage expression (not that these are mutually exclusive ideals). Importantly these wines can be pretty good to. I tasted the 2011 Chardonnay, a blend of Orange, Wratonbully, and Hunter fruit, just before it was about to be sent off for bottling, and it had a balance and elegance to it that would happily see me handing over $18 for it. I also got to try it pre and post filtering, and the post-filter sample tasted slightly cleaner and better. For someone looking for an affordable and good drinking Chardonnay, this post filtering example would likely be the more appreciated outcome.

The wine I was most directly involved with, also in the varietal range, will become the 2012 Semillon Sav Blanc blend. If it’s a brilliant wine for the price, it will have obviously been the result of a bit of “Red Love”. If it’s not . . . then blame Chatto. Jokes aside, the Semillon for this wine came off the Quayle vineyard in the upper Hunter. The fruit when it was harvested was largely ripe, but had small pockets of greenness in it, which Chatto says he doesn’t mind for a Sem Sav Blanc blend (conversely he likes to make sure his straight Semillons achieve full ripeness before picking). The Sav Blanc will actually come from NZ (apparently even with transport costs it is cheaper to get good quality Sav Blanc from NZ than it is to source it from somewhere like the Adelaide Hills or Orange). It’s one of their top selling wines, and from a commercial perspective as important as any of their more premium white wines. I got to taste the fruit before it came off, crushed the fruit when it came into the winery (at night and in the rain . . . hardcore), tasted it as juice, racked it between tanks, and made the yeast preparation to kick off the ferment. Sounds like I did quite a bit, but in reality I will have had very little to do with end product, but just the fact that I was involved makes me very keen to see how it turns out once released later this year.

The wines with minimalist winemaking if you like, are the single vineyard wines. Wines like the Coqunn Shiraz. A single vineyard wine off Tallawanta, which in recent vintages has not required any acid additions, uses a neutral yeast, goes into large format oak (mostly old), and might see some minor fining and/or filtration just depending on the vintage. Gentle winemaking, but there’s no attempt by Chatto to make a “natural” wine, but rather a practical approach to making wine that best expresses its site. And on this point, I get the sense from Chatto and a number of other Hunter winemakers who I talked to while in the Hunter that week, that not many of them are not about to jump on the “natural” wine train. Given the history of the Hunter with Brett, and the fact that they’ve got to the point in the past 5 years where the Brett problem has largely been cleaned up, I don’t think Hunter winemakers are about to let their wines run their “natural” course. That being said, Chatto, and indeed many Hunter winemakers are keen to show off their great vineyards and make wines that are true to their site. To do this they are engaging in low intervention, yet pragmatic winemaking. Wines like the Coquun Shiraz and Alluvius Semillon are fantastic examples of this.

Beyond the things I gleaned about winemaking, the other thing I gained an appreciation of during the course of the week was just how much cleaning goes on in the winery. Cleaning grape bins, cleaning the destemmer, cleaning the press, cleaning tanks, sulphuring barrels. There is a constant and consistent process of cleaning whatever it is you’ve just been using. As much as there is the interesting side to winemaking, there is the equally important and time consuming effort to ensure everything in the winery is clean.

There were no winery mishaps while I was there, apart from one early morning when I got a faceful of Chardonnay. We were pumping the 2011 Chardonnay into a truck to go off to bottling when the hose sprung a leak and afforded me a chardonnay shower. If I wasn’t fully awake beforehand, I certainly was afterwards. Had it been captured on video it would have made for a good Youtube post.

A big thanks to Jim for giving me this opportunity, and a special thanks also to Luke, Leon, Joe, and Todd for showing me the ropes and putting up with all my questions. All up a great week.


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