Friday, September 12, 2014

Harkham Wines - Natural wine with a smile (Hunter Valley)


Maintaining a wine blog when you have a young family is tough, tougher when you combine it with a busy day job. The wine appreciation never stops, (nor do the recording of tasting notes, TBH) though the volume of articles being posted tends to inevitably decline. The post below should have been put on the blog over a year ago – the hospitality and enthusiasm of Richie Harkham demanded it, even if the quality of the writing in the post doesn’t quite. Regardless, this post was lost in the mix, and I have stumbled-upon it, dusted it off and posted it for the record. Tasting notes are from early October 2012. Thanks to Ritchie for taking time out of his day back in 2012.

The wine making industry loves ‘the next big thing’, especially when it polarizes opinions and has the potential to attract new customers to wine. In the last few years organic/biodynamic wine making practices and in particular, ‘natural wine’, have assumed this status. The growing trend of producing, selling and drinking natural wine polarises opinions amongst industry types, wine nerds and the wine cognoscenti.

While RedtoBrown have made light of natural wine in some of our posts (the ongoing ‘Wine Wars’ series of video clips being the most obvious example), on a serious note we have never shifted our focus away from the subjective assessment of the quality of the wine in the bottle for any given wine maker – be it natural or not.  If I like the taste of the wine, I like the wine: a tear-inducing, inspirational story behind the making of a wine does not mean I will enjoy drinking it.

With that elongated intro out of the way, my family headed to the Hunter Valley last October (editors note: 2012), for a relaxing few days. On recommendation of a wine friend, one of the wineries we visited was Harkham Windarra.

Owner and winemaker, Richard Harkham (Ritchie) has an infectious passion for his craft. Harkham is one of the few, (if not the only) Hunter Valley-based wineries making natural wine. This may be due to the regions successful battle with bret over the last 20 years, though it does seem strange that the major wine region closest to Sydney (the natural wine consumer capital of Australia) is not jumping on the bandwagon with more gusto.

When we met, Ritchie summed-up his winemaking philosophy as aiming for a wine that will be “as close to nature as you can get”. Ritchie noted winemakers tend to intervene too much in the winemaking process, and he tried to intervene only when necessary in a way that is done through positive energy in the cellar. As Ritchie noted, “wine is alive and always living and changing.”

Our tasting was a bit rushed, with Ritchie kindly fitting us in on a weekend prior to the arrival of a Chinese delegation keen to try his wines. The most impressive of the wines tasted had pure fruit flavours and refreshing, natural acidity. The least impressive strayed towards some left-field tropical fruit flavours and less structure. However, none of the wines tasted slotted into the cheap throw-away natural wine stereotype of faulty, funky barnyard reds and cloudy, orange, apple cider whites. Quite the opposite.

We left the winery with 4 bottles of wine (one of them a wine that Ritchie admitted did not turn out the way he would have liked, but was a wild wine to taste). The tasting notes below are for three of the wines, tasted in early November (Rose) and mid-November (the two Shiraz).  (As for the delay in posting the notes – blame my day job and downtime with my beautiful baby boy).

Harkham Aziza’s Shiraz 2012
An earthy, meaty nose with crushed grape stems, some dried florals, blueberry and dark cherry fruit. On the palate, a bit salty, with minimal tannin. Largely driven by juicy black cherry fruit and fresh acidity. The finish is earthy, meaty and savoury though clean, with a hint of residual salt.
After two days on the tasting bench/fridge, the nose opened up, with sweeter fruit coming out on the front palate, and a finish with additional dried herbs.
Given the difficult vintage conditions, and the minimalist natural wine making philosophy, this is a surprising result. Drink now.
Price: $22
Rating: 88pts

Shiraz Nouveau 2011
This wine hits home to me the razors-edge natural winemakers tread each vintage. If the winemaking is not at fault (and in this case it definitely isn’t), the fruit and vintage conditions can do their best to hijack a wine. Especially if the scientific – dare I say it, ‘industrial’ wine making work-arounds are not available. The wine had a banana-like nose with tropical undertones on the palate, arguably variable acidity, yet a core of ripe red cherry and raspberry fruit. Finished with an almost white wine textural mouthfeel. Ritchie noted that this was made from super ripe, small berries that were carbonically macerated in whole bunches in stainless steel tanks and bottled 3 months later. It was a tricky wine to make, and it shows in the glass.
Rating: 87pts

Harkham Rose 2012
Attractive light, pale strawberry colour. Nose – Sweet red fruits and a hint of spicy stonefruit (white nectarine). Juicy yet delicate fruit flavours, primarily strawberry, light and vibrant with lovely fresh, cleansing, integrated acidity. The finish is dry, with some mixed citrus peel lingering at the end. A very drinkable, refreshing wine, sweet on the nose, yet largely dry on the mid-back palate. The fresh, integrated acidity a standout. This wine passed the ‘Wife Test’, with the better half giving it two thumbs up.
Rating: 94pts

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