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The Bernard Hickin interview: Jacob's Creek, with asides on closures, residual sugar and alcohol  

Bernard Hickin (above) is group winemaker, and along with Phil Laffer, he’s in charge of one of the world’s leading wine brands, Jacobs Creek. He started working for Orlando Wines in February 1976, the year that Jacobs Creek was first launched. ‘We were using Malbec then to soften it and make it an early release style’, he recalls. ‘We just hit on this winning style which has never changed’. He’d caught the wine bug a few years previously, through a friend who worked at another winery, Tolley’s, near Adelaide. Hickin visited the winery. ‘I’ll never forget the smell of the red wines fermenting’, he reminisces, ‘and then I went into a shed where Riesling was fermenting, and I smelt the citrus smell’. Presumably, these memorable smells planted the seed that was to grow into a great big winemaking tree. [Sorry, that metaphor sounds a bit silly. Will try harder.]

I met up with him in London to talk about Jacobs Creek, and try some of the wines. The UK is the largest market for Jacobs Creek, one of the best known and longest-established of the Australian wine brands. ‘The range is well loved by UK wine drinkers’, says Hickin.

Now, though, Hickin and his team are focusing on what is called, rather uglily, ‘premiumization’. In short, getting people to spend more on their wine. A new range has been introduced, called ‘Three Vines’, and which has a fresh contemporary approach that Hickin describes as ‘mediterranean and food friendly’. More fruit expression, less oak and moderate alcohol are the values here.

‘These are wines of the future’, says Hickin. ‘People love wine with food, they have busy lifestyles, and they drink in moderation. People have started to think about alcohol levels, but this wasn’t on the radar a few years ago’. The Three Vines red is 13% alcohol, which puts it in the lower category when compared with other Australian wines.

How have alcohol levels been reduced? ‘The biggest gains we have had have been in the vineyard, focusing on optimal time to harvest’, explains Hickin. ‘It has been a trend in Australia to let fruit hang, going for full flavour concentration, but the grapes can go beyond ripe flavours and just accumulate more sugars.’ He reports that in 2007 there was a strong focus on harvesting red varieties as soon as flavours were ripe, and the result was that they got the reds in 0.7 degrees potential alcohol lower in this vintage.

The key is small incremental management decisions in the vineyard. Canopies are prevented from becoming too dense, because a little sunlight on the bunches is needed to help the grapes achieve phenolic (or flavour) ripeness. Dappled light on the fruit is ideal. They are careful not to overcrop: with a balanced vine, you are more likely to get the grapes ripening at the same time. Also important is keeping the vine reasonably healthy and not letting the leaves die.

There are other options for bringing alcohol back: Jacobs Creek are collaborating with the Australian Wine Research Institute to look at developing yeast strains that ferment less efficiently, and don’t produce as much alcohol for the same amount of sugar. These are not genetically modified yeasts, though, because the market won’t accept this (and Australians aren’t allowed to use them in wine). ‘If we can get yeast to produce 0.5% less alcohol, that will be significant’, says Hickin.

They also do a bit of reverse osmosis (a sophisticated technique for removing alcohol from wine), although this is not common. ‘From a purist winemaking view this is a reactive process, not a proactive process. I think it’s best to go back to the vineyard’, says Hickin, ‘because you end up with a more balanced product’.

Hickin also talked about the use of grape juice concentrate to sweeten up commercial wines a little during blending. While this is commonplace in the world of branded wines, Jacobs Creek stand out for actually making dry wines without any sweetness. ‘If you have credible fruit expression there’s almost a perceived fruit sweetness’, explains Hickin. ‘People can think the wine is sweet. Sometimes we do add a bit of sweetness with Riesling, but only 1–2 grams per litre’. He adds that, ‘varietal fruit expression has credibility rather than wines tricked up with residual sugar’.  

Like most Australian brands, the Jacobs Creek wines are sealed with screwcaps. What’s the key to avoiding the problems of screwcap reduction that have been much talked about in the press? [These are problems with smelly sulphur-containing compounds which can change their chemistry when tin-lined screwcaps, which allow very little oxygen ingress to the sealed bottle, are used – the result can be an off odour, which at low level smells of matchstick or struck flint, and which at higher levels can smell of burnt rubber or even rotten drains.]  ‘We use low-sulfide-producing strains of yeast, and check the nitrogen levels in the must’, Hickin explains. ‘We monitor FAN [free available nitrogen] and never stress the yeasts. We also don’t want too high a cell count of yeasts, which can strip the fruit – if you have twice as many soldiers in an army, they all start smelling.’ To do this Hickin avoids adding diammonium phosphate (known simply as DAP; a nitrogen source) until the yeasts are hungry. ‘We wait until the nitrogen source has almost run out, we don’t add too much, and the timing of additions is important’. This practice minimizes the need for copper additions at the end of fermentation. Copper is commonly used as a fining agent to remove unwanted mercaptans, but its increasing use since the advent of screwcaps has come under fire, first of all because of the health implications of putting a heavy metal in wine, and secondly because it can strip out some of the ‘good’ sulfur-containing compounds.

Less of the techno talk. What about the wines? The Jacob’s Creek consists of four different ranges. There’s good old Jacob’s Creek, the newer Three Vines Range, then the Reserve range, and finally the Heritage Range (serious high-end wines that previously used to be labelled with the Orlando name). Here are my notes.

Jacob’s Creek Steingarten Riesling 2003 Barossa
This high-end Riesling has a cult following in Australia. Very dry mineralic style that’s quite precise, with powerful lime and lemon flavours. There’s some richness to the fruit with a rounded, almost honey-like character and some nice acidity keeping things tight. Lots of promise for the future. 92/100

Jacob’s Creek Reserve Chardonnay 2005 South Australia
From regions such as Padthaway, Adelaide Hills and Langhorne Creek, with 12–15% new oak and 70% malolactic. Quite a warm, nutty, toasty nose with tropical fruit notes. The palate is quite creamy, mealy and rounded with a soft buttery character. Rich and full of flavour. 88/100

Jacob’s Creek Three Vines Rosé 2006
Jacob’s Creek found they had too much red wine, and so started using premium red vineyards to make rosé. They suddenly got wines with incredible fruit characteristics. This is a red pink colour and has bright sweet cherry and boiled sweet flavours, with some raspberry notes. Quite dry. 86/100

Jacob’s Creek Three Vines Red 2006
A blend of Shiraz, Cabernet and Tempranillo. In Australia Tempranillo is very soft, and gives a more savoury mouthfeel too: the proportion in this wine is around 20%. Vibrant dark fruit nose is sweet and berryish. The palate is juicy and berryish with a supple fruity character and some spice on the finish. 86/100

Jacob’s Creek Reserve Shiraz 2005 South Australia
Sweet black fruits nose with a bit of cassis as well as some spicy meaty notes. It’s plummy on the palate with rich fruit and a minty, spicy note from the American oak. Juicy and full with an authentic Australian character. 89/100

Jacob’s Creek Johann Shiraz Cabernet 2001 South Australia
The ‘icon’ wine in the heritage range, this blends Shiraz (mainly from Barossa) aged in American oak with Cabernet (from Coonawarra) aged in French oak. It’s deep, dark, spicy and cedary, with a slightly earthy edge to the dark plum and blackcurrant fruit nose. The palate is dense and full with minty, menthol, spicy notes and concentrated dark blackberry and plum fruit. A traditional Australian style of wine that will age very nicely. 93/100 

see also: blog entries on Australian wine 

A more recent article on the Jacob's Creek range (from January 2012)

Wines tasted 10/07  
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