jamie goode's wine blog: Mitolo Reiver

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Mitolo Reiver

On both occasions that Iíve tasted through the Mitolo wines Iíve come away impressed (see e.g. here). Made by new Aussie superstar Ben Glaetzer, theyíve seemed to combine ripeness and size with a good degree of that almost indefinable character shared by most fine wines: elegance.
I was quite looking forward to comparing the 2001 and 2004 vintages of the Reiver Barossa Shiraz in the relaxed setting of the Goode kitchen, where itís not just a question of a sniff, a slurp, a spit and a rapidly penned note. At home thereís time to revisit a wine; to drink it; to try to get to understand what it is saying.

I uncorked the 2001 (the 2004 is screwcapped), and took a sniff. Very sweet and forward, not much else. A few minutes later and I came back to it. It wasnít quite right. Under the sweet fruit was a faint earthy, slightly musty edge. This persisted for a couple of days. I can only assume itís fallen victim to some low level cork taint. Not enough for it to be obvious, but enough for the wine not to be working properly.

So on to the 2004. Initially this showed sweet jammy fruit, but after a while it developed a savoury nose of red and black fruits, with good purity and a minerally, tarry core. The concentrated palate showed lots of sweet fruit and some spicy tannin, with a hint of greenness. The second day it became complex, chocolatey, spicy and liquoricey, with good structure.

It wasnít utterly convincing, though (and when I checked back later, I saw that this was the least impressive of the premium wines when I'd tasted them before, although it was still pretty good). Then I looked more closely on the back label. This wine was labelled Ďlate harvestí, and the displayed alcohol level was 15%. Iím not saying that itís fundamentally wrong to have high alcohol levels: some wines can carry this. Grenache, in particular. But it does affect the wine when you reach levels of 15%, which I think is just too much for most table wines to bear. Would this wine have come across better at lower alcohol? You know, it might have done. It's hard to say, for sure, and Ben has to work with what nature gives him. But high alcohol is an issue that worries me.

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At 2:22 PM, Anonymous Doug said...

Am I wrong in thinking that the term cult/superstar winemaker is part of the problem? I don't know who the winemakers are in France, because the prevalent philosophy is (generally) "substance over style". Sure there are oenologists but they are employed to ensure that typicity is cleanly and clearly rendered in the winemaking process. Many small growers are proud of their origins and don't want their wines to be abused by technique. Hence the expression that wine is made in the vineyard.

With French and Italian growers you tend to talk about the cycles of the seasons and natural fluctuations rather than the quality of the fermentation. There is an emotional relationship going on here; the vineyards are as an extension of the family; each wine is one of their children. The fickleness of nature creates an extra vigilance; these growers have to be fully in tune with their vines. Knowing when to harvest and what to harvest is not just a science it is an art.

Michel Rolland is a superstar winemaker and I'm afraid to say that I find his wines very samey - overripe, super-oaky, international in style. No matter the degree of green harvesting and the cutting of yields and the emphasis on concentration the wines are often hollow and without soul.

The Mitolo wines are fine, but late harvesting Shiraz is a kind of betrayal of the grape. You say Ben has to work with what nature gave him; that suggests that the grapes do not reach phenolic ripeness until they get to 15%, which is an alarming thought. Or is it that just like the chef who piles ingredient after ingredient onto the plate, that the winemaker is aiming for bigger, bolder, brassier flavours? When you taste a magical floral St Joseph or an earthy peppery-savoury Crozes (usually below 13%) you understand the delight that is Syrah and why it is a complementary grape in blends with the more fiery Grenache. Mitolo will probably harvest a host of medals in wine shows, but would you want to drink a lot of it?

At 3:26 PM, Anonymous Shon said...

I agree Doug. Although I would argue that wine is essentially a man-made product, the degree of human intervention seems to vary considerably between Old and New World wine making techniques, although there will always be exceptions to the rule in both cases. The concept of 'terroir' and what it is confuses the subject even more, in my opinion. Does an extracted, super concentrated, high alcohol Shiraz from a specific Barossa site have less of a claim of terroir than, say, its equivalent from the Rhone, simply because the winemaking techniques are different?

Off topic, slightly, but what is people's opinion of the Langton's classification, Jamie? Is it representative or not?

At 1:19 AM, Anonymous Doug said...

Terroir is not just about the soil but, philosophically speaking, the way the finished wine bears the imprint of the place it came from and the nature of the vintage. Barossa has indeed its individual sense of place and particular style of wine. In Australia, in particular, there is a kind of determinism whereby winemakers desire correctness and maximise interventions and manipulate their wine towards a precise profile. Profiling is taking a product of nature and gearing it to what a group of critics thinks or a perception of what consumers might be comfortable drinking. What they call consistency, others might call homogeneity. Besides all sort of chemical interventions it is the use of oak as the final lacquering touch that often tips these wines into sweetenened stupefaction. They become so big they are essentially flavour-inert.

I've tasted sensational tank samples with a wonderful spectrum of flavours and sampled the same product a couple of years after, now "completed", after a heavy oak regime. It was clumsy, missing its original spirit. The superstar winemaker seems to believe that more is more; the real skill is to know when to leave alone and not to be in thrall to notions of correctness.

Enjoying wine is about tasting the flavours behind the smoke and mirrors, or in this case, toasty oak and alcohol. It is not that these components are bad per se, just that they are overdone and throw the wine out of balance. The wines of Barossa have natural power and richness; to add more to them is to, in the words of Shakespeare "throw perfume on a violet".

At 11:26 AM, Anonymous Shon said...

Very informative and fascinating, thank you, Doug. I believe that Guigal's Cote Roties and some illustrious right bank chateaux also suffer from the same 'syndrome'(that is over-oaking for Parker points), but I get the impression that the use of oak in the New World is more judicious than it was 5 to 10 years ago. A good thing, surely.

At 8:04 AM, Blogger Jamie said...

Thank you for your insightful comments, which I agree with most of the way.

In fairness to Ben, I'm the one that used the 'superstar' tag, and if we're going to pick a target in Australian wine, then he's the wrong one - I usually find a sense of balance and a focus on fruit rather than oak in his wines that is refreshing. I suspect also that 'late harvest' on the label is a legal requirement to permit the importation of table wines from outside the EU with such a high level of alcohol.

In warm climate wine regions it's becoming increasingly rare to find wines with sensible alcohol levels. Global warming? A style issue?

I agree about Syrah - a thrilling grape when made in a bright, peppery, vibrant style. The northern rhone is very exciting when syrah gets into the hands of the relatively small band of wine growers who aim for quality without spoofiness. I find the Guigal LaLa's a bit disappointing because of the in-yer-face oak.

At 12:18 PM, Anonymous Doug said...

Agree very much Shon and Jamie. Guigal's wines are noticeably oaky. There are a lot of Parkerised wines in the Languedoc as well, aspirational 14.5% wines made from Syrah matured in 100% new oak. The soupier side of the wine spectrum, helas.

I take the point also Shon about there being a generally more judicious approach to oaking in the New World than previously. I think it's also true to say that we have witnessed the emergence of wines from cooler climate regions in Oz (Mornington, Tasmania, Yarra, Eden and Clare Valley, Great Southern, Adelaide etc etc, where the winemakers realise that aggressive oaking would mask, if not emasculate, the subtler aspects of the fruit in their wines. This is a positive trend. There is still, however, a tendency to look at super-ripeness as a license to layer on the flavours. A Napa Valley producer once told me proudly that his Chardonnay (14.5%) went through malolactic, lees-stirring and a high proportion of barrique. From nondescript duckling to ugly swan. The Syrah/Shiraz dichotomy has been mulled over by a few New Zealand growers who are trying to come to grips with the grape. They call their wines "Syrah" to (and I quote) "differentiate it from the typical porty Australian shiraz".

I think the point I wanted to make is that there are too many unnecessary interventions in wine-making. We keep talking about winemaking as an end in itself rather than considering the winemaker as a kind of chef. The really good cook examines the quality of the ingredient and thinks: How best can I bring out its essential flavour? The more interventionist, meretricious chef thinks: That's a good piece of meat/fish - it can take a really big/complex sauce and a lot of seasoning. A lot of wines lack charm and balance because they are being "made" to win prizes at international shows. That's a style issue because it is about creating a wine to conform to "perceived standards".

At 5:21 PM, Anonymous Keith Prothero said...

Well I may be an odd ball,but I drink far more wines over 14.5% than under,and rarely do I not enjoy wines I drink and almost always I have them with food.
Far rather the natural wine than having some dodgy wine maker adding water to reduce the abv%.
And in any event,we all know that most labels are inaccurate,quoting lower than the actual abv.

At 11:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to say that I agree with Keith, and I believe that in this circumstance to truly judge these wines one must do it blind. In comparing Australian wines it's too easy to see the label, see the maker, and see the degree of alcohol and write it off subconsciously before the first taste. There are plenty of Barossan wines that carry their alcohol well and they don't taste or agressive.


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