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Dinner with Annie Knappstein, of Knappstein Lenswood Vineyards

Roussillon Restaurant, 16 St Barnabas St, London SW1 W8PE
November 2002

Being a wine journalist involves, among other things, attending lots of tastings. It’s not unusual to taste more than 100 wines in the course of a day. One famous wine writer even boasted recently of tasting an almost unbelievable 26 000 wines a year. But although ' tasting' lots of wines like this is an important part of the wine hack’s role, it’s nice also to be able to actually drink wine from time to time. This is why I enjoy winemaker dinners. Typically, you get a meal in a good restaurant, a chance to chat informally with a producer, winemaker or owner, and an opportunity to drink their wines in a leisurely manner. Useful, and fun.  

This time the winery concerned was Knappstein Lenswood vineyards. Annie Knappstein was in town, and we had dinner at the impressive Roussillon restaurant in Chelsea. Annie is the other half of Tim Knappstein (loosely speaking she does the meeting the public bit, he does the winemaking), who back in the 1970s established Tim Knappstein wines, a successful winery in South Australia’s Clare Valley. 

Annie and Tim Knappstein

Tim and Annie sold the winery and the business to Petaluma in 1992, along with the vineyards in 1995. Petaluma dropped the ‘Tim’ from the name, and the winery is now known simply as Knappstein wines.

But a while before they sold their company, Tim and Annie had already established themselves in a new vineyard region, Lenswood, in the Adelaide Hills. ‘No one had grown grapes in Lenswood before,’ Annie explained. ‘It was predominantly an apple growing area.’ How did they come to move there?  ‘We’d never heard of it before, but friends lived there. We were looking for a cooler climate to grow Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and for Tim to explore Pinot Noir. We went to look at it and then bought in 1981. Our experience with viticulture had been with Clare, where we planted across the contours. This was well adapted for Clare but wasn’t suited to Lenswood. The steepness of the slopes meant that the tractors kept slipping down the hill. The next and subsequent plantings were planted straight up and down the hills. We also took good advice from a world famous viticulturalist who got a few bits of it wrong. We initially planted some Riesling (marginal), and Cabernet, which is wrong for our area.’

The current vineyard is in two large bowl shapes, consisting of the property purchased in 1981 and also an ex-apple orchard next door, which was bought in 1990. This gave some suitable north-facing slopes for Pinot Noir. The Knappsteins put in newer clones of Pinot Noir – earlier they’d only had access to Aussie clones which weren’t as good. ‘The Burgundian clones have added an extra dimension’, says Annie. With its decidedly cool climate, viticulture in Lenswood has to be spot on, or the grapes run the risk of not ripening properly. But, as these wines here showed, when producers get it right this is a very exciting region for producing elegant fine wines. 

Other producers have now discovered the potential of Lenswood. Henschke have a property next door, with Geoff Weaver down the road. Other neighbours include Ashton Hills and Ravenswood Lane. 

Altogether the Knappsteins have 26 ha of vines, with a production in the region of 8500 cases per year. Potential production is eventually 12 000–15 000 cases. Annie says they can’t afford to compromise with quality. ‘The best of the vintage goes into bottle, and the rest is sold in bulk. For example, we sold the entire production of the 2000 Palatine (their red wine blend) off in bulk.’ They don’t yet have their own winery; instead they have to share facilities.

Knappstein Lenswood Sauvignon Blanc 2001
Australia isn’t known for its Sauvignons, but with more wines like this, things could be changing. Lovely full, aromatic crisp nose with ripe, grassy fruit. Very classy. Good concentration of bright fruit on the palate. Crisp and fresh, this is very expressive. There’s a dollop of Semillon (3%) in here, apparently, and the four blocks of Sauvignon are fermented separately. Very good/excellent

Knappstein Lenswood Semillon 1999
Semillon was Tim and Annie’s first release from their new project back in 1990. Annie says that they’ve had a lot of difficulty with it because it is marginal in this vineyard. They did another in 1991 and then didn’t make a further Semillon until 1995. They changed the trellising and have learned how to control ripeness by means of leaf plucking and grape thinning. This wine is 100% Semillon, half aged in oak and half in stainless steel, with a tiny bit of malolactic and lees stirring. It has a striking sweet nose of coconut and vanilla, with some toastiness. The palate is crisp and fresh with a lovely lemony edge. It’s a very satisfying wine with some toasty richness and good acidity. Went very well with the lobster we were served. Very good+

Knappstein Lenswood Chardonnay 2000
Half barrel-fermented, half tank fermented. Only part undergoes malolactic fermentation. Rounded nutty, toasty nose is quite classy and savoury. Very savoury, intense, concentrated palate which is nicely restrained, with good acidity. Quite biscuitty. Very impressive, with good complexity. Very good/excellent

Knappstein Lenswood Pinot Noir 2000
Annie says that ‘it’s terrifying how much time gets spent on Pinot. Lots of people say it is fickle; we say it is unforgiving – you can never cover up your mistakes’. The five clones the Knappsteins grow are fermented separately small oak, and one and two ton fermenters, which are plunged four times a day. This wine went brilliantly with the rich beef topped with truffle-shavings, showing a lovely complex herbal nose with some sweet ripe fruit and a spicy streak. Wonderfully expressive. The palate is quite taut, herby and rich with a spicy, slightly medicinal edge. A wonderfully complex wine with good acidity and structure, showing some real varietal character. Excellent

Knappstein Lenswood Palatine 1998
A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon 52%, Merlot 31% and Malbec 17%. ‘We started making this wine in 1997’, explains Annie. ‘Although we had all three varieties before, our merlot was only ordinary.’ Friends of theirs, Drs Bronte and Mandy Ayres at Loberthal in the Adelaide Hills, had a love of Petrus and a tax problem, so they planted a Merlot vineyard 500 yards outside Lenswood on shale. This gave the Knappsteins the good quality Merlot they needed to make Palatine. Cabernet is difficult in Lenswood (it’s too cold). The Knappsteins first did it in 1994, but they didn’t make anything with it until 1997. In 1998 they  took a new approach. ‘Tim came up with a brilliant idea of doing amarone on Cab’, says Annie. ‘He picked half the Cab and put it on racks in apple cold stores for 10-12 days.’   The 1998 Palatine has a sweet tobaccoey and herb nose with a liqueur-like edge. The palate is ripe but taut and leathery with spicy rich tannic palate. It’s quite firm and savoury. Rich and intense with a tea-leaf herby complexity. Boldly flavoured, this is lovely stuff with no trace of unripeness. Very good/excellent

Overall, a superb line up of wines, verging on the profound in places. I liked them all, but if I had to take just one home to dinner tonight it would be the Pinot Noir. And it was a pleasure to meet the personable Annie Knappstein, who had to endure a barrage of questions from me!

Stockist information
Uncorked (Tel. 020 638 5998)

The Holland Park Wine Company (Tel. 020 7221 9614)
Noel Young Wines (Tel. 01223 844 744)
Or contact the UK agent: McKinley Vintners (020 7928 7300; info@mckinleyvintners.co.uk)

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