“I was fortunate to be in London on my second week of Diploma classes when Mike Twelftree provided a tasting for Majestic. The man is by no means Yesterday’s Hero, and it was a Fait Accompli when he finished the tasting with the outstanding Ares Shiraz. It was no Fly By Nighter and it stopped me like a Deer In Headlights, I wondered how much had been lost to the Angel’s Share, but the Gnarly Dude kept a Brilliant Disguise and told me I would have to visit Bella’s Garden to find out; I put Brave Faces on, but now the chance to visit Fields Of Joy has come, For Love Or Money couldn’t buy a better opportunity to learn about the product of our trade…”
And so began my adventure in Australia. I had the great pleasure to arrive in Adelaide on the second day of a three day downpour, in which I experienced my first lesson of what it means to see a vintage first-hand: Grapes are grown at the whim of Mother Nature, and wine is made when she says you can.
When we talk about vintage at home, it’s usually with regards to whether it was a ‘good vintage’ or a ‘bad vintage’; we mean whether or not the wine is better in one year than another, and we pay little heed to what that meant to the growers and wine makers. My trip to the Barossa Valley showed me just what effect sudden rainfall could have to a wine producer, especially on the back of the most days over 45 Centigrade in the region since records began.
After such a wet start, it became clear that although initial fears of grape splitting were mostly unfounded, the baume (a measure used in Australia to determine sugar levels and therefore potential alcohol) had dropped by a degree generally, putting back harvest by at least a week. For my part, this meant that rather than being thrown into the deep end, my harvest experience would be more relaxed. I had a chance to get involved in winery operations, visit cellar doors around the region, get out and about in the vineyards across the Barossa, and work at the Two Hands cellar door.
One of the things I found incredibly instructive was getting stuck in to some of the more everyday tasks. Reading about racking a barrel or a tank is one thing, getting a chance to do it and finding out how it is done involved really puts textbook into perspective and gives you a much better sense of what’s involved in making wine. Once the fruit began to arrive, I was chomping at the bit to get stuck in, and I had the chance to operate the crusher & destemmer, perform some pump-overs, and on YouTube you’ll find a video of me looking particularly keen while punching down to break up the cap on a vat of fermenting Barossa valley fruit.
Mike, the active business partner in Two Hands, is a firm believer that great wine is made in the vineyard. You can perform all sorts of magic in the winery, but if you don’t have good fruit, you can’t make up for that with any amount of technical wizardry. A lover of fine Burgundy, he has his own line of wines under the Twelftree label made at the winery in Marananga that showcase single-vineyard expressions – in particular of Grenache – from sub-regions in McLaren Vale and Barossa. Tasting through these was an epiphany in appreciating the regionality of South Australia; all vinified and treated the same in the winery, each had a unique character and sense of place, from the aromatic charm of Greenock, texture of Ebeneezer to the rich heady spice of Moppa. Although Barossa is known for Shiraz, and to a lesser extent, Cabernet Sauvignon, Mike believes that Grenache is under-appreciated and has enormous potential. Considering the popularity of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, (which is often Grenache-dominated) there’s no reason that the variety should continue to play second-fiddle to Shiraz in the Barossa.
Front of house being my speciality, working the cellar door was a great opportunity to learn and taste my way through the range, then present the wines to guests. What visitors might have made of a cheeky Scotsman presenting Aussie wines I’ll leave to your imagination. Cellar Door Manager Shannon leads a friendly and knowledgeable team who run a very smart experience for visitors; it is a structured tasting within an inviting, relaxing environment. As well as being a talented sales-person and manager, Shannon also makes an exceptionally good wood-fired pizza. Should you find yourself at Two Hands midweek, be sure to order one.
On my days off, I made the most of the Barossa, getting out and about on a bike I had borrowed from the folks I was staying with. I managed to cram in a great many cellar doors, including Henshke, Torbreck, Peter Lehman, Rockford, Kalleske, Charlie Melton, St Hallett, and Turkey Flat, to name but a few. This wasn’t just a chance to taste a lot of wines, it was an opportunity to speak to different producers and get their perspective on the vintage, on their wines, and what is important to them.
More and more, I realised that sweeping generalisations about a vintage do not do individual producers, let alone individual wines, justice; Hentley Farm’s 2011 ‘The Beast’ Shiraz is a case in point, from a difficult vintage (read: very wet) but an outstanding wine nonetheless. Good producers can still make exceptional wines even in challenging years, and part of the joy is tasting the character of the vintage in those wines. That doesn’t mean vintage doesn’t matter, if anything, the opposite is true; a ‘bad’ year really sorts the wheat from the chaff. Wines are also representative of the vintage, meaning that in a cool year you’ll get higher acidity and thus ‘freshness’ in the wines, whereas in a hot year you’ll tend towards higher alcohol and bigger, richer styles. Making wine to the vintage is part of what being a winemaker is all about, and compensating for nature’s foibles to ensure you make a great wine is where they can show their flair.
I discovered on my travels that the Barossa is bigger than I imagined, but it is also a very small, tight community. Food and local produce (as well as wine) is something that South Australians are proud of, with good reason. A weekly Farmer’s Market in Angaston isn’t just a chance to pick up some tasty fresh treats for the week, it’s a social event where local residents will likely bump into a few familiar faces; with a population in the region of twenty-thousand, that’s pretty likely.
Working with the team at Two Hands left me with a real sense of their passion and drive to make top-quality wine that represents where it comes from. From the Picture Series to the Flagships, every bottle speaks about its origins and pedigree. Tasting through the Garden Series Shiraz with Mike, I was struck again by the regional expressions; esoteric Padthaway and Langhorne Creek; classic Clare, McLaren, Heathcote and Barossa; each distinct, characterful, and showing a sense of place. Three words, embossed on metal by a pair of sliding doors in the winery and surrounded by barrels of French and American oak, sum up their philosophy perfectly: Quality Without Compromise.
Would I go back? In a heartbeat. There’s nothing like a taste of the action to give you a whole new appreciation for what it means to make wine. So until my next visit, I’ll content myself with a bottle of Bella’s Garden…
Two Hands WinesTwo Hands Angel’s Share Shiraz 2012, McLaren Vale, Australia (£23 or £18 for two, Majestic Wines) Brambly fruits, blackcurrant and spice, hefty and rich with a touch of heady florals. More lifted than the Gnarly Dudes, showing the difference between McLaren Vale fruit and Barossa. 15.5%, no shinking violet. Two Hands Gnarly Dudes Shiraz 2012, Barossa Valley, Australia (£23 or £18 for two, Majestic Wines) Archetypal Barossa Shiraz. Fruit sourced from a number of sites in the Barossa and graded according to quality once in barrel. Great concentration for an ‘entry level’ with well integrated alcohol (14.5%). Very polished feel, fruit is quite sweet on the first taste but very likeable; rich, good weight, spice and a satisfying finish. Pass the grill please! Two Hands Sexy Beast Cabernet Sauvignon 2012, McLaren Vale, Australia (£23 or £18 for two, Majestic Wines) Fruit forward in style, plenty of blackberry and a touch of creme de cassis. Maybe a bit of eucalyptus, definitely a phenolic note here, adding to the caramel and vanilla spice. Two Hands Brilliant Disguise Moscato 2013, Barossa Valley, Australia (£7.99 Findwine.co.uk) The 2014 that follows this may turn out to be the last vintage TH make – apparently some difficulty with the grower. A touch of petillance, fresh grapey nose and spring blossom, slightly sweet and a very refreshing 8.5%. Fizzy frontignac! I can imagine this as a perfect picnic bottle, or with eggs royale. Two Hands The Boy Riesling 2013, Eden Valley, Australia (c. £20) Racy and lean with fresh lime and verve, mineral and cut flower, bit of TDR developing. Very lovely. Two Hands The Wolf Riesling 2013, Clare Valley, Australia (£20 Luvians Bottle Shop, St. Andrews) Full and generous fruit, floral and lively with cleansing finish. Might be edging towards off-dry, but acidity pares it back. Two Hands Bella’s Garden 2012, Barossa Valley, Australia (£35, Majestic Wines – current UK release is 2011) Sweet black fruits and bramble, heady violet and toffee. Bold and bellicose with a viscous texture. Soft tannic grip almost lost in-amongst all that fruit, creamy finish. Two Hands Lily’s Garden 2012, Barossa Valley, Australia (£35, Majestic Wines – current UK release is 2011) Swathes of rich black fruits, maybe something floral, dark cocoa and caramel, a bit of malt on the finish. The oak is a light touch, lending texture more than flavour. Two Hands Ares Shiraz 2010, Barossa Valley/McLaren Vale, Australia (c. £85) The flagship wine. Fruit sourced from McLaren Vale and Barossa, blend determined by barrel selection and treated to 12 months in 100% new French hogsheads after an initial 11 months in old oak. Plum, bramble, blueberry and charred wood, violets and chocolate, vanilla and caramel. Fine tannins and good balance of acidity and fruit. Very long. Delicious now, but has 10-15 years of development ahead of it.