Arnold Holzer is the young winemaker behind our bestselling winery, Eschenhof Holzer. For reasons unbeknownst to us till recently, one day Arnold decided to acquire some Müller-Thurgau, an 1882 crossing of Riesling and Madeleine Royale. It's a grape developed to withstand cool climes, and the hardy little thing can ripen just about anywhere. It was the most widely planted variety in New Zealand in the 1980s, and in England in the 1990s, but has fallen by the wayside. It's still the second most widely planted grape in Switzerland, and Luxembourg's number one, don't you know.
So Müller-Thurgau isn't the most prestigious of grapes, but here's what we love about wine, and what makes it endlessly fascinating. You can take something so underrated like Müller-Thurgau, and in the hands of a creative genius like Arnold, elevate it to something quite astonishing.
The Müller-Thurgau grape juice is fermented for a few weeks in contact with the skins, making this a skin-contact white or so-called "orange wine", even if the colour of this wine in particular isn't remotely orange. It's an ever-so-slightly cloudy looking white wine.
What this modish method does is bring texture, tannin and additional flavour to what you'd expect in a white wine. It's pretty cool, and opens up a whole new, unexpected range of flavours.
Why should you care? Apart from the fact this is Müller-Thurgau like you've never seen it before, and it's kookily packaged like a video game cover, skin-contact whites can be your saviour in the modern-day world of fusion cooking and ethnic foods.
These days we eat so much strongly flavoured Asian food at home - whether Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese, Thai - as well as exotically spiced dishes from north Africa or the Middle East or beyond, we need a new flavour palette for our wines too. Traditional European wine flavours sometimes can't cut it in this cacophony of global flavours, but time after time, 'orange wines' like this can. It's their extra texture, unique flavours, and touch of tannin.
Unconvinced? Try for yourself...
Efforts of late to investigate, identify and categorise the thousands of grape varieties has done a world of good. Robinson, Harding and Vouillamoz set the bar in 2012 with their magnum opus, Wine Grapes, and other localised or generalised accounts abound.
Grapes have long become brands, and remain for many people - novice and expert alike - the fundamental gateway to understanding flavours in wine. So an authoritative classification system is useful.
I would readily admit it's made our work at Red Squirrel easier and more attractive to people. For wine merchants like ourselves with a proclivity for the rare and the unusual, modern grape classification has heightened understanding and interest in grape diversity. Everyone loves something new, and we enjoy ticking items off a list. Dare I say it, ampelography has become sexy.
But. The inevitable but. A genetics-led inquiry may have shone a light on prior misconceptions (Primitivo and Zinfandel, perhaps) and solved mysteries (St Laurent's falsely assumed relationship to Pinot Noir, for instance) but it has also encouraged an excessively reductivist approach. An exercise in broadening our horizons has simultaneously bred conformity that can be unhelpful, misleading and, most importantly of all, dull.
I'm never more reminded of this when considering the Ligurian grape Pigato (photo above), a white variety restricted largely to the area between Genoa and the French border (a curious aside: Kim and Tennille Chalmers told me last year they've planted some in their family's nursery in Victoria). At its best, Ligurian Pigato can be one of the world's finest as well as rarest white wines. It is undoubtedly one of the best with seafood, with it's salty, garrigue herb minerality. And nothing rivals it next to Genoese pesto.
Pigato was the first thing we ever imported at Red Squirrel, and we remain the UK's foremost advocates for Ligurian wines: I say so humbly, of course, as specialising in Ligurian wines over here is a bit like specialising in skiwear in Antigua.
But I do therefore get a bit excited when Decanter lands on my doormat containing a rare feature on Liguria - specifically Ligurian Vermentino, alongside Tuscan and Sardinian examples. The author, Richard Baudains, is an acknowledged authority on northern Italians wines and someone whose opinion I respect; nevertheless he paints a misleading picture of Pigato:
"The production norms in Riviera Ligure di Ponente also recognise a variety called Pigato, which DNA analysis shows to be Vermentino. Unperturbed by the scientific arguments, local wineries continue to produce wines labelled as both, but if you've opened a bottle of Pigato, the truth is you are about to drink a Vermentino."
Now I wouldn't claim to know the truth of the matter, but I do know, having tasted countless Pigato and Vermentino wines from Liguria - even from the same producer - that there is a difference between them. Aside from the fact that the grapes just look different (Pigato has spots, its name derived from the Ligurian word pigau meaning "spotty") stylistically I find that Vermentino tends to be fruitier; Pigato is saltier and more mineral. Sometimes it could be argued this is due to winemaking style or vineyard site, but not always.
Bruna, for instance, is a tiny family-run winery in Ranzo, inland from Savona. It was begun in the 1970s by Riccardo Bruna, a key figure in the safeguarding and latter revival of Pigato. It is now reputedly one of the best but smallest producers of the variety and run by his two daughters, who have vineyards of Vermentino and Pigato planted next to each other. I have tasted wines from the same vintage, made in the same way, and it is as obvious as night and day that these are different varieties.
Returning to Wine Grapes, look up Pigato and we're instructed, "See Vermentino". Turn the pages obediently and we are told:
"Morphological and DNA comparisons have clearly established that Favorita (Piemonte), Pigato (Liguria) and Vermentino (Liguria, Sardegna, Toscana and Corse) are one and the same variety.
So yes, it has allegedly been proven that these two varieties are more likely distant clones than separate varieties. Though caveat emptor, Wine Grapes may be the prevailing authority on this subject but it is not infallible (and how could it be, covering such a vast subject with its research techniques still in their infancy?). For example, the authors inform us that Arinto dos Açores is just another synonym for Sercial, but Azorean winemaker António Maçanita has shown me DNA readings suggesting it is a distinct, native island variety.
Moreover, mere mutations such as Pinot Noir and Pinot Grigio are arguably much closer related than Pigato and Vermentino: are we going to tell people that when they drink a Pinot Noir, the truth is they're drinking a Pinot Grigio? Of course not.
The geneticists are probably entirely correct when they identify the DNA of Vermentino and Pigato as identical. I don't dispute that. I do believe that should we reduce the world of wine to DNA molecules we risk stripping out a lot of the history and local culture that makes wine so endlessly interesting. And in certain cases, like Vermentino versus Pigato, the tangible evidence contradicts the scientific.
But I'm fascinated to know what everyone else's views are on this. Perhaps like the seemingly insoluble debate over minerality, there are some things science just can't explain.
What do you think?
Founder of Red Squirrel Wine
Don't worry. We didn't actually shoot any koalas (but there is a tragic story to tell, if you ask us nicely). Scroll down and eventually you'll see a photograph we shot of a koala, in Dave Bowley's back garden in Adelaide.
First night in Adelaide was eventful. More than 24 hours after leaving London, and a whole series of Victoria later, we arrived to find our Air B&B didn't have any power because the host hadn't paid their bill (a warning if ever one was needed that Air B&B is not like booking a hotel room). We'd been met off the plane by Akira, Dave Bowley's right-hand man at Vinteloper, so the situation was defused (sorry) by whisking us off for an 11pm dinner at Chinatown institution Ying Chow. Highly recommended, right down to the Cooper's sparkling ale and the actual Chinese people eating there.
We ended up being put up in a dive of a motel in the city centre next to the casino. The less said about that the better, so let's move on to our next massive recommendation in Adelaide, the Flinders Street Project (above). Having been up since 3.00am with jet-lag, it was a welcome reminder that coffee really is a Big Thing in this part of the world. Awesome food, and really awesome staff.
Aldinga beach, and another look at the new vintage of Vinteloper Park Wine. Here's the white, a super aromatic, dry Gewürztraminer. Wild ferment, skins for 21 days, unfiltered. No fussing, just great juice for drinking in the park. Or on the beach.
Next day we began among Dave's Touriga Nacional vines in Langhorne Creek, with viticulturalist Sam Bowman (above). We had an awesome time with Sam and learned a huge amount about growing grapes in South Australia - indeed about growing grapes full stop. The vines look unkempt, but that's the way of things here: known as 'lazy VSP' or 'Aussie sprawl', if done correctly it shades berries from sunburn and still allows free air flow, especially important in this relatively humid, low-lying area.
This is what you don't want! Snip.
Now for something completely different... one of the most immaculately managed little vineyards you'll find. Owned by former Yalumba winemaker Robb Cootes, his 'off-the-grid' house is behind you looking down this steep east-facing red clay slope in Lenswood, one of the higher elevations in the Adelaide Hills (altitude here is 454 metres). Planted to Pinot Noir with wide 2-metre row spacing, it provides the fruit for Dave's top wine, Odeon Pinot Noir.
From there to Trevor Desmond's cherry farm near Willunga, on the Fleurieu peninsula. Trevor also farms grapes, and it's one of the sources of Dave's Pinot Gris, which we'll soon be re-introducing to the UK. There are 5 acres of Pinot Gris, mostly planted a decade ago.
As well as cherries and contract grapes, the Desmonds have their own wines under the name Fleurieu Hills Vineyards. There's some fizz, and Pinot Gris of course, plus this quirky 'cherry Moscato' called Delizia. It's carbonated, pink, sweet with a strong fizz, with nice acid to balance the 40 grams of residual. Utterly, unashamedly smashable...
This is a graft of the first Refosco in the Adelaide Hills. Those with keen memories might recall the 2015 Vinteloper Park Red was a Refosco, obtained from the Chalmers family vineyards, and it's from there that Dave and Sam have sourced this: the first Refosco planted in the Adelaide Hills. We're all pretty excited about its potential, though if it comes up trumps you won't be seeing any of it for a few years.
In Glengrove vineyard in the Kangarilla Hills, we saw a kangaroo chilling out among the vines. This is where Dave sources his Adelaide Hills Shiraz. Traditionally thought of as a white wine region - if indeed a wine region at all, being pretty young - the relatively cool Adelaide Hills have in recent years become increasingly renowned for a fresher style of Shiraz.
Over some supper at Dave's after a long day in the vineyards, we explored some odds and sods like this: the very first Urban Winery Project red, a 2012 Grenache from McLaren Vale, complete with Sharon's typically fabulous artwork. It was great. But there's basically none left, sorry...
Here's the second instalment, actually called Urban Winery Project Red #1 because the first outing didn't get given a number. A 2013 vintage blend of Graciano, Aglianico, Sangiovese, Pinot Noir and Barbera (keep up!). As you can see only a couple of thousand bottles were made but... actually no, we won't ruin the surprise.
To the Vinteloper winery at Revenir in the Adelaide Hills, trying new kit out of tank and barrel, like 2016 Odeon Riesling, 2016 Urban Winery White, 2016 Adelaide Hills and Odeon Pinot Noirs, 2016 Touriga Nacional and plenty of different casks of 2016 Shiraz (that final blend is going to be a stunner).
A bit of fun comparing the 2011 and 2016 Watervale Rieslings. Something we've noticed with the Vinteloper Riesling is it gets more and more approachable in youth with every vintage without losing its soaring acidity, something Dave describes as "those small adjustments yielding tangible improvements from previous releases, it's that last 2% that is the hardest to achieve".
The 2011 has a really developed kerosene aroma. It's round and hugely expressive, big lime fruit and still enormous acidity. It's got plenty to go yet. 2016 is the style we've become used to loving, and once again Dave's totally nailed it. Searing, intense, unfined, a classic. 450 dozen made, there'll be plenty on its way over here once the 2015 is done.
Lovely lunch at the impressive Crafers Hotel (above). Food's very good, French-leaning, and they've got big ambitions as a wine destination. Their sommelier Liinaa gave us a tour of the wine room, which as well as being a roster of the great and good in the Australian wine firmament (traditional and new wave) has some pretty serious gear from the Old World too.
On top of all this, the hotel has its own drive-through bottle shop (see earlier post).
Took in the view from Mount Lofty, 15km east of Adelaide (see in the distance) and 727 metres above sea level. It's the place you're most likely to find snow in South Australia.
A four-hour monotonous drive from Adelaide via a coffee-stop in Keith and we were in Coonawarra, at the historic Glen Roy Shearing Shed now home to the Bellwether winery.
It's here that Sue Bell (above) collects grapes and juice from all over Australia to make the small-scale, stunning Bellwether wines. Sue has an illustrious background at some of Australia's biggest producers and struck out on her own with Bellwether in 2008. In 2014 she was named Australia's winemaker of the year. There are old classics such as Coonawarra Cabernet from just up the ground, new classics such as very fine Tasmanian Chardonnay, and alternative varieties like Tempranillo, Bianco d'Alessano and Malbec. Cool climates and alternative grapes are the front line in Australia's battle against climate change, depicted in Sue's Ant Series range of wines (ants being canaries in the mines of shifting climates).
It's not just a winery. The shed serves up some top notch food too, thanks to the appropriately named chef Kirby Shearing. Wild kangaroo, corn purée, coastal saltbush, coastal parsley, dukkah and puffed rice (above left) greeted us for lunch, as well as some new wines like this 2015 Riverland Bianco d'Alessano (above right), part of Sue's Ant Series.
A Puglian white variety, it therefore doesn't mind hot and arid conditions. Only one block planted in Australia, which was going to be grubbed up due to its perceived lack of commercial appeal. But there's a few people doing it now. This is the best and most striking. Very pale lemon colour, aroma of hay, grass and fresh corn tortilla. Savoury herbs, floral honey, dry and smooth at the same time. A mineral salty finish. So, so cool. The grape is thick-skinned and slow ripening. Those skins give it grip here, and as Sue says, "I've never seen tannins like this in a white variety."
Some more interiors of the Glen Roy shed, including on the right a roster of the Bellwether growers. Unusually for an Australian winery (though Vinteloper do this too), the contract growers are given full prominence as part of the overall story.
Sue took us on a sweeping tour of the world heritage listed Limestone Coast, including an overnight stay in the seaside town of Robe, where we had an excellent meal at Gather cooked by bright young chef Tom Tilbury. Breakfast the following morning at No.4 was also brilliant (Aussies breakfast like champions, healthily).
The coastline scenery here is as you'd expect totally breathtaking. This was on the drive back north from Robe. It's a pretty flat landscape but occasionally you'd go over a small ridge, which we learned would've been a former coastline. Coonawarra itself is barely 50 metres above sea level. Nearby Wrattonbully has a monumental additional 10 metres on it!
You learn so much walking around vineyards with Sue. Above are photographs of a cutting in the famous terra rossa soils of Coonawarra (the large winery in the background of the left-hand photo is Wynn's). Notice on the right the vine's roots snaking their way down through the ferrous red clay then hitting the bright white limestone below.
We headed into Wynn's cellar door, where they had these 1950s bottles on display. Spot the old school 'claret', which as far as we can tell is pretty kosher with the French (isn't it?!), unlike the Prosecco grapes you'll see if you keep scrolling...
Coonawarra is the big draw around here (insofar as a village of just a few hundred people can be a 'draw'), and the fabulously named Wrattonbully is too often overlooked. Sue reckons this higher altitude (another 10 metres!) vineyard area has masses of potential. Traditionally a source of contract-grown grapes for big corporates with few independent producers, Sue with her background at the likes of Hardys knows Wrattonbully offers top-drawer fruit, and it's here she finds Tempranillo for her Ant Series range. And just in case people think visiting producers abroad is one big jolly, here's a photo of Nik hard at work.
Wrattonbully used to be the coastline so the bedrock is limestone but aside from a few rare pockets it doesn't have the ferrous terra rossa of Coonawarra. There's still some cooling ocean influence, and there's that precipitous altitude again (!), meaning all in all it is quite a lot cooler than most Australian climates. So that good acidity and freshness in wines we look for, without sacrificing loveable Aussie ripeness. And that's why Tempranillo - which adores the cooler climate and limestone soils of Rioja - is such a charmer here, probably more so than in the hotter areas it tends to be grown in Australia.
We had a wonderful, eye-opening couple of days with Sue in this sparsely populated but fascinating and endearing corner of South Australia. If one word sums it up it's 'space'. And another two would be 'untapped potential'. Another might be 'historic', after visiting the world heritage listed Naracoorte caves. On that note, we'll leave you with a 500-year-old gum tree and head to Victoria.
Christian Dal Zotto met us off the aeroplane in Melbourne and we drove the few hours north to his family's home in the King Valley. It's a truly beautiful spot, and a total contrast to other places we'd been over the previous ten days. It was settled by many Italians in the decades after the Second World War, including Christian's father Otto who moved here from Valdobbiadene in 1967. He met Elena, from another incoming Italian family called Pizzini, now also notable winegrowers. And he's very much stayed, though still retains strong links to family and friends in Valdobbiadene.
Like most others he farmed tobacco for many years, but turned to grapes in the 1980s and particularly those of his homeland. In 1999, he truly returned to his Venetian routes and became the first person to plant Prosecco grapes in Australia. In 2004, he produced the first Prosecco sparkling wine, examples of which are below: 2016 vintage Pucino Prosecco (left), and the 2014 Pucino Col Fondo (right).
Australian Prosecco, you're wondering? It's true that five years after Otto produced his first sparkling Prosecco, the Italian authorities moved to protect an increasingly popular product and renamed the grape 'Glera'; yet nearly a decade later and having won two court cases, the Dal Zottos (and other Australian Prosecco producers) are still allowed to refer to the grape by its true, traditional name. But due to the 2009 name change, not in the EU.
We'll leave the ins-and-outs of all that to lawyers and politicians. For the moment suffice to say the wines are bloody delicious.
This is a single vineyard of particularly special Prosecco that goes into the Dal Zotto vintage bottling. It's steep, good exposure, and even on a hot day like this there was a good breeze coming down the valley.
Michael (left) is in charge of making the booze, and younger brother Christian (right) is in charge of selling it. Otto still runs the roost in the vineyard. Sempre la famiglia. Prosecco might be their big thing in Australia, followed by (excellent) Pinot Grigio, but the Dal Zotto family have also pioneered and promoted many other Italian grapes, and landing this week we have some really brilliant examples of Arneis, Garganega, Barbera and Sangiovese.
A view of the King Valley from Powers Lookout, location for the final capture of Ned Kelly's teacher, the 'gentleman bushranger' Harry Powers. You can see not just how hilly the area is, but also how green even in the height of summer. It's a truly beautiful wine region.
To Melbourne to stay with an old friend and former colleague Alban. After a final lunch with Christian at the brilliant Lau's, we had a coffee at St Kilda beach before heading into the city to take a Frenchman to his first cricket match...
The MCG half-full under floodlights isn't a bad place to start. Brisbane won a low-scoring game despite former England international Luke Wright's batting through the Melbourne innings with an unbeaten fifty. Kevin Pietersen lasted one ball, and wasn't seen again except every five minutes plugging an advert on the big screens. One of the highlights? Seat cup-holders (above right). Australian cricket fans have their priorities sorted.
KP might have been out of nick at the cricket, but Australia continued its fine form on the breakfast front at Industry Beans in Fitzroy, sort of Melbourne's very own of Shoreditch (or perhaps it's the other way around). Roastery-cum-café, they take their coffee very seriously and present it smartly (above). Many in our trade could take note of how they put together their coffee menu, containing multiple origins, styles and flavour profiles. The food is inspired too.
We walked around Melbourne and in name of research visited an Australian wine temple: Jimmy Watson's. The late man's trophy is still the most prestigious award for Australian red wines, and his son Alan - taking pity on two Poms and a Frenchman escaping from the midday heat - took us on a tour of his homebrews, including the Palomino above right (Alan has his own solera system out the back), as well as 'port', 'sauternes', 'madeira' and a really bloody good sparkling Shiraz.
Our final night in Australia saw one of the most memorable of dinners at Attica in Ripponlea, thirty-third best restaurant in the world and the best in Australasia. It's worth a trip.
The title of this photo-diary is about shooting koalas, so fitting to end with one. This is in Dave Bowley's back garden in Adelaide just before we caught our flight home. Koalas are jolly hard to spot, and a bit like going leopard-spotting in Africa, I spent most of my fortnight in Australia looking up trees. At the eleventh hour, sweltering in 38 degrees, we found one.
We arrived in Adelaide on Monday evening for our big tour of our Australian producers. Akira Takahashi from Vinteloper met us off the plane. For 48 hours we've been acclimatising, getting over jet-lag (like a hangover, but without the fun journey) and familiarising ourselves with the 'City of Churches'.
Adelaide is a very cool place. It has a young, laid-back vibe. Lots of construction is underway, but it retains a country town feel. The renovated airport is tiny, with one baggage carousel in arrivals, but it's an increasingly important international hub. More than a million people live here, but fewer than two million people live in the whole of South Australia. The city has the feel of somewhere confidently going places, but not too fast thank you very much.
A delicious meal at Chinatown institution Ying Chow, followed by a fitful, brief night's sleep, a run along the Torrens, and Akira took us on a whistle-stop tour of Adelaide and it's beaches. Here's four things I've learned so far.
And after a sort-of-decent night's sleep, it's out to the Vinteloper vineyards today.