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An Australian Winery Takes a Stand

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 18, 2007 2:10pm ET

Savvy wine drinkers know that words such as "reserve" and "old vines" mean something only in places where regulations define them. That's pretty much Europe, where the rules often require wineries to use riper grapes and age them longer to use "reserve" on the label, and specify minimum vine age for "old vines."

Not so in Australia, or the U.S. This has led one wine company to issue its own definitions unilaterally and promise to adhere to them. Yalumba, a substantial family-owned winery in Barossa, spelled out what it means by "old vines" in a letter to the media and the trade earlier this year. More recently, it added a second letter defining "reserve."

It turns out that proprietor Robert Hill Smith and winemaker Brian Walsh qualify as strict constructionists on these topics. Of course, they can afford to be. They own vineyards that date from the 19th century. That pretty much trumps anything in Europe or California, both of which replanted virtually all of their vineyards due to phylloxera in the late 19th century. South Australia, whence come most of the best wines in the country, did not.

Old Vines on a Yalumba label means they are at least 35 years old. That pretty much follows the standards used in Burgundy and elsewhere in France and Italy. The winery goes on to call vines 70 years old "antique" and 100-year-old vines "centenary." A few years ago, the winery started labeling a Grenache made from some of its 19th-century vines as "Tri-Centenary Vines." So, in a gentle thumbing of the nose at those who don't have such resources, they have defined the term as "Very, bloody exceptionally old vines who life has spanned three centuries."

"Reserve" makes trickier demands for a definition. Yalumba decided that the term suggests high winemaking standards and extra maturity, and implies relatively limited quantity and aging potential. So the winery has announced that, starting with the 2007 vintage, its reserves will:

• Only use Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Riesling from historic vineyards farmed sustainably, with balanced yields and in years in which the grapes achieve physiological ripeness, vinified using traditional practices and with complete records to prove it.

• Aged on the estate in quantities limited at the outset and assessed as superior by an independent tasting panel. (Interestingly, nothing is said about longer aging than other wines.)

• A money-back guarantee for the life of the wine's optimal drinking period.

"We know from conversations over the years with our peers that we at Yalumba are not the only Australian winemakers who feel that the excessive or indiscriminate use of Reserve has undermined is 'specialness,' leading to a loss of both credibility and value, while causing confusion in the minds of wine consumers," Hill Smith wrote in his paper on the subject.

"We're not finger-pointing here," he added, "just stating the bleeding obvious."

Maybe so, but I don't expect the rest of the industry to jostle each other getting in line behind these definitions or that guarantee. For my part, I applaud Yalumba's willingness to stake out the high ground and stick to it.

Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  December 18, 2007 5:50pm ET
Harvey;Great article!! We could only wish that American wine makers would be so straight forward. I had one American winemaker tell me, that he considered any pre-phylloxera vines to be "old vines", and that was in 2000. Reserve and oak aging do not have to corollate. While some European wineries may use 100% new oak in barrel aging, many will only use 1/3 new oak(Both Burgundys and Brunellos come to mind). So how does one use 3 years of "oak aging" as a standard in reserve determination when the starting point is so varied?. As a side note, I like Yalumba's grenache over any of their other varietals, espescially the old vines grenaches. I found it interesting that they will not make a reserve grenache. I wonder why
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 18, 2007 6:00pm ET
Yalumba's Tricentenary Vines Grenache is essentially a reserve, although I don't think they expect it to have the long-aging capacity of the varieties on the list. Viognier, incidentually, did not make the list either, and Yalumba is Australia's star Viognier producer.
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  December 19, 2007 1:14pm ET
WOW!!!¿ A money-back guarantee for the life of the wine's optimal drinking period.that truly is spectacular. Do you know who they will implement that Harvey? Ie. ship it to the store/distributor or back to the winery? And is it WS's drinking period or their specified?Anyhow great news regardless, Yalumba's sweeties too have been one of the most consistent and high quality wines I've tried.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  December 19, 2007 2:57pm ET
I doubt if my optimum drinking period will be the determining factor on the guarantee. I would expect to see a back-label suggestion on that.

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