Reviving Rosemount was at the top of the to-do list for Foster's when the big Australian beer and wine giant took over Southcorp in 2005. The brand had been slipping since its heyday as a privately-owned winery in the 1990s. The top wines were still good, especially Balmoral Syrah and GSM, a lovely blend of Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvèdre, but the modestly-priced wines no longer emerged from the pack as the great values they once were.
The Diamond Label Shiraz convinced many of us in the early days that Australia was for real. The vintages of the late 1980s and early 1990s consistently rated 90 points or so, and sold for 12 bucks (or less, if you could find a sale). But from the 2001 to 2004 vintages, only one rated more than 85 points—and the wine was still 12 bucks. Disappointing.
"It's fair to say Rosemount lost its way a little bit," says Chris Hatcher, chief winemaker for Foster's. "When we took over the whole thing, I knew we had to make it a priority."
In truth, Rosemount was already working on it. But the internal politics of the company made it difficult to make headway. In the 2001 Southcorp acquisition of privately-held Rosemount, the company made the unusual decision to put the Rosemount executives in charge of the publicly-traded company. The responsibility proved to be overwhelming, and I suspect that's why the former brand suffered.
One who knows is Charles Whish, who has been involved with Rosemount winemaking since he joined the company in 1986, dragging hoses and doing other menial chores, working his way up to key winemaking jobs. Hatcher put him in charge of the brand when Foster's took over. The company designed a snazzy new bottle with a diamond-shaped base. Prices, which had ranged from $7 to $12 for the Diamond Label series, were set at $10 across the board. The new wines are just being released.
"We took a good look at where we were getting our fruit," says Whish. "Over the years we had drifted away from our roots in South Australia and New South Wales and were using more Victorian fruit. The wines were less generous. We also looked at the winemaking, looking for a better balance of oak and creamier textures."
So how well are they doing? You will find my ratings from my blind tastings in an upcoming issue of Wine Spectator, but in summary, things are looking up. It doesn't match the glory days of the late 1980s and early 1990s, but the line is no longer a minefield of good and disappointing wines.
I sat down to taste through the wines again with Whish and Hatcher on their recent swing through California. Two examples will suffice.
The Chardonnay, which had drifted into a tart, zingy style over the years, has more generosity and creaminess. The 2006 still displays a light texture, but it balances the tang with suppleness and pretty pear and apple fruit.
"I've gone back to more of the style of winemaking we did in the (early) Rosemount days," says Whish. "It had gotten too clean, not enough solids in the ferment."
The 2005 Shiraz, once a big mouthful that had veered toward the tart and crisp side in recent vintages, retains the bright plum and currant fruit but fleshes it out with a softer, smoother texture.
"It's all about getting more on the mid-palate," says Whish. "We're using the same regions but focusing on different vineyards, which can give us the kind of fruit we want."
Diamond Label Shiraz will never be what it was in the early days. Then, good vineyards were there for the plucking. Today, the demand for good Shiraz is off the charts. Then, Rosemount made about 20,000 cases of the wine. Today, it's 600,000 cases. To make that much of a good wine deserves some applause, even as we lament what it once was.
Of the other wines in the Diamond Label portfolio, I would point savvy wine aficionados to the fleshy texture and rasperry and currant flavors of the Merlot 2005, the refreshingly green apple and lime flavors of the dry Riesling 2006, the beguiling peach and grapefruit of the dry Pinot Grigio 2006 (better than a lot of Oregon bottlings) and the soft, slightly sweet tangerine and lychee character of the Traminer-Riesling 2006. At 10 bucks, they make better everyday drinking than anyone should expect.