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Value Leaders

15 wineries that deliver high quality for $40 or less

Harvey Steiman
Posted: May 20, 2003

  Australia's Edge
How the land Down Under scores so well with so many wines
  Top Australian Wines  
  Australia's White Wines
Riesling now vies with Chardonnay in the quality sweepstakes
  Winery Profiles:  
  Greg Norman  
  Devil's Lair  
  Marquis Philips  
  Two Hands  
  St. Hallett  
  Yangarra Park  

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Stellar values from an unheralded region

"It was an accident," says David Hickinbotham, chuckling over the out-of-nowhere success of his Paringa wines. "We are just grapegrowers. We've never had any intention of making wine."

Some grapegrowers. The Hickinbotham family's 200 acres in the steep Clarendon Hills in coastal South Australia produce the raw material for luxury-class wines, including some of Roman Bratasiuk's cult-status Clarendon Hills Shiraz and Grenache. But at another vineyard, called Renmark, in the hot central plains of the Riverland winegrowing region, Hickinbotham grows the grapes for $10 bottlings that at scores of 87 to 90 points rank among Australia's best values.

The vineyard at Renmark is 2 miles wide and 5 miles long, planted in 1997 at the request of wine giant Southcorp, which needed grapes to bolster its low-end wines. It covers 900 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot, Colombard and Chardonnay.

"It cost A$70 an acre [$48 in U.S. currency in 1996]" says Hickinbotham. "My brother was very cross with me. He didn't want to pay more than A$60."

But by 1999, a planting boom had left Southcorp with too many growers. "They had to take what we produced under contract, but they wanted to limit us to 5,000 tonnes [off the 500 acres then in production]."

Late in 1998, Hickinbotham had met U.S. importer Dan Philips of The Grateful Palate, which specializes in small-production, high-end wines. Neither Hickinbotham nor Philips remembers how the idea of a value-oriented wine came up, but Philips wrote Hickinbotham a letter in January 1999 in which he describes what the proposed wine should be like, using words such as "rich," "ripe" and "creamy."

Hickinbotham thought his Renmark grapes could do it, if he could tighten up the yields even more. He experimented with watering one side of the vine one day and the other side on alternate days, "to trick the vine into thinking it's not being stressed, but in reality using only half the water." The process produced 1,800 tons of Shiraz at 8 tons per acre, most of which went to Southcorp. Philips took 70 tons of Shiraz, and enlisted Mike Farmilo to make the Paringa wine at Boar's Rock, Farmilo's contract winery in McLaren Vale.

"We sold all 3,000 cases [at $10 a bottle] in a nanosecond," Philips recalls. The 2000 vintage upped the volume to 14,000 cases of Shiraz, 1,500 of Merlot and a few hundred cases of Cabernet. The prices stayed at $10, and the 2000 Shiraz South Australia Individual Vineyard rated 88 points for its richness and polish, exactly the qualities Philips described in his letter. The 2001 is even better, rating 90 points for its greater intensity. It's still $10 and was No. 40 on Wine Spectator's list of the Top 100 wine releases of 2002. Few red wines anywhere can match its kind of big, rich character at that price.

Devil's Lair

Margaret River

This remote 225-acre estate, not far from that of Leeuwin, Australia's icon Char- donnay-maker, consists of several large blocks separated by stands of forest where kangaroos hop through the brush. Owner Southcorp pretty much lets winemaker Stuart Pym, formerly of Voyager, run the show. He turns out consistently outstanding Chardonnay for around $20, a somewhat less exciting Cabernet blend, and bargain whites and reds called Fifth Leg.


South Australia

Born in Adelaide, Daryl Groom earned his winemaking stripes at Penfolds before moving to California in 1989 to make the wines at Geyser Peak in Sonoma County. But he never lost touch with his Australian roots. In 1999, he and his wife, Lisa, began taking advantage of the six-month seasonal difference between the hemispheres to make wine in both California and Australia. Groom's family connections helped secure Shiraz grapes from a classic Barossa vineyard (91 points, $38 for the 2000) and Sauvignon Blanc from Adelaide Hills (90, $16 for the 2002), the latter eye-opening for its vivid character.



Tony and Brian Lynn farm more than 500 acres of vineyards in the heart of Coonawarra, selling most of their grapes to big wine companies, which prize the brothers' consistently ripe Cabernet and Shiraz; since the Lynns built a utilitarian tin-shed winery and started bottling their own fruit in 1998, the rest of us have been able to taste just why. The wines display pure fruit character. There is a high-end blend called The Malleea, but the varietal Shiraz and Cabernet bottlings are comparable, and the prices (around $30) are reasonable because Majella is such a low-key operation.

Marquis Philips

McLaren Vale

Sparky and Sarah Marquis were the winemakers at then-cult-favorite Fox Creek when they met U.S. importer Dan Philips. When Fox Creek expanded, the Marquises left to become consulting winemakers. Philips worked with them on a number of projects, including Henry Estate and Parsons Flat. Marquis Philips, as the name implies, combines Aussie winemaking with the American preference for highly polished, lavishly oaked and densely flavorful wines, with the lineup, which includes $15 Cabernet, Shiraz and Merlot, retaining the Marquises' trademark elegance in style.

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