Australians were worried when Jackson Family, which seems to be all over the California wine world, added a historic vineyard in Clarendon Hills to its voluminous holdings in 2001. A big California wine company taking over 250 acres of vineyards that included some vines that had been producing enviable wines for more than 50 years? Seemed like heresy.
The estate, then known as Normans Wines, had slipped from its pedestal, however. The vines sprawl over rolling, sometimes steep, countryside perched between McLaren Vale and Adelaide, a glorious hodgepodge of geological sites, but the wines did not reach the level that the venerable vineyards suggested they should.
The Jacksons renamed it Yangarra Estate and quietly went to work on improving things. They went 100 percent biodynamic in the vineyards. They studied the land and applied lessons learned from a growing history with mountain vineyards in California. They invested in better equipment. They kept winemaker Peter Fraser, who had made wines at St. Hallett and had just joined Normans. The wines took a jump up in quality.
Then, in February 2012, Jackson Family won the bidding for the historic 450-acre Hickinbotham Vineyard, about 2 miles away. Rather than making its own wines, Hickinbotham had been producing grapes for Clarendon Hills' single-vineyard bottlings and material for Penfolds Grange and Eileen Hardy Shiraz. Heady stuff.
On my recent visit to Australia I checked in on some experiments at Yangarra and tasted through the debut vintage of Hickinbotham Clarendon Hills Estate wines, due to be released next year. But first, a tour of the vineyards.
At Yangarra, what jumped out at me were the soil differences. At the top, sandy soils frame head-pruned Grenache vines (planted in 1946). On the slopes, the green ground cover contrasts with red gravelly grounds growing Shiraz. Recent plantings of Tempranillo and Graciano poke through their bright green tubes on brownish soils. An ambitious program adds new plantings to fill out the entire roster of Southern Rhône varieties, including Counoise, Muscardin and Piquepoul. Mataro, Cinsault and Carignan were already there.
In the winery, Fraser showed me a wooden box full of small 50-liter amphorae, filled with white wine from the 2014 vintage, under way when I visited. Fraser used them to experiment with Roussanne, a major grape variety in southern France. "I am hoping it will accentuate terroir," he said. "You get some of the polarity of the barrel and hopefully some of the minerality too. I have six more of them to try with Grenache."
Beyond amphorae, Fraser is fascinated with aspects of the natural wine scene, despite his training in traditional enology. He made a 2013 Roussanne, fermented with its own wild yeasts, that he left on its skins for 120 days, a recipe for phenolic extraction that can lead to odd colors and flavors. "For me, if you get the wine right, it doesn't have to be orange," he said. This was bright and clear. I found it tangy, with an open texture, excellent length, yielding hints of grapefruit, sealing wax, banana and earthy spice notes.
A 2013 Shiraz, labeled "PF" (for Peter Fraser), whole Shiraz grapes cofermented with 3 percent Roussanne, was made with no additions at all—no acid, no tannins, no cultured yeasts, no sulfur dioxide, and sterile-filtered to keep it stable. I found it fresh, with an expressive richness. For me, the assurance that nothing is going to spoil in the bottle makes up for any loss of texture from the filtration.
The 2012 Grenache labeled High Sands, from those old head-pruned vines, showed more tannins than usual, but also more restraint. It was toasty, with the Grenache fruit character surging underneath. The 2010 Iron Heart Shiraz, from those red gravel soils, was less opulent than expected, a more upright style, taut, focused, more structural than flavorful. Clearly, it's built to develop in the bottle.
Up at the Hickinbotham property, I bumped over the vineyard with Chris Carpenter, responsible for Jackson Family's high-profile mountain-grown wines such as Cardinale and Lokoya. He was dispatched to Australia to work with Fraser and newly hired winemaker Charlie Seppelt on developing their own wines from Hickinbotham. Although Yangarra can use some of the grapes in its own wines, the face of the vineyard will be a new label, Hickinbotham Clarendon Vineyard.
For now, the production levels are low, less than 1,000 cases each. The Jacksons agreed to continue supplying longtime contracts, especially those with Clarendon Hills Winery's Roman Bratasiuk, who gets all of the vineyard's Grenache and some of the prime Cabernet. The 2012 vintage, which I tasted, does not reflect any changes in vineyard management, as it happened only six weeks after the acquisition. But the results, not yet released, look good.
Carpenter is applying his California experience to Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon while Fraser and Seppelt are responsible for Shiraz.
First up, Merlot, a nice, lighter-weight style, with a distinct red tomato note, the finish lingering well. "Merlot's reputation has taken a beating," said Carpenter. "Aussies have embraced other varieties. I saw this Merlot and thought, let's farm this like we're making a serious wine and see what happens." It has its own unique assets. No one would confuse this with a Napa Valley Merlot from mountain fruit, except for the lovely blue fruit flavors, unusual for Merlot in Australia.
Next, the Shiraz, hints of coffee and green olive marking the black cherry and blue fruit flavors. It has the classic restraint of Clarendon Hills structure. (Fraser made this vintage).
The Cabernet Sauvignon was actually fleshier than the Shiraz, with a black olive undertone to the dark fruit, an open texture and really fine tannins. This could be a comer if it develops in the bottle as it started.
"It's a big challenge for me to understand this vineyard," Carpenter admitted. "I found more red fruit and a green note in the Cabs here than what I am used to tasting, and a different textural component. What I think is attractive about Cabernet is how the dark fruit can create richness. I want to move the needle toward what the grapes can do in this terroir. I don't it want it to be more Californian, but I want to take my own perspective to it."
The wine Carpenter and Seppelt are most excited about is a Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz blend, a pairing that has made some of Australia's most legendary wines. "I knew nothing about them until I tasted a Penfolds Bin 60A ," he said. "It turned my head around. When we sat down at the blending table, I saw how each one fills in the gaps in the other."
Though made from equal parts of each varietal, the resulting wine actually shows more Cabernet character than the 100 percent Cab does. It's more than black fruit. It has the breadth and depth, the structural profile, of a world-class Cabernet.
Parts of the vineyards are being replanted with Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot, which could lead to a blend of all five varieties in the Cabernet or an alternative bottling. But that's the future. The present is promising.