David 3 April 2014
The Australian Wine Industry Directory 2014 was released this week, providing a who’s who of Australian wine and this year it lists 2,573 wineries. I was interested to read that the top 6 companies (0.2%) crush more than 100,000 tonnes each annually. In contrast, just over 75% of wineries crush less than 100 tonnes each annually. This puts into perspective the great number of small wineries competing for a slice of the action. It also makes you realise the skill and determination it must take to see a small winery succeed. Here’s once such gem that has stood the test of time.
I came across Cobaw Ridge in 1996 when working at a nearby winery. Back then Cobaw Ridge was about as groovy as you could get. Everyone was into über cool-climate, quality micro-producers from Victoria and all the top restaurants carried their wines.
Cobaw Ridge is in the Macedon Ranges, less than an hour north of Melbourne. This area was once used as a retreat by wealthy Melbournians in the late 1800s and still boasts many large European style gardens. Early attempts at planting grapes here in the mid 1800s were abandoned and viticulture was not re-established until the 1970s and 80s. These days there are more than 30 wineries in the region including; Bindi, Curly Flat, Hanging Rock and Virgin Hills (remember them?).
In 1985 Alan and Nelly Cooper left careers in nursing to establish Cobaw Ridge at a lofty 610m elevation. Situated near the Cobaw State Forest, it's only about 15 minutes from the town of Kyneton but it feels much further due to the winding dirt roads it takes to get there. I remember my first visit, emerging out of the trees into what felt like a secret clearing - and I remember the cold. Macedon is the coolest grape-growing region on the mainland. It snows here every year, some more than others, and while areas like the Hunter Valley start harvesting in January, Macedon pick their fruit as late as June. But Cobaw Ridge is special - they usually pick late March to mid April as the property is nestled in a small natural amphitheatre that retains residual heat and creates a unique microclimate. With less than 5ha of vines and a small mudbrick winery, the operation is tiny - which means that everything in the vineyard and winery can be overseen meticulously and done by hand.
I liked the style of Cobaw Ridge wines and visited several more times. In the 90s when bigger was better, they offered wines that were more lean and restrained yet still multi-dimensional.
Since the late 1990s Cobaw Ridge has continued to evolve. Its vineyards were certified organic in 2005 and biodynamic in 2011. The desire for purity in the vineyard led to a similar philosophy in the winery and Alan now favours natural yeasts, no additions (eg. nutrients, tannin, enzyme, acid) no fining agents, no filtration and only minimal use of sulphur just prior to bottling. This commitment was recognised with Cobaw Ridge being admitted to the renowned international natural wine making group “La Renaissance des Appellations,” also known as Return to Terroir. There are only five Australian members and the French list makes for impressive reading.
Here’s what a few critics have said about the winery more recently:
James Halliday awarded Cobaw Ridge 5 stars (out of 5) in his 2014 Australian Wine Companion.
Gourmet Traveller: Feature article on ‘Macedon Magic’ - Cobaw Ridge is featured as a top winery in one of Australia’s most exciting wine regions. Feb/Mar 2014.
Wine Anorak: “Superb wines from this cool climate region in Victoria… These are brilliant wines, with real personality. These are the sorts of wines that Australia should be making more of.” wineanorakdotcom 2011 (leading UK wine reviewer).
The Wine Front: “... making a splash overseas for their range of wines, while finding the cultish followers at home still knocking at their doors.” Mike Bennie, October 2013.
I recently tasted the new vintage releases from Cobaw Ridge and it’s clear that since the 1990s they have evolved but are quietly continuing to make great wines, albeit in tiny quantities.
While you won't see these wines around town,having only just been released, many top restaurants carried the previous vintages. It’s a pleasure to rediscover such a dedicated and talented producer that’s still cutting it after all these years.
1. Cobaw Ridge Chardonnay 2012
Hand picked, certified organic fruit from 26-year-old vines is fermented in barrel (old and new oak) using the natural yeasts on the skin of the grapes. The wine is further aged in oak with the lees (dead yeasts cells) to give some extra complexity, spending a total of 12 months in barrel.
Crystal clear and light straw in colour, this wine is an interesting and seemingly contradictory combination of elements. Upfront nutty, caramel, butterscotch and melon flavours develop as the wine opens up, before transforming into taut, zingy, lemony acidity with a lovely clean finish. Butterscotch meets lime, in a nice way of course. How do winemakers do this?
Slightly more exotic praise from the talented Mr Mike Bennie (WCA Digital Wine Communicator of the Year 2013) that captures the wine pretty well.
“Lemon and bruised apple aromas. These characters seem to segue to the palate with an almost vanilla-meets-licorice lilt and a hint of mint. It’s washy and juicy in texture with inescapably tangy acidity and fine, flint-like minerality refreshing the palate. Sluices across the palate with little interest in formal structure, but it tightens up to a zesty pucker (though that feels cloaked in gentle creaminess). Touch of oxidation maybe, but in a good way, complexing and giving nuttiness. It’s an addictive drink, performs superbly in its evolution, compelling you to keep going back to the wine; detail and interest in spades. This is great”. 93 points. The Wine Front.
2. Cobaw Ridge Syrah 2010
My favourite wine of the line up. The fruit comes from certified organic 25-year-old vines, grown in the warmest part of the property. The tiny yield is hand harvested and fermented with 3% viognier, using natural yeasts and matured in 20% new, 80% old French oak. Spending 24 months on fine yeast lees, the wine is neither filtered nor fined and has minimal sulphur added.
The wine is a deep plum colour with slight brickiness on the edge and it’s denser than you’d expect for a wine from such chilly climes. There’s plenty of pepper and spice on the palate, and an alluring, yet subtle combination of sweet fruit, chinoto, herbs and oak. I like the inky density and the fine tannic structure of this lovely lean wine. Intense but beautifully balanced, making this easy to enjoy.
“Strong purple-red; co-fermented with a little viognier in a top Macedon vintage; it has all the fragrance and elegance one would hope for, with black cherry, plum, multi-spice and a sprinkle of cracked pepper, oak and tannins in synergistic balance” 94 points. James Halliday, Australian Wine Companion 2014.
“The wine is a true chameleon, morphing from showing powerful garrigue and meat scents to purer, brambly blackberry fruit as it opens. On the palate there is an earthy, slate-like minerality that demands attention, yet there's suppleness to the sweet fruit too. A commanding wine.” Best Buy Wines, Gourmet Traveller April/May 2014 (magazine just released).
A beautiful cool climate shiraz that you have to get your hands on before word gets out.
I can offer it for $49 a bottle. SOLD OUT
3. Cobaw Ridge Lagrein 2010
This is the wine that gets all the press. Nowdays we’re used to a wide range of varieties, however the obscurity of Lagrein appeals to the trainspotting tendencies of wine geeks and journos everywhere. The variety is grown mainly in the Alto Adige region in the far northeast of Italy where there’s about 400ha of plantings.
In 1987 the CSIRO noted Lagrein as a variety potentially suited to cooler Australian climates. Melbourne academic Dr Peter May sourced 18 vines from the CSIRO the following year and planted them in Kyneton and it was from Dr May that Cobaw Ridge obtained this rare variety.
Cobaw Ridge's first vintage in 1998 was the first commercial release in Australia and possibly outside Italy. Over the ensuing vintages the wine has received praise from nearly every wine critic in Australia and while a small number of wineries now grow Lagrein, Cobaw Ridge is regarded, without a doubt, as Australia’s finest example.
New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov wrote an interesting article a few years back in which he described Lagrein as: “plummy, earthy, chewy, dark, full bodied but not heavy, pronounced mineral edge.”
Oz Clarke sees it as “sour plums with a touch of grass and bitter cherries, some dark chocolate and a deep dark colour.”
This wine is deeper, denser and more structured than the shiraz. It’s a dark crimson colour and has good acid, firm chalky tannins and flavours of liquorice, wild berries and black cherry. It definitely has Italian blood - robust and rustic. Like the shiraz, there’s a balanced combination of savoury and sweet fruit flavours and a restrained power that I think will reward a few years in the cellar.
“ Deep, dense purple-crimson; a very spicy, savoury, almost sombre wine, with inbuilt tannins in its tightly woven structure that will gradually unfold over the next decade-plus.” 93 points. James Halliday, Australian Wine Companion, tasted Jan 2013.
“A really intriguing wine that shows restraint of fruit, in a tightness and savouriness of fruit profile, but glorious layered perfume of dark berries, spice, earthiness, barnyard, briary things and an amaro, alpine herb lift that hooks you in. Tannins are ripe, tense and give structure to the wine, and though fruit kind of falls away, there’s a delicious cherry-pippiness that sweetens and lends flavour. There’s a rusticity in the wine, but it’s super easy to drink and pucker and tension works in favour of food stuffs too. Sourness through the finish becomes distracting, but it’s an interesting wine. Worth a look for sure.” 91 points.The Wine Front, Mike Bennie.
Add a truly unique wine to your cellar.