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Australian shows make 'boring' wine

The Australian show system is holding good wines back and promoting boring wines, winemaker Rick Kinzbrunner says in the latest issue of Decanter.

Kinzbrunner, founder of Giaconda in Beechworth, Victoria, tells Andrew Jefford the shows have become moribund.

In the ‘early years’, he says, the system helped ‘drag the bottom end up’ but now it’s doing the opposite.

‘It’s holding people back. It just drives wines to a certain level of interesting boredom, clean boredom.’

The problem is one of winemakers’ egos, Kinzbrunner says, and the solution would be to have consumers in charge.

'Why do winemakers run the show? They're not the people who drink the wine. It's absolutely crazy. You should have consumers in charge, with a small winemaking contingent.'

Giaconda’s wines are feted by critics as diverse as Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson and Jefford himself. Berry Brothers, which imports the wines, is begging for a ‘stay of execution’ on a Roussanne vineyard that Kinzbrunner is thinking of pulling out – Giaconda’s Aeolia, pure Roussanne, is one of the most renowned of the range.

‘Despite his success, he’s still very much the outsider,’ Jefford writes, ‘his famed Chardonnay … is the antithesis of modern Australia’s …critically acclaimed ideal.’

In the course of a wide-ranging interview, Kinzbrunner airs his views on a number of subjects, including the Australian need to ‘cut you down to size’, his countrymen’s ‘insane preference for screwcaps’, and his love of Schubert, Bach and Beethoven.

‘Bach's cello sonatas [are a ] wonderful example of harmony in art as in nature – it reminds me of the synergy I think there can be between a terroir and a winemaker.’

Adam Lechmere, Decanter Magazine

A winemaking wanderer

Those who visit wine cellars professionally quickly learn to look for something particular as they step into the cool gloom. There are no guarantees; if you see it, though, your pulse quickens a little. That sight is a collection of empty bottles of great wines from other regions and other producers.

It means that the producer in question has wider perspectives than his or her own hillside; that hard-earned money was spent on the work of gifted peers; and that the aromas and flavours surrendered by those bottles were precious enough to keep the empties from the bottle bank. Expectations rise.

When I first visited Australian wine producer Rick Kinzbrunner of Giaconda, in Victoria, he went further. He gave me eight wines to taste blind. I tasted; I talked; he listened patiently, asking the odd question. Four, it emerged, had indeed come from his own vineyards in Victoria’s Beechworth; the other four proved to be from Burgundy, the Rhône and Bordeaux. He hadn’t chosen milksop opposition, either: his 2005 Chardonnay matched (and in my notebook eclipsed) Leflaive’s 2004 Puligny Combettes, while his Pinot Noir and Shiraz from the same vintage held their own, in a different style, with Clavelier’s 2002 Chambolle Combe d’Orveau and Chapoutier’s 2004 Ermitage Le Pavillon, respectively. His Cabernet, by contrast, failed to ignite – though it was nose to nose with Pichon Baron 2000.

Then I moved from my temporary home in Australia to the Languedoc – and discovered that Kinzbrunner had a house in St Chinian. He didn’t just come for three weeks a year to forget his care; he came for up to three months every year, and spent much of the time burning tyre rubber on visits to other European regions and producers. In Australia, moreover, Kinzbrunner is something of a lone wolf: a self-taught winemaker who learned most of his craft in California, and whose work is perhaps more widely praised abroad than at home.

I learnt to my horror that he is thinking of grafting his rich, languid, salty-oily Roussanne grape (from which he makes a wine called Aeolia) to Chardonnay – because of the disparagement and incomprehension the wine receives at the hands of Australian critics. It is Aeolia, and the no less mouthfilling Chardonnay, which are my two favourites from his exceptionally consistent Giaconda range.

I caught up with this winemaking wanderer earlier this summer to quiz him about his travels. “The biggie for me,” he cautioned, “is what’s in the bottle. I hear so much talk about vineyards, terroir, organics, natural winemaking, low sulphur, whatever – but if the wine doesn’t measure up, it’s all irrelevant.” Kinzbrunner said he has visited “many places where people are fixated on their vineyard – but the wine is crap. They’re not bothered or they’re doing the wrong things. Then sometimes it’s the other way around – they’ve made huge investments in the winery, but they have horrible, chemically farmed vineyards, and the wine’s still crap.”
A bottle of 2009 Giaconda Aeolia

2009 Giaconda Aeolia (Berry Bros and Rudd, £61, 0800 280 2440). Deep colour, complex aroma, weighty and lush

If you’re assuming that Kinzbrunner’s definition of “crap” chimes with that of most of his countrymen, let me put you right at once. This Chardonnay craftsman is dismayed by much of the white burgundy he tries from the region, “because a lot of the producers are becoming more modern, and their wines are getting cleaner, more pristine”. He professes to love the fungal, undergrowthy, matchsticky wines: “I feel we’re seeing fewer of these. There’s too much protection of juice, too much settled and cleaned-up juice, too many modern presses, too many selected yeasts; they’re shying away from traditional methods, to their detriment. That’s why the wines don’t age as well as they used to.”

Tradition is a positive virtue in the Kinzbrunner lexicon, though his experiences with red burgundy have cautioned him against a dogmatic interpretation. “Red burgundy taught me that there’s no formula for doing anything perfectly,” he said. “Some growers use all whole-bunch [ie ferment both stems and grapes] and some use none, and both can make great wines.”

The efforts made in contemporary Bordeaux impress him. “You have to try very hard to get an edge in Bordeaux, to stand out from the crowd. I think that’s one area where the modern wines are much better than they were 30 years ago.”

Kinzbrunner worked briefly at Moueix properties such as Magdelaine and Pétrus in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He finds the Rhône a mixed picture, despite having a joint-venture project (called Ergo Sum) with the effervescent Michel Chapoutier back home in Beechworth, Victoria. “I think there is less expertise in the Rhône than in other top regions. Sometimes the fruit isn’t picked ripe enough, or looked after carefully enough; I like tradition, but rusticity often comes at the expense of complexity there. Languedoc can be a bit similar to Australia: the wines can quickly get too alcoholic and too heavy, and lack vibrancy and depth … But there’s a small amount of outstanding wine in the Languedoc.”

In Spain, he’s more of a fan of Priorat than Rioja. “You get more sense of place in Priorat than anywhere else in Spain. There aren’t any boring wines there. I love the traditional wines in Rioja – the Gran Reservas can be like old burgundies. The wines they make in the newer style are wonderful, but for me the sense of place is gone.”

His favourite region, though, is Piedmont. “I’ve been inspired by Piedmont. There’s a lot of people there who are thinking deeply about what they are doing. They don’t all agree, and some of the winemaking is wild, but I was deeply impressed with the best wines.” Not coincidentally, Kinzbrunner will be releasing a Nebbiolo of his own before long – and he says that this “neurotic” grape variety and his Piedmontese travels have made him rethink almost everything he does in the winery. I’ve tasted it: it’s authentically light yet craggy, full of the fruits of experience.

Andrew Jefford, Financial Times

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