Mildara Cabernet Sauvignon Alexanders

Mildara’s Alexander’s Blend
In these days of technoligical enlightenment it’s hard to credit that we are beginning to make better wine by ignoring it. Sophisticated equipment may well lie idle while winemakers scrub down old equipment that hasn’t been used in decades, or else shun the principles drubbed into them throughout their erstwhile winemaking education. Robert Drouhin, the proprietor of one of the great Houses in Burgundy, Joseph Drouhin, says that in only the exceptionally bad years will his full resources of technology come into play – otherwise the wines will be made with basic, traditional techniques, albeit monitored exceptionally carefully.
The same thing is happening back here. The traditional Australian vineyard layout is being replaced by more old-fashioned and closer plantings. In our wineries technology has developed to such a dramatic extent that it has been hard to imagine what they’re going to think of next. But the answer has again been ridiculously simple. We have looked back to the past. It’s extraordinary to consider that many of the state-of-the-art Australian red wines are made with French techniques that date back before Australia was even discovered.

Gavin Hogg, winemaker at Mildara’s Coonawarra winery, is one of several Australian winemakers who have dared almost to turn their backs on much of the recent advances in red wine production, to revive an ancient methodology possibly not seen in Australian this century. The results, in the form of the Mildara Alexander’s Blend, speak for themselves. One of the new ‘first growth’ Coonawarra reds, with which I rate Lindemans’ ‘Pyrus’, Petaluma’s ‘Coonawarra’, Wynns’ John Riddoch and the Katnook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, the Alexanders’ strikes me as one of the most innovative examples of the ‘Bordeaux blend’ made in the country.

Gavin Hogg has gone to exhaustive length to achieve complexity in this wine. Four different grape varieties, four different sources of French oak cask, several variations in fermentation techniques have created a wine of remarkable complexity and completeness of structure. At the moment the wine is soft, voluptuous and appealing, with extraordinary depth of fruit. In ten years it will be just as impressive, with perhaps further years of development required before reaching its peak.

What has Gavin Hogg done, and how has he done it? For a start, let’s think about fermentation techniques. Australian wine is made conventionally by allowing the mixture of juice, skins and seeds known as ‘must’ to ferment until around three-quarters of the way to dryness before pressing, after which it is left to ferment without skins, like a white wine. This means that the tannins extracted are those of the skins themselves, which are frequently harsh and bitter.

It is a traditional practice in Bordeaux to allow the wine to completely ferment to dryness, and then waiting some before pressing. This gives the wine a chance to extract the softer, finer tannins from the seeds of the grapes and from the wooden casks into which it is subsequently stored. The result is a more-integrated wine, with softer tannins, although they might be present to a greater degree than with the usual Australian technique. The wines are consequently more approachable when young, for they lack the rasping nature of aggressive tannin. Their superior balance and integration usually allows for a longer period of cellaring and generally improved longevity.

Gavin Hogg is the first Australian winemaker I have heard of who uses the old custom of packing the inside of his fermenter with bundles of vine canes around the valves, over which the ferment flows when he pumps wine out and over the top of the tank during fermentation to extract colour from the skins. This allows a small degree of oxidation, which is believed to be useful in stabilising wine colour.

However, it is in his handling of the different components of the wine in oak casks that Gavin Hogg interests me most. All the possible components of the Alexanders’ are kept separate throughout their maturation in oak. These entail the different grape varieties, the different wines made from different vineyard blocks, and with different fermentation techniques. A huge experimental matrix is set up, for each of these permutations to be matured in different types of oak cask.

Hogg has narrowed his field down to four types, three of which use oak from the French forest of Troncais. The other oak is from the forest of Nevers. They are differentiated by their coopers, two of which are French – Tonnellerie de Bourgogne and Demptos – and one Australian – Schaihinger, in Adelaide.

“I was pretty lucky to bump into the Tonnellerie de Bourgogne”, says Gavin Hogg, “but we’ve just doubled our purchases from them for this year.

The TdB Troncais oak continually shows itself to be more aromatic than the others, with a sweeter, more lifted smell. It definitely makes a huge contribution to the nose of the finished wine. It seems to have let the grape variety express its own flavours in a more eloquent fashion.

The Demptos Troncais wood lacked the freshness of the TdB, but usually compensated by its richness, depth and structure on the palate.

The Demptos Nevers oak had a typical fresh vanillin aroma, and on the palate appeared more aggressive, with big structure and firmness. One several occasions Hogg would describe it as being “splintery” on the tongue.

Last edited on 6/15/2019 by LindsayM

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