Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Beyond boats and islands - Bob Oatley's new babies

Beyond boats and islands - Bob Oatley's new babies

New label, new packaging. Quite an improvement in
the brand image for mine.
(A version of this first appeared in the April edition of LattéLife magazine. The article itself is thus written for a slightly more broader audience. The tasting notes and 'The extra bit' however are a little more 'classical' if you may).

It’s hard not to respect Bob Oatley. Whether as a businessman (he is Australia’s 25th richest man with a net worth of $860 million), a sailor (his boat, Wild Oats, has won the City to Hobart 5 times) or as a winemaker (his fortune was effectively made by the sale of wineries to Southcorp, which itself was acquired by Fosters. Bob benefited both times). It appears that whatever this man – and now his extended family – touches turns to gold.

But there is an elephant in the room. A single word that, when uttered, provokes a note of regret in Bob’s voice. Confusingly perhaps, this taboo word is also the same thing that made Bob his millions.

It’s Rosemount. Well, Rosemount Estate to put it correctly, which was the winery that Bob (and family) built up over 30 years, growing it from humble origins in 1969 to eventually make it Australia’s largest family winery. What provokes the regret however is what has become of Bob’s brand since it was sold in 2001 - not only is it no longer the household name it once was, but the original Rosemount winery, located in the Upper Hunter Valley, has itself been sold off to coal miners (a group that the Oatley’s are hardly the biggest fans of). Indeed Sandy Oatley (Bob’s son) calls the loss of Rosemount a ‘loss to the family’ uttering the statement with a look that suggests a death in that family...

Given this context, it’s not hard to see why Bob is smiling about his new project. Well, it’s not quite a new project really, more a new direction for one of his recent projects. I’m talking about Bob’s eponymous wine brand Robert Oatley wines, and, more specifically, the new Robert Oatley Signature Series, a range of premium wines that have been just added to the portfolio.

What makes this new range particularly interesting is the change in focus. Spearheaded by the (new) Western Australian based 'Director of Winemaking' Larry Cherubino, this new range leans significantly towards the west, with 2/3rds of the wines sourced from WA vineyards. The rest of wines also move from the companies Mudgee base to include regional favourites such as Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir and McLaren Vale Shiraz.

Such a West Australian bias would probably not raise an eyelid for most wineries, yet for the rather staunchly NSW-centric Oatley family it’s a significant change. A brand altering change. Still, when you see the enthusiasm of sharply dressed, wild-haired and super dedicated winemaker Larry and taste the new wines, it’s hard not to see why they’re going down this path - they’ve found their point man and are backing his judgements (with certain success).

Speaking of success, of the new wines the more congruent ones amongst them are indeed of Western Australian origin, notably the sprightly Great Southern Riesling and savoury Margaret River Cabernet, with only the slightly blocky and alcoholic Pinot Noir a lesser light in the range.

Given the price of these new wines ($23.95 approx.) it’s not hard to see the appeal. They’re all, as Bob likes to call them, ‘darned good drink(s)’.

Good drinks, fashioned for drinking, and well priced? Nice one Bob.

The extra bit

Larry Cherubino, he of the great hair, flanked here
by Huon Hooke (left) and Ralph Kyte-Powell (right)
It's hard to ignore the Rosemount scars on Bob and his staff here. Much of the key people in this newish (this is the 6th vintage as Oatley Wines) operation are either ex-Rosemount or at the very least know the history rather well. The pain is writ large in every conversation. Even the wine styles have parallels (or the brightness and egalitarian nature of them has parallels)...

Regardless, the choice of Larry - and indeed WA - as the future direction for the label is hard to argue with. He brings not only wine production nous but also the important grower and winemaking contacts too. Plus he is an engaging guy and has excellent hair.

On the topic of grapes, much of the fruit for these new wines - and particularly the yet-to-be-released super-premiums - is actually sourced from the ashes of another (somewhat) fallen empire, that of Accolade wines (nee Constellation, nee BRL Hardys, nee Hardys). One particular story Larry tells is how he got word that some long term grape contracts, for fruit from some prime Great Southern and Margaret River vineyards, were not being renewed by Accolade anymore. Larry thus pounced and the juice from said grapes now contributes to the new Oatley Wines direction. Smart man. The right sort of guy to have on your team...

Beyond just Larry, the Oatley's also now have Derek Fitsgerald (ex Thorn Clarke) and Rob Merrick (ex Constellation/Houghton) at the Oatley's Mudgee winery too, alongside consultants Phil Christiansen in South Australia and Mark O'Callaghan in the Yarra Valley (both ex Constellation). A Crack team all round. 

The wines
All were tasted over lunch with the Oatley family at Sydney's Aria restaurant recently.

Robert Oatley Signature Series Riesling 2011 (Great Southern, WA)
12.5%, Screwcap, RRP $23.95

A blend of several sub-regions, principally Frankland River, along with Porongorup and Mt Barker fruit. Fermented with a neutral yeast and bottled with minimal additions. pH 3.16. TA 6.48g/L. RS 4.29g/L

Limey and quite juicy, lots of fleshy lime and openness. Approachable and easy with a nice mid palate richness. Very pleasant, soft and round style, the residual sugar making this very easy and enjoyable. 17.3/90

Robert Oatley Signature Series Sauvignon Blanc 2011 (Margaret River, WA)
12.5%, Screwcap, $23.95

Primarily southern Margaret River fruit. Fermented with a range of different yeasts. The intention here is to avoid excess tropical fruitiness. pH 3.47. TA 6.49g/L. RS 3.94g/L.

Riper style. Peach and mango ripeness matches grassy varietal character. Snappy palate if a bit short. Simple sort of grassy style. Pleasant. Solid. Attractive and rounded with good flesh. Does the job. 16.8/89

The range.

Robert Oatley Signature Series Chardonnay 2011 (Margaret River, WA)
12.5%, Screwcap, $23.95

Sourced from a range of sites across Margaret River. Matured for a short time in French oak barriques, 20% new. Malolactic fermentation deliberately avoided. Larry calls the production style here 'winemaking 101'. pH 3.33. TA 6.55g/L. RS 4.31g/L

Citrus and Baileys on the nose.Looks embryonic on the nose and palate with just just a little cream pie richness. Tastes like a tank sample. Awkward at present, oak on fruit, the palate spiky, lean and even a little confusingly warm.16/87+

(Unreleased and as yet unnamed) Robert Oatley Margaret River Chardonnay 2011
$50 RRP (approx)

A sample 'teaser' that was brought along specifically for the tasting and is theoretically from one of the top tiers of the Oatley Wines pyramid. A 100 case barrel selection out of a prime Karriedale vineyard.

Lovely whipped butter oak. Rich and rippling with power and weight. Shows promise, particularly as the oak integrates further. Double the wine that the Signature is. 17.7/92+

Robert Oatley Signature Series Pinot Noir 2010 (Mornington Peninsula, Vic)
13.5% (though tastes warmer), Screwcap, $23.95

According to Larry this wine 'will move to Yarra from now on for this range.' When asked whether he was happy with it he replied that 'Yes. But I want to be really happy with it'. pH 3.62. TA 5.99g/L. RS 0.37g/L

Brambly and quite light, cherry fruit with a hint of bark. Lots of alcohol and not a lot of finesse. A big wine without the delicacy. One of the few low points in this range. 15.7/86

Robert Oatley Signature Series Shiraz 2010 (McLaren Vale, SA)
14%, Screwcap, $23.95

Sourced largely from the Blewitt Springs and Willunga area in southern McLaren Vale. 10 months oak maturation. pH 3.56. TA 6.23g/L. RS 0.66g/L

Rich chocolate plum essence. Quite rich and has that Vale concentration to it. Fleshy purple black licorice fruit. Sweet and soft but still savoury and dry. I like the concentration and the style. 17.4/90+

Robert Oatley Signature Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (Margaret River, WA)
14%, Screwcap, $23.95

Mainly Wilyabrup fruit. 10-12 months in a variety of new and old French oak. Interesting to note that high RS reading which was clearly needed to offset the somewhat severe tannins. pH 3.62. TA 5.69g/L. RS 4.34 g/L.

Rich luscious and soft. Already quite open and vanilla oak cosseted. Rich. Micro ox? New oak? (that would probably be the extra sweetness) Still has some herbs and bitter tannins. Seriously bitter for the style actually. Briary and black fruited. What serious tannins. Quite a surprise. Tannic blackness. Intriguing. Very dry and savoury. Perhaps the most interesting wine in the range. 17.5/91+

(Unreleased and as yet unnamed) Robert Oatley Cabernet Sauvignon Wilyabrup 2010 (Margaret River, WA)

Another pre-release sample, this will be a $60+ wine and looks rather serious indeed. 6 weeks on skins.

The joy here is the textural element from the oak. Very dry and oak drawn, perhaps but there is lovely black fruit serious through the middle. Looks quite classy actually if a little bulky as yet. 17.8/92++

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