If ever I needed a reminder of how bloody big and variable Australia really is, then it came on Saturday morning’s flight.
Flying out of Sydney and it’s hard to miss the drought-brown land. The coast has a green tinge, but as you look inland, it just gets progressively browner. In November. Before summer has even begun.
It’s been a scary hot and dry few months.
But as the tray tables went up on the descent into Hobart an hour and a half flying time later, it felt like I was entering a different country. The mountains were unusually (for November) snowcapped, like proper alps, the grassy hills green, even in the dry Coal River Valley.
Australia, the land of contrasts.
On the ground, the temp was just breaking through double digits, as if I’d confusingly landed in July.
Still, what better time to be checking in on Tasmania’s most idiosyncratic winery than a very Tasmanian November day?
Domaine A isn’t changing at the same unpredictable pace as the Australian climate. Still, ever since it was purchased nine days into the 2018 harvest by Moorilla, this unique Tasmanian estate is evolving.
It’s an evolution, not a revolution, with Moorilla winemaker Conor van der Reest doing anything but throwing it all out and starting again. Indeed Peter Althaus may have sold the farm and retired, but he stuck around until earlier this year to help out at harvest (and will be back for regular blending sessions too. The staff haven’t changed either, so it’s very much business as usual. For a winery that is anything but ordinary.
But what makes this estate an outlier is the singular focus on Bordeaux varieties. Domaine A’s original Stoney Vineyard is the oldest in the Coal River Valley and has always been about Cabernet, Merlot and the rest of the Bordeaux grape quintet (plus Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon for good measure).
Cabernet! In a location that is prime Pinot Noir/Chardonnay/sparkling wine country. WTF?
That’s what’s glorious about Domaine A – it’s uncompromising. Sure, there is a Stoney Vineyard Pinot Noir, but it’s almost like an afterthought. You come here for the Cabernet and Cab blends.
The Coal River Valley itself is a magical place to grow grapes. Cool, dry (less than 500mm annually) and conveniently close to Hobart, it’s one of the most exciting wine regions anywhere in Australia. And I mean anywhere. You look around, and new posts are dotting the landscape. New brands. Excitement. There’s even a plot of Grenache and Touriga in the hills above the valley (you know that climate change is pressing when Port grapes are being planted in Tassie).
Anyway, the reason why Cabernet, Merlot et al. gets ripe here is that the close planted Stoney Vineyard has a perfect location – on a gentle slope with an ideal north/northeast aspect. It’s what anyone would want if they had a blank canvas vineyard location.
And on their day, the Domaine A wines are Something Else. The Cabernet Sauvignon, in particular, has an almost mystical ability to mature for decades, as proven by the deliciousness of the 2000 vintage pouring out of magnum at the winery on Saturday. They’re euro-inspired (Peter Althaus and late wife Ruth were Swiss after all) wines built on acidity, tannins, structure and reservation. Products for pondering, not smashing down on a Friday night with pizza.
The Merlot. The Merlot! The ’11 vintage is revelatory, with menthol, tannins, black olive varietal fruit, cassis, and evenness. It’s like cool year Pomerol, but with a different shape altogether. That (current release) 2008 Cabernet is even more magnificent. Regal. Mid weight. Impossibly refined given the 100% new oak and ripeness. It has that perfection and weight akin to the great Yarra Cab blends (Yeringberg, Yarra Yering, Mount Mary) but with an extra layer of tannins and acidity.
I’ve often wondered why Domaine A doesn’t get mentioned much in the great wines of Australia conversations. That 2000 Cab has a specialness to it that you only ever see in the great wines of the world. An agelessness, a beauty, a fluidity of movement. That sensation of perfectly ripe grapes, planted in the right spot, and nurtured into barrel and then bottle. Grand Cru Australian wine.
But I can answer my own question about why Domaine A is oft-overlooked – those magical wines aren’t an every year occurrence (as you can see from my last tasting back in 2013). The 2015 Stoney Vineyard Cabernet (effectively the second wine) doesn’t hit the highest heights for mine (but I like the 2012 Petit A). The Stoney Vineyard Pinot, too, is an awkward wine (to my tastes), the ’17 robust but minty also. A Bordeaux makers Pinot Noir (and it shows).
Plus, everything needs time. Years! The current releases are older for a reason – the wines demand more bottle ageing to look their best. Even the current vintage 2016 Lady A Bordeaux Blanc style looks immature (come back in 2-3 years).
Ultimately, we’re talking about a mercurial, marginal estate, making occasionally prickly wines that demand bottle age. Stir in the apparent health challenges faced by Peter & Ruth Althaus recently (Ruth sadly passed late last year), and you have a reason for even more vintage variation.
So why did Moorilla – or more correctly, David Walsh – buy Domaine A? Well, for one, Moorilla needs more wine, especially with the expanding Mona business. But it’s also about an opportunity. A legendary Tasmanian vineyard, with 30 years of history and a sprinkling of fairy dust around it. If you had the cash, why not?
Now, with a fresh sets of eyes casting a gaze over operations, you know that the only way is up (baby).
For now, it’s the small changes that matter. Van der Reest brought up one of the ‘older’ presses from Moorilla to show the Domaine A team, and it only took a few efficient press loads for everyone to embrace the newer kit. There is also a new oak regime, after an acknowledgement that bretty, less-than-clean barrels were an issue in the past. The (very serious) 2019 rosé even comes in a clear bottle with a screwcap!
But from here, I have no clue what will happen with the brand. Although highly unlikely, the worry is that the legendary Domaine A focus may be watered down, creating just another Tassie brand. On the flip side, this could be the rebirth of an icon. A sleeping giant, now welcomed into David Walsh’s fascinating world of creativity, gifted the smart people and smart money to propel the label into a new tier of glory (and consistency).
In the meantime, hunt down a bottle of that 2008 Cabernet. It’s not cheap, nor is it your usual soft, not-tannic, fruit-forward Australian wine. It’s the opposite of these things, and that’s what makes it excellent.
(I travelled to Tasmania as a guest of Moorilla).