Established in 1884, the Royal Melbourne Wine Awards (RMWA) is Australia’s most respected wine show and home to some of the country’s most coveted wine trophies, including the legendary Jimmy Watson prize for best young red wine.
Conducted by the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria and running for over 130 years, the RMWA is considered the wine industry’s definitive peer review. The exceptional quality of the show’s judging panel is what gives the results their weight.
Made up of some of Australia’s best wine makers, retailers, sommeliers and wine journalists this year’s judging panel included big names such as wine critic James Halliday, journalist Matt Skinner, and winemaker Steven Pannell.
In the small south-west Victorian winery’s debut outing at the RMWA, the Basalt Wines 2015 Pinot Noir scored 95.0 points in the ‘Pinot Noir 2015 and Younger (Best Pinot Noir)’ category; placing equal second and earning a Gold award. Judges described the wine as “rich and vibrant with purity and variety definition.”
Competition at the show is fierce, with hundreds of entries in each category. This year the RMWA attracted over 3,000 entries from more than 500 winemakers.
For Basalt Wines director and vigneron, Shane Clancey the accolade has come as an incredibly pleasant surprise. “This was our first time entering our wines in the RMWA,” Clancey explains. “We really just wanted to use it as a benchmarking exercise,” he says. “We figured it would be a good way to gauge where our wines were at from a national perspective.”
“Scoring Gold alongside Australia’s top pinot producers is beyond thrilling. As a small, independent producer it’s incredibly encouraging and really illustrates how strong our wines are in the context of the broader industry” he says. “It’s great news for the Henty wine region too.”
“I see the RMWA as very much a peer review. For winemakers, it’s one of the highest accolades. It’s not just one man’s opinion – the judging panel is made up of Australia’s best wine makers, retailers, sommeliers and wine journalists. They know what they’re talking about.”
Clancey says the 2015 vintage was one of the best he’s had for his pinot. “From a vintner’s perspective, it was an excellent year – moderately warm with perfect dry spring conditions which resulted in excellent quality fruit. The vines weren’t stressed at any stage and we managed to pick at the best possible time” he explains. “The pinot was very much made in the vineyard this year. We didn’t do anything differently in the winery; it all came down to a perfect vintage in the vineyard.”
HORIZONTAL rain and wind lash the cottages in Killarney village. Some of the cloddy black fields around here are full of potatoes; others are studded with cows, stoically chewing and shitting through the downpour.
In the refuge of a small tin shed, I'm talking to a larrikin with red hair and blue eyes named Shane Clancey. And I have to remind myself that I'm not actually on the southwest coast of Ireland but on the southwest coast of Victoria, between Warrnambool and Port Fairy. Clancey planted a vineyard here 10 years ago. Madness, perhaps, with the wind and the rain and the sheer exposed remoteness of his seaside site. "It seemed like a good idea at the time," he says, with a weary smile.
And yet, after a decade of careful work, including spraying the vines with a seaweed tea made from local kelp, he's producing some terrific wines: the tempranillo from here (all one barrel of it in 2011) has good, rustic, robust chewiness, and his 2013 riesling (supplemented with some grapes grown in a mature vineyard at equally windswept Drumborg, a little further west along the coast) is deliciously crisp, intense and refreshing.
Clancey named his vineyard Basalt; the logo on the label is a map of nearby Tower Hill, the volcano that looms from the flatness across the highway, responsible for the fertile soils and craggy stones that define this country. The richness of those soils is one of the reasons why so many Irish settlers came from the 1850s: it's why the town we're in is called Killarney, why Port Fairy's original name was Belfast, why the local butcher's name is Quinlan.
The volcanic legacy of the land has supported people here for much longer than the past two centuries, of course. At nearby Tyrendarra Indigenous Protected Area, I walked through country that is being returned to its pre-settlement state. Gunditjmara people have lived on this old lava flow for thousands of years, using the abundant rocks to build a village of 100 huts and crafting intricate aquaculture channels through the stony land.
Gazing at these 6000-year-old stone weirs and waterways, it's possible to sense the generations of people who have caught and eaten eels here, and then smoked the surplus catch in hollow tree stumps to be traded with other communities in the region.
Back in Shane Clancey's shed, he's telling me how he's happy producing his few hundred cases of wine a year - enough to distribute locally and just enough to sell out each 12 months.
"There should be more of us thinking like this," he says. "Going back to basics. Have 10, 20 acres, doesn't matter whether it's milk, spuds, wine, whatever. Make just enough to service your own little local market and not get too excited or too greedy. How does the saying go? 'Live simply so that others may simply live'."
As I take a mouthful of his 2013 riesling, I can't help thinking he might be right. And how delicious this wine would taste with smoked eel.
MAX ALLEN, 2014 ARTICLE: Rich simplicity on a grand scale, 18 Jan 2014 12:00am [The Australian online] Available at http://m.theaustralian.com.au/executive-living/rich-simplicity-on-a-grand-scale/story-e6frg9zo-1226802488313 [Accessed 12 Feb 2013]
IMAGE: Screenshot of the article. MAX ALLEN
They're woollen, chubby and hungry for grape vines. Rare breed sheep are turning out to be very useful in vineyards.
Vigneron Shane Clancy from Killarney in south west Victoria has been running Olde English Southdown sheep on his vineyard for the past few years.
The vines along the Great Ocean Road cop some unpredictable coastal weather but the plantation is organic and biodynamic.
Old English Southdowns, otherwise known as Babydoll sheep, have been reintroduced and re-bred for use in orchards and vineyards throughout Australia and New Zealand.
Mr Clancy's four Babydolls graze the vineyard during winter to strip weeds and grasses, while adding nitrogen to the soil.
The sheep are removed in spring when shoots are soft and easy to access.
Olde English Southdowns were traditionally bred for their meat but Mr Clancy says that because of their short stature, usually less than one metre high, the animals are better suited to life in the vineyard.
He says that doesn't mean they don't get up to mischief.
"We're standing in front of recently grafted new shoots here and they're probably 800 (centimetres) off the ground and they got stuck straight into those the other day," he laughed.
It's all part of his "back to nature" approach to viticulture and winemaking, which he has been working on for the past two years.
"It's all minimal handling. I'm just about to bottle last year's reds which other than a little bit of sulphur, they've had no additions of acids or enzymes or anything like that."
LUCY BARBOUR, 2012, ARTICLE: Rare breed sheep enjoy a good vine, 22 March, 2012. [ABC Rural online]. Available at http://www.abc.net.au/rural/content/2012/s3461196.htm [Accessed 16 May 2012]
LUCY BARBOUR, 2012, IMAGE of Shane Clancey at Basalt Wines. [ABC Rural online]. Available at http://www.abc.net.au/rural/content/2012/s3461196.htm [Accessed 16 May 2012]
Biodynamic man: Basalt Wines principal Shane Clancey, with sons Max and Charlie, avoids chemical pesticides and herbicides at his vineyard.
A LOVE of wine and good food has turned an empty block of former spud country into a vineyard and cafe in Victoria's southwest.
Between Warrnambool and Port Fairy, at Killarney, Shane and Ali Clancey founded Basalt Wines a decade ago and leased out their former family home to local chef Christopher Grace, who has been running his restaurant since last January.
At a glance
Who: Shane and Ali Clancey
What: vineyard and cafe
Why: love of food
Where: Port Fairy
Shane's love of wine grew from his time in front-of-house at Portofinos Restaurant, which he ran with his brother and chef, Andrew, in Port Fairy.
This grew after he worked with some old Italian vignerons in Western Australia.
"It was amazing, working with 70-plus-year-old Italians who came out here in the 1950s," Shane said.
"Even today, after travelling the world looking at some really nice food, one of my most memorable experiences with food was sitting around the table with the 75-year-old Italian fellow and his wife, eating the butter, the bread and the cheese that she made, the salami that they made and drinking the wine that they made.
"That's what really hit a chord with me and I thought 'this is great this is what I want to do, I want to grow grapes'."
He came to Victoria in 2002 to find his "bit of dirt to grow some grapes", planted 3000 vines on 1.2ha - initially merlot, cabernet, pinot noir, riesling and tempranillo, but after four vintages he has refined this to the latter earlier-ripening varieties.
The grapes are crushed and made into wine on site.
"This year was a ripper year for the riesling, whereas the yields from the reds were very low," Shane said.
Since 2008, the vineyard has been managed biodynamically to keep their children safe.
Instead of pesticides and herbicides, milk sprays are used to promote positive fungi on the vine leaves and prevent the growth of unwanted fungi such as downy mildew.
The couple have three children - Charlie, 5, Max, 4, and Lucy, 20 months.
"We use copper and sulphur sprays, which are natural elements that are fine for organic farming, and then I add raw milk straight from the dairy to help soften the effect of the sulphur," Shane said.
"The nutrients in the milk help feed the microbes on the leaf of the plant which builds up its metabolism to ward off things."
Shane also uses seaweed teas as a foliar spray and nettle tea to speed up the sap flow in early summer, a time when powdery mildew tends to be quite prevalent.
He also uses "preperation 500", made from cow manure composted in horns, as a fungi-friendly culture for the soil.
Rare breed Baby Doll Southdowns roam the vineyard to help keep weeds down.
In the first six years, Shane and Ali lost vines due to drougfht, and now they drip-irrigate the rows with groundwater.
"That's really helped them along because the constant wind really dehydrates them," he said.
The vineyard sits over about 80cm of dark volcanic top soil, under which is a layer of about 15cm of very porous tufa, which was formed as ash deposits from the nearby extinct Tower Hill State Game Reserve's volcano.
Underneath the tufa is decomposed limestone and yellow sand, which helps the soil drain freely.
Shane diminished the gamble in putting a vineyard south of the Princes Highway by choosing cool climate vine varieties that ripen early.
"All the vines are on drought-resistant rootstock that slows the vigour down and the constant wind dehydrates them and keeps the canopy fairly low - they're handling it quite well," he said.
Shane sells wine through the cellar door at Killarney; through Christopher Grace's restaurant and at the couple's bed and breakfast business, Douglas on River, in Port Fairy.
After several years of biodynamic practice, he said the wines were expressing more fruit characters, depth, weight and colours.
"Given the capacity of 3000 vines, our future production projection is 400-500 cases."
ARTICLE: Spuds to fine wines, 18 Apr, 2012. [Weekly Times online]. Available athttp://www.weeklytimesnow.com.au/article/2012/04/18/469821_print_friendly_article.html [Accessed 16 May 2012]
IMAGE of Biodynamic man: Basalt Wines principal Shane Clancey, with sons Max and Charlie. [Weekly Times online]. Available at www.weeklytimesnow.com.au/ [Accessed 16 May 2012]