Dodging smoke – and toast – at Paracombe

Wine Reviewer, Charles Gent talks to Paracombe Wines about the risky world of small winemaking and the process needed to produce their highly acclaimed Australian Chardonnay.

The last round of bushfires in the Adelaide Hills came very close to the home block at Paracombe Wines; so close that feathery ash was falling in the vineyard. The Drogemullers, whose fire plan was of the stay-and-fight model, were primed to do battle when the fire front, only a couple of kilometres away, pulled a hand-brake turn and veered off towards Cudlee Creek. Of course, bushfires can ruin grapes without flame: infinitesimal concentrations of smoke residue on the berries can render a crop useless. But again the Drogemullers were spared, and the dreaded curse of smoke taint avoided, although sadly some of their local growers were not so fortunate. Two years ago, the 2013 vintage was completed without any such dramas. It produced, among other wines, the Paracombe Wines Chardonnay, which came close to victory in the last Adelaide Review Hot 100 South Australian Wines. On the night, it was runner-up to the runner-up. The wine, lauded by the judges for its “ballistic” flavours, is something of throwback, in that it is make without any exposure to oak. The huge initial success of Australian Chardonnay in the 1980s was pinned to a winemaking style that produced sweet, deep yellow, highly alcoholic wines, flavoured none to subtly with toasted oak, and viscous with malolactic fermentation. The style enjoyed enormous popularity, especially in the UK, although the English wine critics were bemused, and uncertain if the effect was closer to toffee apples or smoky bacon. Oz Clark cited tinned pineapple chunks. Reaction quickly set in, and found a leader in David Wynn, who had pioneered the variety in South Australia on the ridges of the Eden Valley. His disapproval of “smoked” wines created a wave of unoaked Chardonnays. While the idea of a moving to a fresher, lighter style was sound, the results were often criticised for being too simple. Most contemporary Chardonnays pursue a middle path, combining parcels of wine raised in stainless steel with others made under gentle oak treatment, and dabbling in the battery of Burgundian techniques that include ferments with wild yeasts, maturing the wine on its yeast lees, and various regimes of batonnage (stirring). The Paracombe Wines Chardonnay, however, is unashamedly free of wood, toasted or otherwise. That there is plenty to savour on the palate, says Kathy Drogemuller, has something to do with the contributions from two Chardonnay clones in their home vineyard, as well as the ironstone in the soil. Banishing toasty oak was deliberate move – while the Drogemullers started off making their Chardonnay in barrels, over the years they have gradually reduced the oak input to nil. “So, it’s a pure expression of the fruit,” Kathy says. “It’s quite aromatic and fresh, but there’s a lovely, slightly creamy mouthfeel to it that might make you think it’s had some oak treatment, but it hasn’t.” Despite its rapid elevation to Australia’s most widely grown white variety, the questions of how to make Chardonnay, where to grow it, and which strains to employ are still being sorted out, although the Adelaide Hills has made a strong claim as appropriate terroir. The Drogemullers found themselves at Paracombe more or less serendipitously. Impelled by a sense of adventure – “We had no knowledge or experience of winegrowing or winemaking,” Kathy cheerfully admits – she and husband Paul bought their Hills property and planted vines in the 1980s, only later discovering the locality’s 19th century reputation for growing and exporting wine. After establishing themselves as growers, an ambition to make wine took hold. Their first vintage, made in a tin shed with a homemade basket press, was in 1992. Growth has been steady – the range now has 14 wines that are exported to 13 countries – and a second generation is contributing to the business. Now qualified as veterans in the risky world of small winemaking, the Drogemullers say they are still learning and still open to new ideas. “In some ways, it’s good not to have been university trained and got into a zone where certain numbers have to line up. You’re a bit more sensory and trusting of your instincts, and you don’t necessarily follow the rules.”