Hot 100 Wines: Murdoch Hill Sulky Rouge

Murdoch Hill’s 2015 Sulky Rouge, a Hot 100 top 10 place-getter, brings together 50 percent Shiraz with Pinot Meunier and Merlot, which make up equal parts of the other half.

The contemporary fixation with all things pinot so far hasn’t extended to Pinot Meunier, but if Michael Downer of Murdoch Hill has his way, that is about to change. Downer has given the grape a guernsey in not one, but two of the three Murdoch Hill wines that found favour in the latest Hot 100 Wines SA. Murdoch-hill-sulky-rouge-adelaide-review-hot-100-charles-gent-review-pinot-meunier Pinot Meunier, when seen at all, is usually fulfilling an unobtrusive role as the third – and often optional – contributor to white or rosé methode champenoise wine.

Unlike its more glamorous colleague, Pinot Noir, it is virtually unutilised in Australia as a source of red table wine. Murdoch Hill’s 2015 Sulky Rouge, a Hot 100 top 10 place-getter, brings together 50 percent Shiraz with Pinot Meunier and Merlot, which make up equal parts of the other half. Thanks to the sparkling wine pioneers of the 80s and 90s, there is a fair swathe of Pinot Meunier on offer in and around Piccadilly Valley.

The Shiraz component comes from the Murdoch Hill vineyard, which blankets the slopes of a large rise behind the Murdoch Hill farmhouse and winery, east of Oakbank. The Oakbank Downers – no relation to the strain of patrician pollies – have owned and run a mixed farm there since the 1930s. The vineyard, comprising Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, was planted in the late 1990s by Charlie Downer, and led youngest son Michael to study oenology. Post graduation,

Downer worked in local wineries before travelling through wine country in France and Italy, working a vintage in Barolo before returning to assorted winery jobs in Western Australia, Western Victoria and eventually back in the Adelaide Hills. It was at Best’s in Great Western that Downer became acquainted with what is probably Australia’s only long-term straight Pinot Meunier – even when tasted at around 25 years old, he says, the wines were still full of vibrancy.

The impression has survived to reach his own blending bench, located at one end of the imposing galvo shed built 10 years ago to house the family’s wine operations. In 2012, as a second string to the Murdoch Hill core range (at the time made off-site under contract in a relatively commercial style), Downer introduced the Artisan Series: “I wanted to play with some of the ideas and different techniques I’d seen on my travels,” he says.

“It’s more about expressing unique single vineyard wines in the Adelaide Hills. The Artisan wines are probably a little bit more hands-on, working with indigenous yeasts and having a less manipulative style of making wine.”

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To counter what Downer sees as an Australian fixation with varietals, the range includes two blends, the Sulky Rouge and the Ridley Pinot x Two (a blend of pinots Noir and Meunier). “With the Sulky, I really wanted to put together something that was soft and juicy, and quite light and vibrant in style,” he says.

Consequently, Downer chose a parcel of very vigorous Shiraz from the home vineyard, fermenting it in whole bunches. It was pressed early with little extraction at a low baumé, and the Merlot was treated similarly.

With the Pinot Meunier blended in, the wine had four months maturation in neutral French oak. “We see some pepper and blue fruits coming from the Syrah, with a bit of softness from the Merlot, and the Pinot Meunier pulls it all together, and gives it some tannin pro file.”

If calling such a charming wine Sulky seems puzzling, the clue (for quiz nighters at least) lies in the names of the rest of the range, which include Landau, Surrey (a straight Pinot Meunier), Phaeton and Tilbury. Give up?

They are all forms of horse-drawn carriage, inspired by the collection of ancient vehicles gathered by Michael’s late grandfather, George Downer. If I were you, I’d take a ride.