Tom Northcott was still uncombined DNA when Len Evans, in his self-appointed role as bombastic purveyor of advice to Australia’s neophyte wine-drinkers, was berating his followers about their failure to drink Rosé.
In 1966, Len told us our benign climate meant we should hasten to join the French, Spanish, Italians and Portuguese in the consumption of Rosé, ideally “on a hot summer’s afternoon, at a picnic or on a boat”. And, said Evans, the Rosé should not be sweet in the customary Australian style, but should be “refreshing, mouth cleansing, and have a delightful flavour, delicacy and crisp acid”.
A mere 50 years later, the message is catching on, and one of the wines at last realising the Evans vision is the 2016 Howard Vineyard Picnic Cabernet Franc Rosé, a top 10 wine in The Adelaide Review’s Hot 100 Wines.
After qualifying in both viticulture and oenology, Tom Northcott made the most of a two-year sabbatical, working, he says, “almost triple vintages” in the Barossa, Tasmania, Western Australia and overseas. His own Rosé conversion came on a six-month working visit to Provence. Only familiar with the darker, sweet style still dominant in Australia, Northcott says the chateau near Carcassone at which he worked “made buckets of Rosé in this lovely, dry ultra-light style, and I fell in love with it”. Since then, he says, almost sheepishly, he has harboured an “enormous passion” for dry Rosé.
Back in the Adelaide Hills, Northcott found the perfect material at hand in the form of 20 year-old Cabernet Franc grapes in the family vineyards at Nairne, vines that had already contributed to a savoury Bordeaux-style table wine as well as producing a lighter nouveau wine in the style of Anjou.
The Nairne vineyard, at 380 metres altitude, is largely dedicated to reds; Howard also has a higher, wetter and cooler vineyard at Schoenthal, near Lobethal, for their aromatic whites and Pinot Noir.
“We had been producing a Rosé since 2005, but I changed the style dramatically from a dark Barossan Alicante style to a very light, pristine style, pretty pink and almost orange in colour,” Northcott says.
Demand has vindicated the switch: production, which has jumped from an initial 500 cases to nearly 2500, barely keeps pace with sales, and only a trickle remains available through cellar door. And while the Picnic label is about to disappear, the same style of dry Cabernet France Rosé will be back under a new name. This year Howard will also be releasing a second, more complex and upmarket Cab-Franc Rosé that employs a barrel ferment.
Although it is one of Bordeaux’s five sanctioned red varieties, Cabernet Franc has always been a backstage lurker compared to the diva grapes Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Northcott says the “gangbuster” sales may signal an upturn in the grape’s fortunes.
“I could have sold my Cab Franc about five times over this year, mostly to smaller alternative producers, but we just need every berry for ourselves,” he says. “If you’d suggested it three or four years ago I would have called you mad, but we’re actually thinking about planting more of it.”
2016 Cabernet Franc Rosé
Photography: Jonathan van der Knaap