Friday, March 4, 2016

Majella Wines's Brian Lynn in Vancouver again

Photo: Brian Lynn of Australia's Majella Wines

By his own reckoning, Coonawarra vintner Brian Lynn has visited Vancouver 12 times – including participating eight or nine times in the Vancouver International Wine Festival.

This year, he was one of just three Australian wines at the festival, an astonishingly low number considering that Australia was the winery’s theme region last year.

The Australians participated in good numbers at the 2015 festival, trying to boost sagging sales. Sales of Australian table wine in the 12 months to March 21, 2015, totalled $78 million, down four per cent from the previous year, and dramatically down from $101 million in 2011. Yet just three Australian wineries applied to come to the 2016 festival.

(There is no sales data yet from the last 12 months because the BC Liquor Distribution Branch has not posted a quarterly market report since last March. That is unusual; I have never seen a delay like that before and there is no explanation on the Branch’s web site.)

The head wind encountered by Australian wines in this market likely had something to do with unfavourable exchange rates (a problem now faced by California wines). Since the Australian dollar now has weakened against the US$ in step with the Canadian dollar, the exchange rate disadvantage has disappeared. Producers like Brian Lynn, who are in the market regularly, will be rewarded.

Currently, Majella’s most popular wine – a $20 Cabernet/Shiraz blend called The Musician – is listed in 137 liquor stores in British Columbia. The winery’s $30 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon is listed in 22 stores. These wines also are in private stores. As well, Everything Wine has Majella’s $40 Sparkling Shiraz.

Brian’s latest visit to Vancouver stretched for more than a week. In addition to participating in numerous West Festival events, he also showed his wines to the Australian Wine Appreciation Society (AWAS). And he found time for his first visit to Whistler – not to ski but to touch base with some restaurants. The man is a consummate salesman.

Majella Wines is 25 years old this year. It remains a family winery run by Brian, his brother Anthony, and their families. The succeeding generation is already in the business. The winery is in the Coonawarra, one of the most renowned grape-growing areas in Australia.

“My father bought a block of land in Coonawarra from his great uncle in 1960,” Brian recounted at the AWAS tasting. “Dad was a sheep farmer. In 1960 the Australian wine scene was somewhat different than what it is now. It was small. Coonawarra was 1,000 acres, if that. When we planted a vineyard there, we couldn’t see another vineyard. Now we are in the middle of a sea of vineyards.” (There are about 14,000 acres of vines there today.)

Brian and his brother planted a small block of vines as an adjunct to the farming operation. Over the years six acres grew to 150 acres - but brothers still have 4,000 head of sheep.

Brian began making wine for home consumption. He became accomplished enough at it that a friend suggested he retain a winemaker and produce wine commercially. The first vintage was 1991.

“I had a business plan that we would make wine with half the grapes and sell the other half as grapes,” Brian said. “And then the bottom fell out of the grape market. So then the idea was to make it all into wine, sell half under the Majella label and the other half on the bulk market. Then the bulk market collapsed. So at the moment, everything we grow goes through our winery and gets made into Majella.”

Every one of the 25 vintages has been made from estate grapes and by the same winemaker, Bruce Gregory. He was working at another winery where the early vintages of Majella were made. In 1998, when Majella built its own Coonawarra winery, he joined the company.

Coonawarra is known as great terroir for Cabernet Sauvignon. Brian thinks it is the best in Australia but concedes that Margaret River might make a similar claim. Brian believes that Coonawarra also grows good Shiraz and he backed that up with two wines.

One is the Sparkling Shiraz, “Australia’s gift to the wine world.” The wine is fermented in bottle in the tradition Champagne method. But instead of riddling the bottles, the wine is emptied into a pressure tank, remaining under pressure until a “port” dosage is added and the wine is bottled. In the glass, this is a wonderfully frothy and festive wine, fruity on the palate and reasonably dry on the finish.

“What I like about the Sparkling Shiraz is that we can use it as an aperitif or as a digestive after the meal,” Brian said. “It goes with nearly everything. It goes with charcuterie, it goes with Italian food and with Asian food. It will handle chili. That little bit of sweetness there will balance out the heat of the chili. It is the only red wine that will go with blue cheese, once again because of the sweetness. And it is the only red wine you can put with dark chocolate and strawberries.”

He also brought a 2005 Majella Shiraz to the AWAS tasting. “Coonawarra Shiraz is the next big thing,” he quipped, “but it hasn’t happened yet.” The Majella style is restrained and elegant.

He showed two vintages of Majella Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon: the gloriously evolved 2002 and the delicious 2012 which is drinking well now but has potential to age. The one in B.C. Liquor Stores is (or soon will be) the 2013 at $30 a bottle.

A big part of the Majella portfolio rests on the classic Australian blend of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon. When Australians began making Cabernet Sauvignon in the 1960s, they had none of the other Bordeaux varietals to fill the “hole” in the middle of a Cabernet blend. They have them now but have learned that Shiraz blends as well, if not better, that the Bordeaux varietals.

Top of the line at Majella is an $80 wine called Mallea (“green pastures” in an aboriginal dialect), with production of only 500 cases a year. Brian showed a 2000 vintage and a 2009 vintage. To make this wine, the best parcels of grapes each year are fermented in small lots to produce about 80 barrels of wine. After a year, the very best barrels are selected for Mallea. “We generally want nine barrels of Cabernet and eight barrels of Shiraz – which gives us about 55%/45% in the blend. It is the best of the best. The wine is put back into brand new French oak and left there for two years.”

The other Cabernet Shiraz blend at Majella – typically about 60% Cabernet, 40% Shiraz – is The Musician. The wine was created when a sommelier in Singapore asked for a good value Australian red that could be served by the glass.

“It is our version of a Barbie wine, an entry-level wine, a quaffing wine,” Brian says. He is being overly modest. This is a delicious red. Robert Parker Jr. gave 91 points to a recent vintage and I scored it 90.

There is a sad story behind the name. The wine is a tribute to one of Brian’s sons, Matthew, who was a rising guitar talent until, at the age of 20, he was killed by a drunk driver. There is an image of a guitar player on the label.

There is also a story behind the winery’s name. “When my parents went farming just after World War Two, they needed a name for the farm,” Brian said. “My mother, being a very good Catholic lady, had a devotion to an Italian saint named St. Gerard Majella, the patron saint of pregnant women. So she called the farm Majella. When the vineyard was on the property, it was called Majella vineyard. When we came to release a wine, we called it Majella because we could not think of anything else.”  

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