All's care in love and wine

May 31, 2008

What's the connection between Japanese food preparation and wine growing, asks wine writer Jane Faulkner.

"I see myself as the sushi chef of wine," declares Keppell Smith, raconteur and winemaker at Savaterre in Beechworth.

And while that comment might raise an eyebrow, it actually makes sense - with an explanation, of course, as he's been reading a cookery book on Japanese food where the chef describes making perfect sushi rice. "This is the real kicker," says Smith, "there's a picture of the chef holding some rice with the statement underneath: 'the art to making good sushi rice is care and understanding.' And that was the only cooking direction given! But the older I get and the more I do (in the vineyard and winery), I realise that is also the secret to winemaking - care and understanding."

However, Smith says that knowledge always comes later, usually after each vintage when you learn a bit more. It's why he has adjusted the amount of oak in Savaterre's latest releases - the 2006 pinot and chardonnay. While he uses French oak, Smith didn't want his wines to dry out, particularly in the mid-palate.

The solution? After spending a year in oak, a third of each wine - both the chardonnay and pinot noir - went into stainless steel for another 12 months; it freshens the wines, too. It's why the '06 vintage proved a turning point for Smith; not that he was making underrated wines before (the '05s were stupendous) - it's just that he got serious.

 "I want people to now come on a journey with me. I've changed my winemaking. I don't want my wines drying out because I want them to look really beautiful when older." So the chardonnay especially is rounder and richer on the palate but with both varieties the message is balance and not so much control. "Besides, it's the wine in the glass that's important.

Going from big, macho to feminine - ah, that's what I want." In typical Burgundian mode, he close planted his pinot noir and chardonnay vines - 8000 a hectare in 1997 - when few were doing so. The best wines he'd ever tasted were from close planted vines so "why reinvent the wheel?" It proved the right viticultural decision, as did adopting bio-dynamic principles. Yet Smith isn't just a Burgundian clone: he has a love of Italian varietals, particularly the brooding, tannic sagrantino that hails from Umbria, which he planted two years ago, alongside some shiraz for good measure.

But why the former? Several years ago, wine importers, Maurizio Ugge and Barbara Evans from Arquilla, showed him Italian producer Arnaldo Caprai's sagrantino, known as 25 Anni. "I just fell in love with that wine. It had this balance between the wonderful wines of brunello and barolo with all the power and the glory, too." Later, when Smith visited Umbria, the similarities between Beechworth were uncanny, minus the castles of course - that is, the climate and soils. Early days yet with Savaterre's sagrantino and several years away from being made but it's promising. Too few sagrantinos are produced here, although D'Arenberg makes an impressive one as does Chalmers. Check out City Wine Shop, Europa Cellars and Armadale Cellars.


Tight and closed as you'd expect from a young pinot but with a decent decant, it opens up superbly to reveal enticing cherry, savoury nuances to an alluring sage-herbal character. Tangy fruit on the palate with a moreish slightly bitter note that sits alongside smooth, ripe tannins, terrific acidity and a lingering finish. A wine that makes you think.


Yes, the tannins are prominent yet ripe but they're tempered as the wine's matured in old French oak adding softness to the palate, making this sagrantino very approachable. Lovely plum and sour cherry fruit with spicy, notes and excellent acidity.


A hard act to follow with the '05 so tight and outstanding but while this seems more forward, there's a lot going on in the glass from the plump stone fruit notes to the creaminess mid-palate. It's opulent but not heavy with the nutty, leesy notes adding to its exceptional length.

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