It’s not often that you have the privilege of welcoming a leading wine producer to your own home. But here’s a picture of Dennis Canute opening bottles in our little conservatory, know affectionately as the lean-to. Dennis co-founded the Rusden estate in the Barossa Valley, Australia, some years ago, initially as a hobby farm. He had to continue his day job as a teacher for quite a few years. His first vintage was 1992, though he would be the first to say that ‘vintage’ is definitely not the right word. They didn’t start bottling until 1994 but it was no big deal until Robert Parker, the hugely influential wine critic, rated a couple of their bottles as 92 points that the world suddenly took notice. This is not the time to rehearse the merits and demerits of Parker, but one thing is very clear: he can give an unknown small producer an enormous lift. For the little family farm it can be a godsend – the judgement is authoritative, it’s free and people take notice.
Rusden is very much a family firm, with Dennis’s wife in charge of the vineyards and winery and their son, Christian, the wine maker. Christian wanted to be a chef as a youngster (until he discovered what working in a kitchen with split shifts was like, according to his dad) but fortunately he discovered the ‘bottle shop’ (Australian for off-license). In his case this was a very positive find for a young man and led to him working and learning at Rockford before he came back to his parents’ farm. As Dennis says, in his charmingly self-deprecating way: it just made such a difference when you have a wine maker who knows what he is doing!
The first wine and only white from Rusden is appropriately enough called Christian Chenin Blanc 2007 (£19.50). I don’t really need to write about how it is made as they have done that for us on the label.
The really unusual thing is that it is Chenin Blanc at all in the Barossa. Riesling would be more typical but for Dennis that doesn’t really produce great wine on the valley floor until the vines are very old. By contrast the Chenin has done well. When young the nose has a strong banana flavour which fades quite quickly to be replaced by a pleasant and complex nose of fruit including some citrus, nuts and honey, and grassiness. It has a typical Chenin seam of acid though not as pronounced as from cooler areas.
However, the real focus of interest at Rusden is the red wines. The principal grapes for the quality wines are Cabernet Sauvignon, Mataro and of course Shiraz. What is immediately obvious is that all the reds shows some strong common themes. They are full-flavoured as you would expect but not in an over-rich, obvious sort of way. All the wines showed a good level of acidity, making them genuinely lively and even supple, despite the typical 14˚ or more of alcohol. Further, they all had a strong salty, iodine, streak, which Dennis puts down to the ‘soil’, if that’s the right word, which is basically non-wetting sand over clay. the pictures on the Rusden web site show vines, old and new, growing in what appears to be a desert!
First up was Ripper Creek 2006 (£21.50), 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Shiraz, aged for 15-18 months in old barriques and hogsheads. This is a serious wine, said to be at its best after 10 to 12 years, with a bold nose of green pepper, some sweet Shiraz fruit and some pepperiness. On the palate it combines a great structure with the zip of decent acidity. The latter comes from a combination of the relative coolness of their location (2-3˚ degrees cooler and greater day/night difference because of the gully breezes) and judicious and entirely legal adding of acid to the final product.
Next up was a real ‘marmite’ wine, Full Circle Mataro 2005(£26.50): 100% Mataro or Mourvèdre if you prefer. Dennis muses on the origin of the name of the grape in Australia and then repeats the old joke: why is the grape called Mataro in Australia? Because Australians couldn’t say Mourvèdre. But then he notes it’s called Monastrell in Spain. The wine itself sparks off a further digression on words for tasting. Some don’t like this wine because its too ‘feral’ (untamed, not super clean as most modern wines are) ‘blousy ’ (you decide), says Dennis. This one is both both highly vegetal and salty, a stand out wine if you like strong character and distinctiveness – which I love. The wine starts with a great barnyardy smell (hence ‘feral’), then green peppers plus the iodine notes commented on. ‘Great palate weight’ adds Dennis. There is great depth of flavour and super silky tannins. There was some disagreement on this in the group, but no one seemed to mind that much. On the general issue of what we mean when we speak about wine, see the post on ‘Talking about wine’.
Rather more recognisable is Boundaries Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 (£36.75) A good ruby colour, but not black, great big fruity nose of red and blackcurrants, but not jammy, counterbalancing acidity again, slightly sweet notes (rum and raison according to Dennis) which comes from the 20% American oak used for this wine. Supple and velvety.
Rusden’s most celebrated wine is named with Aussie bravado, Black Guts Shiraz (£46). We tasted two years, 2005 and then 2003, the second a hotter year. Rusden’s philosophy of using older barrels continues with this top wine, with only 20-30% new barrels. Basically they are looking for the maturation of the fruit and for the wine to come together over its 30 months of ageing, rather than adding new flavours through the use of much new oak. The 2005 leads with dense, black fruit, a certain smokiness and has great length to go with it. Its simultaneously robust and highly civilised, balanced as with all these wines through its acidity. 2003 is rather more tarry, characteristically ‘burnt rubber’ of Syrah and the acidity has dropped a bit. These are a remarkable achievement for a relatively small (4,000 cases a year) family winery.
Through all is this Dennis is a friendly, informing presence. It’s quite clear how much he cares about his wife and family, his company, the wines, the people he has met. It didn’t seem surprising that we finished the evening with someone else’s wine: Gregg Hobbs Viognier 2005 (£14.50 for 50 cl bottle). In a piece of new world inventiveness, this is a sweet wine made by an accelerated grape drying method and the vinified. So instead of simply allowing grapes to shrivel for three months (as in the making of traditional Amarone and Recioto), these grapes are air-dried in a week.
The result is beautiful to behold – a rich deep orange-gold colour and a nice green and gold wine label to go with it. (I wonder how many wine label designers think about the needs of photographers when they knock up those labels – will the label relate to and complement the wine?) The nose is a powerful apricot, with good fruit and refreshing acid again. Very good indeed.
Rusden is a model for great new world wines – combining balance and drinkability with a depth of flavour and complexity. If we were in the old world, we would be talking terroir as the wines do speak of the particular place from whence they came. And in Dennis Canute they have an friendly, approachable and informative ambassador.
Many thanks to David Thomas of Caviste (where you can buy these wines) who arranged this tasting and to Stafford for his company and help.