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Big Riverland wine family tests the water

Wine

The Byrnes have hired a Master of Wine to try some forgotten blends on us, writes Philip White.

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As a wine family name, Byrne might not ring too many bells unless you live in the Riverland. They now have around 400ha of vines there and some in Clare. With Brit consultant Philip Reedman MW, they have 18 brands and nearly 80 wines from some vineyards I’ve never before heard of and a few others.

While the Byrne Wine Group is headquartered in suburban Norwood, nowhere in the vast website does it explain where the wines are made, but I’m sure their winemakers, Reedman and former Penfolds man Peter Gajewski, know their way around many sub-contracting establishments that can help.

Sidney Wilcox Old Vine Zibibbo 2016 ($25; 14% alcohol; screw cap) is White Muscat of Alexandria from 40-plus-year-old Riverland vines.

When I was a kid this variety was commonly sold as spatlese lexia; it was usually made quite sweet. This one’s fairly dry, made like many of the dry-ish muscat family ones popular in the UK, but they’re usually cheaper than this, and maybe they’re not made quite so carefully.

It smells vaguely like a sweaty orange picker eating musk sticks. Its flavours are tight and austere, and like the labelling, they’re sufficiently adult to afford no embarrassment about variety or source, even though the wine is hardly a challenging gastronomic pinnacle. That orange juice/rind only insinuated in the bouquet is more prominent in the firm aftertaste, which hovers between appetising and abrupt, depending upon one’s preferences in orange pickers, depth of thirst, and epicurean wisdom.

The wine is much better than its price.

Antiquarian Rare Field White 2016 ($59; 14% alcohol; screw cap) is Riverland Muscadelle, Chenin Blanc, Colombard and Semillon from one vineyard, all picked together and co-fermented with wild yeasts.

It has a hint of that human I met in the Zibibbo, but here it’s fresher and less laboured, maybe just less concerned. The other three varieties help focus it, but in reality, it smells like none of them: that buttery, waxed orange whiff is more a regional muscaty character than a precise reflection of these other varieties, although that clean lineal wax may be the Chenin. It also has a neat whiff of dusty hemp sack about it: I suspect this is the bit many will call “mineral”.

In other ways, it reminds me of the ripe fruit of prickly pear. Which is delicious.

A touch of old French barrel seems to put it in a sort of Chardonnay from a hot-year-in-Macon mode.

In the ’70s and ’80s, master benchmen Wolf Blass and John Glaetzer fastidiously blended varieties like these to make Wolf Blass Classic Dry White, as Wolf thought good Chardonnay was beyond the grasp of most winemakers, who grew it for the wrong reasons in all the wrong places without understanding its chilly source in Burgundy. No fool, that Wolf.

Antiquarian Clare Valley Semillon Riesling 2017 ($59; 13.5% alcohol; compound cork) is another co-fermented business, aged in old French barrels. It has the most alluring, moody, lime marmalade and butter bouquet, complex and comforting. While it has equal proportions of both varieties, the Semillon dominates the aroma, but the Riesling is never far beneath that.

As a drink, the enjoyment can really only arrive when you stop worrying about what’s in it. In the conventional sense, it’s a better wine overall than the previous pair, but it comes from a place better suited to premium viticulture, and I’ll bet my arse the yields per hectare are much lower here than up the River.

If anything, this wine takes me back to the rustic, faintly sweet white blends of d’Arenberg in the early ’70s, when d’Arry was beginning to forget about brandy and make more white wine. Blending, mainly, by what was available and habit more than design. Even D’Arry’s Riesling was usually around one-third Frontignac muscat.

Antiquarian Clare Valley Pinot Noir Shiraz 2016 ($59; 14.5% alcohol; screw cap) is another surprise.

Pinot? In Clare? I suppose any region that grows such good – if freakish – Riesling should at least have a go at Pinot, which comes from a slightly warmer place in the Burgundy vs Rhineland sense. And then, if you consider the pre-war days, when a great deal of Burgundy’s Pinot was bolstered by a dash of Shiraz from the Algerian edge of the Sahara or the sunny south-of-France, you have to ask, why not?

The aroma is tight and black. Deadly nightshade. Juniper. Old leather harness. Christmas cake with plenty of currants and nutmeg. I want to say it has an acrid, piquant edge a bit like dry cardamom pods, but maybe that’s just dreaming. It does have a pretty topnote, like a dusting of confectioner’s sugar.

In the flavour department, I must say I can’t see much hint of the nine – count ’em: nine – clones of Pinot, but this is a more presentable form of ripe Clare Shiraz than many. And that says something: in Burgundy they added Shiraz – Syrah – to Pinot to give it strength and body; in Clare, these folks have replaced some of the excess strength and body typical of ripe Shiraz with Pinot noir.

It’s a good wine in the bistro/brasserie sense. But, like the others, it’s a bit too bloody spendy for that atmosphere, where one realises too late that bottle prices are double to keep the sommelier paid.

These blends, while a welcome change as much as a curtsy to many forgotten wines from the past, seem on the face of them to be mixtures of convenience as much as examples of the parfumier’s art. They might find the curiosity that pushes punters into the first bottle may not be sufficient to convince many to make a second purchase.

At least somebody’s having a think about what to do with all that droll arid/desert fruit from the Riverland, whether they’re game to put the region’s name on the label or not. I’d like to revisit these four bottles in five years, then have a look at what the Byrnes have decided to change.

I’ll be keen to see whether any Clare or Riverland connoisseurs are drinking them in the local restaurants and pubs.

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