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The wines of Knappstein with Andrew Hardy, 01/03

by Tom Cannavan, 01/03

winemaker  I caught up with Andrew Hardy on a flying visit to Glasgow, when we grabbed some lunch in the Ubiquitous Chip restaurant after he'd delivered a little tutored tasting to staff of Oddbins branches in the area. Andrew is indeed a member of the famous Hardy's dynasty, but learned his trade working for Brian Croser at Petaluma, starting with the 1983 vintage as cellar-hand, then trainee winemaker and finally Winemaker and Viticulturist. In September 1995 he accepted the position of Manager and Winemaker for Knappstein.

Knappstein is based in the Clare Valley, an area much in vogue for its Rieslings, and much in the news after the leading estates there unanimously switched to screwcap closures in 2001.

Knappstein make Riesling of course, along with other aromatic whites including Gewürztraminer, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. There's Chardonnay too, and reds are based on Shiraz (including a new sparkling version) and Cabernet Sauvignon. Knappstein's premium range appears under the "Enterprise" label.

As part of the "Clare Valley Movement", Knappstein bottle their Riesling under Stelvin (screwcap) rather than natural cork. Andrew says that at home this no longer causes any stir at all, even in the poshest restaurants. He believes Riesling-lovers to be a fairly fanatical breed however, saying "some people just want a bottle of white, and 90% buy Chardonnay - but some want a bottle or Riesling, and they buy Riesling", suggesting a very clued-up fan-base who won't query a screwcap. In fact, parts of all the Knappstein production is now being bottled in Stelvin, depending on the market for which it is destined. Andrew cites Asia and one or two pockets of the domestic market as being resistant to change for now.

Like many of Australia's smaller, but well-known producers, Knappstein is no longer independent. Tim Knappstein sold up to Brian Croser of Petaluma fame in 1992, and then the latter was itself bought-out by the giant Lion-Nathan brewing group in 2000. Today each winemaker in the subsidiary companies is given considerable autonomy, though all still report to Croser as their "line-manager" in the winemaking chain. Andrew Hardy is considered by many to be one of Australia's most talented winemakers. Shortly after our meeting, another famous Aussie winemaker told me he consider Andrew to be the country's great unsung winemaking hero.

Andrew's forebears planted in the Clare Valley generations ago, with a huge array of grapes to make a huge array of wines, from sparkling to "Port". Now he says the Clare is focused on matching slope to grape much more closely. Riesling is their main focus, but coming up fast is Shiraz. Although Clare has sub-regions (like Watervale), producers are making a concerted effort to improve and establish the Clare geographical region as the highest quality in its own right. "It's all about regionality; the £2.99 wines pull in their fruit from Riverina, but we are focusing on specific plots and putting a lot of work into matching them to vines. Clare Valley is a premium area, for wines that express real regionality".

One of the wines we tasted with a good lunch was a new wine, the "Chainsaw" Sparkling Shiraz. Andrew explained it is named after the cruel fate of the vines: the vineyard was originally planted in the 1960's, but the vines were chainsawed back to stumps to be grafted to Chardonnay in the 1980's boom. Then as Chardonnay waned in the 90's, the chainsaws were fired-up again to re-graft to Shiraz. The wine uses a little vintage "Port" as the dosage, to give it some extra oomph.

Knappstein Riesling 2001
Beautifully clean, limpid lime fruit with crisp minerality beneath. On the palate quite round and waxy, with a lemon-zest quality. It is quite full-bodied and lush, with a fine, distinctive citrus finish and lovely purity. Very nicely structured and concentrated. Would age well. Very good indeed. Oddbins, Frenmart, The Wine Press, Upton Wines, Gordon of Bolton, Peckham's; £6.99.

Knappstein Clare Shiraz 1999
Full malolactic fermentation and French oak ageing gives this wine a mellow, toasty, invitingly warm nose underpinning sweet red berry fruit and spice. Warm, ripe and full-bodied, there's a soft tannic background and just a background support of oak. Nicely-weighted and savoury, this has good length. Very good. Oddbins, Safeway, Frenmart, The Wine Press; £8.99.

Knappstein Enterprise Cabernet Sauvignon 1998
24-months ageing in French oak barriques gives class and sophistication, but that saturated colour and huge, mulberry, eucalyptus and intensely minty nose is pure Aussie at its best. There is also plenty of cassis and blackberry fruit, and a super-ripe concentration. On the palate it is really quite crisp thanks to a little tannic structure and a toasty background of oak, with a lovely quality of sweet fruit and medium- to full-body. Pure and long, this finishes with lots of style. Excellent. Oddbins Fine Wine, Majestic, Frenmart, The Wine Press; £13.99.

Knappstein "Chainsaw" Sparkling Shiraz 1999
Huge, lush, chocolaty nose, flooded with blueberry and blackcurrant fruit. Fine weight on the palate, with a persistent mousse and lovely purity of dense, earthy, black fruit flavours. Stays creamy and full through the mid-palate, and broad acidity extends the finish. Very good indeed. Knappstein is currently looking for a UK listing for the Chainsaw.

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