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08.2005

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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Article By: Harvey Finkel, MD

Wine production got its start 167 years ago in McLaren Vale, 22 miles south of Adelaide in South Australia. Its ups, of its many ups and downs, can be credited to men named Reynell, Hardy, Kelly, Manning, and Penfold. Now we can add a rather un-Australian name to the illustrious list, Roman Bratasiuk, the owner/winemaker of Clarendon Hills.

The Vale is warm and sunny enough to ensure rich and complex flavors in most vintages, and has enough marine influence to inject elegance and balance. It contains the poor soil and old vineyards necessary for the production of arresting wines. The right conditions, of course, need the right person to harness them.

Roman Bratasiuk came to Boston recently, bearing tasting samples of his wines. He is of Ukrainian descent. His family did not drink wine. Burly and ruggedly handsome, he resembles Viktor Yushchenko, the new president of Ukraine (before the dioxin assault). With a background in biochemistry and a cleareyed vinous vision, Bratasiuk has, in just 15 years, taken a place in the world's pantheon of great red-wine makers.

The vines are mostly old, many having reached four score and beyond. The vineyards are on rocky hillsides or poor sandy soil, often at about 3OO meters of altitude. The vines grow on their own roots - no Phylloxera here. They are not irrigated. Yields are very low. All of the wines are red, each made from a single varietal grown in a single vineyard. They express their individual terroirs, but they perforce express Bratasiuk as well. The small, thick-skinned, concentrated, hand-picked berries are put through a long maceration before fermentation with wild (indigenous) yeasts. The wines are neither fined nor filtered. They spend 18 months in French oak barrels, generally one-and two-year-old for Grenache, predominately new French oak for Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The wines take about six years, on average, to mature, then last for many more years. The contracted vineyards yield 8OO to1OOO cases of each wine, giving Clarendon Hills a total annual production of between 1O,OOO and 15,OOO cases, of which 98 percent is exported. Half goes to the US. Commonwealth Wine & Spirits, Inc., of Mansfield, Massachusetts, is the new American national importer.

Of the 16 wines produced, five are Grenache (an often disrespected and troublesome variety), one is Merlot, three Cabernet Sauvignon, and seven Syrah. Bratasiuk is planting his own 35-acre Syrah vineyard in addition. Given the low yields and the hands-on intensity of producing small quantities of concentrated wines, the rising value of the Australian dollar against the American, and a new national importer, one would expect the wines to be costly. Grenache retails for $6O to $96; Merlot for $55, Cabernet Sauvignon $59 to $63, and Syrah $63 to $323. Those are net bottle prices.

Let's taste a few all from the fine 2OO3 vintage

Blewitt Springs Old Vines Grenache
All the wines, this no exception, are dark and saturated. From 8O-year-old vines. Juicy and flavorful, berry and plum. Well integrated.

Kangarilla Old Vines Grenache
85-year-old vines. Fine and elegant notes of cherry and raspberry. Alcohol still detectable.

Romas Old Vines Grenache
85-year-old vines. Top of the Grenache line. Flowery nose, with white chocolate. Raspberries. Suave and long. Soft tannins. Develops in air.

Brookman Merlot
Intense berry fruit.

Sandown Cabernet Sauvignon
85-year-old vines. Ripe cassis. Sweet fruit with abundant acid to balance. Soft tanins. Long finish.

Moritz Syrah
Spelling it Syrah instead of the usual Australian Shiraz (the most grown grape in Australia) suggests that Bratasiuk may look to the Rhône as a model. 3O-year-old vines. Smells of tar and fruit. After a while, freshly ground Tellicherry black peppercorns, and tastes of concentrated blackberries. Balanced with acid. Long. Alcohol discernible. Most impressive.

Astralis Syrah
The flagship. Vines close to 75-years-old. Most frugal yield of O.5 to l ton per acre. French oak apparent, as is a bit of alcohol. Very elegant, very concentrated, very young. Still tannic, though pleasantly so. Its price probably makes discussion academic.

The other Clarendon Hills wines keep the faith - they fit with these in character and quality. All are enhanced by food, and they return the compliment. Just try not to guzzle them down at too young an age, for they have colors to show.

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