1 February 2018 We are republishing free this 2015 tasting article as a complement to Max's latest report from Australia we published on Tuesday in which he profiles Warren Randall whom he identifies as the most important man in Australian wine today. Steve Pannell is head winemaker at Randall's Tinlins winery in McLaren Vale where S C Pannell now has its own winery.
23 October 2015 We recently published a compilation of more than 200 tasting notes on many of Australia’s finest wines, but decided that those of Stephen Pannell deserved a spotlight of their own. In many ways he is a standard-bearer for what one might call the new style of fresher Australian wines, particularly reds. He has just been voted Winemaker of the Year by Australian Gourmet Traveller WINE. The chairman of judges Peter Forrestal commented, ‘Stephen Pannell is one of this country’s most articulate winemakers: thoughtful and compelling when talking about wine; keen to place his work in a philosophical context. While many would agree with Pannell’s ideas about making wines that are suitable for and reflect our climate, his comprehensive and classy portfolio of wines illustrates this thinking more clearly than any other we have seen in Australia.’
Huon Hooke, a fellow judge (and also responsible for the much-revised Australian entries in the new, fourth edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine), added, ‘it would be difficult to conjure a more complete all-round wine guy than Steve Pannell. He really understands the vineyard, the winery, the market, the zeitgeist, and wine quality. His wines result from this, so little wonder at his success.’ Quite some accolades, I’m sure you would agree.
Pannell grew up on a wine farm. His father was one of the founding fathers of the Margaret River wine region and had close links to Burgundy. He has been based in Adelaide for many years, having been in charge of making red wines for Hardy’s for a long time before setting up S C Pannell on his own account. Just for good measure, he uprooted his young family and spent quite a time in Barolo country, so has a truly cosmopolitan vision of where his beloved McLaren Vale fits in to the world of wine.
Pannell’s wines (see this 2007 wine of the week, for instance) are perceptibly different from the Australian norm, with real energy and harmony to them. He has been deliberately picking earlier, thinning out unripe grapes, and in the winery (he still doesn’t have his own, but makes his wines at wine tycoon Warren Randall’s Tinlins winery) his preoccupation is with ‘shutting the wine down rather than building it’. This means lots of whole-bunch fermentation and reductive winemaking, ageing the wine on the lees in large oak and being no fan of early racking. What he does do earlier than most is bottle the wine, ‘before it’s drinkable’.
He is proud to proclaim ‘I have no fear of tannins’, a complaint lodged with regard to some Australian wine styles. ‘Australians tend to be tannin-phobic but my Barolo experience made me admire them. I’m on this journey to express the wine in terms of the different tannins each variety has. Tannins are my number one weapon in controlling the texture of a wine.’
The S C Pannell label was born in 2004, selling mainly in Australia. But after the 2008 South Australian heatwave, Pannell undertook what he calls ‘a re-assessment and soul searching. I decided the ideology of wanting to be France was just not so valid in our climate. It was 37 degrees Celsius for 17 days in a row, with grapes gaining half a degree Baumé a day. It would be easier to make wine on Mars. The worst Shiraz was 25% potential alcohol. The grapes didn’t ferment, they just floated in the syrup. They were 9 Baumé after fermentation!’
In 2008 Pannell made his first Touriga, reckoning that a Douro grape variety would surely be used to high temperatures. ‘The Touriga came in at 13.5 and was fine.’ He thinks it is no accident that the first grape growers planted hot-climate varieties such as Touriga, Mataro (Mourvèdre), Doradillo and the Grenache he is currently so interested in (‘we’re making it more like Pinot and less like Shiraz’). He points out that McLaren Vale terroir is ‘more like Sardinia than Spain’, presumably because of the maritime influence from the south. In early September Pannell had just been in Greece looking at other hot-climate varieties such as Xinomavro and Assyrtiko (he has high hopes of being allowed some Assyrtiko cuttings from the Barrys) and he is also considering Aglianico, Nero d’Avola, Nerello, Tinta Cão, Tempranillo and Loureiro.
‘The wine you make needs to be a circle with the food you like (I eat fish)', he declared. ‘If you look at our history – we’re plonked in this place but I wonder how long it will take to make wines that truly represent what and where we are? We’ve got to work out what’s going to be important in 30 to 40 years. That’s why I’ve changed a lot of what we do. Australian Shiraz needs to go through the same evolution as Australian Chardonnay. We need to remove the artefact to get to the sense of place – the truly unique thing that wine has.’
I asked him whether he ever added acid and he shuddered. ‘Every bone in my body is against it.’ It is almost incredible to think what he has achieved despite buying his first vineyard, 13 hectares (32 acres) first planted in the 1850s next to the original Tintara vineyard, only three years ago. Last year he bought Tapestry near D’Arenberg with a further 9 ha of Shiraz. Other than that, he tends to buy from the same growers, increasingly in cooler regions such as Lenswood in the Adelaide Hills.
He was particularly enthusiastic about the 2015 vintage. ‘It was fabulous. We had a very cold January, then it warmed up and then cooled down again. The acids are great so we have Sauvignon Blanc at 13% alcohol and total acidity of 9 g/l as tartaric. In 2014 we had a bit of rain just pre harvest which stopped everything for 10-12 days. But we managed to make some bright, fruit-driven reds.’ You can say that again. Most of his reds end up at about 14% alcohol. ‘If you pick at 13.3% you get 14%', he says, declaring the trick is to pick just before you think the grapes are ripe. He cites Peter Fraser of Yangarra as a fellow traveller.
His other passion is big oak. ‘Oxygen and small new oak is like steroids for a body builder – the wines get bigger and bigger, and sweeter. But for Australia it doesn’t make sense. You need to control the wine, lock it down in stainless steel and then rack it into 500-, 800-, even 4,500-litre oak.’ He had to go out and buy new oak, from the large-vat facility bought by Francois Frères.
One of his mantras is that ‘there’s a difference between admirability and drinkability’. Amen to that.
The wines below are listed in the order tasted.