Wrattonbully – Serious Merlot

12.25pm, Friday 7th December, Clocktower, Yalumba, Eden Valley Road, Angaston, SA

Afternoon folks, I’ve just been up to have a chat with Pete Gambetta, our winemaker who looks after most of the grapes that come from the Hill Smith family’s vineyards ‘down south’ in Coonawarra and Wrattonbully. I was down there earlier this week to do a tasting with the full team – vineyards, office and the Menzies Tasting Room – of the new release vintages of what I thought were 6 of my strongest wines out there ‘on the road’ this year.

So what did I have on board?

The 2011 Yalumba Y Vermentino – citrus perfume and zippy lime oil flavors completely begging for yum cha prawn dumplings or salt and leper squid.

2012 Pewsey Vale Riesling – nothing short of a lemon lime floral firecracker ready for anything from the sea or river done just about any which way.

2011 Yalumba The Strapper Grenache Shiraz Mataro – your 3D middleweight all raspberry rosemary juicy fruit savory stuff for the Lebanese kebabs, sweet beet salads, bangers and gravy drowned mash, Greek style minced lamb and garlic balls with cucumber and yoghurt dipping sauce, lamb loin chops … just about anything!

2010 Yalumba The Patchwork Barossa Shiraz – more than a middleweight leading with cloves and cinnamon backed up with dark sweet star anise laced fruit, looking for tagliatelli with proper meatballs and tomato basil sauce to mushroom risotto to old school eye fillet beef wrapped in single smoked bacon topped with Swiss brown mushroom sauce.

2010 Yalumba The Scribbler Cabernet Shiraz and its bigger and slightly more muscular brother the 2008 Yalumba The Signature Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz – here we are in truly carnivorous territory with cassis ‘ribena’ driven aromas and flavours from the Cabernet over a solid cherry chocolate Shiraz carpet – looking for meat on a bone – slow braised and roasted short ribs glazed with something sweet falling apart into fibres, proper T-bone steaks with green peppercorn sauce and caramelized onions on the side, not forgetting beautifully cured sweet ham on the bone with beetroot relish … just for fun.

Yep, it was 6 of the very best for this year.

Then …

Into this top-flight company, we put something special from the family’s Wrattonbully vineyards into the toughest wine company we could. We added the – as yet unreleased – 2010 Reserve Smith & Hooper Merlot to the lineup and tasted it after the 2008 Signature. Tough debut in anyone’s terms. (PS ‘Smith & Hooper’ refers to the two local fine wool sheep grazing families that we purchased land from back in 1995. We turned that land into the rock and red dirt vineyard blocks that we have today.)

So before I go too much further, let’s give you a look at our corner of the world down in Wrattonbully – you’ll find it on the map just south more or less a bit east of the town of Naracoorte.


Left the main road in the drizzle…..


On to the dirt….


I’m in the right spot…..


And this is what I mean by ‘red dirt and rock’ blocks




So, back to the tasting, and the 2010 Smith and Hooper Reserve Merlot.

It’s 100% Merlot and a very small batch of wine made in a very interesting way. It’s the ‘berries in the barrel’ method. Remember Pete Gambetta, the winemaker? Well Pete did a vintage in Bordeaux back in 2005 with the Despagne wine growing family, and he saw an interesting way to handle Merlot that resulted in lifted fruit aromatics, as well as really good tannin fruit palate structure and length. So the inspiration was the Despagne family’s super merlot – ‘Girolate’ – and now we’ve had a crack at producing our own small-lot mega Merlot.

So how does the ‘berries in a barrel’ thing work?

The best parcels of Wrattonbully Merlot across the Smith and Hooper vineyards have been identified over the past 7 or 8 years, they’re hand picked, put in a cool room overnight, then the berries are stripped or ‘de-stemmed’, and are loaded into 30 barrels – 60 gallon / 300 litre hogsheads. There’s enough juicing that goes on during the de-stemming to provide a ‘carbonic maceration’ effect, where the berries effectively ferment more or less whole for around 14 days in the barrels. The barrels are rotated every 6 hours during that time, which ensures that there’s enough contact between the breaking down berry flesh and juice – to transfer all the aroma, colour and flavor goodies across.

After the ferment finishes, Pete takes 10 of the barrels and empties them into the press, separates off the wine, then tops up the remaining 20 barrels – wine filled onto wine in each barrel with the berries still there. These 20 barrels sit for 6 weeks as extended skin contact – still rotating – imparts this quite solid unique integrated tannin without aggression into the wine. After 6 weeks, all the barrels are emptied individually, the barrels thoroughly cleaned, with each barrel’s volume going back to its original barrel – where it stays for 7 to 12 months.

So, at the end of the day, what did we get?

Something a bit special actually. On the day, these were my tasting notes: “almost mulberry jam aromas with cracked pepper and Chinese five spice. Darker fruits of the forest (my favorite yoghurt flavor) berries on a leaner more than lush palate, more savoury than sweet, tannins but not tight and grippy … probably the best Merlot I can remember seeing from this country. And it went so well with the beetroot relish!”


So there you have it, our day ‘down south’ in Wrattonbully, and the serious Merlot they’re turning out. Just for the viticultural clonal purists, the 2010 Reserve Smith & Hooper Merlot is 80% D3V14 and 40% the new French Q45-14 and Italian 8R clones.

Also, for the fans of old school sustainability, here’s more of the area’s rock in our own traditional dry stacked stone fence line …



And completing that boundary is about 800 meters of sheoak trees – all seed saved and propagated from the original tree planted on the Smith’s sheep property.


Thanks enormously to James, Dan, Helen, all the folks at the Wrattonbully vineyards, and the gals at the Menzies Tasting Room for your hospitality … and I’ll see you all after vintage when I come back down with another set of 6 ‘road star’ wines, this time from the Feb / March Tour through Ireland and the UK.

One response to “Wrattonbully – Serious Merlot

  1. Thanks Jane, that was great! Very useful info as always.

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