Winemaker of the Year 2017 - Sarah Crowe

Posted by David on 18th May 2017

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a lunch with winemaker Sarah Crowe. Like most in the room, I was excited to get an insight into the first woman to win the prestigious James Halliday Winemaker of the Year for 2017.

Sarah grew up in ‘The Gong’ and did her first stint in the wine industry in the Hunter when she joined Brokenwood in 2001. While she was there, Sarah commenced a degree in viticulture, also managing to squeeze in vintages in Oregon and the Rhône with Paul Jaboulet Aine. In 2009 she was awarded ‘Rising Star of the Year’ by the Hunter Valley Wine IndustryAssociation, then in 2010 Sarah became senior winemaker at Bimbadgen. In the same year she was accepted into the highly coveted Len Evans Tutorial Program.

James Halliday Winemaker of the Year - Sarah Crowe.

In 2013 Sarah became Chief Winemaker at the iconic Yarra Yering winery and it’s her work here that’s set tongues wagging. Sarah is also winemaker for the adjoining Warramate winery.

In spite of the praise and accolades, the thing that impressed me most about Sarah was her modesty. She described the making of her wines, some of the most lauded in the country, in such a down-to-earth and low-key manner, omitting of course, the mountain of talent and incredible work ethic required to make wines of this quality. The engaging, pragmatic and no-nonsense way in which Sarah generously shared her knowledge was a world away from the obfuscation and mystique so deftly and regularly cultivated by French winemakers.

Over lunch we tasted 4 wines from Yarra Yering and 4 from Warramate. Not surprisingly, the stand-out wines were from Yarra Yering, but the one that really stuck in my mind was the humble Warramate Black Label Cabernets 2013. I’d actually tasted this wine several months earlier when it was first released and I liked it. I found it well made, delicious and incredible value.

Warramate vineyards.

In the wine industry these days there’s always something new, sexy and cool to capture the imagination and with the focus on this, it’s easy to overlook gems which may be right under your nose… like Warramate. And like all quiet achievers, there’s more to this story than meets the eye.

Warramate is a small Yarra Valley producer nestled between Coldstream Hills (established by James Halliday) and Yarra Yering. The estate has been quietly going about its business for 40 years, with Jack and June Church first planting in 1969. Jack was an industrial chemist with a yen to make wine and after much deliberation he chose the north facing slopes of the Warramate ranges, in a sub-region known as Gruyere.

The Yarra is a well-known cool climate region east of Melbourne, with a wine history dating back to the 1830s. By the 1920s it had given over to the cow, but the late 1960s saw a revival, with the establishment of Warramate, Yarra Yering, St Huberts and Yeringberg vineyards. For many wine drinkers, the Yarra has a reputation for Pinot and Chardonnay, but don’t forget its strength traditionally lies with Cabernet. Some of the best Cabernet in the country comes from producers like Mount Mary and Yarra Yering.

The small tanks that Dr Carrodus had custom made are still used at Yarra Yering today.

Rumour has it that the legendary founder of Yarra Yering, Dr Bailey Carrodus asked to buy Warramate and when turned down, planted his own vineyard right next door, also in 1969. When Dr Carrodus died in 2008, Yarra Yering was purchased by a partnership headed up by investment banker and wine industry heavyweight Edouard (Ed) Peter. The same group then purchased the adjoining Warramate winery in 2011, the result being that both estate’s wines are now made in the Yarra Yering winery by Sarah, using the same artisanal techniques and equipment.

Halliday rates Warramate 5 stars saying it’s “long established and perfectly situated” (he would say that - the winery he established is next door!) and “all the wines are well made.”

Warramate Black Label Cabernets 2013

Warramate Black Label Cabernets 2013

Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the world’s great varieties. Its fame lies in its role as the principle variety in the red wines of Bordeaux. You’ll find it planted almost everywhere that grapes are grown, although it tends not to like excessively cool regions, producing a greenness in such conditions. The grapes are small, thick skinned and bluish in colour. Cabernet has quite distinctive characteristics, as Jancis Robinson notes “the wines tend to be deep in colour, high in tannin and relatively high in acidity. There’s a recognisable nobility and stability to its aroma which can vary from blackcurrant to cedar.”

Despite being such a great variety, I lost my way with Cabernet over the last few years. I think I’d had too many that were big, dense and chock full of new oak. But recently it’s been back on my radar, thanks to wines like this that offer good old fashioned, mid-weight, lean, structured Cabernet, the sort which Bordeaux was built on.

This is simply an extraordinary wine for the price - especially as it’s made in essentially the same way as the far more expensive Yarra Yering Dry Red No.1 (using the same custom made 1.5 - 2.0 tonne ‘tea chest’ open fermenters). Also, it’s not widely known, but a portion of the fruit going into the Warramate Black Label comes from Yarra Yering. All the pieces are falling together - no wonder it’s such a good wine. The impression I get is that due to the proximity and shared ownership, Warramate purposely overdelivers on quality in order to promote it and introduce drinkers to the wines of Yarra Yering.

Cabernet grapes in the Warramate vineyards.

The Warramate Black Label Cabernets 2013 is 65% Cabernet, 18% Merlot and 17% Cabernet Franc. The majority of the fruit comes from a more recently planted vineyard (2000), however a percentage still comes from the original plantings (1969). All Warramate vineyards are unirrigated.

The wine itself - you’ll find bright fruit with cassis and as it opens up, there’s cedar and herbal notes. It’s a simple, elegant, medium-bodied wine, with fine dry tannins and a delicate structure, not loaded with new oak or alcohol. Only 10% sees new French oak, the rest uses old oak.

Past vintages got great scores from Halliday and I expected to see the same for this vintage, but I’m reliably told that someone at the winery failed to get this vintage to him (not happy Jan!)… so no review.

Oak barrels in the Warramate winery.

“A beautifully expressed Bordeaux style red, this Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend shows gorgeous aromas of dark fruit, dried herbs, mixed spice and black olive, with hints of cedar and floral. The palate delivers excellent concentration and weight, while remaining elegant and stylish. The wine is expressive, comforting and exciting at the same time, and is brilliantly structured by polished tannins. At its best now to 2020.”93 points, Wine Orbit.

“A medium-bodied classic claret style wine with a signature leafy lift. Layered fruits of blackcurrant and blueberries integrate with earthy complexity and fine dusty tannins. A brightness from the acidity underscores a generous palate weight of fruit and long finish ably assisted by the variety’s inherent structural tannins. A wine of generosity and concentration with finesse rarely found at this price point. Perfect for immediate enjoyment, expect a mellow and graceful evolution for up to 10 years under suitable cellaring conditions.” Winemaker’s notes.

Overdelivering is how you keep people interested when you're no longer the next big thing. This is an elegant and smooth wine and at less than $30 you don’t really need an occasion to open it up. Generous flavours with fine tannin structure make it easy to drink with or without food. Definitely worth knowing about.

It's got to be one of the best value Cabernets on any wine list. You'll find it at Felix Restaurant for $70 a bottle.

I can offer it for $27 a bottle. Order online

Yarra Yering Dry Red No.1 2010

I also loved these two wines - just so delicious. The Yarra Yering Dry Red No.1 is one of Australia’s top Cabernet (Bordeaux style) blends. Both wines are from top vintages and sourced directly from museum stock at the winery. Well worth popping one in a mixed case.

Yarra Yering Dry Red No.1 2010

65% Cabernet, 18% Merlot, 9% Malbec 8% Petit Verdot.
Langton’s awards the 2010 vintage in the Yarra Valley 9/10 for Cabernet.

“Deep garnet colored, the 2010 Dry Red No.1 offers notes of ripe blackcurrants, cloves, pencil shavings, tree bark and mulberries with hints dried Mediterranean herbs and anise. Medium-bodied, this is a Bordeaux blend built to age, with a firm level of ripe, finely grained tannins and great acid line cutting through the concentrated blackberry and spice flavor layers. The finish is very long. Though approachable now, it should drink best 2014 to 2025+.” 94+ Points, Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate.

Wine Ark Top 50 in Australia’s Most Collected Wines 2013.

I can offer it for $99 a bottle. SOLD OUT

Yarra Yering Dry Red No.1 2012

Yarra Yering Dry Red No.1 2012

54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 15% Malbec, 9% Petit Verdot.

Like the 2010, Langton’s gives the 2012 vintage in the Yarra Valley 9/10 for Cabernet. The winery notes that “2012 in the Yarra Valley will go down as one of those exceptional vintages where all varieties achieved excellent quality. The resulting 2012 wines are beautifully balanced and integrated as young wines, with the finesse and longevity that you’ve come to expect from this iconic vineyard.”

“Excellent hue and depth; this is a top-flight No.1, fully reflecting the excellent vintage; the flavours are bold and luscious, yet the wine never threatens to lose its shape; first there is the multi-variety complexity, second the perfectly balanced ripe tannins. It almost seems superfluous to mention the new French oak, but it too helps weld the wine into its utterly coherent whole.” 97 Points, James Halliday, Wine Companion.

“Blackcurrant, fresh blackberry, violet notes, tobacco and cedar, and a slightly twiggy but attractive varietal top note. Medium-bodied, firm acidity and a sluice of powdery - you might call them gravelly - tannin that runs long and persists on the finish. Depth of fruit and black tea and tobacco savouries, the oak beautifully integrated and all just so. Such impressive structure and quality here. Superb. Will cellar a treat. Touch and go for a massive 97 points.” 96+ Points, Gary Walsh, Winefront.

98 Points - Tony Love’s Top 100 Wines - The Adelaide Advertiser 2015.
95 Points - Huon Hooke, www.huonhookedotcom

I can offer it for $99 a bottle. Order online