Peter Howland Wines

Establishment Restaurant, Manchester

31st May 2005


A meet the winemaker dinner at Manchester's Establishment restaurant on 31st May 2005.

Peter Howland is a sort of negociant-éleveur. He doesn't own any vines or a winery; just a barrel store. He buys hand-harvested Shiraz grapes in from selected blocks in Western Australia (and some Hunter Valley chardonnay), and then drives them over, in refrigerated containers on a four-day journey, to the winery in the Hunter Valley, where he rents some space.

There were some murmured "huh?"s in the audience as he explained this, but it's actually not that unusual in Australia (I remember seeing grapes being transported across Australia in refrigerated lorries on one of Jancis Robinson' excellent television shorts). But apparently this cold soaking does have a part to play in the finished wines, giving the Shirazes very deeply saturated colours: it's different to a normal cold soak, as, because it's on the back of a lorry, it's constantly being stirred up. When the Shiraz must arrives in the Hunter Valley, it's almost fully extracted, but hasn't even started fermenting. This means that Peter knows exactly what he's got to work with and can ferment more gently and more accurately, as he doesn't need to worry about extracting colour etc. Apparently this also affects the tannic structure of the final wine: you get soft, fine tannins from the cold soak and gentle lorry-back agitation, but he can avoid getting any bitter seed tannins as he doesn't need to worry about maceration once fermentation has started. This makes the wines very approachable when young - they don't need to age to soften out the tannins, as the bitter tannins aren't there in the first place. Cunning.

A lot of work goes on after vinification with a wide range of oaks - American, French, close grained, looser grained, varying toasts. But that notwithstanding, Peter Howland claims that his passion is to bring out the terroir of the individual vineyard blocks: he aims "to taste that vineyard year after year, and experience the specific changes in the wines resulting from seasonal differences."

He currently has four wines available, and we tasted (and drank) all four.

First up was a 2003 Maxwell Vineyard Chardonnay, Hunter Valley
A 35-year old vineyard in the Mountview subregion of the Hunter Valley. The vines are not irrigated, and furthermore 2003 was a drought year in the already dry Hunter Valley, and the grapes ripened very quickly.
The fruit was handpicked and then chilled before being whole-bunch pressed straight to barrel (100% French cool climate oak from Nevers, Troncais and Vosges). Each barrel is vinified separately, with around 60% of the wine using wild yeasts, and the rest selected strains of yeast. There is no batonnage. After fermentation the wine is left on its lees for about four months, un-sulphured. Some barrels then undergo malolactic fermentation and then the wines are sulphured before being left to mature for another four months.
The nose is oaky with tropical fruit and a real savoury note. It's immediately impressive and with a character entirely of its own: a rich full wine and certainly not your usual Ozzie chardonnay. On the palate it's soft, yet with lots of ripe fruit - quite tropical and melony, but it's very well balanced and very complex. It's actually very savoury in the mouth, with more than a hint of umami. Great depth. An excellent finish with enormous length.
As it warms up, it loses the oakiness on the nose and more fruit comes through, yet it also becomes more umami.
A whopping 14.5% alcohol, but I have to say it carries it very well.
This was quite simply a superb wine, and a stunning start which completely changed my mood and attitude. (I'd started off with an 'oh, yeah, an Ozzie winemaker who's going to show us over-oaked, over-blown, jammy wines' attitude.)

This was served with an excellent Pressed Organic Chicken, Foie Gras and Artichoke terrine with a truffle dressing and toasted brioche. Good dish, very well made with a generous amount of good quality foie gras, but what really stood out for me was how tender the chicken was.

The Chardonnay wasn't a bad match, but I hung onto some of it and it went much better with the next course: Confit Pork Belly, Seared Scallop, Carrot Purée, Piquant Sauce, with which we were served:

2002 Langley Vineyard Shiraz, Donnybrook, Western Australia
Donnybrook is the orchard district of south-west Western Australia, growing lots of cherries, apples, plums and indeed there is a nectarine orchard right next door. Somehow (but probably just by the power of suggestion) some of these flavours seem to find their way into the wine.
The grower, Graham Langley, has around six acres of Shiraz on ironstone, gravel soils on a north facing hill (southern hemisphere, so north's good, remember!). He's too small a producer to be able to sell to any of the big boys - his entire production wouldn't fill half a tank. Tight-grained, well seasoned American oak is used for the barrels in which the wine matures for around 16 months. Peter Howland uses different oaks in different combinations for each of his three Shirazes to bring out their different characters.
A very perfumed nose - very light, fragrant, perfumed violets with a sour cherry background. Very soft attack. You'd be hard pressed to guess that this was as young as 2002. Good fruit on the palate, but what strikes me most is the beautiful balance. Very, very soft and ripe, but not at all jammy. A very elegant wine, so much so that blind, you might question whether it could be Australian, yet there is more of the Ozzie than the Hermitage to it. Not a terribly good match with the belly pork and scallop (the chardonnay was a much better match), but it was superb with the date and cinnamon bread. Excellent wine.

Next up was a Braised Beef 'Open Lasagne', wild mushrooms, truffle foam OK, but could have done with some of the sauce that was poured onto the scallop, as although beautifully tender, the meat was a touch dry in the quantity in which it was served. To go with this we were served:

2002 Parson's Vineyard Shiraz, Frankland River, Western Australia
Peter Howland clearly liked this site. Situated four hours' drive from Perth ("the most isolated city in the world"), he said it has the purest, clearest light he'd come across anywhere in the world, and he'd never seen so many stars. The vineyard is on a really steep, north facing slope on well-drained gravelly soil. Rainfall is negligible from Spring to Autumn and the vines produce tiny berries. After fermentation, the wine is racked into mainly straight cut, narrow-stave Missouri oak (with some French oak too) barrels. Peter Howland reckons the Missouri oak helps soften and sweeten the wine's middle. He regards the Parsons Vineyard as very layered and the most elegant of his wines.
This has a much more elegant nose and it's even more perfumed when poured out of the badly matched glass into the proper Syrah glass in which the Langley had been served. But it's also a duller nose than the Langley, only showing some really spicy notes after much aeration. Round and very even on the palate, with a curious citrus streak, perhaps from a touch of volatile acidity. A much less interesting wine than the Langley. Very Good.

The next wine, served with some good cheese, was 2002 Pine Lodge Shiraz, Mount Barker, Western Australia
This is one of the oldest vineyards in the area, with 30-year old vines, dry-grown, producing very tiny berries. The soil is a gravelly loam over Alabaster clay. Again, it undergoes the 4-5 day cold soak driving across Australia and after fermentation, the wine is racked into 100% French oak and matured for up to sixteen months, with three or four gentle rackings during that time. All the barrels are finally blended, lightly filtered and bottled.
A gorgeous nose. Ripe, chocolatey, tarry nose. Novely attack. Light and moderately fresh tasting with ripe, though quite delicate fruit. A very complex wine and much sweeter than the Parsons Vineyard. Very Good Indeed.

Yummy Whole lemon pudding with custard ice-cream rounded things off, leaving time for chatting to Peter Howland.

All in all, a very interesting and enjoyable evening, with wines that really surprised me. I was expecting jammy oak monsters. But the fruit wasn't jammy and it was a restrained oak in terms of what I was expecting. To me it seemed that the oak was within and integral to the wines, rather than an extra, additional taste.  There were quite generous pours and refills, and with the refills, I noticed a bit of bottle variation, particularly in the Langley and the Parsons.  Others found brett in the Parsons, but I didn't, although there were some high-toned notes.
I realised the next morning, though, that despite the finesse and elegance of the wines, they didn't half pack an alcoholic punch ... The shirazes were all very good wines, though the Langely Vineyard stood out, head and shoulders, from the others. The wine of the night, however, was the Maxwell Vineyard Chardonnay. Unfortunately only six cases in the country though.


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Last updated: 15 December 2005