Tasting Powell & Son’s new range of Shiraz and Riesling
In the second of a two part feature, Peter Dean lunches Barossa ‘bad boy’ Dave Powell to find out what life is like after leaving Torbreck, the winery he founded 20 years ago. In this piece we taste Powell’s new wines from new venture Powell & Son. And very good they are too.
Tasting the top-rated wines of Powell & Son including a £425 bottle of single vineyard Shiraz. For a full interview with Dave Powell click here
The first wine from Powell & Son that we kick off with at an eventful tasting lunch is an Eden Valley Riesling 2015 that is pure lime peel and minerality. It’s a delicious aperitif, that makes your mouth water. There’s a terrific depth of flavour and a dry, lean finish. Powell says that the vines the fruit are from are very low-yielding and he likes to keep it that way “I don’t piss about trying to stretch yields.” In 2015 he is only producing 300 odd cases.
The first red is Grenache Shiraz Mataro 2014 (70%, 25%, 5%) with some of the vines 60-100 years old. The wine spends 15 months in a 24hl French foudre which adds structure. Wow! the nose is sensational – chocolate, eucalyptus and deep red fruit. The colour is almost Burgundian red, it doesn’t look its age. This is fine wine, great balance, lots of fruit, good integration of the wood and a nice length.
Powell expresses a love for Grenache-based wines (his son has just come back from an internship with Jean-Louis Chave) and says that he’s purposely kept the percentage of Shiraz down as the Western Barossa produces Grenache that’s “as good as it gets”. He is producing just 450 cases. He recommends drinking this in 5-8 years when there is an interplay between primary and secondary characteristics with a little tertiary kicking in.
The first single red varietal is the Barossa Valley Shiraz 2014, which has just a bit of Eden Valley fruit in the blend to give the aromatics a lift, the rest of the fruit is from Barossa vines that are 20-30 years old. The wine spends a year in oak and then in tank. There is a purple edge to the wine and the nose is rich, inky with a hint of mint. On the palate there is a terrific depth of flavour – intense black fruit with a good balance of acidity on both sides of the mouth. It is simply delicious. Powell describes it as “The best $60 wine you can get for $30, it will sell like crazy.”
As its name suggests the Barossa & Eden Valleys Shiraz 2014 is a blend of fruit 50/50 from the two valleys. The influence of Eden Valley is immediately obvious with lifted aromatics and a cleaner and fresher nose and taste. There is a leanness to the blend that is elegant and appealing, and a purity that comes from the different flavour profile of the Eden Valley fruit. It is probably his most ‘complete’ wine drinking now and has a great length. He has produced 500 cases.
Powell says that his vision is to create the DRC of the Barossa “with some drinking wines attached.” and this is how best to approach his two top single varietals Loechel Eden Valley Shiraz 2014 and particularly the Steinert Shiraz 2014 which has a trade price of £425 a bottle. Although there is not much difference in the vineyards, the gap between these two wines and the others in the range is immediately apparent in all areas of tasting – purity, freshness, acidity, balance and depth of fruit – very much blackcurrant and blackberry.
The Loechel was drinking very well at lunch, served with pork, the Steinert was in a somewhat closed state, although the depth of flavour was very powerful.
The Loechel had more lifted aromatics and was better now or, as Powell described it, “It’s got its tits out – it’s saying come and get me.”
“But put the Loechel in the cellar for a few years and you will get something very sexy,” Powell says. He adds that although the Steinert is seven times the price of the Loechel and the price differential is not immediately apparent between the two wines “It is in a different league, believe me.”
The vines are 120 years old and the grapes the size of blackcurrants. There is 360 cases produced.
“It’s important to have a wine like this. It helps the winery from a prestige point of view but it also subsidises a lot of the other wines. At the end of the day you have to ask yourself ‘do I want to buy a Ferrari?’ ”
“The Loechel is better value for sure but it’s like do you want a Filipino or an Eastern European hooker – they’re both expensive.”
And with that I bid a hasty retreat before I get sucked into a lunch that ends somewhere the middle of the next day which it very possibly could have.
I am very much buying some of Powell’s new wines. I have gone for the Grenache Shiraz Mataro, and the two shiraz – Barossa and Barossa & Eden Valley. They are available from Zonin UK.
Dave Powell needs no introduction. The founder of Torbreck took the brand from zero to hero, making among the Barossa’s most iconic wines. His own stock, on the other hand, did the reverse. In 2002 he lostcontrol of the company then, in 2008, his minority shareholding, before leaving under a cloud in 2013. He was declared (and remains) bankrupt. But when I caught up with Powell earlier this month, he was in ebullient form. With good reason. He’s back doing what he loves – hands on wine-making, this time with his son Callum under their eponymous label, Powell & Son.
A blessing in disguise
The straight talker’s anger and disappointment about losing Torbreck still simmers beneath the surface. But Powell is reflective too. Seeing the upside of the loss he tells me “it [Torbreck] got too big and it got away from me…or [correcting himself] rather I got away from it.” He wouldn’t be the first winemaker frustrated by the global ambassador role which comes with having been the face of a brand sold in 45 countries. In a subsequent email exchange with Powell junior Callum reveals, “I was so eager to make wine in the Barossa and work with great vineyards, but I wasn’t so interested in the corporate end of it all.”
So it would seem all’s well that ends well. From Dave Powell’s perspective it’s fun getting back into the vineyard and winery, working with his son “to stay young” and having more liberty – “I don’t have to kow tow” (though he concedes “you still have to play the game.”) From Callum’s perspective he is able to do what he wanted but on a small scale, keeping it in the family, whilst benefiting from his father’s decades of experience. Both in the Barossa (Powell senior worked at Yalumba, Peter Lehmann, Wolf Blass, Saltram and Rockford before establishing Torbreck), then trotting around the globe selling Torbreck (and tasting the great wines of the world).
“So it wasn’t all bad after all…a blessing in disguise” concludes the 22 year old, whom his father is quick to assert is “no passenger.” Indeed, Callum’s take on the Torbreck debacle is that it made him “very, very determined. Losing Torbreck made me realise that if this [winemaking] was what I was going to spend my life doing then I was going to have a precise vision of what I was to do and it was going to be a hell of a lot of heartache and hard work to do it, so the result of that vision had better be worth it.” And as he candidly admits, “Currently as a 22 year old, I mostly bring vision” to Powell & Son (Callum is currently completing his winemaking studies in Adelaide – useful, says Powell senior, because he runs his pHs high).
A shared vision – Callum and Dave Powell, Powell & Son; photo credit Powell & Son
Vision which has undoubtedly been informed by Callum’s “very influential few months” in Hermitage in 2013 with acclaimed Rhone producer Jean-Louis Chave. Having always planned to work alongside his father he told me, “We had a lot of time to talk about the style of wine that we wanted to make. Neither of us wanted to make a new range of Torbreck wines, for many reasons. I love the Northern Rhone for its savoury characters – tapenade, meatiness, funk, smoke. I think it gives so much character and life to a wine, and at the bottom line it’s much more site-specific. A red wine full of fruit and jam can come from anywhere, those savoury characters are much more regional. I also believe that the best Barossan wines are of that style, but to do that it can’t be as ripe, it can’t be overly extracted and the fruit has to come from great sites. Find great vineyards and let them tell the story.”
So while Powell & Son’s wines share Torbreck’s sensuality (the flesh and achingly refined tannins), there is greater emphasis on savouriness and restraint – more lift, less alcohol. Intriguingly for me, all without resorting to the much earlier picking, whole bunch or Viognier co-ferments which typify so many of the new breed Barossa Shirazes which have been forging exciting new pathways for the genre. I asked Powell how he achieved such finesse and funk without losing the sensuality of fruit so naturally gifted by the Barossa?
Of course it helps that Powell & Son’s wines more fully embrace the Eden Valley. For Callum the region has been “a forgotten hero for years….Many great Barossan wines are made with a high percentage of Eden Valley shiraz, but the consumer assumes that it is a Barossa Valley shiraz as it is labelled ‘Barossa’ and Eden Valley doesn’t get its deserved recognition.” His father agrees that Eden Valley Shiraz has been “a really important component” for Powell & Son, “giving the aromatics, pungency and exotics” which Viognier can bring to the party. However, while Powell believes Viognier can be useful for Barossa Valley wines “which can be a bit one dimensional,” he doesn’t think you need it in Eden Valley. “It’s like Cote Rotie” he exclaims – “all the best examples are 100% Syrah.”
But finesse and complexity inevitably boil down to vineyard specifics too. Especially if you are not blending (i.e. going down the single vineyard route), asserts Powell senior, “you’ve got to have great vineyards.” And as we know from Torbreck, Powell is a veritable heat-seeking missile on that front. Steinert and Loechel, the father and son duo’s top single vineyard 2014 Shirazes are dizzyingly good, positively lyrical single vineyard Eden Valley Shirazes. When I asked him if it was difficult to source fruit from great vineyards second time around (old vine Barossa Shiraz is much more sought after since the 90s when Powell founded Torbreck), Powell said he had been surprised that it hadn’t been harder. There and again, he still pays top dollar and when many growers’ main income stream is cattle or agriculture, they are happy to lease to Powell & Son who run the vineyards.
Aside from the Eden Valley factor, Powell says the approach is not so different from Torbreck – ultra-low yielding vines, sympathetic use of oak and getting the tannins right, so you don’t need to add them. It’s about being able to taste when tannins are ready, he explains, then using a component of whole berry (perhaps 50%) “and leaving wines on skins long enough to get a really sublime quality, a delicacy.” I loved how Powell & Son’s single vineyard Shirazes seduced with the attack and finish as opposed to the mid-palate. And I loved their Eden Valley ruffle and truffle – of tannin and earthy yet other-worldly funk. You’ll find my notes on Powell & Son’s first releases below. First, a bit about what’s in the Powell pipeline.
In the pipeline
Powell is plainly very happy indeed with the 2015 wines. Though most wines are still in wood, he rates it as better than 2014 – “bigger.” As for the 2016s, Callum told me there will be two single vineyard Shirazes from Eden Valley, two from the Barossa Valley and one single vineyard Mataro and one Grenache from the Barossa Valley. The regional wines are more affordable and give an idea of traditional regional styles throughout the Barossa: Barossa Valley Shiraz, Eden Valley Riesling, Barossa Valley Roussanne/ Marsanne, Barossa & Eden Valley Shiraz and Barossa Valley Grenache/Shiraz/Mataro.
The single vineyard wines are clearly at the core of both Powell’s vision. Callum told me “most of what I wanted to do was work with great single vineyards throughout the Barossa that can make a great, balanced wine on their own and the label [which he designed himself] does nothing more than states what the vineyard is: vintage, variety, district of the Barossa, and within that we named the specific vineyard after the family that originally planted the vines.” Hoping to secure that vision into the future, father and son plan to buy the top vineyards – in the next five years if possible said Dave (Powell & Son currently lease all the vineyards and the winery).
Powell & Son Riesling 2015 (Eden Valley)
The fruit is sourced from 80+ years old Riesling at 480m from the Steinart vineyard in Flaxman’s Valley, at the southern end of the Eden Valley township. It is also the source of Powell & Son’s top single vineyard Shiraz. Powell used to make Riesling at Rockford from the very same site. The fruit was hand harvested on 6th March 2015, whole bunch pressed, cold settled and cool fermented to dryness at 12-15˚C, then racked off solids and cold stabilised prior to bottling. So far so classic. But while it has Eden Valley’s freshness and pronounced florals – lime blossom and more exotic jasmine – the overall profile is softer – subtly textural – with lingering ripe apple and talc-like minerals, the palate more opalescent than taut and focused. I suspect this will broaden its appeal, but I missed a bit of the snap crackle and pop of energy which I associate with top Eden Valley wines. pH: 2.92, TA: 6.5g/l, Alcohol: 12.0% 600 cases. Made off site by Jo Irvine.
Powell & Son Grenache Shiraz Mataro 2014 (Barossa Valley)
This melt in the mouth orange peel inflected GSM comprises 70% Grenache, 25% Shiraz and 5% Mataro. It’s round and velvety yet persistent with very attractively lingering freshness – not a hint of confection here. The fruit and spice do the talking. Though it’s not the most concentrated GSM, that’s no bad thing when the oak is this sensitive (4,500l foudres) and the fruit supple and concentrated enough to wear its alcohol gracefully. Very drinkable in a velvety not crunchy style. Hand harvested on 5th – 19th April 2014, the fruit was sourced from Western Barossa vineyards aged 80+ years old. The fruit was and de-stemmed into open concrete fermenters where it fermented for 7-10 days. It was then basket pressed to complete the ferment in stainless steel, then racked into foudré with full malolactic fermentation in oak where it aged for 15 months. Bottled without fining or filtration. pH: 3.51 TA: 6.4g/l Alcohol: 15.0% 450 cases.
Powell & Son Barossa Valley Shiraz 2014 (Barossa Valley)
The entry level Shiraz is sourced from different 20-30 year old Western Barossa Valley vineyards with a bit from of Lyndoch in the south. If you are a fan of Torbreck Woodcutters Shiraz, you will love this. It has a beautiful nose awash with heady damask rose and a spicy backdrop of black pepper which resonates on the back palate together with hints of charcuterie. In the mouth, it has Powell’s hallmark gorgeous velvety texture and lovely balance, length and fluidity to its beautiful principally red berry and cherry fruit. The grapes were hand-harvested between 5th – 15th April 2014 and, thereafter, winemaking followed the same path as for the GSM. pH: 3.61 TA: 6.2g/l Alcohol: 15.0%
Powell & Son Barossa and Eden Valley’s Shiraz 2014
The Shiraz was sourced from 40- 70+ year old Shiraz – a 50:50 blend of Eden Valley and Barossa Valley fruit, which explains the wider bandwidth of the harvest, from 5th – 24th April 2014. The Loechal vineyard – the younger of the two single vineyard wines – contributes to this blend. Thereafter, winemaking followed the same path as for the GSM and Barossa Valley Shiraz. This is the funkiest wine of the pack – really earthy. To the point where I raised the brett flag. Powell said I wasn’t the first to do so, but the wine has been analysed and there’s no issue with brett. It has a deep savoury, peppery earthy nose and palate. Though it has impressive freshness, it seemed to tail off a bit on the finish. When I went on to taste the Loechal single vineyard Shiraz, I could see that it shared this wine’s savoury, terroir-driven profile but, where the Loechal is a cream of the crop pick from best vines, it has the stuffing and wherewithal to run with the earthiness which, while pronounced, seems much better integrated – an important strand of Loechal without dominating it. Perhaps this blend needed time for the Barossa Valley fruit component to come up? pH: 3.5 TA: 6.2g/l Alcohol: 14.5%
Powell & Son Loechel Shiraz 2014 (Eden Valley)
This 250 case single vineyard Shiraz comes from the best parcel of Loechel – a western section of the vineyard which is planted on a steep, low yielding easterly aspect with high drainage. The vines, which are 40+ years old, were planted by Loechel family. The fruit was hand-picked on 24th April 2014. Although the Shiraz was processed similarly to the other reds, Loechel was racked into new Domnique Laurent French oak barriques for 15 months. Not that you’d know it. The oak seems on the backfoot. Rasping black pepper and sensual white truffle notes snag your attention from the off and maintain it from pungent, musky, animal-charged start to lingering finish. I think of Patrick Süskind’s novel ‘Perfume’ about the darkly obsessive (murderous) scent-seeker Jean-Baptiste Grenouille. And ‘Leviathan,’ a book I’ve just read about whales by Philip Hoare; he calls ambergris – the so-called ‘floating gold’ prized by parfumiers – for what it really is, hardened sperm whale dung! There’s a sweetness too. Of juicy black berry, raspberry and red currant which parries with this wine’s lifted, as if aromatised, savoury, earthy, gamey notes. Great lightness of being delivered with intensity. Stunning and perfectly unique. pH: 3.68, TA: 5.6g/l, Alcohol: 14.5%. The estimated UK RRP for Loechel – Eden valley floating gold is £85, which puts this wine within the grasp of many more premium wine hunters than its floating platinum – Steinart.
Powell & Son Steinart Shiraz 2014 (Eden Valley)
The fruit is sourced from the 5 acre Steinart vineyard in Flaxman’s Valley, which is planted to 120+ year old dry grown Shiraz vines at 480m. It was hand harvested on 28th April 2014 and, having undergone a similar fermentation process to the other reds, was racked into new Domnique Laurent French oak barriques where it aged for 18 months. Where Loechel ploughs a pungent and earthy furrow, flirting with the feral and decay, Steinart Shiraz is prettier and pleasingly uplifted. It’s more firmly in the fruit and ephemeral flowers zone. And mineral as opposed to earthy. It has a deep purple hue with the inky, florals to match – a swirl of wild violets and peonies is headily laced with riffs of savoury black pepper, sensual white truffle and orange peel spice. Notes which encircle and echo around its fine fretwork of earthy old vine tannins. Great line, length and levity, with a profound sense of delicacy – a translucency – to its mineral-sluiced fruit. Absolutely stunning. pH: 3.77 TA: 5.5g/l Alcohol: 14.5% With an estimated price point of £575, Steinart is firmly pitched in the so-called luxury wine zone which Powell so successfully occupied with his top wines at Torbreck alongside Henschke Hill of Grace and Penfolds Grange. And it belongs there.
Dave Powell – meet the Shaun Ryder of the Barossa Valley
In the first of a two-part feature Peter Dean lunches infamous Dave Powell, the winemaker and ex-founder of Torbreck, who is now back with a bang and a range of top Australian Shiraz through his new winery, Powell & Son, a joint-venture with his son Callum.
Lunch with Dave Powell of Powell & Son is a lively affair that confirms him as one of the most controversial and talented winemakers currently working in Australia.
In researching Dave Powell before my lunch with him to discuss and taste his new range called Powell & Son, I came across a story from Jancis Robinson about how this most outspoken of winemakers had tried to show her his arse.
Well a mark on his arse to be precise.
Soon after meeting him it’s apparent that this legendary winemaker – the man who during 20 years made Barossa Valley’s Torbreck winery world famous and was then forced out – is very much the ‘bad boy’ of the Barossa.
Lunch with Dave Powell is like dining Shaun Ryder with Shane MacGowan pouring the drinks. You just know it has the potential to end badly. Very badly.
Powell explains how he met Alessandro Marchesan of Zonin UK, which will be launching the wines in the UK, at a restaurant in Hong Kong. As an aside he discloses nonchalantly that this first dinner together ended at 8… in the morning.
The first thing he said to me before lunch was “I just need to nip out for a smoke, you stay here and have a line of coke or whatever you do… oh sorry you’re not in the kitchens are you.” Big cheeky wink.
Another story, in similar circumstances, has Powell putting Stephen Henschke on the spot in front of a large audience by suggesting that Stephen should “Pick the fruit when it’s fucking ready.” A visit to Nerthe in the Rhone ends with Powell querying them with “What the fuck are you doing?”
Every story Powell tells is coloured by hi-jinks and peppered with language as colourful as the Shiraz that makes his beautiful wines. Underneath, though, is a refreshing directness and Aussie humour that is good-natured and well, frankly hilarious.
I just bet that this is the first lunch in 67 Pall Mall’s exclusive private dining room that has had a world-renowned winemaker use the C-word in quite such profusion in mixed company. The paint was peeling.
Life after Torbreck
As for the T-word, conversation about Torbreck and its aftermath did dominate proceedings at first. The winery, that was named after Powell’s spell as a lumberjack in Scotland, was founded in 1994 and from humble beginnings as a share-farming winery grew into a world class outfit with The RunRig and The Laird being some of the world’s most sought-after Australian wines. After the winery was bought in 2008, Powell and the winery’s new owner, Peter Kight, fell out so badly that Powell declared himself bankrupt in order to start afresh.
Although Powell has more than one son, Powell & Son is a collaboration with just one – his 21-year old Callum Powell, a third year oenology student, who has recently being studying at Jean-Louis Chave in the Rhone. And Powell stresses that this is a partnership.
“The hardest thing for him to get right is freshness and elegance… as for me I am not subtle or elegant unlike my wines.”
When Callum thought that a wine was too reductive.. “I’ve told him to make sure he picks his fights,” Powell grins.
Powell declares that there is a fine line between a wine that is faulty and complex, particularly when it comes down to ‘funky’ notes, and eschews an approach where the envelope is very much being pushed at all times.
“You never learn anything in life by playing it safe.” He avoids filtering and fining and likes to leave the wine to spend time without intervention or, as he puts it, “Leaving the fucking thing alone.”
It’s hard when tasting Powell’s wines to connect the man with the wines he makes. One minute he’s saying “I’m left-handed and I only do two things with my right hand… go figure that out.” (Another big cheeky wink).
The next minute he’s pouring an elegant and fresh red with a sublime balance of fruit and backbone that makes you pause, think and salivate for more.
So what were the wines like?
We tasted five reds and a Riesling that were all hugely impressive and are covered in depth in a special tasting feature.
The top single varietal Shiraz Steinert is from vines that are 120 years old with grapes the size of blackcurrants. There are 360 cases produced with the trade price £450 a bottle.
“It’s important to have a wine like this. It helps the winery from a prestige point of view but it also subsidises a lot of the other wines. At the end of the day you have to ask yourself ‘do I want to buy a Ferrari?’ ”
“The Loechel is better value for sure but it’s like do you want a Filipino or an Eastern European hooker – they’re both expensive.”
And with that I bid a hasty retreat before I get sucked into a lunch that ends somewhere the middle of the next day, which it very possibly could have.
I am very much buying some of Powell’s new wines. I have gone for the Grenache Shiraz Mataro, and the two Shiraz – Barossa and Barossa and Eden Valley. See the separate Tastings feature for details.
Deep garnet-purple colored, the 2014 Loechel Shiraz reveals notes of crushed black berries, black cherries and mulberries with hints of sage, lavender, dark chocolate and loam. The medium to full-bodied plate is youthfully taut and firm with finely grained tannins and lovely harmony finishing long, earthy and multilayered.
Dave Powell is larger than life. The loud-mouthed Australian is big in every way possible – size, volume, ambition, but he makes wines of surprising delicacy. I meet with him on a Tuesday morning at private members’ wine club 67 Pall Mall in St James’s. Running late, he apologises for leaving me hanging a further five minutes while he nips outside for a smoke. Dressed in chinos and a white shirt with his hair tied back in a ponytail, the 53-year-old admits that the staff had to lend him a blazer to meet the club’s formal dress code. “At least they managed to find one that fits,” he quips.
Settling into a chocolate brown leather armchair in the upstairs library, Powell is candid about his very public fallout with American tech billionaire Pete Kight, who ousted Powell from Torbreck, the Barossa Valley winery he founded in 1994, in 2013 when his five-year contract came to an end. The estate was taken over by Kight, who also owns Quivira Vineyards in Healdsburg, California, in 2008 for a reported US$20.5m.
Torbreck’s £500 The Laird
At the time of the split Kight accused Powell of a “volatile” management style and running up an AU$92,000 bill in a Danish strip club. A bitter court battle ensued following Powell’s comments that the 2009 vintage of Torbreck’s £500 top drop The Laird should be declassified due to high levels of volatile acidity. The court case collapsed and the wine was never released.
“Pete wanted to take over Torbreck from the get go and was giving me enough rope to hang myself with. My lawyer told me I was a lamb to the slaughter. I declared myself bankrupt and walked off into the sunset. Towards the end I was the executive winemaker and was travelling seven months of the year and paying people to do what I loved – winemaking.
“I was 20 kilos heavier and was working myself into an early grave. I lost everything but found it liberating. It didn’t scare me having to start from scratch,” he says, adding, “I went from having AU$100 million to nothing. It was vicious, and it’s interesting how that’s when you find out who your real friends are. I created a monster and had to keep it going. I would have never left of my own volition but it’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Powell isn’t allowed to have anything to do with the current staff at Torbreck and is sad to see the winery he created going downhill. “Pete is making a real pig’s ear of it. Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW of The Wine Advocaterecently wrote about my influence there fading fast. He wants to make the company bigger and has introduced an unnecessary layer of middle management. People will be able to judge for themselves by tasting the wines,” says Powell.
Keen to keep moving forward, the visit to London coincides with the UK launch of Powell & Son, his new wine venture in collaboration with his 22-year-old son Callum. His aims are characteristically immodest – “We want to be the DRC of the Barossa,” he exclaims with brio, “but with some affordable wines in there too as the only problem with DRC is that it’s so expensive you can’t drink the bloody stuff.”
The original plan was for Callum to eventually take over Torbreck, but it transpires that his eldest son never had any interest in taking the reins from him. Having spent a year working with Jean-Louis Chave in Hermitage, he had his own ideas about the style of wine he wanted to make. “I set up the job for him as the Hermitage is the best place to learn about Syrah and Jean-Louis is a good friend of mine,” says Powell.
Torbreck’s former general manager Paul Breen, an old friend of Powell’s who left at the same time as him, has joined the Powell & Son team alongside young Slovenian Igor Kuçiç, a former protégé of Powell.
an empty tank at Powell & Son
Five growers jumped ship after Powell left Torbreck and have since gotten on board with Powell & Son. The range consists of six wines from grapes grown in the Barossa and Eden Valley, some of which come from vines that are more than a century old.
“We’re leasing vineyards at the moment with the aim of eventually buying them. It’s still relatively easy to find land for sale with good fruit in the Barossa. We work predominantly with old vine Shiraz but also with Grenache and Mataro, and I make an Eden Valley Riesling.
“I’ve been surprised how easy it’s been getting access to old vines and great quality fruit – Barossa Valley Grenache is as good as anywhere in the world,” enthuses Powell.
“The Eden Valley is cooler and higher than the Barossa so the growing season is longer and the wines have more elegance and finesse. Barossa Shiraz is rich, dark and chocolaty. They’re like yin and yang. It’s easier to make single vineyard Shiraz in the Eden Valley than the Barossa, which can become a bit one-dimensional by picking point,” he adds.
Having grown up in Adelaide and studied economics, Powell was inspired to focus on Shiraz after winemakers like Peter Lehmann raised its profile in the ‘80s. He believes Australians have themselves to blame for the variety getting a bad wrap. “I benefitted from Parker rediscovering Australian wine and regularly got 100 points from him, but a lot of the Shiraz’ coming out of Australia are overdone, syrupy, one-dimensional crap.
Dave and his son Callium
The worst come from the McLaren Vale but those from the Barossa get tarred with the same brush,” he says, adding, “As Aussie’s we tend not to know when enough’s enough. People are surprised at how elegant and subtle my wines are when they meet me as they are two words that you’d never use to describe me.”
However, he admits that during his last few years at Torbreck “the axis shifted a bit” away from that style without him even realising it. Callum is keen to put his own stamp on the wines and Powell describes his influence on the project as “evident”, having learnt at Chave to seek elegance, finesse and purity of fruit in the wines he makes.
One way of locking in the freshness is the use of foudres that give the wines space to breathe. “Large format wood means the wines are a lot fresher after 18 months than they would be in a standard barrel,” Powell says.
As for whites, the duo made a small amount of Marsanne and Roussane this year and Callum is keen to make a Viognier in the future. “He’s got his own ideas but nothing can replace experience. I’ve no doubt he’ll be able to hold his own with me and might one day be making better wines than me. If he does then that would be great. I have an ego about some things but not about that – you want your kids to be better than you,” he says.
Powell & Son’s inaugural vintage – 2014 – yielded just 3,500 cases across the range. Last year 5,500 cases were made and they’ve bottled 7,500 cases this year. Powell says he’ll cap production at 10,000 cases in order to be able to have full control of the project.
Powell & Son’s top drop, the single vineyard Steinert Shiraz
The wines range from £25-500 in price, with top single vineyard Shiraz, Steinert, named after the Eden Valley old vine plot from which it hails, matching The Laird in price. Powell is bullish about his pricing strategy and believes the £500 tag for Steinert is justified.
“If you make a world-class wine it’s okay to charge a world-class price; I did it with Torbreck repeatedly. We only made 220 cases of the first vintage and have just 25 left so it’s selling. People seeking the finer things are more likely to buy it if it’s more expensive, but it’s got to be good. You can’t dress mutton up as lamb – you’ll be shot down in flames and so you should,” he says.
“It’s important to have an icon wine in your portfolio as it helps subsidise the other wines in the range. The biggest challenge is trying to sell Australian wines at that price. People still think of us as the cheap and cheerful stuff you buy at Tesco, yet there’s no problem with selling California wines at that price,” he adds.
Powell reports that Steinert is selling well back home in Australia and also in Hong Kong, which together form the bulk of Powell & Son’s sales. He also sells small amounts in Britain through Zonin UK, and also in Canada, Denmark, France and the US.
Over lunch we try the full Powell & Son range. The wines are elegant and idiosyncratic, the single vineyard Shiraz’ in particular displaying meaty, savoury notes and something of a wild streak. Powell insists this is intentional as he likes a bit of funk in his wines.
“I’m into making slightly funky wines that walk the line. I don’t like to play it safe. A bit of funk gives complexity to a wine as it ages. I go for quite a reductive style after fermentation, but funky wines need a lot of sulphur to buffer the high pH,” he reveals. As for the cork versus screwcap debate, Powell is firmly in the cork camp. “I’m not at all convinced about screwcaps – if there’s a problem in the wine then the screwcap will find it and amplify it. If there’s a problem with the cork then you haven’t paid enough for it,” he says.
As for what the future holds, I’m keen to know whether he’d ever return to Torbreck if the opportunity arose. “I’ve been offered a lot of money to make another Torbreck but I’m not interested in going backwards, it would be like getting back together with one of my ex-wives,” he quips. Finally, I dare to ask him about the Danish strip club. According to Powell he was a victim of credit card fraud.
“The strip club thing never happened – for a start we were in a Champagne bar not a strip club, and I was ripped off there. I ended up paying AU$24,000 for a bottle of Cristal, I didn’t even look at the receipt at the time,” he insists. Powell talks a good game and his enthusiasm is contagious. It’s hard to know how much of what he says is spin – rumour has it that he has a brand on his bottom from an unfortunate incident in Scandinavia – but one thing’s for sure, the man knows how to make mind-blowingly good wine.
Dave Powell launches Powell & Son wines in UK
By Chris Losh
Dave Powell, the man behind the iconic Barossa winery, Torbreck, has burst back onto the UK wine scene with a new range of wines.
Made with his son Callum, the Powell & Son wines are Powell’s first since his bitter split with Torbreck’s American owner in 2013.
The range – available from Zonin UK – includes a Riesling and a GSM as well as a range of Shiraz – the variety with which Powell first made his name at Torbreck in the 1990s.
Numbers are small – total production for the 2016 vintage is only around 7,000 cases – and the UK allocation is described by Zonin UK as ‘tight’. Trade prices range from £24 for the Eden Valley Riesling through £39 for the Barossa and Eden Valleys Shiraz to £425 for the Steinert Flaxman’s Valley single-vineyard Shiraz.
Currently Powell does not own any vineyards. But rather than simply buying fruit in, he is operating long term leases with growers, whereby he pays vineyard owners a fee to work their vines himself.
‘It would be cheaper to buy the fruit in,’ admits Powell, ‘but it’s not the same thing. This way I have control. There’s not an accountant anywhere near the business.’
The majority of the fruit is sourced from the higher Eden Valley, which Powell believes gives the wines a more restrained character.
‘If you’re not careful the Barossa can be too much of everything,’ he says. ‘It’s about backing off and having a bit more class. These wines are a reflection of my experience – more about purity and finesse.’
Dave Powell hasn’t changed. The loud, opinionated, chain-smoking winemaker who founded cult label Torbreck in the Barossa two decades ago — and acrimoniously parted ways with the company in 2013 — is back with a new brand, a new set of wines. And he’s still loud, still opinionated and still rarely without a fag. Only this time round he also has a new collaborator: his 22-year-old son Callum.
When I arrive at the Powell & Son winery in Lyndoch, in the wide open country of the southern Barossa, Powell senior is leaning against the stone wall of a converted 1840s farm cottage, the winery’s office and tasting room, cigarette in hand. After the usual expletive-laden greeting (I’ve arrived a bit late), he introduces me to Callum and another man, Paul Breen, general manager of Powell & Son and owner of one of the Eden Valley vineyards that supplies grapes to the new venture.
“Paul and I have been mates since kindergarten,” says Powell. “He was with me for years as general manager at Torbreck. And that’s the last time I’m f . . kin’ mentioning Torbreck today.”
It isn’t. As we head into the winery to taste the raw 2016 vintage whites and reds from tank and then work our way through the 2015s in barrel in the cellar, Powell talks about Torbreck a lot. Which is hardly surprising: for almost two sometimes-turbulent decades it was his life. From the moment the first Torbreck wines burst on the scene in the late-1990s they — and their maker — attracted a lot of attention: powerful international critics such as Robert Parker in the US lauded the rich, seductive, full-bodied styles, encouraging Powell to raise the prices of his top wines, build the business rapidly and travel the world widely and flamboyantly.
It’s not surprising to find parallels between the former and present labels: each relies on grapes sourced from loyal local growers, and the wines are arranged in a clear price/quality pyramid, with larger volumes of lower-priced grenache blends and shirazes on the bottom and decreasing volumes of increasingly expensive wines the further up you go, culminating in a single-vineyard shiraz priced extravagantly at $750 a bottle.
There are important differences, though: a (very good) riesling has been introduced into the Powell & Son range and there is more emphasis on the finer, more savoury flavours of grapes grown in the cooler, higher Eden Valley. It’s symbolic that while the top $750 Torbreck shiraz, The Laird, is sourced from a vineyard between Marananga and Seppeltsfield — the heartland of full-bodied, powerful Barossa reds — the top Powell & Sons shiraz, Steinert, comes from an old vineyard high in the Flaxman’s Valley subregion of Eden Valley (though a richer, Marananga-sourced shiraz called Kraehe will be introduced to sit alongside the Steinert from the 2015 vintage).
Callum, now in the third year of a winemaking course, has been helping his dad since infancy.
And the other difference, of course, is Callum. Now finishing his third year of the winemaking course at Adelaide Uni, and with years of experience helping his father in the winery, Powell Jr has already notched up vintage in France’s Rhone Valley working for legendary producer JL Chave — an experience that turned him on to the quality of the marsanne and roussanne grapes (both originally Rhone varieties) growing in the Barossa.
“I reckon we can use them to make a good Barossan white,” says Callum, taking a sample of lovely, crunchy, intense 2016 roussanne he’s made and splashing it in my glass. “I really like roussanne and I think it’ll go really well blended with some marsanne we’ve fermented in oak.”
Callum is also a big fan of the Eden Valley. “Because it’s part of the Barossa, many people expect shiraz from Eden Valley to be a 16 per cent alcohol monster,” he says. “But because it’s higher and cooler, the wines are different — still ripe and flavoursome, but they don’t punch you in the face.”
Powell Sr reckons the time Callum spent in France, working with Chave making syrah (the French name for the shiraz grape), helped him appreciate Eden Valley: “He sees more expression of syrah-like characters in the grapes grown up there,” he says.
Father and son winemakers, Dave and Callum Powell.
As he lights another cigarette, Powell tells a story of the moment he knew his son would follow in his footsteps.
“Callum and his younger brother and I had dinner at Aria (restaurant in Sydney),” he says. “Callum was 16. I bought a 1990 Bruno Giacosa Barolo — one of the most expensive single vineyard nebbiolos. I had a glass, Callum had a glass, I went to speak to (chef) Matt Moran and when I came back to the table the f . . kin’ bottle was empty. He said, ‘That was good, Dad. Did it cost much?’ I said, ‘About a term’s f . . kin’ school fees.’ ”
Callum laughs. And then wistfully says: “What I’d really love to do one day is find a little half acre of perfect land in Eden Valley and plant nebbiolo.”
Now that would be different.
Powell & Son – the wines
2016 Eden Valley Riesling $30: This is an absolutely stunning young riesling: scintillating citrus, precise juicy lime and a more-ish, thirst-slaking quality found in the best examples of this grape grown in the Eden Valley. The 2015 vintage, from the same 80-year-old vineyard, is also a lovely, fragrant wine and is well worth buying, but the 2016 is in another league.
2014 Barossa Valley Grenache Shiraz Mataro $50: When I first wrote about Torbreck back in 1997, the wine that impressed me most was The Steading, a humble, earthy grenache blend aged in big old barrels. So it’s good to see a similar styled wine released under the Powell & Son label: it’s an approachable, supple, mellow red with a seductive sprinkling of woody spices (cloves, cinnamon, fenugreek); good now but will also cellar well.
2014 Loechl Eden Valley Shiraz $100: Made from shiraz grapes grown in a 50-year-old vineyard in Eden Valley, this is quite a voluptuous wine, showing a fair bit of rich dark oak influence, but underneath all the braggadocio there’s a fabulous, compressed, savoury quality to the tannins — a sinewy vineyard/regional character that I also tasted in the 2015 Loechl out of barrel and the newly fermented 2016 out of tank.
2014 Steinert Eden Valley Shiraz $750: So is it worth the money? Is this, a first release from a new company (albeit one headed by a winemaker with a 20-year track record, and made using grapes from an acclaimed 120-year-old vineyard), really worth 750 smackers? It is bloody marvellous: a wild cavalcade of dark, brooding, hedgerow berry fruit, heaps of deeply seductive dark oak and then this incredible, enfolding blanket of fine but persistent, savoury tannin. And Powell tells me he’s almost sold out. So some people must think it is.