When meeting winemakers one never knows what to expect. You may taste a couple of wines and get kicked out after barely an hour or you might spend a whole day in the winery talking, tasting, more talking and more tasting and even more tasting… During the last week of September, I drove from Sydney to Beechworth just to meet Julian Castagna. I am happy that this was the latter, one of my best estate visits ever. But why did I travel seven hours just to see this guy? Because simply, I had tasted four Castagna wines from different vintages and they were all great and all had something in common – energy, minerality and possibly a terroir? I needed to find out. Not only did I found great terroir but I found two men – Julian Castagna and his son Adam – who discovered a way to squeeze the best from their small and rather cool vineyard. Listening to them I realized that they couldn’t fail because like all great winemakers they are willing to take risks but not compromise on quality. Plus, Julian was lucky to find a great site to plant a vineyard and started to farm it biodynamically from its very beginning. “Every serious wine can only come from biodynamic vineyard,” claims Julian Castagna – see, there really is no compromise.

 

Adams Rib White… it´s all about energy

This is a blend of Chardonnay (70 %) and Viognier (30 %). Golden colour indicates some skin contact – Chardonnay spent ten days with skins – which adds a very nice texture to the wine. Although lesser in the blend Viognier takes over aromatics and flavours. Stone fruits, ripe citruses and williams pears. Rich on the palate but in no way fat. There is a beautiful energy that carries the flavours in a boisterous pace. Seems like all Castagna wines have their persistence on steroids!

“The energy or minerality if you want is indeed significant for our wines and I have no doubt that it is a result of biodynamic farming. After all biodynamics is all about energy,” says Julian Castagna. “But it doesn’t mean that biodynamic grape growing means automatic achievement of minerality. You need a great piece of land, a terroir, which has potential to produce great fruit and then you have to find the right way to use this potential,” adds Julian who thinks that Beechworth is most suited Australian wine region for production of terroir driven wines.

Biodynamics is the best way how to extract what the land has to offer.

Allegro… uncompromising blackmailer    

I have always had a personal conflict with rosé. They can be good wines, very good sometimes but in general the fruit for rosé never comes from the best vineyard sites – these are excluded for signature reds and whites. Therefore in 99,9 % of cases, rosé is a “by-product” – a handy and cash friendly way how to use red grapes from lesser sites. Luckily there is 0,1 % of winemakers who don’t do that and Julian is one of them. “I wanted to make outstanding and in all ways serious rose – grapes for Allegro are the same as we use for Genesis,” says Julian and this statement perfectly captures his uncompromising devotion to quality. “I make wines that I would enjoy drinking and sell them for a price I would pay myself.”

Allegro is a serious rose not a by-product, complex and very fresh on the nose, going much further than classic strawberries and cream blush. There are raspberries, there are cherries, mulberries and dried spices. Fresh on the palate, complex and balanced ending in perfectly defined savoury finish. I wouldn’t have problem to drink a bottle of that one. It has to be said, that its price reflects the ambition to make the best Australian rose, which could be a challenging fact for typical rose consumers. “It definitely wasn’t easy to persuade our resellers to buy our rose but I told them they have to take some or they won´t get any Genesis,” laughs Julian and when I mention that this is blackmail he laughs even more.

Viognier… salt and pepper

This is a real treat. Julian brings a bottle of his Viognier 2010. Typically pronounced aromas of ripe stone fruits, ripe citruses, williams pears and touch of honey. The palate is rich, almost opulent, full of peaches and ripe citruses, it is a heavy weight but with bloody fast legs! Winemaker´s goal when making Condrieu style Viognier is to avoid oiliness – when all the rich flavours rolls through the palate like a crawling sumo fighter. Well, this is not the case, there is enough freshness and energy to drive the flavour carnival through the palate and leave with beautiful mineral vibration. All class.

“Viognier is one of my favourite varieties,” says Julian. “You can find Viognier in most of my wines, but usually in tiny amounts. I use it like salt and pepper. Just a dash here, pinch there… especially with cool climate reds it adds a little bit of smoothness without losing mineral grip.”

Pet Nat… where is the rogue?

This is the first pet nat from Castagna ever. As with other wines there is no compromise in quality – Syrah from “Genesis” plot plus Viognier. The combination is very apparent on the palate, flood of strawberry and cream runs very smoothly through the palate being carried by creamy mousse. It is a delicious wine but I miss the touch of rogue, the bit of sharpness and austerity that I think pet nat should also offer. By the way this wine has only light sediment as it was disgorged (of course with no dosage). “I used to make sparkling rose, delicious wine but it didn’t sell very well. We will see how the market will react on the Pet Nat.”

Adams Rib red… there are always exceptions

Nebbiolo shouldn’t be blended! It is a wine crime! Well, that’s what I say and that’s what many Australian winemakers do – Julian and Adam Castagna included. Except this time, this time it works. 70 % Nebbiolo and 30 % Syrah – Jesus it´s quaffable, who will stop me to drink the whole bottle? It is more Shiraz on the nose with red berries, plums, liquorice and pepper aromas but more Nebbiolo on the palate with juicy racy acidity, lots of cherries and high yet tamed tannins. This is fun.

“I planted Nebbiolo to make a single varietal wine but until now the wine simply didn’t work without Syrah. That is going to change though. In October a new release of 2015 reds there is a single varietal Nebbiolo called Barbarossa and it is a stunning wine,” says Julian. I unfortunately couldn’t taste this wine as it wasn’t labelled yet but I can reveal you one thing: Barbarossa was a nickname of Julian´s grandpa who – obviously – had a big red beard.

La Chiave… inspired to inspire 

This wine is why I packed my bag and drove seven hours to Beechworth. Seriously. This was my first Australian Sangiovese (and only one so far) which stepped out from ´pizza wine´ box to proudly stand up next to the bottle of Brunello. When I drank this wine a couple of months ago I realised I must meet the producer. 2014 brings aromas of dark cherries, sour cherries, violets and plums, hint of pepper, generally on a red fruit side of the moon. Very fresh, smooth and long on the palate with beautiful savoury finish. 2010 has a little bit of a stronger backbone, the tannins are spectacular and apart from classic Sangiovese aromas there is cassis, hint of tobacco and black tea. Seems to me that oak is bit more present than in 2014.

“La Chiave means a key. For me this wine is a key to Australian Sangiovese,” says Julian. Indeed, he doesn’t mind the comparison with Brunello. “But it´s about inspiration rather than trying to copy Brunellos. Many Australian winemakers try to make wine without understanding regions where the particular variety gives best wines like in Burgundy or Piedmont. A painter can hardly be an ingenious artist without following up on previous masterpieces. The Same works with wine. You must recognise and understand Sangiovese or Nebbiolo in their best expressions to make a good one too.” Now Julian brings La Chiave 2002, wine from very young vines, bottled under cork. Didn’t he change the label? This wine still has a long way to go. Its complexity is hard to believe… elegant, long, mineral. I knew something special is happening down here.

Genesis… too French, too young       

This wine is sold as a Syrah – not Shiraz – to emphasise stylistic difference to most Australian wines from this variety. This wine puts the Castagna winery onto the Australian wine map, winning Adelaide top 100 with its first vintage.

2014: From a vintage when Castagnas lost 60% of the crop to birds. Savoury on the nose and on the palate. Red cherries, strawberries, plums, blackberries and pepper. Medium bodied and elegant with a great drive. This wine is still very young, very gentle and balanced, already approachable but will reward couple years of bottle age.

“I´ve been told that our wines are too French to be Australian and too young when they get old,” laughs Julian. “Unfortunately, many people don’t have enough patience to wait for the right time to open the bottle and I guess 90% of our wine is drunk too young. That’s why we keep some older vintages and offer them to those who appreciate some bottle development.”

2012: That one made it onto my wall of fame. Extremely complex end elegant aroma, changing from black cherries, mulberries, plum and strawberry to spices like cloves, cinnamon and pepper and back to fruits again, mesmerising. Very savoury, multilayered and super elegant tannins. It has energy, juiciness and balance. Raspberry, mulberry, red cherry and beet root dance a wild tango on the palate twisting to lime, turning to dark chocolate. Well integrated oak gives structure but let the fruit and spice flavours speak.

Julian and Adam recently started to use concrete eggs for fermentation and aging of about 20% of Genesis Syrah (and some other wines – depends on vintage) and it definitely gave the wine even more energy and fruit in the finish.

2010: Darker colour and slightly more of black fruits on the nose refer to warmer vintage. There is a hint of mint as well which isn’t apparent in most of the other vintages. Julian gets a bit sad when I mention it. “I am never happy about mint aromas in my wines. I tried to work around it by picking in the right time – which generally means earlier because the riper the fruit the more mint we get here.”

1999: Julian asked me what I would like to try from his older vintages – the oldest one is my answer. Now we are sipping the very first Genesis Syrah from TWO years old vines. The wine obviously doesn’t have such a complex aroma and flavour profile but I believe that Julian must have realised that he is onto something very special when he tasted this wine the first time. “Honestly, I started the winery with little backup and if our wine didn’t work well we would have been doomed,” says Julian. Luckily the wine was a huge success with most of their following vintages having more complexity and better structure as the trees got older and Julian learned more how to squeeze the best from the grapes. After eighteen years the wine is still very fresh, red fruit driven with a hint of mushroom and earthy aromas. Juicy and light on the palate with solid finish. It feels like meeting a very successful sportsman in his very youth – obviously talented but lacking experience and practise, but not lacking self-confidence – as doesn’t its grower.

Beechworth

  • Still a bit of an unknown region (even in Australia) but so far producing more and more fantastic wines
  • Highest number of biodynamic winemakers per hectare
  • 100 ha under wine stretching from 300 to 700 m a.s.l.
  • Soils depends on altitude but generally two types: sedimental sandstone gravel and granitic soils of volcanic origin
  • Cooler but dry region