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Interview with Chris Carpenter - Winemaker at Hickinbotham

Last week Langton’s wine brokers tasted the spectacular 2016 Hickinbotham Clarendon Vineyard reds with Napa Valley ‘flying winemaker’ Chris Carpenter and his McLaren Vale based colleague, Australian Peter Fraser. Adrian Read spoke with them afterwards...

Chris Carpenter– Winemaker, Hickinbotham

Chris Carpenter – Winemaker, Hickinbotham

Chris Carpenter’s business card says simply ‘Winemaker’, but that only hints at his responsibilities. He’s a Cabernet and Cabernet-and-friends specialist based in California’s Napa Valley where he’s been responsible for famous labels such as Lokoya, Cardinale, Mt Brave and La Jota for close on 20 years.

These labels are owned by Jackson Family Wines, and the reason Carpenter is regularly in Australia is that Jackson also owns, since 2001, Yangarra Estate and, since 2012, Hickinbotham Clarendon Vineyard, both in the higher, northern sector of McLaren Vale.

Yangarra is on sandy soils at Blewitt Springs. Hickinbotham is only three kilometres away, near Clarendon at the northernmost tip of McLaren Vale. But it’s higher, with steeper slopes and very different mudstone soils, with more clay, and ironstone gravels.

Something the Jackson properties have in common, both here and in California, is elevated locations, where vines grow on slopes, sometimes steep slopes, and the days may be warm but the nights are cold. Carpenter says this regular daily shift in temperature ‘slows grapes down’ overnight and leads to greater concentration and intensity of flavour.

He believes conditions like these are good for all grapes but especially for Cabernet Sauvignon. He has greater interest in the Clarendon Vineyard because he gets the chance to be involved in making an Australian Cabernet - ‘the star variety of the property’ - and an Australian Merlot.

‘Merlot is under-appreciated’, he says. ‘There are areas where Merlot should not be grown - and there are areas where Merlot shines’.

He adds: ‘There are areas on the planet where any variety will do well’.

" My  big  focus is on the vineyard"
- Chris Carpenter

Peter Fraser (left) and Chris Carpenter - an Australian-American wine alliance.

Peter Fraser (left) and Chris Carpenter - an Australian-American wine alliance.

From Carpenter’s big-picture perspective, wine regions are not linked to particular varieties, so areas like McLaren Vale and the adjacent Adelaide Hills are like playgrounds with such varied topography, altitudes and micro-climates that the excitement is in matching sites with varieties likely to do well -- even if it does take a number of years to find out for sure whether or not you’re right.

You understand, talking to Carpenter, and his colleague, Yangarra winemaker and Jackson’s Australian General Manager Peter Fraser, that winemaking is primarily about viticulture - Carpenter uses the word farming - rather than what happens in the winery.

‘My big focus is on the vineyard’, he says.

The 80 hectare, contour-planted Hickinbotham Vineyard, established in 1971, is rightly famous. It has, in the past, regularly contributed to Penfolds Grange, Roman Bratasiuk’s Clarendon Hills wines and Hardy’s Eileen Hardy Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.

‘But’, says Carpenter, ‘it was not in good shape when we bought it, and we asked ourselves: How do we bring this world-class vineyard back to the level it deserves?’

The answer was three years of ‘rehabilitation’ - eliminating rampant eutypa (‘dead arm’ disease), but saving the affected vines - ‘We literally brought them back from the dead’ - and replanting 40-or-so hectares of unwanted Pinot Noir, Semillon, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. ‘The old (Shiraz and Cabernet) vines showed remarkable resilience’, Carpenter said.

Today’s Clarendon Vineyard has roughly 70 hectares under vine - a bit less than 30 Shiraz, about 16 Cabernet and smaller plantings of Merlot, Grenache, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec. Under Carpenter, detailed canopy-management evens fruit exposure to sunlight - ‘There’s a fastidiousness that we had not seen before’, says Fraser.

"I was stuck by the depth of flavour..."
- Huon Hooke, The Real Review

It’s surely appropriate that the premium Hickinbotham wine is ‘The Peake’, a Cabernet-Shiraz blend. The combination sounded highly unlikely to Carpenter until Fraser opened a bottle of 2004 Penfolds Bin 60A for him. You can see the shock on Carpenter’s face as he remembers the impact the wine had on him. No words necessary.

All the 2016 Hickinbotham Vineyard reds are worthy of attention. They’re recognisable, but different.

Huon Hooke (The Real Review) says: ‘I was struck by the depth of flavour but also the structure of these wines – which owe more to Californian Cabernet-based red wine than Australian. Over and above intensity of flavour these wines have extract, which gives them a gravitas which invites comparison with Napa/Sonoma region wines’.

For Hooke the Cabernet-Shiraz stood out, but the straight Merlot certainly advances Carpenter’s claim that it’s a mistake to label the variety an underdog. It’s both plush and structured, channeling both Pomerol and the best of California.

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