Meeting Dave Powell for steak, conversation, and a couple of bottles of wine (between four of us in total) was an absorbing way to spend a few hours at 67 Pall Mall recently.
His story is one of renewal, re-connection and putting new energy into work he knows well, making great wines in the greater Barossa in Australia.
We didn't discuss Torbreck and his departure from the wine company he co-founded over 20 years ago, except to share the idea that sometimes change can be good, even though it doesn't always feel like it at the time.
Not having met him before it's hard to say how it may have changed him, but I enjoyed hearing his enthusiasm on starting again, working with his son and building a new business. Having done the first and last bits of that myself in recent years, albeit in a much more limited way, I understand the feeling.
We shared a bottle of Trevallon 2007 and a Tablas Creek 2013 from my cellar at 67 Pall Mall. I thought it was only fair I should chip in, given the wines of his that we then tasted, and he kindly bought me a steak and some cheese too. Thanks for that Dave. An afternoon very well spent.
The full interview is in audio below, and given Dave Powell has a LOT to say, I've spent quite some time writing it up below. So here's my write up, and do listen to the audio below, there's more in there, than I was able to write up here. Photos of his new wines are below. I thought they were excellent and quite different from the overly fruit forward wines I've often had from the Barossa. I can see what he's trying to do in creating a lifted, ephemeral Syrah, and I really enjoy the Mataro (what I would call Mourvedre). His prices vary. Yes the top end stuff is the serious collector end of the market, but Powell and sons also has some more entry level wines that the likes of I can afford. Well worth a go, I'd say.
The wines I tasted were too young for me to say much more, (I do struggle with young wines, I'm not sure I have the nose and palate to appreciate them) but you can tell there's serious quality, balance, lift and ageing potential there. I really like his Marssane/Rousanne white, which had more character than many I've had in Provence.
He tells me he studied economics, quite badly, and ran away to the wine business, and ended up luckily working with some great names in Australian wine, mentored by Robert O’Callaghan in the Barossa Valley.
After twenty years at Torbreck, he's now left, and is making wines under the Powell & Son label. More on their work and history can be found here.
Dave and his son Callum are aiming to make two suites of wines: “…we wanted to create, maybe ambitiously, people might say arrogantly, a version of Domaine de Romanee Conti in the Barossa. We wanted to pick some great sites, make single vineyard wines, very terroir driven, to let people know what the Barossa (including Eden Valley) could do at its very best. We also wanted a suite of more affordable wines.”
How would he describe his new style? Restrained or fruit forward? “Somewhere in between” he says. Back in 1981 when Powell got started in the Barossa, he thinks of the wines that Robert O’Callaghan and the winemakers at St Hallett were making as examples of those that Robert Parker made famous as what he calls “super op” styles (opulent).
“I like to think I never made those wines at Torbreck” he says, but acknowledges that it doesn’t change the fact that when Callum (his son and business partner) came home after nearly a year at Chave in Hermitage “we talked about making wines that were a bit fresher and had a bit more vibrancy to them, trying to make sure the wines weren’t so big and so ripe they didn’t overpower the characteristics and the terroir characters in the wines”.
Powell & Son are currently leasing vineyards where they work the land themselves, in both the Barossa and Eden Valley, (part of the greater Barossa) to show how despite being so geographically close, they can be dramatically different.
They are working also with Mataro, what we would call Mourvedre or Monastrell. We tasted his most recent available vintage and I thought it was superb. It clearly needs time to develop but I’ll look forward to tasting more of it later.
This segues us into discussing natural wines briefly, which Powell thinks has become unreflective of place, “doesn’t look like anything from anywhere” was the phrase he used, with some colourful language best heard direct on the podcast itself.
“I love natural wine, real natural wine…twenty years ago I made a wine called the natural wine project. I only stopped doing it because the whole thing got hijacked by wankers with fancy moustaches”.
We move on to talk about his views on sustainability “It gets over complicated…It’s self-explanatory. It’s a case of working with the earth and not putting so much crap into it you are detracting from what you are taking out”.
I ask him what the average Australian winemaker might think about biodynamics. He mentions Vanya Cullen, a biodynamic pioneer in the Margaret River area of Australia.
"It's changed dramatically in the last ten years" he says. "I think biodynamic farming is great...some of it gets a bit too, almost spiritual...my biggest problem with biodynamics, even though one of our vineyards IS farmed biodynamically, is that I feel that in some ways it's almost too good".
This may sound odd, but he goes on to explain that: "I'm talking about red grapes, white grapes you make better wines. With red grapes you have to be a bit careful you are not too kind to the vineyard".
"I don't think grapevines should stress, but they need to work hard...to get down to low gear and do some work. I have a strong suspicion... from my own observations that you have to be a bit careful you are not being too kind".
On the other hand: "I'd rather the discipline of caring for the land they work, and farming bio-dynamically, than not giving a shit and spraying nasty crap".
I ask which bit of bio-dynamics he disagrees with.
"Some of the preparations, how they are prepared, I'm not completely convinced about the reasons they give. But when you talk about working with the phases of the moon, I struggle to see how people don't understand how that works, when we all accept the fact that the moon drags around the oceans and six sevenths of the earth's surface but for some reason we can't accept that this will affect the plants we grow and the foods that we eat."
"I would rather people go that extra yard, the discipline of it, than not bother" he says.
It's site specific, he agrees, but thinks bio-dynamics may well be best suited to white grapes.
I ask him for more on his views on natural wine, as someone who made natural wine 20 years ago but stopped because the movement became too popular for his tastes.
"A lot of the natural wine movement these days is about annoying the establishment than about making real wine. My problem is, they talk about the hands off approach, they are so hands off they are quite lazy and the wines are made badly and the wine has no sense of place".
He's concerned that a whole generation of wine drinkers are growing up not understand that wine needs to be able to age, and have a sense of place, but admits there's an important distinction around fine wines and their ageing potential to be made.
Lastly, we turn to climate change. This for me, is where the chat got really interesting.
"It's Australia it's about water management" he suggests, "particularly in dry growing vineyards, where we have to make sure we have no competition for water available for the vines"
A lot of canopy management will help, but in the Barossa valley the varieties are thick skinned, he points out, being often Grenache, Shiraz and Mataro. "Up in Eden Valley where it's 250 meters higher and it's cooler with more rainfall, that suits Riesling, for example". So it's a horses for course approach for Powell.
He does think it's a problem that's perhaps a bit further away than some others do: "Last vintage we had one of the latest vintages we've had for a long time" but acknowledges climate is causing volatility and that there are lot of unknowns.
I ask him about climate and alcohol levels. "The highest alcohol wine I've ever made was 15.4% at Torbreck" he says, noting that controlling alcohol is also about canopy and crop management and leaf cover versus crop balance in the vineyard. His current roster of wines "is stable between 14 and 15%". In fermentation too, there are opportunities to control for alcohol levels, something which I hadn't heard about before:
"Alcohol can be surprisingly volatile at fermentation regime temperature. Between 25-30 degrees for the reds. Because we ferment in open top fermenters, we drive off a lot of the alcohol."
This has become uncommon in recent years, he says, as it's a slower, more labour intensive process to use in the winery. People these days are using much more modern equipment with more accurate measurements, which can work well for other wines, but for the reds he's making now, Powell says open fermentation and pumping over twice a day is doing the job nicely.
This technique, when tested in the past, can reduce alcohol by up to 1.3 percent, allowing fruit characters to come through, taking the heat out of the wine, with less aggressive tannins. That's a significant amount.
He ends on plea for winemakers not to become too technical, too science driven: "you don't want to let the science become your master, it's important, it has its place but it's not the be all and end all".
For UK readers, Powell and Son wines are available from http://www.raeburnfinewines.com