Probably the biggest news coming out of Ashton Hills in recent times is that of Stephen George grafting all of his white varieties (with the exception of riesling) over to pinot noir (crazy dude!). So, from the 2011 vintage onwards, the only Adelaide Hills based wines coming out of Ashton Hills will be Stephen's pinot noirs, the Salmon Brut (a pinot noir based sparkling rose) and possibly a riesling.
Now, as much as I love Ashton Hills' pinot noir (and I do!), this news saddens me somewhat. Stephen's toils with the Alsatian trio of gewurztraminer, riesling and pinot gris, whether blended in his 'Three' wine or in single varietal form, typically brandished more varietal punch and flavour than most from the Hills, thanks to Stephen's daring winemaking. His 'Three' wine in particular, has become something of an Asian food classic over here in Adelaide. But the saddest news has to be the loss of Ashton Hills Chardonnay. Over the years Stephen's shown a real knack for producing complex, richly textured, brightly fruited and well worked chardonnay (in my opinion the Adelaide Hills' best performing variety and Ashton Hills' best wine outside of pinot noir). I'm sorry to drop names but if you look to James Halliday, recent Ashton Hills' Chardonnays have regularly scored in the 95-96 point range and been included in his 'Best of the Best' lists. Kicking the point home is the excellent quality of Ashton Hills' current 2009 Chardonnay. Sigh.
Clearly, the wonderfully eccentric Stephen George is just another man lured by the impossible to deny sexual attraction of fine pinot noir. There's no problems from me there and honestly, it's actually good to see an Australian winery fine-tune, or perhaps 'varietally cleanse' their range for once, as opposed to constantly padding it with new wines and styles based on market trends.
At first I was under the opinion Stephen's move to a more pinot-centric Ashton Hills might've been a personal one; the man is a pinot freak, but a conversation with an Adelaide Hills retailer took me to the impression it might've been a commercially motivated one. According to said retailer, Stephen is hounded by retailers, restauranteurs, airlines etc for his pinot noir, not his whites - so, if it's Ashton Hills Pinot Noir everyone wants, then it's more Ashton Hills Pinot Noir everyone gets. Fair enough really.
At the end of all this, I wish Stephen George, one of my true winemaking idols, all the best with the transition. Good luck Stephen!
Ashton Hills tasting notes are posted below
Ashton Hills Salmon Brut 2009 ($35) Indistinct nose. Clean, crisp, relatively savoury palate with some dry biscuit and strawberry flavour. Needs more character but will bottle age help? Maybe, but for $35 I'd be investing my money elsewhere. 87
Ashton Hills Pinot Gris 2010 ($30) Oodles of character for pinot gris, helped along by late picking, residual sugar and the use of oak. Poached pears and barrel ferment notes on the nose, with some cheesy/sweet aspects as well. Palate too reflects plenty of flavour, with winemaking and rich texture at the fore and a clear taste of residual sweetness to finish. A real 'standout' gris. 89
Ashton Hills Gewurztraminer 2010 ($30) The winemaking (barrel fermentation and lees ageing) isn't as obvious in Stephen's traminer as it is his gris, which is immediately bright, expressive and proudly varietal. Check cleanly scented lychees, rose petals and spice for fragrant appeal, as well as a punchy, juicy palate marked by some of that deceptively sweet and savoury, pure traminer fruit. It finishes particularly refreshing and dry and would make a smart drink for a bright, sunny day. 90
Ashton Hills Chardonnay 2009 ($40) Outstanding nose, immediately makes me stand up and take notice. It mimics nuts and butter with clean melons, grapefruit and white peach all living in harmony without any component going to excess. The palate is notably mouthfilling in the classic Ashton Hills style, richly textured and flavoured, bright, complex and full of impact from start to finish, yet still cleanly balanced and utterly spotless. A fine combination of assertive fruit and winemaking. (full review soon) 94
Ashton Hills Piccadilly Valley Pinot Noir 2010 ($30) Has settled down nicely since I first tasted this wine some 5 months ago. Possesses a simple yet correct, ripe red fruit and vanilla oak nose, with a palate whose juicy richness errs towards medium-full bodied territory but remains soft and supple enough to end with balance and a refreshingly clean structure. It's a good all-night quaffing pinot, but I do note the slight increase in price from a few years back moves it slightly further away from 'quaffing' zone for me. 90
Ashton Hills Estate Pinot Noir 2009 ($40) Whereas I noted an improvement in integration of the PV wine from 5 months ago, this I didn't. It still looks a bit baked, ripe and dark fruited with some meaty/raisiny aspects, which effects both the varietal integrity of its perfume and its texture. Finish looks a little rough too. It's a fair enough, lighter weight red, it's just hardly a great pinot in my view. 89
Ashton Hills Reserve Pinot Noir 2009 ($60) Has a sweetly fruited punch of red plums and cherries with fresh and fragrant, spicy vanilla oak coming along for the ride. The palate also looks a bit sweeter fruited than the best vintages, and although it similarly lacks the perfume, delicacy and elegance of those wines, it comes into its own on a long, commanding, agreeably meaty finish, opened up and flared out by an expansive extract of dry, grainy, assertive tannins. So if a proudly structured pinot is your thing then this looks pretty smart, otherwise, it's probably best served in the cellar for a while. 92
Ashton Hills Sparkling Shiraz 2005 ($40) Shows the ripeness of its Clare vintage with a sweetish (dosage?), concentrated, dark fruited and fractionally meaty style that sometimes suits sparkling reds, but this time it just doesn't work for me. Has the structure and depth to age for a while yet, so maybe time will help it integrate and gain further savoury complexity. The 2002 (from a much better vintage) was looking pretty good around this time last year. 89
Ashton Hills: the future is clear (if a slightly hazy red colour)