If you are lucky enough to be invited to a dinner at NoMi showcasing the wines of Clarendon Hills, the iconic winery of South Australia’s McClaren Vale region, be prepared to drink world class wine. And if Clarendon Hills Owner/Winemaker Roman Bratasiuk is hosting the dinner, be prepared to witness world class chutzpah (Yiddish for arrogance). Roman might have you believe that he is the only winemaker to conquer brettanomyces, that there is no other Australian wine worth drinking, and that his palate is the best in the world. And yet, somehow, Roman Bratasiuk remains likable. Roman clearly likes to hear the sound of his own voice, which is generally tooting his proverbial horn, and diplomacy or polite consideration doesn’t figure into his character. Producing great wine however, does.
Roman Bratasiuk produced his first vintage in 1990 from the old vines (planted circa 1845) around the town of Clarendon Hills, about 25 miles south of Adelaide. A passion for high quality old world wines and the recognition of specific vineyard sites allowed Roman to craft the style for which he is now known. Twelve vineyards contribute to the sixteen single varietal wines made from Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. The vines are dry farmed, hand pruned and picked, and produce very small quantities of intense fruit. The wines spend an average of 18 months on the lees in tight grained French Oak barrels that are selected by Roman himself. There is no filtering or fining. The resulting wines combine the purity and finesse of classic Old World wines, particularly those of the Northern Rhone, with the focus and intensity of the New World.
The dinner was a showcase of the 2004 vintage and the pairing menu was superb. Spice Braised Pork Belly accompanied Kangarilla Grenache and the Blewitt Springs Grenache. I am a self declared ‘Grenache Freak’ and Roman’s expressions of the Southern Rhone varietal is a benchmark for his region. Both wines displayed a youthful reluctance to show themselves, though there was an apparent difference; Kangarilla exhibited softer floral aromatics while Blewitt had a smoked meat, and overall more aggressive character. The food and wine pairing can be explained by one comment from another guest, “bacon fat with bacon fat”.
The next course included Brookman Merlot, Roman’s only wine of that variety, and the Sandown Cabernet accompanied by Pan Roasted Duck Breast with Marcona Almonds, Pickled “Alisa Craig” Onions, and Dried Apricots. The Brookman Merlot was remarkable in that it was the most developed wine of the night, balancing red fruit flavors with exotic spice and harmony between the ripeness and acidity. I like to think of developing wines like teenagers struggling to feel comfortable in their own skin. Brookman Merlot was way more comfortable than its counterparts that night.
Duo of Jamison Farms Lamb; Roasted lamb Loin and Pave of Lamb Shoulder, Ratatouille Nicoise, Thyme and Red Pepper Infused Jus, was the course that for a moment made forget that I was there for the wine. Liandra Syrah and Hickinbotham Syrah paired with that spectacular dish, elegant decadence paired with elegant decadence, and it was an experience that I am not soon to forget. Roman declared one of the bottles of Liandra as flawed, but once corrected the wines were similarly tight in their expression, though still suitable for drinking right now.
The ultimate of Roman Bratsiuk’s arsenal of great wines comes form Syrah from the Astralis vineyard, and on that night was served with a trio of cheeses. Astralis has a special character, no doubt about that. What differentiated Astralis from the pack to me was that, while its expression of fruit and intensity matched or surpasses the other wines present, its freshness and acidity was more pronounced. I made a comment regarding acidity in the Astralis to Roman, but like he had done to everyone all night, he shot me down.
The wines that night were fantastic, though I would like to have a repeat of that lineup in five years and see where the 2004 Clarendon Hills wines are after a little more time in bottle. I have recently tasted 1998 Astralis, and some of the other Clarendon wines that were closer to ten years from the vintage, and the wines were more complete, integrated, harmonious, expressive.
There are many characters in our beloved world of wine and Roman Bratasiuk is certainly one of them. The wines he makes are impeccable, some of the best I have ever tasted. Roman the man is interesting, funny, boorish, pompous, loud, honest, passionate, blunt, unforgiving, and stubborn. Recently I met another great Australian winemaker, David Powell of Torbreck, who was similarly direct. Is it an Aussie thing, I wonder? Though he can be difficult, Roman is a great wine personality, and I appreciate that. I liked the wines before meeting him and I still do. Roman Bratasiuk makes wines that I cherish, and highly recommend for cellaring for 5 to 10 years, maybe more.