Sunday, May 20, 2012

In Good Hands at Two Hands

Our trip itinerary says that our time in the Barossa has come to an end. It's time to hit the road for a couple of hours, head to the coast of South Australia and to our next wine region, McLaren Vale.

But first, we're making a stop at Two Hands. Our Australian Wine Appreciation Society, back home in Vancouver, had a tasting with winery owner, Michael Twelftree, a year or so ago. At the time, I mentioned that we were hoping to tour the Barossa in 2012 and snagged one of his cards. He graciously offered an open invitation to pay him a visit should be actually make it. It was now time to come calling.

Michael and I exchanged a number of e-mails over the last so many months and, while we weren't able to coordinate our own schedules to meet, Michael did set up a visit for us with Two Hands' winemaker, Matt Wenk.

And what a visit it was.

Our visit started with Matt showing us the lay of the land and taking us on a tour of the winery. Unfortunately for Boo, Matt wasted no time in pulling out a trio of glasses and starting us in on some tank samples. It was especially unfortunate for Boo when the tank samples were followed by a steady stream of barrel samples. Boo had offered to take the wheel (again) en route to McLaren Vale and he had to spit far more than he'd ever like to. Naturally, I offered to make it up to him later on - and to help him finish off any particularly tasty samples.

Two Hands was established in 1999 and it hit the road running - garnering big reviews and points virtually with its first vintage. Michael is always quick to say that, while he brought a lot of passion with him to the wine business, he didn't bring a lot of experience or money. He and his partner, Richard Mintz, didn't have the bucks to just buy a winery with estate vineyards in production. Like many Barossan wineries, they started by purchasing grapes from established growers and, with their 17 tons of fruit, they set out to make the best Aussie Shiraz wines that they could.

Matt joined the team in 2002 - back when timing was good for pretty much all things Aussie Shiraz. What helped set Two Hands a bit apart from many of the big guns and the neighbouring wineries though was that, even as a small producer, they looked to highlight the regional diversity of Australian wine. They didn't simply make a regional blend; rather, they capitalized on the differences and - with their Garden series - produced six different Shiraz wines - one for each of the six premium regions that they sourced their fruit from.

The regionally to their wines continues throughout all of the winery's levels and, accordingly, Two Hands has a lot of different wines to offer. They also have great fun in naming the wines and designing the labels. I remember noticing the labels on the Picture Series of wines before I'd ever tried one of their wines. With names like Gnarly Dudes, Angels' Share, Bad Impersonator and Sexy Beast, the bottles certainly called out. The winery currently makes about 40,000 cases; however, that number can vary greatly from vintage to vintage. Indeed, 2011 wasn't the best of years in South Australia and volume is going to be way down - some labels weren't even made that vintage.

Like everyone else in the valley, the 2012 vintage was pretty much over by now and the rush and crush of day after day was winding down. It was still interesting to see and hear Matt talk about the custom designed crusher-destemmer and fermenters. It never ceases to surprise me at the great variety of production methods that are adopted and refined by different wineries. The crushing, fermenting and ageing of grape juice may be the same all over in theory, but the various paths taken to bottling a finished wine can be a bit boggling.

For example, the idea of continually tasting and ranking individual barrels leaves me a little overwhelmed. I have enough difficulty trying to discern subtleties between different wineries and regions, let alone having to determine which barrel is good enough to make it into a premium - or super-premium - bottle versus deeming a barrel more of an entry level juice. Crazy stuff. Yet, Matt and Michael know that it's a critical step in making the wines that they do.

Having the winemaker point out what he sees as the differences between the various wines is incredibly instructive though. And Matt wasn't shy about letting us try his handiwork. We sampled Riesling, Moscato, a number of Shiraz and a couple of Cabs. I was completely gobsmacked, however, when Matt drew a sample of the 2010 Ares - their super premium Shiraz. Straight from the barrel, you can tell that this is a big wine. Michael unashamedly admits that Two Hands produces wines that will grab you with their fruit and structure. His take on that fact is that this is the wine that is dictated by the grapes grown in Oz. Their task, at Two Hands, is to capture that boldness but deliver it with a balanced structure of acid and tannin.

If we thought the Ares was a treat worthy of any grand finale, Matt upped the ante even more. He drew a sample of the 2010 My Hands - a wine that I'll likely never get another chance to try. In exceptional vintages, Matt and Michael identify a barrel or two that speaks to them with a complexity and intensity that is at a level even beyond Ares. That barrel can end up bottled as My Hands and the limited production is only available at the Cellar Door and it retails at $500 a bottle. On being provided such a tasting opportunity, I was ready to drop to my knees and bow to Matt's very existence.

It was a helluva day.

By now, we'd taken up close to an hour and a half of Matt's time and we were definitely behind schedule on hitting the road. But, what's crazy is that we stopped in at the Cellar Door's very stylish tasting room and tried even more wines. Two Hands has a number of small run wines that are only available at the winery and I wanted to try a couple of them since we might not get another chance to do so. The opportunities abounded but, eventually, Boo was tugging on my shirt.

Once again, I had to leave the winery cursing Canada Customs and our inability to load up a case or two into the car to bring home with us.

Late or not in terms of hitting the road, it was a great visit and a perfect way to end our stay in the Barossa. There's absolutely no doubt that we were in good hands with Matt and Two Hands. I don't think we could have asked for a more enjoyable visit.

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